Category Archives: sermon

Who is in? Who is out?

Mark 3.20–35

And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ’, and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ’, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.

I still can’t explain my first communion.

— Sara Miles, Take this Bread, Kindle ed., loc. 1047


Who is in? And who is out?

In the week before their wedding day, an engaged couple is killed in a fatal car accident. The very next thing, they find themselves sitting outside heaven’s pearly gates waiting for St Peter to do the paperwork so they can go through. 

While waiting, they wonder if it would be possible to get married in heaven. So when St Peter finishes the paperwork, they ask him the question. Pete says, ‘I have no idea, this is the first time anyone has ever asked. Leave it with me,’ and off he goes.

Five whole years pass before they see St Peter again. He tells them, ‘I am so sorry for the delay, but there’s a slight problem. You’ll have to wait a little longer.’

Another five years pass, when Pete comes back. He is very excited. ‘Your wait is over! You may marry now. Thanks for your patience.’

So, the couple is married.

Five years after the wedding, the couple realise that they’re not really all that compatible. So they go once more to St Peter and ask if there might be any such thing as divorce in heaven. 

Pete gives them a exasperated look, and says: ‘Wait a minute—it took us ten years to find a minister up here in heaven. Can you imagine how long it’ll take us to find a lawyer?’

Who is in? And who is out?

In our reading from the Gospel According to Mark today, we have a story about who is inside and who is outside. What we find is this: those who everyone expects to be on the inside are outside. And vice versa.

Who is on the inside? We see the answer in Mark 3.20:

Then Jesus went home. Again such a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat.

Jesus and his disciples are on the inside. We expect the disciples to be on the inside, even though Mark paints a very unflattering picture of them.

And ‘a large crowd’ is also inside.

Who is the crowd?

The crowd consists of people like 

  • Ordinary, uneducated working folk; and
  • Sinners, who may be prostitutes; or people who were ignorant of the requirements of the Law; or who simply could not afford to meet the requirements of the Law; and
  • Tax collectors, who put themselves outside the Law in order to make a dollar.

The crowd includes people like 

  • The woman with an issue of blood, who had been unclean for twelve years; and
  • The ‘lepers’, and paralysed people, and possessed folk; and
  • Blind Bartimaeus, who everyone wanted to keep quiet and not bother Jesus.

The crowd are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and they hear Jesus gladly (Mark 12.37). After all, his yoke is easy, his burden light (Matthew 11.28–30). 

If this motley group of unlikely people are on the inside, who is on the outside?

Firstly, we see the religious people, the teachers of the Law. We should sit up and take notice here. Religious faith can open our eyes to what God is doing. It can blind us too. 

We can see what God is doing among us, so we may decide God can’t be working amongst other groups who do things differently. So we might close our eyes to God’s Catholic people. We might scoff at God’s pentecostal people. And, dare I say, God’s Muslim people aren’t even on our radar. (If that shocks you, recall the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Not the Good Jew. Today, it would be the Good Muslim, or Hindu, or Homosexual.)

The religious people are on the outside in this story; they can’t see what is in front of their eyes.

Also outside is Jesus’ family.

Now, this is a surprise. We’d expect the family to be on the inside. Wouldn’t we?

The family are coming to take Jesus away; it’s their responsibility. ‘He’s gone mad’, that’s what people are saying about Jesus. 

Why are the religious people and Jesus’ family (including Mary!) on the outer here? They were both blind to what Jesus was doing. They wanted to restrain him.

We can accept that the family’s motivation was a misplaced sense of concern. They are worried about what people are saying. Jesus may be bringing shame upon them. 

The teachers of the Law? Their motivation was concern for themselves and the status quo they benefitted so well from. They wanted to bring Jesus down.

Of course, they were worse than Jesus’ family. But Mark is telling us that the effect is the same. People who want to come to Jesus, the crowd, the sheep without a shepherd, are being sent away.

This reminds me of the question John the Baptist had his disciples ask of Jesus. (Matthew 11.3–6)

Tell us, are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?

And Jesus replies,

Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. How happy are those who have no doubts about me!

The mark of Jesus’ ministry is that the sick are healed and the poor—including those tax collectors, who were beyond the pale—come to him.

We all know of people whose behaviour is beyond the pale. Can’t they come to Jesus, even if it’s not through our ministrations? Can’t they come to Jesus, even if it’s through the ministry of Catholics or pentecostals?

I can’t finish without a quick word about the sin against the Holy Spirit. Some of us may have worried at times if we have committed that sin. Well, if you worry about that, then believe me—you haven’t committed the sin. You have a tender conscience, that’s all. God can work with that.

Jesus was warning the religious people, though. It’s about what we’ve been talking about taken to the nth degree. 

People commit the sin against the Holy Spirit when they wilfully and persistently say that that the work of God is actually the work of the evil one. They were saying,

He has Beelzebul in him! It is the chief of the demons who gives him the power to drive them out.

Jesus dismissed that ludicrous claim quickly. But he warned the teachers of the Law, Don’t stay in that way of thinking! Go on a journey of faith, open your eyes to the good things God is doing. Don’t remain unseeing.

The kingdom is here, right in front of them. The poor and the excluded are coming in.

The kingdom is here too. Let’s rejoice with the Lord, let’s join them!


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Why a Sabbath?

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


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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A reflection on The Visitation…

…from Avril Hannah-Jones:

via Women Celebrating Justice: Reflection for the Victorian Country Women’s Association

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The Trinity of Love

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


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. 


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

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


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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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


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’

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


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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