A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a Cantata Service as part of the Australian Deans’ Conference at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney, on 5 August 2018:
Johann Sebastian Bach, Erschallet ihr Lieder, erklinget ihr Saiten (BWV 172)
Reading: John 6.25-35
Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Thank you, Dean Kanishka, for your kind invitation to preach here this morning. I bring you all greetings from the Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier, and the people of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. It’s a great joy to be with you this morning and to share together in our celebration of the gift of God’s Word, and the gift of music to encourage and inspire our journeys of faith.
I was brought up in the ‘old’ South Wales, and came to Australia nine years ago to take on – or so my wife Katherine and I thought – a five-year stint as lecturers, she in the Faculty of Arts, and I in Theology. Six years ago, that time scale changed somewhat when I was elected Dean of Melbourne. At the time, the Senior Canon took me to one side and said: ‘Don’t worry’. I was hoping for words of encouragement, but instead heard a reflection on my relative youth: ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be the youngest Dean of Melbourne’. ThatDean was the illustrious Stuart Barton Babbage, great great grandson of the inventor (with Ada Lovelace) of the Calculating Machine, scholar of English puritanism, war-time air-force chaplain in Persia and Palestine, who became Dean of Melbourne aged 37. Of course, you know well that prior to his taking on that role he had already been Dean of Sydney for six years.
I had the privilege of meeting Stuart at the end of his life, and hearing about his ministry of opening the doors of St Andrew’s to this city, a ministry he would continue with great energy and commitment for nine years at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. Stuart’s hallmarks were his love for the gospel, his love of people, and his love of music. At St Paul’s he would lead Choral Evensong every Thursday, knowing that it was not only the people in St Paul’s, but all who had tuned their radios to Radio National, that would be in attendance to hear and reflect on God’s Word through sublime music. And not only those who worshipped in St Paul’s, or listened to the service on their wireless. But also, and especially so, the choir.
People often speak of ‘preaching to the choir’, and imply that the musicians that enable our worship all share faith in Jesus. I myself was a chorister before I became a Christian, and I know that I am not the only one to have found faith through music-making.
I came to faith when I was a choral scholar in Oxford. There I not only shared in leading choral worship but, as you can imagine, heard a good many sermons. But it was music, and more specifically, the music and message of Johann Sebastian Bach, that drew me closer and closer to Jesus. For me, Bach’s music choral was an invitation to lived faith.
The more I sang his works and later, as I reflected on them as an academic, I came to realise that Bach’s Cantatas and Oratorios were nothing other than sermons in sound.
It was one such sermon in sound, on a frosty night in Advent (a frosty night in Advent!) at the end of my first term, that began my journey of faith. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. As I joined the glorious opening chorus, ‘serve the highest with glorious choirs, let us honour the name of our ruler’, for the first time I consciously recalled owning Bach’s invitation. I was not only a part of a glorious choir – though our director of music always felt that there was room for improvement – but that night I believed that I did sing in service of the highest. Through music I began a journey of faith that led me to experience the freedom that can be found in service of the highest: in music and message, lived faith and fellowship.
If any among you, especially fellow music makers, have yet to experience that liberating, life-giving freedom that comes from lived faith, please talk to me, or any of my decanal colleagues, over morning tea. And if you already follow Christ, I encourage you to think back to that moment, or that gradual journey, that led to your own commitment of faith. And to think what it might be that you need to take on, or which barriers you might still need to take away, so that you may be enabled to share this invitation to faith joyfully with others.
What did I expect when I found Jesus Christ? I guess, I was hoping for shape and guidance for my life, was expecting that my prayers would make life easier, more secure. That expectation was only partially fulfilled. Yes, knowing and loving Jesus has given shape to my life. But finding Jesus hasn’t made my life any easier, nor more secure. In fact, I think the reverse is probably the case. Knowing Jesus has made my life more unsettled, less predictable.
The realisation that coming to Jesus and knowing him may be different from what we had expected, I think, is what the people in our gospel reading also found so hard to understand. Knowing Jesus, following Jesus, may not be what we had first thought. Later in the chapter from which our reading is taken, Jesus’ close circle of followers will talk among themselves: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’, they say in verse 60. And Jesus will ask them outright: ‘Does this offend you?’ The Greek word skandalizei puts it even more strongly: does this scandalise you, does this form a stumbling block for you? Yet the scandal of following Jesus will lead them to see ‘greater things than these’, he promises them.
The people who had just seen 5,000 people fed by a couple of loaves and some fish will see far greater things. They will see the ‘Son of Man ascending to where he was before’, Jesus tells them in verse 62. Ascend to the Father who sent him and, before that, ascend to the cross. And the knowledge that Jesus is God’s Son, and will suffer and die, will cause offense. At the end of the chapter in verse 66 we read how ‘because of this many turned back, and no longer followed him’. This rupture is one of the many breaking points in John’s gospel, where people turn away from Jesus because his teaching confronts them with a reality that is too challenging to their own preconceptions.
Why did the people come to Jesus in the first place? In verse 25 Jesus confronts them: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate your fill of the loaves’. They came because Jesus had given thousands of people free food, fed them so generously that twelve baskets of left-overs were gathered in. They came, because Jesus had suddenly left them, and miraculously walked across Lake Galilee; had entered his disciples’ boat and sped it to the other side. When the people caught up with him, they knew themselves to be in the presence of a man full of power, and they wanted more of that power. They wanted miraculous power. Power to change things seemingly effortlessly. They came to Jesus not for Jesus’ sake, but for the sake of his power.
And Jesus told them that their efforts to be with him so that they may be filled with his power are in vain. They may have successfully raced around the Lake to catch up with him, but unless they come to him for his sake, they labour in vain. ‘Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that will endure for eternal life’, he told them in verse 27. There may have been twelve baskets of left-overs, but those would not endure to eternity.
The food that Jesus gave them in this powerful sign will not endure. That miracle will become memory; that power will perish. Because, for John, the way to share in Jesus’ power is by sharing in his weakness and suffering. Yes, the people had heard Jesus’ words of invitation and shared in his meal. But unless they were also prepared to share in his suffering, all they will ever have experienced is a free meal.
Responding to Jesus’ invitation means coming to Jesus for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of living with Jesus. Responding to Jesus’ invitation means accepting Jesus as he is.
Acknowledge your motivation, Jesus tells the people (and us with them). Do we exert ourselves to race to him so that he might help us to consolidate a power that will not last? Or do we come to him as he is: come to remain with him, and share in his communion, and the suffering of his broken body on earth? We all called by God, whoever we are. Just as we all are invited to reflect on why it is that we seek Jesus.
‘By your word I am invited’, our cantata chorale concludes, and graciously calls us to Christ.
‘Do not exert yourselves’, Jesus told the people. ‘Do not work for food that spoils but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’. The food that the Son of the Father will give. The food that the one whom God personally has authorised and commissioned, on whom God has set his seal, will give. ‘For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’, Jesus tells us in verse 33. The bread that God gives is more than any other perishable nourishment. Christ is himself that life-giving food. And in the same way, in which he is the light of the world, or the way, or the water of life, in which he is life in its fullest abundance, so Christ will give life to the entire world. That life endures, lasts forever. Because the bread of life – the life-giving things that Christ gifts us – are lasting gifts from God.
When challenged by the people to perform another miracle – ‘what sign then will you give that that we may see it and believe in you? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness’ – Jesus told them that the manna from heaven was not the gift of a human mediator – Moses – but God’s free gift. There is an essential difference between the gifts, just as there is an essential difference between the givers, Jesus explains. The manna was miraculous bread from heaven. It fell like hail each night, and was gathered up in the morning by the people. But any that was left over perished – some of the people, not wanting to gather up the sweet morsels each day tried to store it, ‘and it bred worms and rotted’, perished, we read in the book of the Exodus (16.21).
Just as the heavenly manna perished, so the mediator who argued with God that the people would be fed miraculously in the first place – Moses – also died. ‘It was not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven’, Jesus tells the people in verse 32, ‘but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven’. God gifts the true bread. And with the true bread, God gifts the true mediator. Who will give his life so that death will die: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’, Jesus proclaims in verse 35. Christ himself is the true, the lasting mediator, who gives us himself as the gift of the Father: ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’, Jesus will tell the people in verse 54.
The one true mediator between God and humankind, who lives forever, gives the bread that is eternal. And he does so, by giving his own flesh and blood on the cross. In the end, the bread of life is much more than flour and water mixed and baked and given thanks for. Jesus’ bread of life is what sustains all life: is the food that sustains all faith. And the source of the life that is forever is found in Christ’s death.
Christ has come into the world so that the world may have life, and he gifts his own life for the lives of all people, he explains. ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day’, we read in verse 39.
And the key to being saved and raised up, is by seeing and believing in Christ. Not because of the miracles, nor because of the food that may perish, but because of the fulfilment of the divine will.
In the gospel of John ‘true seeing’ often is a shorthand for ‘believing’, just as ‘superficial looking’ may stand for ‘unbelieving’. The people who have come to Jesus to share another meal are now invited to look beyond that which will perish – the loaves and fishes, the memory of the manna – and to see that which will last. And the ultimate act of seeing, and believing, is the moment of fulfilment, is the ultimate scandal that will make many people break away. When Christ himself is raised up on a cross, so that he might draw all people to himself.
Those who look to the perishable, Jesus knows, will see the ultimate tragedy: death destroying a powerful healer, teacher and miracle worker. But those who see and believe, will see God’s ultimate act of power displayed in the weakness and brokenness of the cross. Death destroyed by death; the bread of life broken, so that all may eat and be filled and never be hungry again. The water of life outpoured so that all who believe may never be thirsty.
‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’, Jesus assures us. Our true bread are the fruits that spring from the broken body on the cross: the bread, the wine, the Spirit Christ breathed on the world as he accomplished all, and the Words of eternal life he gave us. As our cantata puts it, ‘your word, your Spirit, your body and your blood refresh me from within’. They feed and nurture us, and remind us of the immense cost of our salvation.
The reformer Martin Luther, whose works Bach had studied just as thoroughly as has he studied the Scriptures, put it like this. When Jesus says, ‘”whoever comes to me shall never be hungry or thirst”, that means, “they will never die”. This saying should be engraved in our hearts with golden letters or, better still, with living letters, so that we all may know where our souls are kept when we die’ (WA 33: 61, 31-39).
Christ calls each one of us to open our eyes, and to see in the brokenness of the cross the ground of our salvation. He calls us to open our hearts, and let them be homes for the Words of eternal life: the ‘living letters that tell us where our souls are kept’. He does so freely, and graciously, so that all people might share his life. And, as we hear his invitation, you and I are called to reflect on what it may be that may still scandalise us in this story of grace so freely given; and what stumbling blocks we might still place in the way of those who yearn to hear this good news. What is it that keeps us from the cross, and what is it that we place in the way of the cross.
‘Welcome in faith to me’, our cantata suggests a response, ‘highest love, come within! You have taken my heart’.
Welcome in faith: for the past four years we have displayed a nine-metre banner on the South spire of our Cathedral. It shows a woman holding her daughter. The picture on the banner was taken in one of the transit camps for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees’ it reads; a reminder of the plight of millions of displaced people, and the punitive response to that crisis by our own leaders. While our banner may not have changed the hearts of our leaders, it has transformed our Cathedral. Hundreds of refugees have come to St Paul’s to ask us what our welcome to refugees consists of: ‘Thank you for welcoming us, what do you do for refugees’, they said.
And in turn they experience a welcome that did not look at their faith, their race or their visa status, in our free English classes, our shared meals, and our Bible studies and worship in easy English that we run for those who have yet to find their new voice and language. Others came to see why it was that Christians were praying for, and welcoming, refugees from majority Islamic countries. And they were told that it is when we receive others as Christ, that we receive the Lord himself.
As a result of that welcome and care, many people have been drawn to faith in Jesus, and have become congregants; two of them have been ordained, and another has been selected for ordination in our diocese. When we welcome others in the name of Christ, we come to experience the transformative power of God in our own lives and communities: at our Cathedral we found that when we began exercising an intentional ministry of welcome, our congregations grew by 30%.
The experience that Christian churches grow when we exercise a ministry of welcome to others, is not only true when we welcome refugees, but true for many others who often face exclusion, or feel they lack recognition in our churches – indigenous people, women and children, people from the LGBTI community, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people with disability, people suffering from long-term illnesses, and many more. For us at St Paul’s our intentional ministry of hospitality and welcome in the name of the Gospel has been transformational. What is it that we – our leaders across the church, our bishops, deans, rectors, ministers and lay leaders – you and I need to do to enable that transformational change? What is it that we need to do to enable that welcome in faith?
Because when we welcome others in the name of Christ, and invite them to share our Gospel, our faith and our fellowship, our Cathedrals, our parishes, can be transformed. Because when we make a home for others, we practise what it means to make a home for Christ ourselves, to make ourselves into homes for Christ. At the most fundamental and profound level of the Christian faith is the news of the incredible gift of God to the world: God became human in Christ Jesus, so that we might share in the life of God.
And we share in God’s life when we allow God to dwell in us, and our communities, when our churches and our hearts are open for Christ. Our cantata puts it in this way: ‘come, then, into the hovels of our hearts, though they are poor and small; come and allow us to ask you: come and dwell within us’.
One of the greatest challenges of faith is the confidence that Christ will be sufficient for us, and that we – authentically as we are, and who we are – are sufficient to welcome Christ. Many of us, myself included, struggle truly to believe that we will not lack for anything if we let ourselves be fed by Christ; struggle truly to believe that our hearts are good enough to become a home for Christ. Yes, we are entirely undeserving to receive Christ. But the point of our faith is precisely that even though we do notdeserve to receive Christ, he nevertheless seeks to come to us.
As Jesus assured his questioners: ‘This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of what he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’.
We will never deserve Christ through our actions. But Christ gives himself to us freely when we truly seek him, find and recognise him for who he is, when we know him to be the Lord of life. When welook at them, our hearts are nothing more than ‘hovels’, as our cantata puts it. Yet our hearts are the very places where God seeks to dwell, where God seeks to make his home with us, so that we may have life in all its fullness. ‘The work of God of this’, Jesus told the people, ‘to believe in the one he has sent’.
When we place our trust in that gracious invitation; when we believe in the Son of Man, all our wants will be met, our gospel reading assures us. When we turn to Jesus Christ, we are given all that we need for life: we are washed clean from all that holds us back by the water of life; are refreshed by the Word of life; are nurtured by the bread of life, and are led by the light of life. Even ‘the hovels of our heart’ can be transformed into ‘the paradise of souls, in which God’s Spirit breathes’, as Bach’s cantata puts it: may be renewed and restored to be places fit to receive Jesus Christ.
In the 1720s it was the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach who opened the doors of the Leipzig churches to share in music the good news that God wants to live with us. With ringing songs and sounding strings he proclaimed that the decisive moment had come: the ‘blessed time when God will prepare our souls to be his temple’. In the 1940s, Dean Stuart Barton Babbage opened the doors of this Cathedral to people seemingly forgotten or neglected by the church: by civic observance, blessings of tools and instruments, he proclaimed God’s invitation to prepare a home for God and to be at home here at St Andrew’s, to city workers, trade unionists and labourers. In the 1950s, he shared God’s gracious invitation with our city, by opening the Scriptures in Bible studies, and filling St Paul’s (and, across the airwaves, our entire nation) with sermons in sound.
The invitation that God seeks to come close to us, that he calls us to know him, turn to him, love and follow him is not restricted to a favourable time in the past, proclaimed by outstanding servants like Dean Stuart and Cantor Sebastian. It is a timeless invitation. Today, you and I – Bishops, Cathedral Deans and Worshippers, Visitors and Volunteers, Ministers and Musicians – are called to extend that same welcome. Make it known to those who have yet to hear it; those feel they do not deserve to hear it; those who may be scandalised by it and have shut their ears to it; and those who need to hear it afresh.
Today, you and I are called to open the doors of our Cathedrals and communities to the people around us; are invited to ask for the grace to be able to remove any stumbling blocks that still may prevent others from hearing the good news. Today, you and I are called to recognise that it is now that is the favourable time; that this is very moment that God seeks to dwell with us and make his home in us. Today, we are invited to open our hands, stretch them out, and receive the bread of life.
And now to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.
The Revd Canon William Hywel Watkins CStJ was born in Aberystwyth on 1 September 1936 and died there of pancreatic cancer on 13 July 2018. For forty years he served the Church of Wales as a parish priest, rural dean and Chapter Canon in South and West Wales, a region he fondly called ‘the periphery of the periphery’.
Watkins took great pride in his hometown, Llanbadarn Fawr, an important centre of early Welsh Christianity. He was schooled at nearby Ardwyn Grammar School Aberystwyth, and read history at St David’s College Lampeter, before proceeding to Wycliffe Hall Oxford in 1958 to read theology as an ordination candidate for the Diocese of St Davids. Deaconed at St Davids Cathedral by Bishop John Richards in May 1961 and priested the following June, he served a seven-year curacy in Llanelli. He was appointed vicar of Llwynhendy in Carmarthenshire in 1968. Ten years later, in 1978, he was made vicar of the Benefice of Uzmaston with Slebech and Boulston where he ministered until his retirement. From 1987 he was rural dean of Daugleddau and, in 1993, was made a member of the Chapter of St Davids Cathedral, occupying the stall of St Nicholas. In 2001, he retired to his family home on the ‘Costa Ystwyth’, as he called it, and was delighted to be able to rekindle old friendships in Cardiganshire.
Watkins was deeply committed to the ministry and outreach of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem and, in 2000, was invested as Commander of the Order. From the twelfth century until the dissolution of monasteries, his parish Slebech had served as the West Wales headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. During his incumbency, the village’s ancient association with the Order was reinvigorated by regular St John’s-tide outdoor services in the picturesque ruined Hospitaller church on the Eastern Cleddau River. A gifted hymnodist, Watkins contributed many modern hymns for use by the members and cadets of the Order of St John, and throughout the wider diocese of St Davids. His ear for matching contemporary words to traditional and popular tunes was so much appreciated by his parishioners that one them challenged the vicar to write new words to Edelweissfrom the Sound of Music. He gladly accepted the challenge, he recalled: ‘I wrote a lovely hymn for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. His hymns celebrated the joy of salvation and the gladness that can be found in Christian service, and echoed the melodies and poetry of his own rich life.
An eager student of German, his commitment to post-war reconciliation was kindled at school. He first became aware of German opposition to the Nazi regime during the War: his German teacher at Ardwyn, Fräulein Einhorn, had fled the persecution of Jews and settled in West Wales. His recollection of her nickname for him, Starrkopf(stubborn boy), was as indelible a memory as his great sympathy for the plight of his teacher and her fellow Nazi victims. At university he sought out German students and made lifelong friends. Later, as a priest, he established similarly strong links with church leaders in the Evangelische Kirche of Bavaria and Baden, the twin state of Wales. A regular visitor to Germany, he shared in ecumenical worship and preached at the Church of the Resurrection, Pforzheim, the ‘Dresden of South-West Germany’. Built from rubble following the 1945 aerial bombardment that obliterated most of the city, the church was named for the new and liberated life that was able to emerge following the fall of the Nazi regime. For Watkins, the lasting physical and psychological scars for the people of Dresden and Pforzheim and other theatres of the Second World War were living memorials to the evils of war that further fuelled his own engagement in reconciliation.
His principal contribution to the work of international understanding, however, was opening his Vicarage to countless overseas visitors. Watkins was an attentive host, generous with his time, and proud of his ever-widening circle of ‘scattered and very dear friends around the world’, as he affectionately described us. There, on the quiet banks of the Western Cleddau river and, later, at his ‘Little Grey Home in the West’, he shaped a community of friends with whom he shared in laughter, poetry and music, discussion and prayer. Even when we had returned to our homes, he celebrated the enduring values of friendship and faith in his regular missives. ‘Politics always seems to end up in tears’, he wrote to me following the Brexit referendum: ‘for me, the Christian faith has so much more to offer’. It is in this faith, and to the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that we commit him.
The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe OStJ
Dean of Melbourne
This weekend we recall the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of ninety-five theses on justification. The Augustinian monk did what every other Wittenberg academic seeking to debate work in progress did: he posted his theses for debate on the doors – we believe – of the university and castle church at the centre of Wittenberg. This is how he put it: ‘Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter’.
Little did Luther know that this conventional act of seeking to try, debate and refine his academic thinking on what it means to be made just before God would fuel a wildfire of social and ecclesiastical discontent that would lead to a thorough reform of German church practise, and the establishment of a new denomination that would bear Luther’s name. His ninety-five theses were immediately translated from their original Latin, the language of scholarly debate, into German and other European languages. They spoke into society that had, since at least the mid fourteenth-century, put increasing pressure on the church to adopt essential reforms.
Many of the things that we take for granted in our worship today were on a catalogue of demands that predated Martin Luther: the reading of the Scriptures in the language of the people, singing of hymns in one’s own language, the ability to receive both the bread and the wine of the Eucharist were foremost on the list of demands. As were some broader social demands addressed to the church as one of the largest landowners in Europe: harsh taxation and tithes – the system of charging a levy on the fruits of the harvest – which further widened the gap between rich and poor.
And finally, there was the central issue of how people are made just before God. In an age in which both heaven and earth, Saviour and Satan, were very real places and people for all, the question of how humans would share in the life that is forever, and be deemed worthy of that life, was fundamental. In the late fifteenth-century, an elaborate system of penitence had been developed as a result of more than three hundred years of theological research. People were made just before God, the cutting-edge traditional theologians of Luther’s day believed, by confessing their sins, and by making reparation for their sins: they would undertake an act of goodness to make up for what they had done wrong, or the right they had omitted to do.
So far, so good: a system of checks and balances. I agree that if there were an act of goodness for every evil, then the world would undeniably be a much better place. The problem began when the system became commercialised. Acts of goodness could be outsourced, as it were. Someone else would undertake the spiritual exercise of penance on your behalf, most likely a monk or nun, if you only paid for it. When this system was extended not only to one’s own sins and omissions, but those of one’s dead relatives and friends – payments for parents in purgatory – theologians like Martin Luther seriously began to question the spiritual value of such a punitive and pecuniary approach to justification.
Luther did not set out to be a reformer. He became a reformer by his strongly held convictions on what it means to be made righteous before God. Or rather, what it does not mean to be made righteous before God. And while the event we commemorate this weekend would forever be associated as the beginning of the German reformation, for Luther it was another stepping stone in the middle of a long academic, and personal wrestling with the Scriptures. For more than four years in the run up to 1517, Luther had been reflecting and lecturing on Romans. His Theses were the culmination of his theological research, and his firm conviction that people are not made just by paying the church for prayers offered on their behalf, and certainly not on behalf of those who had already died, but that people are made just by a change of heart.
‘For years’, Luther later wrote, ‘I hated that word “the righteousness of God” … which I had been taught to understand … that God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly … I was angry with God’ (WA 54: 185). It was Paul’s epistle to the Romans, our epistle reading for this morning, that was the sticking point for Luther, particularly the sentiment that ‘“no human being will be justified in God’s sight” by deeds prescribed by the law’. In a system of justification where it was precisely by deeds commanded by a divine law – five monand a Pater Noster for this offence, a couple of decades of the rosary for that – in such a system, no one would ever be made just. Paul said as much in our epistle: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
And Luther living, as he later reflected, ‘as a monk without reproach, felt with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God’. In the sight of the infinite and just God, no one could stand righteous: under the terms of God’s own law ‘every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God’ (WA 54: 185). And the laws of the church, Luther then firmly held, reinforced that understanding. Penance and payment for sins committed would never fully remove sin. Which is why, the church taught that people languished in purgatory for centuries being cleansed from the wrongdoings they committed during their lifetimes.
Surely, there would need to be another way to become justified before God, Luther felt. By April 1516, Luther was convinced that there was absolutely nothing that human beings can contribute to their own justification, other than believing that God desires to justify those who love him. Luther had weighed every word of our epistle, and came to believe what Paul meant when he said that we are saved not by the law of works, ‘but by the law of faith. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Romans 3.28). Put differently: according to the law, according to our own deeds, humans stand no chance to pass muster before an infinitely righteous God. But when they place their faith not in their own righteousness (or lack thereof) but in God’s righteousness, they acknowledge their weakness and draw on God’s strength.
Luther found great comfort in the central thesis of today’s epistle reading: because Christ who was without any sin at all gave his life freely, those who believe in Christ may live. Paul put it this way: even though ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift’. That gift was bestowed on God’s people when God sent Jesus into the world to live among us, and die for us. When Jesus died, ‘he had passed over the sins previously committed’ (Rom. 3.25). All sins, past, present and future, are covered: not by anything that we can do, but only by believing that God has granted us this incredible gift freely. When Jesus died, all sin died with him, giving all humans the gift of being made right before God if only they believe.
In 1516 Luther wrote: ‘Christ died for me, he made his righteousness mine, and made my sin my own, then I do not have I, and I am free’ (WA 56: 204). And the way in which we may celebrate this freedom, Luther believed, was by opening our hearts to God’s love. Luther wrote that the effects of the salvation wrought for us on Calvary are effective today, because ‘the cross of Christ is distributed through the whole world; each person is always allotted their portion’ (WA Br 1: 25). All of us who believe share in the event of salvation, Luther interpreted Paul, and encourages us: ‘Do not cast the cross aside, but rather take it up as a holy relic to be kept. Not in a golden or silver case, but in a golden – that is a gentle and loving – heart’ (WA Br 1: 25, 1: 37f.). We are to be the reliquaries of the true cross, and enshrine in our hearts the symbol of our salvation. In the same way in which many of us wear the sign of our faith on a chain around our necks, we are to become living bearers of the cross, holding close to the innermost parts of our being the firm and certain hope of our being made just before God, and our being gifted new life forever in God’s friendship.
Luther did end up revolutionising the church. He set out comfort those who, like him, believed that they could never be good enough for God. His insights into the graciousness of God, and the infinity of God’s love fundamentally changed the church. All that is required for us to be made good and just before God, Luther came to believe, is already given us in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is believe in the fruits of his salvation, have faith that the new life he promised is for you and for me, and open our hearts to him in that faith asking to be made just and whole. And this is good news for all who believe, and worthy of our celebrations, that ‘in his divine forbearance God has passed over our sins … and justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (Rom. 3.25-26). As we give thanks for the insights into the love of God of his servant Martin Luther, it is my prayer that we may be strengthened in faith to believe this truth, and through our faith we may be renewed in grace and transformed to be people whose very hearts are homes for God.
A prayer after Martin Luther:
You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness
but I am your sin;
you have taken on yourself
what you were not
and have given me what I am not:
open our hearts to your grace,
that we may be strengthened in our faith
and made perfectly whole in hope
for you are alive and renew our lives,
and reign with the Father and the Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
Today’s performance is the result of a fair amount of detective work. It is deeply frustrating for Bach scholars that only few of his works were published during his lifetime and, although some 1276 manuscripts of Bach’s works survive today, not all of his works have survived. Today’s work is one of those for which Bach’s music has not survived, neither in print or manuscript. All that remains of the contemporary sources for the Trauermusik for the reigning prince of Köthen-Anhalt is the libretto, published by Bach’s librettist Picander, the nom de plume adopted by Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-64). Picander and Bach collaborated on numerous works, the most extensive project of which was, of course, the retelling of the story of the Passion according to St Matthew, much of which would have first been performed in Leipzig at St Thomas’ Church on Good Friday 1727 (though the manuscript score that survives to date dates back to 1736).
On 19 November 1728, 19 months after the performance of the Matthew Passion, Bach’s Köthen employer, patron and friend, Leopold I of Anhalt-Köthen died at the age of 33. Four months later, on the eve of the Annunciation, 24 March 1729, Bach’s and Picander’s Trauermusik was performed as part of his funeral at the Ducal Chapel of St James. This rather lengthy delay in burying the reigning prince was not uncommon. In seventeenth-century Europe royal funerals were resplendent affairs, even in the Calvinist duchy of Anhalt-Köthen, and required much detailed planning. In this case, Leopold might even have stipulated that the funeral be delayed so that Bach was able to attend and direct the music Leopold had commissioned. While at Köthen, Bach had only written secular cantatas: the Calvinist court did not share the same liturgical tradition as Lutheran Leipzig or Weimar. The cantatas that he did write, then, were celebrations of the reigning prince – mainly birthday cantatas. In addition, Bach composed a number of instrumental works for Leopold, a keen amateur lutenist.
The libretto of the Leopold’s Trauermusik was first published as a libretto booklet for the funeral and, three years after the first performance of the work, in a collection of Picander’s poems. Picander’s words are the fixed point in the half a dozen or so reconstructions of the work. The first of these was the nineteenth-century editor of the first Bachausgabe, Wilhelm Rust. All of the reconstructions draw on the music of the Matthew Passion, and Bach’s other funeral work, the Trauer-Ode for Queen Christiane Eberhardine of Poland and Saxony, Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl (BWV 198), also performed first in 1727. Much of the music for today’s Trauermusik was first performed – in different contexts and as different commissions – two years before Leopold’s death. The compiler of today’s reconstruction suggests that it was fortunate that the Matthew Passion and the funeral ode for Queen Christiane benefited from the fact that Leopold planned his funeral in good time: they were able to draw on the music for the projected funeral. Bach simply asked Picander and his funeral ode librettist Gottsched to write new words for the Köthen music for the two substantial performances of 1727.
Unfortunately, we have no substantial evidence to establish precisely what came first: the Trauermusik, or the Passion and the funeral ode. It is just as likely that, having heard – of – the success of the Passion and the ode, the ailing Leopold asked Bach to conceive of a work that would honour him. In an age in which musical recordings did not exist, and any re-performance or re-use of a work was an opportunity for the genius of Bach’s music to be appreciated by another audience, it was common for music to be adapted for other performance purposes. Just as at the death of Princess Diana of Wales 25 years ago, the singer Sir Elton John was asked to adapt his Candle in the Wind to create a moving funeral tribute, Good-bye England’s Rose, it may well be that the reigning prince asked that the music of Bach’s most-loved vocal work be used for his funeral, rather than the other way around. In the absence of firm archival evidence, it is hard to determine the chronology.
Whichever may have come first, this afternoon’s performance echoes seven arias and two choruses from the largest, longest and most complex vocal work Bach composed in the second decade of the eighteenth-century. His B-Minor Mass, completed a year before his death, would rival the complexity of music and setting, but at the time of Leopold’s death the Matthew Passion was the pinnacle of Bach’s music making. And so while it is hard to say whether today’s performance was a stepping stone to the ‘great Passion’ or the Passion and the Funeral Ode for Queen Christiane the inspiration for the Trauermusik, the music and words themselves are a fitting tribute to a passionate promoter of Bach and his music. I am delighted to share in the first performance of this latest reconstruction as Bach’s Trauermusik by the combined forces of Polyphonic Voices and the Melbourne Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Michael Fulcher. For me, the work will help me re-discover what I love about the St Matthew Passion through the vehicle of Picander’s libretto to celebrate Leopold and his reign. The fact that the work is performed 288 years after Leopold’s death is testament to his ‘immortal fame’ as the final movement of the work so confidently proclaims.
Image credit: H.-P.Haack, via Wikimedia Commons.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the memorial service of the Reverend Professor James Thomas Rigney, at St James’ King Street, Sydney, on 10 March 2017:
‘Pray then, in this way’, Jesus teaches his disciples in today’s gospel reading. And he gives them the prayer that has become the heart-beat of the church, for we pray it at every liturgy. Jesus’ disciples asked him to give them a prayer to say, in the same way in which John the Baptist had taught his disciples. A prayer that they could say when their own words failed them, perhaps. A prayer they could say together.
Words failed me when news reached me that my colleague and college friend James had died unexpectedly in the prime of life, and at such an important crossroads in his own vocation as a scholar, teacher and priest. James and I trained together at Westcott House Cambridge, and served our first incumbencies together in Cambridge. We taught and examined students together at the Divinity Faculty, and followed one another to Australia – he to become Dean of Newcastle and then Warden of St John’s College Brisbane, I to become Chaplain and Senior Lecturer at Trinity College Melbourne and then Dean. Pray then in this way when words fail you, Jesus had taught his disciples: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’.
God knows what we need, Matthew assures us in his gospel. We do not need to ask anything of him. This prayer, then, is not for God to change things for us. It is a prayer that enables us to change, because of what God does, and has done for us. James was a man of prayer, and profound spirituality. He drew deeply from the roots of knowledge and, whenever I had the privilege of sharing with him in worship, I knew that he was drawing strength from prayerful pools of silence. James was a man who ‘went into his room and shut the door and prayed to his Father who is in secret’. The qualities of James’ withdrawing into communing with the Father who is unseen shone through his public prayer, his love for well-ordered, meaning-full liturgy. Prayer for James was never the ‘heaping up of many words our gospel censures, but rather giving space in liturgy for the Word of God to permeate both the silences and the words of our worship.
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples changed them. Teaching others to pray will transform them. James knew about the transformational power of learning. He was generous with his time in helping others to grow in wisdom, insight and understanding of themselves. Whether that was in teaching them about transformational events of the past – the reformation, the reception of Calvin’s Geneva, the early modern art of preaching the Word – or the transformation of the modern church – by helping to envisage the Church of England the ministry of women in the episcopate, James was courteous, and generous with his time and his knowledge.
James taught others that prayer transforms us. Taught students, fellow clergy, parishioners to pray about what God wanted them to do in their lives: he nurtured vocations, and helped shape the spiritual lives of those among whom he ministered. James would have told us that the prayer that stands at the heart of our gospel is a beginning of our journey with God, on which we can build our own prayer lives. ‘Pray then in this way’.
And the petitions that Jesus teaches us are there to change us: they acknowledge that God is sovereign in heaven but has adopted us as his children; that God already rules on earth but needs us to help share the values of the kingdom his Son has brought us; that God delights in feeding us with daily food for our lives – the food we share at table, and the bread we break to share in our being Christ’s body on earth; that God forgives when we are forgiving, and that God has delivered us from evil, once and for all, and will not test us beyond our strength.
When words failed me on hearing that my college friend James had died, I prayed. I prayed that we might find strength in our strong and certain hope in the resurrection life Christ has brought. I prayed that God would comfort Anne and Cressida, and all of us, who miss James’ presence with us so badly. I prayed that someone would say words at James’ memorial that might give us the chance to find meaning and purpose. Then I did not expect to be offering those words to you today.
‘Your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. God knows all our needs. Yet he delights in being asked, and for us to share in his presence. In his life, James had spent much time in withdrawing into ‘his room to pray to his Father who is in secret’. The door to this prayer-filled room of the self was always slightly ajar to enable others to share in his life of prayer. Now he has followed Jesus’ command to his disciples: he has shut the door to share in praying to his Father in the place where the Father is no longer secret, but known even as we are fully known; that place where we no longer see through a glass darkly, but where we behold God face to face.
Thanks be to God for giving us the victory through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany 2017, marking Australia Day Weekend:
‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf: for in its welfare you will find your welfare’, the prophet Jeremiah promised in this morning’s first lesson (Jeremiah 29.4-14). This week has been dominated not only by the celebration of our National Holiday, Australia Day, but the commemoration of the lives lost Friday before last in Bourke Street. Where on Thursday many of us joined family functions or other celebrations to give thanks for the ties of care that underpin so much of our nation, on Monday the great bell of the Cathedral solemnly tolled to remember those who died in a mindless attack on the heart of our city.
This morning’s readings (Jeremiah 29.4-14, Revelation 21.1-7, John 8.31-36) help us place into perspective the experiences of this past week: both our mourning, our uncertainty for the future welfare and security of our city and nation, and our thanksgiving for that future. They encourage us to face our future with hope. They place before us an image of this world, and our cities, seen the way God wishes them to be. They encourage us to live our lives here in ways that reflect the future that God seeks to gift us. And they inspire us to become people, who through our actions and our prayers, will share that vision with others, will become agents of hope for a world that all too often seems hopeless, and fearful.
Jeremiah knew too well that our earthly communities always will never be perfect, will always have flaws. Like the people of Israel he addresses – who found themselves not in their own holy city, Jerusalem, but in exile – we also live with the realisation that our world will never be perfect, until it has been perfected by God’s grace. But instead of highlighting the flaws of our world, Jeremiah reminds the exiles of God’s desire for our homelands and cities to be at peace. That peace, Jeremiah knows, will be brought about by God’s people. That peace comes when all who share God’s vision become peace-makers: people who actively participate in the life of their community in order to help bring about God’s vision of hope.
Until the day when God brings in his Kingdom we will share the experience of the exiled people of God in the time of Jeremiah. We will live as exiles in the cities and nations to which God calls us; settled but never fully at rest there. As Christians, our longing will always be for a homeland that is forever; for a city where all may dwell together in peace which God will bring in in his own time. Until the time we reach that Kingdom, that city, we are strengthened in our living by the longing implanted in each of us. A fervent longing that empowers us to undertake the work of transformation, so that the places in which we live may reflect more and more of the values of the Kingdom of heaven, the city of God.
Jeremiah gives the people of God practical pointers as to what this kingdom-living entails. He reminds us of what it means to live fully committed to the welfare of the places where we dwell, while also keeping alive the burning desire for the city that will last. The qualities that are at the heart of Jeremiah’s Kingdom-centred living are not only for the faithful few: these qualities not only benefit the exiles who long to return to the place to which God will call them one day. Living for God’s Kingdom, Jeremiah knows, will transform all people. Living for God’s Kingdom effects both the believer and the people who live around us.
And so Jeremiah instructs us to be a stable presence in our communities, tells us to ‘build houses and live in them’ (Jeremiah 29.5). He encourages us to shape the world around us to reflect God’s bounty and beauty, and to live from the fruits of our labour: ‘plant gardens and eat what they produce’ (29.5). He instructs us to share fully in the life of our communities, by our relationships, our loves, our friendships: ‘take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage’ (29.6). For Jeremiah it is clear that it is by the way in which we live that we can transform the places we call home: in everything you do, seek not only your own benefit and welfare, but the welfare of the city and nation of which you are a part, he exhorts us.
When we have the values of God’s Kingdom at the heart of our living, our communities will be transformed. By through the personal interaction of each one of us the places in which we live and work will be changed. The words of promise Jeremiah addressed to the exiles, hold true in our own generation: ‘Plan for welfare and not for harm’, God tells through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘and I will give you a future with hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11). When we live lives centred on the values of his Kingdom, God will transform our futures to be hope-filled. And our hope-filled living, in turn, will enable us to build up community, will inspire us to tend God’s creation, and will empower us to promote the welfare of the city and nation we call home.
On the Friday before last, at the tragic events of the Bourke Street rampage, many of us experienced first-hand what it means to live with the welfare of our city in mind. Melburnians intuitively knew what to do: providing first aid to those who had been injured, cradling those for whom help was too late, speaking words of comfort in those precious final moments of our lives. Ordinary Melburnians sat with those affected and listened, held hands, gave a pat on the back or a hug to strangers, as we waited for ambulances, police and emergency workers to extend professional care.
People from every walk of life, from every background, knew intuitively what to do to help one another. Seeking first the welfare of our city in the midst of one of the greatest tragedies to befall on Melbourne in the past generation. They did so because they knew that it was the right thing to do. They reached out to others because that is what we do. We first seek the welfare of our city, because we know that it is in the welfare of all that we will find our own welfare.
In the same way, on Monday the half-muffled great bell of the Cathedral solemnly called out for each of those who perished, as thousands of our fellow citizens, including Cathedral members and clergy, came together on Federation Square. We came together to give voice to own pain and to send a sign of hope to those who have been hurt in unimaginable ways, by losing an infant, a daughter, a brother, a son, a partner. The bells of St Paul’s were audible reminders of our own prayerful presence in this great city. The three great spires of our Cathedral served as pointers to the hope-filled future that God has in store for us: signs that point our city to the heavenly place God prepares for all of us. The place where, as our second lesson (Revelation 21.1-7) assures us, ‘God himself will be there, and wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 21.3). The City where ‘death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (21.4). The City that will be the end of all our longing, the fulfilment of our hope. The City that comes to us as gift at the time when God makes all things new.
Until that time, we live with the imperfections of our earthly homelands; live with the determined effort of Kingdom-living. Until that time, we live with the pain of loving and losing loved ones; live with the difficulty of finding words of hope at times of anguish, mourning and shared pain. We live with the cost of working for reconciliation between the first peoples of Australia, and those of us who arrived later in the story of our nation. We live with the obligation of continuing to welcome new arrivals – the present-day exiles of present-day conflicts – and equipping them to share in the welfare of our city. We live with the need to provide for those who struggle in our communities, and the effort of reaching out to those that are hard to love.
Even though our world will always be imperfect, God gives us a hope-filled future. We know that when we seeking the welfare of our city and nation, we ourselves will find our own welfare. We know that if we live out the values of God’s Kingdom, that that kingdom will begin to take shape among us and grow. We know that if we work for the coming of God’s Kingdom in our own times, God will continually equip us with his sustaining grace to aid us in our striving. We know that the vision God sets before us is for not only for past generations, but that it is there for today and for tomorrow, and until the day when God will ‘gather us from all the nations and all the places where he has sent us’, to the city he has prepared for us in heaven (Jeremiah 29.14).
This Australia Day weekend, I give thanks for the vision for our world that God sets before us. I give thanks that he calls us into partnership to bring about the hope-filled future that he wills for all people. I give thanks for for the many in our own community who already live out the values of God’s Kingdom by seeking the welfare of our city and state, nation and world. At a time when our own city is hurting, I give thanks especially for all those who in the past weeks have contributed to the welfare of this city by their acts of compassion and care. I pray that God would continue to instil in us hope and certainty for our own futures; that he would bless this city and nation, even as we long and strive for the Kingdom that is forever. The Kingdom into which he will gather us at the end of all time, and where he will dwell with us, to take away all mourning, crying and pain, at the time when the first things have passed away, and all is made new.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a Cantata Service at St John’s Lutheran Church Southgate, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ 2017:
Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott? – ‘How can I find a gracious God?’, is the question that led the Augustinian lecturer Martin Luther to make the theological breakthrough that started the Reformation 500 years ago. ‘While I was a monk’, Luther would later reflect, ‘I did my utmost by doing and striving, to gain God’s righteousness, but found that I moved further and further from my goal’. If that is true, and our own striving moves us further from God, how then can human beings be made just before God? How can we know ourselves loved and cared for by God? How can the world be made a more just and peaceable place; and how can we come to experience that same peace in our hearts? For Martin Luther, the answer to this existential human quest lay in the discovery of God’s grace: the free and self-giving love that brought the distant creator of the world close to us in the child of Bethlehem, who gave his life, so that all might have life.
Today, we celebrate that this profound theological insight that the monk Martin Luther was not contained to the cloisters of his monastic order or the lecture halls of Erfurt university. This year we give thanks that, five hundred years ago, Luther’s insight into the graciousness of God became a living movement that transformed our own striving for justice, peace, and righteousness. Today, we give thanks for the fruits of Luther’s reformation: for his gift of expressing his insight into God’s loving grace through poem and song, for his gift of shaping worship that seeks to enable us to hear God’s words of reassurance and peace to us in our own language, through spoken word and sermon, through hymn and chorale. Today, we especially give thanks that the fruits of Luther’s reformation, as translated by the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, have flourished for twenty years in this church, inviting others to share in this grace.
Wie kriege ich einen gnädigen Gott – ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ By looking at the person of Jesus Christ. For it is there that the graciousness of God is most fully expressed. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace; love brought to life in a human child. In today’s gospel reading, we are far removed from the events of the manger, and the festival of the incarnation, our thanksgiving – our joyful exulting, jauchzet, frohlocket! – that God has stooped to share in our humanity by letting his own Son be born of Mary. Today the journey of sharing fully in our human experience continues: Jesus is coming to the river Jordan to seek baptism at the hands of his kinsman, John the Baptist. In Jesus Christ, God embraced our humanity fully. Jesus, who was without sin, let himself be made as one carrying sins. And so, the Sinless One came to be washed from sin in the waters of the river Jordan, so that, as he says to his kinsman, the Forerunner, all righteousness may be fulfilled.
God fulfils all righteousness by giving himself to us, so that we may be made righteous. As he comes to be baptised, the Baptist rightly seeks to prevent Jesus from being washed at his hands. ‘I need to be baptised by you’, says John who, yet unborn, had leapt in his mother’s womb when he perceived the nearness of the Son of the Most High. Only a few verses before our gospel reading commences, John had turned away those who came laden with their burdens of self-righteousness. Had called the teachers of God’s law a brood of vipers for seeking the washing of water for repentance. In asking his cousin to baptise him, John gives voice to his insight that here was indeed the One who is more powerful than he: the One who will baptise not with water but will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus asks to be baptised by John.
Jesus’ baptism will be a baptism of the Spirit to prepare for eternal life, not a baptism of washing away daily sins, John knew. Jesus is in every way as we are, but without sin, John knew. Why, then, did Jesus seek to be washed from sins, John told his cousin. And Jesus told him that he sought his baptism, his washing away of sins with water, so that, ‘all righteousness may be fulfilled’. Born of a woman, born under the Law, Jesus was sent to fulfil that law so that we might come to know the graciousness of God. He was named and circumcised, offered in the temple as a first-born, was baptised, so that the terms of the covenant of Moses might be fulfilled in him. He whose name is ‘God saves’, showed forth that salvation by fully entering into our human experience: knowing sin but not having sin, and therefore knowing and experiencing in his own body the remedy for human sin.
And so Jesus is baptised and enters into the waters of the river Jordan. And there he enters into the death to sinfulness for all those who will enter into the waters of baptism to follow him. For the waters of baptism, as the apostle Paul will explain to the Romans, foreshadow the death of Christ. The waters of the Jordan foreshadow the grave. In seeking baptism, Jesus submits not to his cousin John to receive forgiveness for sins he had never committed. Rather, he submits to God’s Law as expressed in the Covenant of Sinai. In accepting the baptism of John, Jesus accepts the fullness of the Law with all its demands and takes it into himself, to drown it in the waters of the Jordan. Just as he later will nail that same Law to the wood of the cross. ‘Let it be so; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’, he tells his cousin, just as later, in Gethsemane, he will pray to his Father, ‘your will be done’. Jesus receives the baptism of John to fulfil God’s Law. He fulfils all righteousness himself, so that we might know the righteousness of God.
When Jesus came out of the Jordan the heavens opened. Heaven opened as assurance of the promise of grace, when he came up from the waves that symbolise the death and burial of sin. Just as when he breathes his last, the curtain in the Temple that symbolised the barrier of the Law, is torn in two, opening the sanctuary of God to the world. At the beginning and the end of his public ministry stand the assurance that Jesus is removing the barrier between God and humankind in his own body. And God’s voice speaks into the world: confesses that here is the One who has fulfilled all righteousness already – has taken upon him the Law with all its censures so that we might know God’s grace. ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, God says, and reveals himself as ‘Father’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who will make all those who follow him, sons and daughters of God’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who will die to human sin, will die a human death, so that humanity will be raised to life’. ‘This is my Son’, God says, ‘who was baptised, so that ‘all of is who were baptised into him are baptised into his death, so that, just as he was raised from the dead, they too may walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6.4).
And as a second sign of God’s promise of grace, God’s Spirit descended on the earth and alighted on Christ: marking him as the One who will baptise with the Spirit; the who will send the Spirit in his last breaths from the cross; the One who died so that the waters of baptism will be the only grave his followers ever need to fear. And because Jesus was baptised, we baptise in his name. We baptise, not to fulfil the righteousness of God. No human, save Jesus, who was without sin, would ever be able, by their actions, gain God’s righteousness. We baptise to remind ourselves that our God is a gracious God. We baptise to assure one another that God not only washes away our sins, but washes away our deaths. We who have no merit of our own, baptise to share in the merit of Christ, to share in the fruits of his righteousness: the fruits of the heavens opened, and our adoption as beloved sons and daughters of God. Children of God, our heavenly Father. Children in whom he is well pleased. Not because of our own righteousness, nor because of what we do, but because we share in the baptism of Christ.
Wie kriege ich einen gerechten Gott? – How can I find a gracious God? By seeking baptism. As Martin Luther put it: ‘the power of Baptism is such that it makes us holy, and righteous Christians, through the righteousness and merits of Christ, whenever we are clothed in baptism’. We are not saved through any works of our own. Nor are we saved through any of our actions undertaken to gain God’s favour. But by seeking to be baptised we take upon us the graciousness of Christ. By being baptised, we take on ourselves the One who let himself be made sin though he who was without sin, so that we might receive forgiveness and grace. How can I find a gracious God – by receiving the baptism of Christ, so that we might share in the new life for which Christ gave his own life. How can I find a gracious God – by becoming a member of Christ’s body in baptism, and so coming to know the righteousness of God.
And once we have received baptism, once we have received this precious gift, we are set free to share the gift of grace through our grace-filled living: by works of thankfulness, by works of justice, works of peace. None of these works will make us righteous or good before God, but all of them will be symbols of God’s righteousness, are signs that we belong to him, as members of Christ’s body, as beloved daughters and sons of God. By our sharing in the life of God, by our sharing in his righteousness, we are made signs of his grace and love in this world. As members of Christ’s body we point not to ourselves and our own holiness, goodness or just deeds, but our works and actions, our prayer and praise, our singing and our sharing the Scriptures: all our lives point to God and the goodness and grace that comes from God.
Wie kriege ich einen gerechten Gott? – How can I find a gracious God? By coming to God and asking for his grace. We all can share in God’s grace. We only need to ask for it, Martin Luther affirmed half a millennium ago. As we give thanks for the insights of Martin Luther in rediscovering for his own generation the gift of God’s graciousness, I invite you to be witnesses to the message of hope to our own generation. Be ambassadors of the reconciling love of God where you live, work and worship. Share the gift of God’s graciousness with those among you are, so that they too might be invited to become followers of his Son Jesus Christ. Seek the gift of baptism, and share in the life of God which is forever and for all generations: his greatest gift of all, Jesus, the Son, the beloved, who calls us to be beloved children of God.
© Andreas Loewe, 2017