Category Archives: Church & world

Costly grace

Reading
Luke 14.25–33

 

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace? 

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

———————-

There are some easy-to-miss words at the beginning of today’s Gospel Reading. Here they are again:

Now large crowds were travelling with him…

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus. Great numbers of people. You know what can happen when people get together in a crowd? They can become a mob very easily. A mob mentality can take over very quickly. 

Jesus needs to stay on mission. He doesn’t want a mob. He is starting what we could call the ‘Jesus Movement’, and he wants the people with him to stay on mission too.

So what does Jesus do? He gets them to count the cost. He sorts them out. Those who really can’t last the distance need to feel free to leave. So he speaks in the exaggerated way that teachers of his day had: 

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

Count the cost. In other words; If you follow me, you may find opposition from your family. If you follow me, you may be persecuted. Count the cost before you take another step. 

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Hope not fear … fresh words and deeds

Reading
Luke 12.32–40

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore”—“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. — from Laudato Si’, Encyclical of Pope Francis

———————-

In the 1930s, dark storm clouds were gathering over the peoples of the world. The Nazi Party had come to power in Germany, and the other nations were watching with great anxiety. What would Adolf Hitler do? 

The churches of Germany found out quite quickly what Hitler would do. A program was begun of 

  • downplaying the Old Testament; 
  • declaring that Jesus was not a Jew, but of the so-called ‘Aryan race’; 
  • pushing baptised members who were of Jewish descent and other so-called ‘non-Aryans’ out of the life of the church; 
  • and of emphasising ‘manliness’ over ‘feminine’ values. The churches were pressured to put ‘German values’ above the gospel. 

This was the time that the ‘Confessing Church’ emerged. The Confessing Church was determined to keep the good news of Jesus Christ at the centre of the church’s life. The Confessing Church was a church of resistance, which numbered among its members the pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. 

It was a frightening time. The Nazi regime was reinforcing its grip on the whole of German society, including the church. 

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For Freedom Christ has set us free…

Reading
Galatians 5.1, 13–25

 

Fearing that the Galatians might misinterpret their freedom as a license for immorality, Paul offers ethical instructions throughout this passage. In the history of scholarship, some interpreters have considered Paul’s ethical exhortations as inconsequential ‘filler’ with no integral relationship to his theology. On the contrary, Paul’s ethical admonitions ‘are not secondary but radically integral to his basic theological convictions.’ (Victor Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul) In other words, authentic Christian discipleship requires both righteous beliefs and righteous behaviours. — Renata Furst, Connections, Year C,  Vol. 2

All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. — Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

———————-

Do you have any favourite bible verses? This is one of mine: 

For freedom Christ has set us free… (Galatians 5.1)

See how the Apostle Paul doubles down here? We are set free for freedom, pure and simple! I don’t know, that still just makes me feel excited. 

Freedom has been in the news lately, couched in terms of freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. (Everyone seems to have forgotten about the threats to freedom of the press, still a live issue in Australia following recent Australian Federal Police raids on a journalist’s house and on the ABC. Funny that…) 

Now, it’s the photogenic Izzy Folau and his right to tell people they’re going to hell while he (allegedly) breaks his multi-million dollar contract with Rugby Australia. 

Of course, this is a sermon and not a political speech; though I’m sure I’ll come back to Izzy later. Since I was preparing a sermon and not a speech, I took a look through the New Testament during the week to see where it refers to freedom. Some examples: Jesus says

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
   to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
(Luke 4.18–19)

Freedom is release from oppression, however that oppression comes. 

Or this:

[Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
(Luke 13.10–13)

Those who have been bowed down are lifted up. 

And this one: 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
(Galatians 1.3–5)

Jesus Christ has ‘set us free from the present evil age’. when I was younger, I might have baulked at using that language, but in a time of 

  • looming climate change catastrophe; 
  • people dying in spirit and in fact in Manus and Nauru; 
  • and potential loss of habitat for species like the black-throated finch if the Adani mine goes ahead (do you remember, God once looked at that finch and declared it ‘good’—have another look at Genesis 1). 

In a time like this, I reckon ‘present evil age’ is putting it very mildly indeed. 

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One in Christ Jesus

Reading
Galatians 3.23–29

 

For Paul, those who are in Christ Jesus are now seen no longer as sojourners on the journey out of childhood and adolescence but, rather, as adult members of the family of Abraham. Differences of gender, race, ethnicity, and class still exist but are now radically transcended by one’s status as a trustworthy, faithful, reliable grown-up in Christ. Clear parameters of relationship among oneself, God, and others are thus established, and the bondage of childhood—the need for a ‘disciplinarian’ or caretaker in this sense—has ended. — J William Harkins, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3

———————-

So, the Uniting Church has turned 42 years old. We are a multicultural church, and we are the largest non-government provider of community and health care services in Australia. It’s hard to be accurate, but there are probably well over 80000 people worshipping in Uniting Churches today. 

There are rumblings from within though. Less than a month ago, an ABC news report suggested that we were on the verge of a split. There are vocal critics within the church who say that we are ‘apostate’ for adopting the decision to marry same-sex couples on the basis of conscience. An apostate is a willing defector from the Christian faith; this is a very serious accusation indeed. After all, we’re called to be one in Christ. We’re called to love one another. 

Difficulties like this are not unusual in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul faced a lot of opposition too. Paul wrote, 

There is no longer Jew or Greek (or Gentile),
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3.27–28

For us, these are inspirational words. Yet many people opposed Paul for them. They wanted to maintain a difference between groups in the church. In their minds, Jewish believers were the ‘normal’ Christians, not Gentiles; free Christians were superior to Christians who were slaves; and female Christians were inferior to male Christians. 

Maybe these people called Paul ‘apostate’ too! 

Paul endured opposition because for him, we are one in Christ and one in Christ alone. He tells us a fair bit about it in Galatians. 

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Open Doors

Reading
Revelation 21.10, 21.22 — 22.5

 

…if one reads this text with an ear for its ecclesiological significance—taking the new Jerusalem (as did the early Christians) as a metaphor for the church—then one is immediately struck by the fact that the community of the faithful is not regarded as trapped in the fallen, corrupt world of human experience. Rather, it is already part of the new heaven and earth that God will bring to completion at the end of time—the new creation that brings the first creation to its perfection. — Joseph H Britton, Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 2

Instead of solitary individuals judging other human souls to damnation, I believe God would prefer a much different path: mutuality. The desire to go on such a journey is no delusion; instead, it is the proper desire of every human being to realise what it means to be mutually human in the presence of the living God. — Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth

———————-

Today’s reading from Revelation speaks of a holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down to earth. What do you imagine when you think of that? I imagine lots of office blocks and streets with shopping precincts. 

But remember: the Book of Revelation is a vision and not a prophecy. It doesn’t tell us what is going to happen in the future, but it calls us to ‘imagine’. The imagined city of John’s vision is unlike any you’ve ever seen. For a start, it’s a cube, not an office block in sight. It’s a cube 2400 km long, 2400 km wide, and 2400 km high. It has walls; the ancients couldn’t imagine a city without a wall. The walls of this city rise 66 metres, over twice the height of the Story Bridge. 

Walls are commonplace, aren’t they? We see walls everywhere, though perhaps not walls quite so high. 

Australia continues to have high walls that prevent refugees from settling here. Since last weekend’s election, around fourteen men have attempted suicide on Manus Island and there is no end in sight to their horrible situation. And on Sorry Day, we must also acknowledge that indigenous people are prevented from joining the common wealth of this nation. It’s hard, perhaps getting harder, for our nation to face itself and look at who we have become. 

Does God like walls? Some Christians seem to think so. Israel Folau has erected a wall high enough to exclude anyone who isn’t straight, a wall that condemns them to hell. People have tried to make this a ‘freedom of speech’ issue. A neighbour of mine recently went to a conservative church conference where he heard that freedom of speech would be a major issue in the election last weekend. He was very keen on this; I asked him what responsibility these churches would take for young people who ended their lives because of the teaching that God has rejected them. To his credit, he just looked thoughtful and didn’t argue. 

Yet disputes on sexuality continue to prop up some very high walls. I had lunch with another Uniting Church minister during the week. A gay couple came to her service last Sunday, where they were welcomed. Sadly, the reason they were there was that their previous church had asked them to leave because they were in a same-sex relationship.

Not only are these walls high, but people are thrown over them. 

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The Mind of Christ

Readings
Philippians 2.5–11
Luke 23.1–49

______________________

…the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small. — Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix

Jesus’ whole life is a life that moves from action—from being in control, preaching, teaching, performing miracles—to Passion, in which everything is done to him. He is arrested, whipped, crowned with thorns and nailed to the cross. All this is done to him. The fulfilment of Jesus’ life on earth is not what he did but rather what was done to him. Passion. — Henri Nouwen, From Fear To Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

______________________

I once spent a week in Timor Leste, East Timor. A week is not a very long time; I don’t claim any expertise in the culture or politics of Timor Leste. But I was there at a very interesting time.

It was February 1998, just over a year before the East Timorese people won their independence from Indonesia. While I was there for this short time, Timor Leste was occupied by Indonesian armed forces. 

I was there to talk with people of the Protestant Church there about my then congregation’s support for young people in tertiary education there. I was with a man who had made the trip several times before and who spoke Indonesian fluently. 

Because I was with him, and also because I am a minister, I found myself in a trusted position. 

I learnt a few things about living under occupation forces that week. Things that Jesus and his contemporaries may have experienced too. 

I learned that while the Timorese people appeared to be relaxed and happy, this was very much a veneer. Their smiles didn’t always meet their eyes. Under the surface, there was a pervasive anxiety that infected everyone. 

I stayed at a hotel in the capital, Dili. There, the staff all belonged to the Indonesian occupying forces. They weren’t in uniform—it was supposed to be a secret—but everyone knew. One day, we were due to speak with some of the locals at the hotel; I started to head for a table in the dining room. My friend suggested we go out into the garden to talk. Why did we go out into the open air? There were bugging devices in the dining room. We didn’t want our conversations recorded by the occupying forces. 

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A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

______________________

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

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