A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 16 February 2014:
This morning’s readings (Deuteronomy 10.12-22, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-9) invite us to make our home in God, and to be built by God into a living temple to his glory. They tell us that when we are united in spirit and witness, God will build us up and sustain us. They set before us the vision of a world changed for good where we work together with a common purpose to bring God’s transforming love to others.
Our first lesson from the book Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 10.12-22), takes us back to the extraordinary day on which the people of Israel reaffirmed their covenant with God; in the vast deserts between Egypt and the Promised Land, at the foot of the mountain of God. A day on which thick darkness covered the earth, a day of ‘thunder and lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet’ that shook the earth (Ex. 19.16). It takes us to the moment where God pledged himself anew to his people, promised them to be their God; if they will be his people, if they will receive and treasure the law he commanded Moses to carve on two Tablets. A few verses before our first lesson commences, God entrusts Moses with the signs of this new covenant—the law that his people had rejected when they turned to the worship of a golden idol, and the wooden Ark of the Covenant in which the new, the ‘other’ law that lent its name to the book Deuteronomy, would be housed (Deuteronomy 10.1-5).
Both, the Tablets and the Ark, are symbols of God’s abiding presence with his people. Where the law defended the community of the people of Israel; provided ‘decrees …for your own wellbeing’ and their communion with God (Deuteronomy 10.13); the ark defended the people against their enemies, divided the waters of the river Jordan as they crossed over into the Land of Promise, and preceded them in numerous military campaigns. The day of God’s second desert covenant, the day on which God decided once and for all never to destroy his people again was marked indelibly in the hearts of the people of God. In the same way in which God himself inscribed the words of his law on the two new tablets Moses carried onto the mountain of God, now his words are written in the hearts of a nation: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be my people’, we read (Jeremiah 31.33). And when God’s law is inscribed in our hearts, ‘happy are those who keep his laws, who seek God with their whole heart’, our Psalm affirms with genuine joy (Ps. 119.2).
Where our first lesson speaks of that extraordinary day in history when God chose for himself a people whom he would guide and protect, on whom he ‘set his heart in love’ (Deueronomy 10.15), our epistle reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us some practical pointers about how it can be that we, people who live some 3,500 years after the Exodus from Egypt, also can be God’s people. How God can set his heart in love on us; how God can built us up into ‘God’s building’ (1 Cor 3.9). How we can become a home for God, and share that home with others. Our epistle reminds us how it was another on extraordinary day that we have been given the capacity to be and become God’s people; have become ‘God’s servants, working together; his field, his building’ (1 Cor. 3.9). On that day in question, on another mountain outside a city wall, darkness also descended on the world, and the earth shook, just as on the day on which Moses received the visible tokens of God’s covenant. The day on which we received the signs of our covenant with God; the event on which our second lesson bases the confidence that we, today’s people, can be God’s people; can know God’s love, call him our home and, in turn, be ourselves a home for God, is Good Friday.
In today’s epistle reading there is no explicit mention of the cross. But the entirety of first part of the first letter to the Corinthians is underpinned by the open mystery that it is through the cross that we are set free, that we are called into communion with one another and with God. Indeed, only a chapter earlier, Paul affirms, ‘I resolved to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2.1). God’s open mystery is this: the knowledge of the death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, the promise of sin defeated, death destroyed, relationships restored, and peoples and communities transformed.
In our epistle reading Paul only obliquely speaks of this truth when he reminds the Corinthians that we are in a unique position: while the people of God before us have never known the mind of God other than through the external tokens of his covenant—the tablets of the law, the presence of the Ark among them—we know the very mind of Christ: ‘We have the mind of Christ’, Paul tells the Corinthians in the verse immediately preceding our reading (1 Cor 2.16). And exhorts God’s people to make Christ’s mind their own: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil 2.6-8).
The message of the cross is the open mystery at the heart of our epistle; the open mind of God revealed on that other mountain, on that other day when darkness once more descended upon the world, and the earth shook, and God gave his people a new covenant and a new law. And this message is built in stone at the heart of our Cathedral: sun and moon attend the Crucified in the great reredos that shows forth—in costly gold, Venetian glass, coloured marble and lapis-lazuli—the Gospel of the Apostle of the Gentiles. The simple mystery that he chose not to proclaim ‘in lofty words or wisdom’ but only through the proclamation of the knowledge of Jesus Christ crucified (1 Cor 2.1). The knowledge of Jesus Christ crucified is the source of our trust that human divisions can be overcome, and that all people can find, can make, their home in God.
From the cross flowers a garden, Paul tells us at the end of our epistle reading. We ourselves are to be the field of God, are called to bring forth much fruit: ‘for we are God’s servants, working together’ (1 Cor 3.9). Just as in our first lesson, God pledged to be with his people by the physical presence of the Ark of the Covenant, so God pledges to be present among us today where we work together to extend his kingdom, where we enter into the service of God. Each one of us is called to be a servant of God, is called to nurture and tend God’s garden. And in turn, God continually sends other servants to help us plant, and water—servants like Paul, Cephas and Apollos, and many others—to help us nurture God’s people in the assurance that God will remain true to his promise if we remain true to him.
We can show forth the fruits of God’s promise to remain with us forever when we work together to become a Cathedral community that reaches out to those who have yet to hear to this Good News. We can show forth God’s promise of a garden that flowers from the cross when we work together to be a community of transformation, a community that helps others believe and live out the good news we own. I pray that God would richly bless our ministry here at St Paul’s. May God equip this Cathedral—our Chapter, our staff team, our congregations and our many volunteers—with all the needful gifts of grace to trust and make known the knowledge at the heart of the open mystery of our faith revealed to us through the cross. That on one extraordinary day when the sun darkened and the earth shook, God chose a people for himself and gave them a good land to live in, and on another extraordinary day when the sun darkened and the earth shook again God gave all people a new life to live and a garden to nurture.
As we grow together in faith and trust, as a diocese and Cathedral community, may God enable us truly to be and become a spiritual home for our city and diocese. May God continually send us fellow labourers—servants through whom we and others can come to believe God’s news for us—to help tend, water and care for his field, his garden. And may God grant us the gift of unity, so that we may be united in working together in transforming our city and diocese: ‘for we all are God’s servants, working together; we are God’s field, God’s garden, God’s building’ (1 Cor 3.9).
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Eph 3.20).