Category Archives: My writings and sermons

Pentecost: Together living the transforming life of the Holy Spirit

A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, 24 May 2015:

Holy Spirit

I bring you warm greetings from the clergy and congregations of St Thomas’ Fifth Avenue New York, and the National Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Washington DC, with whom I spent the past week. During my brief journey to the United States I reflected on with my colleagues what it may mean to belong to, to be a member of a Cathedral, and thinking more about how our ministry as Cathedrals or civic churches at the heart of our metropolitan cities, can enable people to belong and to become equipped for the ministry of making known the good news of the transforming love of the Holy Spirit.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome this morning two new members of our Cathedral Chapter and their families and friends, welcome to Canon Rosemary Maries and Lay Canon Campbell Bairstow, who have come to join us in sharing in our mission of proclaiming the good news of Christ at the heart of our city, and taking it to the places where they worship and minister: to Barwon hospital and Geelong in the case of Canon Rosemary, and to Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, in the case of Lay Canon Campbell. It is a joy to welcome you to your home church, and to reflect with you, and our congregation, on the promise of this morning’s readings. That we are called to be people who live the life of Pentecost; people who, by the way we live, minister and worship, give others an insight into the values of God’s kingdom, and so show forth the way to walking close with God.

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This morning’s lessons not only call us to live out the good news of Pentecost as a community of believers, and make it known so that each may hear ‘in their own languages … about God’s deeds of power’, as our as our first lesson tells (Acts 2.11). They also invite us to be open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to recognise the gift of the Spirit in others. Both men and women, young and old; people from across the known compass of the globe: ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2.9-11). Our readings invite us to recognise that all people are called, to be bound together by the Holy Spirit, as a community of believers that together makes known the transforming power of God’s Spirit.

Christ calls people from all backgrounds, with different languages and stories, from different ages and with diverse gifts, with differing abilities and skills, to follow him. Today’s festival reminds us that the way by which Christ calls people, the agency through which we and others are enabled to hear, follow and share his call, is God’s Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit who unites God’s people on earth, who amplifies God’s message, and enables people to respond to and testify to Christ’s call. Our Gospel reading tells us how ‘the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and … declare to you the things that are to come’ (John 16.14). And it is the same Holy Spirit who enables people to live and work together as a community of believers, and equips them with the needful gifts of ministry.

Those who have responded to Jesus’ call already and have chosen to follow him, are invited to live according to the promptings of his Holy Spirit (John 16.14). For it is the Christ-given values declared to us through the power of the Holy Spirit that will equip us for our journey of discipleship on earth. And not only on earth: the Holy Spirit’s guidance and promptings have the capacity to bridge heaven and earth: for ‘the Spirit of truth comes from the Father’ (John 15.26). Those who obey Jesus’ call are to live knowing that by their actions they have the capacity to bring about here on earth something of the life of heaven: ‘all the Father has in mine’, Jesus assures his followers; all the things of heaven are already Christ’s (John 16.15). And the Holy Spirit will make those heavenly gifts known to us, to equip us for our pilgrimage on earth: ‘the Holy Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you’, Jesus promises us (John 16.15).

Jesus tells his followers that living the life of Pentecost has the capacity to transform all relationships. Not only the relationships between individual humans will be changed through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The values of this world have already been fundamentally changed: ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about … judgment’, Jesus asserts, ‘because the ruler of this world has been condemned’ (John 16.11). The values declared by the Holy Spirit also will transform the relationship between God and us. By reminding us that righteousness has given way to grace ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about righteousness’ (John 16.10). And it is the Spirit who will help us testify, on Jesus’ behalf, how God loves to bring home the lost; will enable us to extend to others the invitation contained in our first lesson from Acts, that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2.21).

The key to this profound transformation of relationships between God and humans, and individual humans, can be found in this morning’s epistle reading from the letter to the Romans (Romans 8.22-30). Paul reminds the people of Rome that our hope of restored and transformed relationships was wrought by the redemptive power of Christ. By Christ’s death on the cross, by his resurrection, ‘creation itself [was] set free from its bondage to corruption and [we are enabled to] obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’, we read a few verses before our epistle reading begins (Romans 8.21). By his dying, Christ broke down the rule of any other power once and for all: ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.34).

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The death and resurrection of Christ is a cosmic event, both the writer of of Gospel and our epistle readings know. Christ’s death on the cross broke down of powers that stood opposed to the values of God’s kingdom. Christ’s resurrection brought us the promise of a new life that is forever. These cosmic events assure us of the certainty that relationships can be transformed, where people accept Christ’s invitation to enter into life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the hope to which we are called, the unseen hope for which we wait with patience: that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’, as Paul tells the Roman church (Romans 8.30). And we are assured that this hope can sustain each one of us during our life on earth, and prepare us for life in heaven.

Paul speaks of this hope in terms of an inheritance into which we enter when we respond to Christ’s call. And the pleage of that inheritance, our epistle reading affirms, is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.22). The first fruits of the Spirit are already at work within us, Paul assured the Romans. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freely granted to all who desire to enter into the new life that Jesus offers. And in order to equip his people for this new life, with all the riches we are promised and all the hardships of which we are forewarned, we are given Christ’s ‘advocate’: the Holy Spirit who is given us as our guide through life.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, the Spirit ‘dwells in us so that God might give life to our mortal bodies’ (Romans 8.11). It is this Spirit that will enable us to face hardship the disciples were foretold, the ‘sufferings of this present time’ (Romans 8.18). It is the Holy Spirit that ‘helps us in our weakness’, assisting us to reach out to, and include in our community, people from all nations and languages. And it is the Holy Spirit that helps us reflect here on earth something of the certainty of the life of heaven, helps us to be the community of God’s people—his saints—on earth: ‘because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.27).

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All of us are called to be God’s people, his saints, this morning’s readings assure us. All of us are invited to become, and to be, people who live life in the assurance that the ultimate battle against sin and death has already been accomplished, when ‘God raised Christ from the dead … and put all things under his feet’ (Ephesians 1.20-22). And in the strength of that conviction we are called to reflect in our lives something of the life of heaven: are inbvited to lead lives lived in the convictions that the kingdom of heaven here on earth can be ours, lives where we live out the values of the Holy Spirit (and do not shrink away from the kingdom-promise, should life become difficult or should we encounter hardship, rejection and ridicule because of the hope that lies within us).

In my time as Dean I have come to appreciate that as Cathedrals we have a special role to show forth and make known that way of Spirit-filled living. We are uniquely placed at the heart of our city and diocese to testify to the good news of Pentecost, to introduce others to the ways of the hope that motivates us as Christians: ‘that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 1.21). And this has very practical implications for the way we conduct and resource our ministry: whether by a ministry of intentional reconciliation that seeks to bring together Aboriginal and other Australians, or through our ministry of Christian education that enables and encourages frank and searching conversations about our convictions and hopes. Whether by reaching out to those who are the object of racial hatred or those who find themselves on the margins of society; by ministering to the homeless or those who are reduced to begging from others, or by comforting those who come to our Cathedral broken-hearted, who know the pain of ‘inward groaning in labour pangs’ our epistle reading speaks of (Romans 8.22).

I am grateful that as the home church of our diocese at the heart of this wonderful city we have countless opportunities to make known, through our ministry, the powerful hope of Pentecost. I give thanks for the assurance of Pentecost that the kingdom of heaven is ours already; is growing among us now. I give thanks that it is both when we see and experience difficulty and hardship, and when we experience growth and blessing, we are assured that the ‘Spirit intercedes on our behalf’ as a sign of our hope (Romans 8.26).

I give thanks that the ministry of Pentecost is a shared ministry, which brings together people from all cultures and backgrounds and all ages, binding us all together in fellowship, and equipping us for our shared mission. I give thanks that through this joint Pentecost minstry, we can live out the promise that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’; the promise that we and many others have already become, and will be, God’s Saints (Acts 2.21).

I pray that we may be richly blessed in living out the shared ministry of Pentecost as members of our congregations, as Cathedral volunteers and staff, as those entrusted with the leadership of our ministry here in this place, and as those charged with the oversight of that ministry as members of our Cathedral Chapter—old and new. I pray that we may be richly blessed in our shared ministry of inviting others to walk with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we commission our new Chapter members, I invite you to recommit yourselves with them to our shared calling.

It is my prayer for you and for me, that God the Holy Spirit would continually equip us for the work of ministry: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be people who know, believe and trust, that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’ (Romans 8.30).

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‘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 4.20-21).

Cathedrals: Places that make known God’s call

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17 May 2015, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC:

National Cathedral

I am delighted to be with you this morning, and I thank Dean Gary for his kind invitation to come and visit with you, and preach here this morning. Although I have come a long way today, I am not a complete stranger to your neighbourhood: some eighteen years ago, I had the privilege of living in Cathedral Heights. Then, I was a seminarian from the Church of England working at an inner-city parish in your diocese, and I daily undertook the audacious (some might say foolhardy) commute by bike from my temporary home near your beautiful Cathedral down to the centre of town via Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Oaks. The way to work was exhilarating and fast; the way home was quite literally an uphill struggle.

Since my time in this city, discerning God’s call for my life and preparing for ordained ministry, I have served churches in the West of London and the heart of Cambridge in England as a parish priest, and worked as the Senior Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne. And so it is that a former neighbour from Cathedral Heights today brings you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, which I am privileged to lead as Dean. St Paul’s is the Seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia, and I bring you warm greetings from our Primate, Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, and our four Sunday congregations.

St Paul’s stands at the heart of Australia’s second largest city. Built in warm sandstone, with soaring gothic spires—the second tallest in Anglicanism—it is an icon of God’s call to all people to encounter and know him. Our Cathedral is a church that not only the parishes, agencies, schools and colleges of our province call their home, but that is the regular place of worship for people from more than 25 nations; people whose backgrounds and stories, languages and cultures, could not be more diverse.

At St Paul’s we delight in the Good News that God calls people into his friendship and service regardless of their background or past. And we are profoundly aware that as Cathedrals, you and we are uniquely placed to invite others to come to know and serve God through our own witness and ministry.

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God’s call to all people to testify to his love stands at the heart of this morning’s readings. Our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows probably one of the more unexpected ways in which God can call people to serve him (Acts 1.15-26). The story of the call of Matthias to be added to the number of the twelve is extraordinary: a lottery to decide who should take the place of Judas ‘who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus’ (1.16). For me, though, Luke’s story as told in Acts is not only an account of the surprising way in which God has called into his service an apostle of old. I believe that our first lesson says just as much about discerning and responding to God’s call to follow him in our own lives today.

We heard in our first lesson how the apostles and the 120 believers met in Jerusalem to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. The Apostle Peter instructed the early Christian community of how this important choice would be made: the person to be chosen was someone who had ‘accompanied us … beginning from the Baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken up from us’ (Acts 1.21-22). The person would be someone who had known Jesus at first hand, someone who might even have been baptised like Jesus with the baptism of John, who heard Jesus’ call, who saw the works of power he undertook, who saw him arrested and raised from the dead, was to take the place of Judas to become ‘a witness with the other apostles to his resurrection’ (Acts 1.22). The pool of potential candidates cannot have been unlimited, and so it should not surprise that the apostles proposed only two names to be a potential fellow-witness to the resurrection: Joseph the Son of Saba—Barsabbas—and Matthias.

The narrow field of candidates reflected the importance of their task. The apostle-elect was to share with the other apostles in the ministry of oversight, which in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles meant first of all the building up of the people of God by ‘daily adding to their number’ (Acts 2.47). Such a ministry not only required a personal experience of the transformational power of resurrection, a personal knowledge that ‘God gave us eternal life, and [that] this life is in his Son’, as our epistle puts it (1 John 5.11). It also required having walked with Jesus and the other disciples, having ‘accompanied us’—the word literally means ‘having broken bread with us’—‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’ (Acts 1.21).

Not only a personal knowledge of Jesus, but knowledge of the other followers of Jesus, the people with whom the Lord himself had broken bread. The person allotted the ministry of apostle was to be a fellow overseer with Peter and the other ten. Both Joseph and Matthias were already well equipped for their task: they knew Jesus, they had heard the ‘words that you gave to me … and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you’, as our Gospel reading tells (John 17.8). They also knew well the eleven apostles, and the 120 new Jerusalem Christians, and they were respected among them.

The call of the new apostle was not that of the early church, but Jesus’ call. Those who serve Jesus were called to be Jesus’ own, are called to be set apart: ‘sanctified in the truth’ and ‘protected in the Father’s name’, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 17.17). Therefore, the apostles left the choice of their new fellow overseer to the One who had also called them, as Peter’s prayer in our first lesson makes clear: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen’ (Acts 1.25). Peter’s prayer is addressed to the ascended Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel, the word Lord, kyrie, is almost always a reference to Jesus. Peter and the ten regard the calling of the twelfth apostle entirely in terms of their own calling: Jesus himself would call Joseph or Matthias to the office and work of an apostle. The eleven would merely identify and confirm that call. And so it was that lots were drawn, and Matthias was called into his allotted place as an apostle, a fellow overseer, a fellow episkopos or bishop, of the growing group of early Christians.

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Today’s first lesson (Acts 11.15-26) tells us as much about discerning and following God’s call in the early church as it tells us about responding to God’s call to ministry in our own lives. As we think of the calling of Matthias to be an apostle, I would like to offer you four areas for your own further reflection on how God may call people to his service, and on how you and I may be equipped to serve God in our own communities:

  • First of all, I think it is important to realise, as Peter knew so very clearly, that the One who calls is not the Church, nor the council of overseers or bishops, nor the congregation of the faithful, but Jesus Christ. Peter is confident that it is Jesus who calls people into his service, and that the Church, and the overseers or bishops, merely identify and confirm that calling. The call is Christ’s, but the people who identify this call are members of the community of believers and those who are given gifts of leadership and authority in that community.
  • Secondly, it is important to remember that those who are being put forward as candidates for apostolic ministry are often people who have already acted upon a sense of calling in their lives. Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry: like Peter and the other apostles, they knew him to be not only their own Lord, but the Lord over life and death, whom they saw ascend to heaven to reign at God’s right hand. They already had much personal experience of what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This does not only mean that they knew Jesus to be Lord and God. It means that they knew his teachings and were able to share them with others with confidence: they were already people ‘who believe in the Son of God and have his testimony in their hearts’, as our epistle reminds us (1 John 5.10).
  • Thirdly, the two candidates, like the other eleven apostles, were people of prayer. Their process of discernment about what it might be that God calls them to do in their lives began and ended with prayer—in fact ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, we read in the first chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1.14). Not only the process of discernment, but their entire lives were shaped by this habit of prayer. The prayer in which the eleven apostles shared, and of which the calling of Matthias in today’s first lesson is an example, was corporate prayer: the apostles prayed together with the family of Jesus, shared in prayer with ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). Together they forged a community, a family, of believers who centred their lives around learning to pray together.
  • Finally, the candidates were fully equipped and ready to take up their allotted task. Joseph and Matthias did not know where they would be sent—the Greek word apostolos means someone who is being sent—nor did the know with whom they would minister in future. Yet they chose to accept the call to the apostolate as if Christ himself had spoken to them through the casting of lots. Matthias to join the eleven and to take the place of Judas as an overseer, Joseph to continue his ministry as a respected member of the Jerusalem community of believers who knew and was able to testify personally to the power of resurrection.

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I said at the beginning that I believe that as Cathedral churches at the heart of our nations, our Cathedrals are uniquely placed to make known God’s call to fellowship and ministry to others. We are places where our bishops gather with their people to pray and confirm, through the laying on of hands, the calling of the Christ and his Church. We are natural places of invitation, where people from all kinds of backgrounds—tourists who visit our wonderful buildings, committed members and those who perhaps do not yet fully know what it is that they are searching for—can come together to worship, and thus learn more about God’s call to us and all people. We are places of prayer, whose common life is shaped by the rhythm of our daily life of communal prayer. And we are places from which those chosen for ministry are sent or are enabled to enter into their own apostolic ministry in the places in which they are to serve. As Cathedral churches we are placed like few others to equip and confirm others for ministry.

I give thanks for the gift of God’s call in the life of our church, and the role we can play, as Cathedrals, in bringing others to God so that they may receive his gifts of fellowship. As the season of Easter comes to a close, and we look forward to the season of Pentecost, with its promise of the gifts of the Spirit to equip and build the body of Christ for its ministry, I should like to encourage you to ponder what it is that God is calling you to do in your lives of worship and witness—both in your own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, and in the lives of the communities of which you are a part.

Again, our first reading provides us with a number of important pointers:

  • Remember that the call to serve God is Christ’s. The ministry of Joseph Bar Sabbas would have been as important as that of the apostle Matthias. Not all people are called to an ordained office, yet all are called to exercise the ministry of making known the message of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in that calling.
  • Remember that it is important to know Jesus and know about Jesus. Joseph and Matthias knew Jesus first hand. We, too, can know Jesus through the words that are recorded about him in the Scriptures, as well as through our personal prayers. Use the opportunities given to you at the National Cathedral, your local church, or the community from which you are visiting today, to further your own understanding of Jesus; to learn more about his words and works recorded in Scripture, and about the ways in which we can deepen our understanding of Jesus in worship and spirituality.
  • Remember that it is important to pray as a community. The decision to appoint Matthias was clearly underpinned by communal prayer. It is important to pray as a community—and the first Chapter of Acts makes clear how a community can be shaped by regular common worship and the breaking of bread, and so be equipped to grow. Come and join the daily prayers at the National Cathedral, or share in weekday prayer at your home churches as often as you are able to do so. It is in this way that we belong to, and are shaped into, communities of prayer.
  • Finally, remember that there is grace in accepting your allotted place. Matthias readily stepped into the role allotted to him, yet he did not know where his response of faith might lead him. It is often easier to assert with the benefit of hindsight that the allotted place was indeed the right place, and I would encourage you to take courage from the example of Matthias whenever you may be presented with your own ‘allotted places’ of ministry; your own allotted calling.

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‘The apostles prayed and said: Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one you have chosen. … And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.24-26). As we give thanks that God continues to call women and men into his friendship and service, I pray that the examples of Joseph and Matthias sustain us in our own journeys of faith, and ask that God would bless you and me, as we continue to discern and seek to follow his call.

‘Now to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, ministers serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Revelation 1.6).

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: carmengroup.com

Christ’s two Ascensions: victory over sin and death, heavenly gifts to build up his people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue, on the Feast of the Ascension 2015:

Ascension

Thank you Fr Turner, for your kind inivitation to be with you today. It’s a delight to share in your celebration of Ascension Day in this magnificent church at the heart of New York.

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia. At the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral stands our beautiful Ascension Chapel, with a magnificent golden mosaic, framed in gothic alabaster, depicting the risen Christ departing from his disciples. The ascending Christ stretches his hands out in blessing on his disciples as he is from them.

Our mosaic shows the disciples watching in worship, as Jesus stretches open the starry night sky, depicted in costly lapis lazuli, to enter a golden heaven. Two angels hold up scrolls with words from our first reading: ‘Men of Galilee’, the scrolls record their spoken words, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

Whatever the disciples may have thought as they looked on, it seems that for two angels Jesus’ ascension into heaven was no surprise. Indeed, Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story matter of factly, as if these things happened every day. And while they may not exactly have occurred every day, Scripture does tell us about a number of people who ascended to heaven: the prophets Elijah (2 Ki. 1.11-12), Isaiah and Baruch all went up on high (Asc. Isa.), Scripture records.

Ascension to heaven, in Jewish tradition, was a gift of God to those whom he loved. Rather than see death, they would be lifted directly into God’s presence. In the case of Elijah, this took a spectacular form: the prophet was carried on high in a whirlwind, on a chariot of fire, drawn back to God by horses of fire (2 Ki. 1.11-12).

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Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, shares this aspect of the prophets’ ascent to heaven: it is an incredible display of the divine power at work within him. But unlike the ascension of the prophets, who attained glory without first tasting death, Jesus’ ascension certainly was not a way of entering heaven that bypassed death.

During a night-time conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus had spoken at some length about the idea of ascending to heaven. Then Jesus had told Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (Jn. 3.13). In order truly to ascend to heaven, he first needed to descend to earth. In order to show to others the glory of God, he first needed to empty himself of that glory, by taking on our mortal life, Jesus explained to his secret disciple.

In our epistle reading from the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul echoes this insight: ‘When it says, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ (Eph 4.9). For Paul, ‘Jesus ascended’, doesn’t just mean ‘Jesus went into heaven’. Before Jesus could ascend to the heavenly glory, he first had to ascend to the cross, Paul assures his readers.

St._Thomas_Church_Detail

And you only need to look beyond me to the great stone reredos of this church to see what Paul meant: there, in the central panel, the ascended Jesus blesses us, his worshippers. He stands above the cross, to reinforce, in stone and statue, the point that it was when Jesus was lifted up high on the cross that he did, in fact, make his first ‘ascension’. Jesus ascended to the cross only to descend, to plunge the depths of suffering and death into hell in order to chain the powers that kept humankind captive. Paul explains: ‘he who descended is the same who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).

This, then, is the first difference between Christ’s ascension and that of those who had ascended to God before him: Christ’s ascension is not a passive homecoming to God’s glory, but rather his active engagement with the powers that had kept humankind imprisoned in sin and death. It is, in fact, two ascensions. One that concluded Christ’s work on earth; the ascension witnessed by the disciples at the Mount of Olives celebrated this day. And preceding that, the ascension to the cross, celebrated on Good Friday. An ascension Christ made alone, deserted by almost all his followers, on another hill outside the city: on Calvary.

The second difference between Christ’s ascension and that of the prophets is this: unlike Elijah’s ascension, which really concerned only one man, Christ’s ascension was not a singular event. His two ascensions, both at Calvary and on the Mount of Olives, include and transform all people. Jesus not only takes captivity captive, but he changes those bonds that enslaved us and makes them the bonds that bind us together, so that we might become Christ’s own body.

Christ’s first ascension on Calvary meant that the lives of his followers and friends could be set free from death and sin. His second ascension on the Mount of Olives brought them the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would strengthen and equip those who love him. That, surely, is the true gift of Christ’s ascensions: the gift of people’s lives, redeemed and renewed, bound together in the power of his resurrection to be the body of his resurrection on earth.

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‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive’, Paul cites the Psalms (Eph. 4.8). But equally important is what the Apostle says next: ‘He gave gifts to his people’ (Eph 4.8). And while these gifts are clearly of heavenly origin, they are not bestowed as it were by remote control, by a resurrected and ascended Christ safe in his heavenly home, but by the Jesus who, following his resurrection, walks among his disciples to teach them about the work of resurrection; who calls them back to enter into his service, and encourages them to become a body of believers that reaches out to the ends of the earth. The Jesus who, following his resurrection, bestows precious gifts upon them.

These gifts are various, and given in a multitude of ways. Firstly, the gift of resurrection itself, shown to the women at the empty tomb; the gift of understanding God’s word, given to the disciples fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus; the gift of peace and his Spirit, given to his frightened friends hiding behind the closed doors of the upper room; the gift of calling, bestowed to a disillusioned band of disciples ready to trade in their apostleship for their old lives at fishermen on Lake Galilee. And, as we anticipate the feast of Pentecost, we look forward also to the gifts of the Spirit: equipping, as Paul says, ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-12).

There may well be times when we feel like those ‘men of Galilee’, the people who watched Jesus ascend to glory on the Mount of Olives. There are times when we, like them, may feel left behind, full of sorrow and unresolved questions. And it is at these times, I believe, that we need to remind ourselves that the spiritual gifts bestowed on them are still alive today. It is at times like these that we need to understand that the angelic word spoken to them is also addressed to us: ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

It is my hope that you and I will come to experience in our lives, and nurture in ourselves, the same gifts that Christ bestowed to his friends in the time between his ascension on the cross and his ascension to the Father. It is my hope that by these gifts we may be equipped to teach to others the work of resurrection. And it is my prayer that we may be shaped into the body of Christ, ‘joined and knit together by every ligament … building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4.16), to make known this message to those around us that even today find themselves ‘captives to captivity’.

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Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

A webcast of the service at which this sermon was preached can be heard here.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, Wikimedia 

The Good Shepherd: Life and Light to all he brings

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2015:

St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne: 'Jesus said to Peter,

St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne: ‘Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep”.’

‘I am the good shepherd’, Jesus told the people gathered in the Jerusalem Temple at the Jewish winter festival of lights. ‘I know my own and my own know me’. His own, those who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem and who surrounded Jesus on his journeys, now share with him in the Jewish celebration of light. Those who are his own, sought him out because they saw in Jesus a ‘light shining in the darkness’ (John 1.4).

Early on in their journey with Jesus some of their number had intuitively known Jesus to be ‘the Son of God, the King of Israel’; had felt in their hearts that here was the One who would be God’s light for this world (John 1.49). And so they followed him, and walked with him. And heard him confirm to those who had ears to hear that he was God’s answer to the rising darkness: ‘I am the light of the world’, they heard him say, and heard him invite others to leave the darkness behind: ‘Who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of light’, they heard him tell (John 8.12).

And now it was winter, and the light was at its lowest. As darkness was increasing across the world, they remained with the One whom they knew to be God’s light, stayed close to the One whom they knew to be the life and light of all people (John 1.4). They heard Jesus tell the people that the rising darkness and the absence of light were connected: they heard Jesus tell the people that God’s light would be extinguished because ‘people loved darkness rather than light’ (John 3.19). They heard Jesus tell how the people would ‘stumble, because the light is not in them’ (John 11.10); how when the ‘light of this world’ did not shine any more to guide them, many would fall.

Now the light was still shining, and the world did not need to think about the coming darkness: ‘Those who walk during the day do not stumble’, Jesus acknowledges (John 11.9). But just as certain as the midday sun, was the dark of midnight: ‘There are only twelve hours of daylight’, Jesus cautioned his hearers (John 11.9). Yet even though God’s light would not shine forever, those who had heard Jesus’ voice would be kept safe: ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it in abundance’, Jesus tells them (John 10.10). And the way by which they would be kept safe, Jesus told, was by choosing to follow him as their guide, their light, through life.

For following Jesus was as if they had a good shepherd to guide them on their ways. Was as if they had someone to walk with them when the darkness rises. Someone to ensure that their steps are kept safe, even though it was certain that the ‘darkness will overtake them’ (John 12.35). Jesus cautioned that that those who walk in darkness without the light would lose their way: ‘they do not know where they are going’ (John 12.35). Those who have the Good Shepherd, on the other hand, would be able to walk even through the darkest places: ‘I have come as light into the world’, Jesus assures his followers, ‘so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness’ (John 12.46).

The Good Shepherd would walk with those who hear his voice and know him through the darkest places; even though the darkness of the night that was encroaching. With the Good Shepherd at their side, they would be able to walk even through ‘the valley of the shadow of death, for God is with them; his rod and staff comfort them’ (Psalm 23.4). Where those who loved the darkness would be subsumed in the shadows, and stumble, Jesus’ followers would be able to walk even through the darkness of the valley of death. They would be able to do so because their Good Shepherd knew each stumbling block in that dark valley; knew each right pathway through the place where death was at home. The Good Shepherd knew the way through the valley of the darkness of death because he himself had walked through that fearful place. ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, Jesus told the people, ‘the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10.11).

There would be a time when those who had heard the voice of the shepherd would be bereft of their guide. At the time when the light of this world was extinguished, darkness would fully cover the earth. At the moment when Jesus died on a cross, there would be no guide through the dark places of this life: for the Good Shepherd was laying down his life so that all who followed him might have life; was himself walking through the darkness in order that all who followed him might never again walk in darkness but have the light of life. There would be a time when the light was extinguished, at the moment when darkness was finally overcome. There would be a time when life was laid down, at the moment when death was finally defeated. For the Good Shepherd lays down his life in order to take it up again (John 10.18). The Good Shepherd himself walks through the valley of the shadow of death, so that goodness and loving kindness may follow us all our lives.

The Good Shepherd braves the darkness of death freely. Jesus told the people that the life he would lay down was his to give. Jesus’ life would neither be consumed by the darkness of evil, nor sacrificed to the shadow of death. Jesus’ life was his, as was his death; both are a free choice. ‘No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’, Jesus explained, ‘I have power to lay it down, and have power to take it up again’ (John 10.18). And he added, by way of an explanation: ‘I have received this command from my Father’ (10.17). And because he freely lays down his life for those who hear his voice, and because by his death he gives life to all who obey his call, God loves the Good Shepherd: ‘for this reason my Father loves me’, Jesus told the people, ‘because I lay down my life in order to take it up again’ (John 10.17-18).

At the time Jesus died on the cross, as the Light of the World was overshadowed by death, sun and moon were extinguished. At that time, the Good Shepherd entered the valley of the shadow of death to lay down his life. At the time the Good Shepherd took up his life again sun and moon were still extinguished. ‘It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark’ on the day of resurrection, we read. Between the darkness of Good Friday and the darkness of Easter morning lies the Good Shepherd’s journey through ‘death’s dark vale’. A journey made, so that he might be able to lead all others through the darkness of suffering and death; that he might ‘refresh our souls and guide us’; that he might ‘comfort us with the presence of his rod and staff’; and might sustain us ‘in the face of those who trouble us’ (Psalm 23). A journey entered in darkness and concluded in darkness, so that we might not have to endure darkness forever, but may walk by the Light of Life; may walk at the side of our Good Shepherd.

At the end of our journey guided by our Good Shepherd stands the vision of safe pasture ‘in the house of the Lord forever’ (Psalm 23). Because the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for the sheep, he will bring us to a place of safety, will lead us out of the darknesses of our lives to a place where we might enjoy his presence forever, and finally be ‘one flock under one shepherd’ (John 10.15). At the end of John’s story of the struggle of darkness and light, of the struggle of death and life, we find Jesus standing in the rising sun at the shores of the Lake where the disciples first knew him to be the Messiah and the one who calls—fishermen to fish for people, and flocks to follow the Good Shepherd. Jesus spreads a table before them; those who had once troubled them are now far removed. They share a meal, and know Jesus to be the One who walked through death so that they can live.

And as they share the bread he broke for them, and the fish he grilled for them, the risen Jesus asks Peter, ‘do you love me?’ (John 21.15). And Peter confesses his faith in the Good Shepherd, and is charged to ‘feed my lambs’ (John 21.15). Two times more Jesus asks Peter ‘do you love me’, two more times he is given the opportunity to confess where once he had denied in what, surely, must have been his own valley of the shadow of death. And as he declares his love and loyalty to Jesus, he is told to ‘look after my sheep’ and to ‘feed by sheep’ (John 21.16-17). At so, the end of the story of the Good Shepherd stands the command to love and obey him: by looking out for his flock. ‘I have other sheep also that do not yet belong to this fold’, Jesus had told Peter and the disciples before he walked into the darkness of death: ‘I must bring them also … so there will be one flock, one shepherd’ (John 10.15).

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The risen Good Shepherd continues to call people to his flock. And he charges us, the people who have experienced his care, who have experienced his forgiveness, who rely on the presence and comfort of his staff, the light that shines on our paths, and the food that he provides for us at his table, to make that call known to others. ‘Do you love me?’ – ‘look after my sheep, and feed them’, he asks all who have heard his voice.

ANZAC Day: Lest we forget – that the Lord is risen indeed!

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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the Third Sunday after Easter, 19 April 2015, commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli:

‘Lest we forget’, is our national watchword for this day. Lest we forget the countless who gave their lives in the landings on Gallipoli we recall this week, in two world wars, and countless other conflicts since. Lest we forget those who died in acts of genocide, civil war and terror. Lest we forget that to this day people put their lives on the line for others—often as volunteers and just as often as innocent victims, helping neighbours caught between the lines. Yet in spite of our day of national remembrance, people frequently do choose to forget: not just when the focus of our news shifts from one trouble spot to another. Just as there are areas of conflict that hardly ever form part of our active remembrance.

The kind of remembrance that we practise on ANZAC Day is, by necessity, selective. Even the implicit underlying hope of ANZAC Day that, by remembering past national tragedies and sacrifice, we may somehow avert future conflict and wars remains, of course, only ever a fervent hope. The motivations for inner national and international conflicts and war—whether they arise out of greater national ambitions or the breakdown of relationships between ethnic and faith groups—are not removed by our remembering past conflicts and tragedies. The most careful study of past wars, and the intricate steps that led from diplomatic standoff to open warfare—steps that we can correctly identify this very day in the East Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan and many other African and Middle Eastern troublespots—will never prevent future bloodshed.

In order to address the underlying evil of war and conflict, we need to turn to another sort of remembrance altogether: the remembrance afforded by a commemoration often overshadowed by our national recollection. The ‘lest we forget’ that has shaped the Gospel of Saint Mark, on whose feast-day the ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli. An area not unknown to the evangelist Mark who very likely sailed through the Eastern Mediterranean alongside his cousin, Barnabas (Acts 15.39, Colossians 4.10).

Saint Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is as strong an invitation to remembrance as that afforded by today’s ‘other’ day of remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is also shaped by death and sacrifice: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45), the sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, many of whom ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him’, and some of whom even ‘lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the gospel’ (Mark 8.34-35). Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is not about a passive act of remembrance, undertaken once a year and then often forgotten until the next instalment of news of wars and conflict reminds us of the frailty of the commitment to peace and reconciliation so many of us make each year on this day.

Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is an active remembrance, an invitation to let our lives be transformed by our remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is the promise that, by our corporate remembrance, not only our communities but even our own bodies, will be reshaped, as we re-member—build up—the body of Christ as members of one another. And because the act of remembrance shown forth in Mark’s gospel is so visceral—people and communities reshaped as one body by their re-membering—we do hurt where others are hurting, we do hurt where parts of that body are injured, persecuted or rejected.

Mark’s ‘lest we forget’, then, is an invitation to turn our national remembrance with its rituals that give meaning for a few weeks each year only, into a way of life that enables us to live our lives every day of the year. At the heart of Mark’s way remembrance stands the insight Mark makes known in the very opening verse of his story of Jesus: that this story is about ‘Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ and that that is the reason why this story is ‘good news’ (Mark 1.1). The remaining fifteen chapters of his gospel serve to illustrate how it is that Jesus ‘from Nazareth in Galilee’ is in fact the Son of God, and the expected Messiah, and how we can join in remembering him, by ourselves becoming members of him, becoming his followers, his disciples.

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For Mark the story of Jesus is immediate and direct—not written to show how the life of Jesus would be a direct fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures like Matthew, not exhorting his readers to be open to the idea of a covenant for Jews as well as outsiders—gentiles and non-believers—like Luke, nor plunging into the depths of the mystery of the-Word-made-Flesh like John. Mark’s story is told rapdily, in staccato reporter-style: with every ‘and immediately’ or ‘and then’ adding evidence for his headline news, ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.

Those who shape Jesus’ story—his family, the people of his hometown, even his disciples—never fully grasp the truth of Mark’s headline news: his family try and restrain him because they believed that ‘he is out of his mind’, the people of Nazareth ‘took offense at him’, and his disciples never quite understand how it can be that Jesus heals the sick, walks on water, and feeds the thousands: even though they are witnesses to these miraculous events they neither remember nor, as Jesus tells them, do they understand (Mark 3.20, 6.1, 8.18).

Even when viewed from the end of the story and the vantage point of the resurrection—at which point most of the protagonists know very well who Jesus is—even the Roman centurion confesses Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 15.39)—his disciples do not believe Mark’s headline news. They see the empty tomb—today’s gospel reading tells us—they hear God’s messengers and witnesses confirm what Jesus had prophesied, and nevertheless they do not believe.

In fact, the walk away from the news. The first witnesses ‘trembling and in astonishment, saying nothing to anyone’ (Mark 16.8), the second witness, Mary Magdalene, telling the news but not believed (Mark 16.10), the third set of witnesses encountered in the country—surely on the way to Emmaus, as also told in Luke’s Gospel—telling the news and not believed, either (Mark 10.13).

Mark’s gospel is the only gospel where the risen Lord ‘rebukes the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mark 16.14). Until the very end of the story—even when they have all received the crucial information that will make sense of all their experiences—the disciples refuse to remember and understand.

This is what selective remembrance does, Mark tells us. This is what happens when we restrict the sentiment ‘lest we forget’—however strongly and genuinely felt at the time we make it—to one day only: whether ANZAC Day, or Easter Day. Today’s gospel assures us that disciples would have forgotten even the most powerful sign of all—the Lord of life breaking the bonds of death—because their remembrance was selective and passive: recalling only death where there were signs of new life, recalling only sadness at the tragedy that has been where there was astonishment at the encounter with the Risen One.

This ANZAC Day, let the watchword for our nation and our church be Mark’s, ‘Lest we forget’. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we recalled only the tragedy of wasteful death, and not the miracle of life reshaped by those who continue to work for peace and reconciliation when the cameras have long moved on. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we have simply walked away, having either failed to observe or to believe the signs of lives transformed in our nation and communities.

Instead, let us remember purposefully and actively. Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is encouragement for me at St Paul’s actively to remember the plight of migrants and refugees who fled the conflicts that make, or used to make, our television news by offering them a welcome, a listening ear; and the opportunity to learn more about this land, its people and its language. It is the same ‘lest we forget’ that motivates our welcome to 400,000 visitors and pilgrims who come here every year, and our ambition seeking to provide a home for all Anglicans—whatever their background—to find a place where they can come to experience Mark’s headline news: ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.

Mark’s good news concludes with the conviction that his headline news will be made known everywhere by people who actively remember and re-member: who both recall the transforming life of the resurrection, and seek to build up the resurrection body of Christ on earth in the ways they shape and sustain their communities. Mark’s good news is good news for today, because he assures us that when we live out his ‘lest we forget’ by our active remembrance, ‘the Lord will work with us, confirming this news by accompanying signs’. The signs of resurrection in our midst, that will enable us together to show forth ways that lead out of conflict, hatred and even warfare. The signs that confirm Mark’s good news and which, if we keep on remembering, may even turn our national commemoration of conflicts past into a celebration of future hope: Lest we forget that the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015.

Walking in the light of life: bringing others to Jesus

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015:

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In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Nicodemus, a ‘teacher of Israel’ sought out Jesus at night. Jesus had first come to his attention when he entered the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and swept away the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Fascinated by this sacrilegious intervention, Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus. Concerned about his status as a Temple leader, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night. As they spoke, Jesus challenged him to shun the darkness that hid his actions, and instead ‘come into the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ (John 3.21). And explained to him that the Son of Man would be lifted up so that all would have life, just as Moses lifted up a serpent to ward off death in the wilderness.

We heard how, at the end of the story of Jesus, how Nicodemus stood at the foot of the cross on the eve of another Passover. How he saw Jesus lifted up on a cross in the darkness of the eclipsed sun and moon. How it was there that he came to understand Jesus’ challenge, and recognise Jesus to be the Light and Life of the World. We saw how Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, left behind the certitude of his former beliefs. How he decided to step into a future shaped, not by his status in the temple hierarchy which once had compelled him to seek the anonymity of darkness, but rather by his newly-found faith in Jesus as the Light of the World, whom the darkness would not overcome, and the One who by dying would bring life to the world. How he left behind his former identity and became part of a new community of faith and belonging.

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Today’s gospel reading continues the contrast of darkness and light, death and life. Again, Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Again, Jesus had just caused much notoriety by his actions: this time he had been greeted by the people of Jerusalem in a royal progress with palm branches held high. Seated on a donkey, Jesus had made his way across the Kidron valley to the Temple Mount, the people hailing him as their king. This will be the last Passover Jesus celebrates. As he teaches in the Temple precinct, Jesus again challenges his hearers to shun the darkness that already encroaches: ‘walk in the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, Jesus tells them (John 12.36). And promises them, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (12.32).

This time, Jesus’ hearers are not only faithful Jews, like Nicodemus, but also outsiders. We read in today’s gospel reading that ‘some Greeks’ came to ‘the festival’ (John 12.21). The ‘Greeks’ who attended the Passover festival were very likely proselytes. Our English word is a literal rendition of the Greek. And that, in turn, is the word used to translate the technical term for ‘resident alien’, used by the ancient equivalent of the immigration office, in Hebrew ‘ger toshav’ (גר תושב). The Greeks, then, were gentiles who, in return for their right to live in or near the land of Israel, have accepted some of the key tenets of the Jewish faith. They do not yet fully belong to the people of Israel, but know of and share their beliefs. They have permanent residency, but are yet to pass their citizenship test.

The ‘Greeks’ encounter Jesus’ followers in the forecourt of the gentiles, and ask to see Jesus: ‘Sir’, they ask Philip, ‘we wish to see Jesus’. John is very specific about who it was that the ‘Greeks’ sought out, isn’t he? He explains the reason for their choice of go-between with the terse comment, ‘Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee’ (John 12.21). Philip not only bore a Greek name, but was brought up in the cultural melting pot that was ancient Galilee: home to Greek-speakers who had settled there during the Hellenistic colonial days, home to Roman occupying forces such as that commanded by the centurion who would seek Jesus out to heal his slave, home to ordinary Jewish people, who tilled the land, fished the lake and, like Jesus and his father Joseph, built the edifices that made up the Greco-Roman administrative centres, or the Jewish cities.

Philip was a citizen of two worlds: a Jewish world and a Greek world. He was an ideal go-between for the Greeks who wanted to see and speak with the man who, only a day earlier, had been hailed by the citizens of Jerusalem as ‘king of Israel’ in his solemn procession to the Temple mount. Philip in turn sought out Andrew, another disciple bearing a Greek name – Andreas – and both went and told Jesus that here were people who had come to hear him.

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Jesus does not acknowledge the strangers who had gone to so much trouble to see him. John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus had even seen them. Instead, Jesus answers his two disciples that ‘now’ – at the moment that the gentiles from Galilee had sought him out – ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.23). Jesus had spoken of that hour before, and the arrival of his gentile hearers indicated to Jesus that his ‘hour’ had now come.

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ ‘hour’ is a decisive moment in which barriers are broken. The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus breaks cultural barriers by sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman, and telling her, ‘the hour is now here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but … worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21-23). The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus shatters Jewish religious expectations, by assuring them that it was he who would break the final barrier of death: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.29).

Hour by hour, then, the story of the cross unfolds until, at last, the hour comes for Jesus to be arrested, condemned to die, and be crucified. Hour by hour, decisive moment after decisive moment: the Samaritans are brought in to worship God in spirit and truth; the Jews challenged in their beliefs about death and life, darkness and light – both openly and secretly; and now the gentiles are brought near: ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be to be glorified’ (John 12.23). The hour of completion was near as, moment by moment, the ancient and the new people of God were brought together to meet, hear and be deeply perturbed by the One who would call them to a new life altogether.

Not only those brought to Jesus were perturbed by their participation in those crucial moments, their living through these ‘hours’. Jesus himself was ‘deeply troubled in his soul’ at the realisation that ‘now’ was the moment that would – ultimately – lead to that other ‘hour’ (John 12.27). The hour when ‘all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28). That ‘now’ was the moment that would begin to set in train the inescapable process to save all people from condemnation, ‘for the Son of Man to be lifted up … that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.14b-16).

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‘Now’, then, was the hour, the moment in which Jesus would begin to be glorified by being lifted on a cross to die. A deeply troubling kind of glory, John’s glory. For Jesus tells his hearers that it is only by dying that he can bring life eternal, just as a harvest of wheat is brought forth only from buried grains; and that it is only by dying to this world, that they themselves will ‘keep their lives for eternal life’ (John 12.26). And as he challenges Jews and gentiles to strive for that new life, he pours out his own humanity in prayer: ‘what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name”.’ (John 12.27-28). As he denies his own life so that others may share life, and as he bends his own will in obedience to God’s, God speaks to him of another glory – ‘the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ – as God the Father affirms, ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again’ (John 12.28).

The glory of being God’s only Son, ‘close to the Father’s heart’, had been first made known when ‘the Word became flesh to dwell among us’ (John 1.14). Soon it will be made known again, ‘when [he is] lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to [himself]’ (John 12.31). For now, there remain the Father’s words of glorification, spoken and heard by those who believe, or perceived as thunderous noise by those who do not yet have ears to hear. For now, another hour has passed on the way to the cross: some Greeks have been added to the growing group of believers that now include Samaritans, Jews and gentiles. And all of them are the recipients of Jesus’ challenge, to ‘walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, and to ‘believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.36).

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What, then, is our part in this story of transformation?

I think that our part is two-fold.

First of all, we are called to be witnesses to the story of Jesus. People who understand and believe that glory can mean suffering, and death does not always mean the end of life. People who believe that faith in Jesus means changing our lives, dying to the life of this world, and serving and following Jesus, so that ‘where I am there my followers may be also’ (John 12.26). People who believe that Jesus was glorified in his death, and that he died to draw all people to himself, died that we may not be condemned but instead be granted eternal life.

Secondly, we are called to become people who bring others to Jesus. People like Philip and Andrew, who have ‘dual citizenship’, who know what it means to be both on the inside and what it may be like for those still on the outside. People who, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, like the Greeks and the women gathered at the foot of the cross, have ourselves experienced the ‘hour’ in which Jesus was shown forth as he really was – the Son of God who tore down the barriers that separate and segregate, that keep people apart from people, and people apart from God. People whose own lives have been radically changed, and who now bring others to Jesus so that their lives may also change.

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Jesus said to them: ‘The light is with you for a little longer. … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.35-36).

Nicodemus and the Cross: Journeying into God’s Light

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2015:

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This morning’s gospel reading forms part of an extended night-time conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, ‘a leader of the Jews’ (John 3.1). We are told by St John that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious scholar many of whose fellows regarded Jesus’ teaching with suspicion (John 3.1). Later in the story we find out that Nicodemus was, in fact, a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7.50). Only moments after Jesus had overturned the tables of the money-lenders in the Temple, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading, this leader in the Temple administration secretly seeks out Jesus. Out of sight of his colleagues, in the dark of night, Nicodemus told Jesus that the Temple authorities knew that he was a teacher who had come from God. ‘No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’, he told Jesus a few verses before our gospel reading commences (John 3.2).

Jesus answered Nicodemus that his authority and his works indeed come from God, and added that Nicodemus would not ever fully comprehend who Jesus was unless he radically changed his life. ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’, Jesus told a bewildered Nicodemus (John 3.3). And Jesus assured his midnight visitor that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3.5). No one can enter God’s kingdom without having first been cleansed from sin, without first having received the gift of understanding that the Holy Spirit bestows, Jesus tells.

Even at the end of their conversation, it is clear that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus told him. Indeed, Nicodemus will be left in the dark until the very end of the story of Jesus. He will not receive any answer to his question of how it is that people are reborn until the very end of John’s gospel. Although Nicodemus listens and seeks to comprehend, he leaves Jesus without being enlightened about the questions that first urged him to seek out Jesus. As Nicodemus leaves the only assurance he receives is that God loves his world so much that he would give his Son so that all might have life, and that to share this life people needed to be reborn.

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‘How can this be’, Nicodemus asked Jesus when they spoke in secret (John 3.9). And Jesus is astounded how a teacher of Israel cannot understand what to him is clear: that God expresses his love for his world by letting his Son Jesus be crucified ‘in order that the world may be saved through him’ (John 3.17). We, who have the benefit of knowing the story of Jesus from the perspective of the cross, can understand how the world can be ‘reborn from above through water and Spirit’ (John 3.5): how Jesus sent out his Spirit to renew the face of the earth in breathing his last on the cross. How Jesus renewed the world by the water flowing from his side, when soldiers pierced his lifeless body.

But Nicodemus visits in darkness and leaves in darkness, and is given no clue beyond Jesus’ challenge that ‘all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed’ (John 3.20). And that pointed comment might have the end of Nicodemus’ story. He could just have returned to take his place at the Temple council, none the wiser, none the braver. He might have made the connection between the bronze serpent Moses lifted up to ward off the poisonous snakes that attacked and killed the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 21.1-9) and Jesus. He might have never thought that Jesus also would be lifted up as a sign of God’s work against the things that kill, be lifted up on a cross against death itself. He might have never grasped that, in being lifted up to be a remedy against death and a sign of God’s great love for humankind, Jesus would die himself. Nicodemus might never have understood what he heard in their night-time discussion: that Jesus was talking about his own sacrifice.

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But that is not how the story of Nicodemus ended. At the end of John’s gospel story we encounter a transformed man. Because having witnessed Jesus’ death, all made sense to Nicodemus. In the darkness of Golgotha, as the sun hid its face, Nicodemus comprehended, and he saw for himself the full extent of God’s love. Nicodemus saw the Son of Man lifted up, saw him give up his spirit as he died, saw him breathe the spirit of rebirth. He saw the water flow from Jesus’ side, and suddenly knew what it meant ‘to be born from above’ (John 3.3). In the darkness of midday, when the sky went black that first Good Friday, Nicodemus witnessed all these events. And by witnessing, he made sense of his earlier conversation.

As he saw Jesus suspended on a cross in the dark of midday, Nicodemus was no longer uncomprehending of what it was that Jesus meant when they first met in the dark of midnight. More importantly, he knew that the dark was not for him, and he decided to answer Jesus’ challenge. There, at the foot of the cross, he was no longer afraid of the repercussions. Nicodemus resolved to come to the light, to ‘do what is true’, and to choose for himself that from now on his ‘deeds would be clearly seen in God’ (John 3.21).

At next light, Nicodemus decided to throw his reputation as a Pharisee, leaders of the Jews and teacher of Israel to the wind and go straight to the highest authorities in the land to ensure that Jesus was given a proper burial. Accompanied by another ‘secret disciple’, Joseph of Arimathea, he went to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of the crucified Jesus to be taken down from the cross (John 19.39). It was his remembrance of his conversation about how Jesus would overcome our deaths by his own death, and his resolution to leave behind the secrecy of his own discipleship that compelled Nicodemus to go into the headquarters of the Roman Prefect to ask that Jesus be released for burial.

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Choosing to ‘come to the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ for Nicodemus meant a radical break with his past (John 3.21). For Nicodemus to step into the broad daylight and bury Jesus meant being excluded from the celebrations of the most sacred holiday of his people, the Passover. It was late on the eve of the Passover when Jesus died. In order to ask for the body of Jesus, Nicodemus would have faced double defilement: the defilement of entering the gentile Prefect’s headquarters, and the defilement of handling the dead body of Jesus. Nicodemus’ hands were literally tainted—twice: in contact with his overlords, and by the lifeless body he took down from the cross, cleaned, embalmed and buried that night. There was no time to seek ritual cleaning. For that year’s Passover Nicodemus would excluded, would be among the unclean, unable to celebrate the liberation of his people with his own.

Instead, Nicodemus found another liberation altogether. When they first met, Jesus had told Nicodemus that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3.16). The death of Jesus might not have immediately indicated the liberation, the beginning of new eternal life, to his secret disciple. It did, however, confirm his loyalty to Jesus. Nicodemus was no longer a secret follower: in order to lay Jesus to rest, the ‘teacher of Israel’ excommunicated himself by making himself unclean. Nicodemus deliberately alienated himself from his community of faith in order to pay a last act of love to the one whom he admired and first sought out under the cover of night.

In his decision to make his discipleship of Jesus public Nicodemus broke with his own community of faith. He did so without knowing how Jesus’ words that ‘God send his Son into the world … so that world may be saved through him’, would be fulfilled (John 3.17). Nicodemus was not to know that Jesus’ death was more than an execution. Yes, his night-time conversation about how Jesus had to be lifted up on a cross, so that all might have life, was at the forefront of his thinking. But at the time of Jesus’ burial, I suspect that there was a lot of confusion about what Jesus had said, and what he might have meant by his words. After all, Jesus was dead, not risen, and it may not have been very clear to Nicodemus how the man he had just embalmed intended to bring eternal life, eternal salvation, to all.

Nicodemus did not know that the body he was preparing for its final rest would not be contained by Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb for long. That realisation would only become clear with hindsight, from the vantage-point of the resurrection. Nevertheless he decided to put an end to his secret devotion, and publicly declare his loyalty to Jesus. People still risk alienation because of their friendship for, and loyalty to, Jesus. While here in Australia that sense of alienation might be expressed by the indifference or disbelief of others for the beliefs we hold, in other parts of the world, and particularly in the lands of the Middle East, the price Christians pay for their loyalty to Jesus may be just as costly as that paid by the ‘secret’ disciple who, at the foot of the cross, decided that he would no longer hide his faith, but openly confess his loyalty to Jesus; risking exclusion and repercussions in order to remain faithful to the One he loved.

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At the foot of the cross, Nicodemus became an example of faithful discipleship, leaving behind old certainties and stepping into an uncertain future. As we journey to the cross together this Lent, I encourage you to reflect with me on the cost of our own discipleship, and to pray for all those who still face exclusion and persecution for their faith. And as we give thanks for Nicodemus’ witness, I encourage you to reflect with me on our own witness to God’s love in this city diocese and Cathedral community, and to pray that we may be good ambassadors of the good news that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3.16).

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand o 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. (Jude 1.24-25)

God’s Covenant: Journeying into God’s promise

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1 March 2015:

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Today’s readings (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Romans 4.13-25 and Mark 8.31-38) tell us about God’s promise to us: they make known to us God’s promise to be with us in what lies ahead, just as they are about God’s promise that you and I symbolise for this place and community. They reflect on the promises that have been, promises that have been fulfilled and for which we can express our thanks, just as they invite us to make God’s promise of a future in his presence our own by entering into a loving covenant with God. And they invite us to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead by becoming bearers of God’s promise ourselves.

At the heart of the story of God with his people stands a complex relationship between promises made, promises heard, and promises followed. God’s promise is founded on a recurrent pattern of constancy and faithfulness, and the regularity in which God’s past promises have been fulfilled can give a sense of certainty. The story of God also teaches us about the way in which promises have been fulfilled and opportunities been grasped; it tells us something about how we humans take up opportunities, or whether we let them pass by.

The story of God, then, can tell us more about ourselves: whether we grow into a promise and the potential that lies within us, or whether we disregard God’s promise in us altogether. And today’s lessons give us a particular insight into the pattern of promise fulfilled and followed found underlying all our Scriptures, show well the pattern of God’s promise in order to give us hope for our own futures and journeys of faith.

Our first two lessons (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4.13-25) take us the patriarch Abraham, the father of God’s people, and spiritual parent for three world faiths. It is in the promises made to Abraham that the story of God and his peoples begins. As, of course, does the story of the promise itself. In our first lesson we meet Abraham as he grapples with the implications of having believed in God’s promise. God had called Abraham from his home to travel to ‘the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12.1). God had promised that he would be with him, and bless him, and that he would make a ‘great nation’ of Abraham. Our first reading, with its poignant conversation—in a series of visions—between God and Abraham, comes after many miles of travel, and numerous adventures on the way: conflicts in Egypt, troubles by the Dead Sea, battles with local rulers. Our first lesson follows Abraham’s victory in battle. He should be contented, one would think, about having left the field victorious, prosperous in flocks, land and men. But Abraham is anything but happy: one crucial thing in his life is still lacking—he has no children, no heirs, to call his own.

‘How can I become a great nation without populating the lands that I have gained’, Abraham asks himself, and questions God about his intentions again and again: ‘You have given me no offspring’, he says, ‘how then am I to inherit this land?’ (Genesis 15.1-2) And God responded to Abraham’s plea, led him outside his tent, asked him to observe at the night-sky, and assured him: ‘As numerous as the stars of heaven, so shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15.5). And ‘Abraham believed in the Lord’, we read, ‘and the Lord reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness’ (Genesis 15.6). God not only gave direct answers to Abraham’s questions about whether the promise he made was true. God also took note of Abraham’s trust, of his faith, and he counted that trust as righteousness, we read.

The fact that Abraham took God’s promises on trust, and continued to put his faith in God’s purposes for him, is of great importance for us, the people who trace our spiritual lineage back to Abraham. That certainly is what St Paul believed when he wrote in our second lesson from the epistle to the Romans. For if Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was counted by God as righteousness, as setting the relationship between God and Abraham right, then that says something really important about the role of faith, and of trusting in God’s promises for all us, St Paul explains in our second lesson. For Paul, the story of Abraham becomes a test case for all the other promises God makes: Abraham’s trust in God’s good purposes is not only a sign of Abraham’s faith but a source of confidence for us, as we seek to discern God’s purposes, trace the pattern of new promises, and promises fulfilled, in our own lives.

For those who already believe in Jesus Christ, Paul says, the fact that God kept his promise to Abraham shows that they will never be disappointed in their faith in God. And for those who do not yet believe in Jesus, Paul says, the fact that God fulfilled the promises he made says something essential about God’s constancy. God is faithful and keeps his promises, Paul tells. And if we put our trust in that belief, then we, too, can grasp the promises that lie ahead of us in confidence, can safely step into the future, because we are entering into a pattern of many promises already fulfilled.

That is why Paul concludes: ‘The words “it was reckoned to him” were written not for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also’ (Romans 4.22-23). For these words give us hope that we, too, can safely put our trust, our faith, in God’s promises and purposes.

Where Abraham was promised to be the father of a great nation, we are promised to be children of God, are promised eternal life through Jesus Christ, Paul says. Knowing that Jesus died so that all people who believe in his promise can have life, Paul says, is the greatest hope there can ever be. A hope that will enable us to bear hardship and suffering, secure in the knowledge that God will keep his promises to us, just as he kept the promise made to Abraham. Immediately after the end of our second lesson, Paul reflects on that truth, and explains: ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Romans 5.3-5).

As we enter God’s promise, we won’t be shielded from setbacks, Paul makes clear, echoing our Gospel reading (Mark 8.31-38). ‘If anyone want to become my followers’, Jesus said in Mark’s Gospel, ‘let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8.36). No, we will not be kept from suffering. Rather, our setbacks will teach us endurance, a quality that will shape our characters, St Paul knows from his own experience. Endurance and hope, in turn, is what will make us the people we are called to be, St Paul says, is what will help us fulfil the potential that lies within us. And even though that potential may, at present, only be a promise, it certainly is already there. It is this potential and trust that invites us to step into what lies ahead with confidence.

God’s promise of a new life, and a future ‘throughout all generations’, his promise ‘to be God to you’ is fulfilled in each generation (Genesis 17.9). It embraces the past and the present; was there for the generations of Abraham, Jesus and Paul; and now is there for our generation.

God’s promise is fulfilled in every age, whenever people join together to enter into the covenant God makes, whenever people are marked as God’s people. Its future is ensured because every individual, each bearer of God’s promise, is invited to contribute their own gifts to perpetuate God’s gift of promise to those who have yet to hear it. For God’s promise of a future is only ever achieved in community, when many contribute their skills and, by fulfilling their own promise with other promise-bearers, fulfil a greater promise, accomplish abundantly more than they might have been able to do on their own.

Each one of us can bear God’s promise of a future to our world, where we recognise signs of that promise in one another, and together act to live as members of God’s covenant.

This morning’s readings invite us to make our own the promise made by God to Abraham and to Paul, and the promise made by Jesus to his followers. They invite us to step into the pattern of promise that God is faithful and constant, to experience and learn for ourselves that God worthy of our trust in him, and his purposes for us. They invite us to step into the promise that God will give us a life-long journey, give us a future, and a new life in return for our own lives.

They invite us to discern the promise that lies within us, our hidden gifts and talents, our potential for leadership or service in this community. Just as they invite us to regard one another in terms of promise: I have found that it often was other people who identified some of the potential and promise that lay within me. Above all, they invite us to step into what lies ahead together: as promise-bearers who, with others, can shape this community in the terms of the great promise that is given us; the promise that God will be constant, will bless us, and remain close to us, in all the opportunities that he will bring.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, give us, your people, grace
to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes and chances of this fleeting world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where lasting joys are to be found,
that we, loving you in all things and above all things,
may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.

The light to lighten all nations: ‘an obstacle in its original place’

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the 145th Anniversary of the Foundation of St Philip’s Church Cowes, Phillip Island, 1 February 2015, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

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On Monday, 25 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘Cowes Church Hall Dedicated – Vicar mixed the Concrete – Fate of the Archbishop’s doorstep’ (The Argus, Monday 25 February 1935, p. 3). Completed to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary-year of your church, your church hall was a labour of love: volunteers dug the foundations, your then vicar, the Revd William McAully Robertson, drew the plans and mixed the concrete, and the seventh Dean of Melbourne and Archbishop, Frederick Waldegrave Head, laid the doorstep, as the works commenced.

It was the Archbishop’s doorstep that proved to be both ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21.42) and a ‘stumbling block to many’ (1 Corinthians 1.23) – quite literally: as the Hall was dedicated, the vicar confessed that the stone the Archbishop had laid as an entrance stone now supported the kitchen sink: ‘it had proved to be an obstacle in its original place’, the vicar explained.

Our lessons today (Malachi 3:1-4,Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40) remind us that our faith is not always a bright ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people’, but that it sometimes can be a stumbling block, can be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, as our Gospel reading puts it (Luke 2.32, 34). They encourage us to place our hope in the One who was rejected by many, Jesus Christ, and to become ambassadors of that hope. And they give us the example of two faithful people, Simeon and Anna, as signs of that longing, and proclamation.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, Simeon prays holding the infant Jesus in his arms, we heard in our Gospel reading (Luke 2.19). Simeon has become old while waiting for the promised Saviour. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the certain knowledge that the Saviour has come among his people. Simeon, we read in our Gospel reading, was looking forward to ‘the consolation of Israel’ Luke 2.25). The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the coming of the Messiah, picking up the prophet Isaiah’s rallying cry to the exiled people of God in Babylon: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had spent a lifetime longing for that promised hope. Now at last salvation is at hand, not only for his own people, but for all nations who seek to share in the hope of the Messiah. Now, at last, he can go home to God, can ‘depart in peace’.

If I have suggested an image of Simeon as a fully contented man with a message that brings nothing but comfort then, I am afraid, I have only described one side of the man. For Simeon knew well about how faith, like your erstwhile Church Hall doorstep, can be a stumbling block; how its challenging message may give offence, can feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’. His prophetic words, addressed to Mary and Joseph, then, temper his own consolation and desire to depart in peace, with a distinctive shadow of darkness.

Where the prophets foretold how God would set free his people by an act of power—a physical act of liberation—Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel: not so much a sunlit highway for the Lord, prepared by his faithful messenger, but rather more a valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a Via Dolorosa, a way of suffering and a crown of thorns. The doom of Israel is foretold in this Infant, born to be a crucified King. While Simeon speaks of light and glory, he also points to ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentation’.

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’, Simeon proclaims as he blessed Mary and Joseph (Luke 2.34). The first stumbling block for Simeon’s contemporaries surely is that the ‘many’ in Israel are both the chosen people as well as the ‘nations’, the gentiles, whom the child in the prophet’s arms will call to the radiant light of God’s goodness. If the prophet’s words that infant’s life is inextricably tied up with the fate of nations and people are unsettling, feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’, then his blessing for the child’s mother is even less comforting: the lance, thrust into her Son’s lifeless side on Calvary, will be as if a sword would pierce her soul, too.

Simeon’s prophecy is mirrored in our reading from the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2.14-18). There the promised Messiah, whom we today see presented to the Lord as an infant, is shown to be the last High Priest of Israel who, will sacrifice himself for our sake: ‘so that through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-5). The destiny of Mary’s child’s, today’s epistle reading makes clear, is to be the final offering to be sacrificed in the Temple, the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ as well as to be the last, the ‘merciful and faithful, high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17).

Jesus’ offering in the temple—both as an infant in Simeon’s arms, and as the last High Priest of Israel on the cross—initiates a new relationship with God, today’s festival makes clear. The stumbling blocks of Simeon’s prophecy lie not only in naming the child in his arms as the promised Messiah, but by proclaiming, in the sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple, that here was the final High Priest who would do away with sacrifices for sin forever, the One who would open the Temple to all nations in order to be ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ (Luke 2.32); words that surely would have been offensive to any believing Temple worshipper, would have been an ‘obstacle in its original place’.

In the midst of the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the Lord, Simeon prophecies that the Temple’s very purpose will come to an end: the child himself will be the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ our epistle speaks about (Hebrews 2.17). And indeed, the epistle to the Hebrew reminds us later that, at the moment the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two, at the moment at which Jesus dies on the cross, the relationship between God and his people had been fundamentally redefined.

Here, then, is not only a firstborn infant come to be dedicated to God, but a rightful High Priest who takes his place in the Temple; a self-understanding that Jesus himself shares from the beginning when he tells his worried parents a few verses after this morning’s Gospel reading, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49). The prophecy that the child presented by Simeon was a High Priest would have been startling enough. The fact that, in the midst of the Temple, he is proclaimed Messiah to the gentiles, who will provide his own sacrifice in his own body on a cross, and that by offering himself will do away with the need for sin offerings, with the need for a Temple altogether, is what makes Simeon’s prophecy so offensive, such a stumbling block to the faithful.

All is changed as the infant is presented in the Temple. The very reason for faith is radically redefined by Simeon’s prophecy: that here is the One who will, by his own offering of himself on the darkest of all days, Good Friday, put an end to the darkness of sin and the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death altogether. That here is the One, who by his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, will in his own risen body show forth the light of new hope, of sins forgiven and lives restored—the light of eternal life—to all those who trust the words of Simeon, that the infant in his arms is indeed, ‘your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2.30-32).

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As we give thanks for 145 years of faithful witness in this place, I invite you to hear again the words of Simeon’s song and discern through them God’s radical work of transformation among his people throughout the ages: a work that turns our preconceptions upside down; a work that transforms people and communities; a work that seeks to shed forth the radiant light of resurrection into the dark places of our world where people long for assurance and hope.

As we give thanks for the past, I pray that may God richly bless you in your future ministry: may your future show forth the same unity of spirit and action that led to the creation of your church and hall—where priest and people created together the place and shape of your ministry.And may your future be characterised by the same imagination and perseverance that, when faced with a stumbling block doorstep, saw in it not a ‘stone to be rejected’ but a foundation for a new, and essential kitchen, and a new function and ministry altogether.

And so, as we approach this crossroads of the church’s year, as Lent draws near, as our gaze shifts from the miracle of the manger to the triumph over the tomb, it is my prayer for you and me, that God will continue to touch our lives, so that we may become people who know in our own lives the mystery that those who come share the Infant’s bonds and burial, shall also be made partakers of his resurrection, and make that message known in our own generation, to all who long for the ‘light to lighten the nations’ today. Amen.

St Philip’s Cowes Photography: nipper30

Casting wide the net: fishermen become fishers of people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Patronal Festival of St Andrew’s Brighton, on 23 November 2014:

I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of your home church at the heart of our city and diocese, St Paul’s Cathedral. I am delighted to be with you this morning, and to reflect with you on the calling of your Patron Saint and my Name Saint, St Andrew.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a story of invitation: a story in which strangers become followers, and fishermen fishers of men.

Our story really begins in the Jordan valley, the place of Jesus’ own response to John’s call to be baptised and be set apart for his ministry as the One who calls others to God (Matthew 4.13-17). By the time Jesus had returned from the wilderness temptations of Satan (Matthew 4.1-11, 12), John had already been arrested by Herod. Jesus also left the Jordan valley, perhaps to avoid arrest himself. He withdrew to Galilee, and made his home in Capernaum on the lakeside (Matthew 4.12). For the next few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel Capernaum and the Lake were to become the centre of Jesus’ activity.

Capernaum lay in the land of two ancient tribes, we are reminded by the Gospel writers, ‘in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’ (Matthew 4.13), a region that played a central part in the prophetic words of old. Isaiah, for instance, speaks of how a ‘great light’ would arise for those living in the region of the ‘Way of the Sea’, the Via Maris, an ancient route traversing Judea and Galilee, much used by traders on their way from Egypt to present-day Syria and Lebanon (Isaiah 9.1). The Galileans had been ‘brought into contempt’, we read in Isaiah; in fact, their cities had been occupied and their people had been carried into exile (2 Kings 15.29). The ‘great darkness’ that had fallen on the nations of Zebulun and Naphtali was to be lifted by the arrival of a ‘great light’ among them (Isaiah 9.2). Just as foreign powers once had plundered their homeland, so they would again rejoice, ‘as people exult when dividing plunder’ (Isaiah 9.3). For St Matthew there is no doubt that the great light that has dawned for those in the ‘region and shadow of death’ is none other than Jesus Christ.

This land, then (once called with derision ‘the Galilee of the Gentiles’ since it was seen to be on the fringe of the Jewish covenant), was to become the home for the work of the Kingdom of God. It was from here that God’s light would begin to shine forth, first illuminating the Jews and then all other nations (Luke 2.32). It was on a mountain on the lakeside that Jesus made known the light of God’s Kingdom to the people of Galilee and, following his resurrection to new life, from another mountain nearby that he commissioned them to spread that light to the whole world (Matthew 28.7). By proclaiming his message of light in the midst of darkness, the derided ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ became the place from where the good news was shared with all peoples, the place that saw the fulfilment of the prophecy of great light in the midst of darkness for all peoples Isaiah spoke about.

In this land Jesus first began to preach proclaiming, in the words of John the Baptist, ‘repent, the Kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4.17). ‘The reign of God has come among you and is close at hand’, he told his listeners. This was the first time that Jesus spoke of God’s gracious rule that would bring peace, salvation and redemption to those who longed for it (cf. Isaiah 52.7). Throughout his ministry, in Galilee and beyond, Jesus made known this message of joyful news. To those who followed him, he said that they were given insight ‘to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 13.11), and explained how they could discern its signs: the Kingdom was like someone who sowed good seed (Matthew 13.3-9), it was like a great mustard tree (13.31f), it was like a net that is thrown into the sea and brings up an incredible catch (13.47-50). For Jesus, this Kingdom had arrived, had already been planted and was now growing before the very eyes of those who turned and followed him.

This idea of ‘turning and following’ Jesus is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Indeed, it is so important that the word ‘to follow’ (akolouo) is used three times in this short passage: once Jesus calls people, ‘follow me’ (Matthew 4.19), twice people respond and ‘follow him’ (4.20-21). The image used here is of one in authority calling his followers, people who immediately recognise him, and follow. Here the master seeks out his disciples where, traditionally, apprentices would have sought out their master. Jesus calls four fishermen—two pairs of brothers—and invites them to leave their vocation to catch fish to become ‘fishers of men’, to fish for people (Matthew 4.18).

If we are looking at key words in this passage, then we shouldn’t overlook the small word ‘immediately’ (euthus, Matthew 4.20, 22). Both sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew as well as James and John, follow Jesus’ call immediately. The writer leaves no doubt that Jesus’ call must be answered at once. The decision to follow Jesus is costly: it may well, as in the case of the four, mean giving up our current vocation or leaving behind those we love in order to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 19.26). All readily gave up their livelihood and two even left behind their father in the boat in order to follow Jesus.

Four Galilean fishermen called to be fishers of men. Simon and Andrew, James and John would not have known the fishing for leisure that we know today. The brothers left behind boats and nets of the first-century equivalent of our fishing fleets, not hooks and fishing tackles. The fishing that went on around the Sea of Galilee was the kind in which a large net was dropped into the depths of the water to catch everything in its path. To become fishers of men, therefore, was the call to seek out everyone, to include everyone they encountered. They were to cast their nets into the darkness of the deep and bring to light all they could find. One of Jesus’ stories about the Kingdom of Heaven explains this:

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad (Matthew 13.47f).

Everyone is called to the Kingdom, everyone called to be brought out of the darkness that surrounds them to the great light that has arisen among them. The sorting-out of those called to enter this Kingdom­­­—those called to dwell in this light forever—is left not to those who call—those who ‘fish for men’—but to others. Once the fishers have brought up—brought to light—their catch from the deep, others are called to sort that catch. Putting the good fish into baskets, and returning the bad to the sea. As Jesus explains to his followers:

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous (Matthew 13.48).

To follow Jesus, then, means to enter into this vocation: like Andrew your patron and the first Apostles we, too, are called to ‘fish for people’. Yet it is not up to us to decide whether those we bring to Jesus, those who choose to accept Jesus’ call to enter into the radiance of his light are ‘in’ or ‘out’. That is left for others to decide. It isn’t for us to rank those who do follow on the basis of their sacrifice, either. Whether they are people who have left behind their vocations, their livelihood and families to follow, or whether they are ‘simply’ those who got caught up in the wake of the net should not matter to us. All that we are called to do is to join in the catching, to cast the net wide, and to bring many to the light of God.

This, then, is a true story of revelation and response: Jesus appeared among the four Galileans like the great light that had been promised to their people in a time of great darkness and persecution. The four responded to the call to come to this light and brought many more with them. Indeed, only a few verses on, we hear how great crowds of Jews and Gentiles followed Jesus, ‘coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordan’ (Matthew 4.25). And today, we too are called to share that light, are called to be numbered among the many who responded to Christ’s call. Whether they be strangers from the East at a birth in a humble manger, whether they be Jewish fishermen on the Lake at the crossroads between Jewish and Gentile lands, whether they be foreigners carrying the cross of a condemned criminal, or Jewish leaders preparing a broken body for the tomb; regardless of whether they be Jews or Gentiles, strangers or folk who feel they belong—they are called by Christ.

And today, you and I, are invited, like them, to get caught up in the net of grace, and to tell others of this good news, too.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.