Rethinking the cross of Jesus

Good Friday
Christ Church Cathedral
30 March 2018

[video | Letter to my critics | Making meaning out of the cross]

This morning I want to speak briefly about the death of Jesus, about the cross.

It is a most familiar topic, as our churches are littered with crosses. From the roof top to the decorations carved into our woodwork, we have crosses everywhere. We wear them around our neck, put them on the wall above our bed, and we make the sign of a cross at sacred moments.

The cross is everywhere.

But most of what people will be told about the cross today in churches around the world and across our Diocese and around this city is nonsense at best, and truly bad theology at worst.

So today I want to talk briefly concerning three really bad ideas that people have about the crucifixion, and I want to suggest one really good way to understand what the cross was all about.


As the ideas were taking shape in my mind, I went back to read again what I said on Good Friday at Byron Bay last April. I did that for a few different reasons.

First of all, because it helps me to clarify my thoughts now if I review what I have said about the same topic at an earlier time.

I also wanted to make sure that I was not just going to repeat unwittingly material from last year.

And I needed to check if I had anything new to say today. And I think I do!

Generally speaking I do not like to read what I said in a sermon a year or more ago. I rarely agree with myself!

As I have reflected on that I realise that this may because I am no longer the same person who gave that sermon. At the time it may have been the right thing for the person I was then to say in that context. But time has passed. Other stuff has happened in my life and yours since this time last year. I am a different person, and I am speaking to a different community of faith. Even if I was still in Byron Bay, we would all have moved on—I hope—in the meantime, and each of us will be at least a little bit different than we were twelve months ago.

It makes me wonder what we shall all be like in twelve months’ time from now!

What will God have been doing in and through us during the year ahead, and how shall we have changed —individually and collectively — in that time?

So back to the task before us here this morning …


Bad Idea #1

Crucifixion was a violent and cruel way to kill someone.

The story of the cross is a story of extreme violence.

Worse still, it is a story of sacred violence and it reinforces all those times when we have experienced or observed violence and hatred being inflicted on others in the name of religion.

This is a dark thread that runs through the Bible and through the wider spiritual tradition of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Instead of our faith giving us the wisdom and courage to address religious violence, sacred violence has repeatedly been excused, validated and justified by religion.

Some parts of the Bible are frankly unable to be used in public worship or in a religious education curriculum at our local Anglican school because of the violence and hatred that those texts celebrate and reinforce.

We may make this issue a topic for as Dean’s Forum in the next few months, as it is a very nasty element of our faith which we rarely address and which we rarely admit.

It is therefore very important—despite all the sermons and all the Sunday School lessons you may have heard to the contrary—that we reject any notion that God wanted Jesus to die as a human sacrifice.

The cross is not about divine wrath or sacred violence.

It was violent, but God was the victim of the violence and not the perpetrator.

How could we ever have gotten that so wrong?

This is a really bad idea, and I hope you never again allow a priest or any other person tell you that God approves of violence for the sake of dealing with evil or sin.

That is simply not true.

Worse still, it is a tragic betrayal of the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.


Bad Idea #2

The second bad idea that you will find lots of Christian people spruiking, and especially their pastors, is that the suffering of Jesus was so deep that it is without parallel in human history.

This is a variant of the God likes violence theme, but sounds more like: God can be moved to action if the suffering is especially intense.

Fortunately this second bad idea can be disposed of very easily.

The simple fact is that the suffering experienced by Jesus was neither remarkable nor unique.

Many people have suffered as badly as Jesus did, including the several thousand Jewish rebels crucified by Roman forces during the siege of Jerusalem about 40 years after Easter.

Countless human beings have experienced torture and cruel deaths with levels of suffering much worse than Jesus would have experienced.

Christian women living with violent husbands who abuse their spouses and claim it is their prerogative as the spiritual head of the woman are probably suffering worse than Jesus did, because their suffering goes on week after week with no sign of ending.

Assylum seekers consigned to cruel and inhumane conditions by our own Government are probably suffering more than Jesus ever did.

I could go on, but all such calculations miss the point.

It is not how much Jesus suffered that matters, but who he was and how he acted. More on that shortly when we get to a good idea for thinking about the cross.


Bad idea #3

The last of these really bad ideas about the Cross that I want to mention is one that is especially popular among people planning—or attending—Good Friday services.

This is the idea that my sins—or yours, or both yours and mine together—are what caused Jesus to die.

This is an idea that is especially common in Christian hymns.

It is nonsense.

We know what caused Jesus to be crucified, and it was not your sins or my sins, or the sins of anyone else we know.

All such twisted theology does is generate guilt. It makes us feel bad, and encourages us to be compliant participants in a church forgiveness racket. It is misdirected.

Jesus was killed because the powerful elites of his day wanted to eliminate him since he was a serious threat to their power and their privilege.

And they were right.

They were not right to kill Jesus, but they were right to discern that if his way of thinking about God took hold in the minds of the people over whom they ruled, the people they exploited, then their own days were numbered.

This is not about my sins or your sins.

It is about a clash between Jesus the prophet of the empire of God, and the elites in Jerusalem who prospered under the empire of Caesar and could not tolerate someone like Jesus.

They knew that when he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God”, Jesus was not describing an even split of our loyalties. Rather, Jesus was inviting people to give Caesar what he deserves (nothing) and to give God what God deserves (our all).

People who talk like that, who act like that, and who encourage other people to think like that will always be taken out by the powers that be.


A better idea

As I have already hinted, what matters about the crucifixion is not that it was a violent death or that Jesus himself suffered great distress, shame and pain. For sure it was violent, and involved suffering of many different kinds for Jesus.

But that is not why his death matters to God or to us.

Nor did his death have anything to do with us or our sins. It was all about the power games of the rich and powerful in first-century Jerusalem.

Instead of thinking about what happened to Jesus, how bad it was, and who is to blame; we can approach this from another direction.

We can focus on Jesus himself.

The redemptive element of the crucifixion is the faithfulness of Jesus himself, who never let go of his vision of God as the only power deserving of his loyalty.

Jesus was a martyr, not a sacrifice.

Paul teases this out in the early chapters of Romans when he compares the faithfulness of Abraham—who trusted God even when asked (in the story if not in real life) to sacrifice his only son—with the faithfulness of Jesus, who was willing to put his own life on the line because of his deep trust in God.

This is what the early church meant when it spoke of being saved by the faith of Jesus: not that we have faith in Jesus, but that Jesus was faithful to God, even to the point of death.

The faithfulness Jesus by which lived and died is the basis for our reconciliation with God.

Our sins did not cause the death of Jesus, but his faithfulness to God eliminates the impact of our sins on our own relationship with God.

Again this is something we may want to tease out in a Dean’s Forum some day. It is too big an idea to unpack in a single sermon on Good Friday, but it is essentially a simple idea:

What matters about the cross is that Jesus trusted God.

What matters about the cross is that Jesus was faithful to God.

What matters about the cross is that God honoured the faith of Jesus, and God did not allow violent political forces to stamp out his life even though they had killed him.

More on that when we get to Easter Day!


What we celebrate today, and in every Eucharist, is the offer of life, eternal life:

Our liturgy today is not excusing violence, or valorising suffering.

Our liturgy today is not asking us to accept the blame for Jesus having to die.

Our liturgy today is celebrating the faithfulness of Jesus, even to death, death on a cross.

Our liturgy today is inviting us to embrace that same faithfulness to God.

Our liturgy today is offering us the grace we need to be faithful people, just like Jesus.

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When words fail …

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Lent 5 (B)
18 March 2018


This week the Sunday lectionary offers us three serves of text, each of which centres around a particular—but different—metaphor.

At first glance I wondered what exactly I would do with those texts for the sermon this morning, but on reflection I want to suggest that the readings invite us to embrace metaphor as the most valid way of speaking about God and faith.

All of our speaking about God is necessarily poetic and metaphorical. After all, human language developed for communication between persons about events, places, relationships and feelings in our world and in our lives.

When we attempt to speak about God using human language it is as if we are pushing our human language up to the red line, and even beyond the red line. We should not be surprised if words fail us when we seek to speak about realities which are beyond everyday human experience.

So let’s get into the metaphors!



My first reaction during the week, when I saw that Hebrews 5 was providing our second reading this morning, was to comment to Roger about the occurrence of the word Melchizedek in that passage.

It is an odd word to our ears, and for many people to our tongues, but to Jewish ears it is not such a strange word at all.

This ancient Hebrew word is built from two other words: the word for king (melek) and the word for righteousness (zedek). When put together these two terms create a name which simply means king of righteousness.

Until a few decades ago we had no idea why this mysterious character with the odd name was so significant the author of Hebrews. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know that Melchizedek was one of two symbolic characters with great significance in those ancient scrolls.

The opposite character to Melchizedek was an evil and dark character with the delightful name Melchiresha, which means king of evil. So Melchizedek and Melchiresha were to Jews in the time of Jesus, what Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are to fans of the Star Wars series today.

These two poetic and symbolic characters reflect the deep underlying tensions in human experience: we know ourselves to be called to the light, but we find ourselves drawn to the darkness.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.


New heart, new covenant

Our first reading from the book of the Jewish prophet Jeremiah has its origins in the years just after 600 BCE. Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of Babylon who were about to capture and destroy the city. That much was politics and history, and archeologists have even picked up the arrowheads on the grounds outside the ancient city walls to verify the reality of those hard times.

But Jeremiah seeks a deeper truth for people in dark times, and he imagines a new covenant, a new relationship between God and the people of Jerusalem. He imagines a new covenant written not on blocks of stone, but etched on the human heart.

This is a powerful invitation for us as we prepare the rituals of Holy Week and Easter, to remember what matters most is what is happening in our hearts and not the ceremonies the rituals we may be performing.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.


A grain of wheat

The gospel of John offers us a third poetic image, and this is one of my personal favourites: the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and seems to have died, but in fact gives rise to an abundance of new life.

This metaphor penetrates deeply into the mystery of life and faith and it is especially relevant in these final two weeks of Lent.

This is the wisdom by which Jesus lived.

This is the wisdom we are invited to embrace.

This is the wisdom into which we will baptise Lachlan later this morning.

This is the spiritual wisdom our city and our nation needs to hear.

This is the wisdom of life that we need to share with our children and grandchildren.

This is metaphor.
Powerful truth.
Wrapped up in poetry and symbol.


Metaphors abound

Life is full of metaphor—and so is the church and especially our rituals.

The life of faith is a life informed by the wisdom we discern in metaphor, poetry and symbol.

We miss the point – and we totally miss the deep spiritual wisdom available to us — if we argue about the historicity of the metaphor. This is an essential lesson as we approach Easter.

Instead, today and during these next two weeks as we turn towards the cross, we are invited to embrace the deep wisdom that is available to us if only we will open our hearts to poetic truth in metaphor and symbol.


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The cleansing of the church

Lent 3 (B)
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
4 March 2018

The lectionary today switches us across to a series of readings from the Gospel of John. For the next three Sundays our gospel readings will come from John even though we are in the year of Mark.

The Gospel of John offers us a different take on Jesus.

John sees Jesus very differently from the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

One of the differences concerns the identity of Jesus’ opponents.

In the synoptic gospels the opponents are various political and religious groups within Second Temple Judaism: Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. But in the Gospel of John the opponents of Jesus are routinely described as “the Jews”.

We see that very easily in today’s gospel message, which begins with the statement that “the Passover of the Jews” was happening followed by repeated references to the Jews as the opponents of Jesus.

Quite apart from this explicit labelling of the opponents of Jesus as being the Jews, a story such as this week’s text represents Jesus in profound conflict with the Temple hierarchy, and thus in conflict with the central institution of Jewish life at the time.

This is exacerbated by the way the story is moved from later in the life of Jesus and placed by John directly after the miracle of the water being turned into wine at Kfar Kana, Cana.

It is of the very essence of that story—as told by the gospel of John—that the ‘water’ of the Jewish religion is being replaced by the ‘wine’ the Jesus religion.

This is a clear and unambiguous anti-Semitic statement.



Anti-Semitism is one of the worst stains on the conscience of Christianity. It ranks right up there with child abuse and cover-up, but is even worse; hard though it is these days to imagine anything worse child abuse and cover-up.

Anti-Semitism has been a feature of Christian life from the time that Christians first gained political power after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. However, its roots run much deeper into the text of the New Testament itself as we can clearly see in the Gospel of John.

In case we missed his point, John moves the episode of Jesus creating a scene in the temple from the end of the story back to the beginning of his account of Jesus’ public activity.

For the author of John’s gospel, this scene sets the tone for the ministry of Jesus. For John, that tone is deeply anti-Semitic.

It would have been comfortable for me this morning to focus on the first reading from the book of Exodus or even second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but it is impossible to remain silent when such an anti-Semitic text read out loud in the Cathedral.

Silence suggests consent.

Worse still, silence allows hateful attitudes towards Jews to become embedded in our spiritual DNA as Christians.

This animus is even found in First Corinthians 1, although it is not quite as virulent as we see in John’s gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and “the Jews” are listed as one of the groups of opponents of the gospel who persist in asking wrong questions because they do not wish to believe.

Although Paul — like all the early Christian leaders — was Jewish, his letter betrays a profound level of antagonism between his mission and the religious leadership of Jewish society.


The Decalogue

Such a nasty turn in the rhetoric between the followers of Jesus and the adherents of Moses is all the more remarkable today when our first reading is from the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments.

These ancient laws are Jewish laws.

They summarise our fundamental duties in human life:

duties to God
duties to parents/family
duties to other people

 These laws derive from the heart of the foundational Jewish story: the account of the exodus as God rescues the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This is not a marginal Jewish tradition, but something which is very close to the very heart of Jewish identity.


Wisdom for faithful living

This insidious poison of Christian anti-Semitism which we find in the new Testament and throughout church history, must be opposed and denounced at every turn.

This is also true of its modern twin Islamophobia.

Fear of the other has no place in the Christian faith.

Hatred towards those who are different has no place in the Christian faith.

Arrogance which assumes we are better than others has no place in the Christian faith.

So where is the heart of the gospel in all this and what are we to make of the memory of that scene in the Temple all these years ago?

It seems best to understand the incident in the Temple as a symbolic prophetic act by Jesus.

He was not seeking to storm the Temple or to make it the base for a revolt. That would happen around 40 years later, but had nothing to do with Jesus.

Rather, acting in typical Jewish fashion—and in perfect consistency with the examples of the Jewish prophets in the Scriptures that we still share with Judaism—Jesus was making a vivid prophetic denunciation of the way that the Temple was serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

This is not an anti-Semitic act.

Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and so was this act.

He was calling the Temple hierarchy to account for their failure to live by the covenant for which the Ten Commandments constitute a summary of basic principles.

We should recall that Jesus himself summarised the law in a similar way to other Jewish teachers in his own time: love God, and love your neighbour.

This is the heart of the covenant with God: for Jews, and Christians, and Muslims.

On this spiritual wisdom we all agree.

As Jesus saw it, the corruption at the Temple was failing to honour God and was also exploiting the poor.

No love of God here, and no compassion for other people.

By the time the Gospel of John is composed, a bitter divide has happened between followers of Jesus and their Torah-observant Jewish peers.

The vitriol was extreme, as we see consistently through the Gospel of John.

John and his first readers had no extremist agenda to attack Jews. But his language would feed later generations of anti-Semitic thinking and actions within the Church at times when Christians had both the capacity and the desire to harm Jews.

For this we hang our heads in shame.

What must we give up this Lent?

Anti-Semitism for sure!

So we stand alongside Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Galilee as we call on our religious institutions to walk the talk, to serve always the mission of God in the world (rather than their own self-preservation), and to protect the vulnerable and the weak.

In this Cathedral there can be no anti-Semitism. Ever.

Passionate as I am about Palestinian rights to justice and self-determination, there is no excuse for anti-Semitism as we stand in solidarity with people who have lost land, family, homes and hope.

Similarly, there is no place for Islamophobia here.

This Cathedral—like the Temple in Jerusalem—is a house of prayer for all God’s children, and we welcome our Jewish and Muslim friends to find here a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

If you love God, you are welcome here.

If you love your neighbour, you are welcome here.









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Amazing grace

Ordination of Chad Rynehart
Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar School Chapel
24  February 2018


May these words be spoken
and heard
in the power of love. Amen.


We are gathered here in this school chapel for the ordination of Chad Rynehart.

It has been my privilege to serve as Chad’s spiritual companion during the past three days as he prepared for this service. That precious time which we have shared will inform what I have to say, although nothing that we discussed will be shared with you today.

Were this an ordination service with several candidates, I would be expected to speak in fairly general terms about the importance of the ordained ministry within the life and mission of the church, and especially the role of Priests.

But we have just a single candidate for this service, so the focus falls on one guy—and my comments will also be rather more individualised than might otherwise have been the case.


Amazing Grace

We all know the popular hymn, Amazing Grace. It was written by—of all things—by someone who had been the captain of slave ships, taking captured Africans to America to be sold into slavery, and had himself been the slave of an African princess. Even after retiring from the slave trade and becoming an Anglican priest, John Newton continued to invest in the slave trade for many years.

The words of that hymn came to mind as I reflected on the conversations I have shared with Chad these past few days.

A constant thread in those conversations was grace: recognising—even if only with the benefit of hindsight—the loving presence of God in different circumstances and situations.

It is that idea of grace that I want to explore a little further with you today.

Maybe we can move from hindsight to foresight, and develop the spiritual skills to recognise and respond to God’s grace in real time, rather than only with hindsight.


Charis: beautiful, gift

Grace is a word that has two major sets of meaning, even in English,

In the conversations that I shared with Chad these past few days, I think we were mostly thinking of grace in the sense of: undeserved gift.

We were recognising various ways in which God has been present in our lives, often unrecognised and always undeserved. The miracle of sacred presence. The miracle of loving presence.

That is an idea I will return to shortly.

The other meaning of grace, is beauty.

When we comment on the grace with which someone acts, we are responding to something very beautiful about them. The dance, they speak, they act … with grace. It is a joy to watch them. They are authentic and beautiful because of the grace with which they act.

I shall also return briefly to that idea at the end of this reflection.


From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

In John 1, as the poetic prologue ends, the writer adds these words:

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

During the past few days as Chad and I have engaged in conversation, prayer and solitude this has been a truth that we have each recognised: out of God’s eternal fullness we have both received—and you have all received—grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace.

What an inviting concept.

One good thing on top of another good thing, and more good things on top of those good things.

Grace upon grace.

How good is our life as people of faith, and even as people of little faith.



The first and most profound grace that we have received is life itself.

We do not have to exist, and we cannot cause ourselves to exist. Life is a gift. A grace. A gift that we do not earn, and yet also a gift from God’s own self. We exist because God exists, and because God generates life.

It is grace. Thanks be to God.



We exist within community, even when we choose to be alone.

Around us, before us and after us is a rich community of humanity, and indeed all creation. As we are coming to realise more and more, we are connected within an immense web of life.

For much of the time that web of life may be invisible to us, but it sustains us and we contribute to that web by our actions and our thoughts, our hopes and our fears, our successes and our failures.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.



Within that immense web of life there is a circle of people with whom we are most at home: our families, our lovers, our intimate friends. These are the keepers of our secrets. They know us better than anyone else, and love us regardless.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.



Connecting with a different set of people across cultures, nationality, place and time is the mysterious reality of the church. Here we glimpse God’s dream for the universe and find the spiritual wisdom needed to live lives that are holy and authentic. Here—when church is at its best—we find a safe space to explore the meaning of life, and to experiment with our own response to the God who call us.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.



Neither of these terms is quite the word I want, as they speak mostly to activity within the church or in the name of the church. The Greek term leitourgia would be better, but is mostly misunderstood as liturgy. In the ancient Greek world, leitourgia was an act of public service, something done by an individual for the sake of the community.

In our daily work and in the ways we spend our discretionary time, we are called to serve others. As we serve others, and as others serve us, the fabric of our society is created, enhanced and protected.

For some that will be ministry as a deacon, priest or bishop.

For others it will be ministry as a teacher, technician or gardener.

For others it will be ministry as a parent, as a carer, as … (insert your role here).

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.


Grace upon grace

Grace indeed takes many forms, and will be present even if we do not recognise it.

But here in this service we do recognise grace.

We celebrate grace.

We honour grace.

And we seek more expressions of grace in the years to come.

This school community is a community of grace. May it ever be so.

This ordinand, Chad, is a person of grace. In both senses of the word. May he ever be so.


Chad, we affirm today that we embrace you as a person of grace. You are a blessing to us and especially to this school community. And you are someone in whom we see the beauty of God at work as you gracefully go about your ministry within this community.

Grace upon grace.

We affirm and celebrate the grace of God within you, and we stand alongside you as you say yes to the God who calls you into new expressions of grace as a Priest in this school community, as a Priest in the local church, and as a Priest in the life of our Diocese.

This too is grace. Thanks be to God.



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Turning towards life

Lent 1 (B)
Christ Church Cathedral
18 February 2018



Turning to life

On the first Sunday of Lent you might have been expecting to hear the Gospel story of Jesus being tested by the devil during a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness.

The classic Lent hymn, “forty days and forty nights”, captures that traditional spirit of extended hardship and trials.

But this is the Year of Mark, so we get just the summary description in 1:12–13:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The more developed version of this tradition is found in Matthew and Luke, but that is not what we have been served by the lectionary for this year as we start Lent.

Instead, from the Gospel of Mark we are offered a very different but very important memory about the public activity of Jesus.

This week’s passage offers us three snippets:

  1. Baptism of Jesus by John (vss 9–11)
  2. Jesus being tested in the wilderness: driven out by the Spirit of God to the place ‘where the wild things are’ (vss 12–13)
  3. Jesus beginning his mission (vss 14–15)

It is that final summary that I want us to focus on today.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I believe this brief statement offers us immense spiritual wisdom as individuals and as a faith community on this day when we have our annual general meeting.

This summary, and especially vs 15, is one of the pivotal texts for my understanding of Jesus, for my understanding of my own faith, and therefore for my understanding of the mission we share as a faith community.

Correctly, understood, this verse invites us to see everything from a different angle.


Motivation (it’s time … God is among us)

Mark captures the essence of Jesus’ message in this verse as he begins with the key concept of the reign of God. In the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel this is expressed as the basileia tou theou. In English Bibles since at least 1611, this has been translated as the ‘kingdom of God’ although Jesus’ listeners would probably have understood it as the ‘empire of God’.

In the Greek-speaking eastern end of the Roman Empire, basileia was the word for empire.

At the time when King James was commissioning his Authorised Version of the Bible, they had a problem with the ancient meaning of this phrase. Spain had an empire, but England was a kingdom. So Jesus came to speak to Englishmen at least about the kingdom of God, rather than God’s empire.

God’s reign is what we pray for each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: your kingdom come

God’s reign means things on earth happening the way God wants them to be, and not the way the Emperor wants them to be.

Jesus was saying—and acting as if—God’s re-ordering of human affairs was already starting to happen. The kingdom is here. God’s reign is already happening. It starts here. With us. Right now.

Of course, people who speak and act like that soon find that tyrants taken them out, and that would happen to Jesus within a very short time.

Remember, he was killed not because he upset the Temple priests but because he unsettled the Romans.

If we never say or do anything to upset the ways things are around here, I wonder if we have really understood this key element of Jesus’ own self-understanding?

To recycle an old proverb:

Jesus came to comfort the disturbed,
and to disturb the comfortable.

Can our mission, as individuals and as a church, be any different from that?


Turn to life

The second part of Mark’s snappy three part summary is that those who heard Jesus were called upon to repent.

Ah, you say, now that sounds like Lent!

But think again, and think more deeply.

The concept at the heart of repentance is turning.

We mostly have heard about this as people tell us to turn away from sin, turn away from temptation, and to turn away from evil.

But it may be better to think of this word as an invitation to turn towards God, to turn towards love, to turn towards life.

These alternatives invite us to think about our central understanding of ourselves, and of life. Do we mostly think about ourselves as sinners who need to turn away from evil, or as beloved children who can choose to embrace life and turn towards God?

To put in another way, does “repent” make us feel bad about ourselves or good about ourselves? Does this word put us down, or set us free?

I hope you will hear Jesus speaking about repentance as an invitation to become more truly who we already are, and to turn consciously and intentionally towards life, to embrace love, and to claim our true human dignity as beloved children of God.

This Lent I am encouraging you to think about spiritual fitness options rather than pleasures that need to be set aside.

Turning to life, rather than turning away from death.



The final part of Jesus’ mission message was for people to believe the good news.

That is not a demand that we believe the Nicene Creed or embrace the Thirty Nine Articles. It is not even a requirement that we believe in the Bible. None of that has any part in the mission and message of Jesus.

As we read through the Gospels we do not find Jesus questioning people about their beliefs or berating them for their sins. He never asked people about their synagogue attendance or their offering envelopes. And he does not grill them about their relationship status.

What we do find Jesus often doing is affirming the deep faith (trust) that a particular person seems to have: ‘because of your trust what you have asked will be granted …’

This kind of existential trust in the goodness of God and in the reality of God’s reign right here and right now is what changes their lives:

The blind see
The lame walk
The deaf hear
The sick are healed
The dead are raised.


When we turn towards life—and when we trust in the goodness of God’s love which is at the very heart of our universe—then a new day dawns. God’s kingdom arrives among us. The old emperor is dethroned.

May that be your experience this Lent.

And may that be our experience in the year that lies ahead of us as a Parish.

Turn to life, embrace love, discover God.

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The stories that define us

In his daily meditation for this past Sunday, Richard Rohr correctly invites us to embrace the concept of original blessing and eschew meta-narratives of violence, since these are stories that shape us.

I have immense respect for Rohr and his theological reflections, but I quickly found myself dissenting from the process by which he constructed his otherwise worthy appeal.

First of all, the Enuma elish is from several hundred years before the Babylonian exile and most likely was not the form of the ANE creation myth that was known to the Jewish exiles, let along the theologians who composed Genesis 1.

As I shall point out below, the Jews had their own versions of God slaying the dragon / sea-monster in order to create the world, so they really did not need to borrow this stuff from their goyyim neighbours.

And then I found myself wondering why even progressive theologies—with higher than usual openness to the spiritual insights of other religions—still tend assume that our tradition is pure and non-violent, while other (pagan) traditions are crude and violent?

Secondly, to conjure up an early form of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity from the opening verses of Genesis—as Rohr does in this reflection—is very bad exegesis and even worse interfaith theology.

“Creator” is a function of God (Elohim) in Genesis 1, and not a title — just as it is not the ID of the first person of the Trinity in Christian tradition, despite contemporary attempts to make it so in a gender-free formula such as “Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life”.

The Hebrew term ruach (wind, spirit), does not refer to the Holy Spirit when used in an ancient Jewish text. While ruach-elohim is literally “wind of God”, it is probably best understood as as Hebrew superlative form, and translated as “a powerful wind” or “a strong storm”, just as a phrase like gibeah-elohim means “very big hill” rather than “hill of God”.

Finally, there is no logos/Word—or even feminine Sophia figure—in this ancient creation poem, simply a God who says, “Let there be light,” etc.

Thirdly, the violence that Rohr finds so abhorrent is still implicit in the story with echoes of ancient conflict traditions in the Hebrew terms that occur within the first few sentences. In any case, the violent defeat of the primordial sea-monster or dragon is explicit in other Hebrew creation poems found in the Psalms and in the Prophets. The ancient Jews, it seems, were not averse to depicting creation as a violent defeat of the primordial serpentine opponent of YHWH.

Perhaps more significantly for both Jewish and Christian readers, this violence is matched and even excelled by the ghastly stories of Abraham (almost) sacrificing his son, Isaac, and Jephthah actually sacrificing his own daughter, not to mention those defective Christian understandings of the atonement which see the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice in which an innocent person is killed in place of the many sinners.

The violence does not end there within the Christian Scriptures, but is deeply embedded in apocalyptic visions of the destruction to be wreaked upon humankind and all of creation at the end of time.

To be people of peace we need both a creation myth and a redemption myth that eschews violence, and what we have in the Bible are origin myths and end-time myths that are dripping with violence and destruction.

No wonder the modern world is in such a mess.

All of this is related to the myth of St George slaying the dragon, which is an ancient oriental archetype for the victory of civilisation (imperial violence, or the violence of civilisation, as John Dominic Crossan would remind us) over the forces of chaos. The rider on the white horse has a long mythic history long before it was attached to the name of St George, and it is extended further in the Book of Revelation—a.k.a. the Apocalypse [!!!] of John—where the victorious Christ figure sits upon a white horse as he rides out to destroy Satan, a.k.a that great dragon or serpent.

Rohr should know all this, and probably does.

So I wonder why he penned a reflection that leaves all these issues aside and does not see the violence embedded in our own tradition and celebrated in our central liturgies?

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Transfiguration … transformation … ministry

Christ Church Cathedral
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
11 February 2018


062 Mt Tabor Church of Transfiguration mural, tb n040200



The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is unique because it is so different from all the other memories of Jesus that were preserved by the earliest Christians. It has echoes, of course, with traditions about Moses and Elijah, and both those characters appear in this story alongside Jesus.

This is one of the rare stories in the Gospels where the focus is on Jesus himself, rather than some action he takes to assist another person or a saying in which he speaks of God’s kingdom.

It feels rather like a story about Jesus from after Easter, and indeed some scholars have suggested this may be a resurrection story that has been mistakenly retold as if it happened during Jesus’ life.

The earliest version of the story is found in Mark’s Gospel, and that is the one we read this morning. As Matthew and Luke each repeat this story that they borrowed from Mark, they elaborate some of the small details in different ways. Marks tells the story first.

When dealing with this remarkable passage, preachers typically adopt one of the following lines:

Epiphany: The transfiguration is seen as a moment when the eternal divinity of Jesus peeps through his humanity and becomes visible to his closest disciples.

Vocation: Like the Baptism story, with which this episode shares many features, some preachers see this as a moment when Jesus finds the spiritual resources for his journey to the cross. That journey begins—in terms of Mark’s narrative—towards the end of the previous chapter, so this is a way of engaging with the text that respects the logic of the ancient narrative itself.

Discipleship: Others focus on the reaction of the three disciples from Jesus’ inner circle, and especially Peter’s response: ‘Lord, it is good that we are here.’

True Power: When observed on its proper feast day (August 6), many modern preachers are struck by the fact that this date is also the day of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima. The brilliant cloud of the exploding nuclear device seems to evoke the radiance of Jesus’ clothing, offering a choice between two kinds of power.

Each of those can be fruitful ways to engage with the living word of God in this ancient story, but I want to take a slightly different tack this morning. I invite you reflect with me on the significance of this text in the final Sunday of the Epiphany season.


A month of epiphanies …

The Epiphany season varies in length, depending on the date of Easter. So this year it ends a bit sooner than some other years.

During the Epiphany season we reflect on those moments of revelation (epiphanies) when we catch a deeper glimpse of the way things are, and perhaps even of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Through this year’s abbreviated Epiphanytide we have been offered several different examples of Epiphany moments from Scripture and our own local context:

  • The Feast of the Epiphany: when the visiting sages from the Orient encountered the manifestation of God’s love for all people and all nations in the person of Jesus. They get a glimpse of the way things are.
  • The Baptism of our Lord: when Jesus hears the divine voice calling him into his identity and his mission: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The child Samuel, hearing God calling in the night: That mysterious sense of personal call, which other more experienced souls around us may fail to discern at first. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God who goes fishing: calling us to do the work that Love has planned for us, and gently persisting until we do so. While Jonah may not agree that the process was all that gentle, he—and the disciples by the lake—catch a glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God of this ancient land: the Great Spirit who has always been present in this ancient southern land, and whose presence we learn to discern more clearly as we listen to our indigenous sisters and brothers. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God present among us in this Diocese as we commence the discernment process to choose a new Bishop. Another glimpse of the way things are.

Now—on this final Sunday after Epiphany—we end with the powerful symbolic story of Jesus being transfigured, as his divine glory shows through his humanity and draws his followers deeper into the mystery of God among us.


Transfigured people

We hear this ancient story on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the last Sunday before Lent: when we begin our own journey to the Cross.

Like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we are poised to begin the journey to the Cross. Like him we need the spiritual resources to make that journey.

As we reflect on this powerful story, we are reminded that Jesus is the ultimate epiphany, our unique revelation of God among us in human form. In the person of Jesus we see the most complete human expression of God among us.

With that insight we conclude our Epiphany journey but also start our Lenten journey.

Paul was probably unaware of Mark’s story about the transfiguration, but he has had his own encounter with the glorified Jesus when his own life was completely turned around. In the reading from 2 Corinthians 4 this morning Paul uses words that draw on the Moses traditions but also reflect his own experience—and ours—of Jesus as the human face of God:

“… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:4–6 NRSV)

Glory in clay jars

Paul develops the metaphor in a surprising direction and takes us to a different place than Mark.

The epiphany insights that we gather along life’s journey are indeed incredible spiritual treasures, but we contain this treasure in clay jars.

The clay jars are us.

Nothing less than the glory of God is hidden inside us, yet we are like cheap, disposable clay jars that hide the amazing truth of God within us, the greatest epiphany of them all.

That is true of us all, but I want to mention two of those clay jars that happen to be here in the Cathedral this morning.

The first is Fr Ian.

His clay seems to be very refined, because it is never too hard to see the glory of God shining through his life, and especially in that smile that dances across his face.

This is Fr Ian’s final Sunday with us, and I am glad that we were able to arrange things so that he could preside here one last time.

You have been a precious gift to this community of faith, Ian. There is a great treasure of wisdom and love and hope all wrapped up in the clay jar of your humanity. We have come to treasure both your humanity and your wisdom.

We thank you for your ministry here, and we wish you and +Sarah every blessing as you leave us shortly to re-establish your home in Canberra.

The other clay jar I need to mention is me.

Today I celebrate 39 years since my ordination as a Priest, and as I reflect on those years in Holy Orders I am conscious of the clay jar that is my life. The clay seems to me to be not as fine as the clay in Ian’s jar, but in my better moments the inner spiritual wisdom is the same.

It is a profound and holy privilege to be set aside for the work of a priest in the community of God’s people. Neither Ian nor I would ever claim to have nailed it, but we are both conscious that we carry within our own lives the secret of the glorified Christ, Emmanuel, the God who comes among us.

What is true of Ian and I is true of you all.

We all carry in our own selves the mystery of God, an immense spiritual treasure hidden in clay jars.

That surely is the great epiphany of these past few weeks, and the ultimate source of our hope as we begin the journey to the Cross next Sunday.

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Discernment … wisdom … conversion

Discernment Synod Eucharist
Diocese of Grafton
4 February 2018


Here today we begin the process of discerning the person who will serve as the next Bishop of Grafton.

Here in this service we seek the guidance of God in that process, and we commit ourselves to be the kind of persons God can guide.


Leadership as ministry

The ministry of leadership within the community of God’s people has often challenged both those called to leadership as well as the members of the Church.

There is no singular biblical specification for leadership, despite periodic attempts to promote one model or another as ‘the’ biblical template.

At different times in church history various models of leadership have been developed in response to the missional needs of the churches at those times. Even within the New Testament we find many different models of pastoral leadership, and that diversity is expanded even further if we include the Old Testament.

A reasonable case can be made that every model has its advantages and disadvantages.

As Australian Anglicans we embrace episcopal leadership exercised within a Synodical governance framework in which clergy and lay people have substantial authority and shared responsibility for the well-being of the Church. This differs from some other provinces of the Anglican Communion where Bishops may exercise more authority and where the powers of the Synod may be somewhat curtailed.


Discernment Synod

Beginning here today, this Synod embraces its responsibility for the appointment of a new Bishop, a responsibility that we exercise as we follow a series of careful steps:

First of all, here in the Eucharist, we seek God’s guidance. I shall return to the significance of that in just a moment.

Secondly, we shall then spend the bulk of today listening to one another carefully, intentionally, with spiritual ears attuned to hear not only one another but also the God who is within us, among us, and between us.

Finally today, we shall elect the Bishop Appointment Board. Those chosen to serve on this Board are being entrusted by us to choose and appoint our new Bishop, informed by our discernment process today and guided by God.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider that.

What a profound act of faith.

We not only seek God’s guidance, but we are delegating 12 of our members (along with 6 reserves) to make a decision of immense significance for us as a Diocese, and for many of us as individuals.

We trust those 12 (18) people to act in good faith.

Our trust in them is a tangible instance of our trust in God.

We are indeed stepping onto holy ground as we undertake this task today.

Let me now return to stage one of that process: what we are doing here in this Eucharist in the Cathedral this morning.


Ongoing conversion

As I mentioned earlier, here in this service we are seeking God’s guidance not only on our discernment Synod today, but also on the whole process of choosing our new Bishop.

In our case and at this time, we need to discern not only the qualities needed in our new Bishop, but also the qualities needed in us as we form the Synod of this Diocese and work in partnership with our Bishop.

Our prayers are not for others to be touched by God, but for all of us and each of us to be touched by God.

Let me put this in stark terms.

Unless we are reformed and renewed we can sabotage the ministry of our new Bishop

For sure we need wisdom to find the right person

But getting the right person is not a silver bullet to resolve the real challenges we face.

We also need to be the right people, the people God wants us to be.

We need a deep and continuous conversion of the Diocese, and that means us (not the Registry office).

It is for that blessing that we pray this morning.

As I try to unpack what that blessings might look like, let me recycle some words of St Paul, and suggest that we are seeking the gifts of faith … hope … love …

  • faith: an attitude of trust rather than pretending to have the answers
  • hope: genuine confidence that God has work for us to do and will enable us to do it
  • love: authentic concern and goodwill that subverts theological tribalism


Yes, we seek wisdom to identify the right person to serve as our Bishop.

But we also seek grace to become the kind of people with whom that new Bishop can serve.

That way—and only in that way—can we engage in the mission to which we are called and develop the ministries that will authentically communicate the heart of the gospel to our families, our neighbours, and indeed our own selves.

May God grant us our prayers.



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Dean of Grafton

Text of the response by the Eighth Dean of Grafton to the community welcome at the conclusion of the installation and commissioning liturgy at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton on Friday, 2 February 2018.


180202 InstallationThank you for the generous welcome extended on behalf of various communities represented here tonight.

Thank you to each of you for being here this evening to make this such a special celebration.

Thank you for the exceptional care and support to me and to Eve and our family since my cancer diagnosis first disturbed our plans to hold this event in September. It has been a richer and more blessed journey these past few months because of your care and support.

Thank you as well to the search committee, chaired by Bishop Sarah, which has invited me to engage in this new ministry opportunity.

Twelve months ago today exactly, I arrived back in Australia with no firm sense of what ministry I would undertake after my time in Jerusalem. It seems that God still had plans for this Lismore boy who has now returned home to the beaches, the rainforests, the timbered ranges and the generous river valleys of his birth. It is good to be home. It is good to be here.

As a Cathedral Parish we are first of all a community of people called together as followers of Jesus. Tonight we reaffirm our commitment to learn and to practise what Jesus has taught us about living as a colony of God’s Kingdom here in this place and at this time.

As a Cathedral we serve the wider diocesan community. I invite the prayers of each ministry unit across the Diocese, as we seek to discern how best to make the spiritual and cultural resources of this place more available to you in your own context.

As a Cathedral we seek to be a place of pilgrimage and prayer for all people of faith, for people of all faiths, and those who do not claim any faith. Our doors are open, our hearts are open, and our minds are open to insights and challenges emerging from our ever expanding knowledge, our evolving social contexts, and the impact of new technologies.

As a Cathedral we are a place where the civic community gathers to celebrate our shared life as a city. Here we mark times of tragedy and loss, and here we affirm our unique local character and our many successes as a city.

Finally, as a Cathedral we are a place that affirms hope. As a traditional place of asylum and sanctuary, we speak truth to power, and we speak peace-shalom-salaam to those without hope or power.

Thank you for sharing the journey that begins this evening …



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Rainbow faith in an ancient land

Australia Day Service
Grafton Cathedral
28 January 2018


Over this holiday weekend it is timely to reflect on what it means to be Australian, and especially what it means to us as people of faith.


Goodbye to privilege

We can start by acknowledging that the days of privilege are past.

While religious faith continues to be protected and respected in our society, Christianity no longer enjoys the status that it once had. That is especially true of the Anglican Church, as social changes have necessarily meant that our percentage within the total population would decline.

We now find ourselves as one church among many, and one faith among several.

That is no bad thing as monopoly feeds arrogance, and privilege tends to corrupt.

We have seen the dark side of that privilege revealed in the plain light of day by the careful work of the Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children in church institutions. That religious institutions were not the only places of abuse is no consolation. It reminds us deeply we failed to bring our distinctive Christian values to bear on the important caring ministries in which we were involved.

We share and reflect the failings of other individuals and institutions.

But we also claim a different set of values, and we aspire to a higher level of genuine care, modelled on the practice of Jesus himself.

So let’s set aside any hankering for past privileges, and focus on how our faith might inform and shape our citizenship now and in the future.


This land

What does it mean to be in this place, rather than somewhere else in the world?

Every place is both beautiful and special, but this is our place.

It is an ancient and distinctive land, with animals and plant life that are quite remarkable in their own right.

The challenge of the Jewish exiles in ancient Babylon becomes ours as well: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? But we reframe that slightly, so it becomes: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this ancient and unique place?

How do we express our faith with an Aussie accent, crafting words that come from our experience rather than words borrowed from ancient Palestine or Medieval Europe?

This is essential work, but it will not be easy.

One aspect of the challenge is seen in our religious calendar.

We observe Christmas, a celebration of the coming of Light at the darkest point of mid-winter, in the middle of summer. And we wonder why everyone is at the beach and not in church? We sing of dashing through the snow, as we head to the coast and slap on the sun screen. Here in the Great South Land, we are singing the Lord’s song in words that derive from the northern hemisphere. Category error!

Even more out of sync is our celebration of Easter, the ancient Spring festival, in the middle of Autumn. We have mortgaged our copy of the Lord’s song to the calendar of another place, and our lyrics clash with the reality of what is happening outside the window. We talk of new life, as the leaves turn brown and fall to the ground.

The reality is that we cannot change the dates for Christmas and Easter, but perhaps we can make sure that we observe them with an Aussie accent.

Much as I love and identify with the geography of Palestine, that is not our land. As Palestinians—whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim—have needed to find ways to speak of God and faith in their own accent, so we need to learn how to speak of God in ways that will resonate with our neighbours, our children, and our own inner self.


These people

And what does it mean to be among the people who share this place with us?

Who are these people?

First of all, we acknowledge the indigenous people of this land. We share this land with people whose ancestors have been here for 60,000 years. Let that number sink into our consciousness. 60,000 years.

When literalists engage in the folly of adding up the genealogies in the Bible to calculate the age of the earth, or the dates of Adam and Eve, they come up a number of around 6,000 years. On the same timeline, they place Abraham—the so-called father of the faith—around 2,000 BCE, or 4,000 years ago.

While such numerical games are meaningless nonsense in a universe that is 15 billion years old, there is a lesson to be learned.

Christian fundamentalists claim with pride that our faith goes back to the time of Abraham, yet we live in a land with a human history stretching back 60,000 years and more.

We have much to learn from the oldest continuous human culture on the planet. Yet we rarely pause even to consider what we could learn from them about singing the Lord’s song in this strange and marvellous land.

That is going to change.

The Cathedral will now be working with indigenous theologians to provide a space for what the Revd Lenore Parker, a local indigenous priest and poet, calls ‘big river theology’. I have no idea where that will take us, but I catch a glimpse of it in the art that transforms the Baptistery of this Cathedral Church. For sure we have much to learn about speaking of God in this place and among these people.


Apart from our indigenous people, and similar to many of us, there are a great many other people around us whose roots lie in other places and other cultures.

What an incredible blessing to live in such a diverse and multicultural community.

As people of faith, when tensions arise between different cultural and ethnic groups—­as they always will from time to time—we will celebrate diversity, encourage openness, and refuse to join those politicians and other xenophobic forces that seek to promote fear and hatred so that they can divide and conquer our community.

We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, including the diversity of humankind.

As church we seek a unity that goes beyond ethnicity, race, social status or gender. We value those differences, but we refuse to allow them to divide us from one another in the Great South Land.

At least that is theory.

The reality may be different as we look around and wonder why the faces inside this Cathedral are so similar to one another, and so unrepresentative of the diversity seen outside the Cathedral.

This too must change. And it will.


Towards a brand new day

As I wrap up these brief reflections on being people of faith, Christian people, in this ancient land, let me quote part of the beautiful prayer by Lenore Parker that we shall use as the preface for the Great Thanksgiving Prayer this morning:

God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
From the dawn of creation you have given your children 
the good things of Mother Earth. 
You spoke and the gum tree grew.

In the vast desert and dense forest, 
And in cities at the water’s edge,
Creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
As the rock at the heart of our land.

The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
And bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
To each other, and to your whole creation.

Lead us on, Great Spirit,
As we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
From the hurt and shame of the past
Into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ.






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