Tag Archives: Salvation

4 August – Known by God

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Pentecost 8

Hosea 4:1-6, 12-14
Psalm 139
Galatians 4:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

In a sentence:
Knowing God is knowing that God knows us,
and loves us nevertheless

Hosea is not very strong on what some might characterise as the ‘classic’ prophetic theme of social justice. There are a couple of references in his preaching to moral breakdown – we’ve heard some of them today – but the emphasis on the poor, outcast and weak we hear in other prophetic voices is not so clearly to the fore in Hosea.

His interest is more in social failure as a sign of a deeper shortcoming in the life of Israel. What is going wrong in social relations is not merely a number of immoral choices instead of moral ones. As we have now noted a couple of times, sin – good quality sin – is always rational, always defensible, and so always arguably necessary. Unless we get to the heart of the problem, sin is just this or that particular thing we might have done wrong.

The deeper failing Hosea identifies is a lack of ‘knowledge’ of God: ‘There is no knowledge of God in the land…my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge’ (4.1). Yet the knowledge which is lacking here is not knowledge ‘about’ God, or even the knowledge that God ‘exists’. The ‘knowledge’ which interests Hosea is that kind of knowing which involves an intimate integration with the thing known.

We get an insight into the extent of this integration in older translations like that of Genesis 4.1 in the King James Version: ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain…’ The Old Testament uses widely ‘knowledge’ as what we might be tempted to call a ‘euphemism’ for sexual intercourse; to know someone ‘in the biblical sense’ is to have moved into knowledge of the MA15+ kind.. Yet ‘know’ here is really only a euphemism for sex from our perspective as those who consider knowledge to be principally a ‘head’ thing. What matters scripturally is not the means or subject of the knowing but the intimacy it entails. To know something in the fullest scriptural sense – another person (sexually or not), or one’s craft, or one’s place in the world – is to have an intimate integration with it, to the extent even that we can understand ourselves to be known by whatever it is we know. The mutuality of the sexual metaphor is almost indispensable here.[1]

To say, then, that there is no knowledge of God in the land is not to say that no one thinks any more about religion – there is plenty of religion going on. It is to say that where there was intimacy with this God there is now not, and that other intimacies are now in place.

If we are made for this kind of intimacy with God, then we will naturally seek it: we will seek to know and to be known, to possess and to be possessed. This is not only in human relationships but in the broadest sweep of our being: we are built to seek a sense of ‘belonging’, of being part of a whole, of ‘fitting’ into a bigger picture. We express this in the fact that we attach ourselves to things, whether people, objects, ideas, or gods.

But what is important here is that although we do attach ourselves to such things, they do not determine the attachment. We understand ourselves to be the bestowers of meaning and value: this is life-giving, that is not; this is good, that is not good. The modern social media ‘like’ is a stroke of religious genius: in this we are fulfilled as arbiters of good and evil (Genesis 3), even if we might yet change our minds and exercise the power to ‘unlike’. That we might unlike is to indicate that it’s our choice of what is good which matters, and not the thing we choose. 

In the face of this – several thousand years before ‘like’ symbols appeared web pages – Hosea proposes a different choosing, a different knowing. We have already noted how Hosea takes the sexual metaphor over from the local pagan fertility cults which were so tempting to many in Israel (sermon, July 21). Yet he presses the metaphor further by portraying God as an active and interested participant in this ‘knowing’ intercourse.

That is, God’s activity and interest is not in mere participation as one possible partner among many. God knows before being known. In a whole other conversation, St Paul uses exactly the same twist in what we heard from Galatians today. There he makes a self-correction which might almost go unnoticed. Paul recasts salvation not as the obvious coming to know God but unexpectedly as coming to be known by God.[2] This is unexpected because piety holds that God knows everything and so has always ‘known’ us. To counter this we must then modify Paul slightly: salvation is coming to know ourselves known by God.

The failure of Israel – which is the failure of any one of us – is not that the wrong option for god has been chosen among the many options available. This would be a mere moral failure – like sleeping with a person you should not have, or not declaring an income source you should have, or hoarding chocolate. Moral failure matters but it is not at the heart of Hosea’s preaching.

Hosea announces, rather: your true self exists in knowing yourself known. This is what our psalmist today (139) understands.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, the beautiful intimacy that psalm is a terrifying prospect:

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me….
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
… 4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Such intimate knowledge could only be terrifying in a world in which we cannot help but be broken – and so in which we fall desperately short of the glory of God. Yet Hosea declares more than this. For our true selves exist in knowing ourselves known, and knowing ourselves nevertheless still loved.

For all the rage in Hosea’s preaching, the love and desire remains. The confronting ‘whore’ chapter we considered last week ends like this:

14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
   and bring her into the wilderness,
   and speak tenderly to her. 
15 …There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
   as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 

2.16On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband’, and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal’… 18I will make for you a covenant on that day…I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. 

Our Psalmist proposes, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’ (139.11)

But Hosea agrees with the poet’s self-reply: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

God’s knowledge of us is
as light to darkness
and life to the dead.

Let any who find themselves in darkness or death rejoice, then, for God knows you,
and this is light, and life.

[1] Yet it is not that sex tells us about deep knowing; deep knowing tells us about sex.

[2] ‘Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits…?’ (Galatians 4.9; 1 Corinthians 13.12).

3 February – God comes to us, to save another

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Epiphany 4

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Luke 4:21-30

In a sentence:
My neighbour is the shape of my salvation

Jesus stands before the good people of Nazareth and tells them: I have not come for you.

Things had started well: ‘all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’ (v.22). But they have missed the point – not that we could blame them – and Jesus goes on the attack. First, we hear two proverbs as direct challenges thrown to the congregation: ‘Doctor, cure yourself’ and ‘no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own town’. The first names the people’s not unreasonable expectation that Jesus would perform among them acts of power he had been said to have worked elsewhere. The second then accuses them of being unable to receive him.

As confronting as this might have been, the clincher is the two biblical stories Jesus retells. In both cases great prophets from Israel’s past – at times of great need in Israel – bring God’s healing power not to Israel but to Gentiles. And the crowd goes ballistic – or intends to – with Jesus!

But why does Jesus go on the attack in the first place? There is not here the holy righteousness of, say, his attack on the money-changers in the temple, or his anger against the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes. This is not an attack on a moral failure – something the people had or hadn’t done.

Jesus’ assault is not on what the people had done but rather on what the people were – as the good people of Nazareth. Jesus accuses the people as a class. They have, in fact, not done anything yet – right or wrong – other than expect that what Jesus had done elsewhere he might also do at home. And so their initial response to him is not unbelief but actually what we might even call faith.[1] The expectation of the congregation seems to be that they will receive from God through Jesus and yet, in a manner seemingly uncalled for, Jesus tells them that not they but others will be blessed.[2]

What are we to make of this? Of the four evangelists, Luke is the most overtly ‘political’ to modern ears. It is Luke who most uncomfortably confronts the comfortable with what has been called God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’. And the class distinctions which Luke draws are unqualified. It is not a matter of some of the religious leaders having lost the plot, or some of the poor and outcast having received God’s favour. Rather, we hear from Luke (chap 6): blessed are the poor; blessed are the hungry; blessed are the weeping; and woe to the rich, those with full stomachs, and so on. There is no careful distinction between those who are poor because of the injustices of an economic system and those who are poor because of their own stupidity, and no distinction between those who have full stomachs because they have taken advantage of others and those who have full stomachs because of long and hard work.

The obvious danger in this is that individuals are treated according to how we’ve sorted them, according to their ‘class’. But a Muslim is not, thereby, a terrorist; a poor person is not, thereby, righteous; a politician is not, thereby, unreliable; and to be sitting in the congregation at Nazareth when Jesus speaks is not, thereby, to be ruled out of God’s favour.

And yet this is what Jesus says: as a group, these will be overlooked, for the blessing of others. We could only avoid this conclusion by attributing what he says to the unbelief of the people, but the text itself – in Luke’s account – doesn’t do this (even if Matthew and Mark do). It is not that they have not believed, for they have been impressed by him. It is rather that they are the good, religious people of Israel.

Yet, while there exists here the very serious dangers of racism and classism, addressing the good folk of Nazareth in this way (as a whole) and contrasting them with the Gentiles as a whole enables a central aspect of the gospel to be put in the starkest of terms.

It is easy and tempting – now, as then – to focus on the justification and healing of the individual, or on the class of individuals, separate from other individuals and classes. This leads to a focus on personal or communal righteousness, individualised. Here I would be saved independently of you if, say, I am the righteous Jew and you the unclean Gentile. Or, within the class I, as the righteous Jew am saved independently of you, the unrighteous Jew. This leads to that kind of judgementalism which is one person or group standing divided from and over against another.

And this is what makes the offence taken by the congregation is understandable: Are we not the keepers of the tradition? Are we not the observers of the rules? Are we not the donors to the cause? The language of ‘fairness’ and the earning of blessing creeps in.

But earned blessings are always a saving out of the world: isolation and insulation from that which is not saved. Salvation for what we have earned is always finally salvation in solitude – salvation into aloneness, for I may be the only one who has earned it.

The blessing of God is never for our isolation, even if we think that is what we want or need. The blessing of God – a blessing which is not earned – is always reconciling, and so always communal. It levels and equalises, without making the same. The love of God comes to the chosen people, that those who are not chosen may know the love of God.

This is a difficult lesson. Not the synagogue nor the church are safe-place refuges, and neither is anywhere ‘outside’ these communities. It is perhaps too difficult a lesson even for Luke himself, who doesn’t include in his gospel the story which best complements Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth – that rather uncomfortable account of the Syrophoenician woman’s meeting with Jesus. That story, found in Mark (7.24-30) and Matthew (15.21-28), has Jesus saying to a Gentile what he says here to the synagogue – I have not come for you: ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’. The difference – and perhaps the irony in Luke’s omission – is that she accepts this order of things (‘but bread has crumbs!’), and so receives the blessing Jesus was going to deny her. This is just what the Nazarenes do not do.

Jesus comes to us today to declare: ‘I have come to you in order to go to another. I have come not that you might be blessed, elevated and separated from the rest of the world. I have come to move beyond, to extend to, to open up. I have come to reconcile the Jew and the Gentile, the rich and the poor, the slave and the free. Your salvation begins today, in your midst, in this messily class‑ified world as it is; there is no plucking-out-of the world or a leaving-behind-of those you might think I do not love. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news, to announce liberty and a new vision, and to proclaim the Lord’s favour.’

The Lord’s favour is without bounds. If it were not so, we who imagine that God’s favour is ours would be without hope or salvation, because our imagination is just not broad enough. God comes to us to declare that he is leaving to bless our neighbour, and he declares to our neighbour just the same thing. It is only if this is so that we may speak with any sense of grace which is not reward and reconciliation in spite of what we have done: that we might be blessed through someone else being blessed. This is what it means truly to give and to receive, whether in the case of the grace of God, or a helping hand.

Jesus says, Your neighbour is the shape of your salvation. Let us, then, live as if that were the case: as if giving were receiving.

For the good news of the gospel – that God can turn even what divides us from each other into the very means of our salvation – thanks be to God.

[1] Note the difference here from the way in which Mark (6.1-6) and Matthew (13.54-58) tell the story, attributing the few works Jesus does in Nazareth to a lack of faith.

[2] Note also, the issue is not really one of inclusion or exclusion – except for the possibility that the good people of Nazareth might themselves be excluded (some commentators seeing here an objection to the inclusion of the Gentiles).

24 June – Do not. Be. Afraid

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Pentecost 5

Psalm 20
Mark 4:34-41

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing’?

Until this week, the assumption of perhaps every thought I have ever had about this question – and probably every sermon I have heard on it – is, Yes, Jesus does care – of course, Jesus cares. The evidence for this is that he stills the storm. Is this not what care would look like: noticing and acting?

I want to continue to affirm that Jesus cares but closer attention to the story undermines confidence in too easy a ‘Yes’ in response to the desperate question, Do you not care? Or, perhaps more to the point for those in that boat and us in ours, we might enquire more deeply of this story just what the care of Jesus looks like.

Crucial to all this is that Jesus has to be woken up in order to be made aware of a storm which has scared the b’Jesus into all his friends. The disciples presume, not unreasonably, that one has to be conscious to care. And so, pun (w)holy intended, they effectively ask, How – for Christ’s sake – can you sleep at a time like this? If you are the Son of God, care: command the wind and waves to be still!

The gospel’s answer to this is that it is precisely for the Christ’s sake that he sleeps – not because the Christ is tired and needs to catch up on his rest but because there is nothing present of sufficient moment to warrant him waking; there is nothing to worry about.

This is too much, of course, if the story were about a few blokes in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that were what the story told, then there is plenty to worry about and plenty to do, and the disciples are right to be holding on very tight with one hand and bailing frantically with the other. But this is not the point of the story.

The storm is not stilled in order to demonstrate that Jesus cares and will meet our sense of what we need. The wind and the waves are stilled not to demonstrate care but in order that Jesus might be heard – a still, small voice cutting through the wild night. He needs to be heard, not to deny or do away with the wild and frightening things, but that those things be relegated in the hearts and minds of the disciples.

‘Have you no faith?’ This is not to say, Can’t you fix this yourself? Of course they can’t. ‘Have you no faith?’ means, These are only wind and waves.     Fear. Only. God.

The care Jesus demonstrates here is not he will still the storms about us. There is no promise in the story that the storm will always be stilled. Not a few of those in the boat will perish in other storms –religious and political – in the next 20 or 30 years. Many interpreters of this passage see it, in fact, as written specifically for those later situations, as an answer to their pressing question: does God care what is now happening to the church?

God does care what is happening to the church, but in the sense of, Why are you still afraid? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (Romans 8.35) separate you from me? Have you no faith?

The stance Jesus takes before the wind and the waves is the same stance he takes in the face of the cross: there is, finally, nothing to fear here. It is scarcely pleasant – it will sometimes even be hell – but hell is not beyond God’s attention, and hell does not change that, finally, we belong not to the devil but to God. We belong to God – as the funeral service puts it – in strength and in weakness, in achievement and in failure, in the brightness of joy and in the darkness of despair. The ‘climate’ – what is going on in the world around us – is not a theological indicator.

Notice that, in this way of thinking about the story, it matters not one jot whether Jesus could actually command the wind and the waves. For all that we have said, the story is irrelevant if we seek evidence about whether Jesus was a miracle-worker or not. We notice most of all the calming of the waters and the wind, and much less the word which the calming makes it possible to hear: Do not be afraid; have you no faith? At the end of the story the disciples fall back in terror, now at Jesus and no longer at the storm. The shock is not merely that Jesus commands the storm, but that he has no fear of it. For the story, these two things are the same.

And so Jesus charges not, You could have done this yourself, had you the faith. He declares rather, If God is God, your life is not to be a fearful one. Faith is knowing what, or whom to fear, and what not to fear. Faith is knowing what does, and does not, own us.

We will likely be afraid in such a situation, for all the obvious reasons. The storm might be the suddenly diminished future brought by a threatening diagnosis; the unbearably quiet house brought by bereavement; the loss of a job; a bulldozer through our house; public embarrassment; the impending divorce (or even the impending marriage!).

We will likely be afraid in such situations, for the obvious reasons. Yet, in such storms – wild or still – Jesus asks, And what is it about this place you know but is not obvious?         You are mine. You are mine.

In all such things you are more than conquerors through the one who loves you.

‘For I am convinced that
neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.37-39)

There is nothing to fear but that we might live in fear of what is not worthy of it.

Do not be afraid.



As a possible response, a prayer of confession

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet…

Forgive us when
we imagine that the first sign of danger
is a sign of your absence.

Forgive us when we limit our own freedom
by fearing things which, in the end,
are inevitable,
or will finally not matter.

Forgive us when our fears
mean that others are denied
the love they need.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;

just so, loving God,
have mercy on us.


3 April – The cross as throne

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 40
John 12:20-33

Many of you will know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus. It has come down to us in a number of versions, but generally runs something like this: Oedipus is born to the king and queen of Thebes. A prophecy is spoken over Oedipus, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart this, the child is left out to die but is found and is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. Once grown up, Oedipus accidentally finds his way back to Thebes were he kills his birth-father in what was perhaps the world’s first road rage incident. Oedipus does not know that it is the king or his father, and no one else knows who killed the king. Oedipus then rids the city of an ongoing burden and threat, and receives as reward the hand of the widowed queen – his birth-mother – in marriage, who bears him a number of children. Eventually, however, everyone discovers the unwitting patricide and incest. Oedipus’ mother hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and is exiled with the children (half-siblings) he had by his mother-wife.

It’s a story with something for all the family! For the Greeks it was about the unavoidability of fate, and modern depth psychology has made much of it in relation to family dynamics, but the important part of the myth for our purposes this morning is, first, that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother not knowing who they were and, second, when these things are discovered to have taken place, the whole story is revealed as a tragedy: death and destruction and exile are all that can follow.

Of course, the death we gather to recall today is the death of Jesus. Yet I suspect that this death is heard by many to be a tragedy along the lines of Oedipus: the irony that Jesus was king of Israel, and yet Israel unknowingly crucified its king. Certainly the church often “sells” the story in this way. I want this morning to unpack a different sense of what happens in the death of Jesus, and why we gather for no mere tragic or ironic memorial but for “Good” Friday.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus speaks of his approaching crucifixion as a “lifting up”: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v.32; cf. John 3.14f; 8.28). It’s easy to hear this as a euphemism – a way of referring to the impending disaster of the crucifixion without actually naming it for what it is, a way of softening the blow for Jesus’ hearers.

Yet there is much more going on here than mere euphemism. The evangelist John loves double meanings and the ironies which come with them. The Greek word behind “lifted up” can certainly apply to being lifted up on a cross. At the same time, it can just as naturally be used for that kind of elevation which is an enthronement. A king’s coronation could be said to be his “lifting up”. This double meaning is suggested again later in the gospel when Pilate nails to the cross the charge against Jesus: “the king of the Jews” (19.19-22). Here is another of John’s ironies – and he intends us to note and to understand them. Pilate seeks to mock Jesus, or mock the Jews, yet in the evangelist’s mind Pilate unknowingly declares to all the world Jesus’ true identity.

We miss the point, however, if we read this as simply telling us that Israel unknowingly crucified its king in the same kind of way that Oedipus unwittingly killed his dad and married his mum. In the crucifixion it is not so much that a king is killed in tragic and ironic circumstances but rather that a king is created, or a particular kingdom comes into being. The ambiguity of “lifted up” allows John to present Jesus to us as both being crucified and enthroned, being crucified and being made king, in this “lifting up” in the crucifixion. Not a king mistakenly or unknowingly crucified, Jesus is the king because he is crucified, he becomes king in his very being crucified. His kingship takes its character not from what he should have been recognized to be before the crucifixion but from the fact that he has been crucified. It is as if the Son of God is not the Son of God for us, not our king, until he is crucified. Why? Because we are those who would crucify our king (cf. John 19.5), such that only a crucified king – a crucified God – could be our king, our God.

So it is that, for John’s gospel, the crucifixion is much less of a catastrophe than it is for the other gospels. For the crucifixion is the point at which the nature of God as faithfulness is laid forth for all to see: here the full extent of God’s reign – God’s kingship – is revealed. This is a kingship not abstractly over “all”, but specifically over those who crucify Jesus. Jesus is only king to those who would crucify him. (We approach again themes visited a few weeks ago [March 15]).

Just to reinforce this point, we should note one other way Jesus refers to the crucifixion in this morning’s first reading: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v.23). The language of “glorification” here applies also to the cross, as it does elsewhere in John (cf. 12.16; 13.31f; 17.7). The glory of Christ is seen in the crucifixion. The glory is not the resurrection if that is understood as an event separate from the cross. In the crucifixion we see something about the nature of God which the resurrection by itself cannot show: a vision of God in which God’s very being – God’s very glory – is tied up with his relationship to a people which falls short of his covenant call. God’s tying of himself to his broken world goes to the very heart of what God can be, and must become; this God, this king, bears the marks of crucifixion, because we – the crucifiers – are his “subjects”.

[ASIDE: John would say to us, then, not merely that “God is love” or that “God so loved the world”, if by that is meant that God could otherwise stand aloof but in fact condescends to forgive. Rather, God is as God loves. God is the way in which he loves. This forces our language and our thinking to a strange place because a “thing”, God, becomes an action, love. It is as if a singer were to become the song. We have to say, then, not that God is “love”, as if these were two separate things we simply join together, but that the love of God is God – how God loves is itself God. Jesus upon the cross is truly Word-become-flesh, God meeting us at our lowest yet – and this is the critical point – remaining, even “becoming” God in that meeting.]

To put it differently, we might say that the gospel is the impossible proclamation that the greater the distance we place between ourselves and God, the more strained our relationship is with God, the more clearly we see God’s freedom to be God for us through all obstacles, even such a death as the cross. It is as if God becomes more “God” as we become less godly, as God overcomes the distance – overcomes the cross – that he might again be life and love for us.

Here we move within the theme of the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness takes its meaning from God’s response to the unfaithfulness of God’s people. That God is faithful, and that this faithfulness concerns keeping a promise of good things for God’s people, is at the heart of the biblical witness. That Jesus can be both crucified and enthroned in a single act is the meeting of our unfaithfulness with God’s faithfulness.

The God with whom the church deals is always the crucified God, because the church is composed of those who crucify, even God. And yet because God still wills to be our God, the crucifixion becomes an enthronement: the kingdom of the crucified God is a kingdom over crucifiers.

This is good news. We are those who lift Jesus up upon the cross, but not with the tragic consequences of Oedipus: exile in horror unto death. For the death of Jesus is as much God’s act as ours: the enthronement of Jesus as king over those who crucified him, that we might not be lost; even with that as part of our history, we remain his.

We cannot fall outside of God’s desire to be God for us, to heal and to restore even us. In the crucifixion we are named and judged, and forgiven and owned. And so we remember not the tragic fate of a good man, but a goodness which subverts and overcomes the ironies and tragedies of human existence: the very faithfulness of God who will not let us go.

And so, we call this not Tragic Friday, as if it were the symbol of human weakness and the dark necessities of fate. It is Good Friday because, unlike what was tragically inevitable for Oedipus and his family, here the tragic is swallowed up. Any choice we might make for death in our lives or in others’ is put behind us in the one death which really matters: the death in which death ceases to be only our end and becomes a new beginning in a relationship to a new kind of king, a new kind of God.

For this surprising, life-giving end to the tragic human story, all thanks and praise be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.

22 March – This is how God loves

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Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 3:16-21

I bought a violin on Friday. Not that I can play the violin – yet. But, for reasons quite obscure to us, Coulton has wanted to learn the violin since he was about 3, and we figure that now is about the right time to start, and I’ve offered to learn with him as some encouragement along the way. Buying violins is not a straightforward thing. You have to talk to people who know something about them, research what is available, and where, and in what condition. You can learn all sorts of things via YouTube reviews of the instruments – what to look for, why it’s better if the instrument if professionally modified from its factory condition, and so on. In the case of my new violin – it came up on Thursday on Gumtree, and looked a pretty good deal. The problem was that it was in Geelong – amounting to probably a three hour return trip, all up. I contacted the chap offering it for sale, and he didn’t want to post it but would be happy if I arranged a courier. So I contacted a courier, and that wasn’t going to cost too much, so got back to the seller to arrange an electronic transfer and the courier pick up. It turned out he then needed to be in Melbourne on Friday, so I upped the offer a bit if he’d deliver it, which he did, and I have my violin. (Coulton doesn’t have his yet!)

Why am I telling you all this? Now that I’m a parent, it is becoming increasingly clear to me just how much parents do for their children, if everything is working the way that it should. Most of the time a child has no idea what is involved to make happen the things which make her life a happy one. But occasionally she’ll hear, especially is ingratitude is present, Mummy and Daddy loves you so much that is this what they have done for you. Of course, it is almost impossible that the child can understand what in fact has been done, but still it is the case: love does “so much

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading – re-visited from last week – and the first verse in particular: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. This is one of the Christian texts: printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers and baseball caps, appearing on placards in crowds at major sporting events: it sits somewhere near the perceived centre of what needs to be said in evangelism.

“For God so loved…” Is the way to salvation the same kind of way as that by which a boy comes to learn the violin – that so much is done, which then has to be “believed” or received?

I want to propose this morning a reading of this verse rather different from the way in which the church has generally heard it, thinking through three crucial parts of the verse: first, the so which seems to carry most of the weight of emphasis (God so loved the world), then the giving of the Son and, finally, the belief we are to have in response to all this.

1. For God “so” loved the world.

It is difficult not to hear this as “so much” – so much, so big, was the love of God, that he gave the Son. In the background here is the love we have for our children and the cost it would be to us to give them up in this way. (Perhaps also, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac also sits behind this text). And yet even though this is the sense the English suggests, it is not what the Greek implies. In the Greek, the “so” is the first word in the sentence, giving it more the sense of “thus”: Thus, or this, is the love of God: God gave the Son. The difference is subtle, but very important. If I say to Coulton – this is how much we love you, that we did all this that you might have a happy experience with the violin, his response might be, But couldn’t you have got an even better violin with a bit more effort? The “so much” implies the possibility of even more – that God has paid enough – even more – than necessary, but not necessarily everything. Here the love of God is quantified, measured: this is how much God loves you; is it not impressive?

But if we read the clause as “This is the love of God” then we are not dealing with a quantity of love which might have been smaller or even bigger but the very content of love itself: love is the giving of the Son. We’ll come back to this again in a bit.

2. God gave the Son

What then, of the second thing to note in the verse, the giving of the Son? In most Christian thinking, this touches upon the theme of sacrifice: God sacrifices the Son, trades the blood and life of the Son for the salvation of the world. This understanding is both dearly embraced by some Christians and abhorrently rejected by others. On the part of those who embrace it, there is in the background the “so much” understanding we’ve just be considering: God has sacrificed even his Son for us. On the part of those who reject this idea there is, among other things, horror at the idea of sacrifice itself, let alone of sacrificing a child (in this era of heightened sensitivity to the abuse of children). The idea of sacrifice is made all the more difficult in those understandings which insist that God had to sacrifice the Son: that there was some kind of “deep magic” which forced God’s hand in this way (see an earlier sermon on this: here). It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly ingrained this way of thinking is in the way the church speaks about the saving work of Christ. Explaining why the New Testament speaks this way about the cross would take more time than we have now; suffice it to say, the “giving” of the Son is not a sacrifice, if by that we mean that it would necessarily work in the way religious sacrifices are normally thought to work, that somehow we or God met all the requirements and sinners are automatically sprung from judgement.

In what sense, then, does God “give the Son”? We can say that God “presents” the Son. This the love of God for the world: the Son. This is perhaps a little dense to be immediately clear, but it is the heart of the matter. For “the Son” is for us always the crucified one – not the “sacrificed one” – but the crucified one. Again, the difference might seem subtle but it is everything. To understand Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice is to interpret it in terms of first century Jewish understandings of the ritual animal sacrifices in Temple, which makes perfect sense if you are a first century Jew. We today do not have – or rather, we do not acknowledge that we have – a corresponding system of sacrifice securing our religious and secular lives. And so, if we are to interpret the cross as a sacrifice, we have to become first century Jews before we can become Christians. This is what St Paul rejected in a different form when he denied that uncircumcised male Greeks needed to undergo the cut in order to become Christians.

Jesus cannot be for us “the sacrificed one” in the way he could be for those who first heard his story. But he can be for us “the crucified one”, interpreted in a different way. Christians are so accustomed to the theory of an economy of salvation in which something has to be sacrificed that it is difficult to apprehend the story in a different way. But there are other ways. The sacrifice interpretation requires that Jesus came in order to die – that this was what the Father who sent him required. But this is not the sense we get from John’s gospel. Here, Jesus comes precisely to live – to be Word made flesh, to be Life and Truth in all their fullness. Jesus does die, but not because it was somehow demanded by God. If anyone demands his death, it is us: contradicting Jesus’ purpose as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The religious authorities require that Jesus die because he threatens the peace and may invoke the wrath of the Romans (John 11.48-50,18.14). The Roman governor Pilate, who initially tries to get Jesus off, finally also sees the political risk Jesus represents and decides that saving him is not worth the trouble (John 19.12f). And so Jesus is crucified, but not as a “sacrifice”; he dies because the capital-L Life he lived was too confronting, too threatening of human self-righteousness. On this reading, the Son – Jesus – is not given to be crucified; the crucified Son is what we are given. God says: Look at this. God asks, What, Why, How has this come to pass; what shall we say about it?

On the sacrificial reading, the un-crucified Jesus appears as a kind of currency in a sacrificial economy. The cross is a kind of “spending” of that currency: an exchange of Jesus’ life and blood for ours. The fundamental problem here is that we have to believe in this economy of salvation before we can believe in Jesus.

On the “presentation” reading – that God “presents” the crucified Son to us – we are back in the realms of last week’s reflection: that the cross symbolises something about our heart and the heart of God. John’s gospel is concerned with a “Word” – a Word enfleshed. This Word becomes what we are; the question is simply: what, actually, are we? At the end of his gospel John has the Roman governor Pilate present Jesus to an angry crowd with the words: Behold, the man. The sense is more, Behold: the Human Being. Here is the human being – his humanity and ours – and this is what is crucified. Jesus, then, dies not only (or even?) “for” us, but as us; it is us on the cross, our true humanity being broken by broken humanity.

This is too much to think through here, but it is the kind of thinking which springs forth if we allow that God’s love is not a divine Son given for us but a crucified Son given to us: a revelation which effects something rather than something effected which is then revealed.

3. So that everyone who believes

For the sake of finishing within a civil time frame, the third crucial aspect of this central Christian text: “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” What is this “belief”?

On the traditional reading, “believe” means here something like assent as the appropriate response, and receiving salvation in return. This is not unlike the case of little boys and their violins, where “believe” looks like taking up the bow and doing whatever it is you call what a little boy does with a violin: the “so much” of the gift received requires this response.

But on the alternative reading we’ve been unpacking, “believe” is quite a different thing altogether. This is the love of God: the Son. The crucified Son, and no other. The crucified humanity of the Word-made-human. Humanity brought to nothing by humanity. Here, “believe” means recognising ourselves in all dimensions of the story. It means seeing ourselves as the cause of the cross, and as the victim of the cross, and as the beneficiaries of the cross. The giving of the Son is not a “buy-back” scheme; it is the revelation of God’s heart for us, and of us as God’s heart.

We noted in passing earlier that it is closer to the dynamic of God’s work through Jesus to say that God’s love is the giving of the Son, rather than is shown by the giving of the Son. This is the love of God: the Son, crucified, restored to life. The cross and the resurrection are God’s story, are God as love, and are given also to be our story.

To believe in this God is to receive this love as our own. It is to grow into a humanity formed after the likeness of Jesus, the Son. It is to become love, as the children of God, and to participate in God’s great work of love in the world.

This is not easy. We begin with this story as we might begin with a violin for the first time – barely possible to hold let alone to get anything like music from it. But the promise is that, in continuing to hear the story and to tell it, it will increasingly become part of us, as the instrument becomes part the musician, the one enabling the other to express, and to be.

Let us, then, open ourselves to become love as God is love, harmony to the song God sings, to our greater humanity and, what is the same thing, to God’s greater glory. By the grace of God. Amen.

15 March – Salvation’s sinful form

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Lent 4

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
John 3:14-21

Some of you are probably familiar with Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”. This is the story of young Pi Patel who finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck, with the exception of a 200 kilogram Bengal Tiger, with whom he shares a lifeboat for 7 months!

It’s an extraordinary story but, without giving the story away, at the very, very end there is a twist: young Pi presents us with an equally extraordinary but now appalling alternative account of what happened during those 7 months.

The real twist, however, is what is done to the reader. Having been given the alternative account of events, it is then left to us to decide which account to choose. On the one hand there’s the almost-but-not-quite-plausible story with the tiger, and on the other hand the equally extraordinary but in fact horrendously plausible alternative. Pi asks: which story do you prefer – the implausible one with the tiger, or the plausible but horrific one without?

With the characters in the book to whom the two accounts are given, we have to decide between the stories. And our view of the world and our humanity in it are both at stake. We have to decide whether to go with what doesn’t quite make sense but if true would just be an interesting story, or to go with what does make sense but would scare the “bejesus” into us, for it is a horrifying alternative. This is a decision about what the world is like: are people actually capable of such things? It is essentially a decision about involvement: has this story anything to do with us, in a fundamental sense?

As it is for Pi in his boat, so it is for Jesus on his cross: what actually is happening here? Is this a story external to us, or is it somehow also our story? If it is somehow our story then it involves us, and could possibly be a saving story – a story actually worth telling, more than mere amusement.

What, then, is happening at the cross? We take our lead from the first line of the gospel reading this morning:

…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The “lifting up” Jesus refers to here is his crucifixion. (This way of talking is peculiar to John; see also 8.28; 12.31-36). Jesus draws a link between the cross and the lifting up by Moses of a bronze serpent on a pole, as described in the strange story we’ve heard today from the book of Numbers (Numbers 21.4-9).  Having left Egypt and while still wandering around in the desert, the people of Israel began to complain bitterly against Moses and God for how well things were not going. In response, God sends snakes among the people with disastrous effect. The people repent and call out to God through Moses. Moses makes a serpent of bronze, places it on a pole and sets it up so that any person who was bitten could look upon the image and be healed.

It’s an odd story to modern ears but our purpose here is not to debate the could- or couldn’t-haves of the story. We are trying to understand how the story tells us about what is happening in the crucifixion of Jesus. How can looking to the cross be a saving thing, as looking at the bronze serpent saved? The critical thing in this connection is that the source of the healing takes the form of the sign of the sin.

The serpents are sent among the people as the sign of the broken relationship with God and his servant Moses. But this sign then becomes the means God gives by which the people are saved. God gives both the punishment and the healing, and the healing sign reflects the sign of the sin. The sign of the people’s sinfulness is what God then presents to them as the means of their salvation: forgiveness is not forgetfulness. I must recall what I’m being forgiven because the forgiveness comes in the shape of the sign of the sin.

Taking this lead, we can get a better sense of what John would have us believe “really happened” in the “lifting up” of the crucifixion. “Just as” Moses lifted up the snake, so also Jesus is lifted up. “Just as” with the bronze serpent God uses the sign of sin as the source of healing, so also we are to read Jesus’ death as the sign not only of divine healing (as the text suggests) but also of human sinfulness. The crucified Jesus can be the location of the healing because the crucifixion is the sign of the people’s failure. The cross of Jesus only saves us if it is also the sign of our failure.

Having declared that this is the true accounting for the crucifixion of Jesus, Scripture simply waits for us to decide: which version of the crucifixion story do you prefer? Is the cross simply what happens too often in human history – the tragedy of the hero who is crushed in the machinery of human brutality, one more incidence of “man’s inhumanity to man” as we said in the old money. Certainly it has been read often enough that way both in and out of the church.

Yet we have no real investment in such a reading of the story, other than it being a kind of moral lesson. It might inspire us or frighten us, but it does not really involve us.

The bronze serpent connection, however, invites another reading: if the bronze snake takes the form of the sign of the sin, then the same applies to the cross. If the cross is the healing thing, it also indicates the sin itself: the very crucifixion. Who is saved by Jesus on the cross? Not “everybody”, in a bland, generic sense, but those who put him there. It is the body broken by us which, by the grace of God, is the body God gives for us. Are we – us personally, not humanity in general – capable or even guilty of such things?

The principal difficulty with this understanding is that, for it to be true for us, we have to be the destroyers of Jesus in order to be those who are reconciled through his cross. As with our assessment of a story about a tiger in a lifeboat, so also here – we have an investment in our decision about the cross: what are we like?

But, framed in this way, this is an impossible thing to judge, for how do we know what we are like?

In fact, there is no knowing this before we choose how to account for the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is because there is a difference between the stories of the serpents in the desert and that of Jesus. In the desert the people suffer for their sin and cry out to God for healing. The sign of the snakes is interpreted by them as an obvious sign of sin, and this recognition precedes the experience of healing. The people cry out for healing because they have recognised their failure: “we have sinned.”

This is not something a Christian can do because with the crucified Jesus it is the other way around. Unlike with the snakes and the bronze serpent, no one is aware of the true sinfulness of the crucifixion until Jesus is presented back to them in the resurrection as saviour. The resurrection does not leave the cross behind, but gives it back to us as our fundamental involvement in the story of God with his people.

This leads to an extraordinary conclusion: only the one who believes on the risen Jesus knows what it is to sin against him. With Jesus, knowledge of sin follows belief, and does not come before it. This is why our prayers of confession generally follow the proclamation of the gospel. We don’t believe in Jesus because we know that we are sinners; our sense for sin comes with our faith. This being the case, perhaps some sections of the church ought to talk less about sin, not because it doesn’t matter but because it can’t make gospel sense until Jesus arrives as liberator.

For God sent the Son not to condemn but to save, not to tear down but to build up, not to terrorise but to set at peace (3.17). The love of God for the world is a work which takes our having put Jesus on the cross – then, or in some like fashion today – and makes of that failure a benefit for us.

Those who believe come to the light (3.21) because their works are always seen in light of the fact that God has loved them even to the cross.

There is life here, and good news. It is not so much the freedom to be wrong as the confidence that, no matter how wrong we get, it is not beyond redemption in the hands of this God. And our work is to become like God in this respect – giving, forgiving, serving – that the way of God might increasing become the way of God’s people.

Let it be so.

May God bless us with greater understanding of how deeply we are loved, that we might become better lovers in return, for Christ’s sake. Amen.