Category Archives: Sermons

Pentecost—the tongues of Acts 2

Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; people from all over the known world— Rome, North Africa, Crete, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Iraq, Pakistan—you name it. Each one heard the disciples speaking in their own native language; they heard simple people from a fishing village in Galilee speaking their many languages fluently—telling them about God’s deeds of power. That would be like every one of us here breaking out in a different language; a language we’d never even heard of, far less studied.

It’s an amazing event. The curse of Babel Gen 11 was reversed in this moment—the curse of confusion and estrangement was healed by the gift of understanding and community. These Galileans were suddenly able to speak the various human languages of their time. Everyone could understand again. Everyone was included. That’s one of the important messages of that first Christian Pentecost. God is for both inclusion and diversity. There’s no pressure to conform; no desire to force everyone into the same mold. All are invited. All belong. God is for both inclusion and diversity. …

It’s like that in the older Jewish Pentecost too. Shavuot is the festival of the giving of the Torah. But a central text that Jewish people read at this festival last Thursday night was the story of Ruth—a foreign woman who not only received the Torah and so became a Jew. She became the Great Great Grandmother of David; their most revered king. Pentecost; everyone’s in. Everyone really belongs.

At the first Christian Pentecost, God included people by giving the disciples a gift of tongues; so all the visitors to Jerusalem heard the disciples speaking in their own native language. And their reaction? They were bewildered. Some were openly amazed and perplexed. But others tried to belittle what they couldn’t understand.

Many Christians experience a gift of tongues today, but in this case, we’re talking about something different from human language. We’re talking about the tongues of angels—the language of heaven. You’ll certainly be familiar with the expression tongues of angels from the reading we often hear at weddings, 1st Cor 13; the hymn to love. Though I speak in the tongues or mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (as in noisy accompaniments of pagan worship)

Tongues of angels. Many people have this gift; many don’t. And there are various attitudes to it. People in Pentecostal Churches value the gift very much. People in Reformed Churches tend to be more suspicious of people’s motives for using the gift in public worship. But if we have this or any other spiritual gift, its value is measured by the way it’s used to build up the community of Jesus; it’s always to be measured by love. Pentecost as we’ve seen is about everyone being in; belonging.

So how do we work with this in a practical way? When we were in India in 2012, Vicky gave a presentation on spiritual gifts to the clergy of the CSI Madras Diocese. It was a controversial topic there. Pentecostal Churches were attracting people away from traditional ones because of their very visible spiritual gifts—particularly tongues, which in some Pentecostal churches is almost an unofficial membership credential. If you can’t speak in tongues in some churches, you’re not really in. This is the exact opposite of Pentecost’s message of inclusion.

Vicky spoke of spiritual gifts in the order of importance Paul attached to them. As we heard today in 1 C 12, the gift of tongues comes last after the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles and prophecy—but as we know from 1 C 13, none has any value without love. Even though Vicky left tongues discreetly at the bottom of the list where Paul put them, they were the hot potato. In the discussion after her paper, senior presbyters were immediately on their feet trying to put a lid on this nonsense about tongues; they wanted no open discussion of it at all. But privately we had some clergy come and thank Vicky in tears for talking about this issue. They’d never been able to talk with colleagues about their dark secret; that they have a spiritual gift. What does God want here?

The conversation remained very live. Ruben, the senior presbyter who was in charge of our visit took us to Vellore Christian Hospital. In the hospital cafeteria, we talked about the spiritual gifts question again. The waiter overheard us and told me he’d been praying for the gift of tongues for years. I asked if he wanted me to pray for him, and he did. So I put my hand on him, prayed that God would grant him his heart’s desire, and immediately, he began. He was delighted. Ruben was thunderstruck. I should say that I don’t have the gift of tongues, but it’s a most beautiful thing to hear—particularly singing in tongues.

But what are tongues? What’s going on? In Church, if someone speaks in tongues publicly—at the microphone—congregations that are used to this will wait for someone to give an interpretation; to say what the angels’ message is. And then someone else with a gift of discernment is expected to confirm the message. What is given must build up the Church, otherwise it can’t be received. More often though, people with this gift exercise it privately—it builds them up in their faith so that they’re better able to build up the church. But how does this happen?

I believe that in Baptism, the Holy Spirit enters us and begins to pray for us and with us. She knows the deepest needs and gifts of our hearts better than we do ourselves. And in her love for us, she pours them out in prayer before God the Father. The most important process of prayer for us is to learn to hear those prayers of the Holy Spirit and to let her prayers shape our own; let our prayer be nurtured into harmony with hers. We can only receive this as a gift. I believe some people are given the gift of hearing from their own tongues the prayers which the Holy Spirit speaks from their hearts. It’s a beautiful thing; it springs from God’s love, and for that, I can only give God thanks and praise. Amen

Epiphany + 5b 8-2-15

Epiphany + 5b 8-2-15 1 Cor 9.16-23

Some people are important? Think they’re more important?

We Australians admire great people with the common touch—people who don’t let themselves get stuck up on a pedestal. I admire great musicians and artists who’ll stand around with people and chat about ordinary things. I admire the way Pope Francis refuses to live in the palace; the way he sneaks out at night disguised as a simple priest, taking food to Rome’s homeless. We all know that’s what Jesus would want him to do. And it’s great to see him do it, because it shows everyone that he’s a true follower of Jesus, God’s son, who came and lived among us quite simply.

Paul is arguing the case for just this sort of behaviour in our reading from 1st Cor today. He’s just finished telling the Corinthians what the rights of a preacher are—enough to live on so that they can continue with their mission—and he’s entitled to that. cf Mt 10.10b for labourers deserve their food But in today’s reading, instead of claiming his rights as a preacher to their support, he says he won’t take anything; he’ll preach on free of charge.

Let’s think about that for a moment. We’re a church that pays its ministers a stipend—enough to support our preachers and their families—so the preacher is set free from those concerns; free to do the pastoral, teaching and evangelistic work of a minister. If I took Paul’s example literally, I’d refuse the stipend and the rectory, I’d take a labouring job on the side to support my family, rent a place to live in, and turn up here each day to do the ministry God has called me to do. Paul did that in Corinth. What do you think the Corinthian church might have made of him doing this?

I’d imagine it made them uncomfortable. I’ve said before that Paul is replying to a letter from the Corinthian Church. He’s answering questions they’ve asked him about all sorts of things. And from the sort of questions he’s answering, you can tell it’s the more powerful, rich people in the church who wrote to him.

Remember last week, they were asking him about eating meat sacrificed to idols. (Only rich people ate meat) Evidently they asked about eating meat in the temple where all the idols were. So they’re talking about high-society feasts; not an impromptu dinner of scraps with the neighbours. Dinner at the casino might be a fairer comparison—and ignoring the hungry street people you pass to get there.

Today’s passage builds on Paul’s memorable answer to their question about eating meat—if it might possibly cause a weaker Christian to lose their faith, I’ll never eat meat again. Paul will give up all his rights if it will help people hear the gospel. So how is he trying to influence the people he’s writing to? What does he want to teach them?

This passage is about leadership in the Christian community—how a mature Christian is meant to behave. How a mature Christian shows authentic Christian leadership to younger Christians. It’s also about the way Christian leaders behave in the wider world. How a mature Christian should behave in public—where non-churchgoers know they’re Christian.

At one level, the answer’s quite simple; do what Jesus would do. Adopt a lifestyle of poverty and weakness. This is what Paul does in his time among the Corinthians.

Paul identifies himself with the weak so thoroughly that he renounces privilege and honour. Like the poor he supports himself by manual labour and refuses to eat meat—which the poor would never have been able to afford. … But for people like us, particularly, this is a hard message. We’re materially pretty comfortable; we wield quite a lot of power in our society; we can mostly say what we think and get what we want. We’re quite like the rich Corinthians who wrote that letter to Paul. So we can assume that what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Church will also apply to us.

It’s a hard word; really hard in our kind of society. We have a lot, and the more you have, the harder it is to give it away. Paul’s asking the Church to be better than that. He’s asking us to put relationships with people higher than anything else in our lives —friends and strangers alike; and he lists a whole lot of strangers in today’s passage. We might say, Is that all? Of course relationships are more important than anything else! But are they?

The times we really see that priority become highly visible in our Australian community are times of crisis: a bushfire or a flood; a major disaster. It’s only then that we really see people’s real compassion; when people turn out their pockets and hand over whatever they can. That’s when we glimpse our true selves—the good, generous, compassionate people we really are.

Paul urges the rich Corinthians to look Jesus in the eye—really look at Jesus; the Jesus who gave up everything for them—and remodel their lives on his pattern. To be good, generous and compassionate all the time. Paul teaches it by example. Don’t do something just because you have to do it; love the people you do it for. And don’t do it for the money; do it for the love of anyone it might serve. Let go of your power and rights: share them with the poor and the weak and grow together with these little ones for whom Christ also died. And don’t wait for a crisis either; do it all the time. Be a shining light; the Spirit of Christ visible in the world.

Paul tells us that gospel freedom is the right of individuals not to do as we choose, but rather to relinquish our rights for the sake of others. True Christian freedom expresses itself in service, in weakness, and in suffering—not for its own sake, but to win others for Christ.

If we can do this, then in God’s strength, the Church will realize its calling to be a sign of hope and a witness to God’s love for the world. Amen

Epiphany + 4 1-2-15

Today’s readings are about the choice we have to go God’s way or the wrong way in life. In Deut 18, we’ll hear the prophet Moses tell the people that God will send them another prophet; …who will lead them in God’s kind way. A few verses earlier, Moses talks about the other peoples who don’t know God; who live in fear that makes them do terrible things: …sacrifice their children to bribe imaginary gods so they’ll get good harvests; …ask mediums for messages from dead people; …try to influence nature by casting magic spells. God will send the prophet to tell us the truth; truth that can set us free from that fearful life.

Ps 111shows us this life without fear—God gives us all we need before we even ask.

1 Cor 81-13 tackles the issues of God’s free people living as a minority among the great mass of people who live in fear. Everyone else offers blood sacrifices to statues of emperors, to fertility gods and to dozens of other idols trying to buy some control over their lives. So many people do it that a whole economy is built on trade in these sacrifices. Should the Christians in Corinth buy meat that might have been sacrificed to idols?

Mk 1.21-28 shows Jesus setting a man free from the control of just this kind of false god—an unclean spirit that’s taken over this man’s life. Jesus sets him free so what he says and does can now be his own choice. He’s no longer a puppet of an evil power. We’re free as God’s people; slaves if we’re not.

Sermon You might remember two weeks ago we heard Paul quote a slogan that was popular in Corinth: 1Cor 612 ‘All things are permissible for me.’ The Corinthian Christians loved slogans—they used them to sum up their faith. Shared slogans made them feel stronger as a tiny minority among all the idol-worshippers in Corinth.

But life’s a bit more complicated than something you can sum up in a few slogans. They wrote to Paul to ask his advice on several matters. Today it’s about buying and eating meat in a city of idols. That’s more important than it sounds. Because it’s almost certain that any meat they buy has just been offered in sacrifice to an idol. Someone will have smuggled it down to the shops so they can make a bit of extra money out of it.

The Corinthians’ letter to Paul included some of their slogans, and he quotes them back in his reply. All of us possess knowledge. No idol in the world really exists. There is no God but one.Paul agrees that these slogans are partly right, but he says the Corinthian Christians need to think carefully about the effect of acting on these slogans and buying any meat.

If you look at today’s three slogans, they echo the All things are permissible for me one we heard two weeks ago: That time, it meant ‘Jesus has set me free: I don’t have to obey all the Jewish purity laws; … … I don’t have to avoid the local customs here.’ … In today’s reading, the Corinthian letter writer’s slogans are All of us possess knowledge. No idol in the world really exists. There is no God but one.What they mean is, ‘We know better than this ignorant majority. The gods they worship don’t exist. And if they don’t exist, the animals sacrificed to them aren’t cursed or contaminated by association with them. So any meat I buy is just meat; no more. Before God, I’m free to eat it; so I’ll just go ahead and do it.

Paul agrees, but he challenges their approach. They treat it as a question about correct understanding. But Paul writes about it as a pastoral matter; about caring for other people. Buying and eating this meat might do you no harm, but could it be a problem for brothers and sisters in the Church?

What if a new Christian—someone who’s just escaped from that life of fear and appeasement; someone who looks up to you as an older Christian sister or brother—what if they see you feasting on meat that’s obviously been sacrificed to idols? Their faith isn’t strong like yours; they haven’t thought about all this; they don’t understand yet. They just see an older Christian eating with pagans v.10. What might this do to their faith?

They think if you do it, it must be okay for them.

And before you know it, they’re sucked back in their old ways, sacrificing to idols and worshipping false gods. They didn’t have the depth of faith that you have, and now they’ve been lost to Christ.

As Christians, we are all members of a family. The older ones have to look after the younger ones. The stronger ones look after the weaker ones, but in a family way; not a managerial way The strong don’t control the weak. They become weak to care for the weak. Remember Paul saying to those ‘strong’ people who dragged others off before the judge? Don’t do it! Let yourself be wronged before shaming a family member. 67b

And today, he’s saying the same thing. If my eating meat could make a younger Christian stumble in their faith, I’ll give up eating meat. They might be wrong and I might be right. I might have true knowledge, but if I don’t have love, I am nothing. Being right is not the important thing: loving my sisters and brothers is. If Jesus died for someone weak and ignorant, I’ll eat vegemite sandwiches for the rest of my life if that’s what it takes to look after them.

We know what it does in the Church when the powerful hurt the weak. And we know what it has done for all of us that Jesus humbled himself and died for our sakes. We follow him. Amen

Epiphany + 3 – Australia Day Bridgewater 2015

I missed Grant Hay’s visit in December. Grant’s is often an in-your-face type of ministry. At his support group, he’ll describe a prison chapel service, or a one-on-one talk with an inmate. He looks them in the eye and says: “You’ve got to get your life together and hand it over to Jesus, brother. Because if you don’t, there’s no way you’ll be going up there. You’ll be headed straight down to the other place!”

I thought about Grant because today’s gospel starts in prison. John the Baptist has been gaoled for doing exactly what Grant does; looking a dangerous person in the eye and giving them a message they really don’t want to hear. (cf Mk 6.14ff—Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee has imprisoned John and later beheaded him because John criticized his marital arrangements). Was John right to challenge Herod the way he did?

When I was much younger, a re-printed self-help book was all the rage; How to win friends and influence people. One chapter was ‘Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment’. Other chapters had sub-headings like ‘Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain’ and ‘Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “You’re Wrong.”’ It came out a bit late for John the Baptist, I fear, and I doubt Grant Hay would have much use for it either.

So what are we to make of our mission? Our style? What’s the recommended best-practice? Let’s look at today’s Scripture.

As we begin today’s gospel, John’s been arrested. Jesus heads to Galilee where the same Herod who imprisoned John was still very much in power. Nothing daunted, Jesus starts preaching the same message as John did: Repent and believe in the good news. I’m positive this approach wasn’t recommended in How to win friends and influence people. Yet look at him go; four new friends in five verses. Simon, Andrew, James and John: ‘Follow me’, and they drop everything and come.

I doubt they were called from a life as complicated as Grant’s, or his prison congregation either. And they certainly weren’t dangerously selfish like Herod. Just normal people really. But doesn’t that make it all the more amazing?

They didn’t have miserable, broken lives to turn from. And I’m sure they weren’t on the lookout for the sort of adventure Jesus led them on. They knew what had happened to John; they knew Jesus was preaching the same message; so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Yet they dropped everything—safe, law-abiding lives—and followed Jesus…somewhere. He didn’t say where they were going.

Is that how it was for you? I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Maybe there’s someone near you that you’d like to discuss them with.

When you were called by Jesus, did you drop everything and just go?

What were you called from?

What would life have been like if you hadn’t followed?

Quick story sharing. Any surprises? 
What if Grant didn’t confront people the way he does? What would happen to the ones he brings to Jesus—if they never met him? We in the parish believe he’s doing something good. It’s not our style, sure. But we believe he’s called to challenge and care for the people he does. And we know he’s really good at it because he speaks their language. He’s been a prisoner too; he knows what it’s like.

The Church has a history of sending people out on mission. (Cf Matthew’s community and its itinerant radicals.)

We’re doing something very much the same in our support for Grant’s ministry. And it’s remarkably similar to Jesus’ wandering, radical mission.

But are we prepared to do something like that ourselves. What if Grant and Kim decided to have some quiet family time with their kids for a year or two. Who would do that special work then? Who would drive all those thousands of kms? None of us can do quite that sort of mission because we’re not Aboriginal. Maybe we’d have to help Grant and Kim find someone appropriate. But what’s your mission? What’s mine? Maybe we’re doing it. How do we check? The 5 marks of mission.

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth .

Epiphany + 2 18-1-2015

Introduction to the readings for Epiphany + 2—18-1-2015 A & C

God knows us before we know God

1Sam 3.1-10. The little boy Samuel lived in the temple at Shiloh when Eli was the priest. Samuel’s birth was the answer to his mother Hannah’s fervent prayer, and to thank God, as soon as Samuel was weaned, she brought him to the temple and dedicated him to God’s service.
So ‘the boy grew up in the presence of the Lord.’2.21b. Today we meet him when he’s perhaps eight years old, on the night when the Lord first calls Samuel. But the boy thinks it’s Eli calling him as he ‘…did not yet know the Lord , and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.’3.7

Ps 139.1-5, 12-18. This is also about the Lord knowing a little child who isn’t remotely old enough to know who it is that keeps such careful watch over them—in fact, before the child is born or even conceived. But as we say this Psalm, we each discover in ourselves that very loved child.

1 Cor 6.12-20. Paul writes in answer to a letter 7.1 and to word-of-mouth reports about serious disorders within the church he’d founded at Corinth. 6.12 begins with Paul quoting twice a slogan that was popular in Corinth: ‘All things are permissible for me.’ But each time he quotes it, he adds a qualifier to remind them of their responsibilities. Then he goes on to illustrate this by tackling two of the problems the community is facing— the gluttony and sexual immorality of some of its members.

John 1.43-51 tells the story of Jesus’ first meeting with a man called Nathanael. In two sentences, Jesus transforms Nathanael from a doubter into a disciple; Jesus knows Nathanael as intimately as he knows himself.

It’s taken me all my life to figure out just how much my parents loved me as a child. In my Anglo-Celtic world of the ‘50s and ‘60s, parents weren’t all that gushy. It was the Mediterranean kids who had to cope with all that embarrassing, public kissing and cheek-pinching. And anyway, with me, my two brothers and my sister to deal with, I doubt Mum and Dad had much energy left for being all that demonstrative.

It’s taken a long time for me to get what they’ve done for me. It’s the years of managing life, work and above all, a family of our own that have slowly let it dawn on me. I was given a quiet, supportive freedom to become the person I wanted to be. I imagine a gushy, demonstrative Mediterranean type of love might have been a bit constricting for me.

Can you think for a moment of the way you’ve been loved? ***How that love enabled you to become a person you mightn’t have become otherwise? *** How that love has enabled you to become your true self?

The question we ask this morning is whether we can sense that love and support from God? Can we look back over our lives and say that at this point or at that time, God did something or God was there in a way that changed everything for us; that we wouldn’t be the person we are now if that hadn’t happened?

That question is the challenge our scriptures have put before us today. All our readings this morning tell us how God knows us even when we don’t know God. They tell us how God loves us before we can comprehend what that love means—like my parents with me.

How did you experience the Psalm? Did you discover yourself in the beloved child whose voice the Psalm speaks with? What about the story of the little boy Samuel? Did you receive God’s call so early in your life? Or were you surprised later on in life like Nathanael was?

I’ve talked about the way my parents’ love for me was freeing—it set me free to become who I wanted to be. But that’s not to say it didn’t involve a bit of discipline. I learnt the principle that freedom has its responsibilities too. We do live as members of communities, and the pleasure of one member can’t be allowed to harm the lives of others. Of course that’s true for our lives in the community of God’s people too. How much freedom; how much responsibility?

That’s the issue Paul was dealing with in this letter to the Church at Corinth. Remember we heard in 6.12 how Paul quoted a slogan that was popular in Corinth: ‘All things are permissible for me.’ But each time he quoted it, he added a qualifier to remind them of their responsibilities. … but not everything is beneficial; … but I won’t be dominated by anything.

This slogan was probably their take on something Paul taught them when he first established the church community there. He would have told them that believers aren’t subject to the Law like people were before the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now they are freed from slavery to sin—bought back from that slavery at the cost of Jesus’ blood. They are free from all the ritual obligations to do with food and Sabbaths and purity. Suddenly, all things are permissible. But they changed that slogan slightly, but significantly. ‘All things are permissible for me.’ They turned it into a right; into personal privilege rather than freedom from oppression.

That led some people to act selfishly and hurtfully. Paul challenged these people. Something might be fun, but if it’s bad for everyone else, or cuts you off from others, think again. You’re wrecking the family. Or again, you might feel you have a right to do something, but if it takes you over completely like an addiction, destroys family and community, think again.

We know what he was talking about. A bit earlier in this letter, in ch 5, Paul responds to a report of incest in the church community. And then in ch 6, he responds to reports that some in the church are dragging others off to the secular courts instead of asking senior Church members to help resolve their differences—or giving up their rights.6.7b

Paul is trying to encourage the sort of decency, thoughtfulness and self-discipline that parents seek to nurture in their children. He’s trying to call these children in the faith at Corinth to learn the difference between two different types of freedom: freedom for, and freedom to. We are free, but not to do what we like, regardless of the consequences. No, we are free so that we might grow as a community of individuals who’ll challenge the slavery and injustice that hold other people captive. We are free not for our own selfish ends, but so that we can build community.

As we grow within that discipline—as we mature as Christians—we can look back and clearly see moments where God has touched us, and made a difference through us, to transform the world. We can look back and see that like the child Samuel, like the unborn baby of the Psalm, God has always loved us and all people with a redemptive love that is perhaps only now dawning on our consciousness.
Thanks be to God who loves us so deeply. Amen.

The Baptism of our Lord 11th January 2015

The Baptism of our Lord 11th January 2015 Gen 1 1-5 Ps 29 Acts 19 1-7 Mk 1 4-11

Introduction before the readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord

The beginning of the 1st creation story from Genesis 1. The deep waters are the first thing. From the terrifying deep, an image of danger and death, God’s Spirit hovering over it calls creation and life to be born from water.

Psalm 29—which we’ll say together—recalls this creation image. God’s voice is like thunder above the great waters: God is sovereign over the water-flood, and instead of danger, gives strength & the blessing of peace.

Acts 19 will find us in Ephesus on the western coast of Turkey. We read about a brilliant Christian teacher called Apollos. He was active at the same time as Paul. But earlier, in ch 18, we find that Apollos ‘only knew the baptism of John’—the baptism of repentance. Paul’s co-workers in Ephesus, Prisc[ill]a and Aquila, heard Apollos preaching his incomplete message and took him to one side to correct his theology. He was a good student; later, when he wanted to go and preach in Greece, they gave him good references. Today we hear he’s in Greece when Paul arrives in Ephesus and finds some people who had been baptized by Apollos ‘into John’s baptism’—that is, before his theology refresher course. Paul sets them straight, and they are then baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

Our Gospel reading from Mark 1 begins with John the baptizer ‘in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ He also proclaims the one who is coming who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit’. Then Jesus comes and receives baptism from John.

In the collect prayer for the Baptism of our Lord, we pray: ‘Loving God, your Son came to seek the lost, and was baptised with sinners…’

I think it’s very beautiful that Jesus was baptised with sinners—with us—but even so, it’s a mystery. Why did he do it? John the Baptist called people to a baptism of repentance—to turn from the wrongs they had done and return to a godly life. But surely Jesus didn’t need to do that. What can we make of it?

Back in the time of John and Jesus, every good Jew would baptize themselves each morning—they would immerse themselves in a special bath called a mikveh. A mikveh is a ritual bath, an upright, rectangular pool, and mikvehs have been found in the basement of every 1st century home excavated in Galilee. The reason for this daily baptism was to keep ritually pure: Jewish men and women needed to remain ritually pure so they could participate in religious activities—come into the presence of the Holy God of Israel—and also, so they could participate in normal community life.

A mikveh dealt with impurities that happened to people, but it didn’t deal with wrongs people committed—like crimes of violence or theft—that cut them off from membership of the community; breaking God’s commandments, and so also damaging their relationship with God. John the Baptiser called people to a new type of baptism to deal with this: he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a new thing, and people knew they needed it. They flocked to John to receive this baptism of repentance. Today, we saw Jesus come to John to receive this baptism; something that’s puzzled people ever since. Why did he do it?

Two people’s ideas have struck me: one commentator says that Jesus did it to support the other people being baptized—to show his solidarity with their good decision.MDH 44 Another suggests that Jesus chose to be baptized on our behalf, which connects his baptism with his dying for us on the Cross.VSB He joined himself to us in our state of separation from God.

Paul would describe baptism as our entering into Jesus’s death ‘so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.…’ R 6.4 John described baptism as our being born again. Jn 3.3 Our understanding of baptism continued to evolve. Paul, unsatisfied with the people in Ephesus only knowing John’s baptism, made sure they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

Later on, the early Church looked at today’s Gospel story and saw Jesus in the water, the Holy Spirit descending on him and the Father’s voice blessing him from heaven. So baptism could no longer be just in Jesus’s name, but in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And baptism was no longer just about repentance; it had become the ritual of initiation into the Christian community—like circumcision was for Judaism.

And it was a deadly serious matter in the early centuries of persecution. You were prepared for at least a year before you might be baptised. And if you committed a serious sin, or if you renounced the faith to escape persecution, you might not be allowed back without years of proven faithful life.

That’s very different from what we’ve grown up with: for many people, it’s no more than a tokenistic naming ceremony. The Iranian people who have come to us in recent years have reminded us very profoundly that it’s still a matter of life and death. PTO

This quick glimpse at the history of baptism tells us one thing very clearly and consistently. We are called into a community of love; a community of self-giving grace. It’s something we must never forget, and so we will remember our own baptisms today in the Easter Renewal of Baptismal Vows.


The Feast of the Epiphany 4-1-2015

I’m very glad to see you all again. Vicky and I thank you for all your good wishes and greetings. We also wish each of you a wonderful Christmas season and a blessed new year. It’s lovely to be back home among you.
I’m very mindful of people who are not so blessed as we are. Many millions of displaced persons around the world don’t have the option of going home. They’re forced to find another place to call home. Yet communities willing to adopt these people are hard to find. Few countries or households are willing to share what we call our place with strangers. Adoption of any type is a very fraught matter, isn’t it.
Yet as we gathered outside this morning, we heard that we’ve been adopted. In the reading from Ephesians 3.6, we heard that we “…Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We strangers have been offered adoption into God’s family before we even knew we needed it: easy to say, but how do we grasp the wonder of this?
Let me try by telling you about some of the things that happened while we were away. In Cambridge, Vicky and I were made to feel that we’d been truly woven into several communities and families; Madingley Village Church, the Tyndale House scholarly community and some lovely families all adopted us. It’s a lovely, humbling experience. And for me, I’ve been adopted as a welcome member of Vicky’s lovely family in Germany. We spent a precious week with them at Xmas.
In all those contexts, we found ourselves woven into ever-new experiences of belonging. One I want to mention happened on Christmas day. Uncle Otto produced a large collection of letters he’d received long ago from Vicky’s Mum and Dad. Many of you will know that Vicky’s parents died when she was quite young. They came to Australia soon after the second world war along with many other displaced persons.
Life in post-war Europe was very hard. Shattered, mistrustful communities had almost no moral compass left beyond survival. The huge numbers of refugees were treated with fear and suspicion; they were excluded and abused. So Vicky’s parents followed a star of hope; they came to Australia to marry here and seek a better life.
These letters came from their first years in Australia. They described a society where trust and good will hadn’t been torn apart like it had been in Europe. Australians retained their ability to be generous and compassionate. One particular letter described their wedding two days after Vicky’s Mum arrived here in 1951. It described their amazement and delight at unexpected gifts from virtual strangers—pots and pans, linen, an electric kettle, an iron and many other things. They were astonished; touched and humbled by such thoughtful generosity.
As we read this letter, I thought of the refugee welcome parcels we’ve been assembling here for distribution by Anglicare—simple household goods that say, “Welcome! Make your home here.” I pray that they bring the sort of healing wonder that Vicky’s parents expressed; that they announce the sort of unconditional welcome—full adoption—that the feast of Epiphany proclaims for all of us!
The Epiphany story is filled with just this same mixture of danger and welcome for a traveller; someone who’s come to a strange place and has to rely on strangers. We see this danger/welcome mix in the Gospel story of the baby Jesus; Emmanuel—God come to be one of us. What could God mean by coming in such a vulnerable way? Strange town; improvised birth-centre, and anything could have happened with Herod nearby. We see this danger/ welcome mix too in the wise men following the star from the east—going to the capital, where you’d expect a king might be found—but then asking directions of that fiend Herod. What on earth might have happened if they’d trusted him and gone back to Jerusalem to report?
We do know what happened. But it might have been so different. The Epiphany story speaks to us about the uncertainty of our life—any moment might lead us into a whole new world; any moment might be our last. I’ve written this sermon with one ear to the fire warnings. Life is uncertain: our links to families, communities and nations can change in an instant. The Epiphany story reminds us of that very forcefully—but why? And what are we meant to do about it?
One of the people I got to study while I was away lived intensely with this very question; Ignatius, who was Bishop of Antioch in Syria during the early 2nd century of the Christian era. After conflict in his community, he was arrested and condemned to die. As he was taken under guard from Antioch through Asia Minor and Greece to his death as a martyr in the Roman Coliseum, he wrote seven letters. We’ve got a fragment of one of his letters copied in our pewsheet—his letter to the Church in Ephesus. Please open to it.
Ignatius used his last weeks writing his letters to six churches and to an old friend he would pass nearby on his forced march to his death. He wrote to encourage them to defend and teach the faith he was prepared to die for. His lovely hymn of the star of Bethlehem gives you an idea of the magnitude of his vision. The star becomes a symbol of Christ himself, the light of the world breaking in. Let’s say it together.
Ign. Eph. 19.2–3

A star shone in heaven above all the stars,
and its light was unspeakable,
and its newness was causing astonishment,

All the other stars, together with sun and moon,
became a choral dance for the star,
this one was extraordinary; its light was above all things;
and there was perplexity, whence came this new thing, so unlike them.

By this all magic was being undone,
and every bond of wickedness was being destroyed,
ignorance was being dismantled,
and the old kingdom was being utterly demolished,
as God was being humanly manifest for the newness of everlasting life,

That which had been prepared by God
received its beginning.
Hence all things were being stirred up,
because He was giving attention to the dissolution of death.

… … … … I wonder if this week, we might all meditate on this hymn from Ignatius; meditate on it as written by a man fully aware of his impending death—yet seeing in that the Epiphany mixture of danger and welcome. Maybe we might sense that for ourselves both in the reprieve we’ve had from fire in the last days, yet at the same time mindful of those who haven’t been spared. Or maybe there’s some other way we might have known that danger/welcome mix.
We might think of ourselves as people we’d never expect God to want, and yet by an act of amazing grace, we’ve been adopted—unconditionally and freely embraced as one of the family. Have we known such kindness? How do we respond?
I thought that this week, perhaps we might each write to Ignatius or Paul or Jesus—write a letter of our own. We might write about our own experience as a displaced person or a prisoner or an outsider, and say what adoption or being set free has meant for us. And that means all of us; because we’ve all been adopted; all ‘…become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.’
At a time of year when many people make new year’s resolutions, let’s write a letter to say what we’re going to do with our new chance at life; this unexpected gift that each one of us has been given so freely. You might even send it to someone to read. If yours comes my way, I’ll rejoice to read it, or to hear your thoughts in person some time.

Palm Sunday C 2010 Luke 19.28-40

There aren’t many stories you can read again and still feel the same excitement and suspense you did the first time you read it. Outside the church this morning, we heard the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—again. We’ve all heard it before; so even as we were listening to it, we knew what was going to happen next, didn’t we.

That makes it really hard for us to imagine what it was like for the people who were there that first Palm Sunday. They didn’t know what was going to happen; they just knew what Jesus had done up until that time. Some of them hoped Jesus would save them. They praised God for him, crying out, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace …!’ Others might have feared for Jesus’ safety; and yet others might have seen him as a threat. They tried to get him to silence the crowd.

As we try to recall this story right now, we’re doing our remembering while just having heard the whole of Luke’s Passion story. It’s as though we’ve camouflaged the Palm Sunday episode; it’s as though we’ve walked through an entire forest, and then turned round to try to peer through the trees to look at just one little grove in it. If we tried to retell the Palm Sunday story from memory, we might put in extra details that aren’t there, or leave things out that we think happened at a different time.

But to figure out what the Palm Sunday story really says to us, we need to be able to think about it just by itself; to think about what it was like for the people who were there. So lets think first about the people who walked with Jesus, and then the ones looking out from Jerusalem who watched him coming.

We met the people walking alongside Jesus as they approached Bethphage and Bethany. Bethany was the home town of his friends Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus; the one Jesus raised from the dead. Bethany is over the back of the Mount of Olives, just out of sight of Jerusalem.

Can you imagine the excitement?

The one who had raised Lazarus from the dead coming back to town! But he sends people ahead of him, asking them to arrange for him to borrow a colt that has never been ridden. So he has a sort of advance guard doing something odd. And when they’re asked for an explanation, they’re told simply to say ‘the Lord needs it’. People will wonder about this, and of course the advance guard will talk a little bit more than that were instructed to. They’ll pop in that detail about a colt that has never been ridden. Maybe someone can explain it to them?

People who know the scriptures might tell them that it’s about something sacred, and also something about a King “According to Num 19:2 and Deut 21:3, an animal to be used for certain sacred purposes must be chosen from those that have never been used for ordinary labour, and according to m. Sanh. 2.5, no one else may ride the king’s horse” (Tannehill, 282-283). Clever people will start putting two and two together. The one who resurrected Lazarus, the one who calls himself Lord, the one who does things foretold in the tradition, something about the holy one, about a King; the excitement will build and build.

And as they come up the back of the Mount of Olives and reach the top, Jerusalem, dominated by its gigantic Temple, slowly steals into view. He must be coming to take it. That’s what they’ll think; that’s what they shout; ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ It’s so exciting—surely they are at the centre of history in the making!

But what of the other side of the valley. What do they see? Naturally word will have gone ahead; Romans spies; Temple spies. By the time Jesus comes into view, they will know everything; all the details about the colt, all the speculation in the excited crowd.

The Temple Mount, looks out across to the steep side of the Mount of Olives—the triumphal procession will be like a slow-moving painting. The Roman headquarters, the Antonia fortress, commands a clear view both over the Temple precinct, and the Mount of Olives.
The soldiers will watch everything from their battlements. I don’t think they’ll believe it’s an insurrection—these aren’t insurgents. More likely it’s a factional battle brewing between groups of religious lunatics.

And the Temple authorities will be watching too, trying to measure the threat; preparing strategies to quench a dangerous new movement. If they don’t stop it quickly, there’ll be soldiers out on the Temple Mount imposing martial law before you know it. You can sympathise with all of them really; that is, until you think about the decisions some of them took.

What Palm Sunday calls from each of us is a decision. Luke calls us to decide whether we’re walking with the crowd of people who surround Jesus, or whether we’re watching him coming.

That’s not to say that we have to decide to feel exactly the same way those excited people coming through Bethany felt; nor that we should feel challenged the way the authorities in Jerusalem did. We can’t feel that way; because for us the story is mediated through the story of the Passion. We know that walking with the crowd is a walk to tragedy and remorse. We also know what resisting Jesus’ approach meant.

Yet the cries of the crowd tell us that Jesus’ approach is a challenge to achieve peace; heavenly peace. And we do have to make decisions about that for our own time. We have to decide what will make for peace within ourselves; peace between ourselves and others; peace between dominant groups and the people they control. God’s peace is always linked to justice.

The Gospel challenges us to enter Holy Week determined to choose for this just peace. For our parish particularly, this challenge has a special focus. We’ve spent the season of Lent studying the plight of Australia’s aboriginal people. It’s as though a procession is approaching us from another mount; the Mount of Uluru. And as we watch its approach, we have to decide what will make for God’s just peace in this land, and in our time. Amen

Lent 5 C 2010 John 12.1-8; Philippians 3.3-14

There are confronting things in today’s gospel; paradox and uncertainty. Mary of Bethany bowls us over with her extravagant gift, worth a year’s wages; but then comes the disturbingly understandable portrait of Judas; miserable and bitter. And finally Jesus’ words—so easily misinterpreted— about the poor being always with us; where do we turn?
I think to find where John is leading us, we first have to acknowledge that this gospel works at a number of levels. I’ve often said that John is a very sensory gospel—there’s lots of tasting and smelling and things in John. But often, if John says see or hear, it’s not only physical seeing and hearing that’s intended, but spiritual awakening and insight as well.
Take Mary’s gift of nard to Jesus. It’s strangely given; not given to keep and use; it’s squandered on Jesus’ feet. It’s given to everyone there in its perfume, but no-one will ever be able to use it again. It’s given as though there’s no tomorrow. What’s she saying? Where’s she taking us?
Earlier in the Gospel, we heard Mary’s sister Martha say who Jesus really was. Now Mary says it too. But she says much more: she also says what will happen now he’s come to Jerusalem; he’ll be killed. Martha told Jesus privately that he was the Messiah/anointed one.(11.27) Today, Mary proclaims it publicly and physically when she anoints Jesus. And there’s more; she also invokes the type of anointing that has to do with the dead. She does what we do when we know the death of a loved one is near. Before they die, we do everything we can to let them know we love them; to tell them who they are to us.
She knows where he’s heading, and yet she doesn’t try to stop him. I think of the children watering the wheat today as being very similar to Mary’s anointing of Jesus for his burial. They’re wasting it if we think of it as food; and that’s how we could see what Mary did with the perfume, if you think of it like Judas did. But for us, the wasted wheat and perfume are signs of hope for a new, life-giving life; signs that God’s abundance allows for death, but it also inspires us to look for resurrection to a new, wonderful life again.
So Mary’s gesture isn’t just extravagant; it’s prophetic, it’s a proclamation of who Jesus is—God’s anointed one—the one God’s people had looked for for a thousand years or more. It’s also a well-wishing; ‘Godspeed the feet of the one embarking on this perilous journey.’ It’s a sign—the last in John’s book of signs before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Why can’t Judas be like Mary of Bethany? For that matter, why can’t all Jesus’ followers pour ourselves out like she did? Maybe like Judas, people struggle to come to terms with a God whose extravagance is so great that it blocks out even the terror of death—never mind tomorrow’s grocery bill. Poor Judas is trapped in the pragmatic world—one where you make sure you’re prepared for things—even to the point of dishonesty; where you keep enough fuel in the tank for emergencies; where you scrimp and save when you can, because you’re afraid of what’s round the corner.
Even though he’s one of Jesus’ disciples, somehow Judas can’t see who Jesus is the way Mary and Martha can. Surely there are good reasons for his mixed fear and zeal. But Judas tells us for sure that our convictions and our ethics can’t be the engine or the foundation of our faith. That only comes from discovering who Jesus really is.
That’s what Paul was saying in the epistle reading today. You could read Paul in a way that makes you think he’s driven by remorse for what he once was. But that’s not what he’s saying. Paul senses that Jesus has claimed him as his own, and he’s stunned with gratitude. So every bit of energy Paul expends; every struggle is because of Jesus’ grace to him. He’s not looking behind; he’s looking forward, ‘…driven by his own personal experience of grace; pure, unexpected, unearned, outrageous grace.’(Phil 3.14)
Outrageous grace demands an extravagant response; that’s just what Mary did; that’s Paul’s journey. But Judas, poor soul, couldn’t see the grace. And I’m sure he’s not alone. We all need more Marys of Bethany to tell us that the fear and suffering and misery of this world are not the defining realities of being. It’s so healing when we meet these reckless givers! They transform our world. The world needs more people to give confrontingly.
Our giving to the poor and needy, our prayers for the sick, the sad and the unloved; for those burdened with responsibilities they may have deliberately sought but which eat them alive—these, our gifts and prayers are strange if we think of them as inputs for which we expect outcomes.
But they make perfect sense when they are seen for what they really are; a response to the Jesus who has met us, has called us, who has shown us the way of self-giving, joyful abundant extravagance. We are to bless the world with a model of infectious extravagance that bubbles out of our thanks for God’s grace to us. To whom be glory and praise. Amen