Category Archives: church year

God has no favourites

Readings
Acts 10.34–43
Matthew 3.13–17

 

The Apostle Peter:

‘I now know that God shows no partiality.’ … God is not a looker upon the face, does not play favourites, shows no partiality. Can we hear what an upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word this must have been to those whose faith was based upon assumptions of partiality, who had suffered in spite of and because of this partiality, and yet still believed? It was not an easy word to hear. Throughout Acts, step by step, laying scriptural proof on proof, gradually edging us out of Jerusalem and into Samaria, now into Joppa, past the converted Samaritans and then the Ethiopian, Luke has brought us face to face with this Roman soldier so that we may feel the full blast of the gospel, may know the reluctance of the disciples to be here, may know how long and painful was their journey to realise the full and frightening implications of the gospel―God shows no partiality! ― William H Willimon, Acts: Interpretation series

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Today, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Yet we’re not touching specifically on Jesus’ baptism this morning; we’ll be looking at the baptism of Gentiles in the Book of Acts. 

You may recall that last Sunday, we talked about the greatest controversy in the early decades of the the Christian movement. It was this: at the very beginning, the Christian movement was a subgroup within the Jewish faith. When Gentiles, non-Jews, were attracted to the movement, should they become Jews too? Many leaders, like James the brother of Jesus, thought they should. Others like Peter wavered. But Paul stood firm, proclaiming that God had opened the way for Gentiles to come to Christ without becoming Jews first. It was a huge fight. The nearest equivalent we have is the ongoing quarrel between those who welcome LGBTIQ people as full members of the church and those who deny them full participation in the life of the church. 

In the past, people have put it to me that I am for the inclusion of queer Christians because I’m a ‘liberal’ Christian, or because I’m some kind of ‘woke inner-city latte-sipping greenie’. A label I utterly reject! — I take my coffee black. 

Really though, I am for inclusion because of the way I read the Bible. Today’s reading from Acts comes from one of the foundational scriptural texts of inclusion. Let’s turn to the scripture together, and look at Peter’s dilemma. 

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The True Light enlightens everyone

Readings
Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12

 

The secret of the divine purpose is in Christ, and it is an ‘open secret’ accessible to all believers. It is and remains a mystery in the sense that no human intelligence could have guessed what God planned to do; but it is now revealed to Paul and his group (see 3:3–6). Its content is that Gentiles as well as Jews are united in a common hope and blessedness, with all racial barriers broken down (2:11–22) and all specious claims to exclusivity exposed. — Ralph P Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Interpretation Commentary

Do our churches embody the reconciliation and unity of often hostile groups—Caucasian and African American, Christian and Muslim, heterosexually identified and LGBTQ persons, the one percent and the working poor? Do they manifest the wisdom of God in its rich variety?… — Stephen B Boyd, Connections: Year A Vol.1, Advent through Epiphany

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What was the biggest struggle of the early Christian church? What was the thing that divided one group of Christians from another? 

Hint: it’s something we all take for granted today. Another hint: we heard it in our Ephesians reading.  

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The biggest struggle was this: most of the first leaders of the church, like those in the mother church in Jerusalem, taught that Gentiles should become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They should be circumcised and stop eating prawn cocktails and bacon sandwiches. The way to Christ was strictly through the covenant God had made with Israel. The Apostle Paul on the other hand taught differently. Paul taught that the covenant God had made with the Jewish people had become an open covenant in Christ. It was a new covenant, available to all who received it in faith. Gentiles were welcome as Gentiles. And this was really controversial. 

There’s no problem now, of course. As far as I know, I’m 100% Gentile. And I suppose many of you are. We don’t think at all about having to become a Jew if we’re going to be a Christian. 

Paul’s way, ‘his gospel’, encountered lots of opposition. But he won through and the church became a mixed body of Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s Gospel won so completely we’ve forgotten it wasn’t always this way. 

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Weeping with Rachel

Reading
Matthew 2.13–23

 

Jesus has come to save God’s people, but if this passage is to be taken seriously, that salvation will occur in the midst of the struggle between good and evil in the world, not in the creation of a utopia that does not match our experience of reality. — O Wesley Allen, Matthew (Fortress Commentary)

Hope takes root as the ability to express compassion for others develops. It blossoms when people grow in their capacity to take concrete steps to make things different. And where real hope lives, there is also a constant invitation to broader and deeper meaning. As we learn to talk about our own suffering and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater suffering of others. Because hope emerges from processing grief and suffering in community, it draws its practitioners to consider matters from a much wider field of vision. As we grow in our ability to imagine a different world, hope emerges among us. It all begins by talking about it. — Daniel Schultz, ‘Living by the Word’, Christian Century, 18 December 2019

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We know how Matthew’s Christmas story continues, once Jesus is born: in time the magi come, wise ones from the east. They come to honour the new king whose birth was foretold by a new star. 

These magi may be wise in the ways of stars and other heavenly bodies, but politically they are naive. They assume the new king is in the palace of Herod. Ok, fair enough; but they don’t see that Herod is playing them, trying to find out where this new king is so that he can kill him. 

The magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod on the way home, and so we come to today’s story: the horrific slaughter of all children two years old or less in Bethlehem. 

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember we spoke of Matthew’s theme. Let me repeat what I said then: 

Jesus had fulfilled the story of the Old Testament. Jesus was the promised Messiah, greater than Moses or Elijah, he was the son of David who is greater yet than David. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel, in fact he fills it to overflowing. Matthew’s aim wasn’t to inform his readers about history; his aim was to convince us.

Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. So, Jesus fulfils Isaiah 60, which in part says:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.…

They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.   Isaiah 60.3, 6b

Matthew ransacked our Old Testament to find ways to show how Jesus fulfils the scriptures. So it is to the light of Jesus the nations come to; they bring him gold and frankincense. 

Matthew adds something to the mix: myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used in burials, and it foreshadows the death Jesus would die. 

And there’s death aplenty in the story now. When he has told the tragic story of Bethlehem’s tiny children, Matthew tells us:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah [31.15]:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’

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Filed under Christmas, Church & world, church year, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon

The Mind of Christ

Readings
Philippians 2.5–11
Luke 23.1–49

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…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

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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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Not the mountain, the plain

Reading
Luke 9.28-43

There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out. — @rachelheldevans, Twitter 28.02.19

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record—that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. — Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, p.186 (https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/downward-mobility/)

The transfiguration is something any old atheist could understand: ‘glory’ is a body and face shining with supernatural light. This does not unsettle my pagan presuppositions of what ‘divinity’ and the ‘supernatural’ mean. What we need faith to see is this: that the dead Jesus, forgotten and abandoned, naked and hanging on the Cross, is truly the Love of God Incarnate. In the wounding of his fragile being is the fullness of the divine glory. He is not ashamed to be our God. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God, p.135

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There’s a tradition in preaching on the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we talk about ‘mountaintop experiences’ that we take down to our everyday lives on the plain.

So where do we start today, on this Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus? Do we start on top of the mountain, along with Peter, James and John, with Moses and Elijah in glory? Do we begin bathed in the reflected heavenly light coming from Jesus? Do we start with a privileged glow mixed with strange feelings of awe or even dread?

Well no, not today. Today, we must start on the ground, along with the helpless, hapless and confused disciples who couldn’t expel a demon from a young lad, the only son of his father. That’s where we are today, at the bottom of the mountain. 

We have to start—and stay—on the ground today because as Christians in Australia, as members of a mainstream church, many people see us as representatives of something that is not only wrong but despicable. There’s a man I know who frequents the same coffee shop I do. We get on, we pass the time of day. The first time he saw me in a clerical collar he wondered if I should be wearing one, because it could make me look like a ‘paedo’. 

This week, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse. The charges relate to acts committed in 1996, while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had forcefully denied all charges, but now that a media ban has been lifted the news is known within Australia. 

A number of prominent figures have leapt to his defence, he will mount an appeal, but the fact remains: today, Pell is a convicted child abuser. 

We have to stay on the ground and not go to the mountain today because last weekend one of our sister churches in the USA, the United Methodist Church, discussed the place of LGBTIQ people in their church. Their special conference began with hopes of full inclusion of people regardless of their sexuality. Instead, the conference voted to accept the so-called ‘Traditional Plan’ which keeps the current exclusions of LGBTIQ people in place. 

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Now, but not yet

Readings
Jeremiah 33.14–16
Luke 21.25–36

 

Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic ‘final solutions’…, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, Kindle edition, loc.82

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. — Tertullian, Treatise 7, On the Mortality, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/ANF-05/anf05-117.htm

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Yitschak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli activist on 4 November 1995. Rabin was the prime minister of Israel; in 1994, he had received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat for building peace in the Middle East. That peace seems a very long way away now. 

A short time after his death, there was a memorial service for Yitschak Rabin in the Mary St Synagogue here in Brisbane. I went to this service as the representative of the Uniting Church. 

After the service, I was filing out behind two Jewish men. They were saddened, they were thoughtful. One said to the other, ‘It’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come.’ 

There was a little playfulness there—it’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come—but you couldn’t miss the genuine longing in this man’s voice. A longing for peace with justice. For all people, whoever they are.

We share this longing with Jews, but wait—there is a difference. We claim the long-awaited Messiah has already come. His name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. 

The Messiah has come, but like those two Jewish men we still long for peace with justice.

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Jesus Christ: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth

Reading
Revelation 1.4b–8

Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with the eyes of the man with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experiences and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes—promise, exodus, resurrection and Spirit—come alive. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Kindle ed’n, loc.394.

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It was a Sunday. John was on the island of Patmos. Patmos is a Greek island, but John wasn’t there on holiday. He had been exiled to Patmos, confined there, imprisoned there. I doubt they had a cocktail hour or any all-you-can-eat buffets on Patmos.

It was a Sunday, the ‘Lord’s Day’, and John was ‘in the Spirit’. His eyes were opened to a vision in which he  Continue reading

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