Jesus the Jewish religious progressive

Baptism of the Lord
Christ Church Cathedral
7 January 2018
[Video of the sermon from 8.00 am service]

 

May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

Well, here we are at the beginning of a transition.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, so—for those of us in the Western Church—Christmas has ended. Of course, for Christians in the Middle East—as well as Australians in the Coptic and Orthodox faith communities—today is Christmas.

As our Christmas wraps up we pray for our friends whose Christmas is just commencing.

For us a new season begins, the Sundays between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. This Epiphany season is a liminal space, a time of transition, a period for reflection.

“Epiphany” is an ancient Greek term that means manifestation or revelation.

We have been celebrating Emmanuel, the God who is to be found among us, and now we are invited to reflect on on the Epiphany moments in our own lives: those times when we catch a glimpse of the Sacred One who is always present but often unnoticed.

On the first of these Sundays in the Epiphany season we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, an Epiphany moment for him, for John, and for his earliest followers. It is a major festival in the life of the church and a wonderful day for Baptisms, but for us it always falls in the middle of our summer holidays.

It was certainly a significant moment for Jesus.

A couple of Sundays ago I alluded to the special relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, when our Advent readings featured the prophetic ministry of John.

The baptism of Jesus by John is rock solid historical tradition. Along with the crucifixion, this is one of those episodes from the life of Jesus that none of his followers would ever have invented. Scholars refer to this as the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.

The idea that Jesus—our great spiritual master and the human face of God—began as a disciple of someone else, was an ‘inconvenient truth’ for the Gospel writers. When we compare the four Gospel accounts of this episode we can see their embarrassment at this awkward truth.

The core historical reality is clear. Not only was Jesus baptised by John, but Jesus seems to have been a disciple of John, one of his many followers. At least for a time.

We cannot be certain of the exact location, although we know it was at the southern end of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.

We do not know exactly what form the ritual actions took, but it most likely involved a complete immersion in the river to symbolise ‘scrubbing up’ in preparation for God’s next big thing.

And we are unable to determine the exact words that passed between Jesus and John, as each Gospel writer tells the story a bit differently.

Such matters are what I describe as ‘micro history’ and they need not concern us now. I happen to find them fascinating but they are not appropriate for a sermon. Some other time, perhaps. In a Bible class discussion.

What can can focus upon in a sermon is the ‘macro history’ of this tradition, both then and now.

As we reflect in the big picture of Jesus being baptised by John, we can choose to see the forest rather than being distracted by all the trees. When we do that there are insights to be gleaned about Jesus ‘back then’ and also about ourselves ‘here and now’.

When we look at the baptism of Jesus in this way there are several things that attract our attention.

 

Jesus and Second Temple Judaism

The first and most obvious point, although it is too easily overlooked by Christians, is that Jesus was deeply embedded in the religious beliefs and practices of Judaism in the Second Temple period. He was a Jew, not a Christian. His core beliefs and all his actions were shaped by the ancient tradition of Judaism, and there was nothing that he did or said which was inconsistent with the best of that spiritual tradition.

We do a disservice both to Jesus and to Judaism, when we suggest that Jesus was somehow alienated from the spiritual tradition that nurtured and shaped his own prophetic instincts. In time, and most unfortunately, the new tradition centred around the person and teachings of Jesus would part ways with his own faith tradition, but that is no reason to project our history of alienation, competition and suspicion back onto Jesus himself.

In our own time and place, we do well to be as deeply embedded in our own spiritual tradition as Jesus was in his tradition. One of the tragedies of our time is that most people have lost confidence in the Great Tradition, and thus have lost their own connection to the accumulated spiritual wisdom that we need to draw from in order to live lives that are authentic.

We live in a society that might be described as ‘SBNR’—spiritual but not religious.

That is a distinction unknown to Jesus, and the sooner we overcome this false dichotomy the better for everyone. We need people who are both religious and spiritual, and Jesus was just such a person.

 

Jesus and progressive religion

While Jesus took his own religious heritage very seriously, he was no traditionalist.

In fact, I want to claim Jesus as a religious progressive.

He was drawn into the radical reform movement of John the Baptist—‘John the Scrubber’—who stood firmly within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but also called for root and branch reform of the religious institutions of his day.

John’s radical stance is seen most clearly in the ritual washing that gave him his nickname, the Baptizer, the Scrubber. Baptism was not unknown in Second Temple Judaism, although it had not existed in earlier stages of the Jewish religion. However, it was not something Jews did. Rather, it was a rite for the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism.

In demanding that his Jewish audience undergo this water ritual, John was dismissing their existing religious identity. They were no better and no worse than the goyim who needed to be baptised (“scrubbed up”) in order to particulate in the blessings of the covenant.

We can imagine John shouting, “I don’t care if your grandmother was Jewish! Your religious pedigree means nothing to me. Everyone has to be scrubbed up to get ready for God’s next big thing.”

That is the radical reform movement within Second Temple Judaism with which Jesus aligned himself.

We may like to imagine that Jesus would attend the Cathedral if he lived in Grafton today, but I suspect he would cause us some headaches if he did.

Were Jesus on our parish roll he would be constantly challenging and questioning what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Why are you doing that? Why are we not doing this? Why are we doing it this way?

Jesus, of course, is not on our Parish roll. But those are precisely the uncomfortable questions that Jesus is asking us all the time.

Reconnect with the heart of the tradition, he would demand. He does demand. Now.

He was—and is—a true radical, a genuine progressive.

 

Jesus had the heart of a disciple

Another of the things we see in the baptism tradition is that Jesus was willing to learn from others.

He did not walk around thinking to himself, “I am the Son of God. I do not need anyone to tell me what to think or how to act.”

On the contrary, as best we can tell, Jesus joined a wider movement of reform minded Jews who embraced John’s message and went back to first principles in their own spiritual tradition. Most likely he spent some time with John, and did not simply turn up anonymously among the crowd of candidates waiting for baptism in the Jordan River. In the Gospel of John we find hints of a deep and longer connection between these two people

Jesus submitted himself to the spiritual authority of John. John was his master. Jesus was the disciple. Only after John is arrested does Jesus seem to begin his own prophetic ministry, and we find those fascinating accounts of John sending other disciples to Jesus to ask whether Jesus was the one for whom John had been looking.

In the true style of spiritual masters, John and Jesus defer to each other.

Jesus would later defer to the spiritual wisdom of a Lebanese mother who offered him a ‘master class’ in divine compassion.

May we all have the capacity to see the wisdom that others have to share with us, regardless of their status, their ethnicity or their gender.

 

Jesus loved the liturgy

Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a critic of the Temple and an opponent of the Pharisees. This is misplaced.

He was surely a fierce critic of the Temple elite who exploited their privileges for their own benefit. He was certainly a tough opponent of religious teachers who imposed on their students burdens they were not prepared to carry themselves.

As a Second Temple Jew, Jesus was familiar with the biblical tradition but in the baptism episode we see Jesus going beyond the text of the Bible to engage in religious ritual.

For Jesus as for John, it was not sufficient to read the Bible and make an interior commitment to faith, repentance, justice, and faithfulness.

Such commitments needed to be acted out in ritual. We embodied personas, and our religion is better when expressed in tangible actions and ritual moments.

Like Jesus, we are called to go beyond reading and reciting the sacred scriptures—which, as it happens, are replete with ritual actions involving individuals, families, and whole societies.

More than that, we need to teach people how to celebrate their life journey with appropriate rituals, and to develop a robust religious literacy that includes both the capacity to work with the canonical texts and also to draw on the rich storehouse of the faith to shape rituals old and new that speak sacred truth in this secular age.

 

Jesus’ own religious experience

My final observations takes us onto holy ground indeed. We may want to take off our shoes—another ancient ritual that we still see observed before people enter a mosque—as we tread this space.

The biblical accounts of the Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River hint at a profound spiritual experience for Jesus at that time.

He is participating in a personal, profound and prospective ritual moment. The whole drama is presided over by his mentor and teacher. Jesus is stepping into his vocation, even if he is not fully aware of what is happening.

The crowds are oblivious, as they mostly are when something of deep significance is happening in our own lives.

These moments matter to us. They transform us. But they may pass unnoticed by those around us at the time. Even those who are closest to us.

Jesus gains new and deeper insight into his identity and his worth, as well as God’s call on his life.

You are my child,
the chosen one,
the beloved.
I am well-pleased with you.

It would take Jesus the rest of his life to discern what that meant for him.

Likewise, our great work is to discern what it means in our life when we hear the bat-qol, the heavenly voice, naming us as a beloved child of the universe and expressing her delight in us: just as we are, right now.

In our brokenness and confusion we make God’s heart skip for joy. Just as we are.

Can we believe that?

Can we wrap our hearts around that possibility?

It is surely the deepest and most profound religious experience to discover that we are loved—unconditionally—by Life in all its depth and in all its fullness. That, surely, is good news as well as a transformative religious moment.

 

At the start of this sermon I said some truly dangerous words:

May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

You probably thought I was just staying some religious words at the start of the sermon, and they could be safely ignored as you settled back into your seats.

But these are dangerous words.

What if my prayer was answered?

What if the Spirit that hovered over the watery chaos of creation was poured out on us?

What if the Spirit that overwhelmed John’s disciples fell upon us?

What if the Spirit that enveloped Jesus was also to envelope us?

What would it means for us, for our Cathedral and for our city, if we heard those ancient words addressed to us?

You are my child; my daughter, my son.
I am delighted in you,
Be all that you are,
become all that you can be.
Grow into the promise,
grow into my dream for you.

 

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Peace to those who are far off

Midnight Mass
Christ Church Cathedral
24 December 2017

[video]

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” [Matthew 2:1–2]

In churches around the world, and in many of our homes, the three wise men are kept off stage tonight. They may be down by the church door, or on the far side of the lounge room. But they will rarely be found adoring the Christ Child before January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

The reasons for this are complex and misplaced. We shall not bother with them tonight.

Suffice to say that the Western Church has tended to focus on the angels and shepherds on December 25, and to delay the wise men until the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6.

Guess what? There will be very few people in church on January 6, so most of the time most of the people miss out on the message of the wise men.

Tonight, I want to bring these oriental visitors in from the cold.

I want to make room for them in the presence of the Christ Child. Indeed, I want to base my reflections in this sermon around the wise men.

To do this we need to gently deconstruct the version of the Christmas story that we each carry in our mind.

As we welcome the wise men into the Christmas scene, we suddenly notice there are no shepherds by the manger when the wise men arrive. Indeed, there is no manger. And no inn with limited rooms available.

The annunciation, the census, the long trip from Nazareth, the shepherds, the angels, the inn with no space, and the manger—all belong to Luke’s story of Christmas. They have no part in Matthew’s story of the Saviour’s birth.

We blend these two stories together, and that is fine. Then we add other elements found in neither Matthew nor Luke. The story grows richer and more elaborate.

The Christmas story that we all know and love is not found in the Bible, but that does not make it any less precious to us.

But for tonight, since I have chosen to make room for the wise men, we find ourselves paying attention to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. In doing so I hope to enrich your appreciation of the Christmas story, by paying attention to one of its overlooked themes.

There is one other important difference between Luke and Matthew, which we miss when we blend their two stories into a single narrative.

Luke is very upbeat.

Everything is great. All is going well. Even the Roman Empire is unwittingly collaborating with the divine purposes, as it orders a census that causes Joseph and Mary to visit Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born there.

Matthew is more sombre.

There is a shadow hanging over the Holy Family, as Herod seeks to destroy the Christ Child. They will flee to Egypt as refugees, in Matthew’s account. No triumphant visits to the Temple in Jerusalem for this story teller. The family will only return to Palestine after Herod has died, and even then they go north to Nazareth rather than returning to their home in Bethlehem. The only time that Jesus visits Jerusalem in Matthew’s Gospel he is killed. A dark shadow indeed.

Who is this Matthew whose account of the birth of Jesus suddenly seems so unfamiliar to us?

The short answer is that we do not know.

We can tell what kind of person he was by reading between the lines of his gospel, but the identity of this person remains unknown.

What we can discern about this person is that he was a Jewish follower of Jesus, most likely living in the NW corner of ancient Syria, close to the important trading city of Antioch.

Antioch was a melting pot. Christians and Jews had a long history of mixing and interacting in this city. According to the Acts of the Apostles, most likely written by Luke as the second volume for his history of early Christianity, Antioch was the place where the name ‘Christian’ was first coined. It was also the base from which Paul set out on his missionary journeys that brought Christianity to Europe.

Antioch was not only a place where Jews and Christians mingled. It was also a place where East met West. Already by the end of the first century, when this gospel is taking shape, Christianity has begun to spread East and beyond the confines of the Roman Empire.

Enter the wise men!

The Gospel according to Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels in the New Testament. For Matthew, Jesus is the great lawgiver, a new and bigger version of Moses.

Yet Matthew is also adamant that the message of Jesus is for all people, and not just for the Jews.

He concludes his story with an episode that has no parallel in any other gospel. Jesus appears to the small group of disciples (‘the Eleven’) on a mountain in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem. He commissions them to go on a universal mission to share his message with all nations:

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. [Matthew 28:19–20]

That is how the gospel ends for Matthew.

How does it begin?

With foreigners from the East, wise men from another spiritual tradition, travelling from far away to adore the Christ Child.

These magi were advanced practitioners of pagan religion. They were not proselytes, converts to Judaism. They were privileged members of pagan religions, and as such they were completely outside the scope of the Jewish faith as well as the yet to be born Christian faith.

As a Jew, Matthew should have condemned these pagan astrologers.

Instead, as a Christian he welcomes their part in his story of the birth of Jesus because they represent where the future of the faith belongs.

Not with the insiders, but with the outsiders.

The miracle of Christmas is that we cease drawing circles to exclude those who are different.

The miracle of Christmas is that we open our hearts to welcome the stranger and the pilgrim.

The miracle of Christmas is that we do not waste time checking if others have the same beliefs as us.

The miracle of Christmas is that we proclaim, PEACE.

Peace to those who are far off, and peace to those who are near.

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Hark! A herald’s voice is calling

Advent 3 (B)
17 December 2017
Christ Church Cathedral

 

[video]

It had been my intention to speak about John the Baptist today.

For two weeks in a row now, the lectionary has offered us early Christian traditions about the Jewish prophet, John. Last week we heard how Mark describes this John in the opening scenes of his Gospel. Today we hear from a very different perspective within earliest Christianity, the Johannine community.

Mark and John offer very different portraits of Jesus. Yet they both found it necessary to say something about John as they started to share their story of Jesus.

John has fascinated people from antiquity through until today.

He acquired his nickname, ‘the Baptizer’, because of his demand that his followers undergo a water ritual to express their personal response to his prophetic message.

The most famous of his followers was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus seems to have been baptised by John in the year 28 of the Common Era.

That simple fact is one of the most certain things we know about Jesus. None of his followers would ever invent such a story. Indeed, it was something of an embarrassment to them that Jesus had once been a disciple of John, and had been baptised by John.

That simple fact invites us to explore the relationship between these two Jewish prophets from 2,000 years ago.

Some of that was what I intended to speak about today. But that can wait until January 7, when we celebrate the Festival of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus.

In the past few days we have seen the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse complete its careful work extending over the past five years, and present its final report to the Governor-General.

Given the significance of that report for the community and for the churches, it would be remiss of me to say nothing of its work and to talk about some ‘safe’ Advent topic instead.

For too long the church has averted its gaze from the horrors of child sexual abuse, as well as the abuse of other vulnerable people.

We can do that no longer, and in part that is thanks to the impressive work of the Royal Commission.

There is—I suggest—an unexpected link between John the Baptist and the Royal Commission.

John was an outsider.

He opposed the abuse of power and the eager grasping of privileges by the Temple clergy in Jerusalem.

He may have come from one of those families himself. At least that is what Luke would like us to think. But he broke ranks with the religious institution that operated for its own benefit, and he directed to them a prophetic message about judgment, repentance, and renewal.

Our opening hymn this morning began with the line: “Hark! A herald voice is calling.”

Indeed, a herald voice is calling.

It is the voice of the Royal Commission.

It is a prophetic voice that names and exposes the sins of our churches, along with other institutions in our national life.

It is a prophetic voice that speaks words of comfort to the victims. That honours the victims. That treats them with a level of care and respect that our church has failed to do.

It is a prophetic voice that speaks of restitution, vindication and compensation.

It is a prophetic voice that calls on churches to change their ways. No more averting our gaze. No more shifting of sexual predators from one parish to another. No more silencing of the victims. No more failure of compassion among the disciples of Jesus.

It is a prophetic voice that maps out a pathway for restoration and recovery.

It is a prophetic voice that promises renewal if we are prepared to make these changes.

So far as I am aware, no cases of sexual abuse of children have happened in this parish. But they have happened in our Diocese and in our national Church.

For all the evil that has been done—and for all the good that has been left undone—we repent. We apologise. We resolve to make amends.

Already the contributions by the Cathedral Parish to the Diocesan compensation fund have cost us dearly. Resources that could have funded our ministry have been applied to the more urgent ministry of healing and reconciliation. This is a small price to pay compared to the costs borne by the victims all these years.

I pray these contributions help the victims to heal, and steel the resolve of our Church to make sure this never happens again.

As a faith community in Grafton we now need to rebuild our relationship with the city.

This will take time.

It will require openness to change on our part.

And it will require a willingness by the community to trust us again.

Most of all it will require a change of heart on our part.

Being a ‘safe church’ is not a compliance issue, it is the very heart of the Gospel. It is in our DNA as a community of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus gathered broken people into a community. He created a safe place for the broken and wounded to find acceptance, healing and purpose.

Jesus calls us to that mission.

John the Baptist challenges us to focus on others and not on ourselves.

The Royal Commission calls us to account and invites us into a journey of reconciliation and healing.

Hark! A herald’s voice is calling.

Let’s not miss what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anointed with the spirit of the LORD

Reflections on the first reading for the Third Sunday of Advent …

Today’s lectionary offers us a rich set of classic texts for Advent.

As the sermon will focus on John the Baptizer, this brief note will explore the first reading from Isaiah 61.

This one of several passages in the central part of the great Isaiah Scroll, that scholars refer to as the Servant Songs. No one is entirely sure how the figure of “the Servant” was understood at the time that the texts were being created, but we know it came to play a significant role in the spiritual imagination of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus.

Isaiah is one of the three OT books most often cited in the New Testament. (The other two are Deuteronomy and the Psalms.) A similar pattern is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the ancient library of this controversial Jewish sect also has more copies of these three books than any other books from the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, a copy of the Isaiah Scroll was among the first Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries in 1947.

Who is the Servant of the LORD? Is it a person? Is it the nation as a whole? Is it Jerusalem? From a Christian perspective, we recognise that Jesus of Nazareth is the quintessential Servant of the LORD. But what about us? Are we not also called to be the ‘Servant of the LORD’?

In today’s passage the Servant is someone on whom the Spirit of God has been poured out. As a result of that anointing with the divine Spirit, the Servant will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4), he imagined Jesus claiming these same words to describe his own ministry.

Notice the down to earth consequences of the Servant’s ministry as the Anointed One, the Christ. The mission of the Servant is not to increase attendance at religious ceremonies or raise the level of offerings. Real people will find their own lives turned around. Adverse personal circumstances will be reversed. Destroyed and abandoned towns will be rebuilt. A new beginning for all the people of God, and not simply an increase in religious activity by the faithful.

May the Spirit of the LORD be poured out upon us all, and may we each claim our vocation as the Servant of the LORD.

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Christ the King

Feast of Christ the King
Christ Church Cathedral
26 November 2017

[video]

Today is our day: the feast of Christ the King.

While most people know us as Christ Church Cathedral we are actually the Cathedral Church of Christ the King. So today is our festival day.

This festival occurs on the final Sunday of the church year.

Next Sunday we begin Advent and a new church year, but today we wrap up a year that has passed:

  • a year of learning
  • a year of ministry
  • a year of transitions
  • a year of new beginnings

During this week we might take some time to think back to this time last year:

  • what has happened in your life since then?
  • what has changed?
  • what has remained constant?
  • what has been reaffirmed and strengthened?
  • what do we regret?

 

A community dedicated to Christ the king

Looking back can be instructive, but I invite us to look forward at this time. What does it mean for us to be a cathedral community dedicated to Christ as our ‘king’?

The term ‘king’ can be problematic here as it reflects a world of empire and certainty.

We have neither. The empire has fallen. We live in a time of transition, and uncertainty is the air we breathe.

But that exaggerated title still speaks to our core values:

  • we are community for whom Jesus is central
  • it is no longer a claim to privilege
  • it is no longer a claim to certainty
  • but it is certainly our cardinal orientation

We are a community where Jesus matters:

  • what he believed, we believe
  • how he acted, is our model for action
  • how he treated people, is our guide for life

So let’s unpack this a little further.

 

The Wisdom of Jesus

At the heart of our faith is the spiritual wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth.

Unlike many spiritual teachers, Jesus had a just a very brief moment in which to live the wisdom that his heart embraced. He did not have 20 or 40 years to unpack his ideas. Rather, his public ministry lasted maybe just 18 months. But what an impact he made in that brief time!

We find the spiritual wisdom of Jesus especially in his parables and aphorisms. He was an oral poet, and with just a few well-crafted words he invited people to see the world differently.

More than that, Jesus challenged people to live as if what they had glimpsed was already true. At the heart of his wisdom was a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God, the Empire of God, the Commonwealth of God:

  • not the Empire of Rome
  • not the tribal supremacy of his own Jewish people
  • certainly not Christendom
  • or the empire of the church

Rather, Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: not at the end of time, but right here and right now.

If we are the Cathedral Church of Christ the King, then the crazy dream of the reign of God has to be at the very centre of who we are, what we do, and how we do it. We will see the world differently, and act accordingly.

 

The Practice of Jesus

The words of Jesus are validated by his actions, and that surely is a message to us as well.

What we believe must be demonstrated by our actions. We must walk the talk, we must practise what we preach.

In Jesus’ context that meant creating a community in which the outcast found a place for themselves.

Jesus lived and died for people on the margins. He was not interested in the powerful, the privileged, or the comfortable.

Ordinary people, little people, were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry; and that needs to be true of us as well. If we forget that, we have lost touch with Jesus.

The bottom line here—as surely we must have learned from Royal Commission—is that our best ideas do not have as much impact as worst actions. We must ensure that our actions align with our core beliefs. As a Cathedral, we need to act as a colony of God’s kingdom, rather than as a bastion of privilege—and never simply serve our own interests.

 

The Integrity of Jesus

Jesus validated his spiritual wisdom by the circumstances of his death.

The cross of Jesus looms large in Christian thought, but is mostly misunderstood.

In the ancient world, the key to a life lived well was how a person died.

That is a piece of wisdom our culture finds hard to embrace, although it is one that we encounter as our own journey brings us close to death. To die well is to be someone who has lived well.

Jesus could have evaded death, but he chose not to do so. He could have left Jerusalem, but he chose to stay.

We shall never fully understand his motives, but we can see the choices he embraced.

Jesus’ death on the cross, was the validation of his life and his own personal understanding of the reign of God. This is why a common way to depict Christ the King is to portray Jesus on the cross wearing a crown and royal robes.

In the horror of his death we see the integrity of the one who both understood and embraced the reign of God. The cross becomes his throne, as the Gospel of John seems to understand. The crucified one, the excluded one, becomes the one who reigns because of the ultimate power of God’s love to defeat fear and death.

 

And now it is our turn!

As a faith community, we have inherited a fantastic title into which we choose to live: the Cathedral Church of Christ the King.

Now the challenge is before us:

  • dare we embrace the vision of Jesus?
  • dare we waste our lives for the sake of others?
  • dare we risk failure and death for the sake of our vision of God’s new world?

 

Yes, we do.
Yes, we will.
Yes, nothing else deserves our best!

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Grace upon grace

In the months between the diagnosis of an aggressive bladder cancer and my discharge from hospital this morning, I have been on a journey of grace, a pilgrimage to wholeness.

My initial reflection on this close encounter with Lady Cancer, aka Holy Wisdom, was published on August 17. This update is being written on November 15.

Yesterday I returned to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) as planned so that my catheter could be removed and they could check whether I was successfully “voiding” from my newly fashioned “Neo-Bladder” that Dr Geoff Coughlin had created from a section of my small intestine as part of the 11.5 hour robotic surgery on October 20.

Apart from the hero’s welcome extended to me by the beautiful nursing staff of Ward 8B South all went as expected.

The catheter was removed around midnight, and by the time the doctors made their morning ward rounds at 7.00am I had successfully and repeated demonstrated that all was working well.

It had been anticipated that while in hospital for this brief pitstop, I would be taught how to self-catheterise in case I ever experienced a blockage and needed to relieve any build up in my Neo-Bladder. After checking the ‘performance data’, Dr Coughlin asked that I be discharged immediately and that the nurses do not take the time to teach me how to self-catheterise as the risk of my ever needing to do this was so low that it was not worth the time and effort to show me.

This was good news compounded by good news. Or, as John 1:16 would express it, Grace upon grace.

After Eve collected me from the drive through at RBWH we returned to St Francis College so she could continue with her work there today, and I then drove myself home.

It does seem that the surgery has been a success and that my recuperation is proceeding as well as could be imagined, and possibly considerably better than that.

For all this I am most grateful, and I am especially grateful for the care, the prayers and the support of family and friends around the world. I am especially appreciative of the Grafton Cathedral congregation through this whole process. It has been a most “interesting” way to commence as their Dean and Rector: not one I would ever have chosen, but one which has drawn us closer together with the bonds of affection.

With God’s continued blessing and grace, I hope to be back in the Deanery early next week and perhaps even during the coming weekend. While I shall continue on sick leave for the time being, I expect to be well enough to preside and preach at the Cathedral Festival on Sunday, November 26 when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. I am already working on my sermon!

My guess is that I shall limit myself to the occasional liturgical duties during the next couple of weeks and then slowly begin to pick up other tasks following my installation and commissioning on Tuesday, December 5.

We have much to celebrate and much good work to engage in for the common good. May God give us all the grace to do the work to which we are called.

Grace and peace,

Greg Jenks

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The Mind of Christ: Peace and Joy

Christ Church Cathedral
Pentecost 19(A)
15 October 2017

 

The Mind of Christ, 4: Peace and Joy

Background | Chapter One | Chapter TwoChapter Three |  Video

Here we are—already—at week four of our four week mini-series on Paul’s letters to the Philippians.

A lot has happened in all of our lives during those four weeks, so let’s catch our breath for a moment and think of those key moments in our own lives, those critical points where God seemed more real (or perhaps more distant) than at other times.

How has it been with you and God this past month?

In a sense, that is what Paul was asking his friends in Philippi: How has it been with you all and the Lord lately? Are you happy? Do you have a sense of peace? Are you energised for ministry, or struggling to battle through?

As you will recall (I hope), in chapter one Paul celebrates the compassion that they felt for him, and that he in turn felt for them. He described a visceral stomach-churning kind of compassion, that is deeper than a big idea and warmer than a nice feeling.

Mother love comes to mind.

Then he turned to the humility seen especially in the person of Jesus: a mindset that puts others first, and does not seek power or self-interest.

Last week we saw that Paul was also celebrating the idea that Christian life is a gift, not something we achieve by hard work or persistent belief. The person whose faithfulness counts is Jesus himself. He is not just the object of our faith, but is himself the ultimate believer. Jesus trusted God. That is enough. Because of the faithfulness Jesus demonstrated, we simply have to open our hearts—even the tiniest wee bit—to God, and all is well.

This week, in the final section of this ancient Christian letter from the first century, Paul unpacks what “all is well” might look like in everyday terms.

 

Overview of Philippians 4

Let’s engage in a very brief overview of this final chapter.

1: Paul begins by underlining the affection they have for each other

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

2–3: He then appeals for his friends (including two named individuals in the community of faith) to get over their conflicts and to have a common mind, or a share in the mind of Jesus

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4–7: Paul affirms that being upbeat (rejoicing, in his terms) is the key to personal peace, and you may have spotted in this text the biblical basis for the traditional blessing at the end of our Eucharist

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.

8–9: Paul encourages them to focus on the positives, and not to dwell on the negative aspects of everyday life

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

10–14: Trouble is real and inevitable, but it will not deflect us because with the help of Christ (v 13) we can do anything

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

15–20: Paul recaps the experiences they have shared, including lots of tough times they faced together

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

21–23: Paul wraps up his letter with some personal greetings

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

 

Glimpsing the inner experience

In this letter we have been glimpsing the inner experience of Paul and the Philippians. We do not have a detailed picture. We would like to know more. But we catch a glimpse of what faith and life was like for them in their own time and place.

As we look back, we are seeking wisdom for now and for the future.

For them, as for us, life was not all smooth sailing.

But for them as for us, compassion is at the heart of a life lived well.

Paul urged them (and us) to be upbeat. We are not selling fire insurance! We are daring to believe that we can live the blessing if we simply say YES to God’s love. How hard is it to say, Yes to the love that beats at the very heart of the universe?

As people of faith we choose to focus on what is going well.

We could dwell on the dark stuff, but what would be to give Evil a power over us that it does not deserve. Make space for the good, because God in Christ has demonstrated an investment in our well-being that Evil has never once shown.

We know in our heart of hearts with Christ on our side we can do anything.

And that is the basis of the deep peace we have as people of faith:

  • The peace that comes from being who God wants us to be.
  • The peace that comes from being where God has placed us for now.
  • And the peace of being engaged in the work God wat s us to do.

Not for our sake, but for God’s sake—and for the sake of our city and our world.

 

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The Mind of Christ: Faithfulness

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 18 (A)
8 October 2017

This week our series of passages from Paul’s letter to the Philippians brings us to chapter 3.

Background | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Video 1 (0800 Liturgy) | Video 2 (0930 Baptism Liturgy)

Having considered compassion as a key attribute of the Christian life, and then an authentic humility that causes us to live for others rather than for ourselves, this week our focus us turns to faithfulness.

 

Spiritual pedigree

Earlier Paul has praised the Philippians for their unstinting support for him. He then urged them to get beyond petty disagreements as they discover a deep unity grounded in the mindset of Jesus himself.

Now he turns his attention to some very direct advice.

We can begin by noting how Paul lists his personal pedigree as part of a dispute about the claims of various people to have a status that guarantees them a hearing. In response to these self-serving claims to privilege, Paul cites his own personal pedigree as an observant Jew.

It is an impressive CV:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4–6 NRSV)

We could spend a long time unpacking each of those claims, but we will not do that. The point is clear. Paul had an impeccable Jewish legacy.

But Paul has discovered something very important: None of that stuff matters!

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:7–9 NRSV)

 

The faithfulness of Jesus

Already in that excerpt from Philippians 3 we catch a glimpse of the big idea that lies at the heart of this passage.

What matters is not who we are, what we have done, or even what we believe.

None of that matters at all.

Zip!

For Paul, the one things that matters is the faith of Jesus.

For the last 500 years in our part of the Church this has been understood as us having faith in Jesus.

But the original sense is more likely to have been the faith of Jesus, the faithfulness that Jesus demonstrated.

In other words, what mattered most to Paul was not what he had done, said, or believed; but what Jesus had done, said, and believed.

What makes all the difference for us is the faithfulness of Jesus, not what we think about Jesus.

Paul develops this idea in several of his letters, and perhaps most notably in Romans—which is his most considered and intentional theological statement. There he parallels the faithfulness of Abraham, which generated blessing for all his direct descendants, with the faithfulness of Jesus, which generate blessings for all humanity.

It is a simple and elegant idea.

What matters is not what we do, not even what we believe.

What matters is what Jesus did, as he lived out his own faithfulness to God.

For 2000 years the Church has constructed a religious system that tells us how we must think right, believe right, and act right.

But within the Scriptures there has always been this clear statement that the only thing which really matters is that Jesus got it right, and so we can ride on his coat tails.

Our job is not to believe stuff about Jesus, but to cultivate the same attitude towards God’s call on our own lives.

Once we realise that the faithfulness of Jesus is enough, more than enough, we can stop trying so hard.

Instead of thinking of ourselves primarily as sinners, people who need to do better, we can live into the blessing that God offers us as a result of the faithfulness of Jesus.

That was a radical idea in Paul’s time, but is an even more radical idea after 2000 years of Christian focus on sin and guilt.

Of course it matters how we act, and we want to have our ideas clear and cogent.

But none of that is about seeking God’s blessing,

The blessing is already ours. It is a gift.

It flows from the faithfulness of Jesus.

We are people who live into the blessing, not people who manipulate our thoughts, feelings and actions to win forgiveness and approval from the God we encounter in Jesus of Nazareth,

For that we can truly give thanks as we gather at the Table of Jesus today.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Mind of Christ: Humility

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 17 (A)
1 October 2017

 

Video of this sermon is now available online.

This is the second in our four week sermon series as we take the opportunity to explore the key themes of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

For those who were not with us last week, let me just offer a brief recap.

The sermon from last week was recorded and the video is online, along with full notes for the sermon. You can find both the notes and the video in the Cathedral web site and under the DEAN’S BLOG.

During this series of four Sundays, the lectionary offers us a rare opportunity to read a complete book of the Bible.

We mostly hear brief excerpts from the Bible, but I think it does make a difference when we get to hear the whole document.

In this instance, we get a better feel for the relationship between Paul and the people of the small Christian community at Philippi as we read the whole letter over these four weeks.

There are also some background notes for this sermon series online, so I encourage you to look those up and get a deeper sense of the history of Philippi, and of the relationship between Paul and the small church that he founded there.

As best we can tell, Paul was only into the city for a couple of weeks before he was forced to move on to another location. Yet in that brief time he founded a new Christian community in this city, and formed such a close relationship with them that they stayed in close contact with him for many more years.

As we saw last week, the bonds were so close that they supported Paul when he again found himself under arrest. This time they sent money as well as one of their church members to be his personal assistant.

The bonds were incredibly close, as we saw last week when we explored the theme of compassion.

 

Make my joy complete

In chapter two of Philippians, Paul is seeking to promote harmony among the members of this young Christian community.

He is appealing for them to put each other’s interests first:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phil 2:1–4 NRSV)

Notice that he is not suggesting that they resolve their differences by a majority vote. Rather, he is raising the bar much higher. They are to operate by consensus and seek total agreement between everyone:

be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind

That kind of unity is not achieved by voting, but by a willingness to listen, to understand, to put our own interests aside, and to put the interests of the other person first.

That is not how our world works, but it was also not how the world worked in Paul’s time either. The model for this kind of outlook is not to be found in the ways most people act most of the time.

Rather the model for this kind of attitude comes is found in the person of Jesus.

 

The Mind of Christ

Now we come to the crown jewels of this brief personal note sent by Paul to the Christian community in Philippi in the northern winter of AD 54/55.

Paul backs up his appeal for the Philippians to treat each other well by quoting an early Christian hymn known to them from their Sunday gatherings.

In these lines we are delving back behind even the letter itself to an earlier stage in the emergence of early Christianity.

This was presumably a song that Paul taught them while first explaining what it means to be a Christian. More than that, we can presume the song to have originated in the church in Antioch. This is the where Paul gained so much of his own Christian formation as he served alongside Barnabas for a year (Acts 11:25–26) prior to their first missionary journey as emissaries of the Antioch congregation (Acts 13:1–3 and 14:26).

These words we focus on today take us back very close to the start of Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul does not ask people to believe a long list of things about Jesus, but to act in the same way that Jesus acted.

That is a lesson the church soon forgot, and we have since become quite skilled as assessing people on the basis of their beliefs.

But Paul appeals for them to have the same mind, the same sense of self, the same outlook as we observe in Jesus himself.

Here are the key lines again:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness … (Phil 2:5–7 NRSV)

We could spend a whole sermon series exploring this ancient Christian song, but today I just want to focus on the key point that Paul himself was seeking to highlight when he used this song as part of his appeal to this friends in Philippi to put each other’s interests first.

There are just two phrases I want to underline for you today.

 

  • [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited

This is actually a verb difficult phrase to translate, and might be better translated as: he did not think that equality with God was about grasping

If we hold that idea in mind for a moment, we may recall that it fits well with what Jesus himself is remembered as saying about his own mission:

The son of man came not to be served,
but to serve.

This song also resonates with the scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples at the beginning of the Last Supper.

Divinity is not about power, but about service.

That is not how we usually think about God, but it is the way Jesus teaches us to imagine God. More importantly, it was how Jesus embodied God: as love in action, not privilege seeking recognition.

The God who comes among us in the person of Jesus, is a God who serves, heals, saves, restores, and unites.

 

  • but emptied himself

This important insight is then reinforced by the example of Jesus himself.

He did not just understand divinity differently, he acted in a way that showed us a different side of God.

In Paul’s original Greek he used the word kenosis, which means to empty something out so that is becomes of no value at all.

Far from grasping at privilege and power, Jesus gave it all away.

We see this most powerfully in his death.

No claims to privilege or status, no demands for special treatment, but a willingness to pour out his very existence for the sake of others.

 

Baptised into Kenosis

This morning we are baptising Theodore into our part of the amazing Christian movement that took root in ancient Antioch and whose first European community was founded in Philippi by Paul about 20 years after Easter.

There will be things Theodore needs to learn, and there will be beliefs that he will embrace for himself as he grows into the faith that we claim for him today.

We all have a stake in that process of faith formation, but the responsibility rests especially with his parents and godparents.

More important than any knowledge or beliefs that they will share with Theodore is the supreme importance of assisting him to have the same ‘mind’ that we see in Jesus.

As a follower of Jesus, Theodore will learn to put others first, and pour out his life in the service of others. We wait to see just what form that will take in his case, but we give thanks for the gift that he will be—and indeed already is— to other people.

And today we renew our pledge to spend our own lives that way as well.

To live for others, and not for ourselves.

If we can do that, the world may yet be transformed

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The Mind of Christ: Compassion

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 16A
24 September 2017

 

170924 Grafton Cathedral
Introduction

[A video of one iteration of this sermon is available online.]

It is good to be here, and I am deeply appreciative of your welcome these past few days, as well as for your prayers in the past few weeks.

Sometimes (maybe often) things do not turn out quite as planned.

We were planning for an installation service next Thursday, but here I am and the installation service has been delayed until after my medical treatment concludes. Much remains uncertain, but that is the unacknowledged reality most of the time. Indeed, all of the time.

As it happens, I was here in August last year in my role as Dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem. Then as now, I bring greetings to you from the church in the Holy Land. Then as now, I urge you to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and always to hold the Christians of that land in your hearts.

 

Paul and the Philippians

Over the next four weeks we have a series of readings from Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in the city of Philippi in northern Greece.

As mentioned in the bulletin, I have decided to focus on that letter for our sermons over the next four weeks. It is one of the earliest letters of Paul, and was probably written just 25 years after Easter. It is not just an early letter by Paul, it is one of the oldest Christian writings in existence. Better still—as we shall see next week—it quotes a hymn known to the recipients of Paul’s letter, and that means we glimpse behind the letter to an even older poem that was used by some of the earliest followers of Jesus.

 

The Mind of Christ

That poem is used by Paul to illustrate what he called, ‘the mind of Christ.’

I am taking that idea, the mind of Christ, as the theme for this series of sermons, as you may have noticed on the front cover of the bulletin.

Over the coming Sundays we shall look at four different expressions of the mind of Christ:

  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Faithfulness
  • Peace

Those may sound like very ‘safe’ terms, but—as we shall see—behind the polite English translations, there are some very strong Greek words that Paul has chosen to use.

 

Compassion

Paul is writing from a difficult phase in his life to express his deep appreciation for the total solidarity and support given to him by the small Christian community in Philippi.

They have stayed loyal to Paul in good times and in hard times, even sending one of their own church members to stay with Paul and provide him with any personal assistance he needed during a time in prison.

In retrospect, Paul does not regret the tough times they have shared. He sees how the hardship he has faced has been good as these circumstances have helped to spread the gospel.

In describing their compassion for him in his hardships, Paul used a very vivid word that is not often used in the New Testament: splangknon.

This is the word for bowels, or guts.

In the old King James Version of the Bible they translated the words much more directly:

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. [Phil 1:8]

We shall find Paul using the same idea again at the start of chapter 2 next week:

If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies … [Phil 2:1]

These days we like to think that our care for other people is a matter of the heart. But the ancient Greeks knew that these feelings are connected with our gut. We still know this to be true.

When we hear bad news, we described being kicked in the guts. Our stomach churns. We feel squeasy. Even good news will hit us in the gut. We feel the compassion in our gut, and not in our hearts.

Paul’s gratitude to the good people in Philippi is not because they had kind thoughts about him, but because they cared so much it churned their gut to know of the hard times he was going through. Such physical expressions of sympathy reflect very close bonds between people.

In our life together here as a Christian community in Grafton, we are called to go beyond nice thoughts and warm feelings. We must be a community that cares so deeply about each other that bad times for someone else cause us to feel sick in the stomach.

A little later in the first chapter (vss 21–25), we find Paul expressing his own deep compassion for his friends in Philippi:

Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain. On the other hand again, if to be alive in the body gives me an opportunity for fruitful work, I do not know which I should choose. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and to be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire— and yet for your sake to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need. This much I know for certain, that I shall stay and stand by you all, to encourage your advance and your joy in the faith … [Phil 1:21–25 NJB]

Paul is reflecting deeply on the hardships he has been through. He leaves us a very personal statement. He feels close to death, and he really would like to die and be with Christ. But he knows that his friends still need him, so he wants to remain here with them.

They had been touched deeply by the hardships Paul was going through, and he has been so struck by their compassion that would rather stay with them than join Christ in glory.

Grafton 2017

Today we begin a new partnership in ministry here in Grafton.

Authentic solidarity and genuine compassion are key attributes of the faith we share and the church community we seek to create.

Imagine if the Cathedral was famous in Grafton for the compassion we share.

And imagine if that compassion extended beyond the fellowship of our Parish community to embrace the whole city of Grafton.

And beyond that, imagine if we were known as people who are passionate and gutsy in our commitment to social justice, in our work for peace, and in our care of the environment.

None of this is about having the answers. Nor is it about power and status. And it is certainly not about being correct.

But it is about becoming compassionate people: people who move far beyond good ideas and warm feelings to stand in compassionate solidarity with one another, and with the people who are doing it tough at the present time.

May Christ give us the grace to have this mindset: today, tomorrow, and always.

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