Tag Archives: Sin

1 September – Return

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Pentecost 12

Hosea 14
Psalm 89
Luke 14:7-11

In a sentence:
Grace can only be given into empty hands

‘Sin’ the church’s four-letter word.

Four-lettered words are ‘sharp’ words. We call them ‘swear’ words because of the way we use them to intensify an oath – a promise or a threat. Just as four-letter words which actually have four letters are real words referring to real things and yet most of the time are the wrong way to refer to those things, short-and-sharp ‘sin’ both marks something we know to be real but which often feels overstated. It’s uttered all over the place in the church but often with the wrong emphasis: it is not the place to start in characterising the human being in her relationship to God.

Of course, it’s a very biblical word but we hear it in tune with the way in which it has been taken up in the church through history. It ought not surprise us that people so capable of sin as Israel and the church might not be quite capable of speaking of sin properly.

The prophets, of course, are full of the accusation of sin, and we’ve heard plenty of that from Hosea over the last couple of months. His account and assessment of the wrong in Israel has been visceral. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of sin in the prophets.

Of course, the word of grace has been present alongside judgement of sin, and Hosea finishes with God’s willingness to reconcile – our text for this morning. This final chapter is structured as a confession and absolution: there is the call to Israel to ‘return’, the confession of Israel, and then God’s declaration of what good will now come to Israel. That good we have heard most weeks over the series as part of our own declaration of forgiveness in the liturgy:

4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree…
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden…

This final chapter presents, on the surface at least, the ‘standard’ approach to sin, confession and absolution in the churches: you are sinners (swear word), therefore you need to confess (also a swear word), and then God forgives (resolution). I say ‘standard approach in the churches’ because, in fact, this is not quite how things unfold in the prophets or in true Christian experience.

Grace is not conditional. It must be received to be recognised as grace, but it always precedes our reception and recognition. The very possibility of a return by Israel has its basis not in the repentant heart of the people but in God’s invitation to them: ‘Return’ (14.1).

Earlier in Hosea we read,

Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (5.4)

Later, when Israel says to itself, ‘Let us return to the Lord,’ God’s response is ‘Seriously? What shall I do with you? I look for love and knowledge, not religious obeisance’ (6.1-6).

The engine which moves the story from judgement to restoration is grace, and not the perceived need on Israel’s part for something better. The people cannot return until it hears God’s invitation: ‘Return’. ‘Return’ is an invitation to claim the promise God makes in the face of all that has come to pass: I will heal, I will love, I will be like the dew; and you shall flourish as a garden.

To claim these promises is to let go of other things claimed. And so Israel’s confession includes, ‘We will say no more, “our God”, to the works of our hands.’ In its immediate context this is a casting away of wooden and metal idols (4.12; cf. 4.17; 8.6; 10.6; 11.2; 13.2; 14.8). But the prophets’ easy mockery of the worship of wood and stone disguises a deeper truth: there is nothing we can make or do which will bring us into God’s favour. The ‘work of our hands’ is not merely the silver statue of a god; it as much anything we imagine will impress God, will allow us to approach God, will place God within our reach; this includes even our willingness to confess as a kind of ‘offering’ to win God over (such as seems to be proposed in 6.1-3).

For Israel ‘the works of our hands’ were not only the religious idols but also the land, the kingship, the divinely-commanded religious obligations, even the half-thought of turning back to God – whatever Israel counted as for its own good. For us, it is the same kind of thing: moral achievement, reputation, continuity of history, correctness of theology or purity of association. What we most love and cling to, or create to keep at bay the threats we most fear – these become the works of our hands, with the strong temptation to identify them as ‘our God’. The principle ‘God is what God does’ morphs into ‘God is what we do’.

God has a great interest in what we love and fear, but not as the basis for our relationship with God. For us, what we most love and most fear form a bulwark against the world, against each other and, finally, against God. It is their potential to secure us in this way that causes the works of our hands to begin to look like divine things. Just this saw Israel lose the plot: the God who called them into being as a people is just not doing enough to secure what we love and keep fear at bay, and so let’s try other gods, run off to arrange political alliances, develop new liturgies and more convenient moralities, focus on the ‘important’ people and let the rest fend for themselves.

We fear that if we do not, ‘with our hands,’ create for ourselves parents to keep us safe, we will be but orphans. But the confession on the lips of Israel this morning concludes by letting go of this anxiety: ‘in you, Lord, the orphan finds mercy’ (14.3), in you is mother, father, for you lift us to your cheek.

‘Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled… ‘Return’ is the sharp word intended to catch our attention in Hosea, not the four-lettered accusation, ‘sin’, or the stumbling. The sharpness is not dark pointedness of profanity but the stinging light which reveals a path back to God. An orphan cannot un-orphan herself; love and care cannot be forced from another. But this was never the requirement: ‘your faithfulness comes from me.

The command to ‘return’ declares that we never were orphans, despite how things felt.

And so, however things feel for us now – whether pretty bad or, perhaps especially, if they are feeling pretty good – Return, and say no longer ‘my God’ to the works of your hands. ‘For I desire not your works, your sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and the knowledge of God’ (6.6).

What we make of ourselves and the world is not unimportant but must not get in the way.

God has already embraced us, and we cannot ‘return’ that embrace if our arms are already full. Grace can be given only into empty hands.

7 July – On being a better sinner

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Pentecost 4

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 30
Matthew 2:7-15

In a sentence:
The true meaning and catastrophe of sin is known only to faith

I’d like to begin this morning with the observation that most of you are lousy sinners. By this I mean that you – and I with you – don’t sin very well. And this is a serious shortcoming for us all because it is the poverty of the quality of our sinning which is the source of our continuing fears and uncertainties in faith. The more accomplished our sin, the deeper will be our faith.

As a way into justifying why this might be the case, we let’s consider the relationship between our readings from Hosea and Matthew this morning. Those passages are linked by Matthew’s assessment of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt after taking refuge there from Herod. This looks like prophecy and fulfilment: while Hosea was in fact looking back to the Exodus, Matthew’s borrows ‘out of Egypt I called my son’ and makes it appear as if Hosea is looking forward: here is an old prophecy about Jesus, now fulfilled.

But Matthew’s borrowing from Hosea is much more significant than this; in fact, it is so significant as to change our reading of Hosea – and of ourselves – altogether. For Matthew does not claim a prophecy to be fulfilled in Jesus. Rather, he identifies what is called, technically, a ‘type’ in the Exodus from Egypt and links it to Jesus, the ‘antitype’. An antitype is an overlay of an event or person on an earlier one – on the type. This links the two in mutual interpretation, although ‘skewed’ towards the later. The type doesn’t look forward to the antitype, the first thing to the last, like a prophecy. The relationship only appears when the antitype, the last thing, appears. The Bible is full of this method of self-interpretation.

Matthew’s use of Hosea in this way enables him to cast Jesus as a kind of new Israel. Matthew also describes Herod’s killing of the Innocents, reflecting Pharaoh’s killing of the young boys in Egypt prior to the Exodus, and his portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount casts Jesus as a new Moses. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ sends a signal about the nature and scope of what we meet in Jesus: here is the history of Israel in the process of being recapitulated.

But it is not merely a re-occurrence of what once happened. The antitype is the true reality of which the earlier type was a shadow. Or we might say that the type – the earlier event – is a memory of what has not yet happened.

This is easier to illustrate than to describe. Hosea 11 gives an account of the coming into covenant of God and Israel, then Israel’s turning away, the punishment, God’s longing for restoration and a promised reconciliation. Matthew’s casting of Jesus as Israel invites a comparison here: the intimate relationship between parent and child (the Father-Son relationship), a turning away and punishment (Good Friday), the longing of God for a restoration of the relationship (Easter Saturday), and the restoration itself (Easter Day). The life of Jesus from incarnation to the resurrection repeats the history of Israel as Hosea describes it.

But in a typological reading – the dynamic of type and antitype – Jesus’ experience from incarnation to resurrection is not an echo of Hosea’s account of Israel. Rather, Hosea’s account is an echo, or a memory, of what happens to Jesus.

That requires a bit of reflection because we are used to thinking of all which precedes Jesus as pointing to him, building up to him, so that what is remembered is how we got to that point. And perhaps there remains a sense in which this is so.

But the crucial point is this: while this section of Hosea is important for understanding who Jesus is, it is not as mere ‘illustration’ that Hosea relates to Jesus. Hosea’s preaching does not give us the clue to Jesus. Hosea relates to Jesus as a reflection of him, as a memory of him, now revealed as such because the truth of Jesus himself has been revealed. Jesus, then, gives us the clue to Hosea’s preaching. The rejection of God by Israel described in Hosea is the crucifixion of Jesus. The promised restoration is the resurrection of Jesus. Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are the meaning of what Hosea describes, accuses of and promises.

This is not mere theological trickery. The consequences of this way of thinking are, in fact, quite stunning – and now we come to why believing more profoundly makes better sinners of us.

We noted last week in Hosea’s 2750 year old text – and we experience every day of our lives here and now – that the promised restoration or resurrection by God has not occurred. This is to say that we and Hosea’s original audience reflect or echo the restoration and resurrection in Jesus imperfectly. It has happened for him but not yet fully for us. But this is also to say that our rejection of God has not properly occurred, that we also echo the crucifixion imperfectly.

Put differently, there is a sense in which we are not restored because we have not yet sinned well enough. This is clearly wrong… but we’ll stick with it for a moment to see whether it might still get us to where we need to go. To say that we have not yet sinned well enough is not to say that we haven’t – between us – managed to commit every sin which can be committed; we seem to have that covered. Committing sins is not problem but recognising what we do wrong as sin is a problem. That is, we do not really know ourselves as sinners. It is easy to know a moral failure, but moral failure is only half-sin. A half-sinner will only be half-reconciled to God, and so feel that the good, restorative things promised are still ‘not yet’.

If this is the case, what is required here is not a deeper ‘wallowing’ in sin or a talking-up of the sinfulness of human being. The understanding of sin is not a matter of heaping something up. The clue is found, again, in Jesus. Israel’s problem is that when it hears Hosea declare, ‘out of Egypt I called my son’, the people don’t really understand that it is them he refers to. The catastrophe is in the failure to be ‘son’ – child – to this divine mother, father – the failure to thrive in the peace of being lifted to this divine cheek and the failure to die after wriggling out of that embrace. What is lost is so central to their – and our – being that, once lost, it is no longer understood.

By contrast, on every page of the New Testament Jesus is the one who definitively hears and responds to the address ‘son.’ All that he is and does springs from that address and answers it. In crucifying this one, Israel denies the true form of sonship, the true form of intimate relationship with God. The sin of Israel, then, has no proper reference point for Israel itself. It is ‘mere’ sin, ‘mere’ distance from God. The only thing which can give sin its quality as sin – which can make us ‘high quality’ sinners rather than lousy ones – is a renewed experience of the intimacy with God. In the great parable, the prodigal son forgets what it means to be a son and imagines he is a servant (and the older brother makes the same mistake). This is the prodigal’s true sin, to which the waiting father answers ‘not servant, but son’. It is the light of such a restoration which reveals sin for what it was and will be if we allow ourselves that option again. Salvation makes real sinners of us – if redeemed sinners.

It is for this reason that the only real sin is the destruction in crucifixion of the Son of God as a son, as the child of God; every other sin is just a ‘memory’ or an ‘echo’ of this – not quite the real deal even if we can discern the pattern in it. And it is for this reason that the only thing which will deal with sin is the return of the Son, the return of such intimacy with God.

And so Jesus is raised, that the Son might be once more and that we might see and know and understand.

And so we break bread and bless a cup, and take to eat and drink, that together we might be that Son in our own re-Spirited flesh-and-blood life together.

Out of Egypt God calls us, to discover ourselves to be daughters and sons in the Son, to know our sin – and to know it behind us – and to rejoice.

By the grace of God, may such knowledge and joy be ever more deepened in all God’s people. Amen.

24 March – On not dying too soon

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Lent 3

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7
Psalm 63
Luke 13:1-9

In a sentence:
Death can kill us before we die; this is the ‘unrepentant’ life

I have wondered for some time whether there might be something to be said for an occasional sermon which reflected on ‘the art of dying’.

As morbid as that might seem as a theme, reflections on death – properly Christian reflections, at least – are not about dying in itself, but about life and its relationship to those deaths in our lives we can’t avoid, regardless of how hard we try to forget that they are already with us, or are coming.

Knowing what death is, and where it is, are important skills in the art of dying, and something of this knowledge is treated in this morning’s readings.

From Qohelet, we’ve heard a fairly straightforward exhortation: Make the most of it, because you’re going to die in the end.

If nothing else, Qohelet is starkly realistic about the fact of death. The offence of death, its ungraspability (‘vanity’) and its unpredictability (more vanity) are close to the centre of his thinking. Life is vanity, and then you die.

In this, Qohelet relentlessly strips away any illusions we might allow ourselves about death as we go about our seemingly lively lives. But this is not in order to glory in death. As we have heard, he still holds that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.

Qohelet would simply have us know what death is and where it is. So far as he can see, death has the last word. This being the case, he is concerned to know, What is that word – what is spoken – and when, precisely, is it uttered?

There is also a lesson about death in the gospel reading we have heard today, although it is less straightforward than it might first seem.

Jesus reminds the crowds of two recent news bulletins which must have horrified them in the same way we’ve been horrified by the recent outrage in Christchurch. The question is put: do you imagine that those people died in that way because they were worse sinners than anyone else? No, he says.

At this point, Jesus is in close accord with Qohelet, such as in what we heard from him last week:

‘There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous (8.14).’

Contradicting one stream of conventional wisdom thinking, Jesus and Qohelet say that we cannot conclude from when and how someone dies whether they were righteous, or not. Death is neither a sign of life nor a sign even of deathliness.

But then Jesus seems to contradict this: ‘but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ On the one hand, ‘perishing as they did’ is not a matter of repentance; on the other hand, it seems that Jesus then declares that it will be. This latter seems also to be the point of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree.

The only resolution here revolves around what might be meant by ‘perishing as they did’. The point would seem to be not that they died, but that they died unrepentant. Sin is not the cause of their death but colours it.

The warning, then, is not that buildings will fall on – or bullets will rain down upon – the unrepentant, but how tragic it is when death comes to the unrepentant. To ‘perish as they did’ would be too perish not knowing that there is something of which to repent, that there is something to lay aside, that there is a deathliness already in us, diminishing us.

One way of hearing such an account of an unrepentant death is as a call to ‘ticket to heaven’ repentance: ‘Repent now, lest you step out from this place and fall under a bus’. This is not what Jesus speaks of here, as large as the idea has been in the history of evangelism, as if sin has relevance only to what happens when we die and not to what is happening while we are still alive.

Qohelet helps again here. Unrepentance in Qohelet’s terms is not to understand our lot. It is to live vainly, emptily, oriented towards things which, in the end, do not really matter, which cannot be relied on and so which turn our lives into a chasing after wind. It is, in effect, to have died before death comes (cf. Ecclesiastes 7.17). It is for death’s last word to have been uttered too soon. The unrepentant life carries death with it, is death’s grip on us before we have died.

There is a poignancy in the illustrations Jesus uses here. A building is going to fall on him. Even more suggestively, his blood will also be mixed with that of the sacrifices.

If we imagined it were possible to be open minded about the moral meaning of the crucifixion, we’d have to say with Qohelet that there is nothing in the manner of Jesus’ death to tell us whether he was righteous or unrighteous, any more that Jesus allowed such a reading of those who died under the tower and under Pilate. To the dispassionate observer, Jesus just dies.

But the church is not open-minded here, for we consider the cross in the peculiar light of the resurrection. This is a peculiar light because it shines only on the cross. If that light makes us reconsider Jesus’ death, it makes us reconsider also his life: that he continued to do and to say and to be in the same way regardless of how much larger the possibility of a crucifixion loomed.

This was not a matter of ‘necessity’, in the sense that he ‘must’ die according to our traditional atonement theories. Jesus continues along the path on which he began because to turn aside from the likely outcome of a crucifixion would be to die before the building actually falls. This is the unrepentant life he calls us to turn from.

What then does repentance look like? It depends on what deaths we are already dying. But we get a general notion from Qohelet. His counsel this week – to enjoy the days of youth – may seem to some here to come a little late, but his point is what we emphasised on Ash Wednesday: it is vanity not to see that death comes, the ultimately vain, ungraspable thing: ‘all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (3.20), vanity of vanities.

But it is vanity also to try to calculate death, and so let it darken the day before the night comes. To live in death’s shadow is not to live. It is to die too soon. This we heard in a different way last week:

for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8.15)

The vanities of life – the misty vapours of chance and possibility, of work and reward, of life and death, the gamble on righteousness, the contradictions of justice – must not diminish the best that a human life could be, in a time and place.

In this sense, we might dare to say that Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a life enjoyed.

Part of the art of dying is to set death in its proper place. When we do this, as Jesus did, everything else which happens – even our perishing – is life.

The lively kingdom of God draws near to displace the kingdoms of death; repent, then, and believe the good news.

19 April – “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”

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Easter 3

1 John 3:1-10
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

“No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. Let that rest for a moment on the surface of your mind: “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. The Bible says it. Can we believe it?

Most of us are likely to feel a little uncomfortable about this, and all the more so when we discover that it is no mere slip on John’s part. Elsewhere in the epistle we hear similar things: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because the seed of God abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God” (3.9).“We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them” (5.18).

What makes us feel uncomfortable about this, in the first place, is that we know Christians – we know ourselves – and so we “know” John can’t be right. There are too many undeniable failures to ignore, and many Christians are more than happy to acknowledge the fact: “not perfect, just forgiven” (declares one of our less helpful bumper stickers).

But, if we weigh up the possibilities fully, there enters another reason why we might be uncomfortable about John’s confident declaration about sinless believers: if John is right, then we who purport to believe must wonder whether indeed we are those who “abide” in Christ. In fact, if we allow these words their scriptural status, the simplest way to make sense of what John says right here is to conclude that those we call “Christians” – ourselves or others – are not who John means when he speaks of those abiding in Christ.

John, then, seems to present to us two possibilities (or at least he does for those of us who imagine ourselves to be believers): either John is wrong about believers and sin, which perhaps presents us with problems about the authority of scripture on this matter, or he is right, which forces us out of the picture.

Yet this is too simplistic. If we are going to claim our status as Christians who somehow belong to God, we will object that surely John writes to someone, to some real, historical group of believers, and surely they are not that different from us. And in fact, just this is acknowledged in other parts of the epistle: 1.8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 2.1“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” 5.16 “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one…”

On the one hand, then, there are those who are “called the children of God” (3.1), in fact who are the children of God now (3.2), who “abide in him” and so cannot sin. On the other hand, these same ones have sinned, may sin, and indeed do continue to sin, As such, John calls them lawless and so “children of the devil”.

What are we to make of all this?

We might dismiss it all as religious doublespeak which says yes and no at the same time, pretending that this actually stands for something. Or we might call for “balance” – trying to say a little bit of a yes and a little bit of a no, although in fact we’ll end up saying more of one than the other. Both approaches make some sense of what is seemingly gobbledygook.

But if, instead of trying to transform what John says into something which makes sense for us, we allow him to transform how we think, we will discover something much more interesting than what we already know, something which breaks through the barriers of knowledge which limit us.

While Easter is now quite forgotten for another year by the wider world, for the church it is still here, and is ever with us. As we noted on Easter Sunday: either the proclamation of the resurrection is a game-changer or it is nothing. The word “resurrection” implies that the dead might no longer stay where we put them. But this is not for the New Testament a mere fact. Death is fundamental to human experience and our measure of ourselves. If death is upset, then everything is upset: a new world order is imaged, and faith is a re-imaging – a re-image-ining – of ourselves after that sign.

What John presents to us in our reading from the epistle this morning springs from just such a re-imagining. The resurrection of Jesus may seem to be nowhere in sight in this text, yet all of the New Testament is a description of life in the world from the point of view that Jesus has been raised. What really confronts us here is not the surface issue of doublespeak about sinless people who sin, or children of God who are also children of the devil. Though it is nowhere explicit in our reading, the “problem” John causes for us rests in his confidence that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This is a problem because of all those who might have been raised from the dead, Jesus was the least expected. We have noted before how this contradicts our inherited religious sensitivities after centuries of “Christian” moralistic conditioning. In the crucifixion Jesus is judged – named – as blasphemer. He is then, so far as any can see, a moral failure. His naming and bearing of himself was apparently wrong, and his persecutors were simply fulfilling their religious duty in demanding his execution.

The resurrection is the re-naming of Jesus, now by God. The resurrection declares, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased”. (These words, borrowed from the baptism and Transfiguration narratives, are – in those places – actually resurrection statements. This is because, if there is not resurrection, there is no ongoing interest in Jesus [who is “proven” blasphemer], and so no “recording” of the baptism of Jesus or the Transfiguration). A shift takes place from our naming of Jesus to God’s naming of him.

What has this to do with anything? We began by noting that we name ourselves as Christians, and yet John seems to say that such as we do not sin, and yet we do often seem to sin, so that John makes little sense. But who names us, and how, is at the heart of the confusion. In our naming of ourselves, we end up with a great complex of contradictory hyphenated names: Mr Christian-Sinner (whether the sexually abusive priest or the congregational gossip); Dr Religious-Atheist, who professes no belief in “god” but whose life is thoroughly determined by influences she scarcely recognizes, let alone acknowledges; Mrs Selfish-Giver, who gives time and money more for the recognition this gets her than for those in need; Miss Capitalist-Greenie, whose radical eco-Tweets are made from a phone built in a far-away place under slave-like conditions. Our attempts to name ourselves create a thoroughgoing moral confusion from which we cannot extract ourselves, such that hypocrisy – that sharpest of critiques which can be made of anyone who commits to any statement of themselves – is unavoidable.

At this level of our experience, the only recourse is self-justification. With this, if we are honest, comes anxiety. Am I more “Christian” than sinner, more socialist than capitalist, more generous than selfish, more what I publically profess than what I permit myself in private? This is not necessarily a religious anxiety about whether I’m “saved” or will inherit eternal life. It is a thoroughly and broadly human phenomenon: am I safe from what might threaten me, whether the dangerous thing which might over-run me or, more importantly here, that I might be discovered not to be who I’ve presented myself to be. These are the fruits of our naming of ourselves. We are more – and less – than we can say, and that difference between what we say and what we are creates anxiety.

But the good news which is the gospel is that God speaks to us our true name: God fundamentally “defines” us. “Children of God” is a name given us by God, and not by ourselves: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God” (3.1). This is a surprise for John. We are so familiar with it that it’s almost meaningless, just another self-designation. The surprise is in that what we have understood ourselves to be is enveloped within something which is not only more comprehensive but also healing and liberating: God renames us – and remakes us – according to the name he has for Jesus – Son, “child”.

While we might presume to call ourselves children of God, only God can make us his children, because to be a child of God is to be as Jesus is to the Father (cf. 5.1,18), and this is unknown to us until God makes it known by doing it (3.1b) – showing us what this relationship looks like, what it can overcome. To say that God “loves” us is to say that the Father does just this – makes his life our life by taking the name he has for the Son and letting it be the name he has for us: “children”.

This is both our present reality, and our future reality. In the experience of Jesus we learn that we are loved by the Father as children, and yet in the Spirit of Jesus we are still being loved into that reality. Thus we hear the strange but necessary call: become what you are. John says (paraphrase): We are God’s children now, and yet we do not know what that actually looks like. All we know is that we will be like Christ (3.2) This being “like Christ” is not a moral state – being without sin – but is the state of being a child of God, sharing in the life the Son enjoys with the Father. In this we are purified (3.3), because it does not depend upon what we do and our trying to make a claim on God through that. It depends on God’s claim on us.

In this way it is not so much that we do not occasionally – or very regularly – sin. It is rather that this sin does not define us, is not our completion. Sin, which looms so large in much Christian-speak, is now set to one side as a secondary thing: merely the sign that we are not yet become what we are. (This archaic English construction [still present in German, French] – “are not become” – seems somehow to capture something more than the more familiar “have not become”, marking the becoming as ever a present [“are”] process). Not our actions, our demonstrating of ourselves, our naming of ourselves, but God’s, is what matters: You are my son, my daughter, in whom I will be well pleased.

This is the gospel, and our calling is to begin to look like it is true.

By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may this ever being re-shaped into the humanity of the Father’s Son become ever more manifest in us, to God’s greater glory and our greater life and freedom. Amen.

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.