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Sunday 29 January 2012

The Authority of Love

Text:  Deuteronomy 18. 15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8. 1-13; Mark 1. 21-28

According to Mark’s gospel, when Jesus began to preach in Galilee the local people were astonished at the authority with which he delivered his teaching.  They made a particular point of contrasting the authority of Jesus with that of the scribes, who were the official theologians of Judaism at the time.  Now the scribes were not stupid or ignorant men.  On the contrary, they were very well educated; and literate not only in the theology of their own faith, but also with regard to the Greco-Roman culture in which they lived their daily lives.  They knew the philosophers, they knew their history, they knew their politics.  Consequently, they could always be counted on to say something intelligent about being a Jew in the first century.  But for all their study, and all their knowledge of the faith, it seems that the ordinary people of Galilee were not particularly impressed when the scribes opened their mouths.  Somehow their words lacked the authority which they now discerned in the message of Jesus.

So what is this authority thing, anyway?  How does one person have it and another not?  Well, in the Greek of the Mark’s text, authority is a kind of power.  It is a power which is given to one person by others - because they see in that one person, Jesus in this case, a distinguishing integrity between who that person is what that person does.  Let me tell you a story.

Beginning in the 1930s, someone began writing the word ‘Eternity’, in perfect copperplate script, all over the footpaths of inner Sydney.  For a great many years, nobody knew who was doing it.  The word simply appeared.   People saw the word unexpectedly, as they stepped off their trains in the morning, or as they left a coffee-shop, or a business meeting.  Everyone wondered what the word meant.  And, in wondering, many considered questions concerning the meaning of life, questions they had never given their attention before.  After many years, the identity of the author was revealed.  His name was Arthur Stace, who worked as a cleaner at the Red Cross.  His story was compelling.  Stace grew up in squalid poverty, sheltering under other people’s houses and stealing food from their doorsteps.  His sisters were prostitutes and his father an alcoholic.  For many years Arthur himself had wandered the streets of Sydney in a drunken stupor.  But one night he staggered into a men’s meeting at the Church of St. Barnabas in Paddington.  And there he heard a sermon about eternity.  It changed his life.  From that moment he gave up the grog, because he felt that God had called him to a special task.  To write the word Eternity.  And that is what he did for the next forty years. 

TODAY, in Sydney, Arthur Stace is a legend.  He name commands great respect from people at every eschalon of society.  His one-word sermon was traced onto the harbour bridge in lights at the close of the new year’s fireworks display at the turn of the century.  And the city of Sydney has inscribed the word permanently onto the footpath of Martin Place.  Why?  Because people can see that there was an integrity between who Martin Stace was and the message he proclaimed.  He was a simple, uneducated man who was saved from dereliction by his hearing a single word.  Eternity.  And he dedicated his life to placing that single word before others.  Not in a pushy way.  Not in a preachy way.  But in the way of a simple, uneducated man who knows, from the depths of his own life, what Eternity means. 

Authority, you see, comes from deep within a person’s life.  It comes from their experience of an encounter with Jesus Christ, and from the integrity Christ creates in them between who they are and what they do and say.  This is the kind of authority which the people of Capernaum saw in Jesus.  Here was one who acted and spoke not as one who had no personal experience of the promise he proclaimed.  He spoke not theoretically, but existentially.  He spoke about God and about life as he knew them to be in his own life and experience.  The people of Galilee saw that, and so they listened as to one who speaks with the authority that comes from integrity.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he upbraids them for mis-locating their authority in mere head-knowledge.  These were people who believed that it was the complexity of their theology which would save both themselves and their hearers.  But this is not the case, says Paul.  What empowers our lives is not what we know, but how we love:

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him . . .

Paul’s point is this.  If you love God, then you will love other people.  You will build them up and support them at that point in their lives where they need support.  Why?  Because that is what God does in loving us!  And it is only out of that experience of being loved by God, most usually at a point when other loves fail, that we gain the authority to act with love in the lives of others.

If Paul is right, friends, then we have no authority as Christians to tell others how it should be for them.  Because we don’t actually know how it is for others, or should be, not at least with any degree of certainty!  Our only authority is that which comes from our particular experience of being known and loved by God.  In that authority we are called to love and support and serve, and to bear witness to God’s love in our lives.  But no more.  Beyond that we have no authority.  Beyond that we are pretending.  And people see through that.

Thomas Merton wrote that the point of our Christian journey is not to know God in the abstract – in general, as it were - but to love God with our entire beings - even as God loves us, and knows us by that loving even more than we can ever know ourselves!  People of God, because God loves you, and because you have known that love in your life and experience, you now have the authority to love other people.  That is your calling, that is your vocation as God’s children.  That is your special dignity in life.  It is no more than that.  But it is no less either.

Sunday 22 January 2012

The kingdom of God is near!

Texts:  Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.5-12; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20 
After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ 
These words represent Mark’s summary of Jesus’ ministry.  They are his shorthand way of summing up the whole of Jesus’ purpose and ministry in that obscure 1st century province of Rome known as Galilee.  This morning I should like to dwell for a moment on how these words might change things.  How did they change the world of Jesus’ first hearers?  How did they change the world of Mark, as he repeats them to his small, fragile, congregation around the time when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans?  And finally, how might these words change things even for us today?

So,  let’s first ask how the coming of Jesus into Galilee changed things.  That things did change, and pretty radically, is clear from the passage we read about the calling of the first disciples.  There must have been something very compelling about this young Rabbi, Jesus, something very compelling indeed!  For it was a very big deal in that time, and in that society, for young men in the prime of their working lives to leave the family business and follow a religious teacher about the countryside.  When Simon and Andrew, and James and John, leave their boats and their nets they also leave what most of their contemporaries would have regarded as their most basic obligation in life—to care for their families and assure their survival in the world.  So even though there was a precedent, in Jewish faith and story, for people to do such things, by the time of Jesus such actions were regarded as irresponsible and even immoral.  So, things changed immediately for these families when Jesus came by.  ‘Follow me,’ he said to their menfolk.  That they did so would have had an immediate impact, socially and economically. 

But we must ask ‘Why?  Why would these men in the prime of their working lives risk both their fortunes and the disapproval of their peers like that?’  According to Mark, it had rather a lot to do with who Jesus was, and the message he brought with him.  From the beginning of his gospel, Mark leaves us in no doubt that Jesus in the Messiah, the one anointed by God to set Israel free from its bondage to decay.  He comes, then, as the bearer of good news and the advance glory of the kingdom of God.  Jesus, according to Mark, is a sign in dark times that God has heard the cries of his people’s distress, and will soon put right all that has gone wrong in the world.  All that follows in the gospel confirms this reading.  By his healings, his exorcisms, by the miraculous feedings and his sacrificial death for the sins of the people, and finally by his resurrection, Jesus shows everyone that God has indeed come near to save them.  Jesus himself is that nearness.  He is the human face of God, God with his people in the form of his Son. 

So that is why the fisherman abandon themselves, all that they are worth, to follow him.  That is why they repent of the way of life they had lived up until they met Jesus; that is why they believe in the good news that he bears; that is why they leave their nets and follow him, all the way to Jerusalem and the tragedy that unfolds there.  Because in Jesus they see that God is both near them and for them, turning the world upside down for the sake of the poor, the downtrodden and for all who had become lost in the lust for wealth and power.  In Jesus they saw a light to illumine a very cruel and dark world.

And yet, as Mark is recounting all this for his congregation, the world does not feel like it has changed much at all.  In fact, for Mark’s congregation, it is difficult to see that the coming of Jesus has made any difference whatsoever.  For they are a small and fragile group of Jewish Christians who fled from Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.  It is likely that they lost their homes and their livelihoods.  It is also likely that many of their number were killed.  So now, as Mark tells his story, they are overcome with grief for what has been lost, and are full of uncertainty about the future.  Where, they ask, is Jesus now?  For there is little sign of his presence and power anywhere.

Mark’s gospel can be seen as an extended sermon, a sermon in the form of a story of narrative, which has been specifically designed to answer his community’s questions and suggest a way forward.  In answer to the question ‘Why has God suffered us to lose so much by the hand of our enemies?’ Mark answers:  ‘You are followers of Jesus.  Jesus did not shrink even from death at the hands of his enemies.  You have lost almost everything, some even their lives, but you have not lost all.  You have not lost God, the only source of life and health and happiness.’  For Mark answered the related question of where Christ had gone in this way:  ‘In Jesus the reign of God came near, but it has not yet arrived.  Yet, we carry the promise of that coming with us—in the memory of Christ and his teaching, in the values we live by in our community, and in the ritual of the Eucharist, by which we believe Christ continues to feed us for the pilgrimage of faith.  So let us recall, dear brothers and sisters, that while Christ has not yet come in all the fullness of his kingdom, he has yet given us a portion of his Spirit to sustain us.  Christ is with us, thenBut not in a form that we can possess and manipulate for our own pragmatic ends.  He is with us as his resurrected self:  the promise of a future that is gift, not possession.’  And finally, in answer, to the question about what they should do now, Mark says this:  ‘My beloved people, let us go to Galilee where Christ once walked amongst us.  Let us establish ourselves there as refugees and start to rebuild our lives.  But let us do so after the pattern of the community that Christ formed with his disciples.  Let us believe that the risen Christ will do so again, let us ask him to so form our community in the values of the kingdom that we, ourselves, will become a light for the world, even as Jesus was.  So then, let us become Christ’s body, in whom the very Spirit of Christ is at work.  Let us make repentance, faith and the following of Christ our life’s work and vocation.’  With these, any many other words, Mark encouraged his fragile community.

But now we must turn to what difference all this might make to our own lives, our own world, if any.  For we are not fishermen by the sea of Galilee, and we are not (at least not in this particular congregation) a community of refugees.  Still, we are a Christian community.  By our baptism, the risen Christ melded us into himself, into his life, his death, and his resurrection, that we might no longer live the futile life of those who imagine they can live without God.  We are called to pursue, instead, the risen life of Christ, and to do it communally, in concert with the sisters and brothers God has given us in faith.  In this community at Boronia, we are called to be so possessed by the Spirit of Christ, so vulnerable to his work in us, that his life and vitality becomes evident to all, overflowing with compassion, giving and thanksgiving. We are called, in short, to become 'fishers of people', witnesses to the freedom Christ brings in our families and communities. So, you see, the call of Jesus to those first disciples was not only for them.  Nor was it only for Mark’s little community.  It is also for us.  We, too, are called by Jesus to repent, to believe in the good news of God’s deliverance, and to follow Christ in all his ways.

To repent means to let go of anything in your life that gets in the way of your devotion to Christ.  When Paul tells the Corinthians to live as though their present circumstances were of little account, he does so believing that their devotion to comfort and convenience is misguided.  He does so believing that their present circumstances are not absolute, are not God, and are therefore passing away into nothingness.  What matters, he says to them and to us, is the coming kingdom and its ways.  For it is the kingdom, and not our present comfort or convenience, that is permanent.  So live according to the kingdom and its values, live as though the kingdom was already here, in all its fullness.  Repent of all that prevents you from doing so, put it aside in favour of your faith in the coming kingdom, where the rich will no longer be rich and the poor will no longer be poor.  For the kingdom comes not to destroy us utterly, not to take away all that is of lasting value or significance.  On the contrary, the kingdom is the arrival of God’s deliverance.  It comes to restore our lost equilibrium and peace.  It comes to resuscitate our flagging spirits, sucked dry, as they are, by the vanity of the present world system. 

And if you are unsure about how to go about all this, if you feel so entangled in your present circumstances that you can see no way out, take heed of Christ’s call to the disciples, “Follow me.”  To follow Christ is to learn his story and his ways, and order your life to imitate or ‘echo’ his.  In the early church, people were taught how to do this when they were preparing for baptism.  Our own Uniting Church, however, has tended to assume that people will learn the way of Christ my osmosis, or by some mysterious appearing of such things in the brain.  No matter.  If you want to respond to Christ’s call, you can.  Christ calls you whether you are young or old, healthy or ill, bright or (how should I put it), a few pennies short of a full quid.  What is important in following him, you see, is not your own capacities, but his.  ‘When Christ calls us,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he calls us to die.’  To die to our own plans and to live by his; to die to our own powers, and live by his; to die to our own pattern of life, and live as though the free gift of the kingdom were all that really mattered.

And so I conclude where I always conclude.  What will you do with this call from Christ?  Will you respond with your whole heart and soul and strength, or will you hedge your bets? 

Sunday 15 January 2012

The call to prayer

Texts:  1 Sam 3.1-10; Psalm 139; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51

Although it is the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year cycle of the lectionary, between now and Easter we can expect to read quite a lot from the gospel of John.  The reason for this both historical and spiritual.  Historically, the period between Epiphany and Easter, including Lent, arose out of the 2nd century church’s approach to baptism.  In the early church it was predominantly adults who were baptised, and these adults were only called to baptism after a long period of study and spiritual practise known as the ‘catechumenate’.  The catechumenate was so named because of its root meaning in the Greek word ‘echo’, for the purpose of the catechumenate was to teach enquirers how to imitate or ‘echo’ the faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ.  The period between Epiphany and Easter became particularly important as the final stage in this pilgrimage of formation.  Here the catechumens would consolidate both their theology and their spiritual practise, with a particular focus on prayer and worship as the place where ‘right belief’ and ‘right practise’ communicated with each other.  The gospel of John was often used as the main textbook for this endeavour because of its strong insistence on the need for Christians to live in an intimate communion with God in Christ, a communion that I will today call ‘prayer’.  So let’s now turn to John’s writing to see what we may learn about these things.

 In the passage we read a moment ago, Jesus issues the well-known call to discipleship, ‘Follow me’.  The person invited, in this instance, is a fellow named Phillip, a colleague of Andrew and Peter, who were already followers of Jesus.  The text tells us very little about Phillip, except that, having heard the invitation, he goes straight away to pass on the invitation to his friend Nathaniel.  ‘Come Nathaniel,’ he says, ‘We have found the one that Moses and the prophets wrote about, Jesus Ben-Joseph, who comes from Nazareth’.  Nathaniel, a man ‘without deceit’ we are told, is properly wary of messianic claims (for there were many messianic pretenders in first-century Judah).  ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ he asks, with appropriate scepticism.  ‘Come and see for yourself,’ is Phillip’s reply.

Now, before we go on with the story, I want you to understand that John is not writing as a historian when he tells this story.  John isn’t particularly interested in historical details about when things happened or how.  John is writing, rather, as a theologian, which means that everything he reports as an ‘event’ or ‘happening’ signifies something other than it’s plain, everyday, meaning.  The word ‘see’, for example, does not (in John’s gospel) mean ‘seeing’ with your eyes.  It means wholehearted belief or trust.  We know this because of that wonderful dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in chapter 9, where Jesus accuses them of being spiritually blind.  That meaning is reinforced by Jesus’ words to Thomas in chapter 20.  ‘Blessed are those who have not seen [in the ordinary sense] and yet have come to believe.’  So, to make a long story rather shorter, when Phillip invites Nathaniel to ‘come and see for yourself,’ he is inviting him not simply to meet Jesus and watch what he does, but to go far beyond ordinary sight and believe.  ‘Come, learn to believe and trust Jesus as I do’, says Phillip.  That is the call to every inquirer into our faith, today as much as in the first and second centuries.

But now we get down to brass tacks.  How is it that we learn this faith?  How is it that we move from being interested but wary inquirers to people who believe and trust in Christ without reserve?  Well, let us return to the story.  When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming towards him, we are told, he cries out ‘Now here is an Israelite in which there is no deceit!’, or, to put that into a more contemporary idiom, ‘How wonderful to meet a man who doesn’t pretend to be something that he is not.  How wonderful to meet a man who tells the truth about himself, as well as others’.  Nathaniel is staggered, it seems, that Jesus knows what kind of man he is already, without the benefit of having conversed with him before.  ‘Where did you get to know me?’ he says.  Jesus’ answer is very enigmatic:  ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.’  This is John’s way of saying that Jesus knows the truth of who we are even before we experience the call to know the truth of who he is.  Having discovered that, Nathaniel then makes the most profound confession of faith in the whole of John’s gospel:  ‘Teacher, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!’  Now, my friends, note this please.  Nathaniel does not know who Jesus is simply because he has done his theological study.  He certainly has done his theological study, otherwise he would have neither the language nor conceptual base to name Jesus in the way he does.  Theological understanding is therefore very important.  Still, that is not, in the end, why Nathaniel comes to faith.  He comes to faith, we are told, because he comes to see that Jesus sees him . . .  or, if we take John’s own lexicon seriously, Nathaniel comes to faith because he suddenly knows and believes than Jesus already knows, and believes in, him.  ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’ is Jesus’ rhetorical response?  The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.  That is exactly why Nathaniel believes.

Now, let’s pause for a moment to register the significance of what we have discovered so far.  In answer to the question ‘how is it that we move from being inquirers into the faith to disciples that live the faith?’ John would say this, I think:  by prayer.  Yes, by prayer.  For prayer does not begin with our own faith, you know.  Prayer does not begin because we decide, some day, on the basis of some pre-existing understanding of God, that we believe that God is real.  Prayer does not begin, in other words, with a human search or longing for God.  On the contrary!  According to the story we have read just now, prayer begins with God’s knowing us, warts and all, and with God’s belief in us, or in what we could be if we would only own who we are in God’s sight, rather than in our own.  For Nathaniel, it seems to me, was certainly not a man without deceit when Christ hailed him by the river Jordan that day.  What Christ saw in him, however, was what God sees in all of us—the selves we may become if we die to ourselves and live in the power of Christ, if we cast of the old self in baptism, and rise with Jesus to take on the garment of his faith, hope and love.  Prayer begins, then, not with our own words, but with the Gods word and call to us:  I know you already, I know you by name.  Come with me and I shall make you new.

There is something else we should note about the beginning of prayer however, and it is this.  That the call and voice of God does not come to us apart from the form and timbre of human voices.  John’s gospel was written in part, to discredit such claims.  For his opponents, the Gnostics, believed that God was a disembodied spirit whose voice could be heard directly, as it were, like an echo in the human heart.  No! said John, by way of response.  The word of God has become flesh in Jesus.  His call will always, therefore, come to us via the mediation of the church, that is, in the tone and timbre of people of faith, who call to us with the very voice of Christ.  ‘Come and see’ they say to us, like Phillip in the story.  But this very human call is, in the grace of God, already the call of God which is the beginning of prayer.  That pattern is beautifully illustrated in the story of Samuel, where a strange voice calls Samuel’s name three times, but Samuel does not know it is the Lord until his mentor, the priest Eli, discerns that it is so.  What occurs, in other words, is this:  that the Spirit who calls to us cannot become a personal word of address apart from the faith and discernment of God’s people.  That is why, in the baptismal catechumenate, the inquirer learns to respond to God, to say “Here I am, I am who I am only as I am available for your purposes’ by first learning to discern God’s voice with the help of a mentor, godparent or sponsor, whom the church appoints to direct the candidate’s progress.

The call of Jesus to follow is therefore a call to prayer, first of all.  In prayer we learn to listen for God’s word of personal address, to God’s call on our lives.  In the language of prayer we learn to respond to God, to say with Moses and Samuel and Mary and Jesus, “Here I am . . .  I am who I am, only insofar as I respond to your call.’  That is why disciples of Jesus are still called to be people of prayer.  We cannot honestly claim to be Christians if we do not pray, if we do not give over a significant portion of our day, our week, and our year to a listening for God’s voice and call.  It grieves me that much of the Uniting Church seems to have forgotten this basic discipline, which ancient believers were taught from the very beginnings of their enquiry into faith.  ‘You will never learn to be a Christian, they told inquirers, unless you learn to listen for God in prayer.  Indeed, it is by such listening that you will learn to believe yourself.’

So I say to you today, with all earnestness.  If you do not pray, why not?  It is by prayer that you learn to be a Christian, and it is by prayer that you continue to be a Christian.  How can you know how to live the life of Christ in your own time, place and circumstances, unless you pray?  Praying in public worship is very important, because there you learn how to listen for God’s word with others, and to address God with the words of the church, which is Christ’s community.  Still, weekly prayer is not enough.  Unless such prayer is built into the pattern of our days and our years as well, we shall never learn what God requires of us when we are not at public worship.  By prayer God guides us into the particular path he has ordained for you, and you alone.

So, if you do not pray in this way, please don’t be daunted.  Unfortunately the church has not been good at teaching the basic disciplines of the faith for many years.  We are only just beginning to learn that many of the things we put aside in the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ are actually very important.  So, come, talk to a respected minister or to others in the church who have a daily practise of prayer.  We can show you how to listen for God.  It will change your life, turning it upside down at times.  But it will also sustain your life.  It will make you whole in the joy of Christ.  Come and see for yourself.

Thursday 5 January 2012

In the darkness, a star

Isaiah 60.1-6; Luke 2.28-32; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

The devastating floods in the Philippines in the last three weeks remind me that in January 2004 many of our brothers and sisters in the human family experienced the darkest moments of their lives.  A powerful earthquake off the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia caused a tsunami wave that hit the coasts of many countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean very, very hard.  We are told that more than 200 thousand people lost their lives.  Four million people also faced extreme hardship in the aftermath of the wave.  In the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, dwellings and centres of economic activity were gutted, while public amenities were either destroyed or rendered ineffectual.  At the same time, there were grave concerns for the health of survivors as they face the triple-wammy of depleted food and water supplies, flesh decaying in and near waterways, and a severe lack of medical resources for tending the wounded.  It was very heartening, you will recall, to see that both government and non-government relief efforts swung into action immediately.  What much of that effort never addressed, however, was the emotional and spiritual devastation at the heart of it all.  Can you imagine what it was like for those thousands of  families that lost everything—beloved family members, dwellings, livelihoods?  Can you imagine the overwhelming power of that grief, as it came upon folk like the wave itself, a veritable tsunami of feeling, colour and sensation that threatened absolutely everything taken for granted up until that point?  Maybe, maybe not.  Personally, I struggled.  I have felt grief, who hasn’t?  But how could I possibly assume that my own experience in any way qualified me to understand theirs?

Now, I imagine that for some of you the images on our television screens in 2004, and the more recent images of the floods in the Philippines, give rise to a number of faith questions.  Questions like, ‘how can a good and loving God allow such a disaster to occur?’  Some of you will have noted that the 2004 tsunami was an apparently ‘natural’ disaster, and should therefore be distinguished from those disasters which stem directly from the evil will and actions of human beings.  ‘The holocaust of the 1940s killed a great many more people that this tsunami,’ you may be saying to yourself, ‘but I can come to terms with that because the holocaust was clearly the result of a specifically human action and will.  This tsunami is, however, different.  No human being willed it.  That puts the blame squarely at the feet of God.  If this is God’s world, if God made and sustains it in being, then a so-called ‘natural’ event is really an event that God has either willed or allowed.  Which then raises the question, how could a good and loving God will or allow such terrible suffering?’  Some of you will have looked at such questions before, perhaps in philosophy courses at university.  I remember examining the question for the first time during a religious studies course in grade 12.  Anyone who has done so will know that the question of God’s justice in the face of suffering is not a new one.  It has been discussed for at least two and a half thousand years, perhaps more.  Still, for all that, an event like the 2004 tsunami brought the rather academic question home to many of us in a very existential way.

I do not propose to rehash what the philosophers have said this morning, although I am happy to talk about it all with any of you, at a time that is more conducive to lengthy discussion (I am, as some of you know already, well-trained in philosophy).  For I stand before you today not as a philosopher, but a preacher.  And what the preacher is constrained to do is this:  to address whatever has occurred within our world with a word from the God we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In order to do that, the preacher must begin not with the God of the philosophers, but the God of Scripture, a God who has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, his life and his words.  Furthermore, the preacher is not at liberty to simply choose his or her favourite passage, in order to repeat a comforting mantra for himself or his congregation.  A preacher who pursues his or her craft within the faith and practise of the church catholic must work from the Scriptures of the day as they are set in the lectionary.  What that very often means is that the word of Scripture contradicts both what the congregation would like to hear and what the preacher would have liked to have said, if the matter were left to his or her own wisdom.

So, as we turn to the Scriptures for today what we discover is this:  that God would address the human experience of suffering and disaster with a burning light of hope and a call to have faith.  For what each of the Scripture passages we read have in common is this:  they are all of them, in their literary contexts, addressed to situations which might be described as dark, dismal and despairing.  Isaiah preaches to a people worn out and dispirited by decade upon decade of forced exile in a foreign land, a people who are very often tempted to believe that God does not care for them anymore.  To this defeated and weary people he dares to address a word of contradiction:  “the Lord is rising upon you,” he says, “to make you bright with glory among the nations.  Kings will come to the brightness of your dawning greatness, bringing offerings that befit your greatness.” 

Paul, too, offers a word to contradict how the Ephesians actually feel:  “You may feel small and insignificant in the world, you may feel as though the most powerful rulers and principalities of this world have it all over you, but this is not the case,” he says.  “But you are of great significance,” he says, “for in you the powers who rule the world are being confronted with a mystery they could never have discovered for themselves:  that God is not a tribal warlord, who forever supports one faction against another; no, God is one who plans to reconcile even the most common of enemies in one body through the cross of Jesus, across all the terrible enmities and differences that would otherwise keep them apart.  In the church,” says Paul, “that dream of reconciliation is already taking place:  you are therefore a sign of contradiction in the world.  You make it possible for the world to believe that enemies may become friends, and that peace may become a reality.”  The people feel small, powerless to change their world.  But Paul offers a word to contradict how they feel.  All is not as it seems.

And finally, in the passage from Matthew’s gospel, we read about a star of prophecy that appears in the dark winter of the ancient world’s oppression under the Roman emperor and his agent in the province of Judea, Herod the Great.  The star rises in the East, and is recognised by both Jewish and Oriental sages as a prophecy about Christ: a child born to be king of the Jews, certainly, but also a light who (like the star) reaches into the darkness of the non-Jewish world as well.  In the context of Matthew’s birth stories, in this world torn apart by barbarism and fear, the star is a sign that a redeemer has come who will save not only the Jews, but also the whole world, from its many, many sins.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, says Matthew, and that light is the sign of Emmanuel, that God is with us.

Now, what if we were to believe that these ancient words of prophecy, addressed to these several ancient experiences of despair and hopelessness, were also a word for ourselves today—and especially for everyone affected by tsunami or flood?  What if we were to believe that even death and destruction is finally unable to quench such a word?  What if we were to believe that God is not in fact mad, or on holiday, or evil, but rather is with us in exactly the same way as God was with us in Christ—through his love, copping the very worst of our humanity in order to show that human beings can be a hell of a lot more human than that, that we can be like Christ himself?  Well, if we were to believe such things, and if we were to show our belief by the way that we love, then we would be Christians, imitators of Christ.  And that is what we are in fact called to be this Christmas season, the season of tsunamis and floods, as we are called to be in every other week of our lives: Christians who imitate Christ’s love for a world in trouble and despair. 

So what the Scriptures give us today is not a philosophical answer to a set of questions about the justice of God, but the possibility of a practical faith that actually changes things.  Karl Marx once said that our task is not to understand the world, for that is ultimately impossible, but to change it for the better.  Let me suggest, with Isaiah Berlin, that he learnt that from faith.  Allow me to conclude, then, with a few comments about how a Christian might respond, practically, to what has occurred this last few weeks in the Philippines, or in January 2004 around the rim of the Indian ocean.

First, a Christian would not pretend to understand the grief of the victims.  Their grief is theirs, and our grief is ours.  We should not confuse the two, because doing so can prevent us from really hearing what the victims are saying about their experience and their needs.  Listen to how many times the journalists and anchor-persons at channels nine and seven project their own vision onto that of the victims they are interviewing, thus making it very difficult for the victims to tell their own stories and state their own needs.

Second, Christians respond not as individuals but as a community.  Maggie Thatcher was wrong.  There is such a thing as a society, and it began with the church.  Christianity is an irreducibly communal faith.  We talk together about what is most important.  Out of that talk comes decision and a plan of action.  Then we do it together.  I would welcome a congregation-wide conversation about (a) how we are feeling about what has happened; and (b) how we might respond to what has happened together.  Why not meet this week?

Third, Christians love their neighbours as they love themselves.  The victims of the tsunami and of the Philippines floods, I suggest, might well be our neighbours.  So how might we love them as we love themselves?  Well how about this, for starters.  At Christmas time you all received Christmas gifts that you really didn’t need, and you possibly bought gifts for others that they really didn’t need.  Apparently Australians spent around $22 billion on this strange process of mutual self-enrichment.   I would suggest, then, that each of you consider giving at least as much to your neighbour as you received yourself at Christmas.  For that would be a truly Christian gift, a gift that is given without thought of repayment.  Imagine if every Australian did the same!  That would amount to $22 billion worth of disaster relief each year.

Finally, Christian love is not only about the sharing of resources, it is also about the embodied love of the face-to-face.  In Christ, God faces us and we face God.  In is primarily in the face-to-face of Christ that God is with us.  Perhaps we ought to consider, together, the establishment of a more personal relationship with a local community affected by the floods?  In 2004 many of us did so with Sri Lankan and Indonesian communities.  Perhaps we can now do so via the many Filipino brothers and sisters who worship in our churches.

To conclude, then.  When disasters like these hit, we can allow it to overwhelm our faith, hope and love.  Or we can see it as an opportunity to exercise, in real and practical ways, our faith, hope and love.  What is faith unless there is uncertainly and ambiguity?  What is hope, if all that is hoped for has already come to pass?  And what is love if no-one is in need of it?  Some might see the floods as a sign that God is either dead or wicked.  I myself think differently.  I see it as an opportunity for people of faith to actually exercise their faith.  Perhaps it is only as we do so that the world will once again learn that God is love.  For Christianity is unique amongst the major faiths in this:  that the word of God can only arrive at its purpose by becoming flesh.  The star from the East did not remain a star, you recall, an idea or a prophecy enshrined in the heavens.  It waned to give way to a child, a child who grew to become the human face of a loving and suffering God.

Mark's Baptism of Jesus

Texts: Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Mark 1.4-11

Today the church celebrates baptism within a social and cultural environment where the rite has been largely sanitised of its dangerous and subversive qualities.  In the churches that allow the baptism of infants the rite is all-too-often reduced to a quaint and pleasant little naming ceremony.  Friends and relatives gather in their finery on a bright Sunday morning; the child’s forehead is wetted with a few tiny drops of water while his or her godparents are content to make promises they can neither comprehend nor keep.   In the so-called ‘baptist’ churches, on the other hand, the rite is often reduced to its pre-Christian tribal meanings, i.e. baptism as a rite of passage into responsible adult membership of the tribe or congregation.  Unfortunately, neither of these practices is adequate to the baptism undergone by Jesus, the baptism that is paradigmatic for Christians.  For while the baptisms of the tribe pander to social and anthropological needs, the baptism of Jesus models the rather contra-cultural action of God by which the baptised person is torn away from his or her ‘natural’ tribal roles in favour of a way of life which actually subverts and calls into question the most common paths by which we journey through life.

The confession that makes us genuinely Christian in the sacrament of baptism is infinitely more difficult than the choice to fulfil the symbolic law of tribe, society or culture. For, in theological perspective, the impossible journey towards the joy of salvation goes by no other way than by a rather traumatic encounter with God who was in Christ.  For it is the view of the New Testament we can never become who we truly are apart from the interventions from beyond either self or tribe that we call creation and redemption.  Christian baptism is not, therefore, any easy thing to undertake.  It is not something that everyone can or should do as a matter of course.  Far from it.  If it is genuinely Christian, baptism should be difficult and painful.  For in baptism we admit that it is neither ourselves nor our tribe that gives us life in all its fullness, it is God.

When a human being comes face to face with this truth, there is a breaking down and a loss.  Like the man on death row in Tim Robbins' film Dead Man Walking, who for most of the story protests his innocence and holds himself together by the sheer wilfulness of his fantasy.  And yet, when death is imminent, he can hold himself no longer.  Death comes like a paschal angel and exposes the lie on which his life has been built.  He collapses, he falls apart before our eyes.  There is weeping and a disintegration.  But finally there is the truth, a truth which is finally able to resist and overcomes his fantasy as from somewhere or somebody else (indeed, in and from the face of his prison chaplain), and he claims this truth as his only hope of joy or salvation.

To confess or avow the truth which comes from another, rather than from ourselves alone, is painful in the extreme, for here we touch the raw wound of that founding trauma that most of us spend our whole lives running from.  The founding trauma who is God.  “In the beginning,” says the Book of Genesis, the universe was a void and formless waste.  It was a watery Nothing.  But over this dark Nothingness the Spirit of God brooded, and that Spirit spoke.  “Let there be light!” and there was.  This is a story about the making of the world, certainly, but it is also about the making of the human self.  It tells us that the Self is never itself without the traumatic intervention or presence of another.  The call or voice of this other summons us from the womb-like Nothing of infinite solipsism into the real world of consciousness, inter-dependence and relationship.  Thus, we are called to ourselves by an intervention, a creation, an interrupting trauma that leaves its mark on us forever. 

In this, says Slavoj Žižek, Christianity and psychoanalysis are agreed:  that the first event is the traumatic arrival of another, and that most us spend our lives running away from this event, pretending that we can found ourselves, or make our own salvation.[1]  Ironically, the way to healing is to return to the founding trauma, and find there a God who is irrevocably for us, who longs for and promises our liberation. For those who are baptised, this constitutes a return to the violence of the cross, that sacrifice to end all sacrifices in which is revealed, as René Girard has said, a God who asks for the worship of mercy rather than sacrificial appeasement.[2]  This is not to say that a return to the founding trauma can be accomplished by human beings in and of themselves.  For a trauma is exactly that kind of event that cannot be in/corporated or re/membered.  Yet, and this is the hope and grace of baptism, God is one who makes the return possible from the side of divinity.  In the Spirit, God makes of Christ the saving link between the founding trauma and the event of baptism, so that our baptism ‘into Christ’ becomes a real submersion of the self in the yet more real  selfhood of Christ in his accomplished humanity, the only humanity finally competent to perform the unique mercy of God.  So here, in baptism, the human self is both lost and recovered more wholly than ever before; trauma is transfigured into joy.  Joy, of course, is a vocative language, a language of prayer.  Its primary motivation is neither to constitute the other as a version of the same, nor to reduce the transcendence of the other to a particular appearance.  Joy simply celebrates the always-already-accomplished fact of the other as the salvific centre of itself.

In this, as with the prisoner in Dead Man Walking, we catch a glimpse of the absurdly paradoxical hope inscribed in Christian baptism.  For baptism is not only a letting-go of the fantasy-self, the lie of a self that is its own law and judge, but also the arrival of another self, a truer self given in love by God.  Such arrivals are inscribed everywhere in Mark’s story, literally everywhere.  The river in which Jesus is baptised is the Jordan.  It is the river that, in the memory of Israel, marks their exodus from the land of slavery into the land of promise, their transformation from a loose collection of tribal nomads into a federated nation with a land and a holy vocation given by Yahweh.  The baptism therefore recalls that God is one who liberates, who takes a broken people to his breast and gives them both a new name, and a new purpose.  Note, also, that the baptism of Jesus is placed by Mark alongside a memory of the exile in Babylon.  Isaiah interpreted that event as an intervention by God to change the people’s hearts.  The city’s nobles had become obsessed with their own power and prestige.  They had forgotten the claims of charity and mercy, and so God destroyed the city.  In that context, the baptism of Jesus can be read as a renewal of the work of God in human society:  after destruction and exile comes forgiveness and a new covenant, the advent of a new relationship between God and the people of God’s affection.

Still, the most potent trace of joy’s arrival, in Mark’s story, is when the heavens are ripped open as Jesus comes out of the water, and the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove.  Again, one does not necessarily understand these symbols unless one knows the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  There one reads of a God who dwells in a holy of holies, an ark that is placed behind a curtain in the innermost chamber of the temple.  Only the High Priest, or some specially appointed leader like Moses, may approach God there, and usually only once per year at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  To my mind, the theatre of these Jewish rituals is about the irreducible otherness of God, the danger of assuming too close a familiarity with God.  God is in heaven, hidden behind a veil that we may not open from our side.  Yet, here in the baptism of Jesus, the veil that separates God from ourselves is not simply put aside, but ripped to pieces.  Furthermore, it is done by God, from God’s ‘side,’ if you like.  In the Spirit, God actually leaves the holy of holies in heaven, and comes to dwell within the heart and spirit of one who is not simply a prophet, but a Son, a beloved one.  No longer is God to be understood as the other beyond us, beyond our being in the heavens.  From now on God is to be understood as the other who is Christ, a human being who walks amongst us, who speaks our language, who shows us what God is like as a child reveals the form and character of his or her parent. 

To put all this another way, what Mark proclaims about what happened to Christ is also something that may happen to all of us.  After the collapse and breakdown of the false self that is part of a genuinely baptismal avowal, God promises to come to us with the gift of a new self: a self forged within by the cruciform activity of the Spirit who was in Christ and now bears, forever, Christ’s form and character.  In the Spirit, Christ himself comes to us as the love and vitality that empowers us to put off the old and embrace the gift of the new and truer self.  Paul said it perfectly in Galatians:  ‘Now I live, and yet not I; it is Christ who lives within me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (2.20).

To conclude, then, Mark’s story confronts the common-place understanding and practice of baptism in two ways.  First, it tells us that there is no such thing as a Christian baptism without the hard and soul-destroying work of confession and repentance.  In the first centuries of the Christian church, this was taken very seriously.  Several years were given over to the catechumal learning of the faith.  Through a process of action and reflection, the catechumens wrestled against the demons of both self and tribe; and they did so in the power of a newly arriving self, symbolised for them in the mentor or sponsor who was, themselves, a figure of Christ.  Second, the story tells us that baptism will bear its human fruit not because of our own will or determination, but because God is faithful.  The Father sends the Spirit, the Spirit of his son Jesus, to hollow out the old self from the inside out, and replace it with a selfhood of God’s own making and design.  In this sense, baptism is not simply about the ceremonial occasion itself.  It is rather a parable and a ritual performance of the Christian life as a whole:  a calling and a pledge to leave the false self behind, and to wrestle always to find the truth about things which is God’s gift to everyone who asks for it. 

Baptism, then, is a destroying and a building.  It is the Christian life.  It is a promise from God that may only be received and performed by means of a human promising: to walk the way of the cross by which trauma is transfigured into joy.

[1] Žižek, On Belief , p. 47.
[2] René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (London/New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 210.