Category Archives: Uniting Church in Australia

Is baptism important? (The Baptism of Jesus, Year A 8 January 2017)

Readings
Acts 10.34–43
Matthew 3.13–17 

…because of their baptism, they are bound to the patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do with them. (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes)

How important is baptism?

It seems to have been important to Jesus.

In Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist tries to put him off:

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’

But Jesus insists. This is the way forward.

John’s baptism was a sign of repentance; that’s why John didn’t want to baptise Jesus. He knew Jesus didn’t need to repent.

But Jesus was identifying himself with sinners. All of them, from the unclean and those outside the law to religious hypocrites who thought they were fine as they were. He was identifying himself with the whole of Israel. Eventually it would be clear that he was identifying himself with the whole world. He was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Christian baptism—our kind—is a little different. In his baptism, Christ identified with sinners; in our baptism, we are identified with Christ.

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The risen crucified One among us

Or, What on earth is the Resurrection?

 

…where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.                             Matthew 18.20

Then I saw…a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered….
Revelation 5.6

The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father.
from the Basis of Union, Para.3

 

Today, I want to ask a question I can’t answer, not this Sunday and not even in a month of Sundays. But even so, it’s still a very good question to ask.

The question is this: What is the Resurrection?

It’s a deceptively simple question. Only one word has more than one syllable. But ‘Resurrection’ is a big word.

How can we think about the Resurrection of Jesus?

Is the Resurrection a happy ending to a sad story? It could easily look that way; and the story has been told that way. Everyone was sad on Friday and Saturday, but by Sunday they were happy once more because Jesus was alive again. But the Resurrection is no happy ending. Most of those first witnesses lost their lives because of the Resurrection.

Well, maybe the Resurrection a proof of life after death? Again, the story has been told that way. But that’s not how the Gospels tell it. The risen Jesus doesn’t talk about heaven. He instructs his people to make disciples of all nations, baptise and teach them. He forgives Peter, telling him to feed his sheep. He gives his peace to disciples who had let him down big time. He makes them breakfast. He helps them to be unafraid of death. He points them towards a transformed life here and now on earth.

Well, the empty tomb may be the clue we need. Does the empty tomb prove the Resurrection? No, it does not. I realised this with a big thump the day after my father’s funeral. I had returned to his grave to make a quiet space to pray. It struck me then that had my dad’s grave been empty, I would not have immediately concluded that he had risen from the dead. I would have made the ghastly assumption that someone had stolen his body, and called for the police.

The Easter stories in the Gospels are exactly the same. When the women see the empty tomb, they do not immediately assume that Jesus has been raised from death. They have to be told the news. Told by an Angel of the Lord (Matthew), a young man in white (Mark), two men in dazzling clothes (Luke) or a ‘gardener’ who was Jesus himself (John).

The women didn’t believe that Jesus was risen because the tomb was empty. They believed because they had a life-changing encounter with the Christ who had been crucified and who is now risen.

And there were other encounters.

Remember the two who were joined by a stranger on their miserable way to Emmaus? He made their hearts burn as he opened the scriptures on the way, showing how the Messiah should suffer; and then, at the table they knew him in the breaking of the bread. Today, we may encounter the Lord in the same way, in these means of grace he has given us, the scriptures and the eucharist.

Remember Thomas? Thomas wasn’t convinced that Jesus had been raised from the grave—but he was fully convinced when he saw the wounds that had been inflicted upon Jesus. I too have met people who have responded to the wounds that life has brought by allowing themselves to be transformed into being more Christlike. I have seen the risen crucified Lord in them.

Remember the disciples by the lake? Jesus made them breakfast. There are people who the Lord shines through because they know how to gladly serve others.

The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union calls the Lord ‘the risen crucified One’ (Para.3). When we speak of the risen Lord, we must always remember what the empty tomb does tell us: that it is the crucified One who is risen. The risen Lord hasn’t set the cross aside. He hasn’t put it in a cupboard somewhere. The body of Jesus is not something separate from his living presence. Jesus is the risen crucified One.

Jesus once said ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. He is here as the risen crucified One.

You may wonder why I’m labouring the point so much.

Jesus is the risen crucified One. Everything that brought Jesus to the Cross is risen with him. Everything that caused him to be crucified is raised with him:

  • his preaching of God’s coming kingdom
  • his healing of the sick and the oppressed, which pointed to the kingdom
  • his parables, that shattered human expectations of God and caused those who could hear to open their hearts to God
  • his compassion for the poor and those on the margins of society
  • his forgiving of sins
  • his opposition to religious hypocrisy
  • his intimate knowledge of God his Father—and now, through him, our Father

All of this is raised in Jesus. It’s not just a happy ending, or the resuscitation of a corpse. It is eternal life itself embodied in the risen crucified Lord Jesus Christ.

That is who is in our midst today, and wherever two or three gather in his name.

And Jesus brings his friends along. Remember the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25? The nations are arrayed before the King. They are judged on one thing: did they act with compassion towards the poor? Did they

  • feed the hungry
  • give water to the thirsty
  • welcome the stranger
  • clothe the the naked
  • take care of the sick
  • visit the prisoner

Because, Jesus says, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

When Jesus the risen crucified One is in the midst of the two or three who gather in his name, he brings his family along. He brings the poor, the sick, the detained and the starving. He bears their wounds in his risen crucified body and calls his church to share the work.

And he also bears our wounds. We are not yet what we shall be. We still die. In 1 Corinthians (15.25–26), the Apostle Paul says Christ

must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We still look for the fullness, the completion of Christ’s work. In the meantime, by faith we share in the overcoming of death as we look to God for eternal life.

Some Christians are embarrassed by their wounds, or even put to shame. They think that God will bless them so much that nothing bad should happen to them. That is not right. We know Jesus as the risen crucified One. He bears our wounds in his.

We belong to the risen crucified Lord, and he will complete the work he has begun in us. But right now, we walk with him by faith; we look to him for help and for strength, and as the Funeral Service says, we live

in sure and certain hope
of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To God be glory forever.

Amen.

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How long, O Lord? (11 October 2015, Year B)

Readings
Job 23.1–9, 16–17
Psalm 22
Mark 10.17–31

Then Jesus lamented: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”’ Mark 10.23

Last week, we spoke about suffering. We said that there is no real answer to the question ‘Why?’. There is something more to say though—not an answer to why bad things happen, but why we feel it so much when they do.

We feel the pain of suffering so much because we have a great hope that the world can be well. Our hope is ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’. And when we look at the suffering in our world, we can see that God’s will is not being done ‘on earth as in heaven’. And those who hope for God to act can find that it brings confusion, sadness, grief, even anger.

Those who lack this hope may just shrug their shoulders and sigh in resignation. ‘What can we do about it?’ they ask.

Or they just try to have a good time, ignoring the pain that others endure.

Or they may even decide to turn a profit from the troubles of the world: after all, there’s plenty of money to be had by an unscrupulous operator.

Lament is the biblical approach to the pain of suffering. But it is an an unpopular message today.

Take Uniting in Worship 2; many of you know that I was one of its editors. It was published ten years ago this month, but really it should have been published a year earlier. One reason for the delay was that we were including prayers of lament as resources and making it possible to use lament in our services of worship.

Those who opposed us were adamant that a service of worship should begin with prayers or songs of adoration. To begin with lament was starting with ‘us’ and our needs; it should always start with God, they argued.

Since that time, our decision has been accepted, but partly, and sadly, because of a humanitarian disaster. The Boxing Day Tsunami flooded communities around the Indian Ocean, and Uniting Church congregations were crying out for the National Working Group on Worship to provide worship resources. So we put the resources that were going to be published onto our website and gave people free permission to use them. No one at any ‘official’ level of our Church has since argued that we shouldn’t use lament in our services.

Just as well, because that’s exactly what the Book of Psalms does.

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Religion — in public?? (13 September 2015, Year B)

Readings
Proverbs 1.20–33
Mark 8.27–38

Wisdom cries out in the street.—Proverbs 1.20a

Do religion and politics mix? Should people keep their faith to themselves, or should they let their religious faith inform their political opinions?

And what about members of parliament? Should they keep quiet about it? Should they keep their faith at home, and only let it out on Sundays? Or only display it in the company of consenting adults?

The (online) Australian edition of The Guardian newspaper published an article just last Monday by Kristina Keneally. You may recall that Kristina Keneally was the Labor Premier of New South Wales before their last state election. You may not know that Kristina is a Christian, a member of the Catholic Church.

This article is entitled Of course my faith influenced my political decisions, as did my gender. So what?

In some circles in Australia today, this is a provocative title. I read recently of a suggestion that politicians declare their religion, just as they declare their commercial interests. (Or at least they’re meant to declare them.) This person wants religion to be declared so that a religious politician’s views on things like euthanasia or same-sex marriage can be discounted. What else would you expect a Christian/Catholic/Moslem/insert other faith to say?

There are forces in society today that are determined to push ‘religion’ out of public life.

To them, Kristina Keneally says: Of course my faith influenced my political decisions, as did my gender. So what? Continue reading

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On earth as in heaven (Ascension of Christ, Year B, 17 May 2015)

Readings
Acts 1.6–11
Ephesians 1.15–23
Luke 24.44–53

Jesus hasn’t just gone away. He has gone deeper into the heart of reality—our reality and God’s. He has become far more than a visible friend and companion; he has shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God. He has made us able to be a new kind of human being, silently and patiently trusting God as a loving parent, actively and hopefully at work to make a difference in the world, to make the kind of difference love makes.—Rowan Williams

…when he is seen, the exalted Lord is recognized, made particular, given content, by the fact that he bears tangible human scars, and forever confronts us wounded.—Rowan Williams, Resurrection–Interpreting the Easter Gospel

I decided to speak about the Ascension of Jesus today, and it took me quite a while to know how to approach it. To tell you the truth, if you just tell the story straight, it can be a bit embarrassing.

For example, the astronomer Carl Sagan once remarked that if the ascending Jesus had reached the speed of light, he wouldn’t have left our galaxy yet. Not even after 2000 years.

I mean, we don’t see the creation as a three-storey thing any more, with heaven on the top floor, earth on the ground and a shadowy world of the dead as the basement. We are becoming even more aware than ever of the vastness and strangeness of the universe.

The story is told about some Ascension Day celebrations at a particular theological college. A special Ascension Day service was held and the whole faculty in their robes and regalia gathered for the big celebration. It was quite an event.  Continue reading

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Living in Covenant (Lent 2B, 1 March 2015)

Readings
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4.13–25
Mark 8.31–38

 

There is something very precious that our western, neoliberal society is in danger of losing. I am speaking of the need human beings have to live together in covenantal ways. We have a need to make covenants with one another.

I have a bible dictionary that defines ‘covenant’ as

a formal agreement or treaty between two parties in which each assumes some obligation.

When someone says ‘covenant’, many people think first of the covenant of marriage. You know,

Mary, will you give yourself to Fred,
to live together in the covenant of marriage?
Will you love him, comfort him,
honour and protect him,
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him,
as long as you both shall live?

Marriage fits the bill. It is certainly ‘a formal agreement […] between two parties in which each assumes some obligation’. (And there really are times when marriage may seem to be more like a treaty…)

Marriage isn’t the only relationship I would describe as a covenant. Let me name friendship as an informal kind of covenant. True friendship can join people together in ways which involve a mutual obligation on both parties through time, perhaps through a whole lifetime. In covenantal ways. The companionship of friends in good times, and the support good friends offer in hard times therefore has a ‘covenant’ aspect.

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Remaking the world (Advent 3B, 14 December 2014)

Reading
Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Earlier this month, I was in Adelaide at a two-day colloquium that was exploring the way our theological colleges across the Uniting Church teach liturgy and worship. I hope and believe that some very good things will come out of it. While I was there, I was thinking about what we do in worship, and about what the significance of our liturgy is.

Gathering together for worship seems like a simple thing to do. Yet we are doing something very significant every Sunday, week by week, as we come together to worship God as the Church. And that significant thing is this: we are sharing with God in remaking the world.

Does that sound a bit grandiose, a bit self-important? How can l’l ol’ us be remaking the world? Continue reading

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