Two Lambs – 19 January 2020
Dickens famously started one of his books with the tale of two cities. Today I would like to tell you the tale of two lambs.
The first lamb I want to tell you about is the Lamb of Abraham. You may remember the story, Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son, and sacrifice him on the mountain. So Abraham took his son, Isaac, and when his son asked him what they would sacrifice he only told him that God would provide. Then Abraham took his son, bound him, lay him on the wood and prepared to kill him as a sacrifice.
The God intervened and told him that was not necessary, and directed him to a lamb or ram in a bush nearby that was caught. Abraham took that lamb, and sacrificed him instead.
Now the importance of this incidence is that it marks a clear change in sacrificial needs in the pre-history of Israel. Human sacrifice was not practised again by them; in fact, they would see it as abhorrent. But other races, even the Romans at times of crisis, would still sacrifice humans. The reason for sacrifice is that it appeases the gods. People need to keep God happy, so they offer what is precious, and the most precious thing was life itself, and human life was the most valuable.
So that’s the first lamb I want to talk about.
The second lamb comes from the passage we heard today in the Gospel, when John calls Our Lord the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our Lord would be seen as the perfect lamb that would offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and would die meekly like a lamb on the cross. So the need of sacrificing lambs at the Temple would cease with the sacrifice of the perfect lamb.
Now, the odd thing about this imagery, is that a lamb replaces a human, with the lamb replacing Isaac the son of Abraham, and then a human replacing all lambs, with Our Lord taking the perfect lamb. It’s a lovely mirror imagery.
But the weakness is why Our Lord must be sacrificed. Now this is where we start to think about why did Our Lord die, what we call the atonement. If we see sacrifice as appeasing an angry God, then we start by sacrificing any human, then we go to lambs, then we go to a perfect human. The problem with all this is that why should God be angry with us? Now we do make mistakes, we do commit sins. But it’s not enough to say that we need to appease God for our sins, because that gives the image of God as an angry God. Much of our theology of what we call the atonement, why God dies for us, is based in ideas about either an angry God needing satisfaction, or a legal God needing the laws to be satisfied. That’s part of our inheritance though Augustine, Anslem and Calvin, great and wonderful theologians, but also thinkers reflecting their own times. What the Gospels present instead is a loving God, a loving God who loved us so much he gave us his only Son.
Instead of thinking about angry gods wanting vengeance we should start to think about us as beings who by shame try to make good our sins by offering something precious. God always is there to forgive: that is what love is about. We offer precious things like other humans, but God does not want us to take life. So God directs us to offer lambs instead. Finally, God sends the Son to teach us a new way that shows us that even this sacrifice is unnecessary: and God then allows his Son to die as a victim of our anger and injustice. But to show that God is not one of vengeance, God does not punish us for killing his only Son, God has his Son rise to life again to show us that the way of vengeance and anger is only a phase, and that true forgiveness and new life lie beyond.
Now we can start to ponder what John the Baptist says today: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees Our Lord as the ultimate lamb that finishes all the sacrifices of lambs in history. But a lamb was sacrificed for a person sins: this lamb takes away all sin, note how John says the sin, not sins of the world. The sin of the world is the need for vengeance, the need to sacrifice to take away our shame. Our Lord as the perfect sacrifice takes all that sin away. There is no need of vengeance, there is only the need for love.
It is also worthwhile to consider, that where in the past we offered the lamb to God, God now offers the Lamb to us. We offered the lamb to appease the anger of the gods: now God offers the Lamb in his Son, to appease our anger. It is God’s offering of the Son that takes away the sin of the world for in that we realise the extent of the love of God in that God withholds nothing from us, not even his Son.
As an aside, in Aramaic “talja” means both “lamb” and “servant,” so it may also be referencing the idea of the suffering servant from Isaiah. So the Lamb of God is also the Servant of God.
When we come to communion, we use those words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the Holy Mother Church inviting her children to see that in the bread and wine, we take the body and blood, of the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Lamb of God. All thoughts of vengeance and appeasement are finished, instead we are presented with the love of God that withholds nothing. We are invited to come and receive him, not that we are worthy, but instead to be healed of the insanity of the cycle of vengeance and sacrifice. It calls on us to deal with our cycles of anger and vengeance, to learn to let go of this, and instead accept a God who took away all sin, and invites us to release and forgive instead, as he did.
So we travel in history for the lamb of Abraham to the lamb of God, a story of two lambs completing the need of sacrifice.
Baptism – 12 January, 2020
I read a nice sermon during the week. I often read sermons, it’s a sort of occupational hazard for clergy, but I read this sermon particularly because it had to do with the readings for this Sunday, and I was looking for a little inspiration. It was a nice sermon about John the Baptist and Our Lord, and what John may have thought about Our Lord and what Our Lord might have thought about John, as cousins who knew each other and as prophet and Messiah.
I reached the end of the sermon and thought, I must have missed the point. But no, the whole sermon was on what they may have thought about each other on some massive assumptions like they were in constant touch with each other through their childhood. That was the point of the sermon, to do a spot of imagining on what cousins may have thought on each other.
Now, I think that is thin gruel. I strongly believe that minds are like gardens, and need some solid work done on them to make things grow. If you get lazy in a garden, the weeds grow and there is no flowers or food. Not much use. Sermons at church are meant to be little a good weeding and digging, they are meant to make one think and learn a little more. Pleasant imaginings about what someone may have thought about someone else are not up to the mark.
Well today I am going to try a little harder than that, for today we touch one of the central sacraments of the Church, baptism. It’s one of the two sacraments expressly established by Our Lord, in contrast to the other five, and full marks to anyone who can remember all seven sacraments.
Now we may not see a lot of similarities between the two major sacraments of baptism and communion, but today I would like to make a few linkages, because they are the two commanded by Our Lord and therefore rather important to ponder. When we think of communion here we also have to think of his death and resurrection, because when we eat the bread and wine, we eat his body and blood, and are thereby linked into the great theology of his death and resurrection. Think first about the attire of baptism. When we are baptised, from ancient times people were either baptised in the nude or with minimal clothes. When people are crucified, if you look at a crucifix, it’s the same costume. Baptism in costume is similar to crucifixion.
The next thing to remember is that for most people in the ancient world water in any quantity was dangerous and deadly. People were generally non-swimmers. Going under water was a symbol of death, because it reminded people of drowning. Baptism anciently was done in warmer climates by full immersion, by going under the water and being dragged up, death by drowning. When people are crucified, they die, obviously. There is another parallel here between the cross and baptism.
However, Our Lord returns from life after being crucified. What happened anciently in baptism that after the person was pulled up from the water, the person is dried and clothed in white and anointed with oil. All these things are symbols of the new life one is called into.
Baptism is meant to be understood by the faithful of the Church as a type of death and resurrection, a parallel between Our Lord’s death and resurrection. Furthermore, when we take the body and blood of Christ in the sacraments it links us thereby with our own baptism. Why – because by eating his body and blood we join into his body and join this great cycle of death and resurrection that is started in us by baptism. It will, of course, be completed by our own deaths and resurrection in Christ at the end of all things. We are to see the similarities between the two great sacraments. It’s all about death and resurrection.
Now we have done the basic theology we can start to think about the Gospel today. John is reluctant to baptise Our Lord, saying he needs to be baptised by Jesus. We learn from earlier passages that John is proclaiming his baptism for the repentance of sins. John obviously sees Our Lord as one without sin. But Our Lord insists and is so baptised. So why did Our Lord insist? This is where we come again to the identification of Our Lord with us. In all things, Our Lord is like us, except for sin. Therefore he insists on taking the whole way of what is essential for us to follow. He insists of baptism, as it is not just a question of an individual, but of all humanity dying to sin to rise to new life. He has to symbolically die to sin, as he will later truly die with our sin on the Cross. But when Our Lord is baptised, we then get that voice from heaven and the Spirit of God coming upon him. Our Lord transforms the baptism of John, which is only about repentance of sins, to a new level of not only repentance and death, but new life and the Spirit of God.
Now once we start to think of baptism bringing new life, we start to understand why it is called christening. The word christening coms from the chrism that was anciently used in baptism – we use it in our Anglican custom with the sign of the cross at the end. In ancient times you might have had a lot more poured upon your head, but we are a tidier neater race and restrict ourselves to a neat little cross. Chrism is used to anoint people. Now Jesus is called the Christ, or the Messiah, which means the Anointed One. It’s pointing to that Spirit coming down on him. Christening points to the importance of the end of the rite, the giving of the holy oil of chrism, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming upon us.
For baptism is a life-changing sacrament. Now you can receive communion many times, and I hope you have. But you can only be baptised once, as it is the foundation sacrament of the whole theology of death and resurrection. It is the start of the Christian life, the start of the whole cycle of death and resurrection, the giving of grace in the Spirit. For the Jews only men had an initiation rite in circumcision. But Christianity has a rite that shows how it is open to all people, men and women, in baptism. Also it operates within a community of faith and therefore even babies are baptised, as the community takes on the promises to follow, but the rite of death and resurrection in baptism are played out in the infancy of that child.
As an aside the way baptism is performed is done in many different ways, from the full dunking to the pouring over the head, and that makes no difference – it’s not a magic ritual, as long as the intent is there that the child is baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it’s ok.
Now I hope that a few of you are still awake after all that theology. I don’t want you to go away today with nice thoughts about two cousins meeting at the Jordan. That’s not enough. I want you today to think about how the whole cycle of death and resurrection starts in baptism. I also want you to see how this cycle of death and resurrection frames our wholes lives. We are continually dying. Not only because we are getting old and our backs are giving out, but dying to our relationships as friends move on or die, dying to our work as we change jobs, dying to our homes as we change houses. Change is always a form of death. But Christians cannot be stuck there. It’s not enough. We also, from the very moment of baptism, state that after death there is resurrection. Yes, our health gives out, but we still find new things wt. can do. Our friends die, but there are still people to meet. Our homes and work are left behind, but new places await. Resurrection is a key to Christian life, initiated in us by our own baptism. That’s why it’s important.
Thomas Becket – 29 December, 2019
Instead of talking about the Holy Family today, I’m going to talk about the feast of Thomas Becket, or A’Becket, if you prefer that spelling. Now, this is a very English festival. In the old usage of England, called Sarum, after the Latin name for Salisbury, the old English centre of liturgy, there was Christmas Day, then that of the first martyr St Stephen, then St John, then Holy Innocents and then that of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was killed in his cathedral of Canterbury on this day in the year 1170.
On that day, four knights demanded of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, the absolution of two excommunicate bishops. The knights were adherents of the English king, Henry II. Thomas refused. Later, at Vespers, the knights returned with some armed men. They asked, “where is the traitor?” Thomas answered, “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” The assassins attempted to drag him out of the church, but were unable to do so, and so murdered him right in the cathedral, in front of the people. Within three years the pope declared him a saint of the Church, and his tomb, site of many miracles, became the most venerated place of pilgrimage in England.
From the perspective of the English kings, Thomas was a thorn in their side. He had been a clerk in service of Theobald, the previous archbishop, who ordained him a deacon in 1154. Even though a deacon in the church, Becket enjoyed a rather worldly life, often going out carousing with the young king, Henry. Given their close relationship, Henry believed that he could take a firm grip on the church by appointing his friend as Archbishop of Canterbury; therefore, on 2 June 1162, Thomas was ordained a priest, in the morning on 3 June he was consecrated a bishop, and that afternoon he was installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, as now, Canterbury was the leader of the English and later Anglican church, which is why we still pray for him.
However, it was soon clear that Becket’s loyalties had shifted away from Henry to the Church and the relationship between the two became strained. This became most evident in an incident where a priest had been accused of murder. At the time, clergy were tried by the church, but Henry wanted such authority under the crown. When the priest was acquitted under the church, Henry was furious and changed the law. From there things deteriorated much more, leading Becket to flee to France in fear for his life.
Eventually Thomas and the king would be somewhat reconciled; however, while Thomas was in exile in France, he had excommunicated two bishops in England for giving into the king’s demands, but when he returned to England, he refused to lift the excommunication order, which once again infuriated the king. Henry is then reported to have said to four of his knights, “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest.” Hence the murder in the Cathedral on this day.
When Thomas was martyred, the people of England lamented his death and demanded justice. Henry was swept up in the accusations against his knights, and was humiliated by having to do public penance.
The tomb of Thomas in Canterbury became a famous shrine and place of pilgrimage. Such a pilgrimage gave rise to Chaucer’s epic Canterbury Tales. But the battle was not over. A later Henry, the VIII, inherited the royal lust for power and in 1538 destroyed the shrine and the remains of the saint. If you have been to Canterbury Cathedral, all you can see of the Shrine are the stained-glass windows and the worn stones where three hundred years of pilgrims knelt to pray.
The murder of Thomas Becket was a critical event that helped to clarify the independence of the Church. Remember that kings in Europe believed they ruled by divine right. These rulers often thought that they could do as they pleased with the Church as a human institution. But the Church leaders and Thomas Becket insisted that the Church was foremost a divine institution in the service of God and His people. That tension persisted but the Church did not give in. This independence, and religious freedom, is encoded in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We are still working this out in Australia with our new law on religious discrimination.
But secular governments, whose primary mode of operation is to exercise power so they can remain in power, have always been trying to bring religion under their control. Solomon built his Temple to the Lord almost as a private chapel, right next door to his palace. One of the terrors of the Assyrians is that their god was Ashur, that is, the state. When they conquered a people, they destroyed or bore off their gods and left their temples in ruin. When the Church began to spread in the Roman empire, persecutions often centred on the demand that Christians offer incense to the political leader, Caesar, as a god. Christians, of course, had to refuse. The prayer affirmation “Jesus is Lord” was seen by the authorities as an act of treason, since the Christian would refuse to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Even after the Christianization of the empire, the emperors were constantly trying to co-opt the Church leaders into doing their will, instead of God’s.
Henry VIII was very thorough in the destruction of the relics of Thomas. However, one relic survived, in Hungary of all places, which at that time had long connections with England. If you look over to the window on the south side you can see Margaret of Scotland – she was an England royal refugee who obtained sanctuary in Hungary a century earlier. Some of Thomas’ bones were brought to Hungary and are still there – they were lent to England in 2016 and even went to Westminster Abbey, St Magnus the Martyr Church in London, Rochester Cathedral , from where we have one of the stones set into our walls, and Canterbury Cathedral.
In a rough-and-tumble twelfth century, Thomas of Canterbury testified to religious freedom. So should we today. Whether it is in caring for the poor, protecting the rights of prisoners, or standing up against a ruthless government that demands actions of us that violate our consciences, we must imitate Thomas. We must never become self-serving government stooges. And as we imitate Thomas, so we become in our day and time and place other Christs, living and dying in love.
Not Where We Expected to Be – 15 December, 2019, Advent 3A
Now, we are a liturgical church, and that liturgy that reflects our understanding of how the church is structured. Thus we have the roles of priest (and occasionally deacons and bishops, unfortunately not often with a deacon, fortunately not often with a bishop) and laity. Together we make up the church in our roles. This is seen for orthodox Anglicans, only a priest can lead the prayer of consecration, as he stands in the place of Christ. another moment this is seen is when the collect is said, just before the readings. This is done by the priest always, as the priest gathers the intentions of the people and says them on behalf of the congregation, in the same way as Our Lord, gathers the prayers of the people to God.
Well the collect today is a lovely one that picks up the imagery we heard in our first reading from Isaiah 35. The writer of this section of Isaiah describes a world redeemed by God, and it’s a topsy turvy world: weak hands will be strengthened, feeble knees will be made firm, the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and a highway shall be there called the Holy Way – just for God’s people – and they will never go astray. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Doesn’t that sound marvellous? It sounds like God is stirring up power there. But then, we are nearly at Christmas, so where does this baby we are waiting for fit into this? Shouldn’t we be looking for someone who already has power, someone who knows the ways of the world and can lead us through them? Can we trust in a God that asks us to wait along with a pregnant mother for a baby to be born into poverty? That seems like a lot to ask.
In a day and age when we often rely only on ourselves to get things done, it’s asking a lot of us to trust in a God who wants us to renounce control and expect the unexpected. It makes us nervous and makes us question if we really heard God right. In today’s Gospel reading, even John the Baptist is unsure of himself, and sends one of his disciples to ask Our Lord, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is not what John expected. The road was prepared for the Messiah to restore the world to God’s vision, but the method was not what John, or anyone, was expecting.
Goals. Expectations. Hopes. Surely Mary had all those things for the child she was anxiously waiting for. Perhaps our parents had these expectations for us, and we have passed them on to the next generations. But what happens when new parents receive an unexpected diagnosis for their new-born child? What if we are never even able to have the child we long for? What happens when a beloved youth we have known for years becomes an addict? What happens when our adult children are unable to or simply refuse to care for us in our old age? When God does not answer our prayers for the way we want things to be, then what?
We put a lot of hope in people, and when the circumstances do not measure up to our expectations, we need help in grieving the loss of those hopes. It’s tough. Navigating the loss of the goals we have for ourselves, our children, and especially our God, can rock the foundation of our beliefs about the world and our place in it. We climb the ladder that society presents us with to obtain the idol of “being top dog,” “getting what’s mine,” and “being first.” This ladder is built rung by rung by looking to a fictional goal – a goal that does not exist. But we believe in it and are willing to hurt others and ourselves to achieve it and stay on top.
The lesson of renouncing control over what God is doing is a tough one and we are called to learn it again and again. For those parents that give birth to children with unexpected difficult needs, the lesson is immediate. I found this lovely explanation about this by Emily Perl Kingsley, who writes about this in her personal story of having a differently-abled child in A Trip to Holland:
“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…
“When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans… the Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel, gondolas. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
“After several months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, ‘Welcome to Holland!’ ‘Holland?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy. I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’
“But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay. The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place.
“So, you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met. It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around. You begin to notice that Holland has windmills. Holland has tulips. And Holland even has Rembrandts. But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, ‘Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.’
“And the pain of that experience will never, ever, ever, go away. The loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to go to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.”
Now, not many of us have had to face the difficulty of raising a child with a difficulty. But we all probably have had the experience of living with what we did not expect. The things we expect to happen that don’t, the life we expected to lead and didn’t, the job we wanted but we never got, the church that was never supposed to change but has, the Messiah that was supposed to look like the King of Glory and didn’t, the baby that Mary carried under her heart who dies a brutal death on the cross: we have mourned these losses for centuries. Our expectations, our goals, have taken detours in their outcomes, and we spend considerable amounts of energy trying to fictionalise the truth. We desperately believe that we really do have control over each element of our lives, that if we just close our eyes and imagine that we are in Italy, we won’t be in Holland.
What a waste. What a waste of the Good News that God has brought to us in the places where we are. What a waste of the preparation we have done to open ourselves to God dwelling with us and in us. God is leading us down the Holy Highway, but the destination is unknown. It may be Holland. It may be somewhere a lot sunnier, like Bali. Regardless, God is with us. The Creator of the earth and stars is ushering in a new way of life, often in the midst of the pain of the old. No wonder Mary’s soul proclaims with wonder! It is about God’s expectations, not ours.
May we all take up Advent’s invitation to the leap of faith that awaits us and find God in the unexpected outcomes.
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Danae M. Ashley, an Episcopal priest and Associate Rector at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, USA.
Citizenship of the City – Advent 2, 8 December 2019.
I’m fond of St Augustine, both of them, as I’ve mentioned before. There are two Saint Augustine’s that good Anglicans need to know about. They both have been influential in our history, and if you know any one called Austin, it comes from these saints. The one most Anglican churches are dedicated are to St Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop there, who started his ministry there in 597. Justin Welby, for whom we pray here as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, which is a lot different from a Pope because he can’t really tell us what to do, is the 105th successor to the first Augustine, nearly 1500 years ago.
But the one I want to talk about is St Augustine of Hippo, which is in modern day Libya. He was a great theologian and writer and his greatest work is a book called “The City of God,” although his autobiography, “Confessions” is one of the great spiritual classics a well. He wrote “The City of God,” a rather massive sized book, in response to the sack of Rome in 410 by the barbarian Visigoths. It was a profound shock to the Empire – the great city of Rome has been a symbol of their culture and many saw the sack of Rome as a judgment on them for abandoning their ancient gods. The old gods had protected the city was the idea, by abandoning the gods their protection had failed.
Augustine wrote that there are two cities that humans deal with in their lives. There is the human city, the City of Man, the image of the present, often of power and exploitation, that constructed mighty Rome, that by its very nature will be subject to the power struggles of the world. Then there is the City of God, that heavenly city wherein we are called to be citizens. We try to be the citizens of the City of God, while we struggle with the citizenship of the City of Man.
The important point is that you can’t make the city of man into the city of God. When you try, it’s always a deception.
It is worthwhile thinking of this image and its theology. The story of humanity is the story from the Garden of Eden to the City of God, the City of the Lamb, in Revelation. The journey of humanity is from a garden to a city. We are on a pilgrimage between the two. We are not in the city yet.
It is this citizenship that is behind the texts selected for our readings today. In Isaiah the vision is the time when the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together; an image of peace instead of typical conflict. Isaiah sees a time when the world will be at peace, instead of the conflict of his time, when Israel was hemmed in by the mighty powers of his time, the Egyptians and Assyrians, whose molesting armies continually threatened their lives. Isaiah sees a time of peace, the reign of God, or the City of God.
The New Testament readings also take up this theme on who is called to this city; who are the citizens of the City of God. St Paul makes the point in Romans that Christ has come for the circumcised and uncircumcised. Citizenship of the heavenly city is not that based on blood, but on calling.
Then we get to John the Baptist. He is the last of the prophets, seeing the end of the world as imminent, and violently states that those who are worthy of the City of God are not those who are just the children of Abraham: far from it, for God is able to raise children of Abraham from the very stones, but rather those who are bearing the fruit of repentance.
So what are the fruit of repentance that make us the citizens of that heavenly city? How do we walk the distance between the Garden of Eden to the City of God?
Well, one theme for Advent is the contemplation of the end times: death, judgment, heaven and hell. This is the gate to the heavenly city: we cannot enter that City in life, and we must pass through our end and resurrection to be citizens of it. The realisation that we end here is an important part of our spirituality and why we use it as the major theme of Advent. In the words of our Eucharistic prayer after the consecration, we eagerly await Our Lord’s coming in glory. Christians believe that meeting God is truly the most defining moment: it is the test of our fruits of repentance in John’s words. Our lives are looking to that moment of judgment: our lives are lived looking forward to the coming in glory.
This looking forward to our meeting with God therefore gives another meaning to the present times. What we do now and hold now must be judged on that. We have to live lives now in preparation: we have to become better Christians each day: the struggle to be the citizens of that heavenly city must be a struggle that we engage in. We see our end and judgment; not as a doom that leaves us in depression, but the joyful completion of our lives and meaning. That is why in our old churches like here, you pass under the great image of the dead Christ on the cross at the end of the nave, to walk up to the living God in the sacrament of the altar. We want to be citizens of the City of God. Therefore we try and live our lives in a way that gives meaning to that citizenship.
Now, many in the world have no hope of a future, and live a life that only has gratification now. They are citizens of the City of Man. That is why we love having too much, and want more and more: it is the acceptance of the now and the defining time. But our time is to come; we must be wary of endless abundance and satisfaction now. Our goal is not the City of Man. We are, after all, on a journey form that Garden to a City, we must not settle down too comfortably and forget that we have to travel light. Others may forget and pretend that they are already in the City, and believe that the world is being made perfect here. They are those who confuse the City of Man with the City of God. The world is not founded on that City, and all who place their hopes on that City of Man ignore the underlying violence and inequality at their peril.
This world is fundamentally incapable of being the City of God. Despite our comforts we know that we enjoy it only through the gross inequality of the world and the violence that protects our peace. We, the Church here, the Church Militant, are the pilgrim people of God on our way to that heavenly City, the City of God. We must face our own ending to enter into those gates. Therefore travel with the hope of entering that gate, and don’t become too bogged down with the present. Struggle with it, rail against its injustice by all means, as we must, but our joy, our hope awaits us in the future: it gives us the peace and courage we need now. At this Advent contemplate our end times, not with doom, but with joy of the God who waits us to welcome us as a citizen of that city of joy, the City of God.
Ready State for God – Advent 1A, 1 December, 2019
I grew up in country NSW, in an area that was very heavily forested. In summer, when I used to bush walk, I always had to be careful of the snakes. Now our snakes were not the Tiger Snakes here, but the Red Bellied Black Snakes: not as aggressive snake, but still very poisonous. So I use to walk carefully, and usually make a fair amount of noise. The noise would also warn the snake.
Now and then a snake would be disturbed by the noise, and usually it went one way very quickly, and I went another way very quickly. Both of us were warned.
This walking while making a noise is what is sometimes called by experts as a “ready-state,” as I am always ready for a particular situation. Ready-state is not only a way you live but can be applied to a variety of ways. A good ready-state in an immune system for example would be the ability to bounce back from an illness quickly and completely.
In a person, a ready-state is characterized by the ability of that person to enter into just about any situation with equanimity and openness. Fragility, on the other hand, is the opposite of ready-state. Ready-state is not about being anxious and hyper-vigilant, but is instead about mindfulness and well, readiness.
Most of all ready-state is due mostly to advance-work, namely: training. Consistent, intentional training, over time, allows for the ready-state.
In today’s gospel passage, Our Lord is reminding us that not even he, nor the angels, know when God will come. Some like to think that God will come in terrible retribution with flames and violence. These people look for signs in international politics and weather patterns that God is coming to judge and destroy the world. This is the Day of the Lord, the great apocalyptic coming of God to be with the creation fully. The reason that so many doom-sayers with signs that say, “The End is Nigh,” say what they say, is because the prophets and gospel writers, even Our Lord, used language like this: great tribulation, division, floods of fire and water.
The point they are trying to make, is that when God comes to be fully wedded to creation, the existing order of things will be reversed. Instead of violence and oppression being used to secure economic and political flourishing for some, the Kingdom of God will be established so that peace and justice will walk hand-in-hand.
These reversals of the worldly ordering of life is a trademark of God’s presence and it always comes as a surprise because that kind of life, one marked with peace, justice, presence and love can be achieved in the here and now.
Our Lord, in today’s reading, is calling us to be awake and prepared for it. Our Lord is reminding us of the importance to be in a ready-state for God’s coming. This is part of what Advent is all about. Advent, it turns out is not, is not, a countdown of shopping days until Christmas but a reminder of the ready-state, a call to training our spirits for God’s arrival.
The Christian tradition recognizes that God has come, and will come, to be with us in three distinct ways.
The first coming of God was when God walked with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We will celebrate that coming in a few weeks at the Feast of the Incarnation, otherwise known as Christmas.
Another coming of God is the final coming which Our Lord makes mention of in today’s reading, when God and creation will be as they were meant to be, fully united. The strongest image the Bible has for this union is a marriage between God and creation and, make no mistake, heaven is coming to Earth (Rev 21).
The third coming of God happens between the first coming and the final coming of God, between the coming of Our Lord and the final marriage of God and creation. This coming of God is the daily visitation: God with us in our prayers, finding God in our neighbours, seeing God in those we are privileged to serve.
What we see in these three visitations is that all of them are the hoped for Day of the Lord. Each of these visitations carries with it the reversals of the normal, worldly order but also the loving and just presence of God.
How are you in a ready-state for God’s coming? How then can we be awake and watchful for the coming of God, whether in the final coming of the daily visitation of God?
There is a telling portion of Scripture that happens when the disciples have just seen Our Lord ascend into Heaven. The disciples are looking up, dumbfounded. Finally, some angels appear and ask, “Why are you looking up, trying to find him?” The implication is, “Don’t look up to find Jesus, look out, look in.”
Our Lord is always one step ahead, going into the city, into Galilee, into life, we are meant to seek and find him there. That’s how we stay ready for God’s coming, we daily, hourly stay on the lookout for God, not in the clouds, not in the powerful events of the world, but in the quiet, domestic ways that God visits us. God may indeed someday come in the clouds but it more than likely will come in your life.
Advent is a reminder of the ready-state, be awake and ready for God. This is why Advent tends to be described as preparatory, not just for the great celebration of Christmas but for the final coming of God and also for the ever-present daily visit of God with us in the here and now.
God is not as deadly as the snake, but God is as disruptive to our normal hard-hearted ways as a snake can be. Be ready, be awake because the love of God will disrupt and turn over our comfortable notions of how things ought to be. God will send us into the waters of justice, peace, presence and love. It can be disorienting, but if we have trained ourselves to be ready, then we might work with God to establish God’s Kingdom more deeply in our hurting world.
Based on part on a sermon by Fr Josh Bowron of St Martin’s Episcopal Church Charlotte, USA.
To God All Are Alive – 10thNovember, 2019
In our gospel today Our Lord has a debate with the Sadducees “who deny the resurrection.” This is an important text of the New Testament – it is present in almost identical form in three of the Gospels in exactly the same place: just before the Passion.
The reason that it is important is that it tells us about how Our Lord perceived God. It helps us to answer our questions about how God sees life and death. It’s no wonder it’s just before the Passion.
Our Lord was debating with the Sadducees: “establishment” figures, for whom the only Sacred Scripture was Moses’ books of the law. They believed that, if there really were a resurrection, then God would have told Moses, his prophet and friend, about it, and Moses would have put it into the books of the law.
But Moses didn’t put it into the books of the law, so they thought that God told him nothing about this matter, and since he was God’s friend, from whom something of such importance would not be hidden, this means that there is no resurrection.
But more than that, they had better evidence still that there was no resurrection. There was a law in Deuteronomy which set out that, if a married man died without children, then it fell to his brother to take that man’s widow as his wife so as to beget a child for his late brother, to keep the dead man’s name going in the family line.
This law existed exactly because these people didn’t believe in a life-after-death; they had to find some way of overcoming death. They had to have a blessing in the land of the living, and, to them, the only way of overcoming death was by having children. The only way of having a blessing in the land of the living was by making sure they had descendants. It was because of this that the man who died without children needed his brother to get for him the share in posterity that he couldn’t get for himself.
The Sadducees liked to prove their point by telling an ingenious little story as here – of seven brothers who died before having children, passing the wife on like a used car. The implication is what is going to happen to her in heaven – are all the brothers going to fight over her there? The poor woman does not even get a say in it.
But Our Lord is not impressed by this very clever argument. His reply is both direct and quite rude. They are wrong, he says, because they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Those who rise from the dead do not get married because they are like angels. Luke’s version fills us in on this argument:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
This means that marrying and giving in marriage are normal things that happen in a world which is full of anxiety about overcoming death. For those for whom death is not a reality, there is no anxiety about overcoming death; and the reason for marriage, or for having children, is not about overcoming death. It is about celebrating life.
The important thing to grasp, Our Lord says, is the power of God. He gives a quote from the book of Exodus:
“The Lord is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
The reply seems to have nothing to do with the resurrection of the dead, but rather is about who God is. God has nothing to do with death, nor with the dead, but instead declares to Moses that he is the God of three people who were apparently dead at the time.
But Our Lord is trying to help us begin to understand what the power of God might be about.
This “power,” this quality which God always is, involves being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. As Our Lord says in St Luke, “To God, all are alive” – to God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive.
Let’s put this another way: for us “being alive” means “not being dead;” We know we are alive because we are not dead. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and can’t even be contrasted with death.
This is really important. Our Lord saw God as being radically alive, not mortal, not immortal, but a-mortal, in no way shaded by death. Those who started the dispute with him just couldn’t see God in this way, their whole way of seeing is distorted because it is stuck in a vision which flows from death to death, blind to God – who is the entirely death-less.
Now, if we are honest, we have to admit that what Our Lord said to the Sadducees probably applies to us. It was not only the Sadducees who were mistaken about the resurrection – and trapped by our anxieties about death. If only we really believed only in life!We¹re all quite often mistaken in the way we see the world, including the things of God. It is part of the human condition.
Our Lord came to tell us the Good News – a story about God: a God entirely disconnected from death. The Good News is that death is for God, something that is not. “To God, all are alive.”
We focus on death. And so much of our time is spent focusing on death. We’re not yet tuned-in to believing only in life.
Their anxiety about death made the Sadducees create marriage laws which protected their family line through generations. In our world those laws still exist, because those anxieties still exist, and have great influence on us.
In our world anxiety about death makes us liable to get into relationships which might be harmful, for fear of being alone – forgetting that we are never alone with God; if we believed only in life then our relationships would be different.
On the other hand in our world anxiety about death stops us taking risks, being creative, living a bit dangerously sometimes, pushing life to its limits to enjoy it as much as possible; if we believed only in life then our faith, our enthusiasms, might overcome our fears.
Also in our world anxiety about death makes some people frightened of not being remembered, which drives them to do extreme and terrible things; the leaders of our nations are prone to fall into this trap, but so can we be in our own ways. If we believed only in life then our politics, our behaviour towards outsiders and opponents, would be different.
But we have learned today that Our Lord wants us to turn away from all of this: to embrace the God who is God not of the dead, but of the living.
Our Lord wants us to share the good news today – not after death, but today and forever. A good news that releases us from our anxieties about death into a full, creative, liberated life.
It is a mystery that will take us a long, long, time to unravel; how to see God like this, and then to learn to see like God does.
But Our Lord is telling us that if we embrace God we can become people who believe only in life, completely focussed on life, full of life; our hope – full of immortality.
Based on a sermon by Fr John Davies of the UK.
Dead Sinners, Revised and Edited – All Saints’ Day 3 November, 2019
How do you define a saint? Would you know a real-life saint if you met one?
There is a lovely definition of a saint: “A saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.” This comes from the early 20th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce in his 1906 work, The Cynic’s Word Book, where he defined saints as revised and edited sinners presumably because if we knew the truth of the saint’s life, we would find a truth more complicated and less holy than the legend.
Isn’t becoming a saint rather a tall order for any of us? How can we live up to the greats like St Peter or St Paul? Together with the first Christ-followers, they gave their lives as martyrs to spread the Good News across the Roman Empire. Yesterday we had the feast of All Soul’s here, and we remembered two people in particular, Mabel Trenordan and Sr Patience Durden CCK who had links going back to PNG. Every year we remember the martyrs of PNG on 2 September, who died serving the Church during the Japanese invasions of that country, knowing that by staying and serving Christ it could cost them their lives.
In our Gospel reading from St Luke, after a series of blessings and woes, Our Lord says, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt”.
We see this faith lived out in the PNG martyrs. The bishop of that time was Phillip Strong In 1942 he broadcast to the missionaries there:
“No, my brothers and sisters, fellow workers in Christ, whatever others do, we cannot leave. We shall not leave. We shall stay by our trust. We shall stay by our vocation. We do not know what it will mean to us. Many already think us fools and mad. What does that matter? If we are fools, ‘we are fools for Christ’s sake’.”
The Japanese came. The missionaries left the missions only as the Japanese landed. Some were killed in the invasion. Others hid in the jungle. Some were betrayed by heathen natives in the foot of the Owen Stanley Range, the very area that had been intended for a mission for so long but had not owing to shortage of funds. Those captured were killed, beheaded, bayoneted. They included Lilla Lashmar , a teacher from St Cuthbert’s, Prospect. Their deaths however, set the foundation of the Church after the War. Bishop Strong survived the war and being strafed by enemy planes to continue the work there. Our own Mabel Trenordan was his secretary for three years in the 1950s. The work was further set back when Mount Lamington volcano exploded in January 1951 killing over 3000 people. Sister Patience, then a nurse, survived the explosion and cared for the thousands of burnt and injured afterwards.
The Anglican Church requires of its saints evidence of heroic faith, love, goodness of life, service to others for Christ’s sake, and devotion. We certainly see these markers in these martyrs and holy people who worked in PNG. Yet, we also see that Ambrose Bierce has a point. It was a heroic action that Bishop Strong called for the missionaries to stay, but they could have been saved if they had retreated. But would the Church have been as strong if the missionaries had not shared the dangers of the invasion with their Christian flock?
When we look for saints, we find that their lives are complicated. Hailed in her lifetime as a living saint, some were troubled to learn that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had told her spiritual director that she spent most of the years of her ministry in deep doubt, including about the existence of God. This was discovered through sixty-six years of correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual confidants which came to light after her death. The publication of the correspondence was not intended to mar her international reputation; those seeking her sainthood wanted to present the nun as she really was, serious doubts and all.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Teresa proclaimed to the world that she accepted the award in the name of the poor:
“And through this award and through all of us gathered here together, we are wanting to proclaim the good news to the poor that God loves them, that we love them, that they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and to be loved.”
This was very much like Our Lord. Yet months earlier, she wrote a confidant, “Jesus has a very special love for you, as for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” To accept Mother Teresa as a saint is to take her doubts and all as one who loved the poor as Jesus taught, even when she didn’t feel God’s presence.
This is perhaps why the cynical definition offered by Ambrose Bierce proves oddly accurate and soundly scriptural. Bierce defined a saint as “A dead sinner, revised and edited.” We find the same in scripture and our own lives. All of us are sinners. Not one of us is pure. We just know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. What makes someone a saint is not that they are holy, but that God is holy. Every one of us in baptism is buried with Christ in his death to rise with him in resurrection. We are all called to be dead to sin and alive to God. We are all called to be saints – dead sinners revised and edited by the redemptive sacrifice of Our Lord.
Dead sinners that we are, we too find our own unique vocation as the PNG martyrs and Mother Teresa did. We are to serve Christ by serving others, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. We are to go out from our worship so nurtured by the presence of our Lord in Word and Sacrament that this community is changed, even in a small way, and the world with it. We don’t do any of these actions in order to earn or deserve God’s grace and love, which have already been given to us freely. Instead, we love our neighbours as ourselves in response to that love, expecting nothing in return as God has given us everything.
There are many other dead sinners who need to know that God loves them as they are, but would like to work on revising and editing. That work of redemption will continue until that day when we join the PNG martyrs and Teresa and all the saints as the Lord God wipes away the tears from all faces and we cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
We don’t define saints. God does. And the same God wishes that all would gather around the heavenly throne in that saintly chorus, even you and me.
Based on part on a sermon by Fr Frank Logue of the Diocese of Georgia.
Persistence – 20th October, 2019
Some people think that prayer is some extraordinary strange experience, reserved for a few Christians and other selected weirdos. But I am here today to tell you that prayer is something that is natural and normal, part of who we are.
The first thing to get over is that prayer is a set collection of prayers at a particular time. Yes, we do have them, but they are only one type of prayer. Prayer is much, much more than that.
Prayer, at its best, is living with the consciousness of God. It’s not about set times of intensity, which we all should try, but it’s the ability to life with the consciousness that we are with God.
Let’s think about prayer as being in love with God. Now when you are in love with someone, you have moments of great intensity and other times when you wish they would just tidy up after themselves. It’s not the same level of intensity every minute, every hour, every day. Love changes over the time of a relationship, as we find different levels of connection. Well, prayer is like that as well. We love God. Sometimes with great intensity and attention. Other times when we would rather prefer it if God left us alone so we could get on with life. Other times almost with hate for the disappointment or grief we have in our life. But in all of this we still remain connected to God. That is a life of prayer. It is being in love with God.
That’s why Our Lord tells this rather strange parable today in the gospel. It comes after the disciples have asked him to increase their faith and the passage that we had last week, about the ten lepers who were healed, but only one, a Samaritan, turned back to give thanks. He goes on after today’s parable to teach about some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. In all these stories he touches again on the way of faith and prayer, that we need to have faith, and be thankful.
Yet today’s parable is not some set prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, but instead a rather strange story about an unjust judge who tries to ignore a widow who continually complains to him. In the end he listens to her just to shut her up. Her persistence makes him listen.
The lesson to that is that prayer is something that is persistent. We have to keep going with it. That’s what I mean that prayer is like being in love; we keep on going with love, through the good and the difficult, because we love someone, faults and all. So it is with prayer. We keep at it, we keep being conscious of the place of God in our lives. Like the widow, we don’t give up, and keep on seeking God in our lives.
Once we understand that, we start to understand formal prayer times, times when we sit down and talk to God in a structured way. Those times are the bookends to our spiritual life. We engage with God in a formal sense, to adore him, confess our faults, thank him, and ask our supplications, in the ACTS structure: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I’ve mentioned this way before, as a good structure to use in one’s private prayers. But it does not really matter what you do: as long as you do something that gives structure and reflection. Furthermore, the importance of set times of prayer is in the silence: prayer at those moments is a conversation, when you not only bother God but let God talk to you. Some people find devotions like the rosary very helpful, for a meditative time. Others use the offices, that is morning and evening prayers. There are many great resources for that, from the booklets we have in the Oratory here, or the excellent computer resources from the English Church, where you can read the whole office with bible readings, which I sue a lot now.
Living a life of prayer is a persistence in seeing God through our whole life. The widow did not just bother the unjust judge at the set times: she kept continually coming, so end the end he listened to her. That’s why we have to reflect every day and see the hand of God in our lives, so we start being aware of God’s presence. Now I am not just talking about cute birds in trees and pretty sunsets; this is about seeing God in a whole life, even in the tragedy of life. God’s not just a pretty picture like a chocolate box. Our best theology of life and prayer is when we see the suffering Christ in the victim and horror of the world, that moves us to help and prayer and reach out to Christ in the tragedy of life. If we only see God in the chocolate box covers, we have made a false god who is no use to use in our despair and grief: but God came and lived as one of us, to share life in all its horrors as well. That why we have theology to see God: that’s why we need to look around and see God in all we do, all we love, and all we touch, so we can make God part of our lives. That’s what persistence of prayer and life of prayer is all about: seeing God in everything and becoming infused in the love of God.
Prayer is a wonderful gift that we can live in our lives: it is the experience of finding God in all we do. It is the companion of our loneliness, the theology of our lives, the simple meeting of God and finding God every day. We need set times to help and guide this prayer. We need thankfulness so we can see what God has done to us already. We need persistence so we continue to find the hidden God that we have neglected and turned away from in our lives. We need love that can be filled with the prayer life of being with God.
John Henry Newman – 13 October 2019
Even St George’s does not always start off its sermons with the latest news from Rome. But today it’s worth considering what is happening there. Today John Henry Newman will be declared a saint.
Now, the reason why this is worthy to be noticed at our masses today is because John Henry Newman was a figure that is not only important to Roman Catholics, but to us. He was born in 1801 and lived till 1890, so he had a long life. He grew up as an Anglican; he went to the famous university of Oxford, became a priest and became the vicar of the famous university church there, St Mary the Virgin. Then he had a crisis of faith, and became a Roman Catholic. He was not welcomed with open arms, so many of the schemes he was involved with came to nothing owing to the lack of support he received. However, his writings, his theology, eventually found him a wider audience, and in 1879 he was made a cardinal as an appreciation of his explanation of the faith. It’s a rather unique record, from Anglican priest to Roman Catholic Cardinal, although there have been others, and even a Cardinal called Coligny ended up his days as an Anglican in Canterbury, admittedly a little while ago, in 1571.
What I would like to talk today about is Newman’s theology of development. Basically, it is how we develop our beliefs and structures. One way of looking at this is to state the bald fact that the way we are as a Church is not the same as that when the Apostles died. So how do we explain that? Now some Christians hold to the idea that the Church at the time of the Apostles was the perfect Church, and since then everything has been going to the dogs. They see the history of Christianity as one long slide, and therefore attempt to re-create a Church that is defined solely by the New Testament. It looks like a good scheme at first glance. The problem is that the Bible is not a complete guide to everything in life. If Our Lord had wanted that, he would have left clearer instructions. However, Our Lord left the Church, and he chose the twelve, and told them to get on with it and go and baptise. Unlike Mohammed, there was no clear guide to everything. You see, Our Lord trusted his disciples despite their faults, and furthermore promised them the Holy Spirit to guide them. It was not a perfect Church even then: read the New Testament and you are struck by the difficulties the early Church had in working out its mission. But that is what Our Lord left, and he trusted us to get along with it.
Newman uses the analogy of a stream. It starts with a spring or source, and as it flows, other waters join it, and it becomes greater and clearer. Ideas do not exist in isolation: ideas relate to the world around and our reflection on them. So it is with theological truth: it is our continual prayerful reflection and experience on an idea that makes an idea clearer. The early Church knew nothing about how to define God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: but it was the Church’s reflection on this that defined the idea of the Trinity. Consider the Bible: nowhere in the Bible does it state what is part of it: no-one says in the Bible, for example, that these 27 books make up the New Testament. But it is the reflection and use by tradition that define certain books as the New Testament. This is all development; the clearer understanding of God’s will. I could talk about countless other reflections: some have been proved over time to be false, they seem a good idea at the time but reflection has proved them wrong. Even today are faced with questions of development: is the reformation a good development or not? Can clergy marry or not? Can we ordain women or not? Can we accept homosexuals or not? Development is tied in with Our Lord’s trust in us to get on with it, to work it out. It was Newman who saw, clearly, that development was part of the good order of the Church, part of the testing of the Church of what was right and God given. Change should not be seen as threatening. Newman put it this way: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Think again about the analogy of a stream. It starts as a stream, and grows with more waters over time to become a river. Newman saw doctrine as a living, changing, thing, not a heavy dead weight.
Part of this reflects his background as an Anglican. The famous definition of the Church for us comes from one of our greatest theologians, Richard Hooker, who died in 1600, who saw the church as resting of three foundations of reason, tradition and Scripture. The interrelation between these three allow the church to develop and change, and the Anglican church has always seen itself as not only catholic but reformed, and the reformation is a continual process, not a once-for-ever moment.
Part of Newman was that he trusted the role of the laity, an inheritance of his Anglicanism. Newman lived at a time when the Roman Catholics were very much into the model of the hierarchy, simply put: pope, then cardinals, archbishops, bishop, priests, deacons and stuck at the bottom laity. In his century was the Vatican I Council, which put forth the idea of Papal infallibility, that the Pope does not teach error in certain circumstances. It’s a very hierarchical modal – the top is right, and the further down you get the more likely you are to be wrong and the less likely you are to get into heaven. Newman instead talked about not only the active infallibility of popes and councils, but also passive infallibility of the whole body of catholic people. That’s the whole Church; not only the top of the hierarchy that say things, but also the people who work with these ideas and make them clearer in time or reject them.
With Newman, the Church can look at history in a new sense, seeing it as the working out of the Holy Spirit in the development of the church and the testing of tradition. We are not to look back to a golden past. God gives us today, not the past. It is part of that development, change that we see the hand of God working. This is a positive view of history, a positive view of change, that makes him one of the great theologians of the 19th Century. The last pope, Benedict, is very fond of Newman – he studied him extensively when he was a young man.
We Anglicans should also be proud of him and his work: not only his theology but some wonderful prayers, such as “Lord support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy, give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.” We also sing his hymns such as “Lead Kindly light” and “Praise to the Holiest in the height.” It was Newman’s great tracts that explored the catholicity of the Anglican Church that spread the Oxford movement and made places like St George’s possible. Newman ended his days running the Oratorians in England – an order of priests that emphasise sacraments, pastoral care and good liturgy. Very much what the great Anglo Catholic church like we do as well. We are part of Newman’s legacy as well. So give thanks to Newman, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Christian and saint.
Our Lord does have a Sense of Humour – 6 October
Scripture seems such a serious thing. It has to do with God, salvation and everything. As a result we have forgotten there is also a lighter side.
Believe it or not, Our Lord was human, and believe it or not, that means he shares our human passions, even the strange passion of humour. We, however, tend to read the Gospels as though Our Lord was always speaking seriously, yet the Gospels clearly shows him to be a man who has humour, and uses it. Have you ever thought where our sense of humour comes from: the good or the bad place?
Today’s gospel is one when a sense of humour is well rewarded. The disciples ask for more faith. One would think, if one were asked for more faith, that Our Lord would be pleased. After all, asking for more faith seems to be ideal. But Our Lord says instead, that if the disciples had faith the size of a mustard seed, and remember, that’s small, you could say to the mulberry tree to be uprooted and plant in the sea, and it would do so.
Now think about the image. Trees don’t grow in water. Our Lord is trying to poke fun here. No one wants mulberry trees in water. It doesn’t do the tree or us any good. So why is Our Lord poking fun at the disciples’ question? What’s wrong in asking for an increase of faith?
Well, part of the answer is in what follows immediately after. Our Lord tells the disciples that who has their slaves come in from the fields, and gets them to sit at the table to be served? You are meant to chuckle at that one too. Canteen service for slaves by masters was not around in the ancient world. Instead, the salves would be asked to get the dinner ready for the master, who has been sitting comfortably at home all along.
Then we are told that when that happens, is to just say that we are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done. You can really imagine the typical slave, worn out from a day’s work in the fields, to say that as well.
So what’s this to do with an increase of faith?
One part of the answer has to do with how forgiveness and repentance are played out in Luke’s Gospel. Luke pairs forgiveness and repentance, but has forgiveness first. That is, he expects his disciples to forgive, as the first step for repentance, not true repentance leading to forgiveness. The most telling example is from the cross when Jesus asks forgiveness for those who are executing him – they certainly have not repented yet. When the paralytic is lowered in the house through the roof, Jesus sees their faith and forgives, without a sign of repentance.
The problem with the disciples is that they don’t understand the nature of faith. Just before this passage Our Lord warns them they must forgive even it the person sins against them seven times a day. Forgiveness must be given even if there is no true repentance; we forgive, forgive and forgive, not as a reward for repentance, but as the starting point of repentance. It is that reply that seems to shock the disciples, and they ask then for an increase of faith. They just can’t imagine themselves doing this, and that is what prompts them to ask Jesus for more faith. They don’t get it.
That is why Our Lord pokes fun at them. They don’t need more faith – they need to understand faith. They are still seeing faith as a reward; give enough sacrifices, and you are put right with God. After all, that’s what one had to do with the Temple, keep the Law and give the sacrifices that were right. However, Our Lord wants to change this and start a new basis. Faith lets God work through us in ways we cannot imagine.
Faith then does impossible things, not that we create the result, but by letting faith work through us. We don’t want mulberry trees standing in the sea; they are of no earthly use to us. But God wants results that are God’s plans, not ours, and therefore the illogical can happen through us through faith.
Faith is also formed through the daily discipline of prayer. There is an old story of a tourist in New York who spots someone with a violin case and asks them how to get to the Concert Hall. The musician just smiles and says, “Practice, practice, practice.” Frequent practice is also essential in the spiritual quest, where we are often trying to unmake long-ingrained habits of thought and action and create more positive patterns. Of course, the relation of routine in the spiritual life is a matter for personal discernment: different gifts, personalities, circumstances, and callings all come into play.
Spiritual routine can take many forms. It may include short periods of prayer, formal or spontaneous, verbal or silent. It may include reading or walking, music or journaling. A simple turn toward God, toward the Transcendent, a few moments of stillness and awareness once an hour or so, can be enough to keep us connected and directed. It can include taking on the discipline of using the daily prayers of the church, copies of which we keep here in the Oratory for anyone to take.
A routine of spiritual practices woven into our daily activities will help deepen faith. Work, relationships, and social life all present challenges that call for spiritual and ethical preparedness. Having routine practices structured into the day can help us frame these challenges in larger contexts of religious or spiritual values, and respond to them more authentically and lovingly than we might otherwise. Far from being dead, a spiritual routine can in fact be thoroughly life-giving.
Faith is also the realisation that we are forgiven, and we never earnt it. It is that realisation, that God loves us, forgives us, that gives us the humility to live as servants, slaves, of God. That is why we can work in the fields all day and then come in and still do the hard task of cooking the meal, because we realise how loved we are.
Our Lord has another trick up his sleeve. St Luke places the question from the disciples about who is the greatest at the Last Supper. Then Our Lord tells them that although the kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, it is not to be so with the disciples: the leader must be the one who serves, and Jesus is among them as one who serves. St John in his gospel records this in a different way, with the graphic illustration of Our Lord washing his disciples’ feet. For disciples, we have to learn that leadership is not power, holding position, but continual service.
However, I think there is also one final lesson in service that Our Lord wants to give us: do it with humour. Those poor slaves having to cook the meal and then saying they are just worthless slaves may have been Our Lord’s idea of humour as well: learn to put up with service, it’s hard work, but there is no need not to poke a little fun as well and tell the master that we are only doing what we ought to have done. I think there is a little sarcasm there. Learn to put up with life with humour: it helps a lot, and if Our Lord could smile, then why can’t we?
Michaelmas 2019 – 29 September, 2019
Angels are everywhere in the Bible. We first hear of them in book 1, in Genesis, and we last hear of them in the last book Revelation, 65 books later. It is impossible to tell the story of salvation history without including the angels. The function of angels as mediators of God’s will to us, as well as other functions such as guiding and guarding the thoughts and actions of human beings, is central to the Biblical narrative and thus demands to be taken seriously.
Angels are everywhere in the Bible, and they are also everywhere here, in the here and now. If we think of angels at all, we tend to think of the angels as residing exclusively in heaven, and only occasionally coming to earth to deliver messages or run other sorts of divine errands, such as saving Daniel from being devoured in the Lion’s Den. But there’s some basis in Scripture for believing that earth itself is full of angels. Most famously (and ambiguously), in this morning’s gospel lesson Our Lord tells the amazed Nathaniel, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Here Our Lord is referring to the Old Testament story known as Jacob’s Ladder, which we heard as the first lesson, in which Jacob sees a vision of angels constantly ascending and descending between heaven and earth. This vision shows God is constantly interacting with creation through the ministry of angels.
We talk usually of the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, although the Book of Tobit talks of seven, or eight if you count Satan.
The name Michael means “who is like God.” St. Michael’s will is focused, immovable, and entirely driven toward accomplishing goodness: he is a protector of souls, and wields his unrelenting sword of righteous justice against the poisonous and vindictive aspirations of the one who is known as a liar from the beginning.
Michael has a particular association with our Church. Fr Wise’s Church where he grew up and met his wife, and would be buried, was St Michael’s Ilsington in Devon, and he wanted originally to name this new building in honour of Michael. However, St Michael’s Mitcham was too close, so George we were and George we stayed, although the foundation stone and dedication to George of this new building was made two days before Michaelmas 117 years ago, by Archbishop Smith of Sydney. You can see the stone outside the west door. It probably was the last time we had the Archbishop of Sydney here. Michael gained popularity as a helper of the Christian armies against the heathen, and as a protector of individual Christians against the devil, especially as the hour of death. In this he assumes some pagan imagery of Charon, the ferryman of the dead over the rivers Styx and Arceron, as being the conductor of the souls to God. As such his symbols include a sword as a captain of armies, often with Satan as a serpent under his feat, and a pair of scales as the weigher of souls before God. You can see these images in the stained-glass windows at the back of the Church, and the painting and carving in the Michael chapel. In some pictures one can see him weighing the soul before God to test its worth, and the Virgin Mary pushing the scales down on one side for the mercy of her Son to let the soul be accepted before God at judgment.
Gabriel means “God is my strength.” The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah the father of John and also to Our Lady to tell her she would bear the Christchild.
Raphael means “God is my health.” The meaning of Raphael’s name comes from the story in Tobit where he touches Tobit’s eyes in order to heal them of blindness. It’s a great book, Tobit, one of my favourites in the deuterocanonical books, the middle section between Old and New Testaments.
There is a great deal we can learn from the Archangels, who are powerful messengers, allies and our friends.
But if angels are everywhere, where is the evidence of them? There is the story in 2 Kings of the prophet Elisha, who became a target of the king of Aram. The king sends an army out to capture him. “When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So, the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
Imagine for a moment if God opened our eyes to see the full reality that surrounds us. I suspect we would be overwhelmed by it, which is perhaps why normally the Lord keeps us from seeing it. For some reason, God prefers the creatures of this world to walk by faith and not by sight. But we do not walk in complete blindness, for angelic guides await us to help us, if we are willing, to find the next step along our paths.
That story in Second Kings has a happy ending, by the way, but you will have to look it up for yourself. But from a metaphysical perspective, that is, from a spiritual and even mystical perspective, we are surrounded on every side by the presence of God, mediated in various ways, among which is the angelic.
But if reality is more than meets the eye and we are indeed surrounded by angels, what does this mean? Among other things, it means that we are never alone. We also have our Guardian Angels, which we celebrate later this week, who look after us. If you have never read C S Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, it’s the best little book on that I can imagine.
This is not to say that the angels will protect us from all harm. There are no heavenly insurance policies against earthly accidents. But God, working through the angels, assures us that we are never alone.
We are never alone. This is the perhaps the central message of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. We are never alone in the universe. We are never alone in our struggles against evil. We are never alone in our struggles against loneliness or isolation or depression or addiction. We are never alone.
Think about the nameless angel in Matthew’s gospel sitting upon the stone after he rolled it away from the empty tomb. He meets Mary Magdalene and the other Mary in their moment of desolation, and proclaims to them that God has not, in fact, abandoned them. He sends them away to proclaim that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And because he is risen, we are never alone.
So next time you think you are alone, think again. Reality is more than meets the eye, and you are never alone.
Live in Peace – 22 September, 2019
My advice is that, first of all, there should be supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings offered for everyone. What sound advice we heard from Paul’s letter to Timothy today. The reason – that we may be able to live quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
Today the second reading comes from 1 Timothy. The letters attributed to St Paul start with the ones to the churches, and then go onto individual people, and today we have one of the letters to Timothy, another early apostle. We call these letters the pastoral epistles or letters, as they deal not with community problems but problems relating to the care of congregation, like here, with the advice to Timothy on how to look after the church he was sent to. It famously also gives him advice about drinking a little wine and water for his health.
In the reading St Paul also says it is the desire of God that every human being be saved.
But it is part of Christian doctrine that not all human beings are saved. Not all human beings go to heaven when they die. How could it be that an omnipotent God wills something, and yet it doesn’t happen?
Hell is real, it exists. Our Lord himself speaks of hell and we must assume that he knew what he was dealing with. Given the track record of living human beings in embracing God, it is not altogether foolish to assume that some of those billions throughout time died at war with God and insisted on staying that way. Heartbreaking, yes, but not unlikely.
Let’s think about heaven. Here we need to remember that heaven is more like a marriage than it is like a place.
For a human person to be in heaven is for that person to be united in love to God. Now, union between God and a human person requires that each have a mind and a will, in order for there to be two to unite together. If God’s mind and will are the only ones present, then whatever there may be, it isn’t union between God and another person.
In consequence, God cannot bring about union all by himself. God can do all the work needed for union. God can offer the grace necessary for it as a gift. But if the will of a human person rejects that grace and refuses God, then even an omnipotent God can’t get union with that person. God cannot succeed in giving grace if a human person chooses to reject it.
We have to see therefore that there are some things that God wants and does not get. The desire of God is that every human being be saved, but not all human beings are saved, because a human being can reject God’s grace.
But there is no frustration of God’s will as a result.
God wills to let a person’s salvation depend entirely on that person – not, of course, in the Pelagian sense that a person can save oneself without grace, but in the sense required by the First Reading: it is up to that person and that person alone whether or not he refuses the saving grace of God. And if he refuses it, then because God willed to create him as a person with a will of his own, God cannot give him the grace that he will not have.
You see, God wants lovers, not slaves. That is why, although it is God’s will that all human beings be saved, when some are not saved, God’s will is still fulfilled, only in a different way.
But back to the reading. Quiet and peaceable lives, Paul tells Timothy. That is a hard task in a world that is dangerous. As if it were not always a dangerous place. The world we live in shows all too much the evidence of injustice. Rich countries become richer and the poor flee their homes seeking better lives. Pollution and climate change threaten the very planet. It is a dark future we face.
Yet the same has always been true – maybe not in the same way, maybe not threatening in the same degree, but still dark. St Paul wrote to Timothy in an Empire that had conquered with brutality. His Lord and our Lord, Jesus, had been born in a Roman puppet state that attempted to murder babies to kill the Christ child, and the Romans did nothing. The Roman governor condemned our Saviour to death on a trumped up charge. The corruption and wealth of Rome is a legend. St Paul knew all too well that the power of Rome was based on the sword more than justice. The Jewish state was soon to be destroyed for nearly nineteen hundred years, so brutal would the Roman solution to Jewish desire for independence. St Paul also lived in a world with dark clouds.
Yet St Paul’s letters are not heavy with gloom. St Paul does not lapse into despair, even in the letters when he writes from Rome, in chains, waiting the pleasure of an Emperor. St Paul writes to congregations like Corinth or Ephesus, or people like Timothy as today, with hope and instructions for a future he knew they had.
Listen to Paul. My advice is that, first of all, there should be supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings offered for everyone. That we may be able to live quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
It is not the lot of many of us to walk the world and know those who hold power and influence. It is our lot to live lives that touch and influence those with whom we live. We do this by prayer, the simple unyielding gift of Christians. To live must be to pray: to find God and show God to those around us. Notice too how St Paul spreads the meaning of prayer: it includes supplications, intercessions and thanksgivings. Sometimes we forget to include our thanksgivings as well, to our great detriment. We then forget to say our thank you, but also forget to see how God has acted, how God holds the world in his hands, looks after it and protects it. A life of prayer is not just bothering God, it is a reflection on how God acts in the world. A life of prayer brings an assurance that all will be well no matter how black things may be. I always like the period of silence at the end of the intercessions here, when I invite people to give thanks and also pray. Prayer is so much more than just asking for things.
What made St Paul a great and wonderful apostle was that he knew God, and spoke fearlessly the message of God, and people knew it. What makes us important is that we too find God and make him known to those around us. Many around us despair and are frightened. They fear a future of great change. But what is change for us, as long as we know God? Think of our lives, how little we knew as children where we would go and do, the people we would love and touch, the joy and grief of life that was to come. Yet the presence of God, carrying us and helping us, being constant and everlasting, has been throughout our lives.
This is the time for prayer, as every day is the time for prayer. We are a sure witness to this city and to our families of the presence of God. That is why we are here at this moment and the work that God calls us to do today and every day: to witness the love of God; to pray. St Paul was not overwhelmed by the miseries of his world and his chains, and nor should we be overwhelmed by the events unfolding around us. Trust God and know that he is with us.
My advice is that, first of all, there should be supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings offered for everyone. That we may be able to live quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
The Lord Is My Shepherd and Sweeper -15 September, 2019
One of the great favourites in psalms has to be the Lord is my Shepherd, number 23. We sing versions of it, and it’s a great standby or so many moments of our life. For many of us, it gives the theme of Our Lord being the shepherd and we being the sheep. Our good Lord uses the theme of being a shepherd several times, it’s obviously a favourite of his too, but most of those who listened would have had better knowledge of sheep than us city dwellers. It’s used today in the Gospel of Luke 15. However, this parable is not a stand-alone story, but rather part of a trio of parables, all depicting from different angles God’s seeking and saving a single, valuable lost object.
1. The first features God as Shepherd recovering a lost animal, one wayward sheep out of 100.
2. The second shifts to God as Housekeeper, sweeping the house to find one missing coin from a 10-piece set.
3. The third presents God as Father longing for and welcoming back the younger of 2 sons, who’d run away from home to a foreign, unforgiving land, the parable of the prodigal son.
Today we just have the first two. The first one obviously echoes that psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” while setting that theme in a different key. Whereas the Psalm stresses our divine Shepherd’s provision (“I shall not want”) and protection (“though I walk through the valley of death”), Our Lord’s shepherd story highlights the Lord’s restoration or reclamation – seeking out and saving the lost one.
As does the next parable, but with an interesting twist in gender and setting: a woman sweeping her floors, listening for the tinkle of a coin she lost and can’t afford to. “The Lord is my Sweeper-Woman.”
Putting the two together: “The Lord is my Seeking Shepherd and Sweeper: I Shall Not Be Lost.” Such a composite picture expands our vision of God alongside the familiar Shepherd image from Psalm 23 and the Father figure from the final “lost” parable of the prodigal son.
These parables show the bond between carer and cared-for, between seeker and lost ones. In the process, being lost, suffering loss, is experienced by all the characters, including the God-figures: not just those who lose their way and risk losing their lives, but also the carers who lose part of themselves and long for reunion when they lose one of their own.
Let’s now venture into the wilderness with the Shepherd and get down on the floor with the Sweeper-woman and examine their search-and-recover stories more closely.
Our Lord addresses the “lost” parables to a group of religious teachers (Pharisees and scribes) who’d been criticizing him for dining with fraudulent tax collectors and other “sinners.” Our Lord personalizes the first parable for these teachers: “Which one of you [gentlemen], having a hundred sheep?”
Putting them in the position of a shepherd cuts two ways: socially identifying them with a lower-class, nomadic occupation, far below their professional status; but pastorally associating them with superintending God’s people in the train of the great shepherd-king David appointed by Pastor God: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
In the first sense, Our Lord puts the religious scholars on the “least” level with shepherds, tax collectors, and sinners; in the second sense, he recognizes their calling to the “greatest” level of caring service to all God’s people, not least the “least.”
Our Lord assumes the Pharisees and scribes are indeed capable of fulfilling their spiritual vocation. Our Lord appeals to their better natures and enlists them as allies. The question, “Which one of you does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one [sheep] that is lost?”, expects an affirmative answer: “Of course, we would do that; none of us would abandon a poor, lost creature without trying to save it.”
The case resembles rescuing an endangered child or ox even on the Sabbath, as Our Lord stressed earlier in the Gospel.
Moreover, Our Lord places the burden of losing a single sheep on the shepherd: “Which one of you, having lost one sheep?” This doesn’t automatically suggest the shepherd’s culpable negligence. Sheep can’t be shackled or permanently penned: they need freedom to graze and water. Even under the careful watch of a shepherd-team, as a hundred-member flock would require, one sheep can easily wander off, particularly in the “wilderness” where animals need to roam widely to find resources.
In the parable, the chief shepherd accepts responsibility for the lost sheep and kicks into rescue mode. Leaving the 99, he seeks the missing one. This is a good, faithful, God-like shepherd whose goodness and faithfulness shine in his recognition of loss and resolution to find.
He springs into action and scours the wilderness “until he finds” that missing sheep. And when he discovers it, far from berating the dumb beast or beating it back to the fold, the shepherd takes matters into his own hands: lifting the sheep, and a full grown sheep is not light, draping it across his shoulders, and clasping his hands around the animal’s fore- and hind-legs for transport back home. In fact, one of the earliest pictures we have of Our Lord from the catacombs shows him just in this way.
Jesus thus evokes not only a culturally accurate scene, but also a dramatically poignant one, where the shepherd himself becomes a beast of burden carrying the lost home.
In the next parable shifts Our Lord shifts the focus from a male shepherd retrieving a lost sheep to a female house-sweeper recovering a lost coin. As an aside, St Luke often pairs male and female stories, demonstrating gender inclusiveness in the Jesus community. That’s an important emphasis.
But Our Lord still addresses those male teachers. You have to sense the humour here, Our Lord surrounded by the crowd, yet comparing the religious teachers to shepherds and a mad woman sweeping her house out. So, what point does Our Lord aim to press on these guys with this woman’s story?
But again, the main point of these “lost” parables has to do with God. By sandwiching the sweeper-woman between the shepherd and the father, St Luke’s Jesus radically expands the Pharisees,’ and our, understanding of God as Seeker and Saviour of the lost. God as Shepherd and Father are familiar theological metaphors, easily absorbed by the religious authorities, who regard themselves as shepherds and patriarchs of God’s people.
But what does God have to do with this mad sweeper-woman, scraping and scrounging to find one missing coin out of a measly ten-drachma collection, which amounts to about ten days of a day-labourer’s minimum wage?
Our Lord dares to claim that this woman embodies the seeking-saving work of God as surely as the shepherd and the father. God identifies with her as much as with male overseers. She has as much to teach male authorities about divine ministry as any shepherd or father – or king or warrior or any other macho images of God.
In particular, the sweeper-woman demonstrates God’s first-responder actions in seeking the lost, whereas the emphasis with the shepherd and father falls more on their final rescuing and restoring the lost.
Our Lord breaks down the woman’s search operation into three parts: she (1) lights a lamp, (2) sweeps the house, and (3) searches “carefully” – diligently, intently – until she finds the coin. She may lack the muscle of the shepherd and money of the father, but she will not be outdone in her indomitable quest to track down and reclaim what’s hers. More than the shepherd and father, she exemplifies the hand of God that will not rest until it lays hold of its own. God has her skirts tucked up and is busy sweeping and searching, too.
So, what does this all mean for us. It means that however little or much progress we’ve made in our journeys of faith, we can all get lost. God knows this. But God will always be there, seeking us out like the sweeper woman, and bringing us back like the good shepherd. God never leaves or forsakes us. “The Lord is my seeking shepherd and sweeper: I shall not be lost.”
Based partly on a sermon by F. Scott Spencer.
Philemon – 8 September, 2019
The second reading today is from the shortest book of the New Testament, the Letter to Philemon. In the New Testament, there is a clearly defined structure of how the books are gathered. First, you have the four gospels; then you have the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the early Church; then you have the letters, and, finally, the vision of the end times, the Book of Revelation.
Within the twenty-one letters there is a further structure. The letters attributed to Paul are first gathered, then those belonging to other early writers. Now there are thirteen attributed to St Paul. Whether he wrote them all in the entirety, is a question for scholars. These letters ascribed to St Paul have their own structure, they are organised in two parts: the first nine to churches, such as Romans and Thessalonians, the second group to people. They are organised within each group in a rough size order. The last of the personal letters is the one to Philemon, part of which was read today. It is a tiny letter, so small it does not need chapters, just twenty-five verses long. It seems a strange letter to include, as it is St Paul writing to Philemon about one slave Onesimus, who had left Philemon and had been with Paul.
So why is it included in our New Testament? What interest to Christians is a letter to a slave owner two thousand years on?
This is where you need to understand the whole purpose of why the New Testament was put together. The early Church had the apostles in the flesh and the tradition left to them by our Lord: they did things because they had been commanded to do so. However, as time went by, the apostles gradually died, so instead of living witnesses to the resurrection, they had another generation. Problems started to occur: what was the genuine tradition handed down by the apostles? We can see this conflict in the Letters of St John, where a community is divided about the proper teaching. Even more problematic was to ensure that the teachings of our Lord were correctly remembered.
So, starting probably around 60 the first of the gospels, Mark, was written. Matthew and Luke soon followed, then John, by the end of the 1stCentury. At the same time the Letters of Paul were collected and preserved in the Churches that were founded by him. Later, the other letters were collected, that helped to show the breath of the teaching of the early Church. Collectively these became what we call the canon of the New Testament. Canon here just means collected works. These books of the New Testament became set through tradition as the best collection of early church documents and definitive. For many centuries there was a bit of leeway as to what was in the Canon, with one or two other books, but generally we settled on these and made them definitive around 500 years ago.
However, these letters were only useful if they transcended their original meaning. After all, what was the use of a letter to the Corinthians if you did not come from Corinth? Two factors seem to have influenced the early Church as to why these letters were collected: firstly, they were from eminent leaders in the first century; and secondly, they dealt with problems that were general in their application to all churches.
We know that some letters did not come to be included (such as two of Paul’s, a earlier letter to the Corinthians and one to the Laodiceans, that are mentioned in other letters we do have), we are not sure why but presumably they did not survive because they dealt with problems that were local, that were not universal in application. We suspect that there must have been many more from other apostles that also did not survive because the communities that received them did not preserve them.
Now Philemon is an interesting survival. It is so short and the subject, an escaped slave, seems localised. So why did it survive?
The reason seems to be that it was never a purely private document. The opening and closing also salute a church. This is suspected to be the church at Colossae, for the names that are used have an overlap with those named in the letter to the Colossians. Also, in that letter there is a passage on the relationship between slaves and masters, which may tie in with Philemon. So, the Church at Colossae, which was founded by Paul, may have been the real recipients of this letter, and therefore preserved it out of veneration with the other letter, as it applied to the wider problem of dealing with Christian slaves.
Another solution may lie with the slave, Onesimus. We know that he was a Christian from this letter. One theory is that he became an early bishop himself at nearby Ephesus. If that were so, it would explain a link with the letters of Paul from the Ephesians, which also survived. The letter to Philemon may point to a role of Onesimus in making the first collection of Paul’s letters. We think that the letters of Paul were the first collection, then later the collection was extended to include other writers. So, the collator of Paul’s letters in effect set up the whole structure of the New Testament.
That’s the history anyway. However, this letter, and the others of the canon of the New Testament were included because the early Church wanted people to have a standard to use with the tradition of the Church. They wanted each believer to know what the early Church knew, that faith does not change, and we are still with Paul and those early believers. The New Testament invites us to listen and apply what we hear to whom we are now. It becomes a living tradition to guide us. The use of Scripture is vitally important to Christians. It guides and inspires. When we stop exploring our Bibles, or only listen to short extracts on Sundays, we lose the life of the Bible. The Bible is a great sea of exploration for Christians, with different and often quarrelling voices, where we can enter and learn.
For Anglicans we say that there are three foundations of our Church: Scripture, tradition and reason. Interestingly, John Henry Newman, that Anglican who became a Roman Catholic, was one of the great theologians on what tradition means, and how it develops over time, and is not a static thing at all. That’s part of the reason he was such a famous theologian for both of our traditions, and we will celebrate his canonisation with Holy Cross next month. Reason and Scripture are the other foundations of how we work out how our challenges are faced, so today at least you have had a dose of Scripture.
Anyway, back to Philemon. The letter to Philemon survives and captures our interest because it speaks of the worth of a person. Onesimus is no longer just property, he is a Christian, and all people have worth and dignity and are not merely chattels that can be treated impersonally. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, freed or slave: we all have the same worth in the sight of God. This letter is part of that message that we must continue to learn whenever we forget this important lesson or find the images of the modern world trivialising the sufferings of those who live in other countries. So, we continue to read Philemon, as today, being in the part of those receiving all those centuries ago, and learning from it today.
Images of God – Dedication Festival, 1 September, 2019
Let’s go back in history today to the 8th C of Our Lord. In China the great Tang Dynasty was at its zenith, a period of expansion and prosperity that had succeeded the Han Dynasty. In Europe things were different. The Roman Empire had fractured in the 5th C, with the Eastern part becoming rejuvenated and is known to us as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, also known as Byzantium, but the Western part, based on Rome, then Milan and Ravenna, had collapsed into what is sometimes, and unfairly, called the Dark Ages. England was about to enter a period of chaos with the arrival of the Vikings at the end of the century, burning and looting and destroying the small kingdoms of England.
But in Byzantium, another controversy had arisen. The Empire had been under pressure with the rise of the new Arab Caliphate, based at Damascus, preaching their religion of Mohammad. The Empire was under attack: Egypt had fallen a century before and now all Africa along the Mediterranean was in Muslim hands. Then the Arabs moved north threatening the borders of what we now call Turkey.
So why did this happen? The Empire was Christian, and believed they ruled with God’s approval. Had God withdrawn his favour? What had they done to offend God?
Now, one of the things that separated Christians from Muslims, and Jews, was how Christians dealt with the second commandment, the prohibition against images. Christians in the East had developed a devotional life around icons, pictures of Our Lord and the saints. In contrast Muslims and Jews had no such images. Was God angry with the Empire because they used images, and gave victory to the Muslims because they didn’t? The Emperors moved against the use of icons, destroying many and prohibiting their use. The controversy about this went on for about a century before it was finally decided that Christians could use images: Our Lord had taken on human form and therefore used our human image himself, so we could use such images as a way of worship and veneration.
Now, all this seems a long, long time ago. But it deals with an issue that is still at the heart of our worship – how do we use things in honour of God? After all, God is so remote in one sense, that any depiction is really just a pale shadow of the reality. If we are an imageless religion, we are like the Muslims, who in their strict form have no images at all in their mosques and worship towards a niche facing Mecca. Mosques are open clear spaces where everything can be seen, in contrast to the darker Orthodox churches with their hidden spaces. In Mecca there is the stone, enclosed by a cube, covered with black, a symbol of God. No other image exists – even the house of Mohammed was pulled down by the extremists a century ago in case it became a distraction. It is this distrust of images that still drives the extremists to destroy any other image.
Now consider this: we still live in the pull between those who believe God can have no representation and those who believe we can use representations. There are good Christians who believe that the best way to worship God is without any distraction that can lead the mind away, for that is idolatry and a breach of the 2nd Commandment. Then there are those who rejoice in the use of our skills in the glory of God: hands up, St George’s Goodwood.
In one sense in comes down to how we regard ourselves. Now we can see ourselves as separated from God. But we can also see God reaching out to us to bridge that gap, most notably in the person of Jesus, who comes to us in human form. Jesus sanctifies our humanity, and takes our humanity into his divinity. Therefore, whatever we do for the glory of God is accepted by God as a sign of our love.
But there is more than just this: it is also the realisation that God uses our symbols and works to show God’s own glory. This is the point of God coming to us in human form: God reaches us through our humanity and our human works. God wants us to explore the symbols that we use to see something of the depth of God. Symbols are important because God uses them. That is why, for example, St Matthew tells in his Gospel that God sent dreams to tell messages: dreams can point to divine revelation. We do not need to stand naked and alone before God: God clothes us with symbols for our delight.
In a Church then we deliberately use these symbols to touch God. Through sacraments we find God, but also in the beauty of our worship, the music, the liturgy and our prayers, we proclaim a God who is holy and loving. But there is another point about how we use the image of our Church – it is God wanting us to be involved. God gives us all this creativity and skills and asks us to use them for the glory of God. Every voice, every skill is here for God. We can be terrified before God: we can dare make no image worthy of that divine image. But then we forget that God has sanctified our efforts by becoming one of us and invites us to use these skills.
Today we celebrate the 113thanniversary of the dedication of this present church, our second of this parish. On 1 September 1903 we solemnly blessed and set apart this space for the worship of God. It was henceforth going to be a special place. It was going to be one of those strange meeting places of God and us. It is a place more than anywhere else we try our best for God to show our love. Every little bit helps. We build in beauty and we also dust and keep clean to show our love. Our voices sing of his glory and our hands polish the pews. In all and everything we show our love for God. Here we see in a place well-loved some of that love that God has for us as well: of music and beauty and good order. Our church also reflects the mystery of God: it is not an open barn where all is seen in one glance, it needs to be explored and lived in, like our understanding of God.
After a century of conflict, the iconoclastic controversy in the empire resolved itself and images were embraced as a means of seeing God. The Orthodox still celebrate this day in Lent every year with a Sunday called the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is still a choice for us: do we embrace our skill sand lives as a means of glorifying God or do we regard them as suspect and unworthy of God? Do we treat our churches as a convenient place to come together or of a place that reflect the presence of God, full of beauty and life?
Power and Control – 25 August, 2019
Today’s Gospel has Our Lord pitted against the leader of the synagogue, and the conflict that develops there, and would develop between him and the religious authorities of his time. Conflict is about power and control, and in fact, a great deal of most human activity involves power and control in one way or another.
The Gospel’s central issue focuses on the application of Sabbath rules – specifically whether it is forbidden to heal on the seventh day, the day of rest. Actually, ancient Sabbath restrictions did not include a ban on all work. For example, acting to save human life was a permitted exception. We might wonder about this detail: whether the compassionate act of Our Lord healing the woman with a crippling spirit could have been understood as an acceptable form of work.
Nevertheless, such a technicality is not the essential point of this encounter between Our Lord and religious authority. Rather, it is about power and control. It is really about the way the leader of the synagogue tried to use Sabbath rules to discredit Our Lord, regardless of the good he had done. He made a power move over and against Our Lord, as he indignantly and repeatedly insisted that Our Lord was wrong in not waiting for another day to cure the woman.
Understandably, the synagogue leader may have felt threated that he might lose control of his congregation and would probably be left with diminished power as a result. He ignored the benefit to the woman and employed a literal, self-serving interpretation of the law in an attempt to control Our Lord and protect his own institution. This, of course, foreshadows grievous, even deadly, uses of power for control, demonstrated by the persecution of early Christians described in the Book of Acts.
Today’s gospel clearly reveals the tendency for humans to resort to methods of power and control to achieve what they want or feel they need.
Furthermore, a review of church history reveals many instances of power and control – sometimes in tragic detail. Group after group attempted to use ritualistic and legalistic power to gain control. This took place between the Roman Church of the west and the Orthodox Church of the east. It erupted in bloody wars between Protestants and Catholics. It continued in the verbal and political fights of Anglicans.
There is a natural tendency for us to maintain control of familiar institutions that support our priorities.
Admittedly, the use of power and control is not always bad. It can be an important self-protective mechanism when we are in harm’s way or a way to produce justice and defend the helpless. Despite the fact that power can be used for good in other ways, we are called to resist negative use of power for control and rather to look to the model of Our Lord for direction.
Today’s tendency to centre so much of our lives on power and control – especially in selfish ways – is as dangerous a trend as in any era. Sadly, we seldom dare to admit this truth within and among us. We repress it, cover it up, hide from it, ignore it, and sometimes are simply unaware that it is a part of what drives us.
For Christians, the bottom line about power and control is best understood in this way: its negative use, like that of the leader of the synagogue, is a function of power over and against. Whenever we use power over others in the absence of love, the action leaves us separated from God and the values of God. It denies access to God-given-ness within each of us. The leader of the synagogue attempted to preserve his own power and control of the community by using the power of his authority and a literal expression of Sabbath law to dishonour and weaken Our Lord and control those present so they would not follow a rival.
But the Gospel story also provides an example of the better way to use power. Today we witness Our Lord acting out of compassion for the plight of the crippled woman and employing for her benefit the greatest power in the universe, the power of love. He used that power for, not against, not to control, but to help and heal and give life. Our Lord used his power – the power of the Holy Spirit – the power of compassionate love – to heal the woman. This is the Our Lord about whom St Paul wrote in Philippians as the human Lord who did not misuse the power of God, did not exploit it with selfish purposes, but humbled himself in obedience to God – giving himself away, even unto death on a cross.
He drew a circle large enough so it would not exclude anyone or seek power against anyone. He used the power of love to unlock the God within each of us, a power through which we can follow him in giving ourselves away and caring for others.
This week we have seen the rejection of the appeal of Cardinal Pell against his conviction. Now, like many of you I expect, I have found this a very difficult case. I respect the legal processes, but I find it difficult to believe that a man like Cardinal Pell would commit such a crime in the manner alleged and lie about it. Yet the witness has also been seen as a man of honesty – a compelling witness. But I also have to face the reality that a lot of my doubt comes from my own sense of deference and belief in the church structure. That sense of deference and belief is very ingrained in us. So often in the past we have used our belief in the structures of the church to exercise our power to support the structures, rather than for healing.
The Gospel challenges me today to examine whether I am so locked in my ways of the church, that I have become like the leader of the synagogue, ignoring the gift of Our Lord’s power in an effort to prop up that which is passing away. Is my lack of confidence in the judgment on Cardinal Pell more to do with my support for a structure rather than looking at justice? I am not sure of the answer to that, but I have to consider that as a reason.
Our Church is facing a crisis for its future, that makes us want to even more use what power we have to support and uphold it. Perhaps we are becoming like the leader of the synagogue, trying to keep the rules and ignoring the use of power to give life. These are not easy questions. But what we have seen as the church in the past is dying, and we cannot hold to rules and ignore the signs of God’s love and power around us.
To each of us here today the Gospel challenges us to consider how much we have invested in rules and ignored the love and power of God coming to us in unexpected ways.
Hate and Love – 18 August, 2019
Now, you would think, that this being a Church, that we would preach a religion of love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness after all, are the great Christian virtues, that we learn about from our Lord’s life. We teach a Lord who forgave his enemies and taught about a loving God.
Yet there is also another strain about Christianity that we cannot ignore. The intolerance that has led to Christians massacring Moslems, Jews and even other Christians; our involvement in the slave trade over many centuries; our intolerance and ignorance of other people; the smell of burning witches and heretics. People occasionally like to throw this in our faces: I don’t want to have anything to do with a religion that has been so bloodthirsty, as if they were indignant about God, as if God were some politician who has broken some promise.
Sometimes you see people with a little band around their wrists with the letters WWJD. It stands for “What would Jesus do?” and is meant to make the wearer think, in the choices of life, what would Jesus do at that moment. It’s meant to make them think of forgiveness and love, but you ignore at your peril what Jesus did at other times was to smash tables and drive out people with whips from the Temple and call everyone a bunch of hypocrites. What would Jesus do? That’s what Jesus did.
The Gospel today seems to be one of those passages that shows that other side of Christianity: here we have a prophecy of division not harmony. Households are divided: parents against children and also against the in-laws. Families are formed in marriage to take in new members, so it’s particularly interesting that this division is noted, with the in-laws causing dissension.
Now, this is where we need to put our thinking caps on and understand a bit of theology. Passages like this only make sense when you understand why our Lord came, died and rose again. It’s to do with what we call original sin and the way we humans make scapegoats. Humans band together against a common enemy or channel their hate into sacrifice to save others. It’s the origin of animal sacrifice in the ancient world: better an animal should die to appease the gods rather than a person. Violence is channelled into an object to create peace. Sometimes this scapegoating, this victimising, is on a larger scale, such as the Jews were the targets of the Nazis, as the reason for the loss and weakness of German society in the WWI, or the communists on the bourgeois. The procedure is the same: choose a victim, punish it, and the rest feel better.
This also has to do with what we call original sin. That is our understanding that there is an innate tendency within us for evil. We are never going to make a perfect world by our own efforts. We can try as much as we want, but there will always be violence and evil in our systems. That’s why we victimise.
But this system of victimisation breaks down for Christians. We believe that Our Lord came and was the perfect victim. As Caiaphas put the scapegoating at our Lord’s trial, better one man should perish than the whole nation. But Our Lord became an innocent victim and died: but then rose to destroy the victimisation. Every time we victimise someone, we find Our Lord that victim again.
Instead Our Lord talks and teaches a new one: a way of love and forgiveness. We have to see the sin in ourselves, we cannot shift the evil to some convenient scapegoat. However, this shift takes conflict, as when we are faced with the loss of our old ways of victimisation, we relapse into violence unless we take on love and forgiveness. The only way to overcome original sin is by the grace of God who teaches us to forgive.
Now this is important: the Gospels are saying that underlying our culture is the violence of original sin. We deal with it in the first way by picking on others: scapegoating, sacrificing the weaker or victimisation. Christ puts an end to this as it is wrong and violent. We then have to move to a new system of loving our enemy and seeing our own sin.
The point is that once we try and move from victimisation to forgiving, the old violence comes out again. Love and forgiveness are not add-ons: they are essential, or we relapse into violence. It’s when we try to move from victimisation to love that the old order of violence comes out again.
That’s where this passage comes in today. Our Lord knew that his new way of love and forgiveness would bring division as people were forced to learn it. If you can’t channel your violence into another form, then the violence breaks out inside the society: so, the family that can’t rely on victimisation will erupt into conflict.
Let’s look at this another way. Because we now look closely at how we victimise people, it becomes harder and harder for the old way of using victims as a scapegoat to work. Instead we readily identify other people, or ourselves, as victims. but there is a serious lack of anywhere near a corresponding awareness of the need for forgiveness. Without forgiveness, awareness of victims increases resentment and escalated conflict. Since the awareness of victims does not allow collective violence to bring peace to a society, there is nothing to stop the escalation of violence. As resentment grows rampant, it infects every level of society, including the family, so that counsellors are in great demand to try and talk people into giving up their resentment against those closest to them. They often fail as much as conflict mediators in political hotspots and for the same reason. Resentment becomes a defining factor of many lives and defining factors are not easily given up. So it is that the coming of Our Lord the forgiving victim has brought swords and divisions. That’s why families divide as they argue, instead of uniting against outsiders. That’s why there is no peace.
Our Lord’s peace is the fruit of a constant struggle against evil. The clash that Our Lord is determined to support is not against people or human powers, but against the enemy of us all, Satan. Whoever wants to resist this enemy by remaining faithful to God and to goodness must necessarily face misunderstandings and sometimes real persecutions. Therefore, those who intend to follow Jesus and commit themselves without compromise to the truth must know that they will meet with opposition and will become a sign of division between people, even within their own families. In this way, Christians become “instruments of his peace”, according to the famous expression of Saint Francis of Assisi. Not of an inconsistent and apparent peace, but of a real peace, pursued with courage and tenacity in the daily commitment to overcome evil with paying in person the price that this entails.
The Gospel today looks forward to that shift as a sign of a new way of living being born. Our Lord wants the old ways of victimisation to end and a true peace. The weak and innocent don’t have to suffer anymore. We have to learn that we are violent creatures who want to hide our own violence, our original sin. But until we see the violence clearly, we cannot move on to the lessons of love and forgiveness, and the realisation that we are the sinner that has to take responsibility. And most importantly, we have to learn the power of forgiveness, the power that Our Lord showed that we too often forget, the power that does give peace.
By Faith – 11 August, 2019
By faith… by faith… by faith… These words pulse through today’s second reading like a heartbeat, in our English and in the Greek original. “By faith our ancestors received…by faith we understand… by faith Abraham obeyed… by faith he stayed… by faith he received.” If we add in the verses our lectionary reading skips today, we would hear even more: By faith … by faith … by faith … like the rhythm within us that keeps us alive.
We don’t know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. Sometimes in the past it was ascribed to St Paul, but it’s clear that it is not his style or theology. But what we can tell from reading the whole letter and hearing its concerns is that it’s written to people who are giving up, who are leaving the Church, who are leaving the faith. It’s written to people who have made sacrifices for their faith, who have even endured suffering, but now, these people are growing weary. It was hard enough in the short term – they can’t see staying in it for the long haul. They can only see what’s immediately in front of them, and they don’t like it. They think they can get a better deal somewhere else. So, Hebrews is the sermon of a preacher to people who are heading out the door.
This is the preacher’s message: don’t give up; have faith; trust. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can hope. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can trust. Jesus Christ is the one in whom we can place our faith because Jesus Christ is faithful. You have not seen the future, but Our Lord holds the future. Have faith in Jesus because Jesus is the faithful one.
This is why the writer’s by faith… by faith… by faith… is more like the rhythm of a heartbeat, the heartbeat of faith.
But instead of thinking of faith as an accomplishment, something done by our own efforts and through gritted teeth, think of it more like openness, like acceptance, , like trust, like receiving something life-giving and empowering because it’s Our Lord’s faith and faithfulness that really matters. In baptism, we are connected to Our Lord’s faith and faithfulness. In baptism we receive Christ. We are baptised into his death, and if we are united with Our Lord in a death like his, we will be united with him in a resurrection like his. Whether the trust that is faith comes easy to us or feels like it takes great exertion, we all receive the same strong Lord and Saviour. Our Lord is enough to carry us into a future that is unseen by us.
Think about being on an airplane. Some people who travel by plane are confident flyers. Others are not. But here’s the thing: all you have to do is get on the plane. That’s your responsibility. Get on the plane and behave kindly to the people around you. You can be a relaxed passenger or a nervous passenger, but what really matters is the ability of the pilot. You can be utterly undaunted by turbulence, or you can hunker down and eat your little packet of horrid food like it’s your last meal, but what matters is the training and experience of the pilot. The pilot is the same for the calm and reassured as well as the nervous and fearful. But confident passengers have a much better experience during the journey.
The writer of Hebrew’s “by faith… by faith… by faith…” is an encouragement to stick with the community of Christians and to stick with Jesus Christ, to trust that by living with willing hearts, hearts open to the future God has prepared, like our forebears in faith did, we too become inheritors of that future, a future better than anything we can ask for or imagine.
It’s Our Lord’s faith that makes the difference. Our faith in Our Lord, our confidence in Our Lord lets us do things we couldn’t do otherwise. What Our Lord did for us, what Our Lord does for us, and our sometimes tiny, mustard seed-sized faith that connects us to him, means we can hope, serve, enjoy. Our Lord can see a future we can’t, but we can look for, prepare for, and do our part for. Our Lord has made a future for us that we couldn’t make for ourselves.
As we know, we cannot see the future, but God in Jesus has made a future that awaits us and it’s that future that forms us and can inform our present if we let it. Yes, we cannot see the future, but in Our Lord, God shows us a future of which Our Lord is the first fruits, the first of those living fully a resurrection life, a life marked by love and meaning and possibility and peace beyond death. Stick with Jesus.
And stick with the Church. The Church is a place where we practise and see faith, faith that relies on the promises of God and the faithfulness of Our Lord Christ, faith that stands on the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. We see that there is faith that reconciles marriage partners, even after infidelity. We see that there is faith that rebuilds relationships, even after heartbreak. We see that there is faith that endures and carries people through incredible physical suffering and pain. We see that there is faith that allows people to give up addictions and ask for help. We see that there is faith that makes people keep showing up to care for children others would leave behind, faith that asks for forgiveness, faith that reconciles, faith that changes lives. Even a little bit of faith, even a little bit of openness, even a little bit of seeking and acknowledging God can lead to hope and joy and strength and peace and a future we cannot yet see, but of which we can be assured and confident.
Philips Brooks, who was an Anglican bishop in the US in the 19thC and the writer of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”said it this way, “I beg you to live far-looking lives. Lift up your eyes and see the places afar off. You may not see all the way between, but keep your eyes forward still. The present cannot be known or done except by the future’s interpretation and inspiration. And no [one] can know the future rightly except as [they know] it in Him who is the Lord of all our lives, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.’”
Based on a sermon by Amy Richter, a priest who currently serves as an Episcopal Volunteer in Mission, in Makhanda/Grahamstown, South Africa. Preached at St George’s Goodwood, OS19C, 11 August, 2019
Give Yourself – 4 August 2019
The essential message of today’s Gospel is quite. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” It is useful to reflect on the theme of wealth and attachment to the things of the world and to our passing life on earth. In fact, our earthly life is a pilgrimage that by its nature is a path that, to be fast, must be lived with a growing detachment from things and from the goods of the earth.
We, humans, always want more, because we are the image of God, who is always more. God is infinite. God is more not because he has more, but because he gives more to the point of giving himself, because he is love and life. If God would act like us, keeping what is his and denying it to us, no one would live and there would be nothing left in the world. Everything is possible because the “more” of God is to give more to his children. We are not what we have, but what we give.
Seen from the perspective of eternity, the goods of heaven are the ones that really matter. Unfortunately, we are too tied to the earth and to the goods of this world. Owning them seems to give us greater security and tranquillity. Slowly, we realize this is not the case at all. A serious illness is enough to make us realize that possessing and having does not give health, nor does lengthen life. Everyone, rich or poor, strong or weak, is equal in the face of misfortune and suffers in the same way. At the end of every evaluation, we come to the realisation that to live means more than owning things. We find this summarized in the beautiful passage of today’s reading “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.”
This book of the Old Testament urges us to understand that life does not consist in the things we have. The Gospel makes us understand that God is a Father: in addition to life and the means to live, God gives himself to his children. Those who do not recognize him lose their identity and seek it not in what they are, but in what they have. The goods they accumulate become evil and are no longer instruments but the aim of their life. They are idols to which they sacrifice themselves and the others. Instead of creating communion with the Father and with those around, these goods divide the person from the Father and from the others. Those who accumulate assets and live badly then bequeath them to their children as an inheritance over which they fight as well.
Think about the first reading, where the writer identifies three forms of vanity: the sterility of the human effort, the fragility of the achieved results and the many abnormalities and injustices of life. In the Gospel Our Lord speaks about a rich man satisfied for his wealth but he say to him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”. This speculator was not very clever. In fact, he had not “invested” well. Our Lord doesn’t restrict himself to verify the vanity, the lack of foundation and the uncertainty of material goods. I don’t believe that Our Lord is simply to disenchant us from the fascination of ownership. Our Lord points out the true way of liberation. “So, it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God”. We have to be rich towards God.
What does all this mean? I think the explanation is in the verses that follow the ones read in today’s mass. Three teachings are visible in those verses. To become rich in front of God means not to fall into the temptation of anxiety if as everything depends on us. To become rich in front of God means to subordinate all: work, goods, and life – to God’s Kingdom. To become rich in front of God means “to give alms”. The “in front of” God becomes “for the others”. To become rich “for oneself” is to become a prisoner of vanity. On the contrary, charity and love are values that never fail.
So how do we achieve that. Well, the readings in St Luke over the last few weeks show that. Two weeks ago, there was the Gospel of the Good Samaritan (we missed that because of the Archbishop and Catholic Renewal Sunday, but you know the story). That Gospel teaches us that true action is showing mercy to those around us. Last week we had the teaching on prayer, and I spoke about give us today our daily bread, and our need to look after the poor. St Luke is showing us that we have to act towards those in need and not become prisoners of our own wealth. What do we own that we can’t give up?
There are many things that I have: some have value; some are almost valueless. Some I keep because of sentimental associations: gifts from friends and family now in God’s hands. Some I think I will never part with; some no one else will want, and some I can give away now and then, sometimes with a story of how I received it, in the hope that it will be loved and cherished as well. But I know I have to give them up at some time, many of you here have been through that trauma of moving to smaller homes or into retirement villages, where the demands of space enforce a shedding of possessions. In the end, in so many rooms of nursing homes, all that is left are the family photos, which is a tribute I think to the realisation that love is far more important than any sideboard. I hope I will have the strength and grace to shed a few things along the way of life as well. My hope is that in the giving, I will grow rich towards God, in learning to surrender with grace, and be generous.
After all, to give is sacramental, that is what our Lord does, give, give and give, even unto death, giving is the core of the sacrament we celebrate here with his body and blood, given to us. That’s the generosity we must follow.
The Lord’s Prayer – 28 July, 2019
We have some great readings today. I love the first reading particularly, Abraham haggling with the Lord over Sodom and Gomorrah. He gets it all the way down to a promise that if ten righteous people can be found, the towns would be saved. Well, we know that ten aren’t so it’s ta ta for Sodom and Gomorrah. I would love to go into this story in more detail, as it’s fascinating, and there is a rabbinic tradition even that Abraham should have pushed harder and even gone for a lower number, but that’s another story.
But today we also deal with the Lord’s Prayer, the Pater Noster, in St Luke. Nothing is more central to our prayer life than the Lord’s Prayer. It’s usually the first prayer we ever memorise, and it is used in all our times of need, from baptisms to deaths. I’ve said it with families with the last rites, I’ve said it at baptisms, I say it several times a day with the offices and mass.
However, the version we all know is from the Gospel according to St Matthew. The reason for that is St Matthew became the definitive Gospel version for Christians early in our history, which is another interesting story for another time. But we know the Lord’s Prayer under that version, which goes of course (and watch my fingers for numbering for all the specific requests):
Our Father in heaven, 1Hallowed be your name, 2Your kingdom come, 3Your will be done, On earth as in heaven. 4Give us today our daily bread. 5Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. 6Save us from the time of trial 7And deliver us from evil.
Don’t worry about the last bit, “For the kingdom etc”, we call that the doxology, from the Greek word to give praise, and it’s an optional extra.
So, there are seven distinct requests, another sacred number for us, like the seven days of the week, the seven days of creation. Note the first three are all about God: hallowed be yourname, yourkingdom come, yourwill be done. The next four are for us: give ustoday our daily bread, forgive usour sins, save usfrom the time of trial, deliver usfrom evil.
Now, St Luke has a shortened version. Your will be done is omitted and delivering us from evil is as well. So, there are only five requests.
But whatever version is there, the central request is always the same: give us today our daily bread. It’s like the hinge of the prayer, holding both sections together. Now, in one way this is the hardest one to deal with as there is a big question about the translation. We can see by the way we say it: give us today our daily bread, it’s repetitive, why not give us our daily bread? Why the today and daily?
Now, the reason for that seems to be Our Lord. So, we can blame him. It’s nice to blame God once in a while. The word Our Lord uses for daily is not a usual word, in fact it’s highly unusual, and Our Lord may have made it up. It could just mean daily, it could also mean heavenly, so it could be a reference to the idea of manna, or even be taken to be the bread we receive in communion. Our Lord deliberately has chosen, or made up, this imprecise word to stretch our minds.
There are several points I would like us to reflect upon in this request. The first is that it is give us, not give me. Like all the second part of the Lord’s Prayer we are taking about a prayer we do with everyone else: it’s not a prayer of an individual, it’s a prayer of Christians together. We pray not only for what each of us need but for us as a community. Note how St Luke introduces this prayer, one of the disciples ask Our Lord to teach them how to prayer, that is an individual. But our Lord lifts it immediately from one disciple to something for all the disciples’ together. That’s important. We live in the community of faith as disciples, we live in the Church and pray in the Church. And I don’t mean the building here, but the Church throughout time and place.
Our Lord chooses this as the first request for us. Give us today our daily bread. Not forgiving us our sins or saving us from the time of trial or delivering us from evil. Our Lord starts with the reality of food and hunger. It’s so sensible. Our faith life starts with a commitment to fulfil our hunger.
This is one reason why the Church has always had an imperative to look after those in need. It’s what the Church calls the preferential option for the poor, that is, we place as our highest priority our help for the poor and powerless. Now, that’s a very hard subject, and despite two thousand years of Christianity we still have the poor and powerless, which shows the difficulty of any solution in a world where there is evil. Now, the Church in the past has been instrumental in establishing a range of institutions to help the poor and powerless and that continues today in such organisations such as Anglicare and Anglican Aid Abroad. We just received this week our new magazine from Anglican Aid Abroad, have a look at it sometime, it’s impressive their work with scattered parishes and religious communities in the third world. There are some bodies who look at poverty and powerlessness, and tackle it from a structural perspective: what perpetuates poverty in our country and other countries? Is it corruption (certainly in many places like PNG), lack of education, lack of access to opportunity: there are many reasons that imply a lot of people. Others just contrate giving where the need is greatest.
But today I would like to also talk about how we, the people here at St George’s, deal with the poor. I don’t think a parish is working unless we have the poor. If we are all comfortable sane people then we have failed as a parish. Fortunately, we seem to continually have a range of people who come to us here, often disturbed and in need. When I first arrived some seventeen years ago we had Trinity in our congregation: you may remember him and his belief that he was, in fact, the Trinity. That sure beat any archbishop. We have had a variety of others over the years; do any of you also remember Chinese George who was here about ten years ago, and was a weekly communicant, who could barely see and almost used to fall over as he came up for communion? I used to give him 50 cents every time he turned up: that sounds a bit miserly, but he turned up every second day. St George’s continues to attract such people: some come to mass, some sleep rough in our grounds or nearby, some are difficult if not dangerous. But they are those, whose need for their daily bread is much more immediate, much more than those of us who have a warm lunch guaranteed today.
So, what practical things can we do? The first thing is that we need to treat the poor as people. If you see a beggar, don’t pretend they don’t exist or somehow invisible. They often even have names.
The next thing we need to be is generous. Support the work of those who help the poor.
Next, we cannot be judgmental. It’s not for us to say they should not be spending the little money they have solely on food and not on smokes. The poor are just as much entitled to pleasure as we are. It’s not for us to judge why they are poor: yes, people make bad choices in life, but we don’t have to perpetuate their errors as some sort of personal vindication for our good fortune.
Then there are two practical ways we can be generous here. One way is by giving food to our food basket here. Every week this is taken down to the Magdalene Centre for people to get free food. It’s a practical way of giving someone else their daily food.
The next way is by giving some cash now and then, either to me or by putting it in an envelope in the collection and making it for the poor or needy. I have a lot of demands at my door and I do give out small bits of cash, often ten dollars or so, sometimes a bit more. I don’t take this money from our parish budget: it depends on what people give me as cash, and it is a struggle at times. Just this week I have given out money to help one of my regulars stay to the bus shelter, another for some work, another for bus fares, another for medicine, another for some fish to eat as the person can’t eat dry food. So, think about that as an option as well.
Well, here we are at the end of the sermon and I’ve only dealt with one part of the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer has enough in it to keep us going for life, so I’m not surprised. If I were a good Protestant preacher, I would now devote at least ten minutes to each of the other six. You’re lucky I’m not. But give us today our daily bread is well worth reflecting on over and over again.
Martha and Mary – 21 July, 2019
There are two stories from the readings today about hospitality. But note well, they are about hospitality to God.
The First Reading from Genesis says that Abraham was sitting outside on a hot day. He looked up to find three strangers standing nearby on the path, apparently nourishing their curiosity about the tent and its occupants. It is not clear that Abraham knew who they were, but for our part we are told that they were God appearing to Abraham.
So, how does Abraham react to this presence of God?
Well, excellent hosts manage somehow to get everything ready but also to truly listen and converse with the one who has come.
Abraham bows deeply. He flies into action. He begs the men to relax from their journey and accept comfort, nourishment and rest. This is the beautiful hospitality from that part of the world.
Abraham quickly rushes into his great tent, issuing hurried commands to Sarah, his wife. “Quick, quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls. I will get the best calf and command the servants to prepare it.” He dashes outside to get curds and milk and after a long time, sets the whole meal before the men.
It’s quite a scene, it’s quite welcoming.
As the dinner progresses, Sarah is standing behind the tent flap listening. All at once the men make a sudden, astonishing statement to Abraham. Next year Sarah will bear a son by Abraham.
Now, Sarah actually laughs out loud as she hears this absurdity about her dried-up body, nearly 89 years old. She is supposed to issue forth a tender baby.
Even so, as you may know, the amazing thing does indeed take place, after a time, and thank God that Abraham listened to these men, the presence of God.
Now we come to the second story. In the Gospel according to Luke, Our Lord enters the house of his friends Mary and Martha, and is warmly welcomed.
Let’s think about who was there with him. There would have been Martha and Mary, maybe her brother Lazarus whom St Luke never mentions, and then at least the twelve that were hanging around with Our Lord. So, we are talking about a crowd of 15 or 16. There are always suggestions that this was not the only crowd: St Mark, for instance, tells of the women who travelled with Jesus and used to provide for him out of their own means as well. So, it could have been a much bigger crowd. Now any meal like that takes a bit of preparation: imagination the number of potatoes that need to be peeled, if only potatoes had been discovered by then. No one seems to be suggesting that the men should give a hand, so it was up to our hostess to do the work, with some help from her sister.
As Our Lord sits down, Mary organizes herself at his feet and focuses her clear wide eyes upon him. Who is preparing the dinner? Mary’s sister Martha bustles about doing just that.
It’s always curious in this passage that the house is described as Martha’s. Was Mary just visiting as well? Or was she somehow too junior to be a co-owner, maybe much younger, someone who was there really to help in the kitchen and clean the house. If that is so, then you can imagine Martha’s indignation.
So, Martha grows tired and exasperated, of course, and finally comes over to demand that Our Lord tell Mary to stop lounging and help out a little.
Surprisingly, Our Lord says, no. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he explains.
Maybe Martha should have said, “We are not having any food tonight, we are just going to sit and stare at you.”
In truth, Martha’s trouble was not that she was scrambling about, but that as she did so, she forgot about Our Lord. She was not making him welcome; she was constructing a meal. He even tells her that she was anxious and worried about many things, not the one thing necessary.
What is the one thing necessary?
The one thing that is necessary is a relation to Christ. Real hospitality means a two-way relationship in which host and guest both open to each other and become present to one another in various ways. Yes, hosts do work on the details, and work hard. But they always remember the visitor while they prepare. Excellent hosts manage somehow to get everything ready but also to truly listen and converse with the one who has come.
That is how we are supposed to act every day.
Scholars argue a bit about why St Luke has included this story. But they note how St Luke places it just after the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed mercy by acts, and here the better part is not acts but learning.
I think that the balance between the two stories is important. Through the Good Samaritan we learn that we need to act to show justice and mercy: it’s not enough to walk piously away. But works by themselves are not enough: to have a balance you need also to spend time at the feet of Our Lord: learning and being quiet.
We are to find God in all things, in all the people we know and/or help, and no matter how busy we might be, to relate to them because God is within them, deep in their souls. Touch them. Hear them. Prepare meals for their presence without forgetting about them. We will be giving hospitality to God himself.
Abraham gave it. Mary gave it. Martha forgot like you and I do, but she learned. Let’s learn it too.
Being Disciples – 7 July, 2019
This is one of those Sundays when the readings are a little scrappy. No juicy parable to work on, instead one of those slightly rambling parts. We have part of Isaiah, a rather long book which we think was written by three different authors, this part full of beautiful imagery. Then we have the passage from Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest letters. Finally, we have the story about the sending out of the seventy, two fragments stitched together. That section is perhaps the hardest, as it has to do with St Luke’s record about how missions were sent out and also that mysterious line about seeing Satan fall from Heaven like a flash of lighting, and giving power to walk over snakes and scorpions: not perhaps the most useful modern gift to have.
Let’s consider those seventy. No doubt, they began with the expectant enthusiasm of aspiring novices, but they returned as seasoned ministers filled with genuine joy. We can discover the quality and meaning of this kind of joy as we think through the guidelines and warnings Our Lord set for them in the sending. And we can use it as the current generation of Jesus-followers.
Our Lord sent them as lambs into the midst of wolves. It was a difficult, hostile world Our Lord warned, one true in every time and place. In order to undertake the task, they had to overcome their fears with courage and resolve. Our Lord told them to travel light – no purse, bag, or sandals. In order to get the job done, they would not have time to care about material possessions or to waste time on other distractions. He ordered them, when not welcomed by a group, to wipe the dust off their feet and move on to the next place. The urgency of the moment would not allow them to linger in hopeless situations. They went out on mission. They were so successful that they returned in a spirit of joy. It wasn’t a superficial, but a deeper, satisfying, inner joy of the soul.
As the current members of the Body of Christ, we are the seventy for our generation. Our mission is not unlike that of those mentioned in St Luke’s Gospel account, and the guidelines and warnings are largely the same. We seek to serve God’s people by offering to them the good news of the Gospel, both in sharing the truth and in the actions of care and love.
We, too, go out among wolves. We live in a world that is fearful, emotionally paralysed, or aggressively angry as a result of a kind of shell-shock. Many of us suffer from acts of violence, near financial depression, or natural disasters.
Perhaps the hardest example to follow from St Luke is to take with us no semblance of purse, bag, or sandal. Many are afraid of loss in the midst of a materialist culture, in our desire not to give up anything of our substance, of not being willing to do without what we want and think we need. But we can easily see how the baggage of materialism can disable us from taking committed action.
Making sense of shaking dust off our feet, a practice of pious Jews during New Testament times, is also difficult. Perhaps the application for us is to make the best and wisest use of our time and energy – a prioritizing intended to maximize the effectiveness of our call to carry out God’s work.
With all this in mind, we can follow these guidelines in our efforts for Christ and to find the deepest joy that life in faith can bring. We use the challenge from Our Lord to the seventy as a model to move into our everyday world, into the lives of those around us – our friends and neighbours, strangers and enemies, sceptics and unbelievers, the poor and victims of injustice – all who are in need of God. We move forward with courage and commitment in telling others about Christ, bringing them into the life of the Church, welcoming those who come into our midst, sharing with them what we have.
Above all, it is necessary to leave behind fear of failure, the inclination to avoid acting because we are afraid that we will be embarrassed or rejected or that it will be too time-consuming or too difficult or costly. We must grasp life with joy in Christ and seize the opportunity to be among the seventy for our generation.
If we go at our task in this way, following a modern expression of the work of the seventy, we are certain to experience the same deep, meaningful, fulfilling joy found by our forebears in the faith. Not a superficial kind of happiness or delight, but the joy that takes root deep down in our hearts.
Another link for us with the seventy and Our Lord’s instruction to them is found in his sending them out two by two. Like them, none of us acts alone in carrying out the mission and ministries of the Body of Christ. We are all in this together, and we take comfort in the partnerships we share in carrying out Christ’s charge to us as the seventy of this generation. The beauty of a true vocation, however, is that it involves all of the elements mentioned above, while looking completely unique for each person. This is a reason for excitement and joy in itself! God is excited for you to be you, and to follow the joy and passion in your heart right back to him.
Finally, Our Lord regularly tells his followers some version of be not afraid. Our story today finishes with Our Lord declaring that Satan has fallen and that nothing will bring his followers real hurt. He teaches them to rejoice over their names being secure in heaven, rather than being secure in the power they possess. Again, we must unlearn, for the world wishes to teach us that are plenty of things of which we should be afraid. Always remember that the last thing we should carry around with us is fear! Let us also do what we are meant to do—practice the habits and disciplines of the Kingdom, give witness to the hope that is in us—and live rightly, wisely, and Godly.
Corpus Christi – 23 June, 2019
I must be getting old, because I’m revisiting some of my ideas again. I’ve mentioned in the past thin places and I would like to revisit that today. Thin places are those places, or even events, that touch something beyond the ordinary. A thin place may be a requiem or grave, when we feel the presence of the departed, a holy shrine when we feel the presence of God or our Lady in a particular way. It is called a thin place because it is where we feel the boundaries that separate our world from the other is particularly weak, or thin.
The experience of the other is common to most people. The question for us, is why do we have these experiences? What makes us open to the experiences of a world beyond ours?
This is where we Christians come to our theology of who we are. Christians believe that our Lord, the Son of God, became human. Furthermore, by becoming one of us, he took into himself the nature of being human – he was both God and human. Then he took our humanity with him through death by the resurrection, and assumed it into the Godhead at the Ascension. Therefore, our Lord has changed the nature of what it means to be human. For as he has two natures, human and divine, so we share in this inheritance. Each one of us shares in the inheritance of our Lord; each one of us is part divine. This means not only that we will share in his resurrection, and are assured of a life beyond this world, but that we are also aware of a world beyond here. We cannot but help feel the world beyond here, for that is the yearning of the divine within us. We can ignore it, deny it, but we will still be susceptible to the call of God.
Therefore, we will find the thin places of this world. Thin places where God and the divine are closer than usual.
Even more, we will seek out the thin places. We know that our Lord comes to us, in those thin places. For Christians, we have the great gift of his presence in the sacrament, where in our joint celebration and worship he is with us in his body and blood. We come, take his body and blood, and are joined to him. The worship and celebration of the mass is a thin place where we meet God. We therefore surround it with the best we can offer, with music, liturgy and art, as well as our own personal preparation and devotion, so it is a worthy place and time.
This morning we celebrate in particular the thin place of meeting our Lord in the sacrament. Each Sunday we have the tremendous privilege of encountering our God. Day by day, in this place, the sacraments are celebrated, making a focus for our Church. The presence of our Lord stays here, in the tabernacle with its light perpetually burning, to say to all who come, that this is a holy place, this is where you meet God, this is a thin place of the world.
This day we celebrate the feast of the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi, the presence of our Lord in our sacrament. The sacrament is not only for our communion, but also for our worship. We worship it in our mass, by our genuflecting when we pass his presence in the tabernacle, and also in the devotions of benediction, that particular service where we just adore Christ made present in the bread and wine. We worship the presence of God and give thanks for this way of meeting him. We have a thin place where we can feel our Lord and give thanks for his presence here, and in our lives.
This mass today, uniquely, has a procession of the sacrament at the end. This proclaims that there is a special public element to this: that the sacrifice of Christ is for the salvation of the whole world. We must bring Christ publicly on the roads of the world, because He whom the fragile veil of that little white host hides, is that what came to earth just to be the life of the world. In some countries this procession is a big outdoor event, here we do it more quietly inside.
With a procession we are always making point as we wander around the church, which is why at St George’s processions usually include the congregation, that we are “missionaries”, and also people with a holy goal, namely “pilgrims.”
It is important that we worship and adore the sacrament. Communion without adoration is not enough, for then we just take and do not give thanks. Adoration is the time when we appreciate what we have here, the presence of our Lord. It is a privilege that we are called by our Lord to take his body and blood, that we do this in memory and re-entering his great sacrifice; but any act that we do over and over again, has the danger of losing its special-ness: we forget the privilege. Benediction, the service with which we will conclude the 9.30 mass today, the worship without communion, restores that emphasis that we need also to adore. The Benediction we will join into today helps remind us of this privilege. It reminds us again that this is thin place. That we are more than just beings bound into this world, limited by time, but that we are also heirs of our Lord, his children who yearn for him.
The Trinity – Trinity Sunday, 15 June, 2019.
There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But maths, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.
Holy Mother Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Our Lord Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God. It started when, among other things, when Our Lord walked on water and stilled the waves of the Sea of Galilee. That isn’t normal human behaviour. Then his resurrection showed conclusively that this man was indeed God. Then Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the maths ever since. But to help the maths, tradition gives us the Creeds, from the early Church the Apostles’ and Nicene, and later the Athanasian, to make us remember what it means. The Apostles’ Creed goes way back to the early days of the Church, and is the statement of faith for those being baptised, to show they understand who God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed came later, originating at a Council at Nicaea near modern Istanbul in 325, at the time of the peace of the Church after the great persecutions, to help unite all the different Christians by remembering how God was. It was originally a profession of faith for bishops to make sure they understood. The Athanasian Creed came later for us Westerners in the Middle Ages
But let’s reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7:47) The Pharisees were incensed because Our Lord, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Our Lord had, in fact, done what only God could do. Before he died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Our Lord breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20:22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2:38)
The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin, forgiveness and love. In the Old Testament, in spite of some outbursts of anger, God claimed to be a God who was full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But God’s mercy did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Our Lord and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.
We have to remember that nothing is more true, life-giving and comforting to us than the presence of the Holy Trinity in our lives. Nothing, in fact, can exist or act or become perfect without the three divine Persons, without God, so that Saint Paul does not hesitate to say that “in him, in fact, we live, we live and we are” (Acts 17:28).
God is near and we think far away. It is in reality and in events and we seek it in dreams and impossible utopias. That’s like getting lost in a maths problem and not coming back to the application.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian of the 5th C, said that we are led to a God who “Lover (Father), Beloved (Son) and Love (Holy Spirit)”), a God who is love and dialogue, not only because he loves us and converses, but because in himself is a dialogue of love and therefore forgiveness. But this not only renews our understanding of God, but also the truth of ourselves. If the Bible repeats that we must live in love, in dialogue, and in communion, it is because it knows that we are all “images of God”. To meet God, to experience God, to speak of God, to give glory to God, all this means – for a Christian who knows that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – to live in a constant dimension of love and forgiveness. The Trinity is a truly wonderful mystery: revealing God to us, it has revealed who we are.
Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own anger. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s mercy and love. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.
Seeking the Spirit – Pentecost, 9 June 2019
There are two things to ponder today on the feast of Pentecost: three if you want to consider the colour red as well. The first is how Scripture, in particular the reading from Acts, is re-writing itself, and then how the Spirit works in us today.
But let’s first just enjoy the red of the day. Red is used in the church for the shedding of blood, hence the feasts of the martyrs, and also for the Holy Spirit, as it was recorded in Scripture that the Spirit came down in divided tongues of fire. We therefore use the red theme today: in vestments, such as this wonderful chasuble with the Spirit represented as a bird, originally belonging to the late Fr Gordon Williams and made by his wife. It’s a wonderful modern piece of work, we have not only some great old pieces but newer ones as well. In some churches they deck the place with red – in some churches in Italy they often put red hangings around the pillars for high feasts and in the Parthenon in Rome, that ancient building dating back to Roman times, they throw red rose petals down this day from the great opening in the roof. It makes our efforts much more restrained and Anglican indeed.
But let’s look at the reading for today. The first reading from Acts describes the day of Pentecost. Now you have to remember two things as you read this. Firstly, what Pentecost meant for the Jews – it was the feast when they commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Secondly, you are meant to remember the origin of having many languages, how in Genesis the story of the Tower of Babel when they peoples came together to rival god and make a tower to heaven and God gave them different tongues and they abandoned the work and went away. So keep these things in mind.
Now St Luke presents the story of the new Pentecost as a reversal of the old Tower of Babel. Whereas the Tower had been built to rival God, this time it is God giving the Spirit. Whereas the giving of languages at Babel had been a curse to divide, here the disciples are given the gift of understanding languages to unite. Once again there are two things happening. The first is that in Genesis, God is seen as someone who thwarts humanity’s desire: God stops the building of the Tower to rival heaven. Here God gives the Spirit to ennoble humanity. God is no longer seen as putting down humanity. The second is that languages, which had been seen as a curse to divide people, causing them to misunderstand each other and lead to conflict, is now overcome by the gift of understanding, when they disciples through the Spirit can speak other languages and understand. God brings the Spirit to overcome divisions of languages.
Then remember how Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses. This was the way the Jews were to live; by keeping its commandments they could lead lives that were pleasing to God. But this Pentecost will be the giving of the Spirit that allows a new way to live, a way outside of the rules of the Law. By the gift of the Spirit Christians were to live outside the old rules: they were instead to live lives in the gift of the Spirit, conscious of God’s presence.
Now this would take some time to work out how individuals could live in the Spirit. St Paul spends quite a bit of time in his letters reprimanding those who don’t get it. It’s not a freedom to do what one wants – the Spirit is not the preserve of any individual. Instead, the Spirit lives in us all as the Church, and we test our understanding of the call of God within that community. Rampart individualism is the absence of the Spirit, as it breaks down community.
Now the Holy Spirit has been blamed for a lot in Church history. Some say the monastic movement, or the Crusades, or the Reformation, or the revivalist movements in the US, are all the work of the Spirit. Well, we don’t know, we have to judge by the fruits of these movements, which often are fairly mixed. But all this makes the Spirit seem like it’s only a player in the great events of our history. The Holy Spirit is much more than that. The Spirit is the presence of God in our midst here keeping us as community, causing us to reach out and help each other and those around us, even in making sure the cup of tea is made after mass so we can have friendship together. The Holy Spirit is also the great gift of beauty we share. We love and see beauty from God, the maker of all that is good. This whole church, with its wonderful furnishings and beautiful vestments are all proof of the sense of beauty of the Spirit that we have sensed over time. We have never done things on the cheap here: we want to give the best to God. Now, this is not to say that ugly churches filled with enthusiastic people are devoid of the Spirit: far from it. But the reverse holds true as well: beautiful churches filled with quiet prayerful people are just as filled with the Holy Spirit even though we don’t put our hands in the air or play guitars. I often think we neglect this sense of the Spirit: the senses of beauty and music and good food are all gifts of God that are manifested and created by the Spirit working in the world. That’s one reason why we should always give grace at meals and thanks for beautiful things – we have been touched by the Spirit at those moments as well. This Church is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit just as much as everyone holding up their arms speaking in tongues.
So, I encourage you to be Spirit filled this morning. Enjoy this beautiful church and be proud of it. Look at the red we have here and wear and enjoy its symbolism. Remember that the gift of the Spirit calls us into community: and if you live in division from someone, question in your heart how you can have the Spirit of God to heal that division. Taste the nice cup of tea later or lunch and savour this gift of food: the Holy Spirit is with us.
Walking Downhill – Ascension Sunday, 2 June, 2019
The Mount of Olives, the traditional site of Our Lord’s Ascension, is some 800 metres, 2,500 feet in the old scale, above sea level at its highest peak. So, before he was lifted up into the clouds, Our Lord led his followers up a mountain. It now has a most beautiful little octagonal chapel on its top, from crusader times, that at times was a mosque before the Muslims returned it to the Christians as a sign of good faith in the times of Saladin.
Now I don’t have much mountain-climbing experience, but I have known a few mountain-climbing clergy. One of the bishops I had in Wangaratta was Paul Richardson, who was for many years bishop of the very mountainous Aipo Rongo diocese in the PNG highlands, and was used to walking that diocese. He told me once of walking up Mount Buffalo and soon after he started a bus pulled up and out came a whole lot of Uni students who rushed up the hill and overtook him. He had great pleasure of slowly overtaking them over the next few hours as their energy waned. He knew from walking that you need to work out your energy, so you have enough to get up, and also importantly, have enough to get back again. For those of you who have climbed even Mount Lofty, you know that the muscles that ache on the way down are completely different: you have to prepare properly to walk down as well as walk up.
Let’s think of those disciples today. It must have been grand view. It had been a relatively quick ascent for them. From casting nets or working in the family business, to finding themselves following in the ways of Our Lord, inspired by his healing, transformed by his teaching, learning to take on some of his grace, catching his vision for a kingdom on earth, and becoming all the while more than they ever knew they could be. By now, they had lived through his death, they had wrestled with their own fears, and finally encountered him as the risen Lord who kept his promise to return to them. Well, with all of that adrenaline, they must have raced up the mountain in their ongoing contest to determine just who was the greatest after all. And once atop the mountain, they could look back and imagine just how far they had come, overcome with the breathless longing that such peaks can give us.
Up on the mountain they find themselves in what Celtic Christians would have termed a “thin place.” It’s a place so elevated that the veil between earth and heaven, human and divine, seems to thin to where it is so easy to see God, to hear God’s voice, to sense God’s Spirit lifting you.
And that’s so often what we seek. That’s so often what we prepare for, to ascend to those places: the mountaintop; the dazzling light; the grand view; the feeling of satisfaction.
The theme of mountain climbing is popular. Often, it’s used by business leaders. They set goals for their lives because goals help us know if we have lived successfully. They make plans and necessary preparations. They measure progress based on the day’s mileage. And they rarely stop lest someone else should leave them behind. But if you sweat, climb and reach what you thought was the goal of your life; but when you reach the top and it levels out, chances are you feel a little empty, as though in all of your striving there were things that you missed. Because most of us don’t ever prepare to walk down from there.
And it’s not just the over-achievers. It’s so many of us in so many parts of our lives: career, home, community service, family life, education, maybe with our expectations of our children, maybe in our lives of faith; so many of us only prepare to walk uphill.
There is a story of a woman who had a life-changing opportunity some years ago to spend a summer in Calcutta, India, where she worked in the homes of Mother Teresa. She had prepared for months, with so much leading up to this moment when she would work alongside Mother Teresa, one of her idols, maybe holding the hands of those who were nearing the end, or running programs for children that would help them to know that they were the beloved of God.
Only when she arrived, Mother Teresa wasn’t there. The woman learnt that Mother would be spending those months on an international benevolence tour. And then when she reported for work her first day, she was placed in the kitchen, washing pots. And then the next day in the laundry, washing sheets. This went on for weeks, frustrating her. So, she asked one of her supervisors, “Hey, I’ve been spending all of my time washing pots and cleaning sheets and folding bandages. I came here to work with Mother Teresa. What does Mother Teresa do when she’s here?” And the supervisor said, “Well, when she’s here, Mother Teresa cleans sheets, she folds bandages, and she washes pots.”
And somewhere the whisper could be heard for all of us racing up the mountain of ambition: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
And that way down is so unnatural. The disciples resist it. As Our Lord rises, they’re left gazing up into the clouds, along with so many of us who seek the risen Christ. We act as though he’s elevated and beyond us in a place we have to strive to reach or strain our necks to see.
But even as he rises, Our Lord, who taught them so much of power in weakness and greatness in service, is teaching them the way down. “Stay here, in the city,” Our Lord says in Luke’s first telling of the episode in Luke 24. The phrase comes from a verb normally translated “sit” or “sit down.” So as Our Lord is rising up, he asks his disciples to sit down. It’s such a juxtaposition. He must have known they longed to follow him into some cloudy, idyllic existence at the right hand of God away from the confusion and chaos. But as he rises up, he tells them to stay down. Just to reinforce his words after he’s gone from view, we hear in Acts that two men appear and ask, “Why do you stand here looking up?”
How many times have we assumed the way of a Christ, the way of faith, is a journey up? But it’s actually the story of coming down, Christ coming all the way down into our brokenness, woundedness, fear, and then Christ’s people following in that same way. Yes, the message of Our Lord from the manger to the cross, from the tomb to this Mount of Ascension is that this world is changed not from the top, but from the bottom. For all of us wanting a mighty Messiah, he arrives as infant refugee. Instead of a powerful ruler, he operates as a homeless teacher. It is not his super strength that saves the world, but his enduring love. He humbled himself to death, even death on the cross; and as risen Lord he carries not only the wounds in his wrists and side, but the wounds of all those beaten down, cast out, and despised. He has borne all of our sorrows. So, as he rises, we hear him tell us to keep our eyes fixed on this earth and head back down the mountain to the places where he made his life.
And it’s so unnatural. Our muscles ache. But isn’t that so often the case with the paths that lead toward the heart of God?
If we wonder with the disciples why Our Lord would send us down from the heights, we find our answer as we read ahead. Because it’s down in the city that the Spirit comes, rushing through the streets, crossing background and language, and organizing all those followers into a new existence.
Maybe we would prefer to stay where the air is thin and the view of God’s glory is so clear, but the mountains and the valleys of our world are right next to one another. And while we strain our necks, the messengers of God call all of us people of Galilee to lower our gaze and to look around. For down the slope, there are people who can still be caught up in a vision of a new community of the risen Christ. St Luke says that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” And that doesn’t happen if the people gathered around the risen Christ some 800 metres in the air.
The disciples eventually adjust their gaze, and descend just as Our Lord had taught them, from the mount of ascension to the centre of the city. And thank God, for the Church that flowed from their experience of Jesus and his Spirit eventually came to include you and me. Today they make their journey to Jerusalem once more, and we are called to follow in that same way. But if you do, just be prepared that it’s a walk downhill.
Based on a reflection by the Rev’d Alan Sherouse of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, USA.
Revelation – Easter 6, 26 May, 2019
One of the little things I always like teaching is how to remember the number of books in the Bible. Well, if you look at the titles “New Testament” and “Old Testament,” there are three letters in “new” and “old” and nine in “testament.” Then all you have to remember is that the Old Testament has 39, the New Testament has the multiple of the letters, so three nines make 27. So 39 books in the Old and 27 in the New. I’m going to skip the Apocrypha at the moment like a good Protestant, but there are 14 there.
Now another curious thing about these numbers is that if you add them, 39 and 27 make 66, and the number 666 is talked about in the 66thbook of the Bible, the Book of the Apocalypse, or the Revelation of St John. By the way, this St John is almost certainly not the same writer St John of the Gospel and letters. We are using the Book of Revelation during the end of the Easter season, as the church starts to look forward to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This book was perhaps the last book to be taken into the Bible as we know it: and even then it’s had a history, being loved by all the wrong people. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” Martin Luther was very heavily into Romans and justification of faith, and as a result didn’t like Revelation or the Letter of St James either which didn’t fit into his theology as easily. He even called James “an epistle of straw.” John Calvin, who we very ecumenically remember today in the calendar of holy people and saints despite being a heretic, wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament except Revelation. Today, among Eastern Orthodox believers Revelation is the only book that they don’t read in their public liturgy.
But amongst the loonies it has been well loved.The two churches most common for sending its members knocking on doors to ‘evangelise,’ Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, nearly always begin their door spin with Revelation
More troubling is the extent to which Revelation is fascinating larger numbers of contemporary evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, as seen in the Left Behindseries of books. That view that Christians will be taken suddenly is one that only originated in the 19thC and was popularised in the late 20thbut has no place in mainstream Christian belief.
But that’s not what the book is about. The Book of Revelation shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John of Patmos pauses to speak directly to those faithful:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-10)
Could the call to nonviolence be any clearer? Yet the images of violence, including the possibility of divine vengeance, seem to overpower such a call to nonviolence. How does one sort through this barrage of images that are rather foreign to our modern worldview? For those who see the New Testament as a call to nonviolence, being able to interpret the Book of Revelation as part of that overall message depends primarily on a strategy of seeing how Revelation takes violent apocalyptic imagery from the Hebrew tradition and means to subvert it from within, primarily through the dominant actor in Revelation, the Lamb slain. It’s that lamb who was slain who is the light of the Temple that we heard in our second reading today.
The point of Revelation is that it is conveying to us, that the terrifying violence that we so often face in this world is decidedly not God’s violence but the violence of empires under the deception of Satan, the dragon. God’s defeat of that violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence to subdue that of the empires. No, God’s defeat of violence is to expose it through the love of the Lamb slain whose self-giving love lets itself be slaughtered by the violence, and the Lamb’s resurrection shows its power of life to be victorious. Disciples of the Lamb follow not in a hope that there would be a different kind of victory someday, a victory in which the Lamb became a Lion and devoured all its enemies. But followers of the Lamb believe that his slaughter and resurrection have already won the victory, so that we wait with endurance and hope, following in the Lamb’s loving nonviolence if we must, until the day when Satan’s violence finally becomes its own defeat, collapsing in on itself.
Revelation begins to subvert this hope right from the very beginning with the one who has truly won God’s victory on the cross, the Lamb slain. And the Lamb is never portrayed as someday coming back like a lion. Even the great battle in heaven, when Michael fights against the dragon makes the point that the victory is not by force, but by the blood of the lamb. (Rev. 12:7-12)
This is why in Our Lord’s ministry he does not fight. It is the self-giving of Our Lord through his death for us that brings about the resurrection. Exposed by the greater power of loving self-giving, human beings need no longer look to the Satanic powers of violence as heavenly powers. Duped by the beastly deception, we will continue to be led astray for a time. But the battle has already been fought and won, signified by Michael and the angels throwing Satan out of heaven. And was this victory won by superior divine firepower? No, the nature of the victory is made crystal clear: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” It is a continuation of the ministry begun on this earth by Our Lord and furthered through his disciples – his witnesses (martyrin the Greek) – who continue in his way of loving self-giving instead of hate-filled vengeance.
This way of discipleship is obviously not an easy choice. It requires great faith indeed. We love the idea of a sacred divine violence, a Lion of Judah, to attack and destroy evil-doers, is a hope deeply engrained in our way of creating gods to justify our own violent actions against enemies. The Satanic powers of violence have been our heavenly powers since the foundations of our human worlds. But God the Father doesn’t work like that. He gives his Son, Our Lord, into the hands of those who make him a sacrifice. Then that Son, Our Lord, the Lamb, rises again at Easter to unveil that violence. We are then shown that God is not about violence, not about legality, but about the heavenly power of unconditional love and forgiveness, a revelation that continues to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit that we now turn for and wait at Pentecost. We worship the Lamb slain, the great symbol of Revelation.
Based on a paper by Paul John Nuechterlein of the Lutheran Church in the USA.
Love – Easter 5C, 19 May, 2019
If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?
In our Gospel this week, we hear Our Lord’s answer to this difficult question. Judas has left the Last Supper in order to carry out his betrayal, the crucifixion clock is ticking down, and Our Lord knows that his disciples are about to face the greatest devastation of their lives. So he gets right to the point. No parables, no stories, no pithy sayings. Just one commandment. One simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing Our Lord’s deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Then, right on the heels of the commandment, a promise. Or maybe an incentive. Or maybe a warning: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What Our Lord doesn’t say? When death comes knocking, and the Son of God has mere hours left to communicate the heart of his message to his disciples, he doesn’t say, “Believe the right things.” He doesn’t say, “Worship like this or attend a synagogue like that.” He doesn’t even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day,” He says, “Love one another.” That’s it. The last dream of a dead man walking. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it. Love one another.
What’s staggering about this commandment is how badly we’ve managed to botch it over the last two thousand years. It’s simple, and we can easily memorise it, yet we fail so badly at it we remain embarrassed how poorly we comprehend it and put it into practice.
It’s not too hard to name why we perpetually fail to obey Our Lord’s dying wish. Love is vulnerable-making, and we would rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and we are naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are just so busy.
And yet Our Lord didn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He said, “This is my commandment.”
For the St John in this Gospel, for the word “commandment” he uses the word “entolen” that means precept, advise, instruction and prescription. It is like the prescription that a doctor writes to get the medicine needed to cure an illness. It is up to the patient to follow or not to follow what it prescribes. In this case a command is not a peremptory order or something we must do. The countercheck that this is the meaning that St John wants to give to the word commandment, is in his gospel where, to define Moses commandments, he doesn’t use “entolen” but “nomos” which we translate as law. To follow and to serve Christ we don’t need that sort of rigid law. Our relationship with God is much more than to follow some rules even if they are good. God has given us commands (entolen) that guide us, shape us and takes us on his path, indications that manifest his willingness for our salvation.
We do this commandment therefore not out of fear, but because this is what we need to do, like taking medicine, to live lives full of health.
But what does it mean that Jesus commands us to love? We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.
But we know that authentic love can’t be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering distortion. Those with children understand full well that commanding them to love each other never works. The most we can do is insist that they behave as if they love each other: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.” “Don’t hit.” “Use kind words.” But these actions — often performed with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — aren’t the same as what Our Lord is talking about.
Our Lord doesn’t say, “Act as if you love.” He doesn’t give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. (I doubt that the people who flocked to Our Lord would have done so if they sensed that his compassion was thin or forced.) He says, “Love as I have loved you.” For real. The whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, deep engagement, generous action. Doesn’t it sound like he’s asking for the impossible?
Maybe he is. G.K Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Our Lord seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated “impossible” love?
We may ask these questions fearfully, because we don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. I mean, I know fairly well how to do things. I know how to make care for the homeless. Or send money to my favourite charities. But do I know how to love as Our Lord loved? To feel that depth of compassion? To experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life in order to pursue it? To empathize until my heart breaks? Do I want to?
Most of the time, if we are honest, we don’t. We want to be safe. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We want to choose the people we love based on our own preferences, not on Our Lord’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating the heart? Preparing and pruning it to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard, hard and costly.
And yet, this was Our Lord’s dying wish. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants every one of his children to feel loved: not shamed; not punished; not chastised; not judged; not isolated: but loved.
But that’s not all. Our Lord follows his commandment with a terrifying promise: “By this everyone will know.” Meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Our Lord. It’s through our love that we will embody Our Lord, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.
This should make us tremble. What Our Lord seems to be saying is that if we fail to love one another, the world won’t know what it needs to know about God, and in the terrible absence of that knowing, it will believe falsehoods that break God’s heart, that is, that the whole Jesus thing is a sham. That there really is no transformative power in the resurrection. That God is a mean, angry, vindictive parent, determined only to shame and punish his children. That the universe is a cold, meaningless place, ungoverned by love. That the Church is only a flawed and hypocritical institution — not Christ’s living, breathing, healing body on earth.
Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love. Such are the stakes involved in how we choose to respond to Our Lord’s dying wish, hope, prayer, and commandment. Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not.
But here’s our saving grace: Our Lord doesn’t leave us alone and bereft. We are not directionless in the wilderness. He gives us a road map, a clear way forward: “As I have loved you.” Follow my example, he says. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.
Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home.
In other words, Our Lord’s commandment to us is not that we should wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we’re invited to abide in the holy place where all love originates. We can make our home in Our Lord’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. Our love is not our own; it is God’s, and God our source is without limit, without end. There are no parched places God will not drench if we ask.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” For our own sakes, and for the world’s.
Based on a reflection by Debie Thomas:
St George Day Sermon by Archdeacon Michael Whiting 5 May 2019
It was my task, as a young rectory boy in rural NSW, every Sunday morning to raise the flag of St George on its flagpole immediately in front of our country church – in the 1950s there was to be no doubt we were the church of the English! Then in recent years Janine and I discovered that St George does not belong just to the English at all! Everywhere in the Holy Land the white flag with the red cross is flying,or there is engraved on many Christian houses reliefs of St George slaying the dragon – we now know that St George is the patron saint of virtually every church in the Christian world, and even the Muslims claim him!
Here are three quite unrelated quotations to muse upon:
The fame of Saint George spread all over the East, and the Crusaders brought their devotion for the warrior Saint back to Europe. Through the Crusaders, Saint George became the patron Saint of England. He is also the patron Saint of Syria and Lebanon. The Emperor Constantine dedicated a church to him not long after his martyrdom, and in later times, he became an object of devotion for Christians and Muslims alike. Saint George is the protector of Christians, and the patron of all who fight for righteousness. His cheerful fortitude and unswerving loyalty have inspired generations of Christians the world over…
Saint George the Victory Bearer, depicted as a horseman slaying the serpent appeared on Moscow’s coat of arms, and became an emblem of the Russian state. This has strengthened Russia’s connections with Christian nations, and especially with Iberia (Georgia, the Land of Saint George) …
William Dalrymple himself visited (the shrine of St George at Beit Jala outside Bethlehem) in 1995. “I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem and discovered that the place was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem—an illness, or something more complicated—they preferred to seek the intercession of Saint George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem]He asked the priest at the shrine “Do you get many Muslims coming here?” The priest replied, “We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down”…
Perhaps you are all set to hear, yet again, a terrific sermon about St George – lances and dragons and princesses, persecutions and martyrdom, a white flag and a red cross? Sorry to disappoint. Instead let us consider the prior question: why are there saints? They always seem to be those ‘other’ people, don’t they? What is it they have and we do not? Are they better Christians?
Saints are indeed always those holy others, with two remarkable signs: they have mastered what I call ‘disassociation’, and, they have embraced the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is an intimacy with Almighty God. What is meant by ‘disassociation’? Well, we usually call it ‘renunciation’ – a turning away from the associations and claims of this world and embracing the divine. This is achieved by them with obedience to Christ’s teachings, bearing the burdens of others, and living in the shadow of the cross. The world sees the cross as the end of the ministry of Jesus; for the Christian, the cross is the beginning of our communion with Christ.As we obey, and renounce, and share each other’s burdens, so we are picking up our cross. As one writer has put it: ‘when Christ calls, He bids us come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave their homes; it may be a death like losing someone very dear to us; it may be the death of being rejected or ignored socially or in the workplace’. Remember when Jesus summonsed the rich young man? He was calling him to die, to turn from his attachments and live, because only the person who is dying to his or her own will can follow Christ, and live. As in our gospel of today:
Jesus said to his disciples: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you”.
What is meant by ‘the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is intimacy with Almighty God’? Well, saints are people who really want to know God – more than that, they never lose sight of this want. Why? Saints are folk who know God as Holy, the only source of the divine; there is none but He, and He makes an immeasurable claim upon us all. This difference in God is the starting point of our religion, and what is unique for the Christian is that this Almighty God identifies Himself, intimately, with each of us. Saints sense this intimacy and are overwhelmed by it, and their response is one of the imagination, and lives are changed dramatically as a result.
Saints have a means of expressing this radical intimacy – they feel total failures but remember the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God, through Christ, has identified Himself with them, and themselves with God. For Christ is the Son of God, and He is immediately present to the heavenly Father, and the heavenly Father to Him. Saints realise that Christ has identified Himself with them and they with Him. The saints know that their effort to pray is simply a part of Christ’s prayer; their failure and darkness is overcome by the light of Christ. Christ does not reject or disown the saints (or you and I) as long as they believe and welcome Christ’s saving grace.
So – we can all be saints, can’t we? The answer is ‘yes’, but suppose you say, “But I cannot see things that way, I cannot feel things that way?” Well, Jesus Himself has provided a remedy for this; He gives Himself in the blessed sacrament. If our difficulty is one of imagination, a failure to feel and live our identification with Christ, is not the purpose of the sacrament to overcome, and make visible, and make real the presence of Christ?
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them … the one who eats this bread will live forever
So, it is right to claim St George as one of these saintly people. St Peter Damian, in the 11thcentury, said this of the festival of our patron saint:
Today’s feast, my dear people, doubles our joy in the glory of Eastertide like a precious jewel whose shining beauty adds to the splendour of the gold in which it is set.
So, to our Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise, honour and thanksgiving, now and for all eternity. Amen
The Peace of the Risen Lord – Easter 2, 28 April 2018
Poor Thomas, poor doubting Thomas. Some names in history really get stuck with connotations. Judas has been on the no-use list now for 2000 years. Adolf, or Adolfus, was once a popular name, has not been used now since the Second World War, whereas other names have a spurt in popularity. The last baby I baptised a few weeks ago was Charlotte: virtually unknown a few years ago, it’s now one of the favourites, thanks to the Royal family.
However, with Thomas, we get the name doubting Thomas, from the reading today. But why did he doubt?
Think about it. St John in his Gospel records that Thomas had gone with Our Lord to Judea and seen the raising of Lazarus. If Our Lord could bring Lazarus from the tomb, why could he not rise? After all we are told that Lazarus had been dead three days, and this too was three days. Why did Thomas have these doubts?
Now there are several possibilities. One is that he had seen the power of Our Lord calling someone else from the tomb, but can a dead man call himself back from death? Also, Our Lord had been killed. If he could not stop his own execution, then could he have the power to rise again? Perhaps Thomas could not understand that a person could allow his own death and yet still raise himself. The doubt is not only the rising, but also the power to let oneself die. For that means that he chose to die, and the implications of that are a lot harder. So to believe in his resurrection, is to believe also that a person could willing let himself be taken and tortured to death.
But there is also another point to consider. Every time Our Lord meets with his disciples here he starts with the greeting of “Peace be with you.” He also links this with the showing of his hands and his side, the place of his wounds and the power to his disciples to forgive. As an aside, there seems to be some interesting themes running between Luke and John here – John emphasises the hands and side, while Luke emphasises the hands and feet. Yet John has the unique record of the washing of the feet, so why does he omit the signs of the feet here? Maybe John is teasing us with the missing feet to tie it back to that last night he had with his disciples, the time he was with them all together, and he washed their feet. The message from that night was that discipleship is about service, not power.
Let’s consider again that greeting of peace. This is linked with the idea of forgiveness. “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” On an aside this passage was used at Anglican ordinations of priests, unlike Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy. Now, we may be tempted to think that this is a gift of power – we can control the forgiveness of sins. But we should also remember from the washing of the feet, that primary duty as Christian and disciples is to serve. So it cannot be a giving of power, but a message of service. We are to serve people by learning to forgive or retain sins.
The forgiveness of sins then becomes a message to us believers, the modern disciples; that we serve the world by learning to forgive. By that we bring a peace into the world. Our Lord comes into our midst telling us that his peace is with us. You see, the change in the world starts with how we show forgiveness. If we want peace, we have to learn that it is only possible through the gift of forgiveness in life. If we don’t forgive, the sins are retained, and the world does not change: if we forgive the sin is forgiven and the peace of Our Lord comes instead.
The heart of this message is that we, as disciples, have to learn to forgive. It’s the only way to change the world and give peace. The bearing of grudges and the holding back of forgiveness is the Easter message for us. It’s not easy. We are often hurt by the damage that has been done to us, often it is malicious. It is the evil in our midst that we struggle with. Sometimes it may be our own besetting sin, as the quaint old phrase puts it, our own inability to seek forgiveness for our own sins. Sometimes it may the damage done to us by family or workplaces. Whatever it is, wherever it happened, peace will not come from anything else but learning to forgive.
I should also point out that when we have committed sin, the first stage is seeking forgiveness, then the second stage is what we call reparation, and the last stage is absolution. By reparation we have to try and make good the evil we have done. If we have stolen, we must restore; if we have told lies, we must expose them. Forgiveness is not possible without reparation. We do not obtain forgiveness easily, but then the peace of Christ itself is not bought cheaply, but is the price of his own blood.
Which brings us back to Thomas. The signs that Thomas see are the signs of Our Lord’s suffering. He shows to Thomas the cost of his peace. We too, who remember how Our Lord washed our feet to teach us service, should also remember that the cost of peace is living with wounds, wounds that no longer are painful though, but resurrected in the new life of the Risen Lord.
The Most Important (and Ignored) Day of the Year – Easter Vigil 20 April, 2019
We have been celebrating Holy Week. We have had some strange adjectives: Holy, Maundy and Good to distinguish the names. Sometimes you even hear the rarer Spy Wednesday as another adjective. But let’s just consider today, which is called Holy Saturday or Easter Even.
Our Lord rose on the third day – he was buried on Good Friday before sunset, lay in the tomb all day on Holy Saturday, and rose on Easter Sunday morning. Holy Saturday, then, was the only full day that he lay in the tomb. That, by itself, makes it holy. But is that all?
Holy Saturday is usually one of the most ignored days in Holy Week, and we may tend to view it as merely an unwelcome waiting period – a delay, even – between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Or maybe we view it as a day to forget about the pain of Good Friday so we can get into the proper, happy mood for Easter Sunday.
What does it have to do with us, anyway? Well, if on Easter Sunday nothing has changed but the calendar, then we have nothing to celebrate and Easter is just like any other day, except for the eggs and chocolate.
Back to the tomb. What, exactly, was going on in the tomb on Holy Saturday? If we had been there in the tomb, with Jesus, what would we have seen? Did he simply lie there, dead and unmoving, all day and all night on Saturday, and then spring to life instantaneously on Easter Sunday? Or was his resurrection a gradual process, perhaps indiscernible at first, followed by a mild and gentle stirring, as if awakening from a usual night of slumber?
If we had been there with him in the tomb, what would we have observed on Sunday morning? Would he have slowly begun to move, then gradually sit up? Did He rub his eyes and hold his head in his hands, aching at first with the pain of his crucifixion, his hands and feet and side in agonizing, holy pain?
Popular images of Easter morning show Our Lord, radiant, outside the tomb – and sometimes standing with his feet off the ground, as if he had floated out of the tomb, as though the Ascension into heaven had already begun. What were the mechanics of the Resurrection? Did the stone roll, of its own, from the tomb’s opening? And did Our Lord then simply walk out of the tomb, where he remained until the women who visited the tomb found the tomb empty, and mistook him for the gardener? Or was the Resurrection something akin to a bomb going off, with the stone cast aside like a piece of rubbish, and Our Lord rocketing from the tomb? Or did Our Lord simply push back the stone, himself, and just walk away, quietly and assured?
What would we have seen if we were there? Perhaps it is foolish to think about seeing anything. With Our Lord dead and in the tomb, the world was in darkness. The forces of evil seemed to have conquered the forces of goodness and light. It appeared that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives in fear. But then Our Lord is raised from the dead – and our world is no longer broken, and our lives are no longer to be filled with despair.
Our lives are spent in anticipation of resurrection, both in the present life and in the one that is to come. In a way, our entire lives are a kind of a theological purgatory, as we await our own resurrection in Christ. We are stuck in Holy Saturday until we can find our way to the other side.
It’s similar to our faith journeys. Some of us have had great conversion moments, they know exactly when they became a believer. It’s likes having the tomb door blown open. Others have had a slow escape form the tomb, and don’t know when exactly they did believe, when they left the tomb of doubt. Then there are many who will never leave that tomb, and it is our duty as Christians to pray for them anyway; perhaps extra hard.
Does Our Lord stir in the grave? Is his resurrection gradual or instantaneous? Like Our Lord, our own Holy Saturday may not follow a gradual, continuous path from slumber to life. There may be movement, both small and large, as well as long periods where it appears that nothing is stirring.
But we can make a choice to work toward emerging from our slumber. The key is love. Love is the animating force that propels us on our journey from Holy Saturday to our own Easter experience – our resurrection in Jesus Christ.
Whether you believe that we are all fallen angels in need of awakening, or whether you simply accept that we need to awaken to our own life’s true calling – our true mission or purpose in life – Holy Saturday can serve as a reminder that we are in need of our own Easter experience. We need to stir from our mortal slumber and find a way to roll back the stone that has blocked us from living our true life and experiencing that which we are meant to be, and that which we are meant to live.
And what is the stone that blocks us from living our true life and experiencing what that which we are meant to be? It’s our lack of awareness – an awareness that we are all interconnected with everyone else. It’s our inability to see, or accept, that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s our unwillingness or inability to accept everyone else, especially those people who aren’t like us, people we don’t like, and people who may even mean to hurt us. It’s our eagerness to exclude these people, and to treat them differently. It’s our limited sense of responsibility toward everyone and everything that God created. To put a point on it – it’s our inability to recognize and accept that everyone is a part of God’s creation, no less important than whatever importance we place on our own position in God’s creation. And along with that recognition and acceptance is the realization that we are all responsible for one another, and for building up God’s creation – and that we are to do more than simply not actively work against it. This is the time to recognize that we need to do more than simply avoid sin. We need to seek out goodness. The absence of evil in our lives does not equate to the presence of goodness. That’s not the way it works, and we know it in our heart of hearts. We cannot consider ourselves to be good merely because we believe that we are not as bad as other people. We need actually to be good, and to seek and to do good things. This is the work that God has given us to do. To love one another. Not in the abstract, writing-a-check kind of way, but in the real, day-to-day encounters we have with all people, and with the people whom we never meet. No exceptions.
Maybe that is the real reason we call it Holy Saturday. It’s holy because we, too, have a sacred obligation to sanctify our lives for a greater need, something beyond ourselves. Maybe Holy Saturday isn’t about inactivity. Maybe it’s the inner activity that we have to undergo before we, too, can find new life after the crushing defeat of our own crucifixion.
When we love, or even when we open ourselves to the possibility of loving another person, we allow a small opening to appear in the hardened shell of our isolated existence, and we get a glimpse of heaven on earth. Of God’s Kingdom on Earth.
The only force that could have raised Our Lord from the dead was love; love was the force that allowed Jesus to raise Lazarus from the grave; so much more love was required for Jesus to rise on Easter Sunday. And love is the only force that can raise us from our own Holy Saturday slumber. Our love of others is required, but it is not enough – we need Our Lord to raise us from our own graves of lassitude.
We are born in Christ. We die in Christ. We are with Our Lord in the tomb, and it is Holy Saturday, every day.
Based on a reflection by Carlo Uchello.