Category Archives: RCL

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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Jesus, Wisdom of God

Readings
Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31
John 16.12–15

It used to be the conventional wisdom of New Testament scholars that predication of a divine nature to Jesus came about as a result of the impact of Hellenistic culture outside Israel and the ideas that culture had about the Divine. The assumption was that early Jews in tune with their monotheistic language would not use such language of anyone but Yahweh. The oneness of God ruled out speaking of multiple persons in the Godhead. — Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christian Understandings of the Trinity, quoting Ben Witherington & Laura Ice, The Shadow of the Almighty

The reality that Second Testament and early church texts that speak of Jesus in relation to Woman Wisdom do not articulate a clear trinitarian self-understanding is not, in itself, an insurmountable problem. Across the early Jesus movement this is the same, as convictions about Christ and the Spirit are not clearly enunciated in a trinitarian doctrine. However, what is evidenced in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is the claim that some early communities were experiencing the Spirit and the risen Christ, and understood these experiences in relation to Woman Wisdom. It was from the ground-bed of such experiences that later trinitarian theology arose. — Sally Douglas, Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine

———————-

In today’s psalm, Psalm 8, we read 

When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?                       Psalm 8.3–4 CEB

That’s the psalmist being awed by the night sky, but honestly he had very little idea of what the universe really is like. (Do you remember Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy among other things? Adams said something similar, in his own inimitable style)— 

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. 

We live in an amazingly huge universe. The distance from Earth to the observable edge of the universe is 46 billion light years. What’s beyond the edge? We don’t know, there may be something, maybe more of the same. Or not. 

We live in an amazingly old universe, some 13.8 billion years old. The earth we live on is 4.5 billion years old. 

We live in an amazingly odd universe, where light may have the properties of either a particle or a wave, where there is dark energy which can only be inferred, and in which if you know how fast a particle is travelling you can’t know exactly where it is. Or something like that.

We live in a universe that I can’t comprehend. When I say it’s 13.8 billion years old, or its edge is 46 billion light years away, I really don’t get those numbers. I can probably visualise a few thousand at most, but I’m throwing those ‘billion’ numbers around without any understanding of how big they really are. 

I can’t comprehend the universe, and I can’t comprehend God. 

I can’t comprehend the universe, yet I believe in God. 

Should that be like a confession, something from a twelve-step program? Hello, I’m Paul. I can’t comprehend the universe and I believe in God. It’s been six weeks since my last feeling of awe and wonder. 

How may I know anything about the God who spoke this universe into being? How may I have any knowledge at all of the God who gave birth to such an odd and weird place? 

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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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Heaven on Earth (but not yet)

Readings
Revelation 21.1–6
John 13.31–35

 

The Lamb is leading us on an exodus out of the heart of empire, out of the heart of addiction to violence, greed, fear, an unjust lifestyle or whatever holds each of us most captive. It is an exodus we can experience each day. Tenderly, gently, the Lamb is guiding us to pastures of life and healing beside God’s river. — Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby, I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth

— Ellen Shipley/Richard W. Nowels

———————-

Preachers are often told they should stay out of politics, that religion and politics are two different things altogether. That’s because people rightly feel preachers shouldn’t tell you which party to vote for. Yet as the first ever NSW and ACT General Secretary Rev. Frank Butler once said, saying ‘these things matter’ should not be confused with ‘saying vote for politician x’.

Yet from time to time, we must comment on the political life of our country. How do I know that? The Bible tells me so. It tells me in quite a few places; one is the Book of Revelation. 

John the Visionary sees 

the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.… I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.’ 

In his vision, John sees heaven coming down to earth. Of course it does! In his own model prayer, Jesus tells us to pray along these lines:

Your kingdom come,
your will be done
  on earth as in heaven…

Is seems that earth is the business of heaven, that heaven wants to be on earth. Or does the joy of heaven spill over to the earth? 

And where is heaven anyway? The ancients thought it was just above the sky, which was bounded by a dome over the earth. So God was ‘up there’, while we are down here.  

Earth as dome

Today, we know differently. The universe is vast, vaster than we can imagine. Einstein once said that he knew of only two things that were infinite: the universe, and human stupidity. But he wasn’t sure about the universe… 

Michael Battle, an African-American theologian, says:

My simple definition of heaven is this: where God is present. After all, heaven is God’s abode—where God hangs out. Should we desire heaven on earth? Yes, we should desire to hang out with God.

Heaven can be on earth. (I’ve had Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 song ‘(Ooh) Heaven is a place on earth’ as an ear worm all week. If you’re the right vintage, I may have given you the same ear worm. My apologies if so.) 

Heaven can be on earth—but so often it isn’t. The earth is good, it’s beautiful, but it’s scarred. Now more than ever. So we hear of riding sea levels, and Pacific nations vanishing. We have a United Nations report that warns of a million species at risk, and whole ecosystems collapsing. 

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An unexpected Lamb

Reading
Revelation 7.9–17

 

Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil. — Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 

———————-

Perhaps you’ve noticed we’ve been hearing from the Book of Revelation lately. You know, it’s been said that Christians can be divided into two groups: those who open Revelation as often as they can, and those who never open it at all. 

Many of us are tempted to be in the ‘Keep Revelation Closed’ group. But let’s take a peek inside today, shall we? You never know what you may find… 

Oh, but one thing you won’t find is a detailed prediction of what is going to happen in the near future. You won’t find whether Donald Trump is the Antichrist, or whether the rise of China was prophesied. 

What you will find is help ‘to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression’. (Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly) Revelation is a book of hope: hope for a new future for God’s whole creation. 

So, let’s turn to today’s reading from Revelation. Did you pick up which character was mentioned most? Let’s hear part of it again. John, the visionary, writes:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ 

And then:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne
  will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs
  of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear
  from their eyes.

Who is the major character here? The Lamb. In fact, the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in the Book of Revelation. It is easily the most common way of referring to Jesus in Revelation. It’s even more common than the name Jesus itself! (‘Jesus’ occurs twelve times.) 

To really get why Jesus is the Lamb in Revelation, we need to go back a couple of chapters to chapter 5. 

There, John the Visionary sees a scroll that no one could open, and he becomes very sad. Then, he says,

one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’. (Revelation 5.5)

A lion is a pretty scary beast. Let me tell you about the first time I came across a lion. 

I was ten, and it was my first long trip anywhere. It was a school outing, a day trip to Edinburgh. It was a whirlwind of a day, taking in Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood House, St Giles Cathedral, the Forth Rail Bridge, all the big Edinburgh touristy things… 

One stop was the Edinburgh Zoo. I’d never been to a zoo before. Now, you’ve got to realise it was 1964, and everyone still thought it was cool to keep animals in little concrete enclosures. 

I approached the lion enclosure. There were lots of people there, but I managed to squeeze through to the front. A lion, a male with a fabulous mane, was standing there looking right at us. 

So I decided that I would roar at the lion. I took a deep breath, and let out the biggest roar my ten-year old prepubescent body could possibly make. 

Well, the lion must have decided to teach this little pipsqueak a lesson. He let out the biggest roar I had ever heard. I was petrified! If I’d been a cartoon character my hair would have been standing on end.

I was very scared I’d get into trouble. So I beat a very quick retreat, to the general amusement of everyone else there. 

So, back to Revelation. John hears that a lion can help the situation. And not just any lion, but ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’, who has conquered. 

The Lion of the tribe of Judah is an Old Testament image of the Messiah, the Christ, the mighty anointed One of God. 

Well, John probably thought, we’re in business now! So he turned to see this great Lion, who could roar 10000 times louder than my Edinburgh lion. 

So, what does John see? He sees something so totally unexpected that nothing could prepare him. 

I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…

He hears the all-conquering Lion has come…but he sees a Lamb. This is one of the most shocking reversals in the history of literature! John is told of a mighty Lion; his eyes fall upon a Lamb, standing but bearing the wounds of slaughter. 

We need to unpack this just a bit. 

Firstly, the Lamb itself. The word John the Visionary uses is the one for a little lamb, a lambkin if you want. ‘Mary had a little lamb’, if you like. 

This tiny Lamb isn’t a cute little thing though. Apart from bearing mortal wounds, he has seven eyes, which symbolise the fullness of the Holy Spirit. 

He also has seven horns, symbolising the fullness of power. But the power of the Lamb is very different from a lion’s power. 

As I found out in Edinburgh, a lion is very fierce. But I’ve never heard a lamb roar. I’d walk through a paddock of sheep, but I wouldn’t step into a lion’s space. 

John heard there was a lion, but he saw a lamb. I wonder how the Lion and Lamb are related? 

Both are images of the Messiah, the Christ. So is the Messiah sometimes a Lion and sometimes a Lamb? 

If you google for images of the Lamb in Revelation, it’s easy to get images of the Lion too. There’s one in which Jesus is standing between the Lamb and the Lion. Does Jesus balance the Lion and the Lamb, like yin and yang? Is Jesus a kind of mediating principle

Did Jesus die a Lamb, but rise a Lion?

Was he perhaps a Lion in the Old Testament and a Lamb in the New?

Is he maybe a Lion to unbelievers and bad people and a Lamb to people like us?

Is he a Lamb now, but one day he’ll come back as a Lion to punish the wicked?

None of that will do. John hears there’s a Lion. What he sees is the Lamb. And while the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in Revelation, this is the first and last time we hear of the Lion of Judah. The Lion disappears after this. 

Say it how you like: the Lion is the Lamb. The Lamb subverts the Lion. The Lion fades away, the Lamb remains. 

The power of this Lamb is the power of innocent suffering. The way of this Lamb is non-violence. The Lamb suffers that mortal wound to bring peace. 

We spoke of the wounded God a couple of weeks ago. Here is the wounded God once more. But we have a problem: it’s very hard to let go of the Lion!

Let me put it another way.

If you were given a choice, which Messiah would you rather have? The Lion or the Lamb? Be honest. Would you have straightforward power of the Lion, or the hard-to-grasp power of the suffering Lamb?

If you still can’t make your mind up, think about the Federal Election next Saturday.  

Untitled

Who would you vote for? The Lion Party, with its proud, majestic beast protecting you? Or the Lamb Party, with a mortally wounded little lambkin? What could the Lamb Party even do?

Who would you vote for? Those who control the agenda through the use of power, even force, or those who are willing to work so that others can know liberation? 

And do we even have that choice? 

John was expecting a Lion, but he got a Lamb. A slain-yet-standing Lamb. I’m not sure how John felt; I’m sure he was surprised. But was he disappointed? Or did it all make sense of the cross? Did it show that in times of hardship or even persecution, God’s people are to take the way of the Lamb? 

What kind of church are we? We are a church of the Lamb. We seek to bring life and hope into dark and cramped places. We seek to do it in the Name and in the Spirit of Jesus, the risen crucified One. We seek to do it with gentleness and care. 

When we gather next week, the election will be over. In the lead up, let us pray that the Australian Government may not stand in the way of the coming kingdom, and that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 12 May 2019

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The Lord of second chances

Reading
John 21.1–19

 

In contrast to Adam, Peter does not allow his shame to stop him from moving toward the one he loves. Peter does not hide any longer in shame but leaps toward the risen one in joyful desire. — Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.3 

At dawn and for the third time, the disciples travel the path from ignorance to knowledge, belief, and fellowship with the Lord. Believers yet to come will share this path, despite their geographical and chronological distance from the disciples’ experience. At first Jesus is seen, but not known; the disciples hear him, but do not know the voice of their shepherd—yet (10: 27). — Feasting on the Gospels, John Vol.2

———————-

Did you notice how today‘s Gospel Reading began? 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias [Galilee]…

It was early dawn. Seven disciples, led by Peter, had gone back fishing. They’d had a fruitless night. In the half light, they see someone asking if they’d caught anything, and suggesting they throw out the net on the other side of the boat. They do so, and catch a massive haul of fish. 

Does that ring a bell? 

Think back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry, when it was all starting out. Luke tells us that Jesus was standing by the Sea of Galilee, and saw two boats:

[Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets’. When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken… (Luke 5.3–9)

Does it ring a bell now?

Jesus first calls Peter to discipleship on an ordinary day that became very extraordinary. Maybe this time, Peter needs to do something ordinary to get his head around what had happened, this whole resurrection thing… But now, again, something extraordinary happens. Jesus, the risen One is there, once more. 

And he’s grilled some fish for breakfast! Breakfast is such an ordinary thing, but—Jesus is the cook. 

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