Category Archives: church year

Why a Sabbath?

Readings
Deuteronomy 5.12–15
Mark 2.23 to 3.6

Definitions of Sabbath seem to matter far less to Jesus than honouring the purposes of Sabbath and meeting real human need. — John Wilkinson in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Kindle ed., loc.2879

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I remember being bored out of my skull on Sundays when I was a kid. There was nothing to do. My family weren’t churchgoers and that made Sunday even worse. 

Anyone else remember that? Our society still ‘does’ Sunday, but not in the same way any more. We have church, but we know most people aren’t churchgoers. And we who are here now can do whatever we choose after church. I could shop for new clothes, have a meal, go to the cinema, go to a sports game…anything I wish.

Some years ago, I was in Norway for a short time. It was a Saturday, and I was leaving the next day on Sunday afternoon. I already knew the shops would be shut on Sunday; they really do Sunday there, at least in the town I was in. I had seen something that would make a good gift for someone, but I’d dithered over buying it. In the end, I decided to buy it so I went back to the shop around 4.30pm. To my dismay, I found it had shut at 4pm. They closed early to prepare for Sunday.

My first reaction was anger that they’d shut their shop—anger at myself as much as anything. My second was to try to admire their Sabbath practice. I tried hard. I have to admit that try as I might, I wasn’t really able to sincerely admire them—I would much have rather they’d been open so I’d be able to go in and buy the gift I wanted to purchase. 

If keeping Sunday as a day of rest was important to those people, the Sabbath laws were absolutely central to Israel’s life. The sabbath, along with circumcision and the food laws, were the identifying marks of Israel. They are still the identifying marks of Jewish faith today.

In ancient times, no people other than the people of Israel made provision for a weekly day of rest. Why did they have the Sabbath day? There are two reasons given, one in Deuteronomy and one in Exodus.

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The Trinity of Love

Readings
Isaiah 6.1–8
John 3.1–17

‘Jesus’ signifies the human being whose personhood is eternally caught up in relation with God and the Spirit. The name of the Trinity signifies the eternal bond of tripersonal love revealed in the man Jesus. Christians know, as deeply as they know anything, that God without Christ and the Spirit is remote and unavailing, that Christ without God and the Spirit is a martyred saint, that the Spirit without God and Christ is power bereft of form and direction. Faith lives from the interconnection of the three. — R Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, Kindle ed., loc.198

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The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

That’s 2 Corinthians 13.13, the last verse of that letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

That’s the second-last verse of the Gospel According to Matthew. 

The New Testament is full of passages in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are spoken of in one breath. These passages are building blocks of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

It’s Trinity Sunday. So let’s make time for a little art appreciation. 

Why art appreciation? Because a picture paints a thousand words; and even thousands upon thousands of words may still obscure the beauty of our God, the Holy Trinity of Love. 

Rublev

This is an icon of the Russian Orthodox Church, painted (or ‘written’) by a monk called Andrei Rublev about 600 years ago. 

It’s based on the story of three angels who pop in on Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. Abraham gives them a meal. Before we get very far into the story though, the angels are being spoken of together as one being: the Lord. 

In other words, by the end of the story the three are one. You can see why that excited people’s imaginations with thoughts of the Holy Trinity.

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Dry Bones Living

Readings
Ezekiel 37.1–14

There is no way to Pentecost except by Calvary; the Spirit is given from the cross.… The Holy Spirit’s function is to reflect in us the likeness of Christ—of his truth and love and power—but how could he do that with any authenticity or completeness, if he did not also lead us into the likeness of his suffering? There could be no real reflection of Christ that did not consist of bearing his cross. Thomas A Smail, quoted in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

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Can these bones come back to life?

It was ‘only’ a vision, but still Ezekiel felt uncomfortable. He was standing in a valley of dry old bones. And God was asking him a very silly question.

Mortal man, can these bones come back to life?

What to say? Standing in a pile of bones bleached white by the sun was not inspiring Ezekiel’s confidence. If he said No they’re dead and dusted, he could be accused of doubting God’s power. But if he said Yes Lord of course, he might have to say how on earth that could possibly happen.

So he takes the cautious path:

Sovereign Lord, only you can answer that!

Ezekiel tosses the ball right back into God’s court. But God has been around the block a few times more than Ezekiel and tosses the ball right back to him:

Prophesy to the bones. Tell these dry bones to listen to the word of the Lord. Tell them that I, the Sovereign Lord, am saying to them: I am going to put breath into you and bring you back to life. I will give you sinews and muscles, and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you and bring you back to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

How can dry bones hear anything? Yet Ezekiel prophesies, and the bones become a mighty people. No one is more surprised than Ezekiel.

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Ascended

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. — St Augustine, sermon on Ascension Day

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I find the story of the Ascension of Jesus to be a very difficult one. Are we dealing with a historical event, or are we meant to understand it as something symbolic?

If it’s a historical event, it really only makes sense to me if we live on a flat earth. 

That may have been ok for the disciples. They lived in a three-storey universe. Heaven, the home of God, was somewhere beyond the clouds; hades, the place of the dead, was below the earth. And we are in the middle of the two.  

So when Jesus ascends he travels a short distance to heaven, and he is hidden in a cloud. A cloud, for them, symbolised the hidden, mysterious presence of God.

Think of a photo of the earth from space. Jerusalem  is on just about the opposite side of the world from Brisbane.  

My question is, Which way is up? ‘Up’ from Brisbane is a totally different direction from ‘up’ from Jerusalem. Or are we meant to believe that heaven is a place directly above Jerusalem? And if it is, how far away is it? If Jesus took off at the speed of light, he’d only be 2000 light years away by now. That’s not very far in terms of the size of the universe.

The important thing in the Ascension, as in many things in the scriptures, is not whether it literally happened but this: What on earth does it mean?

How do we engage with it today?

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‘I am about to do a new thing’

Reading
Acts 10.44–48 

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. 

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Isaiah 43.1–2, 19

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Last week, we heard of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. We heard that the Spirit of Jesus led Philip to him; we heard that there was no reason for a eunuch not to be baptised. In other words, there was every reason for him to be baptised! 

Today, we have heard the final act of another very important story in the Book of Acts. It’s the climax of the story of the conversion of Cornelius and his household.

The Ethiopian eunuch had an important position in his country, but he was also considered an inferior. Cornelius also had an important position; he was in charge of 100 Roman soldiers. But no one considered Cornelius to be at all inferior, because he was a Roman. 

Luke wrote the Book of Acts with an eye towards Rome, and so he spends a lot more time on Cornelius than he did on the Ethiopian eunuch, whose name we don’t even know. (Have you noticed that?)

Cornelius was a seeker. He was searching for truth, and that search had led him to become a ‘God fearer’. God fearers were Gentiles who found the Jewish belief in one God and the Jewish ethical code to be very attractive, but they did not take the step of actually becoming Jews, with all the demands of the Jewish law that entailed. 

So Acts tells us that Cornelius 

was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.

It was while he was praying one day that God told him to fetch Peter to his house. Listen to what happened to Peter the very next day: Continue reading

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The Eunuch’s Bath

Reading
Acts 8.26–40 

[E]thnicity, sexuality, ableism, gender, religion, and many other expressions of human difference must be considered in accounts of societal sin. — Janice McRandal, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference, Fortress, p.84. Kindle Ed’n.

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The Book of Acts is very clear that its story is the beginning of the global spread of the Good News. Jesus tells the disciples:

you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Gospel news starts in Jerusalem, then spreads beyond into the surrounding country. From there, it goes all over the world. Even to Australia. 

I came to Australia too. I came as an eleven year old schoolboy, dressed up in my school uniform complete with cap, blazer, and tie. They were my best clothes. You could say that I came to the ends of the earth…

We flew here, and our flight was long. It took about 36 hours from boarding in London to disembarking in Brisbane. We made eight stops along the way, and each step further away from England was a step towards differences that were quite disorienting. In Cairo airport, I went to the loo. There were soldiers with big rapid action machine guns standing around in the loo, talking. It was quite intimidating. And Calcutta was like a furnace (remember I was in a school uniform made for the north of England). There were people in rags looking at us from outside a tall wire fence. And everywhere we went, people looked and spoke differently.

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Love is sacrificial

Readings
1 John 3.16–24
John 10.11–18

For Christians, self-sacrifice should be ordinary, not extraordinary. — David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 15550-15551). Presbyterian Publishing Corp. Kindle Ed’n.

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Wednesday is Anzac Day. 103 years ago on 25 April, the Anzac forces—and, don’t forget, the Turkish soldiers too—would’ve been going through hell. 

We sang the 23rd Psalm today; some of the Anzacs will have been reminding themselves of the words of that psalm. Later we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer; some will have been saying that prayer. They must have been praying above all for it to stop, so they could go home to their sweethearts and wives. After all it was General Douglas MacArthur who said: 

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

We know of course that these scars are not just  obvious ones such as lost limbs. They are post-traumatic stress disorders, they are alcohol and drug problems, they are homelessness, depression, broken marriages and chronic unemployment. 

You may have heard that Australia became a nation on 25 April 1915. Of course, that’s not literally true. We became a nation on 1 January, 1901. What actually happened on that day at Anzac Cove was that we suffered our first great disaster as a nation. Over 620 men died on that one day. All together, Gallipoli cost the Allies 141000 casualties, of whom more than 44000 died. Of the dead, 8709 were Australians and 2701 were New Zealanders. More than 85000 Turks died.

As a nation, we had to make some sense of it for ourselves. So—apart from that last part, apart from the casualties the Turks suffered—Gallipoli has become our founding myth. Like so many myths, parts of it are true. But only parts.

To mention but one aspect of the myth: mateship. It’s true. But Jesus challenges our notions of mateship. He calls us to spread our circle of mates very wide indeed. Jesus has mates in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Therefore, so do we. The amount of foreign aid we give is a very small proportion of GDP, and it’s getting smaller. We have mates on Manus Island and Nauru. For Jesus, mateship has no limits. The big question for us is this: Are we acting like mates to them?

How can we speak truth about the Anzac story, while being true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Let me suggest two ways: we can honour those who served their country in time of war while we critique the politics that sent them off to war; and we can watch our language when it comes to speaking of ‘sacrifice’. 

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