The God who subverts

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Epiphany 6C
17 February 2019

 

[ video ]

We really should have expected this from a god who gets himself born to an unwed mother.

“Blessed are you who are poor … woe to you who are rich …
Blessed are you who are hungry now … woe to you who are full now …”

What is this bleeding-heart left-wing nonsense that they are reading in churches all over the world today?

Oh? It is Jesus! Really?

I do not like him saying things like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.

Read my lips, says Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

It has been very so tempting to stop right there and go back to my seat …

Enough said?

More than enough for us to work on during the week?

 

 

 

 

As I reflect on the Beatitudes in Luke a few things strike me:

Luke’s version is usually seen as closer to what Jesus would have actually said.

Luke’s version moves from speaking about “them” to addressing us (“you”). We have moved from ideas to praxis, from theory to real life.

Luke’s version is more confronting for people like us.

We are not poor, for the most part …

We are not hungry now, or really ever …

We do not have much reason to be sad, and the things that should make us weep we mostly ignore …

We rarely have people saying seriously bad stuff about us …

On the other hand …

We are rich, compared to most people alive in the world now and almost everyone else in human history …

We are so full so much of the time that we have health issues from over-consumption …

We love to laugh and be entertained, and we prefer politicians who promise to keep us safe from scary people and nasty situations … even when we know they are lying

We mostly are people about whom others speak well …

We are respectable, comfortable, nice and good people.

We are Anglicans.

We are Cathedral people!

 

Jesus according to Luke

You may recall that this is the Year of Luke, and we are paying special attention to Luke’s way of talking about Jesus this year.

As we noticed in the Dean’s Forum a couple of weeks back, Luke wrote for people like us: nice people with comfortable lives and some degree of social status.

Yet Luke preserves the prophetic words of Jesus in a form that disturbs us and make us uncomfortable.

Were Jesus standing for parliament most of us would not vote for him.

He would raise our taxes and spend the funds on assistance to the poor.

And he wants our vote?

No, Jesus does not want our vote. It is much worse than that. Jesus wants our whole being: our hearts, our minds, our assets and our souls.

He is no politician.

Jesus is far more dangerous than a politician.

 

Captain’s pick

In recent Australian politics we have experienced the famous “captain’s pick” on more than one occasion.

God makes captain’s picks as well, but she does it differently.

God chooses the poor, the widows, the orphans, the overlooked younger sibling, the refugees and the asylum seekers, the collaborators (“tax collectors”) and the women with reputations (“the sinners”).

Phew! That gives us all a chance …

That is why the priest says each Sunday as we are called to the Table of Jesus:

The gifts of God for the people of God.
Holy things for holy people.
Broken things for broken people.

 

We are all people with some form of brokenness in our lives: sometimes that brokenness is visible but most of the time it is invisible.

But the God who subverts calls us (yes, us) to be agents of change and communities of reconciliation.

The victory song that Luke puts on the lips of Mary in his carefully crafted account of the conception and birth of Jesus captures the essence of the Holy Rebel from Nazareth:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:46–53 NRSV)

 

Christians who really believe these words change the world … starting with Grafton.

 

 

 

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The God who calls

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Epiphany 5C
10 February 2019

 

[ video ]

Sometimes the readings that are served up by the lectionary are a bit sparse when it comes to offering stimulus material for a sermon. But this week we have a feast of classic texts, each of which could trigger one or more sermons.

Don’t worry. I am only going to give one short sermon today!

As you know, we are still in the season of Epiphany; that time in between Christmas and Lent. This is a time when we are invited to reflect on ways in which we have gained some kind of insight into the ways of God with our soul or with our world.

Those epiphany moments when faith just makes sense, precious moments indeed.

They may not answer our questions, but they kind of make the questions less important as we embrace a larger kind of truth.

Indeed, as we shall see this morning, sometimes those insights turn our lives upside down!

There was an epiphany moment in each of the three readings this morning, and more than one in a couple of the readings.

Isaiah 6—a high official in the royal court of Jerusalem is attending yet another religious ceremony in the Temple, but this time it was a conversion experience! He was about to be drawn into a whole new ministry as a prophet, and he would leave a legacy whose impact is still felt today. He had been to the Temple numerous times, but this time it was different.

1 Corinthians 15—Paul is reciting a list of resurrection appearances by the risen Jesus when he describes his own calling to be an apostle. As Paul says, he was an enemy of the Jesus movement and actively persecuting anyone suspected of being a Christian. He was not likely to become the most important interpreter of Jesus ever. Yet God turned his life around and we still pay attention to Paul when we try to understand how to practice our faith.

Luke 5—it was just another regular fishing day for Peter and his business partners. No catch at all last night despite the hours spent out on the lake. A little distance away he could see Jesus from Nazareth talking to crowds of people on the lake shore about the kingdom of God, but Peter was not even listening. He had nets to clean and mend before they went out again that night in search of fish. Then Jesus comes and asks Peter to take him a short distance offshore in his fishing boat so he could keep on talking to the crowds without being pushed into the lake! Afterwards, this cocky carpenter even told him where to find fish. What would he know? Worse still, he was right! They caught the biggest load of fish Peter had ever seen. Almost sunk his boat and his partner’s boat under the weight of all those fish. As Jesus said, it was time to leave the fishing trade and go learn how to fish for people!

Those are not just weird stories from 2000 years ago or more.

That stuff still happens.

Tomorrow we mark 40 years since I was ordained as a priest, but that was not the career I had in mind as I came to the end of Year Twelve. I was heading for the military. The forms for Duntroon were already completed and waiting to be posted. But someone who knew nothing of my plans was used by God to turn my life pathway upside down and inside out. The forms for Duntroon never got posted.

If we had time to go around the church this morning and if people felt safe enough to share their personal life stories, I suspect we would find many other stories of lives turned around or even upside down by this audacious God who calls; the God who disturbs and overthrows our best-made plans.

We really should have a sign at the west doors of this Cathedral warning people not to come inside:

ALERT!

ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

YOU MAY DISCOVER THAT

GOD HAS A PURPOSE FOR YOUR LIFE

IF YOU ENTER THIS SACRED PLACE

WITH AN OPEN HEART

OR EVEN ONE THAT IS CLOSED

 

Even the kids who are causing trouble again as they steal candles and mess up the sound system cables may find that God is messing with their lives while they think they are being so tough and so smart. Perhaps they should ask Paul? He was one tough dude until God got at him.

Actually, the sign would be of no use—except maybe to stimulate discussion, and that might be a good thing.

Even staying away from the Cathedral will not stop God from touching your heart and calling you into service.

Even those hundreds of Grafton Anglicans who demonstrate their solid Anglican identity by avoiding worship except for Baptisms and funerals may find that God has plans for them as well. As indeed she does.

Wherever we are and whatever our current disposition, God has a purpose for our lives and God will persist in calling us to embrace that calling for our sake and for the sake of others.

Our job as a Cathedral community is to be a safe and supportive place for people to explore what God’s call on their life looks like and to support them as they start the journey God is calling them to make.

If we can be that kind of faith community others will be blessed and the world will be transformed.

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Intentional discipleship

This essay was published in the February 2019 issue of North Coast Anglican which will be available in churches across the Diocese of Grafton this morning.

 

In the liturgical afterglow of Advent and Christmas with all those special services and all that wonderful music, we pause and catch our breath.

The season of Epiphany—like its more rigorous cousin, Lent—invites us to reflect on the many ways that we encounter the God who reaches out to us and then to fashion our response to Emmanuel, God with us.

We are invited into intentional discipleship, as distinct from an inherited religious identity.

Discipleship is a word that is closely associated with Jesus and the responses people made to him on the other side of Calvary, before the Easter triumph transformed their views of his significance.

To my surprise when doing a recent word study in preparation for one of the Dean’s Forums at the Cathedral, I discovered that this is not a word ever used by Paul. It is a term only found in the four NT gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, written originally as part two of the Gospel of Luke.

The difference between the Gospels and the Epistles is stark.

MAQETES in NT

So to be a disciple is to be someone with an intentional relationship with Jesus.

To have beliefs and opinions about Jesus is not the essence of discipleship, even though disciples will have beliefs and opinions that matter deeply to us.

An intentional relationship with Jesus?

That would be a continuous Epiphany experience as we discover more and more about God’s loving and compassionate purposes for the universe, including our own selves.

That would be a lifelong commitment to shape our lives around the beliefs and practices that mattered to Jesus.

That would be to engage in compassionate action to bring the effective reign of God into the lived experience of our families, friends and local communities.

An intentional relationship with Jesus is going to be about practice (what we do and how we treat people) more than with ideas (what we believe and how we explain our faith to others).

As the practical Christian wisdom found in the Letter of James puts it: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)

As Anglicans, we are blessed with a rich heritage of spiritual practices that can be embraced as we commit to intentional discipleship. Some of them (like Baptism) are a once in a lifetime event, while others are practices that we can use regularly in our own spiritual disciplines.

Gathering with other believers for the Lord’s Supper is perhaps the first and greatest spiritual discipline for anyone who is serious about intentional discipleship. We need to ensure that our weekly Eucharistic gatherings are engaging and transformative, and not simply a case of going through the motions. What we celebrate in the Eucharist is the saving presence of God in Jesus and among us. Our liturgies should express that dynamic reality.

Prayer is at the heart of intentional discipleship. At its most basic level, this means we cultivate mindfulness: we are attentive to the presence of Christ within us, in others, and around us. Our personal and collective rituals can help us develop and sustain our mindfulness, and from that will flow a deeper experience of prayer in all its forms: contemplation, thanksgiving, protest, and intercession.

Deep engagement with the Scriptures is another of the core spiritual disciplines for anyone who is serious about intentional discipleship. The church already offers many patterns for daily and weekly attention to Scripture, and there is no shortage of Bible reading plans online and in your local Christian bookstore. As the fitness gear retailers constantly remind us: just do it.

Eucharist, prayer and Bible reading are the big three spiritual disciplines for intentional discipleship, but there are many more. These include cell groups, compassionate action for justice and environmental stewardship, fasting, labyrinth, pilgrimage, preparing a rule of life, sacrificial distribution of our own resources for mission, spiritual direction, and volunteering our time for church and community projects.

Which of these spiritual disciplines we embrace depends on our circumstances and perhaps our personalities, but the call to intentional discipleship is universal.

Imagine the transformation in our mission as a Diocese and in the communities we serve if every North Coast Anglican was actively engaged in intentional discipleship.

 

 

Additional note: A video of the Dean presenting a session on intentional discipleship as part of the My Faith My Life My Church program at Grafton Cathedral is available on the Cathedral website

 

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Reflections | 3 Comments

Colonies of grace and communities of reconciliation

Epiphany 3C / Australia Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
27 January 2019

 

[ video ]

At first glance those readings do not have much to do with Australia Day.

Of course, they were not chosen for their relevance to our national day, but are simply the readings set for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

Each week the liturgy team has the task of seeing how the readings intersect with our lives as a faith community and as a civic community. Robert is selecting anthems and songs that engage with the readings while also expressing our story of faith. And the preacher seeks to tease all this out in a way that provokes us to deeper thought and more faithful action.

The process is the same every week, but this time the focus is on Australia.

Mixed messages

This is a more complex challenge than usual because the relationship between religion and the nation is complex and at times contested.

As Anglicans, we have our own history in all this as well, and that complicates the task when we try to think clearly about the intersection of national identity and Christian faith.

There have been times in history when this was an easier matter.

Our first reading comes from when there was no separation between religion and national identity. Nehemiah has summoned the entire population of the province of Yehud in the time of the Persian Empire. They are about to hear a big chunk of the Bible read out in a language they no longer spoke, and then they are obliged to accept those texts as the basis of their national life together.

Religion was closely integrated into public life, and the ruler regulated religion as a tool for staying in power and keeping people in their place.

Fast forward about 400 years and we come to the scene in the Gospel reading as Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. The public sphere was still regulated by empire, but Jesus was launching a religious reform movement that will eventually subvert the Roman Empire and every other empire that would follow it.

As his most influential interpreter, Paul of Tarsus, would write about 20 years after Easter:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Like everyone else in the ancient world and up until very recent times even in the West, Jesus lived in a world where your nationality mattered very little. What counted most was the empire that controlled everything.

Allegiance to the empire was expressed in religious terms. The emperor was understood as a manifestation, an epiphany, of the gods. The emperor was your Lord and your saviour.

The ancient Jews were mostly exempted from emperor worship, but the Temple in Jerusalem was required to offer sacrifices for the empire and its emperor every day of the year.

Jesus’ axiom—give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what belongs to God—reflects the complex dynamics of life under the empire.

So, to paraphrase Jesus, what do we give to the nation, and what can we only give to God?

Beyond the wars of religion

140 years before the First Fleet landed in Botany Cove these questions were resolved for many Europeans in the Treaty of Westphalia. That treaty—which remains unknown to most people—has largely shaped our experience of religion in a society that is essentially secular.

Indeed, while we tend to think that we enjoy freedom of religion, in fact the Treaty of Westphalia was about freedom from religion.

After 80 years of war between Catholics and Protestants, Europe was exhausted and the solution was a treaty that limited religion to the personal and private sphere, while insisting that all citizens exercise their rights and their duties without regard to each other’s religion.

So, for example, as an Anglican government official, I could no longer discriminate against my Presbyterian neighbour when he applied for a permit. And the Catholic working in the Post Office could not refuse to accept my mail. In our public life within civil society, religion was banished to the private realm of personal choice and family life.

This mindset was at the heart of the new colonies being established in this ancient land.

The evils of religious wars and sectarian conflicts were to be avoided. There would be no established religion. When the constitution was drafted for the Commonwealth of Australia, the new parliament was banned from making any laws to promote or favour one religion over another.

We live in one of the first explicitly secular societies in human history, and that means we need to rethink the mission of the church to the nation and within the nation.

The Church in the public square

We find ourselves closer to the situation of Jesus than to Nehemiah.

As a Cathedral we seek to serve our local community, whatever people’s religious identity, but we do not endorse our current constitutional arrangements over any other. We do not prefer republics to monarchies. We do not support one political party over another.

Each of us will have our own opinions about all those matters, but as a church we have little to give to Caesar and we do not seek to impose our beliefs on the nation nor its parliament.

As citizens in a democracy we can act individually and collectively to promote particular causes, but as a church we interact with the nation on another level.

So what do we bring to the table this national day?

We do not seek privilege and power.

But we do speak for justice and we do seek to serve.

Again, we find ourselves closer to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth than to Nehemiah in the square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Our role is not to legislate or even to enforce.

Our role is to be agents of God’s love in every part of Australian life.

The Spirit of the Lord has come upon us (do we really believe that?) … We are anointed to bring good news to the poor … We have been sent to proclaim release for captives (those in detention centres?) … We have been sent to proclaim recovery of sight to those who cannot see the way ahead … We have been sent to let the oppressed go free (welcoming asylum seekers?) … We have been sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

We are not just to talk about good news, freedom, new vision, liberty and blessing. That would be far too easy.

Our mission is to be a Cathedral community where people find hope, meaning, freedom, acceptance, inclusion, healing, a helping hand, a listening ear, and a caring heart.

That is our gift to the city and to the nation on this Australia Day weekend.

Imagine how we can transform our city and indeed the nation when the churches of this land embrace God’s call to be that kind of community. No longer religious rivals, but colonies of God’s grace and communities of genuine reconciliation.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

800 bottles of your best wine, please

Epiphany 2C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
20 January 2019

 

[ video ]

All around the world today, the Gospel reading in all the mainline churches today will be that story we have just heard: Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana, a village quite close to Nazareth.

For Kefr Kana, this is their day.

Anyone who can do that would certainly attract a strong following.

How many “likes” would Jesus have scored on Facebook that week?

And how many letters to the editor would have demanded that he should stick to religion and stop undermining the moral fabric of the community?

The point of the story is not the quality of the wine (the best ever tasted by the MC on the night) or the staggering quantities produced: 600 litres of wine!

This is a symbolic story, a story of transformation, together with the promise that the best is yet to come (“you have the best until last”).

So let’s tease it out briefly to see what spiritual wisdom there may be for us in this ancient story today.

 

Jesus was at a wedding

A Middle Eastern wedding is a big deal and they last several days.

There was lots of catering, and the host could not run short of food or wine. Haraam, Shame, for the groom’s family in such a situation.

What I like most about this story is simply that Jesus turned up at family events and major community celebrations.

It would have been perfect for us today—as we baptise Isabella, Isabell and Ivy— had this story been about Jesus turning up at a Baptism, or at least to the party afterwards.

No shortage of wine, folks.

And he was a pretty deft hand at coming up with extras food as needed; provided you like pita bread and dry fish.

Do not get distracted by the miracle.

The headline here is that Jesus hangs out with regular people and does ordinary stuff.

As these girls grow up that is the mindset we need to share with them: Jesus is with us, even when everything seems ordinary. Especially at such times.

 

Water turns into wine

We would pack this place several times a day on Sunday if I could promise to turn your containers of water into beautiful fine wine.

A friend of mine whose kids I baptised many years ago, used to say every time we caught up at a BBQ: Fr Greg, when you get a licence on Sundays, I will be in church.

In the Gospel of John this transformation of water into wine is called a sign.

It is not about the water, or even about the wine: although it was really good wine and there was lots and lots of it. Around 800 bottles of wine!

Even the Bible says this is a sign, a symbolic story, and not something to be taken literally.

In the story, Jesus turns water into wine.

Every day, Jesus turns our ordinary lives into something else, something more.

If people really understood that we would indeed be packing this place every Sunday, because what happens here is better than any other ‘upgrade’ available around town.

Again, this is the secret to a fantastic life that we all need to share with these three girls, with everyone around us, and indeed with that toughest audience: ourselves.

We are going to share that secret recipe for a good life with them, and we are signing up for that today. All of us.

 

Keep the best until last

There is a great little punch line in that ancient story.

When the MC tastes this extra wine that has suddenly turned up at the wedding, he calls the groom over and speaks with him:

‘Hey, mate. What is going on here. Most people serve the best wine first and when folk are already drunk they bring out the cheap stuff. But you have kept the best wine until last. You are crazy man!”

Well, it was something like that. It’s a rough translation.

Sometimes we feel like our best days are behind us.

Old folks can feel like that.

So can young marrieds.

And new parents can feel like that as well.

We cannot do what we used to enjoy …

Guess what, the best is yet to come. God keeps the best until last. Now.

For the parents, godparents and extended families of these three girls the best is yet to come. There is so much more to experience, to learn, to share, to celebrate. The best has been kept until last. And last starts now.

Let’s go baptise these girls …

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

The Baptism of the Lord

Christ Church Cathedral
Baptism of the Lord
13 January 2019

 

[ video ]

Slowly Christmas is receding into the distance behind us.

The last couple of weeks have been a little like driving down the highway and seeing the places we have been becoming smaller and more distant as we move into our future.

For the next several weeks we will be in the season known as Epiphany, the time in between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Throughout the epiphany season we are celebrating many different ways in which God becomes known by us, or if you like, is manifest to us.

As we engage with the Scriptures and reflect on our lived experience during these coming weeks we will be looking to discern different ways in which God becomes known and real to us.

 

The baptism of Jesus

We begin this series as always with the baptism of Jesus and this morning I simply want to share a series of reflections with you, with the invitation that you will take the one which most interests you and reflect on it further during the week ahead.

I want to organise these reflections as a series of progressively deeper answers to the seemingly simple question: why celebrate the baptism of Jesus?

 

Reason #1: because it happened

The baptism of Jesus is one of the most certain historical events in his life. It ranks up there alongside the crucifixion is something whose historicity we can be totally confident about. It may not strike us as such an awkward story, but the account of Jesus being baptised by John was an inconvenient truth for the earliest Christians.

To appreciate that we need to understand the followers of John represented a rival reform movement within second Temple Judaism. For the followers of Jesus to remember that the founder of their movement had started out as a follower or disciple of John the Baptist required them to acknowledge some kind of debt from Jesus to John.

This is not a topic that I want to linger over today and I have discussed it at other times, but it is worth noting that the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke all describe Jesus’ baptism by John while the Gospel of John offers an extended treatment of the relationship between John and Jesus, with a reference to the baptism having taken place ‘off stage’.

So we are celebrating a moment in the life of the historical Jesus, and it is a point which hints at a rather more complicated relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist than any of the early Christians really wanted to speak about.

 

Reason #2: the baptism marks a point of transition

As the early gospel writers tell the story, the baptism of Jesus by John represents the beginning of his public activity as the prophet of God’s kingdom within second Temple Judaism. This is the moment, as it were, when Jesus steps onto the public stage.

Again, I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this particular point, but it strikes me as significant that none of the canonical gospels show any interest in the childhood of Jesus or in his adult activities prior to his baptism. The nearest we get to such an interest is the unique story in Luke chapter 2 with the 12-year-old Jesus choosing to remain behind in Jerusalem and engage in conversation with the leading scholars of his time.

Generally speaking, in the biblical tradition as we also find in the creeds, Christianity has no interest in what happened to Jesus prior to his baptism by John.

Think about that for a moment.

Despite all the fuss we make at Christmas time, the New Testament never refers to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth nor to his childhood nor to his early activities as an adult prior to stepping onto the stage round about the age of 30 years. Considering that many peasants in first century Palestine barely lived that long, this is a fairly remarkable oversight.

In any case, whatever Jesus was up to as a child and a young adult, we mark a fresh beginning in his life and in his public career with his baptism by John.

 

Reason #3: the spiritual roots of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus actually takes us deep into the lived spirituality of second Temple Judaism and it has very little in common with the baptisms that we will be celebrating here in the Cathedral next Sunday morning.

What is happening at the baptism of Jesus is something which is fundamentally and intrinsically Jewish.

It is very easy for us to assimilate Jesus into our life experience including our personal spiritual practices, our religious culture. However Jesus was a person of Jewish identity and his religious practices were significantly different from our own.

Let me just list some of the things which would have been taken as perfectly normal religious practice for Jesus, mostly items we would find rather strange:

  • I keep referring to Jesus in the context of second Temple Judaism, and that phrase reminds us that the temple stood at the very centre of Jewish public life and was the focus for all of their aspirations for an encounter with God.
  • Animal sacrifices took place in that temple with hundreds if not thousands of animals being killed every day and vast amounts of incense being required as sacred a room freshener to cover up the smell.
  • Frequent ritual washings were such a central part of Jewish spirituality at the time that the presence or absence of mikvot, ritual bathing installations, is one of the pieces of evidence archaeologists assess when determining whether the site they are excavating was occupied by Jews or Gentiles.
  • In addition to the temple, Jewish people also gathered for prayers and readings in the local synagogue, most likely on Friday evening or Saturday morning.
  • In these gatherings participants were strictly segregated on the basis of gender.
  • The weekly Sabbath observance was a point of distinction between Jews and their neighbours, and it was observed with some care.
  • Strict food laws including rules about people with whom one could not ever eat were central to Jewish identity and social practice. Even though Jesus often transgressed these rules, they were very important to him and to his contemporaries.
  • And perhaps we also tend to forget that Jewish culture at this time was strictly iconoclastic with no images of humans or animals being permitted in a Jewish home or in a Jewish public space.

From that preliminary listing, you might well already be starting to think that second Temple Judaism was more like Islam than Christianity. There is indeed a significant cultural gap between Jesus and ourselves, and this is made particularly clear on an occasion like this when we celebrate Jesus’ own participation in the religious rituals of his own community.

 

Reason #4: the authentic religious experience of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus is not simply a moment of transition in his adult life nor is it simply a reminder that Jesus was an active participant in the normal rituals of the Jewish religion in Palestine in his time. The baptism of Jesus is also a story that invites us to recognise that Jesus had his own authentic personal religious experiences.

That may be something about which we have not thought very much.

We might have the unexamined assumption in the back of our minds that Jesus maintained a continuous conversation between himself and God the Father as he went through each day. However, that is probably not a helpful way to understand the humanity of Jesus and the mystery of his vocation as the human face of God.

Like all of us, Jesus would have developed a sense of awe in the face of the mystery of existence and like some of us he came to understand that the sacred dimension of life could best be understood as the God calls us into being and invites us into the future.

Just as we each have to discover our own vocation and calling, so Jesus had to grow in his understanding of himself and of what faithfulness to God was going to mean for him in his own unique particularity.

In other words, Jesus had a spiritual life and this included moments of religious experience.

The baptism by John in the Jordan River may well have been one such pivotal religious experience for Jesus. We will never know, because Jesus’ own observations and reactions are not recorded in any of the gospels. But we can use our imagination with care and self-discipline in order to appreciate some of the dynamics which must surely have been operating for Jesus.

 

Reason #5: the value of ritual

A final reflection that I want to offer this morning concerns the value of ritual.

On one level, of course, Jesus did not need to be baptised by John. Most of the Gospels make that very clear as they wrestle with the question of why Jesus would have been baptised by John.

In the Gospel of Matthew, John even asked that question and Jesus replies by saying, Let it be for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.

I think Matthew has it right when he understands that doing the right thing and being the right kind of person requires us to appreciate, to value, and to participate in ritual of various kinds.

Some of these rituals are simply the personal practices we develop in our own lives. How we begin the day, how we end the day, how we exercise mindfulness at various times throughout the day. They may extend to favourite colours or particular pieces of jewellery or any number of personal choices that we make. When these rituals are taken away from us we have a deep sense of loss.

There is another whole set of rituals relating to our home life, a life we share that intimate community of people we call family. These rituals come in many varieties and may change over time but we realise how significant they are for us when we find ourselves with another group people whose family rituals are different from our own, or when a guest from another family spends some time with ours.

In public life we know the value of ritual, whether it’s the courtesy of giving way to other vehicles as we approach the bridge or a major civic occasion such as Anzac Day. Ritual not only expresses our deepest identity and values, but can also facilitate our shared lives as a community and as a nation. Again, we often only realise how significant these familiar rituals are for us when we find ourselves away from Australia and in a place where different rituals shape the day-to-day experience of the people with whom we find ourselves.

In our religious life we also know the value of rituals, whether that be coming into the Cathedral to light a candle or participating in a major religious festival. The Cathedral itself is a piece of ritual executed in brick and standing at a prominent location in the heart of Grafton.

We like to have our West doors open despite the risk that creates, because that little act in itself says something about our openness to our neighbours. Opening the doors every morning is a ritual that reminds us to open our hearts and open our minds to those we meet that day. And for those who could walk past the Cathedral during the day, the open doors are both an invitation and an expression of trust. We are not closing our doors to keep you out. Our doors are open. We trust you. We are not afraid of you.

Of course, for Christians, the greatest ritual is the celebration of the Eucharist as we take bread and wine to participate in a meal together at the table of Jesus. It is not just the ritual at the table, but the entire shape of the Eucharist offers us a way to ritualize our lived experience during the week.

We are people who gather,
we are people who reflect on our performance and seek reconciliation,
we are people who listen to Scripture,
we are people who explore and wrestle with God’s truth,
we are people who pray,
giving thanks for God’s blessings and sharing our concerns for a broken world,
we are people who bring our gifts in the service of God’s kingdom
and out of compassion for others,
we are people who break the bread and we bless the cup,
we are people who seek to nurture the life of Jesus within us,
we are people who go out into the world transformed and inspired to be Jesus people in the city day after day.

 

At one level today we celebrate the simple event took place in the life of Jesus.

But at another level we are being invited to understand the importance of our own community of spiritual practice (which for Jesus was second Temple Judaism) and the value of ritual in so many different areas of our life.

I invite you to reflect on both those lines of thought during the week ahead.

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We three kings and then some

Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral
6 January 2018

 

[ video ]

Here we are on the twelfth day of Christmas in the West, while tonight our friends in the Middle East begin their Christmas celebrations. Antiochene Christians, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Russian Orthodox and Syriac Christian communities begin their celebration after sunset today. For Armenians, Christmas begins on January 19.

The major celebration, of course, will be at the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Orthodox faithful from different national and linguistic communities will gather for prayer and singing prior to the start of the liturgy.

At the centre of those celebrations will be the venerated cave where tradition says the birth of Jesus occurred. Controversy around the star on the floor of the holy cave is sometimes thought to have been a trigger for the Crimean War in 1853–56.

Both in the West and in the East, this is a day when we celebrate the legend of the wise men who—in Matthew’s Gospel—come from afar to venerate the newborn king of the Jews.

 

Midrash

Considerable energy has been spent on the historical problems presented by this traditional story which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. For those most part the message of this fictional story is completely lost amidst all the sound and fury as people debate whether such a magical star could have happened, or how these oriental visitors chose their gifts for the Christ Child.

This morning, I invite you to join me in an exercise of intentional listening to the Gospel of Matthew, so that we might discern the significance of this story which Matthew has carefully woven into his ‘midrash’ about the birth of the Messiah.

Midrash is a form of Jewish education in which a story is developed around a simpler biblical or historical moment, to explain how it happened and also to explore the deeper meaning of the event.

For example, ancient Jews such as St Paul were familiar with a midrash about the rock in the wilderness that flowed with water when struck by Moses. The midrash solved the problem about how the people got water on other days and at other locations, without leaving a trail of leaking rocks all over the wilderness—and turning the desert into a green parkland. In the midrash this technical problem was solved by the same rock magically relocating with the Israelites each time they moved. Indeed, in some versions of the story the rock went from tent to tent making home deliveries of the fresh water!

Paul cited the midrash in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5: “… for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Paul does not quote the legend, but he assumes that his readers know about it, and he extends the legend by claiming that the supernatural rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness from one location to another (which they all knew about) was actually Christ.

Midrash invites us into a story and within that story we find a deeper truth being presented, but it is a form of truth that is not mortgaged to historicity.

So, rather than be distracted by discussions over the historicity of the wise men coming to present gifts to the Christ Child, let’s explore why Matthew is telling this tale and what he is seeking to communicate with his readers.

 

The birth of Jesus in Matthew

Matthew seems to preserve the earliest written story about the birth of Jesus.

It was not a tradition found in Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark written at least a few years earlier.

And it was not a tradition that was of any interest to the contemporary Gospel of John. As we see in John 6:42 (“They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”), the Gospel of John simply assumes that Joseph and Mark were the parents of Jesus even though John also affirms most clearly the divinity of Jesus in the famous Logos hymn that serves as the prologue for that gospel.

When the Gospel of Luke is written even later, it has a very different midrash that seems to play with a parallel between the births of John and Jesus and the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus.

As we prepare to explore Matthew’s infancy midrash, we can note that the point of these birth stories was not to establish his divinity but rather to clarify his calling as the prophet of God, the one who comes to ‘save’ his people.

Matthew has crafted his story about the birth of Jesus very carefully so that it fits Jesus into the biblical drama of salvation:

He begins with a genealogy that is selective (with three sets of 14 ancestors), but traces Jesus back to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people (and of the Arabs, as it happens).

Cleverly woven into that list of male ancestors are four women, each of them with something irregular about their sexual history:

Tamar, a widow who pretends to be a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law to secure her rights within the family (see Genesis 38, but be warned this content is for adult readers only);

Ruth, a foreign woman from Moab, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David after spending the night with her future husband to secure his intervention on her behalf (see Ruth 3);

Bathsheba, who is not named here but simply listed as the “wife of Uriah”—a woman who David sexually abused and then arranged to have her husband murdered so that he could add Bathsheba to his harem (see 2 Samuel 11); and

Mary, who was discovered to be pregnant even before Joseph had slept with her.

Then we met a character named Joseph. Guess what? God speaks to him in dreams. Well, what else who happen to a guy called Joseph, a Jewish listener would say. Apart from being sent down to Egypt, which happens in Matthew 2!

This Joseph is both a dreamer, and an upright man, who seeks to treat the women in his life properly. So already the readers of Matthew are beginning to think about Joseph, Egypt and Exodus/liberation as the framework for the story of Jesus that Matthew is about to tell them.

By now Matthew’s readers have also been alerted to the idea that we do not need to have a perfect family background for God to be at work among us, and for God to use us to move God’s purposes ahead.

For many people even that wee bit of the story is good news indeed. ‘Broken things for broken people’.

Joseph is told to go ahead with his plans to marry Mary and to treat the unborn child as his own. He is even instructed on what name to give the child.

The child is not to be called ‘Joseph’, as a traditional Jew may have expected, but ‘Joshua’. Joshua was the successor to Moses and the person who—in the biblical narrative even if not in real history—conquers the land of Canaan so that the tribes of Israel can possess the ‘promised land’.

Piece by piece, Matthew is assembling his story about the birth of Jesus.

To really understand this birth, he says, think about Joseph and think about Joshua. But wait, there is more.

Like Moses himself—Jesus is the target of a murderous campaign by an angry king who orders the murder of every Jewish boy in his territory in order to eliminate a threat to his authority.

Herod actually did lots of nasty things and even murdered members of his own family to preserve his reign for almost 40 years. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he ordered the arrest of the headmen of every village with orders for them to be executed on the day of his own death, so that tears would flow on the day he died.

From this murderous reputation, Matthew has fashioned a legend within the legend, and created the story of Herod ordering the murder of the ‘Holy Innocents’, the children of Judea. Matthew turns Herod into another Pharoah so that Jesus can be seen as Moses 2.0.

So far so good, Matthew has developed a midrash which tells his Jewish Christian readership that Jesus is no threat to Judaism. Rather, Jesus is the ancient Jewish story coming to life in front of their eyes.

Even the name of Jesus’ mother helps with this project. We call her ‘Mary’, but her neighbours would have known her as ‘Miriam’: the same name as the sister of Moses.

All we are missing is the basket among the bulrushes.

 

So why the oriental strangers

Matthew could have spun this midrash, including Herod’s murderous rage, without any need to add a visit by foreign sages.

But he had more to teach his readers than the Jewish pedigree of Jesus.

Matthew was also passionate about the significance of Jesus for the gentiles, for those people without any Jewish descent. Which is most of us.

In the decades before Matthew was drafting his revised and enlarged edition of Mark’s Gospel there were occasional state visits to the Roman emperor by oriental rulers from beyond the empire seeming to establish cordial diplomatic relationships. Details of these and other parallels to Matthew’s birth narrative have been blended together by Matthew to create the spectacular scene of a visit to Bethlehem by an entourage of unspecified size (but certainly more than three individuals), bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew is not recording history here, but appealing to his non-Jewish audience. They too have a part in the story of Jesus. God’s purposes in sending Jesus were not restricted to the Jewish nation, but extend to everyone, everywhere at all times.

 

A message for all the world

How an author begins and concludes their work often reveals what is central to their concerns.

As he commences his revision of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew creates a beautiful midrash that sets Jesus into the Sacred story alongside characters such as Joseph, Moses and Joshua. Not a bad CV at all.

But time had passed. Already we are several decades after the death of Jesus. Matthew knew two things: (1) many Jews (and perhaps most) think Jesus was a traitor and a heretic, and (2) Jesus is attracting a very big following among the non-Jewish populations in cities like Antioch where is where Matthew himself is most likely based.

He needs to celebrate the Jewish pedigree of Jesus while also offering a place in the story for outsiders who become insiders.

The entourage of pagans who worship the Christ Child in Matthew—and only in Matthew—are the promise of success for the commission given by Jesus in the closing paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19–20)

There is room for everyone in the Jesus story.

Outsiders become insiders.

There is even a place for us.

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Emmanuel

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Christmas Eve
24 December 2018

 

[ video ]

Well, here we are …

In the middle of the night—when we should all be tucked up in bed—we are sitting in the Cathedral and celebrating the birth of a Jewish baby born in a very small village in Roman-occupied Palestine just over 2,000 years ago.

 

It’s a birth story

Like every other birth, the arrival of Mary’s boychild was an occasion of joy, accompanied by a sense of awesome responsibility, and profound hope.

Like us, as Mary and Joseph held their newborn baby in their arms, they must have wondered what life would be like for this wee fellow in the years ahead.

What would he be like? What gifts would he have? How would the people of the village and the wider family welcome this new person into their circle. Would he be famous? How would he make the world a better place? What can we do as parents to ensure he becomes all that God intends him to be?

Those are questions we have all asked ourselves as we hold newborn children in our arms.

The families who bring their children for Baptism in the Cathedral have similar thoughts in their minds and similar hopes in the hearts.

 

It’s the birth of Jesus

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of a most remarkable person.

Today the focus is on his birth. He was a real person. He arrived in this world the same way we all do. Incarnation. God taking flesh and entering into the stuff of this blue planet.

From small beginnings in a village in Palestine, not far from the palaces of kings and wannabe rulers, this vulnerable infant developed into an adult of courage, vision and passion.

This is not the time to talk about his death. Today we celebrate his life: his birth, his childhood and his ministry as the prophet of God’s active presence among us. Emmanuel. Through the life of Jesus God was active in our world, reconciling all things to himself and inviting us to embrace life.

Although Mary and Joseph could not imagine what was to come, this child was to have a huge impact all around the world, and during the past 2,000 years millions of people have been touched by his life and have reflected on what it all means.

In music, art, architecture, literature and compassionate action people who have been touched by Jesus has made their response to the deepest message of Christmas: Emmanuel.

God is not far away. God is here among us, within us and between us—as Jesus himself would say.

Christmas shows us where to look for God: right here and among our own circle of people we know best.

This is a simple idea, but it is also a very big idea.

It changes everything.

It is worth getting up in the middle of the night to celebrate!

 

Thin people

The child whose birth we celebrate tonight grew to become a person of the Spirit, a holy person.

When we talk about holy places, we sometimes describe them as ‘thin’ places; places where it seems the gap between our reality and the deeper reality of God has all but vanished.

We might also describe Jesus as a ‘thin’ person.

He most likely was physically thin, due to the diet of Jewish villagers in ancient Palestine and the active lifestyle of someone walking from place to place across Galilee. But I am referring to something else: his capacity to transform people.

What changed people was their discovery that when they met Jesus they also encountered God.

Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s rule.

Jesus himself was the arrival of God, present among us in a new way. Emmanuel.

In the Gospel of John this mystery is expressed in words put onto the lips of Jesus by the later tradition: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Christmas invites us to embrace the possibility that our world is really a crowd of thin people.

Others encounter God when they meet us, and we encounter God when we meet them. Emmanuel.

Of course, this also means that how we treat others is also how we treat God.

Jesus said exactly that in his parable of the last judgment. The punch line for that story is: “When you did this (or failed to do this) for another person, then you did it (or failed to do it) to me.” (Matt 25:31–46)

If we embrace that possibility in the year ahead, then our lives and our world may well be transformed.

Christmas time is an opportunity to practice how we want to act for the rest of the year. This is a time when we naturally focus on things like:

  • Community
  • Generosity
  • Compassion
  • Love

 

When we make those things central to our lives, then we are transformed, the people around us are touched, and the world draws closer to God’s dream for us all.

May that be our experience this Christmas and throughout the year ahead.

Happy birthday, Jesus

Happy Christmas, Grafton.

Happy 2019, world!

 

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Love, actually

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 4 (C)
23 December 2018

 

[ video ]

Here we are on the fourth and final Sunday during Advent. We are incredibly close to Christmas as we all realise and indeed tomorrow will be Christmas Eve. We are almost there.

Over the series of Sundays during Advent we’ve been looking at the major themes associated with each of those days: hope, peace, joy and love. Today we will be focusing especially on the theme of love.

Most likely many of the earliest Christians, and especially those in churches connected with the ministry of St Paul, were not familiar with the Christmas stories that we find in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

For starters, those two gospels had not yet been written during the lifetime of Paul. Indeed, they represent a stage of early Christianity some decades after Paul: Matthew is perhaps best understood as having been written about 110 while the Gospel of Luke may have reached its final form around 150 CE.

Whatever the dates for the Gospels and no matter how widely the Christmas traditions had spread around by the beginning of the second century, early Christians were in no doubt that Jesus coming among us was a most remarkable expression of God’s love for all humanity.

In Romans 5:8 we find Paul dictating these words to Tertius, his accommodating scribe: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us …”

A little later, in Romans 8:39, Paul proclaims: “(nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We find a related description in Galatians 4 where Paul writes these words:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4–6 NRSV)

But this idea that the coming of Jesus was a direct result of God’s love for the world is most famously expressed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Love is at the centre of the Christmas story, even when there are no shepherds and no wise men, no journey to Bethlehem and no magical star in the sky. All of these legendary elements add colour and beauty to our celebration of Christmas, but what matters, of course, is the underlying message that Jesus is the love of God for us expressed in a human life.

Not only is love at the centre of the Christmas story which we will celebrate tomorrow night, it is also at the very centre of the faith that we practice.

Doubtless we are all familiar with the summary of the law, sometimes called the two great commandments. We often read them near the beginning of our services.

This core teaching of Jesus is generated by a request by religious authorities in the first-century Jewish community for Jesus to make a ruling on what is the fundamental obligation that we have to God.

That’s quite an open-ended question, and it is therefore all the more fascinating to reflect for a moment on all the things which Jesus could have listed but chose not to list:

  • Belief
  • Prayer
  • Living a good life
  • Being compassionate
  • Attending worship regularly
  • Contributing money to the church or synagogue
  • Reading the Bible
  • Lighting candles
  • Going on pilgrimages
  • Fasting
  • Kosher food
  • Circumcision
  • Shabbat observance

 

Most of the attributes that we tend to think of as being at the core of religious practice are simply ignored by Jesus. When he’s asked to define the core obligations of humans as he understood things, Jesus famously replies:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29–31 NRSV)

Love is not just at the centre of Christmas it is also at the centre of our faith.

‘Love for God’ means not so much a romantic attachment to some divine figure, but rather us being alert to the depth dimension of life.

Our heart, our soul, our mind and all our strength are to be brought to bear on the great task of asking why are we here, and what does the Lord require of me? This task will involve our whole person (heart, soul, mind, strength), and it takes our whole lifetime to complete the work.

First things first: Love for God.

Everything else flows from that first great commitment to a life lived at depth. Without that commitment, nothing else matters. It is all hollow and empty.

But notice what does follow—not a traditional list of religious duties, but rather the simple call to love other people.

Their concerns and their wellbeing are to matter to us just as much as our survival and our own comfort.

In the car park at the shopping centre …

While merging in the traffic to get across the bridge …

When we would rather be somewhere else …

When we really do not have the time to listen to their story (again) …

 

Love is the critical DNA of the Christian person:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

The benchmark for our love obligation is twofold.

In the Synoptic Gospels it is the love we have for ourselves: “love your neighbour as yourself”

In John’s Gospel Jesus is represented as raising the bar rather higher: “… just as I have loved you …”

 

So this week as we approach ever so close to Christmas, we are reminded of the primacy of love.

As we come to the Table of Jesus—the table of love—we feed on that love, we ask God to pour her love into our lives, and we seek courage to be truly loving people in the week ahead:

Loving God

Loving others

Loving this fragile Earth and all its creatures

Loving even ourselves

 

 

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Rejoice in the Lord always

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 3 (C)
16 December 2018

 

[video]

As we know, each week during Advent has a particular thematic focus.

As we make our way through these four Sundays prior to Christmas this year we are considering in turn the themes of hope, peace, joy and love.

These are not only great Advent themes, they are also deeply significant elements in lives that are satisfying and deeply meaningful.

So today we are focusing on joy and we see that being reflected very clearly in today’s epistle from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ Paul says. ‘And again I will say, rejoice!’

In a moment we shall come back to tease out this concept of joy using the excerpt from Paul’s letter as the basis for our reflections, but first I’d like us to set aside some common misconceptions about joy.

So let me simply list—without any detailed discussion—a whole series of examples where joy is sometimes mistaken for something else, or conversely some other aspect of life is as mistakenly believed to guarantee joy if we can just achieve or possess it.

Joy is not the same as happiness

Joy is not the same as being amused or entertained

Joy is not always expressed in laughter or a cheery face

Joy does not mean we are carefree or untroubled

Joy is not a result of alcohol, drugs and medication

Joy is not having the latest consumer products

Joy is not about lots of sex

Based on how advertising is designed, one could be forgiven for thinking that a profound sense of contentment and well-being in all kinds of circumstances is indeed generated by one or more of these attributes. The more the better, it seems.

But we also know from own our experience—as well as from observation of those who enjoy an abundance of these attributes—that influence, power, status and wealth do not ensure joy.  Indeed, sometimes these sadly become demons that destroy lives and even drive people to self-harm.

So let’s focus on the brief passage from Philippians that we heard earlier:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4–7]

 

As we focus on this excerpt from a letter written about 25 years after Easter, let’s remind ourselves why we do this.

It is not because grabbing a few words from the Bible will provide us with a recipe for joy, or the answers to life’s questions. We are not hearing words spoken by God, but words written by Paul.

I am now going to recycle here what I wrote online a few days ago:

We read the texts not to hear what God has said in the past, but to hear how other people of faith have spoken about God in the past so that we are better equipped to listen to God in the present.

So we reflect on these words as words from Paul, and therefore words from someone with a deep insight into the dynamics of faith and life. As we do so, we are opening our hearts and minds to discern the whisper of the Spirit who makes the human words of the Bible a sacrament of invitation to live more deeply and more truly. When that happens then the ‘word of the Lord’ has been proclaimed and heard among us.

In this short paragraph, Paul offers us several ideas for contemplation. Let’s take them one by one.

 

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!

The underlying Greek word used here was also the everyday greeting when people met in the street or sent a letter: χαιρε [chaire]. It was the word on the lips of Judas as he greeted Jesus in the garden, and the words used by the soldiers as they mocked Jesus, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

As used by Paul here, we note that he adds “… in the Lord …”.

We are to wish one another—and also ourselves—happiness, health, peace, success and well-being in the Lord.

Our joy finds its roots in Jesus himself. The blessings we wish for others come from Jesus. What we hope for ourselves comes from Jesus, and is grounded in all that he means to us.

That makes joy an appropriate theme for reflection today as we get closer to Christmas Day. Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 

If we have a deep sense of joy and if we are truly at peace within ourselves, then others should experience us as gentle people.

Gentle people?

That almost seems like a quaint old-fashioned idea. But it invites us to think more deeply about how we conduct ourselves.

Are religious people known for our gentleness?

Do we have reputations as gentle people among our families and friends?

Or do we kick heads and push others around, just like everyone else?

Worse still, are we seen as people trying to push our religion down other’s throats?

Are we really people who want to the right to discriminate against students and teachers in Christian schools because of their gender or their sexuality?

Paul suggests that joyful people, as people who realise that the Lord is near, will be gentle and that everyone else will recognise that about us. If only that were so!

 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Now Paul shifts the focus: from how others experience us, to how we handle the adversities that inevitably come our way.

Note that Paul assumes ‘stuff will happen’.

When ‘stuff happens’ in our lives we are not to worry about it, but rather bring everything that is happening to God, letting God know how we feel about the situation and seeking grace to deal with it. Things that might otherwise cause us to be anxious can now become something we bring to God with thanksgiving; in an attitude of gratitude.

Paul is going beyond the “don’t be anxious” advice we find in the Gospels, and urging his readers to bring their worries to God with thanksgiving. When we can do that, then we have found a sweet spot indeed, and our trust in the Lord is sustaining us through times when we might otherwise meltdown.

We will not get this right every time. Sometimes we will complain loudly and let God know exactly how unfair life seems. And that is OK as well.

But sometimes we will get it right.

When we trust God enough to be grateful even for the bad stuff—as it is happening, and not only with the benefit of hindsight—then we are getting very close to having found real joy.

 

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul wraps up this section with words that are very familiar to us, even though when he wrote them in his short letter to the Philippians no one else had ever quite put it that way before.

When we find our deepest meaning in Jesus, the human face of God …

When others find us to be gentle people …

When we can set aside our natural instinct to worry …

When we bring our troubles to God with thanksgiving …

Then the peace of God which passes all understanding guards our hearts and minds.

 

When our hearts and our minds are guarded by God’s peace, we have joy.

May the hope and the peace that we celebrated these past two Sundays in Advent, mean that this week we find real joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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