The Trinity – 4 June, 2023
There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But maths, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.
Holy Mother Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Our Lord Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God. It started when, among other things, when Our Lord walked on water and stilled the waves of the Sea of Galilee. That isn’t normal human behaviour. Then his resurrection showed conclusively that this man was indeed God. Then Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the Godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the maths ever since. But to help the maths, tradition gives us the Creeds, from the early Church the Apostles’ and Nicene, and later the Athanasian, to make us remember what it means. The Apostles’ Creed goes way back to the early days of the Church, and is the statement of faith for those being baptised, to show they understand who God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed came later, originating at a Council at Nicaea near modern Istanbul in 325, at the time of the peace of the Church after the great persecutions, to help unite all the different Christians by remembering how God was. It was originally a profession of faith for bishops to make sure they understood the faith – some bishops could be (and still are) remarkably stupid. The Athanasian Creed came later for us Westerners in the Middle Ages.
But let’s reflect on one of the most important of the Godlike acts of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord was in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the sinful woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7:47) The Pharisees were furious because Our Lord, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Our Lord had, in fact, done what only God could do. Before he died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the Risen Lord breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20:22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2:38)
The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin, forgiveness and love. In the Old Testament, in spite of some outbursts of anger, God claimed to be a God who was full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the sinful woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But God’s mercy did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Our Lord and then in the disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.
We have to remember that nothing is more true, life-giving and comforting to us than the presence of the Holy Trinity in our lives. Nothing, in fact, can exist or act or become perfect without the three divine Persons, without God, so that Saint Paul does not hesitate to say that “in him, in fact, we live, we live and we are” (Acts 17:28).
God is near and we think far away. It is in reality and in events and we seek it in dreams and impossible utopias. That’s like getting lost in a maths problem and not coming back to the application.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian of the 5th C, said that we are led to a God who “Lover (Father), Beloved (Son) and Love (Holy Spirit)”), a God who is love and dialogue, not only because he loves us and converses, but because in himself is a dialogue of love and therefore forgiveness. But this not only renews our understanding of God, but also the truth of ourselves. If the Bible repeats that we must live in love, in dialogue, and in communion, it is because it knows that we are all “images of God”. To meet God, to experience God, to speak of God, to give glory to God, all this means – for a Christian who knows that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – to live in a constant dimension of love and forgiveness. The Trinity is a truly wonderful mystery: revealing God to us, it has revealed who we are.
Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own anger. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s mercy and love. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.
Pentecost – 28 May, 2023
One of the quaint customs we have at St George’s is to start the mass with either a procession or the sprinkling with holy water. Although you may find a procession or two in other churches around the diocese, you will not find the congregation joining in the procession, as far as I know. As for the sprinkling with holy water, well, I think we are unique.
This custom is part of our wider catholic heritage. It is part of the introductory rite of preparation, and recalls our baptism. Which is one of the reason I go from the front of the church, back to the font, and back again, linking baptism to the sacrament of the altar physically.
Now baptism asks us to die with Christ in order to rise with him. We talked about last last week with the Ascension, how Our Lord’s ascension into heaven is God’s acceptance of our humanity in the person of Our Lord. But the promise after that is that Our Lord will not leave us without the Spirit, whose giving we celebrate today.
Normally, we think of the symbol of the Spirit as the breath of God, or the divine wind, which plays upon the dual meaning of spirit in Greek, for a spirit and wind. But the other symbol that is used is water, which also helps us to understand what the Spirit is.
Let’s pick up some of the imagery. Our Lord assures the Samaritan woman at the well, that the water he will give to her will be a fountain of living water, welling up to eternal life (John 4:13). This is a baptismal imagery, yet baptism is also a giving to us of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s think about water. All things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects. All plants and animals take the water and survive and grow with water.
In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each person as she wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.
Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of her action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvellous.
The Spirit makes one person a teacher, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one to self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast makes another generous to the needs to others.
This action is different in different people, but the Spirit is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals her presence in a particular way for the common good.
The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console. The Spirit comes to enlighten the mind first of the one who receives him, and then, through him, the minds of others as well.
You should also remember the imagery that John gives us of the crucifixion, that the spear was plunged into Our Lord’s side, and out flowed blood and water. Now in part this is a temple imagery, for blood and water flowed out from the side of the Temple for the cleaning after the sacrifices, blood of the animals and water from the sluicing. But is also a sacramental imagery, blood for the sacrament of the altar, and water for the sacrament of baptism; the two great sacraments.
Water is used as that symbol of the Spirit who lives in us by our baptism. Anciently baptisms were the immersion of water then anointing with oil, signifying the giving of the Spirit to the newly baptised. We die to the world and rise to Christ, who gives us the presence of the Spirit for us to live our Christian lives.
Sometimes the Spirit is treated liked the absent and distant aunt, to whom we send Christmas cards but never see. But that is not what Our Lord taught – he taught that he would not leave us comfortless. The Spirit abides in each of us and is sustained in each of us by our Christian life. The presence of God in the sacraments, in our reading of Scripture, in our prayers, is the presence of the Spirit turning us to the Godhead. It is not a distant aunt – it is the fire of our lives.
So, when you next get whacked in the face by a spray of water at mass here during the asperges, don’t flinch. It is the reminder that the Spirit was given to you by baptism and still fills your lives. It is a call to you to listen to that same Spirit to continue your Christian lives, of repentance and forgiveness, that you may find the grace of God.
Ascension – 21 May, 2023
One of the great rights of humanity, is the right to a free choice. For Christians, it is part of the gift of free will. When you read the ancient accounts of why people were created, like the Babylonians or Egyptians, their creation stories talk about humanity being created to serve the gods, or more directly, to be the slaves of the gods. These ancient gods were tyrants. But our stories in Genesis have a completely different reason. Humanity is not created to be slaves of God, but out of the love of God that called creation into being, and furthermore this creation was good.
But of course, Genesis then goes on to tell of the fall, and how Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and toil in hard labour. Humanity is sundered from God by its sin. But that is our choice, our right to choose, for good or for evil.
Let’s now skip the rest of the Old Testament and go onto the Gospels. The story starts with the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary, who accepts the call to bear the Son of God. This is an immensely significant step. Our Lady is not coerced into being the mother, she accepts it, a free choice, “let it be done to me according to your will” as we sing in the Magnificat. This is humanity accepting through free will the offer of God, so God can to us in human form, in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. So the Divine God become human. We celebrate this every year with the feast of the Annunciation on the 25 March, and then the birth of Our Lord nine months later, for God has to enter the world as a true human in those nine months, on Christmas.
Then of course we have the rest of Our Lord’s life. But the point is that this is Our Lord’s life, and his death and resurrection are things that happen to him. Our Lord returns after the resurrection and teaches his disciple, and then after forty days, he returns to heaven.
Which is why we are here today.
The point about his return is that he does not return as some spirit. The gospels make the point time and time again, that although he is different, in that he appears at times behind closed doors, and that he bears the marks of the crucifixion, he is still human. He eats with the disciples. He is touched. He has a human body.
It is this human body that ascends to heaven.
Now, this is the crucial point which makes today so important. Mary accepts through her free will the choice to bear the human child who is also God. So, God becomes flesh and dwells among us. By the Ascension God accepts willingly, by his choice, the God who is also human.
It is this acceptance of our humanity, this choice by God, that blends human and divine together in one person.
The great Saint Athanasius from Roman Egypt in the 4th C put it succinctly as that God became human so we could become divine.
By this acceptance of our humanity, the benefits of Our Lord’s divinity reach us. His death and resurrection go beyond the experience of one human, to become the shared experience of all who share in that divinity. We will die, but also rise from the dead, because Our Lord is now, as St Paul puts it, the first fruits, he offers to us through his shared divinity in our humanity, eternal life.
It is this understanding that marks the change in the disciples when you read Acts. St Leo the Great, who besides saving Rome from Attila the Hun in 452 was one of the great writers of the Church, points out that after the resurrection the disciples were still frightened and hiding. But it was after the Ascension that they changed. The reason is that they understood then that he was always with them. In the same way that when Our Lord was on earth he was never separated from his Father, and was always with him, in the same way now, after the Ascension, he was in heaven but never separated from his disciples. Because Our Lord was human and divine, they knew that Our Lord would always be with them. He had chosen them, and loved them. That gave them the courage to challenge the powers of the world – they changed from meeting behind locked doors to going out, to challenge the authorities, to teach and witness to the power of the Risen Christ.
The Ascension also gives us one final and important gift – the gift of finding Our Lord present under other guises. As Our Lord appeared human but was also divine, we find the same in our sacraments. We see bread, and earthly appearance, but know that it is in essence the Body of Christ. This gift of God, to be two things at once, earthy and heavenly, allows us to feed continually on Lord. Unless you eat my body and drink my blood you will have no life in you, Our Lord warns. Our Lord wants us to find the divine behind the humanity, the heavenly that calls us continually to live more and more in the presence of God. We do not have to be trapped by appearances and earthly values, we are the people that Our Lord has redeemed by his life and fused into himself by the Ascension. We can choose. It is for us then to explore and find the God that flows from that offer, the offer that is freely offered as our choice.
If You Love Me and Keep My Commandments – 14 May, 2023
There are several occasions throughout the year that are specifically aimed at showing one’s love to others. Today we get Mothers’ Day. I’m amazed by the number of special days that have now been set aside, far too many to be meaningful. Then there are dreaded days like wedding anniversaries that people forget at their peril. But Mothers’ Day I find special.
But today’s gospel reminds us how to celebrate daily and show love for God.
It is easy to show love one day or a couple of days annually when everything is prescribed for you. Demonstrating love on a daily basis is a bit more complicated. Love is a complicated feeling, and yet Our Lord tells us “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In the text from the Gospel of Mark that we use at Low Mass, Our Lord says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and, “‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” It is hoped that every time we hear these words, there will be a pause in our spirit and we will be drawn even closer to Our Lord. The ability to provide unconditional love to all humans is a big ask and oftentimes difficult. There is still, however, a set requirement that Our Lord has imposed for his followers to employ as a demonstration of the love they have for God. It has been said that, “The best things in life don’t come easy, but those things are the ones worth the sacrifice.” Our Lord knew that loving everyone all the time was a monumental task and he also knew that achieving that goal would create a profound shift in the ways in which we move toward the Beloved Community.
When you consider the disciples who were in his inner circle, it is very plausible that Our Lord was exasperated with them often. It must have been difficult to like them all the time, much less love them all the time. For as much as he had done with them and in front of them and for them, there was still confusion and doubt in the ranks. When Our Lord told them, as we heard last week, that he was leaving them and that he was going ahead to prepare a place for them, and they knew the way to where he was going Tomas and Philip didn’t get it and wanted more proof. Philip said, “Just show us the father and we will be satisfied.” Can you imagine Our Lord sighing and rolling his eyes while looking at his brothers, wondering why they were still mystified by his death on a cross and now his resurrection!
Had he not told them repeatedly what was to happen? He had assured them that his crucifixion would not be the last word. He demonstrated his love for them at the last supper. He fed them, he talked with them, and he even got down on his knees and washed their feet. He offered all the comfort that he could before his death. With all that love, surely one might think they would recognise the love they had received and would offer that same level of affection to others. Yet we know that following Our Lord’s death, the disciples went to an upper room and were hiding behind locked doors. fearing for their lives. They were not filled with love; they were overwhelmingly clinging to grief. They were not excited about the Lord we know who was raised from the dead, rather they were trying to figure out what they should do in the absence of him.
When we are true believers, we learn to stand firm in our belief that the Risen Lord loves us unconditionally and our task is to share that love with others. In our daily living of faith, we must come to a place where love is the driving force in all that we do and say. Our promise to Our Lord is to love him and keep his commandments, which includes loving ourselves, and sometimes even that is difficult. There are days when people blame themselves for what has happened to them, including domestic violence, the end of relationships, and even the deaths of loved ones. There are other times when people make bad choices and have difficulty receiving love and forgiveness as they move through a process of repentance. Our Lord says, in spite of all those things, continue to love yourself.
Now there is the second part. Love your neighbour as yourself. Our Lord makes it clear that every human being deserves to be loved. Love demands a level of respect and equality that cannot be deviated from. There are those who will be tempted, like the expert in the law in Luke, to ask, “But who is my neighbour?” At the end of the day, the answer is crystal clear. Neighbour is a reference that encompasses all of those we will meet on your journey of life. Everyone we meet is a neighbour that challenges us to love.
In the Gospel today Our Lord loves us so much that he vowed to secure an advocate for us. The Spirit of truth is spirit that we carry with us all our lives. The Advocate keeps us focused on the love of God and the knowledge that it is impossible to love God and to hate your neighbour. Remember the words found in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
We should never fear love. It informs how well we show up in the world. It gives us the courage to deal with those whom seem different, whom seem alien, whom seem we fear. We embrace the unknown and, by God’s grace, we stand firm for equity and equality. That’s the love that Our Lord is looking for from us. Love also creates space within each and every one of us to be creative and find solutions for the problems of the world. All of those changes come when we love our neighbours and cannot bear to see others suffer.
Our Lord said, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Let every day be Mothers’ Day. The love of Our Lord should be revealed through us every day of the year. The beauty of the heart is its amazing ability to expand so there are no limits to the joy you can give because of your relationship with God. Take time to take stock of your willingness to live out the Gospel in your community and in your church and in your home. Only then will you truly understand what love has to do with it.
Coronation – 7 May, 2023
Last night many of you would have, as I did, stayed up to watch the Coronation. So, if you are yawning today, or I yawn, we will understand.
We saw a spectacle that dates back over a millennium. At its core is the anointing of the monarch as a special servant of God. But part of it is also the giving of oaths and promises between monarch and people – this was never an untrammelled monarch, but one that was bound by mutual oaths. That lesson was learnt most particularly by our kings’ namesake, Charles I, whose war with his people resulted in his beheading.
But this ceremony is also a renewing of a community of promise. The monarch promises certain things. The people promise in return to obey. There is a mutuality that is important. It makes a community.
In ancient times people thought of themselves firstly within communities and then as individuals. Therefore, public ceremonies such as the coronation, or oath-givings were important as they made people part of a community by obligations. One relic of this is our insistence on public courts and public parliaments – so all can see and witness to it as part of a community.
In Our Lord’s time, people identified themselves as communities such as Jewish or Roman or Samaritan; or one of the many other cultures and nations that were intermingling under Roman conquest. Our Lord himself was Jewish and worked within that framework to call people back to God. Even there we have further subcommunities, such as Judean and Galilean.
When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate a very particular definition of what it means to be community: we are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Our Lord Christ. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This separates us in a particular way as a community, just as it separated the community for whom the Gospel of John, which we heard today, was written.
Our Gospel according to St John wasn’t written in one sitting. Instead, it was written over time to address the developing religious and pastoral needs of a particular community. We don’t know exact times, but given the evidence of what was happening in the social and historical context, we can understand this Gospel as originating in an early Christian community struggling to separate itself from first century Judaism, that is, sometime between 75-100 AD. The religious turmoil within emergent Judaism after 70 AD, when the Jewish temple was destroyed, is critical; the Gospel of John’s focused talk about “the Jews” and its prediction of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom for believers readily displays the intra-Jewish conflict of the time. John’s community saw themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Our Lord.
Of course, there were other religious beliefs swirling around during that time. The early Christians were also living within a Hellenistic society, meaning that much of the worldview held at that time was that of the Greeks, the principles, ideas, and pursuits associated with that Greek culture permeated the Mediterranean world. The way the Gospel of John was written is also influenced by this fact. This Gospel was written, in Greek, to a particular community in a particular time and place so that they could define themselves apart from the other religions that were around them. This Gospel helped define them as a community.
Things haven’t changed much since then. We have different religions and philosophies swirling around us in this modern age, too. So how do we define ourselves as Christians now? How do we live as Easter people? Defining ourselves doesn’t mean that we throw stones at others. Defining ourselves means that we live out our lives in a particular way as community so that people can clearly see what being a Christian means. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, this meant that even unto death, Stephen echoed Our Lord, asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who were murdering him. Stephen’s faithfulness compelled him to behave differently than someone who did not follow Our Lord.
In our culture, we are not persecuted in the same way that Stephen was or how Christians are treated in other parts of the world. This is nice and comfortable for us, but it often makes it more difficult to show the world how a community that follows Our Lord defines itself. The media makes this even more difficult when it highlights Christians that manifest bigotry, hate, and judgment on their neighbours, lumping us all into that category together. How do we continue to define ourselves in the midst of this? How do we show that we are God’s people?
In our Gospel lesson, we have part of the answer. We know the way to the place that Our Lord is going because we, by definition, claim to know Our Lord as God incarnate, God with us, God’s own son. Our Lord was always going to return to God the Father because they were inseparable. Our Lord himself was and is simultaneously the access to and the embodiment of life with God. This is our particular belief that helps define us as a Christian community and because of this belief, we are to love Our Lord by doing his works and by keeping his commandments: love God and love one another.
I think that this is an important part of the answer, and to remember that we are always a community and not just individuals. Individuality can lead to excesses, such as wanting everything for ourselves, and forgetting that we have a responsibility to others. Our Lord told us that he is the Way, and his way is the way of servanthood, even of giving himself to death for us. Service is such an important part of who we are.
In the Coronation last night, we see part of our history as a Christian Community. The king is anointed as a servant, as a priest or bishop is anointed and set apart. For better or worse, it is part of making the bonds of a community. We all need that public telling and renewing. From moments of coronation, or even small acts, we need to remember that we serve within communities.
The Fulfilment of the Law – 12 February
We come here, as Christians, especially in our Anglican and Catholic tradition, to learn about the God of Love. How God gives his only Son to us, who dies and rises for us, to show forth the love of God to each and every one of us.
Well then, we get a bit of a shock when we come to today’s Gospel. No only are we not to murder, we are not even to think of murder or be even angry with a person, or even insult someone: even calling such a person a fool will make us liable to the hell of fire. We are not to commit adultery or even think in lust. We are not to swear falsely or even swear at all. So in the end, there is precious little we can do without finding ourselves in the hell of fire.
Not an optimistic outcome for most of us, I fear.
So what is going on?
St Matthew in his Gospel presents the most Jewish memory of Our Lord. It is Matthew who records that Our Lord wore the tassels of an observant Jew. It is Matthew who records, as we heard at the start of the Gospel today, that Our Lord comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. “Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven we learn. The scribes and the Pharisees were not slack either – Our Lord never accuses them of that.
Yet at the same time we learn that Our Lord eats with those who are unclean, does work on the Sabbath by healing the ill, and declares all food clean. All are breaches of the Law. So how can one who sets aside the requirement of the Law, to be ritually pure, say that he does not come to abolish the Law?
This passage comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, the passage where Our Lord give the new way of living to his disciples, which started with the Beatitudes.
Our Lord is here dealing with the implications of what the Law actually means. The disciples knew the Law – they knew the Ten Commandments and the rules that flowed through them, on how to live a life that was pleasing to God. Here, though, Our Lord hammers out the consequences. The Law is not a boundary line of sin. It’s not that if you kill you sin, but you feel like killing someone you are innocent. It’s not that the act of adultery is a sin, but lust is not. The commandments do not mark boundaries: do this and you sin, otherwise you are righteous. The Law marks instead ethics on how you live. That’s an important distinction.
It’s the realisation about how sin works: sin is not the completion of evil; sin is the result of wrong living. Sin does not suddenly happen: sin is the result of a life that has slowly gone wrong. The Ten Commandments are not showing the events that will displease God – they are showing the results of a life that has gone astray from God.
What Our Lord wants his disciples to do instead is to fulfil the Law, to live lives that are close to God’s heart. It’s not about boundaries, do this and you are good, a little further and you are evil. That’s nt what God is about, like some sort of boundary enforcer. Human lives are lives that live in sin, that fail and move away from God. That is the frailty of living in a world that is imperfect, of living lives that fail.
Now, we can deal with this failure to live pure lives in several ways. We can say we are dammed; we are going to the hell of fire. This is the pessimism of damnation – nothing matters because we are dammed.
Another way is by saying that only certain things count as sins: this was what Our Lord is condemning in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Their way was that only if you committed the big sins would you be in trouble. Only the commission of adultery or murder was a sin, not its approach. It was this scrupulousness that Our Lord is attacking here. One again, the Commandments are not boundaries: they are pointers to wrongdoing. There is no sudden change from innocence to sin, sin is a gradual accumulation of evil.
What Our Lord wants to show is a new way though his way of life. Instead of pretending that we are perfect, or sinless, or instead dammed to hell, Our Lord wants to show a new way of facing our imperfections. This is the realisation that we do sin. We are imperfect. We are not what God hopes we will be. However, the way of Our Lord is the way of love, for it shows us that God still loves us despite our sins and offers forgiveness. The life and death and resurrection of Our Lord show God’s acceptance of us as imperfect beings and God’s call to us to receive forgiveness instead. Christianity is not a struggle against an impossible moral code – Christianity is the lesson that we are imperfect, and God loves us anyway, and God offers us forgiveness when we are humble and accept our imperfections and ask for God’s help.
That’s why in last week’s Gospel he tells the crowd that they are the salt of the world, the light that cannot be hid. He was not talking to the perfect, he was talking to a crowd of frightened people, desperate to find healing, full of failures. He was not going to condemn them. Our Lord saw that they were his children, the children of God, and had so, so much potential if they could listen and follow. That’s the message he still calls to us. Try.
There is also the importance of forgiveness. Scripture teaches that forgiveness is an act of grace and mercy, and that it is through forgiveness that we can experience the love and forgiveness of God. Christians are called to forgive others, just as they have been forgiven by God.
Apologising and saying sorry are important aspects of forgiveness. By taking responsibility for our actions and expressing remorse, we demonstrate our commitment to making amends and repairing the relationship. Forgiveness is a two-way street, and both parties must be willing to work towards reconciliation. This means not only apologising, but also listening to the other person’s perspective and trying to understand their feelings.
Forgiveness can be difficult, especially in cases of hurt or betrayal. But, as Christians, we are called to put aside our pride and our desire for revenge and instead choose to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened or ignoring the hurt that has been caused, but rather, it is a deliberate decision to release the anger, bitterness, and resentment that we may feel towards someone else.
Sin makes its home in us when we deny its existence. Sin makes its home in us when we despair. God does not want that. God wants us to be people we were created to be, joyous children of light. This can only be done by love, the love of God who takes us back, and the love that waits for us to turn back to God, to be open to God, and to see our shortcomings and ask God to help us by forgiving. The fulfilment of the Law is not its rigorous keeping: it is discovering that it is founded on the Law of Love, who is God.
Hills and Light, Salt and Food – 5 February
Welcome this morning to Gesimatide. If you are wondering what I am talking about, you can look at the pew sheet and the Sunday today is Septuagesima, which means seventy days, as we are now roughly seventy days before Easter. The Church year is divided around two great feasts: Christmas and Easter. Christmas, and the feasts following of Epiphany, Baptism of Christ, and Candlemas look at the manifestations of Our Lord’s divinity. Easter, looks at his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, but in one sense look at Our Lord’s humanity, how he really took on who we are, and lived as one of us, complete with eating, sleeping, weeping suffering and even death. As Hebrews puts it, tempted in every way as we are, except without sin. Now that we have finished the season of Christmas with the feast of Candlemass last week, our readings start to look forward to Lent and look at our Lord’s humanity.
Being human, means we need to learn as well, and Our Lord was a good teacher. Like today, he uses very human things: a light on a lampstand, salt in food. Simple things to teach a profound message. Food is bland unless it gets some salt, lights can’t be seen unless they are up high. But note you need both: bland food and salt, lights and stands. Both.
Which leads me to the news of the week, the requiem mass for George Cardinal Pell in Sydney. Everyone seems to have an opinion about George Pell: to some he was a highly courageous and wronged man, and to others someone who concealed abuse or even worse. I have a friend who went to the requiem this week, and the eulogies were inspiring about a man who gave a clear moral guidance. I have another friend who went through the Melbourne church system for those who abused by Roman Catholic priests and found the process antagonistic and unsympathetic. Pell was all those things: courageous, controversial, narrow-minded, and protective of the institution over victims of abuse. We all have our opinions of him.
But Pell is in God’s hands now, but it’s worthwhile to ponder a little on how he was treated and how we continue to treat those who challenge us.
Australia is not a good place for open discussion. We do not like being challenged with different ideas, and the technology of the internet has allowed abuse to flourish instead of allowing new spaces of conversation. Cardinal Pell was vilified for his views, which were a legitimate conservative contribution to the debate on how we should live. Questions of gay rights, gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, are questions, not predetermined answers. To find out how we should answer them, we are as Christians, and particularly as Anglicans, to reflect on what Scripture, tradition and reason says. Furthermore, we know that tradition is a continually revelation, as that great Anglican and Roman Catholic John Henry Cardinal Newman. But to come to a well-informed choice of the conscience we need to hear those opinions, we need to hear what people are saying. We need the lights on the stands, we need the salt on the food.
We used to call this tendency to attack those leaders who unsettled us the tall-poppy syndrome, but it has become more than that now. Even when we attacked the tall poppies there was still debate, often much of it in ways that would not pass the political correctness of today. But now we are demonising the conversation space with incivility and abuse. We are attacking now not just the salt and the lights, but the variety of the food and the stands. We are less tolerant of difference.
There is also a growing intolerance to the reality that our public figures, like all of us, are people with faults, not everyone can be Jesus Christ. We are also forgetting to live with people with whom we differ but with respect and love. The treatment of George Cardinal Pell was one instance where people were out to get him, and not try and see his contribution to the public life of Australia.
This has not always been so. Those of you who have read the recent biography of Don Dunstan, for example, would learn how Dunstan would send a car to collect his old adversity Sir Tom Playford to bring him around to his office when he had some difficult decisions to make. Dunstan appreciated Playford’s political sense. Going back further, to the time of our first bishop, Augustus Short, Short initially did not get on at all with Samuel Way, after whom Wayville is named just up the road. Way had invited a rather extreme Calvinist called Thomas Binney to Adelaide and Short banned Binney from preaching in any Anglican church. This did not bode well for a relationship between Way and Short. However, over the years Way and Short progressed, and Way now knighted, became Chief Justice. But Short and Way learnt to respect each other and work with each other, especially in the founding of Adelaide University and this cooperation helped Short obtain permission for women to receive degrees. Both were good Christians who learnt respect for each other.
Well, we are not all like Short, Way, Playford, Dunstan or Pell, but we are all Christian and called to listen to the words of Scripture. We are called to let there be salt and light and to respect those who give such variety to our lives. We are called to live our lives so that we do give our opinions though. We have to be brave in our families and jobs at times to show what we believe. Remember also those great words that St Francis of Assisi never said, that in all things preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words. How we live, how we act, in saying what we believe and respecting those from whom we differ is the way we live the Christian life. Also, those who lead our society and utter opinions, they are not all saints, nor are they all demons. We should be gentle with people so that people may be gentle with us. We should remember that people are fallible, and not be hasty to condemn. We should give thanks for people even with flaws, like George Cardinal Pell.
Finally, enjoy the diversity and eccentricity of those who are different. One of my best moments of the week was seeing one of our local characters at the bus stop. She’s very eccentric and many people avoid her on the streets but over the years I have grown to know her. I asked her at the bus stop if she was off to Woollies to do her shopping. No, she said, I’m off to the Red Cross to buy an evening dress to wear on the street. What a wonderful life, and now I’m waiting for her to wear the dress in Goodwood for Lent.
Candlemass – 29 January
Standing in the present looking back on dreams and hopes of the past; being aware of pains and hurts of the past; and longing for a hope-shaped future.
I wonder if that sounds familiar. Well, that was the experience of two old people over 2,000 years ago: Simeon and Anna.
This episode in St Luke’s gospel draws the past and the future into a very present moment as Joseph and Mary come to present their baby boy in the temple, as was the custom. In the present moment, the pain and joy of past and future are drawn into a place of hope. At the centre is the baby Christchild, revealed as the light of the world.
For so long, and through life’s ups and downs, Simeon had held fast to the promises of God as told by the prophets such as Malachi. Now Simeon physically holds that dream come true – the baby Christ. As we hear those poignant words of Simeon which are echoed in the Nunc Dimittis (that prayer recited down the centuries at the end of day and often at funerals): ‘Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace – your word has been fulfilled.’
Simeon is ready to pass from life to death, and to eternal life with God.
Here is the light of the world – so shocking to the Jewish people at that time because this tiny fragile baby is not only being revealed as their promised Messiah but he is being revealed as the light for ALL people. The one who is the hope for all people and all places in every time, is lying in Simeon’s arms.
Anna too is a holder of hope. We know very little about her but what we are told is moving. She was only married for seven years before her husband died. She was a woman who knew about grief and loss and shattered dreams, and she had chosen to spend her days worshipping in the temple, keeping her eyes fixed on God, praying – prayer based in hope.
In Anna we glimpse something of the grief and loss and shattered dreams which Mary is yet to experience. As Simeon speaks in a place of hope, he also speaks of Mary’s pain yet to come, for a sword will piece your heart also we hear. Simeon tells Mary of pain yet to come.
So that, many years later, when Mary stood at the foot of the cross watching her grown son cruelly tortured to death, when that amazing good news from the Angel Gabriel all those years before now looked as if it were all crumbling, Mary looked back and recalled those words of Simeon and clung onto hope, just as Simeon had done for all those years.
Mary would remember Anna too, and somehow Mary knew that she, too, would be able to live with her pain, by the grace of God, because, somewhere in it all, there was hope in God. Like Anna and Simeon, Mary saw deeply. She saw beyond the immediate and how life seemed to be, and she clung onto hope. That didn’t diminish the pain of her thoughts and emotions in the present, but that tiny flame of hope remained strong in the darkness. She knew the truth that she had given birth to the Light of the world, and the darkness would never overcome that light.
A word we hear frequently is that word ‘resilience.’ For that is what we see in Simeon and Anna and Mary – a hopeful resilience, and we’re given a beautiful insight into how Mary nurtured that hope-shaped resilience.
This telling of this presentation of Christ in the temple, comes immediately after St Luke’s narrative of the shepherds on that first Christmas night. We are told that after the shepherds left the Holy family in Bethlehem, Mary treasured their words about all they had experienced, and she pondered them in her heart.
In these days of our present, like Simeon and Anna and Mary we are deeply aware of pain and that great sense of loss that people are experiencing in so many different ways, and we need to be honest about our struggles and our weariness. Yet we also need to ponder – to look back and to look forward – to pray and ponder and to replenish the treasure of God within our hearts.
In a little while we will proclaim the great mystery of faith: ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’. Deep words to ponder as we treasure the mystery of what God has done in Christ and that which is yet to come. Deep words as we ponder the greatest gift of all, that Our Lord’s own flesh and blood are offered to us, full of forgiveness. In our pondering, we pray that we will see more deeply – beyond how life seems to be.
As we walk into this week, where will be our prayerful pondering in our own lives and in the life of our church, as we acknowledge the darkness, yet also ponder and treasure the light of Christ which will never be overcome!
So what will you thank God for this week and treasure for the future, to sustain us with Simeon, with Mary, and all the countless saints throughout the ages, so that we can live the struggle with hope? What will you ponder this week which will build up the treasure store within you from which, like Anna, you can bless those around you?
May this week be one in which we treasure and ponder God’s promises and blessings so that we might see more deeply, and live the present with hope in Jesus Christ.
Two Lambs – 15 January, 2023
Dickens famously started one of his books with the tale of two cities. Today I would like to tell you the tale of two lambs.
The first lamb I want to tell you about is the Lamb of Abraham. You may remember the story, Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son, and sacrifice him on the mountain. So Abraham took his son, Isaac, and when his son asked him what they would sacrifice he only told him that God would provide. Then Abraham took his son, bound him, lay him on the wood and prepared to kill him as a sacrifice.
The God intervened and told him that was not necessary, and directed him to a lamb or ram in a bush nearby that was caught. Abraham took that lamb, and sacrificed him instead.
Now the importance of this incidence is that it marks a clear change in sacrificial needs in the pre-history of Israel. Human sacrifice was not practised again by them; in fact, they would see it as abhorrent. But other races, even the Romans at times of crisis, would still sacrifice humans. The reason for sacrifice is that it appeases the gods. People need to keep God happy, so they offer what is precious, and the most precious thing was life itself, and human life was the most valuable.
So that’s the first lamb I want to talk about.
The second lamb comes from the passage we heard today in the Gospel, when John calls Our Lord the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our Lord would be seen as the perfect lamb that would offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and would die meekly like a lamb on the cross. So the need of sacrificing lambs at the Temple would cease with the sacrifice of the perfect lamb.
Now, the odd thing about this imagery, is that a lamb replaces a human, with the lamb replacing Isaac the son of Abraham, and then a human replacing all lambs, with Our Lord taking the perfect lamb. It’s a lovely mirror imagery.
But the weakness is why Our Lord must be sacrificed. Now this is where we start to think about why did Our Lord die, what we call the atonement. If we see sacrifice as appeasing an angry God, then we start by sacrificing any human, then we go to lambs, then we go to a perfect human. The problem with all this is that why should God be angry with us? Now we do make mistakes, we do commit sins. But it’s not enough to say that we need to appease God for our sins, because that gives the image of God as an angry God. Much of our theology of what we call the atonement, why God dies for us, is based in ideas about either an angry God needing satisfaction, or a legal God needing the laws to be satisfied. That’s part of our inheritance though Augustine, Anslem and Calvin, great and wonderful theologians, but also thinkers reflecting their own times. What the Gospels present instead is a loving God, a loving God who loved us so much he gave us his only Son.
Instead of thinking about angry gods wanting vengeance we should start to think about us as beings who by shame try to make good our sins by offering something precious. God always is there to forgive: that is what love is about. We offer precious things like other humans, but God does not want us to take life. So God directs us to offer lambs instead. Finally, God sends the Son to teach us a new way that shows us that even this sacrifice is unnecessary: and God then allows his Son to die as a victim of our anger and injustice. But to show that God is not one of vengeance, God does not punish us for killing his only Son, God has his Son rise to life again to show us that the way of vengeance and anger is only a phase, and that true forgiveness and new life lie beyond.
Now we can start to ponder what John the Baptist says today: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees Our Lord as the ultimate lamb that finishes all the sacrifices of lambs in history. But a lamb was sacrificed for a person sins: this lamb takes away all sin, note how John says the sin, not sins of the world. The sin of the world is the need for vengeance, the need to sacrifice to take away our shame. Our Lord as the perfect sacrifice takes all that sin away. There is no need of vengeance, there is only the need for love.
It is also worthwhile to consider, that where in the past we offered the lamb to God, God now offers the Lamb to us. We offered the lamb to appease the anger of the gods: now God offers the Lamb in his Son, to appease our anger. It is God’s offering of the Son that takes away the sin of the world for in that we realise the extent of the love of God in that God withholds nothing from us, not even his Son.
As an aside, in Aramaic “talja” means both “lamb” and “servant,” so it may also be referencing the idea of the suffering servant from Isaiah. So the Lamb of God is also the Servant of God.
When we come to communion, we use those words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the Holy Mother Church inviting her children to see that in the bread and wine, we take the body and blood, of the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Lamb of God. All thoughts of vengeance and appeasement are finished, instead we are presented with the love of God that withholds nothing. We are invited to come and receive him, not that we are worthy, but instead to be healed of the insanity of the cycle of vengeance and sacrifice. It calls on us to deal with our cycles of anger and vengeance, to learn to let go of this, and instead accept a God who took away all sin, and invites us to release and forgive instead, as he did.
Releasing the cycle of hate is one that we only accomplish by forgiveness. We see this forgiveness in the life and sacrifice of Our Lord. This is what we are called to practice. Now, people are more concerned about happiness than forgiveness I find, and that’s more to do with high or low are expectations are in life, most people start with high expectations and learn to lower them over time. But for Christians, we are about learning to become Christlike, and that can only be done by forgiveness. I think the secret to forgiveness is learning to be grateful for what we have, even when we have been injured by then sin of others. From gratefulness for what we have, we can learn that God takes even the blackest moments of our lives and redeems them. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, gives himself to us instead. That is the greatest gift that a God can give, and a gift for which we are eternally thankful.
Epiphany 8 January – by Timothy Hender, Lay Reader
Thank-you to Wardens and Priest.
Before King James I on Christmas Day 1622, Lancelot Andrewes preached:
It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off . . . , ‘the very dead of winter.’
TS Eliot, not only an Anglo-Catholic but also a great admirer of Lancelot Andrewes, incorporated these words into his poem The Journey of the Magi – a work read widely in Anglican churches at this time of year, including our own. The Journey of the Magi is narrated by a Magus who wearily recounts a simpler time when he could trust in his faith before the disruptive revelation of the Christ child. For those of us of a traditional or liturgical persuasion this is part of our understanding of the epiphany; yet step outside the church door and countless Christmas cards, pageants, cribs, reliquaries and carols have contributed to the popular cultural construct of the epiphany – of a camel’s breath steaming in the cold night air, its saddle bags stuffed with low carat gold and flashy oriental gems, and of elderly gentlemen wrapped in extravagant layers of ornamented silk, bent over a pristine baby in a meticulous barn.
There are many gaps between this popular story and the visit of the wise men as recounted in today’s gospel. For example, Matthew introduces the practice of astrology – a practice that is otherwise not present in the Scriptures – we simply don’t know the time of year and there is no hint of the names Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar. There are also gaps between today’s reading from Matthew and the nativity narrative elsewhere in Scripture – Bethlehem v Nazareth, house v stable and so forth.
We are not going to resolve these gaps today, even if we wanted or needed to. Instead, let us put the minutiae of biblical criticism aside and consider, instead, the broader message that Matthew (writing shortly after the time of Christ), the early church fathers (who developed the notion of the Christ’s presence and relationship to the world with great care and consideration) and the compliers of the Scriptures (who presumably included the epiphany for a purpose) wanted us to hear.
At Christmas we encounter the incarnation – the coming of Christ as both man and divinity, having taken his human nature from his human mother, Mary. His presence in the stable was only made to the local Jews and it was with the visit of the Three Magi that his divinity was revealed to the Gentiles – that is, to the world beyond Judaism and by extension to all humanity, including us. The daily mass readings leading up to the Epiphany remind us that there were other revelations of Christ’s divinity to various audiences; for example the descent of the dove at Christ’s baptism by John, the calling of the first disciples and in a much more earthy way than today’s reading, the marriage at Cana and the miracle of water into wine. That Christ was brought to the visible world as truly divine and truly human is clearly the knowledge, the understanding that the early Church wanted us to hear.
However, the epiphany sits within a broader concept of the incarnation in Scripture and we have been left a more complex message. We should not forget that the incarnation and these subsequent revelations are of Christ’s divinity in the visible world but that He has been eternally present as the Word, the Son of God and as one of the three persons of the Trinity in the invisible – God’s – world. The most prominent scriptural attestation is John 1:1 – ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God’ and in the trinitarian formulae of St Paul, amongst others.
Christ’s eternal presence continues. His ascension is presented as continuance and not a termination, and to this I would add that His nature since the ascension continues to be both divine and human. This is easily forgotten, especially as we often put down our Bibles after Easter Day. In His appearances after the resurrection He appears in forms that do not conform to the norms of the visible world, unlike before the crucifixion when he presented largely as human. For example, He not only escaped the tomb – He appeared in ‘another form’ to two disciples, was unrecognisable on the road to Emmaus, was mistaken for the cemetery gardener and despite appearing (apparently spontaneously) in locked rooms could sit down to a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. In other words He appeared as both human and divine at the same time and it is in this state in which He ascended.
What does this mean for us? It means that we can be in no doubt that all of humanity are upheld in Christ’s humanity and that his incarnation and resurrection apply to the whole universe of things in both the visible and invisible world. It also means that in sharing our humanity with Christ that we have been and will be resurrected with Him. In other words, we were not only with and of Christ when He was in our world, but since the resurrection and ascension continue to be with Him in God’s world. This should be of great comfort to us, that in meeting Christ in the eucharist we are not only meeting Him as we remember Him from the Bible, but in His eternal form, both fully divine and fully human.
 John 1:29-34, Mark 1: 17-11
 John 1:35-51
 John 2:1-11