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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
A Sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Remembrance Sunday 2016, marking the Diamond Jubilee of the Foundation of the Friends of Cathedral Music:
Joy-filled song, singing with hearts full of delight and lungs bursting with exultation, is what the coming of God’s kingdom is like, our first lesson tells us. When God comes to meet us, God will sing his song to us: ‘he will exult with loud singing’. God’s song will be heard by nations, and will be taken up by all people, the prophet Zephaniah tells us. God will share his song with us and, as we are wrapped up in his song, our shame is changed into praise, our ignorance into renown. As God sings his song, many others are gathered up in his eternal song of praise. We will know that have returned home, when we all share in the song that God has sung first, when the hearts of all are filled with joy, and the lips of all with praise; when all sing together, in harmony, ‘as on a day of festival’.
Today is a day of festival, and a day when we give thanks for the gift of God’s song as we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Friends of Cathedral Music, and their support in helping us to establish the girls’ voices of the Cathedral Choir. We give thanks for the gift of music; thank God that he promises us that the song he sang at the beginning of creation, calling heaven and earth and all living creatures into being through his spirit-filled song, will one day be on the lips of all people. We give thanks that God gives us the gift of harmony, the joy of joining together in song to praise God, and so to share in celebration together. And we give thanks that God gives us songs to sing as we await, in hope, his coming among us again to lead us all in song, that God gives us songs written by inspired musicians, psalm writers, composers and singers, that give voice to our joy, and voice to our longing for the day when God himself will lead us all in his eternal song.
The gift of music stands at the heart of all worship. We sing, because God has given us a song to share. We sing to celebrate our belonging together as a community of believers. We sing to give thanks, to mourn, to celebrate, to grieve, and to share our conviction that God’s song will carry on when our own voices have fallen silent, when our worship has concluded, our choir rehearsals are over, when our voices have become croaky and our singing breathless; that God’s song will carry on when we breathe our last and come to share the singing of the eternal song ‘in another place and in a greater light’, among the multitude of Saints and angels who stand forever in God’s presence, and who share the song that tells how one day in God’s courts is better than a thousand.
And in order to prepare us for the time when we sing God’s song in his presence, God gives us artists and musicians who, even here on earth, in the midst of the cacophony of many other voices, and often in the absence of harmony, can give us glimpses of the song that will be forever. Our own singing together may be a pale reflection of the beauty and the harmony of heaven, but it is in essence the same: the quality of our song may be different, but the heart of the song is the same. We sing to share together in declaring God’s praise, in telling with confidence of the hope that God will indeed come among us, is in our midst already, and that, because of that hope, we shall fear neither evil nor disaster. We sing to tell of God’s love for us, and to share the song he sings with others. We sing to tell of God’s desire to bring peace to this world, and we share the song of the angels who first spoke of the coming of God’s peace-bearer: ‘glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’, we sing.
As we await the coming of God among us, God’s people sing the song of patient expectation. In our waiting, we are told to be alert at all times. In the same way in which musicians watch the baton of their conductors, we to watch for the signals of God’s coming. Some of these can be simple signs that we cannot fail to notice if we keep watching, such as a conductor signalling to the choir to stand up at the beginning of a performance or, as our second lesson puts it, like the sign of the fresh growth of spring after a long and hard winter: ‘as soon as the fig tree and other trees sprout leaves you can see yourselves that summer is near’, Jesus tells his friends. These are the clear and certain signs of God’s presence in this world that are easy to see: people coming together to worship is one of those clear signs, just as are the signs of transformation by God of individual lives when people are baptised, confirmed, ordained, or married.
Our second lesson tells that there are not only clear and obvious signs of God’s presence in our world, but that there are many signs that we may fail to notice. Signs that will signal God’s coming, but which may remain undetected. Signs that require us to look intentionally, that require us to hone our observation to perceive them. In the same way in which singers listen out for the entries of the voices around them, we are to keep our senses alert to see, hear, smell and feel the signs of the growth of God’s kingdom in our world, however small they may be. Just as our choristers have to learn to watch both their music and conductor, and listen to the different musical parts around them – the different voices and the organ – all at once, so we need to learn to watch for the small signs of God’s presence among us; listen out for the faint sounds of God’s song in our world.
God promises us that we will never be without the presence of his song if only we take time to listen. We take time to listen to God’s song when we pray, when we listen to his word through the study of the Holy Scriptures, when we share in the symbols of his covenant with us – the bread and wine of Holy Communion; the water we sprinkle at Baptism. These are activities we can share in order to listen more attentively for God’s coming again, so that ‘that day may not catch us unexpectedly’, as Jesus tells his listeners. There is one more thing we need to do to be able to hear God’s song, our second lesson tells us: we will need to tune down the noise that surrounds us – the booming voices of war and terror, the invidious whispers of envy and reproach, the harsh grating sounds of racism or sexism. We will need to guard our hearts from ‘being weighed down with the worries of this life’ to hear God’s song and learn to sing it together.
I give thanks for the gift of God’s song in our lives, and for the musicians who have a share in enabling us to hear the strains of God’s singing among us today. I give thanks for our own musicians, women and men, boys and girls, and their families and friends; all those who support them in their music making. I give thanks this night in particular for the sixty years of inspired service of the Friends of Cathedral Music and our own Music Foundation to support the efforts of those in ‘quires and places where they sing’ to take God’s song into the world around us. And as I give thanks I pray that God would continue to plant his song in our hearts; that he would give us joy to sing aloud, to rejoice at the knowledge of his presence and his love, his protection and blessing. May we hear the song of God in our lives; himself ‘exulting over us with his loud singing, as on a day of festival, changing our shame into praise and renown in all the earth, bringing us home and gathering us in.’ Amen.
© Andreas Loewe, 2016
A reflection given by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015, as part of a service of lessons and carols for Advent:
[Click for Audio on Soundcloud]
One of the first classical concerts I ever took part in, as a boy treble attending a German Lutheran High School named for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was a liturgical performance of Bach’s famous Advent Cantata, ‘Sleepers wake’ – ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’. We were all dressed in our black and white concert gear, assembled on the choir galleries of the large impressive city centre church, the orchestra at our feet, with the conductor poised to break the silence of the audience with Bach’s wonderful music.
As the violins soared, the trebles called out the solemn cry of the watchman on the city wall of Jerusalem, ‘Sleepers, wake, the bridegroom comes; wake up, all you who sleep in the city of Jerusalem’, we sang. It was an electrifying moment when the director gave us trebles our entry: ‘Wachet auf’, we called in Bach’s unforgettable setting of the timeless words. And the basses, tenors and altos took up our theme, calling the audience to be alert, awake; to listen to the Good News that the long awaited bridegroom had finally arrived.
The text on which Bach’s famous cantata is based is one of the last parables (or teaching stories) Jesus tells his friends, the disciples (Matthew 25.1-13): Jesus tells of those who kept alert, awake, through the night, who had kept the light going in the middle of darkness, and were able to see when the bridegroom arrived. As they joyfully entered the brightly-lit wedding hall for a midnight feast, those who had let their lights go out remained outside, were left behind in the darkness, Jesus told his friends. And encouraged them, ‘be alert, therefore, for you do not know the time or the hour’ (Matthew 25.12).
We do not know the time or the hour when Jesus Christ will return, joyfully like a bridegroom, to take us out of the many darknesses of our nights into his brightly-lit chambers for a feast of light. For each of us those darknesses may be different, may pose different challenges, represent different fears. For some, those nights of waiting are spent in fear or nightmares – the fear of persecution for their faith or displacement, the nightmare of terror or war; the fear of ill-health or age, the nightmare of depression and anxiety; the fear of redundancy or injury; the nightmare of unemployment, or of no longer being able of to make ends meet. Each of our nights, each of our Advents; looks and feels different.
But in each of these seasons of waiting through the hours of our nights and darknesses, we are encouraged to keep a light burning. Jesus’ story tells us to keep a light burning. A light that will both cast a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and that will keep our eyes alert, wakeful, ready to see the light-filled procession when the bridegroom comes. Jesus’ story tells us to keep our lamps trimmed; drawing on the resources of our faith – our prayers, our intent to love the Lord our God, and our neighbours as ourselves – in order to keep those lights burning through the night.
And Jesus’ story invites us to come together in our waiting; to leave behind the isolation of the darkness and to seek out glimmers of other lights, others who will share with us in our season of waiting. Because where many small lights come together, there the darkness is already disappearing. Jesus’ story invites us to fill the dark hours of our world with our lights, and to do so together, as a community of faith: encouraging one another as we wait for the greatest light of all to come, and extinguish all darkness forever. And as we wait, as a token of that hope, we are each given a lamp, a light, to share and to shine into the darkness, as we await the promised feast when Jesus comes again.
I loved performing Bach’s music as a child, and am delighted that I still get to sing today, once or twice a year, with the MSO Chorus. I well recall the excitement of that first performance, poised for my entry to sing the joyful song that the darkness now is over, and the bridegroom is here: ‘Wachet auf’, we sang, ‘Sleepers wake’, we sang out; telling all who would hear that those who kept their lights burning through the night were already on their way into the wedding hall, and inviting others to join the joyful feast of the Light that has overcome the darkness, of the Light that illumines even the middle of the darkest night.
The season of Advent is a bit like preparing for a musical performance, like Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. Rehearsed and ready, in our concert clothes, standing in our places, with music in our hands and the song ready in our heads, watching out for the conductor to signal us to sing. Alert and awake, ready to sing out at the right signal, ready to call others to join the joyful song, ready to call any who will listen to hear that now is the moment to awake, to leave behind the darkness and to enter into the light.
This Advent, I give thanks for the joyful song that promises to call us from darkness to light. I give thanks for the time of preparation, the time when we rehearse that song through our prayers, our reading of the stories that remind us of God’s promise that the darkness will not have the upper hand, when we share our works of hope in a world where there is still so much hopelessness. I give thanks for those who rehearse, who wait, with us, who share their light, their companionship, with us as we wait. And I give thanks for those who lead us in our song, who keep their eyes alert with us, who encourage us to keep our joyful song ready in our hearts – ready to call out: ‘Sleepers, wake: the Lord is here’.
Ⓒ Text and Audio: Andreas Loewe, 2015
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of Christ the King, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, 22 November 2015:
‘Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him: “are you the King of the Jews?”’ (St John 18.33). For Pilate there was no question that Jesus could not possibly be a proper king. He certainly was not related to one of the local vassal rulers loyal to Rome; Pilate knew them only too well. Herod and his siblings had been educated in Rome. They would have known and preserved the proper courtesies, would have called at a more opportune moment and not visited him at the crack of dawn as this caller did. Come to think of it, his caller did look as if he had slept rough that night; if he had slept at all. True, he did come with an entourage. But the cohort of Temple policemen that accompanied him were certainly not a guard of honour.
For Pilate’s caller early that Good Friday morning was a prisoner. He was bound, and the Temple authorities sent him into the Roman military headquarters with a criminal charge of sorts: ‘if this man were not a criminal’, they had told him, ‘we would not have handed him over to you’. When Pilate had tried to hand the case back to the Temple authorities for their judgement they told him that, as far as they were concerned, this case was already settled: ‘we are not permitted to put anyone to death’, they told Pilate. And the evangelist John fills in the gaps, and tells us that they were not permitted to crucify anyone, only were permitted to put people to death for breaking religious laws, such as stoning adulterers or heretics. Pilate’s early morning caller, then, was not a religious criminal, but was accused by his captors of another crime altogether: ‘it was better for one man to die, than for the whole people to perish’, the leader of the Temple authorities had reasoned when he planned for this course of action.
The charge was insurrection. The man whom they had captured had spoken much about the kingdom of God, had told his followers what they needed to do to enter that kingdom. Only a few days earlier, the prisoner had been accorded a royal progress into the city of Jerusalem: hailed by the crowds as their King. The people of Israel had not had a king of their own for a generation. The offspring of Herod the Great were loyal servants of Rome, not sovereign kings. Rather they ruled under sufferance. Rome might not care about someone proclaiming himself the Son of God. They would take notice, however, of someone proclaiming himself King of Israel. And so they brought their prisoner to Pilate, to be interrogated.
And Pilate knew that this was no ordinary king. ‘Are you the King of the Jews’, he asked Jesus. Jesus neither denied nor affirmed, but rather questioned Pilate on his sources: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Was it a Roman security briefing, or the charge submitted by his captors that caused this extraordinary conversational opening gambit. And Pilate admits that it was his captors who had briefed him, and dismissed both the questioner and the Temple judges: ‘Am I a Jew?’, he sneered, ‘your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me on a charge of insurrection. What have you done?’
And Jesus repeated his teaching, telling the governor of a distant emperor, Pilate, of another kingdom with a divine ruler. A kingdom that is so alien to Pilate, that it seems to him to be from another world altogether. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, Jesus told Pilate, ‘if it were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. But since I am bound and standing in front of you a captive, ‘my kingdom is not from here’, Jesus told his questioner. Who promptly asks a counter-question: ‘so you are a king?’, he asks. And Jesus responds, ‘you say I am a king’, and again affirms the purpose of that kingdom that is so incomprehensible to Pilate: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’.
The essence of God’s kingdom is to bring liberty to all people. And the key to that freedom, that liberty, was the truth of his teaching, Jesus had taught in the temple. ‘If you hold to my teaching you will be my disciples’, he had told the people: ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, he had affirmed. The key to God’s kingdom was to know the word and will of God, and to believe it to be true, Jesus now told his judge. ‘You say, I am a king’, he told, ‘but I really I am a judge, who is able to set the captives free’.
Pilate may have heard Jesus explain, ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. But clearly he did not understand the significance of what he had been told: ‘What is truth?’, he quipped. And for the writer of this interchange it is clear that Pilate cannot possibly belong to the truth. He has no interest in his captive, nor in what he regards as the squabbles between different Jewish sects. He has no time for eternal truths, or kingdoms that cannot be defined in terms of legions and taxes. ‘What is truth?’, he asks, and does not even wait to hear an answer. And it is in this frame of mind – shut to anything other than what he expected to hear in the first instance – that he ultimately condemned Jesus to be crucified. There is no final conversion for Pilate; no sudden insight, as for the leader of the cohort stationed on Golgotha, that ‘truly this was God’s own Son’. Pilate’s heart is set as flint, hardened as the bedrock of Calvary; though that, too, like Pilate, will ultimately be broken.
The story of the king without a kingdom that stands at the heart of today’s celebration of the festival of Christ, the king, is an invitation to us to open our ears to the message of the king who has been captured; the sovereign whose throne is a cross. It is an invitation to look not at the might and power of Pilate’s opposite but his teaching. Indeed, at the time of Pilate’s questioning him, Jesus has divested himself of all worldly power: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’, he affirms, and points to his message as the basis of his kingship: ‘I came into the world to testify to the truth’. The truth that shall set us free. That truth would have sat uncomfortably for rulers like Pilate, whose power was exercised by might; by crushing his opponents and silencing dissent. The truth of the king, whose rule has overcome the rulers of this world, on the other hand, does empower and set free, because it invites us to open our ears to listen – listen to Jesus, and his teaching, and to one another: ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’, Jesus told his questioner.
We live in a world where the values of the king without a kingdom that today’s festival bring into focus are increasingly eroded. The truth that will set us free – the truth that can overcome unjust structures of government like Pilate’s police state, and that can topple powerful empires – is an uncomfortable one precisely because it holds up a mirror. A mirror in which we can discern only too well the flaws of our own generation: the world’s desire for recognition, influence and power. A mirror in which we see countless reflections of the crucified king without a kingdom in the tears and bloodshed, the death and destruction of this age. The truth that will set us free is the realisation that the powers of the Pilates of this world are worth nothing at all unless they can hear the voice of the king without a kingdom and understand that the answer to their existential questions – ‘what is truth’, ‘what is it that will set us free?’ – stands right in front of them: Jesus is truth. The man who neither looks, nor acts like a king; who shuns power, and by so doing breaks all powers.
The events of the past weeks: the acts of terror and counter-terror; the acts of revenge and reprisal that invariably follow are the actions of the mighty; the actions of the Pilates of this world. They are not the actions of those who listen to the voice of the king who rules from the cross who, with his dying breath, prayed: ‘Father forgive, for they do not know what they are doing’. And who, himself forgiving, bade the repentant captive enter that kingdom without boundaries: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, the one crucified at his side prayed, having looked into the mirror of violence and punishment, of action and counter-action, and seen only broken bodies, pierced limbs and sides, and blood flowing freely from the wounds of nails and spears. And having seen beyond the kingship of might; and having recognised the kingship of brokenness, he entrusted himself to the king without a land. The king, who by letting himself be broken, has taken up into himself the brokenness of this world, and overcome it. ‘Fear not’, says the king who rules from the cross, ‘today you shall be with me in paradise’.
Holy God; holy and strong; holy and immortal. Have mercy on us.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St Bartholomew, 23 August 2015:
St Bartholomew, whose memory we honour today, is the one apostle whose life-story you will not find recounted beyond his appearance in the lists of apostles in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 10.2-4; Mark 3.16-19; Luke 6.14-16), or his witnessing, in the Acts of the Apostles, of Christ’s ascension (Acts 1.13).
There are a number of reasons why this might be so. The most plausible is that ‘Bartholomew’ is not really a first name, but a patronymic—a surname. ‘Bar’ is a popular Hebrew or Aramaic prefix that, to this day in some modern Hebrew surnames, means ‘the son of’. So just as Jesus sometimes calls Peter by his patronymic ‘bar Jonah’, the Son of John (Matthew 16.17), and blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timothy, is only ever known by his patronymic (Mark 10.46-52), so Bartholomew means ‘son of Ptolomy’—not an unlikely father’s first name in a Galilee so cosmopolitan that it is, at times, disparagingly referred to as ‘Galilee of the Nations’—gentile Galilee (Matthew 4.15).
If Bartholomew is his surname, then what was his first name? Tradition has identified Bartholomew with Nathanael, the friend of the apostle Philip. Nathanael like Philip was Galilean from ‘Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter’, a city at the confluence of the upper Jordan and the Sea of Galilee (John 1.44). And since the three lists of the apostles always name Bartholomew in the same breath as Philip, this is reasonably plausible. Nathanael was not only a close friend of the first three disciples—Andrew, Peter, and Philip—and like them shared the same hometown on lake Galilee, but was also brought to Jesus by his friend Philip.
Our Gospel reading, from the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, records the encounter between the Jesus, Philip and Nathanael: taken by Philip to see Jesus, Philip remarked that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town some 50 kilometres from Bethsaida as the crow flies. Nathanael flippantly countered, ‘can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46). If Jesus overheard the remark, he did not react in anger. Instead he ‘heaped coals’ on Nathanael’s head by pronouncing him ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit’ (John 1.47). Amazed by this unexpected characterisation, Nathanael asked, ‘where did you get to know me?’ Jesus’ response, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’ is sufficient evidence for Nathanael to confess Jesus as the Christ, and decide to follow him (John 1.48-9).
Again and again I am struck by the simplicity and warmth of this extraordinary call of those first apostles: how Jesus who, in the rapid succession of the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, had been proclaimed both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, turned – and noticed that there are people following him. How he asked them the simple question: ‘What do you seek?’—‘What is it that are you looking for? Come and tell me’ (John 1.38). How the group of friends didn’t tell Jesus what they really wanted, which was presumably to come and to follow him, but instead responded by asking him a question themselves. ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’, they asked him. How Jesus replied, ‘Come and see’. And how they, in turn, remained with him (John 1.38-9).
As usual, St John’s Gospel here is packed to the brim with symbolism. The use of the Greek ‘opsomai’—to see—is much more telling than any of our translations could render. In the short passage that recounts the call of the first apostles, Jesus or the disciples are described as ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’ four times. Each time, the word implies the scrutiny of a situation, or a revelation. Jesus’ words to the disciples to ‘come and see’, then, can mean as much ‘find out yourselves’, as ‘let your minds be changed’.
For what Jesus talks about to the four Galilean friends Andrew, Peter, Philip and Bartholomew is both very much in the present as it is in the future. Consequently, the ‘dwelling’ at which their ‘Rabbi’ is staying is at once the physical place at which Jesus is resting, as is the home to which Jesus truly belongs; the ‘house’ of his heavenly Father. Likewise, the words ‘come and see’ echo both the intent recognition of the four friends, such as his knowing Peter to be Cephas, ‘the Rock’, or his knowledge that Philip and Bartholomew would see even greater things, namely ‘heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ (John 1.51) – a prophecy fulfilled on mount Calvary, when Christ died abandoned by his disciples; and confirmed on the mount of Olives, when the four he first called to his service along many other disciples witnessed his Ascension.
For the gospel writer to ‘see aright’, then, implies to see beyond the physical: to behold heaven opened; to discern Christ in his glory. That is why in verses before today’s second lesson ‘come and see’ serves not only as an invitation to the four friends from Bethsaida, but also as the response Philip gives when his friend Bartholomew questions whether the Messiah can really be someone from such humble circumstances as Jesus, whether he could possibly come from Nazareth.
In order to follow Christ’s call to come and see, means to be prepared to go out looking for those things which are not readily visible to the eye; those things that can prompt the response ‘we have found the Messiah’, or ‘we have seen heaven opened’. In our epistle reading from the Revelation of St John the Divine (Revelation 21.9b-14), we are given a glimpse of that reality which remains yet hidden from our sight: heaven stands open, and God’s holy city of peace, Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth; radiant like a Jewel. Looking out for the things that may be visible only to the eye of faith in the here and now, and become fully revealed at the end of all time, is one way of sharpening our spiritual gaze.
At the same time, to ‘come and see’ also invites us means to look intently, searchingly at our human relationships, examine the way we look at others. Just as Jesus does on first meeting Bartholomew and knowing him to be an Israelite without guile, or on meeting Peter and knowing him at once to be a man with severe flaws and shortcomings, as well as the rock that will carry his church. We also are invited to look at those we encounter and recognise in them the God-given strengths amidst our —all too human—flaws and shortcomings. We also are invited to look intently at the gifts God gives to us, and to discern the many differing qualities that lie at the heart of each relationship with God. Christians have called those qualities our ‘vocation’ or ‘life calling’. To accept Christ’s invitation to ‘come and see’ invites us to discern our own calling and seek the company of others to pursue that vocation.
Christ’s question ‘What do you seek?’ prompted Bartholomew to abandon any shallow preconceptions—‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’—and instead to know Jesus as the Messiah, ‘the Son of God and King of Israel’ (John 1.47; 49). It motivated him to leave behind his erstwhile profession and familiar surroundings to follow Jesus beyond the cross and resurrection. Bartholomew remained a follower of Jesus even beyond the moment when the prophecy that he would know ‘heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon Christ’. Having seen that prophecy fulfilled at the Ascension, he witnessed to what he had seen by making Christ’s Good News known to others. Accompanied by St Jude, Bartholomew brought Christ’s invitation ‘what do you seek?’ to the people of Armenia; was flayed alive, tradition tells, and died a martyr’s death, testifying in life and death to the Messiah from Nazareth.
The question that underlies the story of the call of St Bartholomew and his three friends from Bethsaida in the opening chapter of St John’s Gospel—‘what do seek?’—is a question that is addressed to all of us. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Bartholomew, to allow our preconceptions to be radically challenged, and to have our eyes opened to a new reality—that of the heavens opened and the Son of God in glory. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Andrew, to confess Jesus as the Messiah, and to bring our sisters and brothers to him. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Peter, to be known by Jesus, and to be given a new name, and a new task: that of ensuring that God’s good news proclaimed throughout the world.
Christ’s words of invitation, ‘come and see’, are there for all people. The words that brought St Bartholomew to the man from Nazareth, and led him to confess him to be the ‘Christ and King of Israel’, still invite people to believe that all are called, and all have a calling to serve God. Our gifts may differ, our tasks may differ—but we share the same call, alongside Bartholomew, Philip, Andrew and Peter, and all those who have heard and heeded Christ’s invitation, and are now numbered among his friends, and among the Saints.
It is my prayer for you and me that we may be given strength to respond to Christ’s call to follow him, to make him known through our own words of invitation, and so to enable many to accept Christ’s invitation to encounter him, behold him, and be changed through him: here in this Cathedral and city, here in our own generation.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Sea Sunday, 12 July 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford:
I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Primate of Australia and the metropolitical Cathedral of the Province of Victoria. Thank you, Dean Martyn Percy and Sub-Dean Edmund Newey for your kind invitation to preach this morning: It is a joy to be back at Christ Church, the place of my ordination 14 years ago, and before then the place in which I sang regularly during the summer months as part of your voluntary choir – the Cathedral singers.
This morning’s reading speak of the awe-inspiring nature of the sea, and assure us that the God who, at the beginning of time, made the sea and the dry land is master of the oceans, seas and rivers of our world. They tell us that, at the end of all time, God will gather in his people from all directions of the compass, ‘gather them out of the lands, from the east, the west, the north and the south’ (Psalm 107.3). They remind us that, even though God brings in entire nations and people, he knows each one of us individually and personally, ‘calls us by name’, and makes us his own (Isaiah 43.1). And, in the light of that knowledge, they invite us to place our own trust in the One who commands ‘even the wind and sea’, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to find our haven in the vision of the kingdom of heaven to which he calls those who know him (Mark 4.41).
I encountered the majesty and treachery of the ocean during my formative years on the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. For some two years I served as a helmsman of an Atlantic-class Inshore Life-Boat patrolling a thirty-mile stretch of the coast of South Wales. It was at once exhilarating and awe-inspiring to cut through the gale-swept waves at a speed of more than 25 knots, as our crew responded to the maritime emergency call ‘Save Our Souls’. Those in peril on the seas ranged from small sailing vessels to large commercial craft, included children caught in the tidal change on their rubber dinghies and beachgoers caught out at the bottom of steep cliffs by the high tide. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to ensure the physical safety of those threatened by the elements, and it gave me a first hand insight into the challenges and dangers faced by those serving on the seas on a daily basis.
During my time as part of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution, I learnt as much about saving souls as I have learnt since in my ministry as a parish priest and Dean; and learnt about giving thanks for missions accomplished successfully: bedraggled children returned to their anxious parents, shivering day-trippers restored to safety. At the same time I had my first encounters with violent deaths, as the sea claimed and did not return those we set out to rescue: learnt about the pain and the cost of souls lost at sea. It was at times like these, I now know with the benefit of hindsight, that I began begun to grapple with the challenge posed by the Christian assurance of resurrection: how could it be that there was a life for those who had died? When faced with those we brought back drowned, when faced with an unsuccessful rescue, I began to ponder the hope for souls lost at sea, and all other departed.
The question of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for all souls—not only those lost at sea—is addressed by our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.1-7). The prophet assures those who fear their own future and, as part of that future, their own future mortality, that God has ‘redeemed them’ (43.2). God has responded to his people’s call, far away from safety, in a foreign land of exile and oppression, and he promises them a future: ‘I have formed you; I have redeemed you’, God tells through the prophet (43.1). God cares so much for the people who call on him in their distress, that he knows each individual plight, each individual challenge, we read: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43.1).
And God promises them safe passage to the safe haven he promises them: the place of safety and protection, where God will be with his people, where ‘everyone who is called by God’s name, whom God created for his glory, whom he formed and made’ will dwell forevermore: the eternal haven of heaven (43.7). God not only promises a place of safety and refuge at the end of our journeys through life: he also promises safe passage to that haven, the prophet Isaiah foretells. Neither the natural environment nor people and nations hostile to God’s people shall, ultimately, be a threat to those whom God calls his own: ‘when you pass through the waters I shall be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’, we heard (Isaiah 43.2).
Life’s journey may lead through turbulent waters, Isaiah prophecies, but God will walk with his people: ‘do not fear, I am with you’, God speaks to his own (43.1). Even should God’s people face life in subjection to a harsh taskmaster and overlord—as during their exile in Babylon, the context into which Isaiah’s words were spoken—God has ultimately won the liberty of his people, has ransomed them and set them free: ‘I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life’ (43.3). The physical freedom and life of his people has been won by the ransom of ancient superpowers, our reading knows: ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you’ (43.3). The everlasting freedom and life of his people has been won by another ransom: the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).
Giving entire nations as a ransom so that one people—gathered from all nations—may live in freedom is a steep price to pay. Giving the life of God himself as a ransom so that all people may live forever is an even more precious price to pay. Our second reading, from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, introduces us to the One who would be given as God’s ransom to ensure that death will no longer imperil God’s people (Mark 4.35-41). We meet the disciples and Jesus towards the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ followers do not yet know his true identity as Son of God: at this stage in the story they only know him as a healer and an inspiring teacher. As they cross the Sea of Galilee, a ‘great gale arose’ (4.37).
The disciples knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands: most of them had run their own fishing business, and had navigated its waters on an almost daily basis. Between them, they had had many years of sailing experience, had steered safely through many a sudden gale on the Sea that provided their livelihood. Yet this storm is beyond even their extensive experience: they struggle for control of their sailing vessel: the waves break into their ship, and swamp the hull. Their teacher remains oblivious to his disciples’ danger, ‘asleep in the stern’ as the gale roars and the waves threaten to sink the ship (4.38).
At this point, the disciples acknowledge their failure to control the vessel and send out one of the first recorded ‘SOS’ calls in naval history: Save our souls—‘we are perishing’, they cry out waking their teacher, who rebukes the wind and commands the Sea: ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4.39), Jesus calls on the elements, and the elements obey and are still. Where only moments ago the chaos of gale and flood threatened the lives of those aboard the fishing vessel, now there is a dead calm, as the water and the wind are at peace. This sudden peace is clearly not human work—the disciples drew on all their skill as seafarers to navigate through the gale, and failed—but God’s gift.
And for the disciples it is indeed the ‘peace of God, which is beyond all understanding’: ‘they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”,’ our reading questions (4.41). Where human efforts and skill fail, it is by God’s command and through God’s gift of peace that the waves are stilled and the crew is safely brought home to their haven. ‘Who then is this?’, Jesus’ followers ponder, and fail to draw the conclusion that the One who commands the elements to share in God’s peace is also the very One who called them to being at the time of creation, the One who by ‘his word called the stormy sea, which lifts its waves in power’ (Psalm 107.25).
At the end of the story of Jesus and his disciples, his friends know him to be not only the teacher who saved them from drowning at sea, but as the ‘one Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2.5-6). They had seen him as he gave his life on a cross, and saw him again risen from the dead, saw him as a pledge of the life that is forever, for all. They knew him to be the One whom not only the winds and the sea obey, but whom death and life obey. They know him to be the source of their peace now, and the hope of their eternal rest. They know him to be the One who heard their SOS one gust swept night, and has saved their souls forever; know that the One who brought them to the safe haven when they were perishing as their vessel was swamped will also bring them safely to their eternal haven. And they know the cost of that rescue operation, that salvation: the life of the Son of God as a ransom for many, which opened the haven of salvation—heaven itself—to all people who seek God’s friendship.
It was at sea that I first learnt about responding to the mayday signal ‘SOS’. Indeed it was at sea that I first successfully helped to save souls. It was also at sea that I first asked questions about our unsuccessful missions, pondered the reality of pain and loss, brokenness and death. Those questions for me might have remained perpetual questions, had I not been invited by a group of Christians at this university to reflect with them on the central question that Jesus’ disciples asked themselves in today’s second lesson: ‘who then is this Man?’ (Mark 4.41). It was some five years after my service in the Royal National Life-Boat Institution that I was confirmed in my Oxford College Chapel, and confessed my adult faith in Jesus Christ: that I acknowledged that Christ was the One who, ultimately, has saved all souls—even those we did not manage to bring back to shore alive.
As we give thanks for the seafarers who daily face the risks of the great oceans that surround our Island nation, I invite you to ponder the mystery at the heart of this morning’s readings: the mystery that God saves souls; that God calls each one of us by name, and redeems his own; that God has prepared for all who seek him a haven that is forever—the place where ‘all storms will cease, all waves will be still; all will be at rest’ (Psalm 107.29-30). And as we give thanks for the gift of God’s peace, let us also acknowledge the cost of that peace: wrought at the cost of the One who gave his life as a ransom for many; wrought at the cost of the many lives who, following in his service, have given their own lives so that we might enjoy the freedom and peace we know; wrought in countless conflicts through the centuries, just as it has been, and is being wrought in countless acts of selfless giving, kindness and sacrifice each day.
And now ‘may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant us all peace, love and faith. May his grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus, in life imperishable. Amen’. (Ephesians 6.25).
Photography: Royal National Life Boat Institution UK. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:
‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.
‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.
‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.
‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).
‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).
Let us pray:
God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, 7 June 2015
Today’s readings are all about God’s work of forgiveness in a world of conflicting standards. They take us to key moments in the life of God and his people, to explain how evil entered the world and what God is doing in order to ensure that evil will not have the upper hand. They remind us that evil can take many forms – like the serpent in our first lesson or the demons referred to in our Gospel reading – and that it is impossible to make a good bargain or deal with evil – for evil delights in deceiving. They urge us to call on God when we feel burdened; when find ourselves in the depths out of which our psalmist addressed his heartfelt prayer to God. They show us how, through Jesus Christ God has already bound evil, and plundered evil’s store of deceits and deceptions, like the property of strong man in our gospel reading.
Because God was there at the beginning of the story of evil’s sway over humankind, and because Christ has already taken away the ultimate power of evil and death, today’s readings encourage us never to lose heart: even if our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. And the key to that constant renewal, our lessons tell us, is seeking God’s friendship, his protection, and forgiveness.
Our first lesson (Genesis 3.8-14), from the first book of the Bible, tells the story of creation in allegorical terms. God has created a universe he knew to be very good, and placed humankind in the middle of his garden of delights. There is no no harm, no hardship, no death; only goodness, growth and life. Everything in God’s garden promotes life; especially the trees at the heart of the garden: ‘the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2.9). In return for life in his presence, in return for his goodness and the absence of any evil, God commands humankind not to consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In an environment that is all good, with the tree of life to give life, and no form of evil at all, there is no need to discern between good and evil, God knows. Indeed, the very act of seeking to know of evil in an environment that is all good, God knows, invites evil, harm and death into the garden of goodness. And so God tells humankind not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Genesis 2.15).
The people did not die immediately, once they had eaten of the fruit that invited evil into God’s good creation. But with the knowledge of evil in a world of goodness came evil itself – not only the temptation to be like God and to be enabled to navigate the complexities of discerning what is good and wholesome and what is evil and destructive – but the very evil that leads to death and mortality. Indeed, a chapter after our first lesson sees the first fruits of evil and death: a deep-rooted jealously that led to pre-meditated murder as Cain killed his brother Abel. Once evil had been admitted into God’s good creation, our story tells, there was no more protection from the ultimate fruit of evil. Where once the fruit that sustained humankind had been the goodness of the fruit of life; now there only remained the decay of the fruits of death, as people daily are confronted with the need to discern what is good and what is not, and folk sense more and more how their outward nature is wasting away, on the way to the ultimate, universal, human destiny: death (2 Corinthians 4.16).
It is this very physical experience of evil and oppression, of death and destruction, that led our psalmist to cry out to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130.1). Our Psalm is one of the fifteen psalms of ascents, the songs of pilgrimage of the second temple that were sung by faithful followers of the God of Israel on the way to, or on the steps of, the restored Jerusalem sanctuary. Our psalm is written from the perspective of exile and distance, recalls the time in captivity, when God’s people were driven away from the land of their promise by fault of their own disobedience, when they were ‘led away’, by the Lord, ‘with the evildoers’ (Psalm 128.5). As in the garden of goodness, so here, on the steps of the temple sanctuary, our writer recalls, appeals to, God’s goodness. We might find ourselves in the depths, might find ourselves afflicted and oppressed, like God’s faithful followers in exile. Yet even when confronted with the reality of the fruits of evil, and an absence of goodness to discern, there remains a sign of our hope: our direct appeal to the One who created this world to be very good, and who will hear the supplications of those who call on him – wherever and in whatever circumstance of life we might find ourselves: ‘let your ears be consider well – be attentive to – the voice of my supplication’, our psalm writer prays God (Psalm 130.2)
Our psalmist knows that, having presumed to take the place of God and discern between good and evil, humankind had, all too often, chosen the path of evil rather than goodness. If God were to do what humankind appropriated to itself – the right to pronounce judgement of what is good and what is not, the right to know what is good and what is not – then none would stand; all would fail and fall, the psalmist has experienced: ‘If you, Lord, should note what we do wrong: who then, O Lord, could stand?’ (Psalm 130.3).
At the same time, the writer, who plunged the depths of human experience, also knows that God will readily show mercy, if only we ask him to take away our the evil that oppresses, and our own sins: ‘there is forgiveness with you … with the Lord there is mercy, and with him ample redemption’ (Psalm 130, 4, 7). ‘Trust in the Lord’, the writer appeals to those who, like him, have known of the misery of the depths of evil and human frailty: ‘God will redeem his people from the multitude of their sins’ (Psam 130.8).
Our gospel reading from Mark’s account of the story of Jesus and his followers, gives us a very practical insight into how God has redeemed his people from the multitude of their sins through his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus had just called to himself a group of twelve apostles, followers whom had had commissioned ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out evil’ (Mark 3.14-15). These returned with him to his home in Capernaum and, because he had healed many, ‘a great multitude followed him’ (Mark 3.7). So large was the crowd, so desirous to be healed, to be set free from the fruits of disease and death, that Jesus and his apostles ‘could not even eat’ (Mark 3.20). Jesus’ own family come to take him home for a meal and a rest: the experience of healing so many, of setting folk free from the fruits of evil – which for Mark included possession by evil forces – had worn Jesus out, they believed. Or at least their neighbours thought so, the people who kept on saying: ‘he has gone out of his mind’ (Mark 3.21). But they are rebuffed by their son and brother: are sent away so that Jesus is enabled to explain why it was that he did what he did.
Until now in Mark’s gospel, we have only seen the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of countering evil in all its guises – at this stage only evil personified knows Jesus’ true identity and mission: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’, the demons address him (Mark 1.24). Until now in Mark’s account, we have only seen the fruits of his mission to be a physician to those who are sick in body, mind or soul; to be the One who pronounces forgiveness to those who have sinned, or are so deeply affected by evil that they feel as if demons had conquered their innermost selves. Until now in Mark’s story, only those set free, only those healed, know Jesus’ true identity: the others are amazed, attracted and follow him; or are unsettled, upset and call him a blasphemer.
The reason why Jesus does not have time to go home and rest, why he sends his own family away, and calls his disciples and anyone else who ‘do the will of God’ his ‘brother and sister and mother’, is not because he does not love, or care for them, but because he is about to engage those who are unsettled, and reveal to all what doing the will of God entails for him. For Jesus doing God’s will means nothing less than entering ‘the house of the strong man and plundering his spoils’ (Mark 3.27).
The ‘strong man’ in our gospel reading is evil personified. From the moment of the story of evil entering human existence in the garden of God’s goodness, evil had steadily increased in power, built for itself a strong fortress, gathered for itself spoils from frail humans. Jesus’ task is to bind evil, to storm his fortress, and to plunder his spoils, Mark tells in his story. Only by binding evil and setting free those drawn into its sphere of influence, drawn into the strong man’s house, people will be able to taste again of the fruit of the tree of life. Jesus tells the scribes and teachers of the law who have come from Jerusalem to ascertain his motives: ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins’ (Mark 3.28). Those who believe that Jesus is the agent of this deliverance will be able to call on God out of the depths of even the deepest distress, and be given the assurance of a new beginning, a new life. Those who only see the power of the strong man, ‘Beelzebul, the ruler of demons’, do blaspheme against the power of God, and the Holy Spirit through whom God accomplishes the work of deliverance (Mark 3.29). Those people, Jesus says, will remain in their depths of distress, will not able to lift their heads above the parapet of the depths from which they call: ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’, Jesus rebuked those who had come from Jerusalem to rein him in (Mark 3.29).
This liberation by Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope expressed so poetically in our epistle reading: because Jesus has bound the powers of evil, and set free those in death’s domain from eternal death, we may have hope, Paul knows. The fruits of the tree of life are given us to sustain us in our own journey of mortality, the apostle tells, are set against the wasting away of our outer nature. Where the outward is wasting away, ‘the inner nature is being renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4.16). Where the fruit of evil and sin is death, the One who has overcome death by his own death, and bound evil by overcoming this world and its ruler, has returned to us fruit from the garden of God’s delight. And that is why ‘we believe: because we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus, and will bring us – with you – into his presence’, Paul affirms this firm and certain hope (2 Corinthians 4.14). Hope this certainly is: hope that cannot be seen – ‘for what can be seen is temporary’, and is subject to destruction by death; hope that cannot be seen, because ‘what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4.18).
The call from the depths of our oppression, the call from the depths of death, has been answered, Paul proclaims. Even though ‘the earthly tent we live in is destroyed’, even though we continue to share the certainty of mortality with the first Adam, we also share the hope of immortality of the second Adam. The hope of heaven reopened, a garden prepared for us, and it it a tree of delights and life: ‘we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’, Paul knows (2 Corinthians 5.1). Evil may well be a daily reality; the discernment of good, in a world that shows so much evil, will continue to be a labour of sweat and toil of tears, ‘till we return to the ground’ (Genesis 4.19). But we undertake this labour in the knowledge that the root of all evil has been bound, and the stronghold of evil been conquered, by the One who calls us to be his brothers and sisters, his family; people who join him in doing the will of God.
God’s will is for this creation to be very good. God made it good, and remade it by binding the power of evil and giving us fruit from the tree of life to sustain us in our journey to his ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1). God invites us to join in the work of promoting goodness and life, invites us to be members of the family of his Son, who share with Christ in doing the work of reconciliation and resurrection.
As we seek to do God’s will at the heart of this city, by our listening to God’s word, our sharing of his good news, and our ministry of bringing others closer to God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we may know God’s salvation, trust in his mercy and know his love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015