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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Matthew's baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17

Every culture and people have their foundational stories, stories which are able to tell us who we are, where we belong, and what our purpose in life might be.  For Christians, one of those foundational stories in that of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river.  It is foundational because it is a story not only about who God is, but it is also about who we are as people who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  If we listen carefully, it is a story that can also provide invaluable guidance about where we belong in the world, and what we are to do with our lives.  It certainly did that for the early Christian communities.  So . . . listen carefully!

The first thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus came from all the way from Galilee to be baptised by John in the Jordan.  That’s quite a long way and, if you happen to be a young man seeking your fortune in the big wide world, in entirely the wrong direction!  For John was baptising people not in the middle of the city, where people gathered to work and do their business, but in the desert wilderness—way, way off the beaten track.  For John was preaching a baptism of repentance, calling people to reflect upon their lives and ask the question “Is what I’m doing with my life really enriching, satisfying, what I am put on this earth to do?  Or am I just doing it because everyone else is, or because I am afraid of something, or for some other reason I don’t quite understand?”  In John’s eyes, the Jewish people, particularly the most wealthy and successful, had forgotten about the call of their God to live lives characterised by justice, compassion and prayer.  And so he beckoned them out into the wilderness, to a place where the normal trappings of life were no longer there to support and ensnare.  He beckoned them to a place rich with meaning in Jewish faith, a place which marks the passage of a people who had been slaves in Egypt to their freedom in the land of promise.  “Be baptised in the Jordan,” he told them.  “Like the people who crossed this river in ancient times, you cross this river also.  Repent!  Put off your life of slavery to economic and social demands.  Wash away your sins and rise from the waters to pursue the life of freedom that God will give you!”

So, when Jesus comes to John it is not by accident.  It’s not that he was wandering in the desert one day, like some tourist in modern-day Palestine, and happened across a bizarre ceremony that would be kinda fun to have a go at.  No, Jesus comes to John with a deeply held belief and purpose:  that God had called him to leave behind all that was expected of him by his community, that is, to be the head of his household and chief provider for his mother, his brothers, and his sisters.  Jesus believed that God had called him to claim an entirely different identity and mission, a vocation that could only, perhaps, be finally discovered and embraced through this watery ritual of death and rebirth.

For that is what baptism meant for the Jews of the first century.  The word “baptism” literally means “to be immersed in water”, and the ceremony first came to prominence in the century before Christ as a way for Gentiles, non-Jews that is, to embrace the Jewish faith and community.  After a long period of preparation in which the candidates learned both the wisdom of the Jews in law and prophets and the ethical demands of the Jewish life, they would be taken to a body of water and washed thoroughly—yes, even immersed in that body of water.  Thus the name:  “baptism”.  The symbol is not perhaps so obvious to us these days, especially to those of us who have witnessed hundreds of infant christenings over the years.  Stripped naked and immersed in water, the candidates were killing off their former way of life by a symbolic drowning.  They were also washing away their sins so that God might lead them in a new, and very different, way of life.  What John does, then, is take an established Jewish ritual for the initiation of Gentiles into Judaism and applies it to lapsed or lost Jews, Jews who had forgotten what it meant to trust and obey the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

One should understand that, in the ancient world, water was not so benign as we regard it today—flowing purely and freely from our taps as it does.  In the ancient world, water very often symbolised chaos and evil.  In water, people lost their lives.  On the waves of the sea, many ancient people drowned.  With the flooding of the rivers, they lost their harvests.  In the ancient world, people knew that water was both necessary to life but also the bringer of death.  “Fear death by water” said the Buddha in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland.  What that meant for Eliot, as it means for us, is that the waters of baptism should not be regarded as tame, given only to feed and sustain life as we know it.  The waters of baptism are dangerous:  they are designed to take our lives away.  Without doing so, they cannot give us a new life.  There is a terrific byzantine icon of Jesus baptism in which you can see, under his feet, the terrifying figure of Leviathan, an ancient symbol of water’s power to kill and destroy.  In order to be baptised, Jesus had to be willing to submit himself to the power of Leviathan.  For that is the only way to overcome Leviathan’s power.  Perhaps we moderns only get in touch with something of that ancient sensibility when a tsunami comes along.

So, all of these meanings hover in air and stir in the water as Jesus comes to be baptised by John.  That is why John at first refuses to baptise Jesus, according to Matthew.  For Matthew’s community, you see, which knew these meanings very well indeed, Jesus is not a person who needed to be baptised.  He is not a sinner who had lost his way and therefore needed to be cleansed and renewed in the water.  “That may be true,” says Matthew in reply, “but baptism symbolises other things as well:  not just the putting away of a life of sin but, more positively, the embrace of an identity and vocation from God.  This is why Jesus asks John to baptise him—in order to symbolise and fulfil all that God rightly asks of him.”  

And so Jesus is baptised.  Note the tense and the mood of that verb.  Jesus does not baptise himself.  Baptism is not something that he, or anyone else, can do for themselves.  It is something that another gives or bestows upon us.  The primary agent in baptism is God.  It is God who baptises, it is God who gives us the grace and the power to put aside the life of sin and embrace the life of faith.  It is God who acts in baptism, even though he does so through the agency of his servant.  For Jesus that servant was John.  For us, it is the church.  What this means, of course, is that salvation is not something we can accomplish for ourselves.  In the Christian view of the world it is simply not possible, by virtue of one’s own ingenuity and power, to be liberated.  In Christian understanding, even the will to be liberated is a gift from God.  Therefore, it is only by virtue of God’s love and grace that we can ever be saved.  

Yet, for all that, a well-informed human will and intention must be present, as it was for Jesus.  Without such will, there is no sacrament.  That is why the church can never baptise a person for whom there is neither faith in God, nor the will to follow God’s way.  What does that mean for infant baptism?  Simply this:  that we must stop baptising children where the primary caregivers have little-to-no informed intention of living a genuinely Christian life, immersed in the church and loyal to the promises made.  The word sacrament means, in fact, “promise”.  In the sacrament of baptism, we hear the love and promises of God.  But we also enact our own promises, promises to turn away from evil and embrace the life of Christ not only in word, but in deed also.  If we or our primary caregivers can neither understand nor make those promises, then the church has no business in baptising us.  To do so would be to mock the promises of God!

But what does God promise us in baptism?  Here we can learn from the baptism of Jesus once more.  As he emerges from the waters of death, Matthew tells us that Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon his ‘like a dove.’  This event is rich with resonance from Jewish history and theology.  It first recalls the messianic passage we read from Isaiah, where the servant of the Lord is given the Spirit in order to perform a particular task and mission in the world:  to accomplish justice for the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to be a light for the nations, and to release the captives from prison.  In his baptism, Jesus therefore learns his task in the world:  to be God’s light and hope, and the promise of justice, for all who suffer.  This image of the Spirit descending like a dove reinforces that identity.  In the story of Noah, the dove comes as the waters of the flood recede, a sign that God’s new world is beginning to emerge.  So it is for Jesus, and for all who are baptised.  The Spirit is a sign or guarantee that there is life after disaster and death, that no matter how much we lose in baptism we shall be given, by that same action, blessings and riches beyond measure.  The dove:  a sign of God’s love after the deluge is over.

And then there is the voice from heaven:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Here Jesus finds out who he is.  It is likely that Jesus suspected something for much of his life, but now all his imaginings and intimations come together.  For here God owns Jesus as his son and messiah, the one by whom salvation will come not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.  Remember that the most crucial component of this identity, in Christian understanding, is that of suffering.  Christ will not be the Son of God, and will not bring salvation to the world, unless he suffers and dies.  This understanding is confirmed, in Matthew’s narrative, by Jesus use of the ‘sign of Jonah’ in chapter 12.  There some teachers come to Jesus and ask him for a sign that he is indeed the messiah sent by God.  Jesus replies that no sign will be given them except the sign of the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a sea monster, deep in the ocean.  “So shall it be for the Son of Man,” says Jesus, “who shall spend three days buried in the heart of the earth”.  Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus baptism anoints him to be the messiah, certainly, but a peculiar kind of messiah: a messiah who must suffer and die in order to accomplish his work.  The imagery of baptism is unmistakable.  Here baptism becomes a figure for his death and his resurrection:  buried in the water, risen to life on the third day.

Now, I said at the beginning that this story of Jesus baptism is not only about God and Jesus, but also about all who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  We’ve seen something of that as we’ve gone along.  But let me now conclude by making some things explicit which have perhaps been hidden in the detail up until now.  The baptism of Jesus became, in early Christian theology, the paradigm or model for what it meant to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  ‘Belief’ you see, is neither intellectual assent on its own, nor a group of habitual bodily practices on their own.  Belief is ‘faith’, a decisive unity of intellectual and bodily action which has its object and inspiration within the thought and action of another, an ‘other’ in whom one’s very self is taken apart and re-constructed.  Christians are made into Christians by becoming immersed in the symbolic world of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is figured in baptism, and precisely by that immersion, are transformed into people whose seek to imitate Christ is every way.  What we therefore learn from Jesus’ baptism is what it ‘belief in Jesus Christ’ actually looks like in a particular life:

  1. a leaving of the well-worn expectations and loyalties of our society in favour of a life of faith dedicated to God;
  2. a dying to sin, and the lostness of our culture, in order to rise to a new life, a life of grace and peace given us by God; in this we participate in Christ’s saving death and resurrection—‘the sign of Jonah’;
  3. the conferral and gift of a new identity.  In our baptism, God owns us as his sons and his daughters.  Jesus was the first, in other words, of many siblings.  The whole company of these siblings is called ‘the church’.
  4. a commissioning for mission, for now we are anointed with the Spirit so that we can share with Jesus his vocation as messiah.  In the baptismal liturgy we declare God’s promise that we are now, as a baptised people, the body of Christ, in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells.  All of us, whether we are ‘ordained’ or not, are therefore called to be lights for the nations and to work for the freedom of everyone from whatever it is that keeps them in chains.

The story of the baptism is therefore foundational for the identity and vocation not only of Jesus, but of ourselves as well.  As many as are baptised into Christ have died with Christ.  By participating in the baptism of his death and resurrection we, each of us, are given a new, messianic, mission and vocation.  As Christ gave himself for the sake of the world, so now we—as his body, the church—are called to join with him in loving the world, for the glory of God.  That is what it means, therefore, to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mid-life confessions

At forty-seven years old I am no longer young. The 'warrior phase' is well and truly behind me. The future stretches out far more bleakly (or should it be 'really'?) before me.

For several years now, a great many changes of mind and heart have been insinuating their way into my imagination. Perhaps I should come clean and confess that I no longer see or hear or feel as I once did about a great many things. Some of you who knew me best when I was a twenty-something or thirty-something may be surprised at what you read here. Others, the wisest amongst you, will have seen what was coming from a very long way off.

When I was young, I dreamed of writing a revolutionary book of theology or philosophy that would fundamentally change its reader's hearts and minds. Now I know that I will never write such a book. Or, if I were by some miracle to produce such a tome, I know it would sink like a stone into obscurity because the practice of reading such books is almost gone.

When I was young, I dreamed that youthful enthusiasm and imagination would fundamentally change the political landscape so that a new era of peace with justice could emerge. Now I know that the powers of greed and entropy are far more entrenched than I could have imagined. I also know that the vast majority of young people have been recruited by those very powers, whether they are aware of the fact or not.

When I was young, I thought that the world was my oyster and that I would die a prosperous and comfortable man. The key to my future, I surmised, was education. Education would lift me from the poverty in which I had grown up, and release me into a prosperous future in which I could do whatever I wanted to do and be whatever I wanted to be (to paraphrase the Master's Apprentices). Now I can see that I unconsciously pursued the kind of education that would render me rich in words and ideas and values but poor in things.

When I was young, I imagined that I would remain healthily capable, competent and energetic well into my seventies. Now I know that growing older means coming to terms with the fading of one's powers. Now I know that ill-health can shatter one's dreams and bring them to naught.

When I was young I imagined that serving Christ was a glorious thing, a praiseworthy thing, a making of oneself into a powerful centre of moral authority that would draw whole communities into its thrall. Now I understand that following Christ is about being despised, rejected and rendered anonymous. It is about becoming an object of scorn for both monster and moralist alike. It is about losing oneself entirely.

All of which is to say that, for me, the world is not at all as I imagined it would be when I was young. I am no longer the 'promising young leader' that some described two decades ago. I am a person whose hopes and dreams lie in ruins under a towering rubble of self-deception, ill health, and Christian realism.

For all that, and most likely because of all that, I find myself able to give thanks. I give thanks for my wife Lil, for the way she has stuck by me with tenacious love over 25 years.  I give thanks for my daughters Erin and Gretel, who continue to be the light of my life. I give thanks for my mum and dad, who walked this way before me. I give thanks for the treasures of Christian faith - baptism, bible, prayer and eucharist - which continue to sustain and comfort me. I give thanks for friends who love me loyally even when I am being a dick. I give thanks that I have a roof over my head and that I can still string two words together. Two words may now be all that Christ requires.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I should be glad of another death

Texts:  Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72. 1-7; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2. 1-12
 . . .  were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
from T.S. Eliot, ‘The journey of the Magi’ (1927)
I have seen something.  Something which is difficult to recall with accuracy, and almost impossible to speak about.  Something wonderful, and terrifying, and intoxicating, and utterly strange.  What I have seen, I saw not with my eyes, nor even with my soul (whatever that is).  It was, rather, a feeling that I had, myself, been seen by another.  Seen transparently and utterly, as under a field of ultra-violet light, so that nothing of who I am or will become now remains hidden.  Seen in such a way as to transform my entire sense of who is the observer and who the observed.  So that the whole manner of my observation¬, whether of self or society, has been irrevocably changed.  What I see now is no longer what I saw before, even though I’m looking out on the same scenes, the same people.  It’s as if my seeing is charged, now, with the consciousness of that other, so that my seeing is always already what this other sees as well.  It was not so before I saw.

When the Magi set out on their journey, it was because they, too, saw something.  But what they saw is also difficult to name.  When Matthew says that it was a star that they saw, the star clearly evokes a peculiar and particular fact:  the birth of a king for the Jews.  The star rises in the east, a permanent sign and symbol for the rising of new hopes and expectations for the downtrodden people of Judea, hopes that are coming to birth in the babe of Bethlehem.  That is what Matthew, I think, intends to say about the meaning of the star.  And yet there is a logic in his story which works against all that.  For it is not the babe’s own people who see the star, or recognise it’s significance.  It is not Herod, the king of the Jews, or his counselors who journey to pay homage to the newly born Messiah.  Rather, it is Magi from the East who accomplish all this.  Gentiles.  Natives of a foreign land.  Infidels.  So what did they see?  What did they see that could possibly move them to become interested in the significance of a minor principality, a tiny outpost of the great Roman Empire?  What moved them to leave where they were, to say goodbye to all that was solid and familiar, to put aside responsibilities and livelihoods?  What moved them to put relationships on hold, to put plans on hold, to change direction altogether and journey into a difficult and dangerous land?  What could they possibly have seen to make things so?

Perhaps they saw what I have seen.  Perhaps they saw something that is difficult to name.  Perhaps they were grasped by an experience of having, themselves, been seen by some other.  An Other whose irrefutable presence imbues one’s own seeing with a vision ‘far more deeply interfused’, so that the ordinary shines with beatific glory, and former gods, former objects of desire, are rendered as lifeless and void as plastic.  Perhaps they saw, therefore, that the baby of Bethlehem was both far more and far less that a Messianic pretender for a provincial people.  Perhaps they saw here something of rather more cosmic significance, the arrival of something the world had never seen before, and yet had yearned for since its first creature drew breath.  Perhaps they saw in the child the possibility of that which seemed so very impossible.  Perhaps they were surprised by . . .  by JOY.

When one considers the state of things, it is indeed difficult, I think, to believe that joy is possible.  Most of the world’s people live in poverty.  And they live in poverty because of the excessive greed of the rest of the world, the greed of those of us who belong to the so-called ‘developed economies’.  Because the economic elites require endless consumer choice at the lowest possible price, the poor are condemned to short lives of hard labour and ill health.  And this is not simply a 1st World/ 3rd World phenomenon either.  Even within the 1st World economies, there are those who must work themselves to death so that the elites may continue to enjoy their consumer freedom.  That is why we have sweat-shops.  That is why the large franchises employ ‘casual’ work forces (=low wages, few rights).  That is why we have a huge ‘informal’ work force which receives almost nothing in return for its economic contribution.  

And here is the most joyless bit of all.  Whether you are rich or poor, a hard worker or a hard drinker, whether you’re the CEO of Telstra or a technician who’s just been made ‘redundant’, our joy is being stolen away by advertising.  Because advertising wants to sell us something, something we don’t really need.  And when we get that something, whether by the divine right of the rich or by sheer hard work and ingenuity, we know straight away that we didn’t really need it at all.  Because we still feel empty.  Beneath the shiny happy exterior we put on for our friends, beneath the happy-go-lucky persona of the working-classes or the cool and confident aire of the middle-to-rich, we are still empty.  The pages of New Idea and Cosmopolitan are full of people who still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

In T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary poem, he imagines himself to be one of the Magi turning up at the birth of Jesus.  The journey has been hard, and long, in a thoroughly twentieth-century way.  Its been too hot and too cold, and the transport has not been at all comfortable.  Not like home.  Their porters and servants were only interested in booze and women, and each town seemed either too expensive or too hostile or too alien.  And, of course, the stumbling attempt to walk against the grain of all that is consumable and fashionable seemed, for much of the time, to be nothing but sheer foolishness.  But when they arrived, when they actually found that which came to find, they were utterly and completely unprepared.  For while they were witnesses to a birth, a birth much like all the other births they have ever seen, this was a birth which induced a kind of death in all touched by its power.  So much so, that when the Magi returned to their own lands and their own lives, they found that their old obsessions, their old desires and plans have disappeared.  That the people and pastimes they had once admired seemed now to possess no more substance than that of shadows, clutching at worthless gods.

When people of faith see something, or rather, when they become aware of a gracious presence whose vision suffuses and possesses their own, the world is utterly changed.  Black and white suddenly appears colourful.  The hopeless situation becomes pregnant with possibility.  The brick wall which impedes all progress becomes an opportunity to learn rock-climbing.  Not, I must stress, in psychologically disturbed ways, which seek to deny and sublimate the very real pain and darkness of life.  No.  The new way of seeing is about depth and complexity.  And about double-vision.  While acknowledging the painful realities, the changed vision I’ve been describing does not allow those realities to become totalized, to take over the world and rule there without rival.  The vision granted by faith is about discerning, even in the midst of the very worst that life can dish out, the real but hidden properties of light, hope, love, joy.  Seeing those things which are ordinarily hidden, naming them, and so bringing them into the light.

According to Eliot, the Magi suffered a death in order to become mystics, mystics who could see that the birth of a provincial messiah was also the possibility of their own rebirth in the cosmic plan of God.  So too, I would encourage all gathered here this morning to continue on that same journey.  The journey where despair and darkness is refused its ultimate power.  Where the advertisers are exposed as charlatans.  Where the all-pervasive wrongs of the world are no longer allowed to be all-pervasive.  Where the seemingly pointless birth of a provincial king in the ancient world of Rome is no longer regarded as pointless.  Where love and joy and peace are discerned and named and allowed to flourish.  And that which seemed impossible becomes a possibility once more.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the Feast of the Epiphany 2003.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

'The words I have spoken are spirit and life': the poetics of faith

Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ What is the Apostle talking about when he utters these enigmatic words?

In part, the Apostle is seeking to make a crucial distinction between what we can see, touch, hear and taste, and what we can’t. There are things in this universe, he wants to say, which we cannot sense in any ordinary way, and yet they are real¬ - as real as this lectern, or that book, or you and I. Let me elaborate a little.  Let’s pursue the example of that book. In one sense, it is just a book. It is made of paper, of pulped wood and chemicals. Perhaps there is a little leather. Certainly, there is a lot of ink, ink which is distributed liberally on the page to create words. A book, just a book. And yet it is not just a book, is it? For there, in those pages, resides the trace and the effect of a story and an event that is far bigger and more cataclysmic in their import than any mere book could be.  The trace and effect of that God who has made our world from nothing and passed through it in cloud and fire and a people liberated from slavery; the trace and effect of Holy Wisdom becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, full of grace and truth; the trace and effect of life bursting forth from the tombs in which we would enclose it; the trace and effect of transformation, salvation, the liberation of the world from its bondage to death and decay. The trace and effect of things far larger and more deeply complexly interwoven than mere pulp and paper, vellum and ink could ever mean on their own. What we see and touch and taste is a book. But what we feel, especially when it is read aloud, is the shaking of the earth and the remaking of the cosmos.

So when the Apostle talks about rulers, authorities, dark powers of evil who dwell in heavenly realms, he is asking us to look beyond the surface of what things might mean and listen, instead, for the resonance and timbre of a great opera that has been unfolding since before the universe was made, a cosmic drama concerning good and evil, making and unmaking, faith in the God of life and the appetite of humankind for mayhem and destruction.  Here the Apostle wants to teach us what literature scholars call a ‘hermeneutic’, a strategy for rightly reading the times and places in which we live.

Take, for example, some of the events that dominate the news. ISIL kills many thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, most of them Muslims.  The Abbot government turns back another boat of desperate asylum seekers. A young Aboriginal woman dies in police custody. The disability pension is reclassified so that thousands of recipients lose their benefits.  A pop star goes into rehab for drug abuse. What are these events all about? What do they really mean? Some - usually journalists - might read them as examples of the ongoing struggle between the weak and the strong, the ones who will form the future and those who will not.  Such readings assume, all too pragmatically, that history is written by the strong, and that it is the strong who always win.  But if we read those same events in the light of that opera an Apostle might sing, they are about faith and disbelief, flesh and spirit, light and darkness. They are about the struggle of the people of God with forces that can never be reduced to mere flesh and blood, to bodies that are either weak or strong. They are about the struggle with an ancient and cosmic evil that would seek to enlist anything and anyone to its cause, and without caring whether those enlisted understand what is at stake or not.  By reading things this way, those of us who have heard the gospel come to understand that the events that dominate our televisions or, indeed, our own lives, have a cosmic significance. They are important not simply because these events apparently determine whether we can expect a comfortable future or not. They matter because they are traces and effects of God’s eternal desire to wrest life from death, light from darkness, faith from doubt.

Let me put all this another way. The world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s TV show from the late 90s and early Noughties is our world. Despite the claims of the eternally prosaic and unimaginative, we do indeed live in a world populated by creatures that want to suck our blood and remove our brains and hearts. We do indeed live in a world in which the scarcity of wisdom figures and wise mentors to show us the way forces most of us to simply do our best with the limited resources we have, effectively making it up as we go along.  We also live in the world of Harry Potter, JK Rowling’s series of novels. A world in which a dark lord would seek to re-establish the rule of ‘might is right’ and there is only a small band of courageous and principled neophytes to stand against him, this time, albeit, with the help of plentiful apostle figures.  We are indeed in the midst of a battle. Not a battle against mere flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities that are so pan-dimensional that they can barely be named at all.  The Jewish and Christian traditions name such powers variously as the devil, the Evil one, the demonic, the Father of Lies, Satan, Beelzebub. But these are names which can never entirely capture or domesticate what is really at work: evil, entropy, destruction, all that would make for death and meaninglessness and nothingness.

How does one battle such a slippery enemy? What resources can the people of God draw upon? Well, the writer to the Ephesians is no more prosaic in prescribing an antidote for evil than he is in naming evil itself.  Invoking the metaphor of a warrior, the Apostle encourages the people of God to don the full armour of God, including a ‘belt of truth’, a ‘breastplate of justice’, and ‘sandals of peace’, as well as ‘shield of faith’, a ‘helmet of salvation’ and ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. Of course, we should never take these images literally, that is, prosaically. We should never make the mistake of thinking that the Christian is a soldier who fights the enemy as the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ fought Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.  If we make that mistake then we have missed the point of the struggle in the same way that many mistake the point of ‘jihad’ in the Qur’an.  Christians and Muslims alike do not battle flesh and blood, strong or weak bodies, we battle evil in all its guises - whether those guises be hunger, addiction and self-loathing or systemic injustice, the culture of economic rationalism or the totalising power of the rich.  And the weapons we use are not weapons that kill, they are weapons that bring life: weapons that are really elements of a vision, a grand story, about the desire of God to transform the world into a place where truth, justice and healing are realities for everyone and everything.

Another way to talk about all this is suggested by the passage we read from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus completes his long sermon about bread and wine with the words ‘The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’.  Like the writer of Ephesians, John is here seeking to distinguish between literal or prosaic readings of the world, and those inspired by the more poetic renderings of faith.  As we have been learning in the last few weeks as we have together pondered the meaning of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, it is a merely ‘fleshly’ reading that concludes that Jesus wants only to feed the ordinarily hungry and the ordinarily thirsty.  On the contrary, what John has been helping us to understand is that Jesus himself is the ‘bread’ and the ‘wine’ that we need. He is the heavenly bread and wine which God has sent to satiate that longing in us for a form of life that truly at peace with both God and ourselves, a form of life the gospel calls, simply, ‘eternal’ life.  This is ‘spiritual’ reading of the events the gospel describes, a rendering of the feeding by the sea of Tiberius that in very real ways gave birth in the church to our celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the ‘spiritual’ poetics of John, which he contrasts with more ‘fleshly’ readings, we have come to see that the bread and wine we share at the Supper is far more than bread and wine.  Together, the bread and wine are the Word make flesh, Jesus himself, who by our eating and drinking takes up residence not only in our bodies, but also in our minds and hearts.  By eating and drinking in this manner, with the eyes of faith wide open, John teaches us to learn a new way of reading the world and to take this poetics to ourselves as the only language that is able to give us life.  ‘Learn of Jesus in prayer’, says John. ‘Approach the table in prayer and see there the word of God made flesh in Jesus, who is able to inhabit your life by faith and give you hope and a future, despite what the cynics, the politicians and the journalists might say. Learn of Jesus in the operatic ritual of the Eucharist and learn to give thanks for God’s victory over all that would make for death, for darkness, for injustice or despair.’

So, if you got lost in all of that, don’t worry. Here comes the summary. How do we recognise evil? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we discern the difference between right and wrong? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we fight the darts cast our way by the evil one? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts? How do we take Christ’s wisdom into our hearts? By prayer, by the reading of the Scriptures in a spirit of prayer, and by participation in the supper that celebrates his mysteries.

I close with a prayer by Leonard Cohen, a Jew who knows the poetics of the Christian faith better than many Christians that I know. Here he throws himself upon the mercy of God, as we all must if we are to find our way through the sufferings of this life to the life of resurrection that Christ promises.
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I've forgotten I don't know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
This homily was first preached at Monash Uniting Church in August 2015.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The blessed martyrs

Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
In the story we heard this morning from Mark’s gospel, we learn that John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed because he spoke up against the law of a powerful family in the name of the law of God.  Herod, the Roman-appointed governor of Galilee, had ‘married’ Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, even though she was still married to Philip.  The priests and rabbis apparently tolerated this situation because they were afraid of Herod’s power.  But John did not.  Presumably he believed that officials who sat in the place of David in Israel had a special responsibility to set an example for others.  In the prophetic tradition to which John belonged, the king was also the pastor or shepherd of the people.  It was therefore intolerable that any heir of David should publicly bless and normalise any behaviour that trampled the love of both God and neighbour underfoot.  John clearly made these observations in the public arena and, having suffered imprisonment for some time, was finally executed for his trouble.
Although Stephen is properly regarded as the first Christian martyr, John the Baptist can be regarded as the prototype of Christian martyrs in that (1) his essential calling was to be a witness to the coming of the Christ, God’s anointed king; (2) he lived that calling out by loudly proclaiming the difference between the values of the messianic kingdom and the values of the socio-political reality in which he lived; and (3) he was executed for his trouble.  This is what Christian martyrs have done ever since, have they not?  Think of the famous martyrs of the ancient world, whose essential crime was a refusal to put aside the Lordship of the Christ for the sake of keeping things nice with the Empire.  Think of modern martyrs like Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonheoffer, who did not consider themselves free to tolerate the oppressive power of Military juntas or Nazi Führers because of their Christian responsibility to love God and neighbour before even their own safety and survival.  Think of the less famous martyrs of the Philippines or of West Papua, humble pastors and church leaders who dared to confront the murderous greed of their governments in the name of God’s love for the poor.  These many lost their lives not because they were careless or suicidal, but because they felt compelled to bear witness to the faith, hope and universal love that had been revealed to them in Jesus Christ.
It is perhaps difficult for we distracted occupants of the world’s ‘most liveable city’ to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of the martyrs.  For the martyrs believe in God’s blessing so powerfully that they are willing to entrust themselves to that blessing even to the point of death.  They believe, with the writer to the Ephesians, that they are destined to received all that God has promised in Jesus, a share in that great company whose sins and failures are forgiven, a share in the inheritance that the gospels describe as the kingdom of God.  We, on the other hand, are so regularly unsure of God’s blessing that our faith stumbles at the first hurdle.  How can God be God, we ask ourselves, when so many of God’s people live as though God didn’t really matter?  How can God be God when the world is so full of pain and evil?
With thoughts like these we display our lack of genuinely Christian faith.  For we are not called to believe in the church or its self-made righteousness.  We are called to believe in the righteousness of God in Christ, and in his infinite mercy towards all who place their trust in him.  Nor are we called to believe in the evils of the world, as though they had some kind of substance of their own.  We are called to believe in the God who, in Christ, has disarmed the powers and led them captive in his train.  In Christ the powers are revealed for what they are:  hollow nothings which have no more substance than the fear and awe of those who are taken in by their lies. In that light, we are then called to be part of the antidote of God would apply towards everything that is evil, a people of compassion who love our neighbours genuinely, offering care and shelter in the midst of whatever has befallen them.
So let us examine our lives and our faith in the light of the martyrs, their lives and their deaths.  For the martyrs are simply what we are all of us called to be:  ordinary people who trust themselves, absolutely, to an extraordinary God.  Make no mistake, the martyrs do not possess anything that you and I have not already received in baptism.  They have no super-human strength to withstand the darts of the evil one.  The martyrs are tempted in every way, like us, and their biographies are often littered with many failures along the way.  Yet the martyrs, like all the baptised, experience the call to cling not to their own works of righteousness, but to God, and to proclaim this mercy from God before the cruelty of powerful men.  For them, a time came to answer that call even to the point of endangering their lives.  In such a situation, every baptised Christian is forced to choose who they really believe in.  Do I believe in myself, and in the fears and anxieties that flood my body?  Or do I believe in the God of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen that my fears and anxieties, and even my death, may not have the final word?
We are fast coming to a time when even Australian Christians – who, for generations, have taken their freedom for granted  - may also be asked these kinds of questions.  With a government like ours – which so clearly despises God’s little ones who suffer because of persecution, poverty or illness - anything is possible.  The questions are certainly asked as we approach that time when our fragile bodies are no longer able to go on, and death suddenly becomes a reality we can no longer avoid.  But the questions are also asked in the midst of our lives, at the noonday of our powers.  I hear God asking these questions of me, every time I become obsessed with my own survival or success, every time I am tempted to worship at the idols of public opinion or economic aggrandisement, every time I am tempted to spurn the needs of another in order to sure up my own future.  When God comes to ask such questions of your own life, how will you respond?  Will you respond with the faith declared at your baptism, a faith in the love and mercy of God beyond even death?  Or will you cling, ever more tenaciously, to the shadows and illusions of the propagandists who dominate our meda?  That is the question for this day and this moment.  Think on the witness of the martyrs.  How will you respond?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

'I lay down my life' - ANZAC 2015

Texts:  1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

How sweet and honourable it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.

So wrote the Roman poet Horace in his Third Ode.  And if you visit the chapel at the Royal Sandhurst Military Academy at Berkshire in the UK, you will find the first line of Horace’s poem inscribed on the wall there, in the original Latin: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This concise epithet has been trotted out to justify the deployment of every soldier in every major conflict involving European nations since Horace became the apologist of Roman imperialism in the first century BCE. It is an epithet that was deployed liberally in both the recruitment and conscription of soldiers for Britain in the Great War of 1914-18. It is an epithet that makes it very clear what a soldier’s life is ultimately about: the service of the nation and its interests, even unto death.

As a Christian, I am obviously deeply uncomfortable with any view of the world that elevates allegiance to the nation above allegiance to Christ.  In the ancient Roman empire, whose ideology Horace helped to both form and express, many thousands of Christians were martyred precisely because they refused to so worship the Roman state. The ancient Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ has its origin in precisely this repudiation. If Jesus is ‘Lord’, if it is Jesus and his kingdom of peace to whom we owe our very lives, then there is no other power in heaven or on earth to whom we can legitimately bend the knee in service.  Especially if such service involves a repudiation of the fundamental Christian conviction: that the God who loves and forgives every sinner calls such sinners to love and forgive one another, even and especially those whom the state may designate our enemies.

The writings of John are very clear on this point.  If we have any claim to the Spirit of Christ, if we are to claim that Christ genuinely abides with us, then our behaviour must be consistent with what we know of Christ’s own way.  Because Christ our shepherd laid down his life for us – we who are least deserving, we who are spiritually impoverished – so we are called to lay down our lives in loving service. Not for emperor, state or tribe, but for everyone who, like ourselves, lives in poverty – whether a poverty of spirit or a poverty of material wellbeing.  For what ultimately motivates the follower of Christ is not the will to power and the maintenance of power – the will at the heart of every form of tribal nationalism – but the emptying out of any such power in the name of loving the last and the least.  And let’s face it – the last and the least for every single one of us is not our friends – those with whom we have most in common – but our ‘enemies’, those whom we regard as furthest away from our preferred way of life and of living, those who draw out of us our most self-righteous rage.

The idea – endlessly invoked in the two world wars - that a Christian can fight for ‘God, king and country’ must therefore be subjected to the most careful theological suspicion.  Fighting for God is, for Christians, simply a contradiction in terms: at best, the Christian is called to fight, with Christ himself, against any tendency to judge or condemn our fellow human beings rather than to love them.  And while Christians are certainly not republicans, nor can we serve the kings and chieftans of any tribe, nation or state. For the very notion of the tribe, the nation and the state contradicts the vision of a universal commonwealth of peace with justice, which Jesus proclaimed to us under the name of the ‘reign’ or ‘kingdom’ of God.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, laid down his life for that vision. He sacrificed himself for the sins of the nations so that they would never have need, again, to take up arms against one another. How quickly ‘Christian’ Europe forgot Christ’s legacy! How quickly the pride of nations reasserted itself! Forgetting Jesus’ sacrifice -  in the first and second world wars, certainly, but also in the many other wars that followed them – nations have instead chosen to sacrifice their young people on the blood-red altars of national pride.

I’d like to conclude today’s sermon with a poem written by Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of the poets of the First World War.  An English soldier, he served in France and was ultimately killed on the front line in November 1918, just one week before the armistice that ended the war.  His reflections remain for us a permanent reminder of war’s absurdity.  I read it now as an act of grief and of mourning for all who have been sacrificed on the altar of state.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

I am myself

Texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36-48 

When, in Luke’s version of the story, the risen Jesus first appears to his closest friends and companions, they are not entirely convinced that he is Jesus, the man they had known and loved. At first they think he is a ghost, some kind of other-worldly apparition who has come to harm them. They start to believe only after Jesus has said, ‘Look, I am not a ghost, I am myself’ and invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and his feet. A few moments later he eats some fish in the presence, again to show that he is himself, ‘in the flesh’ as it were. This story, and the one before it about the encounter on the road to Emmaus, have always intrigued me. Not because of their apparently miraculous elements (I have never really struggled with the idea that the God who created the universe can also alter its rules) but because they model for us that rather paradoxical process by which Christian selves become yet more themselves by dying to themselves. So, that is what I should like to talk about this morning: becoming who you are by letting go of who you are in order to become a new self that is like the risen Christ.

According to Luke’s story, Jesus was not always himself. Which is not to say that he was not recognisable as himself. His name was Jesus, he was a son to his mother and a brother to his siblings. He grew up in Nazareth and learned a trade, which he then used to support his family. Everyone who knew him over a period of years could have identified him as himself, even if they had not seen him for some time. Even after his baptism by John in the Jordan, even after Jesus left his home town in pursuit of a new and dangerous vocation, Jesus was recognisably Jesus. And yet. And yet Jesus had not yet become entirely himself. Even at the point of his death on the cross, Jesus was not yet what God had promised he would be. He was not yet the risen one, who could shake off the power of sin, evil and death. He was not yet the new kind of human being that the disciples encounter in our story: a flesh and blood person who could nevertheless appear and disappear as though he were no longer subject to the limitations of time and space. For much of Luke’s story, then, Jesus is not yet himself in the sense of having become who God had destined him to be.

Crucially, in the story, Jesus is only able to become truly himself by letting go of a whole heap of cherished dreams about his future, some originating in his own imagination, and some in the imagination of others. His mother, being a Jewish mother, probably hoped that Jesus would become a successful merchant or, even better, perhaps a lawyer or rabbi. She, and he, had to let go off such dreams. His friends and companions hoped that Jesus would become a political leader, a leader who could oust the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel. They, and he, had to let go of that plan. And from the story of the garden of Gethsemane, we can surmise that Jesus himself would really have preferred to live rather than to die, to retire quietly to some regional small business perhaps, rather than to suffer the wrath of the Jewish Council. Yet, in the end, he makes a crucial decision which makes all the difference. ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ he says. He says that to God, his Father. And by that decision he lets go of his own hopes and dreams in favour of his Father’s hopes and dreams, which ultimately enables God to complete the process of his becoming. By this death, Jesus becomes the Christ, the one anointed by God to bring a new kind of life in the world, a life so new that most of us still have trouble coming to terms with what it all means.

But that is how it is for all of us, as well. We shall never be truly ourselves until we are able to let go of ourselves—the usual hopes and dreams planted in us by family, friends, and culture—grasping, instead, the self that God wills and promises for us, the self that is Christ. The Christ-self, as the First Letter of John tells us, is ‘righteous’. Not ‘righteous’ in the sense of a self-interested hiding away from the rest of the world or a sitting in judgement upon it. No, the Christ-self is righteous in the sense that Jesus was ‘righteous’—an engaged embodiment of the mercy of God, a tough kind of love that is centred on other people and refuses to simply abandon them to the powers of death, despair or banality. According to John, we shall never be entirely ourselves until we are like the risen Christ, the new human being, the revelation of what God intends for humanity in general. ‘When he appears,’ says John’ we shall be like him’. This is God’s promise, but like all God’s promises, it is not a promise that can be fulfilled apart from the choices we make. God created us for freedom. To become who we are, we must choose the path that Christ would choose.

Ego eimi autos . . . I am myself. That is what the risen Christ said to his disciples. And we shall only be able to say that ourselves if we are prepared to do what Jesus did, to take our baptism into his death seriously as a very real dying and a rising. We shall be ourselves when, by faith, we have allowed Christ to take away the fear of what others may think, and the desire to conform to all that is conventional or common-sense. We shall be ourselves when we are prepared to risk both security and sense for the sake of a gospel of outrageous love. We shall be ourselves when we stop believing that there is nothing we can do to transform this crazy world of economic and scientific rationalism. We shall be ourselves when prayer has become a more familiar habit that watching TV or surfing the internet. We shall be ourselves when we are able to attend to the needs of others (‘needs’, note that, not ‘wants’), even if that means putting aside what we think we might need for ourselves. We shall be ourselves when we are able to surrender ourselves to Christ and say ‘not my will, but yours’. Now, I am very aware of not yet being myself. And you, I know, are aware of it too. But in faith I believe that Christ will complete the work that he began when I was baptised. He will do it for you to. If only you, and I, will surrender. If only you, and I, will let go.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley.