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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a Cantata Service as part of the Australian Deans’ Conference at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney, on 5 August 2018:
Johann Sebastian Bach, Erschallet ihr Lieder, erklinget ihr Saiten (BWV 172)
Reading: John 6.25-35
Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Thank you, Dean Kanishka, for your kind invitation to preach here this morning. I bring you all greetings from the Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier, and the people of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. It’s a great joy to be with you this morning and to share together in our celebration of the gift of God’s Word, and the gift of music to encourage and inspire our journeys of faith.
I was brought up in the ‘old’ South Wales, and came to Australia nine years ago to take on – or so my wife Katherine and I thought – a five-year stint as lecturers, she in the Faculty of Arts, and I in Theology. Six years ago, that time scale changed somewhat when I was elected Dean of Melbourne. At the time, the Senior Canon took me to one side and said: ‘Don’t worry’. I was hoping for words of encouragement, but instead heard a reflection on my relative youth: ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be the youngest Dean of Melbourne’. ThatDean was the illustrious Stuart Barton Babbage, great great grandson of the inventor (with Ada Lovelace) of the Calculating Machine, scholar of English puritanism, war-time air-force chaplain in Persia and Palestine, who became Dean of Melbourne aged 37. Of course, you know well that prior to his taking on that role he had already been Dean of Sydney for six years.
I had the privilege of meeting Stuart at the end of his life, and hearing about his ministry of opening the doors of St Andrew’s to this city, a ministry he would continue with great energy and commitment for nine years at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne. Stuart’s hallmarks were his love for the gospel, his love of people, and his love of music. At St Paul’s he would lead Choral Evensong every Thursday, knowing that it was not only the people in St Paul’s, but all who had tuned their radios to Radio National, that would be in attendance to hear and reflect on God’s Word through sublime music. And not only those who worshipped in St Paul’s, or listened to the service on their wireless. But also, and especially so, the choir.
People often speak of ‘preaching to the choir’, and imply that the musicians that enable our worship all share faith in Jesus. I myself was a chorister before I became a Christian, and I know that I am not the only one to have found faith through music-making.
I came to faith when I was a choral scholar in Oxford. There I not only shared in leading choral worship but, as you can imagine, heard a good many sermons. But it was music, and more specifically, the music and message of Johann Sebastian Bach, that drew me closer and closer to Jesus. For me, Bach’s music choral was an invitation to lived faith.
The more I sang his works and later, as I reflected on them as an academic, I came to realise that Bach’s Cantatas and Oratorios were nothing other than sermons in sound.
It was one such sermon in sound, on a frosty night in Advent (a frosty night in Advent!) at the end of my first term, that began my journey of faith. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. As I joined the glorious opening chorus, ‘serve the highest with glorious choirs, let us honour the name of our ruler’, for the first time I consciously recalled owning Bach’s invitation. I was not only a part of a glorious choir – though our director of music always felt that there was room for improvement – but that night I believed that I did sing in service of the highest. Through music I began a journey of faith that led me to experience the freedom that can be found in service of the highest: in music and message, lived faith and fellowship.
If any among you, especially fellow music makers, have yet to experience that liberating, life-giving freedom that comes from lived faith, please talk to me, or any of my decanal colleagues, over morning tea. And if you already follow Christ, I encourage you to think back to that moment, or that gradual journey, that led to your own commitment of faith. And to think what it might be that you need to take on, or which barriers you might still need to take away, so that you may be enabled to share this invitation to faith joyfully with others.
What did I expect when I found Jesus Christ? I guess, I was hoping for shape and guidance for my life, was expecting that my prayers would make life easier, more secure. That expectation was only partially fulfilled. Yes, knowing and loving Jesus has given shape to my life. But finding Jesus hasn’t made my life any easier, nor more secure. In fact, I think the reverse is probably the case. Knowing Jesus has made my life more unsettled, less predictable.
The realisation that coming to Jesus and knowing him may be different from what we had expected, I think, is what the people in our gospel reading also found so hard to understand. Knowing Jesus, following Jesus, may not be what we had first thought. Later in the chapter from which our reading is taken, Jesus’ close circle of followers will talk among themselves: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’, they say in verse 60. And Jesus will ask them outright: ‘Does this offend you?’ The Greek word skandalizei puts it even more strongly: does this scandalise you, does this form a stumbling block for you? Yet the scandal of following Jesus will lead them to see ‘greater things than these’, he promises them.
The people who had just seen 5,000 people fed by a couple of loaves and some fish will see far greater things. They will see the ‘Son of Man ascending to where he was before’, Jesus tells them in verse 62. Ascend to the Father who sent him and, before that, ascend to the cross. And the knowledge that Jesus is God’s Son, and will suffer and die, will cause offense. At the end of the chapter in verse 66 we read how ‘because of this many turned back, and no longer followed him’. This rupture is one of the many breaking points in John’s gospel, where people turn away from Jesus because his teaching confronts them with a reality that is too challenging to their own preconceptions.
Why did the people come to Jesus in the first place? In verse 25 Jesus confronts them: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate your fill of the loaves’. They came because Jesus had given thousands of people free food, fed them so generously that twelve baskets of left-overs were gathered in. They came, because Jesus had suddenly left them, and miraculously walked across Lake Galilee; had entered his disciples’ boat and sped it to the other side. When the people caught up with him, they knew themselves to be in the presence of a man full of power, and they wanted more of that power. They wanted miraculous power. Power to change things seemingly effortlessly. They came to Jesus not for Jesus’ sake, but for the sake of his power.
And Jesus told them that their efforts to be with him so that they may be filled with his power are in vain. They may have successfully raced around the Lake to catch up with him, but unless they come to him for his sake, they labour in vain. ‘Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that will endure for eternal life’, he told them in verse 27. There may have been twelve baskets of left-overs, but those would not endure to eternity.
The food that Jesus gave them in this powerful sign will not endure. That miracle will become memory; that power will perish. Because, for John, the way to share in Jesus’ power is by sharing in his weakness and suffering. Yes, the people had heard Jesus’ words of invitation and shared in his meal. But unless they were also prepared to share in his suffering, all they will ever have experienced is a free meal.
Responding to Jesus’ invitation means coming to Jesus for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of living with Jesus. Responding to Jesus’ invitation means accepting Jesus as he is.
Acknowledge your motivation, Jesus tells the people (and us with them). Do we exert ourselves to race to him so that he might help us to consolidate a power that will not last? Or do we come to him as he is: come to remain with him, and share in his communion, and the suffering of his broken body on earth? We all called by God, whoever we are. Just as we all are invited to reflect on why it is that we seek Jesus.
‘By your word I am invited’, our cantata chorale concludes, and graciously calls us to Christ.
‘Do not exert yourselves’, Jesus told the people. ‘Do not work for food that spoils but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’. The food that the Son of the Father will give. The food that the one whom God personally has authorised and commissioned, on whom God has set his seal, will give. ‘For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’, Jesus tells us in verse 33. The bread that God gives is more than any other perishable nourishment. Christ is himself that life-giving food. And in the same way, in which he is the light of the world, or the way, or the water of life, in which he is life in its fullest abundance, so Christ will give life to the entire world. That life endures, lasts forever. Because the bread of life – the life-giving things that Christ gifts us – are lasting gifts from God.
When challenged by the people to perform another miracle – ‘what sign then will you give that that we may see it and believe in you? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness’ – Jesus told them that the manna from heaven was not the gift of a human mediator – Moses – but God’s free gift. There is an essential difference between the gifts, just as there is an essential difference between the givers, Jesus explains. The manna was miraculous bread from heaven. It fell like hail each night, and was gathered up in the morning by the people. But any that was left over perished – some of the people, not wanting to gather up the sweet morsels each day tried to store it, ‘and it bred worms and rotted’, perished, we read in the book of the Exodus (16.21).
Just as the heavenly manna perished, so the mediator who argued with God that the people would be fed miraculously in the first place – Moses – also died. ‘It was not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven’, Jesus tells the people in verse 32, ‘but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven’. God gifts the true bread. And with the true bread, God gifts the true mediator. Who will give his life so that death will die: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’, Jesus proclaims in verse 35. Christ himself is the true, the lasting mediator, who gives us himself as the gift of the Father: ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’, Jesus will tell the people in verse 54.
The one true mediator between God and humankind, who lives forever, gives the bread that is eternal. And he does so, by giving his own flesh and blood on the cross. In the end, the bread of life is much more than flour and water mixed and baked and given thanks for. Jesus’ bread of life is what sustains all life: is the food that sustains all faith. And the source of the life that is forever is found in Christ’s death.
Christ has come into the world so that the world may have life, and he gifts his own life for the lives of all people, he explains. ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day’, we read in verse 39.
And the key to being saved and raised up, is by seeing and believing in Christ. Not because of the miracles, nor because of the food that may perish, but because of the fulfilment of the divine will.
In the gospel of John ‘true seeing’ often is a shorthand for ‘believing’, just as ‘superficial looking’ may stand for ‘unbelieving’. The people who have come to Jesus to share another meal are now invited to look beyond that which will perish – the loaves and fishes, the memory of the manna – and to see that which will last. And the ultimate act of seeing, and believing, is the moment of fulfilment, is the ultimate scandal that will make many people break away. When Christ himself is raised up on a cross, so that he might draw all people to himself.
Those who look to the perishable, Jesus knows, will see the ultimate tragedy: death destroying a powerful healer, teacher and miracle worker. But those who see and believe, will see God’s ultimate act of power displayed in the weakness and brokenness of the cross. Death destroyed by death; the bread of life broken, so that all may eat and be filled and never be hungry again. The water of life outpoured so that all who believe may never be thirsty.
‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’, Jesus assures us. Our true bread are the fruits that spring from the broken body on the cross: the bread, the wine, the Spirit Christ breathed on the world as he accomplished all, and the Words of eternal life he gave us. As our cantata puts it, ‘your word, your Spirit, your body and your blood refresh me from within’. They feed and nurture us, and remind us of the immense cost of our salvation.
The reformer Martin Luther, whose works Bach had studied just as thoroughly as has he studied the Scriptures, put it like this. When Jesus says, ‘”whoever comes to me shall never be hungry or thirst”, that means, “they will never die”. This saying should be engraved in our hearts with golden letters or, better still, with living letters, so that we all may know where our souls are kept when we die’ (WA 33: 61, 31-39).
Christ calls each one of us to open our eyes, and to see in the brokenness of the cross the ground of our salvation. He calls us to open our hearts, and let them be homes for the Words of eternal life: the ‘living letters that tell us where our souls are kept’. He does so freely, and graciously, so that all people might share his life. And, as we hear his invitation, you and I are called to reflect on what it may be that may still scandalise us in this story of grace so freely given; and what stumbling blocks we might still place in the way of those who yearn to hear this good news. What is it that keeps us from the cross, and what is it that we place in the way of the cross.
‘Welcome in faith to me’, our cantata suggests a response, ‘highest love, come within! You have taken my heart’.
Welcome in faith: for the past four years we have displayed a nine-metre banner on the South spire of our Cathedral. It shows a woman holding her daughter. The picture on the banner was taken in one of the transit camps for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees’ it reads; a reminder of the plight of millions of displaced people, and the punitive response to that crisis by our own leaders. While our banner may not have changed the hearts of our leaders, it has transformed our Cathedral. Hundreds of refugees have come to St Paul’s to ask us what our welcome to refugees consists of: ‘Thank you for welcoming us, what do you do for refugees’, they said.
And in turn they experience a welcome that did not look at their faith, their race or their visa status, in our free English classes, our shared meals, and our Bible studies and worship in easy English that we run for those who have yet to find their new voice and language. Others came to see why it was that Christians were praying for, and welcoming, refugees from majority Islamic countries. And they were told that it is when we receive others as Christ, that we receive the Lord himself.
As a result of that welcome and care, many people have been drawn to faith in Jesus, and have become congregants; two of them have been ordained, and another has been selected for ordination in our diocese. When we welcome others in the name of Christ, we come to experience the transformative power of God in our own lives and communities: at our Cathedral we found that when we began exercising an intentional ministry of welcome, our congregations grew by 30%.
The experience that Christian churches grow when we exercise a ministry of welcome to others, is not only true when we welcome refugees, but true for many others who often face exclusion, or feel they lack recognition in our churches – indigenous people, women and children, people from the LGBTI community, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people with disability, people suffering from long-term illnesses, and many more. For us at St Paul’s our intentional ministry of hospitality and welcome in the name of the Gospel has been transformational. What is it that we – our leaders across the church, our bishops, deans, rectors, ministers and lay leaders – you and I need to do to enable that transformational change? What is it that we need to do to enable that welcome in faith?
Because when we welcome others in the name of Christ, and invite them to share our Gospel, our faith and our fellowship, our Cathedrals, our parishes, can be transformed. Because when we make a home for others, we practise what it means to make a home for Christ ourselves, to make ourselves into homes for Christ. At the most fundamental and profound level of the Christian faith is the news of the incredible gift of God to the world: God became human in Christ Jesus, so that we might share in the life of God.
And we share in God’s life when we allow God to dwell in us, and our communities, when our churches and our hearts are open for Christ. Our cantata puts it in this way: ‘come, then, into the hovels of our hearts, though they are poor and small; come and allow us to ask you: come and dwell within us’.
One of the greatest challenges of faith is the confidence that Christ will be sufficient for us, and that we – authentically as we are, and who we are – are sufficient to welcome Christ. Many of us, myself included, struggle truly to believe that we will not lack for anything if we let ourselves be fed by Christ; struggle truly to believe that our hearts are good enough to become a home for Christ. Yes, we are entirely undeserving to receive Christ. But the point of our faith is precisely that even though we do notdeserve to receive Christ, he nevertheless seeks to come to us.
As Jesus assured his questioners: ‘This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of what he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’.
We will never deserve Christ through our actions. But Christ gives himself to us freely when we truly seek him, find and recognise him for who he is, when we know him to be the Lord of life. When welook at them, our hearts are nothing more than ‘hovels’, as our cantata puts it. Yet our hearts are the very places where God seeks to dwell, where God seeks to make his home with us, so that we may have life in all its fullness. ‘The work of God of this’, Jesus told the people, ‘to believe in the one he has sent’.
When we place our trust in that gracious invitation; when we believe in the Son of Man, all our wants will be met, our gospel reading assures us. When we turn to Jesus Christ, we are given all that we need for life: we are washed clean from all that holds us back by the water of life; are refreshed by the Word of life; are nurtured by the bread of life, and are led by the light of life. Even ‘the hovels of our heart’ can be transformed into ‘the paradise of souls, in which God’s Spirit breathes’, as Bach’s cantata puts it: may be renewed and restored to be places fit to receive Jesus Christ.
In the 1720s it was the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach who opened the doors of the Leipzig churches to share in music the good news that God wants to live with us. With ringing songs and sounding strings he proclaimed that the decisive moment had come: the ‘blessed time when God will prepare our souls to be his temple’. In the 1940s, Dean Stuart Barton Babbage opened the doors of this Cathedral to people seemingly forgotten or neglected by the church: by civic observance, blessings of tools and instruments, he proclaimed God’s invitation to prepare a home for God and to be at home here at St Andrew’s, to city workers, trade unionists and labourers. In the 1950s, he shared God’s gracious invitation with our city, by opening the Scriptures in Bible studies, and filling St Paul’s (and, across the airwaves, our entire nation) with sermons in sound.
The invitation that God seeks to come close to us, that he calls us to know him, turn to him, love and follow him is not restricted to a favourable time in the past, proclaimed by outstanding servants like Dean Stuart and Cantor Sebastian. It is a timeless invitation. Today, you and I – Bishops, Cathedral Deans and Worshippers, Visitors and Volunteers, Ministers and Musicians – are called to extend that same welcome. Make it known to those who have yet to hear it; those feel they do not deserve to hear it; those who may be scandalised by it and have shut their ears to it; and those who need to hear it afresh.
Today, you and I are called to open the doors of our Cathedrals and communities to the people around us; are invited to ask for the grace to be able to remove any stumbling blocks that still may prevent others from hearing the good news. Today, you and I are called to recognise that it is now that is the favourable time; that this is very moment that God seeks to dwell with us and make his home in us. Today, we are invited to open our hands, stretch them out, and receive the bread of life.
And now to him who is able to keep us from falling, and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.
This weekend we recall the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of ninety-five theses on justification. The Augustinian monk did what every other Wittenberg academic seeking to debate work in progress did: he posted his theses for debate on the doors – we believe – of the university and castle church at the centre of Wittenberg. This is how he put it: ‘Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter’.
Little did Luther know that this conventional act of seeking to try, debate and refine his academic thinking on what it means to be made just before God would fuel a wildfire of social and ecclesiastical discontent that would lead to a thorough reform of German church practise, and the establishment of a new denomination that would bear Luther’s name. His ninety-five theses were immediately translated from their original Latin, the language of scholarly debate, into German and other European languages. They spoke into society that had, since at least the mid fourteenth-century, put increasing pressure on the church to adopt essential reforms.
Many of the things that we take for granted in our worship today were on a catalogue of demands that predated Martin Luther: the reading of the Scriptures in the language of the people, singing of hymns in one’s own language, the ability to receive both the bread and the wine of the Eucharist were foremost on the list of demands. As were some broader social demands addressed to the church as one of the largest landowners in Europe: harsh taxation and tithes – the system of charging a levy on the fruits of the harvest – which further widened the gap between rich and poor.
And finally, there was the central issue of how people are made just before God. In an age in which both heaven and earth, Saviour and Satan, were very real places and people for all, the question of how humans would share in the life that is forever, and be deemed worthy of that life, was fundamental. In the late fifteenth-century, an elaborate system of penitence had been developed as a result of more than three hundred years of theological research. People were made just before God, the cutting-edge traditional theologians of Luther’s day believed, by confessing their sins, and by making reparation for their sins: they would undertake an act of goodness to make up for what they had done wrong, or the right they had omitted to do.
So far, so good: a system of checks and balances. I agree that if there were an act of goodness for every evil, then the world would undeniably be a much better place. The problem began when the system became commercialised. Acts of goodness could be outsourced, as it were. Someone else would undertake the spiritual exercise of penance on your behalf, most likely a monk or nun, if you only paid for it. When this system was extended not only to one’s own sins and omissions, but those of one’s dead relatives and friends – payments for parents in purgatory – theologians like Martin Luther seriously began to question the spiritual value of such a punitive and pecuniary approach to justification.
Luther did not set out to be a reformer. He became a reformer by his strongly held convictions on what it means to be made righteous before God. Or rather, what it does not mean to be made righteous before God. And while the event we commemorate this weekend would forever be associated as the beginning of the German reformation, for Luther it was another stepping stone in the middle of a long academic, and personal wrestling with the Scriptures. For more than four years in the run up to 1517, Luther had been reflecting and lecturing on Romans. His Theses were the culmination of his theological research, and his firm conviction that people are not made just by paying the church for prayers offered on their behalf, and certainly not on behalf of those who had already died, but that people are made just by a change of heart.
‘For years’, Luther later wrote, ‘I hated that word “the righteousness of God” … which I had been taught to understand … that God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly … I was angry with God’ (WA 54: 185). It was Paul’s epistle to the Romans, our epistle reading for this morning, that was the sticking point for Luther, particularly the sentiment that ‘“no human being will be justified in God’s sight” by deeds prescribed by the law’. In a system of justification where it was precisely by deeds commanded by a divine law – five monand a Pater Noster for this offence, a couple of decades of the rosary for that – in such a system, no one would ever be made just. Paul said as much in our epistle: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
And Luther living, as he later reflected, ‘as a monk without reproach, felt with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God’. In the sight of the infinite and just God, no one could stand righteous: under the terms of God’s own law ‘every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God’ (WA 54: 185). And the laws of the church, Luther then firmly held, reinforced that understanding. Penance and payment for sins committed would never fully remove sin. Which is why, the church taught that people languished in purgatory for centuries being cleansed from the wrongdoings they committed during their lifetimes.
Surely, there would need to be another way to become justified before God, Luther felt. By April 1516, Luther was convinced that there was absolutely nothing that human beings can contribute to their own justification, other than believing that God desires to justify those who love him. Luther had weighed every word of our epistle, and came to believe what Paul meant when he said that we are saved not by the law of works, ‘but by the law of faith. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Romans 3.28). Put differently: according to the law, according to our own deeds, humans stand no chance to pass muster before an infinitely righteous God. But when they place their faith not in their own righteousness (or lack thereof) but in God’s righteousness, they acknowledge their weakness and draw on God’s strength.
Luther found great comfort in the central thesis of today’s epistle reading: because Christ who was without any sin at all gave his life freely, those who believe in Christ may live. Paul put it this way: even though ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift’. That gift was bestowed on God’s people when God sent Jesus into the world to live among us, and die for us. When Jesus died, ‘he had passed over the sins previously committed’ (Rom. 3.25). All sins, past, present and future, are covered: not by anything that we can do, but only by believing that God has granted us this incredible gift freely. When Jesus died, all sin died with him, giving all humans the gift of being made right before God if only they believe.
In 1516 Luther wrote: ‘Christ died for me, he made his righteousness mine, and made my sin my own, then I do not have I, and I am free’ (WA 56: 204). And the way in which we may celebrate this freedom, Luther believed, was by opening our hearts to God’s love. Luther wrote that the effects of the salvation wrought for us on Calvary are effective today, because ‘the cross of Christ is distributed through the whole world; each person is always allotted their portion’ (WA Br 1: 25). All of us who believe share in the event of salvation, Luther interpreted Paul, and encourages us: ‘Do not cast the cross aside, but rather take it up as a holy relic to be kept. Not in a golden or silver case, but in a golden – that is a gentle and loving – heart’ (WA Br 1: 25, 1: 37f.). We are to be the reliquaries of the true cross, and enshrine in our hearts the symbol of our salvation. In the same way in which many of us wear the sign of our faith on a chain around our necks, we are to become living bearers of the cross, holding close to the innermost parts of our being the firm and certain hope of our being made just before God, and our being gifted new life forever in God’s friendship.
Luther did end up revolutionising the church. He set out comfort those who, like him, believed that they could never be good enough for God. His insights into the graciousness of God, and the infinity of God’s love fundamentally changed the church. All that is required for us to be made good and just before God, Luther came to believe, is already given us in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is believe in the fruits of his salvation, have faith that the new life he promised is for you and for me, and open our hearts to him in that faith asking to be made just and whole. And this is good news for all who believe, and worthy of our celebrations, that ‘in his divine forbearance God has passed over our sins … and justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (Rom. 3.25-26). As we give thanks for the insights into the love of God of his servant Martin Luther, it is my prayer that we may be strengthened in faith to believe this truth, and through our faith we may be renewed in grace and transformed to be people whose very hearts are homes for God.
A prayer after Martin Luther:
You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness
but I am your sin;
you have taken on yourself
what you were not
and have given me what I am not:
open our hearts to your grace,
that we may be strengthened in our faith
and made perfectly whole in hope
for you are alive and renew our lives,
and reign with the Father and the Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2016:
This morning’s readings encourage us to step into the future to which we are being called in faith, even though our own future may yet be unmapped. They encourage us to learn from the example of Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s fellow workers. People, who deliberately chose to go away from familiar surroundings to new and unknown communities. People who left behind their family and friends to follow Christ. People who, like early explorers or cartographers, began to chart the world they saw, put the first ‘markers’ on the map of the church where the good news of Jesus has been proclaimed. It is their signposts that still us, and will allow future generations to follow in the way of the Gospel. Today, we give thanks for our call to follow in their footsteps, I’d like to spend some time looking at these early ‘markers’ and ‘signposts’ and think about where own journeys might lead to.
I love the letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest of the letters of Paul, and we heard all of it in one lesson. Our epistle reading, gives us a snapshot of how Paul conducted his ministry: both in the mission field and in his imprisonment in Rome. ‘I, Paul, appeal to you as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus’, he sets out at the beginning of his letter to Philemon, his ‘dear friend and co-worker’. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian Church, a Hebrew and Greek colony in Phrygia, a place in today’s Anatolia in central Turkey. Philemon and his wife Apphia had gathered a group of believers around them in their home in Colossae. They were members of the Greek community of Colossae, and probably had come to know about the God of Abraham through the large Jewish community in that city.
Through the work of Paul, and his fellow missionary Epaphras, they came to love Jesus Christ (Col. 1.7-8). Like many other Colossians, they had found themselves outside the Jewish covenant; they may have loved God but never felt that they could fully belong. And so for them, the good news of Christ Jesus, Jesus the Messiah, was good news for themselves. As non-Jewish believers they were told that in Christ, God calls people from all backgrounds to know, love and serve him. There, in their home city Colossae, they first understood what Paul, in his letter to their city churches, called ‘the riches of the glory of God’s mystery among non-Jews: that Christ is in you, and gives non-Jews the hope of glory’ (Col. 1.27). There, they first appreciated that in Christ, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all’, as Paul writes to the Colossians (Col. 3.11). And the way in which this mystery has been brought about, Paul tells the people of Philemon’s hometown, is when God ‘erased the record that stood against us, with its legal demands, and set it aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Col. 2.14).
During his missionary journeys, Paul continuously gathered around him people like Philemon and Apphia; people of Greek origin who loved God, who understood that Jesus was the Messiah, and who would support Paul in his ministry either as local leaders of the communities Paul founded, like Philemon and Apphia, or as fellow travellers in the gospel. One such fellow minister, whom Paul chose as his companion was Onesimus, Philemon’s and Apphia’s slave. Paul dispatched Onesimus on missionary journeys, ‘mapping out’, as it were, and getting to know the first nascent congregations, placing the first ‘markers’ for the Gospel in Asia Minor and Greece. And the markers of that mission are the fruits of the cross; the instrument of torture and death that was the means by which God unites that which was dispersed, restores that which was broken, and forgives that which has been distorted by sin. On their travels, Paul and his fellow missionaries literally take up the cross, in order to place it as markers of God’s presence, and God’s desire to heal and restore, in the communities to which they are being sent.
Let’s turn to Onesimus, the subject of Paul’s personal letter to Philemon. In his epistle to the Colossians, Onesimus is named as Paul’s ‘faithful and beloved brother’, and, equally importantly, ‘one of you’: Onesimus is a Colossian himself (Col. 4.9). This, too, is part of Paul’s missionary work: in order to map out the path of the gospel, Paul not only planted markers of the signs of salvation in the places he visited, but he identified local leaders in order to continue his work in his absence. And so, in Corinth, Paul would tell of the good news of the cross – the good news of barriers broken down, and relationships restored – and establish local communities centred around that hope. They are, as Paul writes to the people of Colossae, to ‘continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed’ by Paul’s servanthood of that good news (Col. 2.23).
Paul created these communities of the gospel by establishing churches in people’s homes, like the church that met in the home of Apphia and Philemon. And from those communities, he also identified key individuals whom he would take with him. Whom he would equip for ministry by enabling them to share in the work of planting the seeds of the Gospel in other communities. And then, having been equipped for their ministry, by sending them back to the places from where they came. Onesimus might have been a slave and servant Philemon’s household, but he is much more than that: he is a member of the household of faith; a member of the church led by Philemon and Apphia. More so, he he is a trusted minister commissioned by Paul to amplify the message of the cross, of God’s reconciling love, in the community he had called home.
Paul was so effective in calling others to share with him in taking up their cross and follow Christ because he called to himself many co-workers. In today’s epistle, Paul writes of ‘Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers’ (Philemon 1.24). Now, Paul has charged his faithful assistant Onesimus to tell the Colossian church ‘about everything here in Rome’ (Col. 4.9). Onesimus, whom Paul ‘wanted to keep with him in Rome so that he might be of [continued] service to me’ (Philemon 13), is being sent back home to reinforce the good news that by Christ’s death on the cross people are no longer kept apart from one another and God’s love. And, importantly, for the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, that through the same self-giving death, we are set free from all bonds: there is no longer ‘slave and free’, Paul writes to Onesimus’ home community (Col. 3.11). And he appeals to Philemon that he would extend the same freedom he has received in Christ to his slave, and enable Onesimus to be set free to undertake the work of ministry: ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … in the Lord’ (Philemon 16).
The key to this transformation, this change, from slave to beloved brother in Philemon’s household; from member of Philemon’s church to Paul’s emissiary of the good news, is the cross. As Jesus tells the crowds in today’s gospel reading (Luke 14.25-35), it is taking up that cross, carrying that sign of reconciling love, and placing it as a marker, a signpost to God’s love, that is the hallmark of a disciple, a follower of Christ. People who follow Christ in this way allow themselves to be transformed: their relationships are changed – their ties to families, friends, and – in the case of Onesimus, their owners – can be transformed when they take on themselves the symbol of Christ’s self-giving love; the cross. And so a slave may become a free person under the law of the land, and all those enslaved to the powers of evil and death may be freed to live. As Paul writes to the people of Onesimus’ home town: ‘you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled in his own body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’ (Col. 1.21-22).
Today’s readings invite us to become part of that transformation; invite us to become people who live out, and make known, the power of reconciliation as co-workers in the gospel with Paul and those who shared his ministry. They invite us firmly to anchor the news of the cross as ‘markers’ in our own communities, by living out, and celebrating, in this place the good news that in Christ nothing can hold us back from the reconciling love of God. More so, they invite us to become messengers of that love who go out from here into the world around us; invite us to be partners in mission with Paul and the apostles, in charting out the areas where that love has not yet been proclaimed; setting up signposts to the cross in the places to which God calls us and through the activities and ministries with which he entrusts us.
Our taking up this invitation calls on us to take up the cross and find in it the symbol of our life and strength; call on us us to trust and to take risks. And in so doing, we may find that it is at the point at which we respond to Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, and take up Paul’s invitation to be emissaries of the cross we receive, that the promises of God to his apostles of past generations will touch our own lives: that God will walk with us, equip and strengthen us, and sustain us on our journeys. As we hear about how others followed God in the past, we are encouraged ourselves to ask where it is that God is leading us – in our own lives and in the life of our Cathedral. And then to enter, like the twelve disciples, like the Jerusalem apostles, like Onesimus, Philemon and Apphia, like Timothy and Titus, Luke and Mark, Demas and Aristarchus, and the other companions of Paul, with renewed confidence into the uncharted future that may lie ahead of us.
When Simon the fisherman became Peter the Apostle by following Jesus into his new life, he was told that he was to be the rock on which the church would be established. When Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Apostle by following Jesus into his new life, he set his horizon equally wide, brought new communities of faith into being, named them and charted them for the first time, so that through his ministry all the world might hear the life-changing message of the cross (2 Tim. 4.17). I invite you to think about how you might step into the yet unmapped futures that lie ahead of us, how you might journey, and whom you will ask to accompany you as you travel. I invite you to seek to deepen your relationship with Christ, to watch out for the signs of transformation through the ministries of this place, that, as Paul prays, ‘the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive the good that we can do for Christ’ (Philemon 6). Above all, I invite you to pray about how you will respond to Christ’s call to be his ambassadors: people who are sent out to make known how Christ’s good news can transform real lives and communities—our lives and our community here in this place, so that we truly may be a place of transformation for our city and diocese.
© Andreas Loewe, 2016
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on Advent Sunday 2016:
I remember well the first day I travelled to the city of Jerusalem. Like the pilgrims in this morning’s Psalm, I was journeying up to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. Through the ragged peaks of the mountainous Judean desert, from the lowest town on earth, Jericho, some 250m below sea level, to the height of the mountains that surround the Holy City. As I was travelling, I prayed the words of our Psalm – ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the House of the Lord”.’ I was journeying in a bus, and not on foot, but the sense of anticipation and joy was just as great as it would have been to any pilgrim making their journey to Jerusalem. I was heading to the city ‘where the pilgrims gather in unity … to give thanks to the name of the Lord’.
There is a sense of wonder when see Jerusalem for the first time from the heights of the Mount of Olives: the city lies at your feet, the Temple Mount with the golden Dome of the Rock, the churches and synagogues, the tall bell towers and minarets that make up an iconic skyline so instantly familiar to us. I was filled with joy as I set eyes for the first time on the City, was thrilled when I passed through its historic gates – ‘now our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem’. The City with its great wall, and gate-towers, still gives the impression of unity and strength that the psalmist sings about: Jerusalem, built as a city that is compacted, that is at unity in itself. Peace be within your walls, was my prayer.
I have been a regular visitor to Jerusalem since, have navigated the busy roads of the city on foot, by tram, and as a driver myself. In my extended stays in the city I have learnt to distinguish between the ideal of a city that even in its historic fabric, surrounded by a great protective wall, appears to be at unity, and the reality of life in Jerusalem, where many communities with different values, different faiths, and entirely different aspirations for the future live side by side. Jerusalem may be built as a city, but it certainly is not at unity in itself. The different ‘tribes’ of the city still go up, but they gather not in unity. They coexist, but they do not live together. They live next to one another, but often are not neighbours.
This morning’s readings invite us to hold in our hearts the ideal that God has for his cities – the city of Jerusalem and the other places where he dwells. They invite us keep longing for that ideal, to keep alive in our hearts the desire to see God’s cities at peace. They invite us to be active in our longing: not only to watch for the day when God will bring peace to Jerusalem and the places in which he seeks to dwell, but to work for the peace he seeks to bring to this world in the places where we live – our homes, our neighbourhoods, our churches and our communities.
In our first lesson, from the prophecy of Isaiah, we hear words of hope that the City of Jerusalem, though now a place filled with empty treasure and idols, will one day be the place where all nations can encounter God. In censuring the people of Jerusalem for their reliance on other gods – idols of old, treasures of silver and other riches – Isaiah holds before them the image of their city as a place where God’s glory will dwell: God will himself live in the city, will establish his home on the mountains that surround her, will himself teach the world the ways of peace. And because God himself is at the heart of the city, all nations will seek God’s presence and peace: ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’.
Because God himself is present at the heart of his city, the city is at peace and unity; is truly enabled to be Yerushalayim – the City of Shalom, the City of Peace. People will turn from the self-seeking, self-serving ways of the past: will turn from the worship of riches and the armed struggles to accumulate greater wealth, influence and power. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, will plant rather than destroy, will build up community rather than tear down and divide, will ‘walk in the way of the Lord’, whose will for his city and his world is peace.
Our gospel reading, from the final chapters of Matthew’s story of Jesus, also takes us to Jerusalem. Jesus had just left the Temple. His disciples were admiring the imposing beauty of the Temple precinct, when Jesus told them that the wealth of the City they admired would not be lasting: ‘not one stone will be left here upon one another; all will be thrown down’ (Matthew 24.3). Sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the stunning panorama that greeted me on my first visit to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches the disciples to recognise the signs of the end of the age.
The age will come to an end, when the Son of Man returns, he tells them: he will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and he will divide the nations. Those who have long-waited and worked for his coming will be united with him, and have a share in the building of his City of Peace. Those who have only ever laboured for their own inclinations, only ever gratified their own desires – as our epistle puts it – will be left behind to await the destruction of the rich walls of Jerusalem. They will find shelter in strong walls that only ever gave a semblance of a City at unity in itself, and will find the same walls they built destroyed. Those who have laboured for the unity of God’s people and the cities in which he seeks to live, will long have turned their swords to ploughshares and began the arduous work for peace.
When the Son of Man returns, Jesus tells his friends, there will be those who will not enter into the City of Peace. When the Son of Man comes, God will judge between the nations, and arbitrate between many peoples. Those who sought his peace will share his peace, and practise the arts of peace. Those who sought a land filled with silver and gold, sought to build walls, will be left behind in the shells of the protection they created, will be left with empty riches they have accumulated in vain: ‘one will be taken, and one will be left’, Jesus tells his disciples, as he weeps over the City of Jerusalem.
The City that should be at peace has turned away from the ways of the God, has only sought the prosperity of its palaces, and not its peace; has only sought the protection of its walls, and not its unity; has neither sought its good nor given thanks to God for his word – in fact it has consistently killed God’s messengers: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! … See, your house is left to you, desolate’ (Matthew 23.37).
How do we learn the ways of peace? How do we live so that the ideal of the City of Peace that God holds before us as the place of his dwelling, may truly come to be built in our midst? Our epistle reading from the Letter to the Romans gives us a guide to living in peace. The way to peace, Paul tells us, is the way of God’s commandments: the guide to living that God gave to his people on Mount Sinai – ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal or covet’. The way to living in peace is the way of holding the lives of others in the same esteem in which we hold our own. Know the lives of others as sacred to God in the same way in which he sees our life as sacred. Love the lives of our neighbours in the same way in which we love our own: ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’, Paul exhorts the Roman church.
When I first travelled to Jerusalem felt that I recognised a city that I felt I had long known. I instantly recognised its landmarks, felt that I knew the mountains that surround the City, and longed to enter its gates. My prayer was that of the pilgrims who travelled there more than 2,500 years before me: ‘I will pray that peace be with you’. God still seeks to be gracious to the cities and places in which we live; especially to that still un-peaceful City of Peace, Jerusalem. He asks us to work with him in fulfilling his law of love, so that his City may be at unity in itself; that all our cities may be places where people seek for the good of others, and the peace of its communities.
This Advent, may the same eagerness that the pilgrims felt on knowing that their journey would take them once more to Jerusalem mark our time of watching for the signs of God’s love in our world. This Advent, may the same determination that led the pilgrims of old to face the arduous journey to God’s city, mark our working for the fulfilment of God’s law of love in the places in which he seeks to dwell. This Advent, may the same gladness that the pilgrims felt on setting out to travel to Jerusalem be ours, as we commit again to walk in the light of God’s love, and expectantly await the day of God’s coming.
© Andreas Loewe, 2016
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, to mark the 125th Anniversary of the Consecration of St Paul’s Cathedral, on the Feast of the Conversion of Paul 2016:
‘On the morning of Thursday, January 22’, reported the Illustrated Sydney News, ‘the whole width of Flinders and Swanston streets … was packed with a crowd watching a long, white-robed procession … Even the tram-cars were stopped, and passers-by mounted on them… Melbourne’s new Anglican Cathedral … has at last been made ready for consecration’. The great public interest marked not only the opening of a new landmark building. Nor did it simply honour the many dignitaries who had travelled here. The consecration of St Paul’s Cathedral was a sign of hope: a sign of hope for the unity of the Anglican Church; a sign of hope for future unity of the five independent colonies that would, a decade later, form the Commonwealth of Australia; and a sign of hope for the unity of all Christians. Press reports pointed out that the presence of the Primate of Australia and Bishop of Sydney, Dr William Saumarez Smith, ‘was a witness to the fact that the federation of the Anglican Church has long preceded the federation of the colonies’ (Yea Chronicle, Vic, Thursday 29 January 1891, p. 2). The fact that leaders of all Christian denominations shared in prayer was seen as an important symbol of ‘the time, let us hope, when all the walls of partition will be broken down’. Above all, the consecration of our Cathedral was a symbol of the hope that ‘this new Cathedral may be a centre of spiritual energy for the whole Colony’.
125 years on, our Cathedral still stands as a symbol of that hope in our city. Our vision to be a place of prayer for the people of Melbourne and Victoria reflects the hope expressed at our consecration. Crowds still line the streets to make their way into our Cathedral on days of great celebration and joy, such as at our recent Christmas celebrations, as well as on days of mourning and grief. Our vision to be a home for all Anglicans in the Diocese of Melbourne actively underpins the hope that our Cathedral would become a symbol of the unity of Anglicans throughout our land, and is given expression whenever our diocesan family comes together to set apart for service deacons, priests and bishops, when our province comes together to share in the ministry of word and music at our annual Provincial Evensongs, or at national gatherings and occasions. In the same way, our purposeful engagement in sharing in worship, dialogue and acts of shared service alongside other Christians and people of other faiths, is again an expression of a hope voiced made when this building was first set apart for worship. The hope that our Cathedral may not only be a symbol, but play an active part in the work of breaking down ‘the walls of partitions’ between people of different faiths, gender, race or sexuality; of seeking to provide ways in which many can share in the life of God. The hope that we might be a place where people experience something of the holiness of God, and so come to share in the vision that God holds for this world: to be a place where all people may know about his reconciling love and share that love with others.
Tonight’s readings (Jeremiah 1.4-18 and Acts 26.1-23) reflect on the hope expressed at the consecration of St Paul’s, and expressed in our Cathedral Vision, that through the worship and acts of service offered in this Cathedral many might come to know the reconciling love of God in Christ Jesus. They take us to the commissioning of one of the greatest of all prophets, Jeremiah, and into the audience chamber of King Herod’s grandson, King Agrippa, asking our patron Saint to give an account of himself and of his hope.
Our first lesson, from the opening chapter of the prophecy of Jeremiah, tells the story of a reluctant messenger. Jeremiah receives God’s word; hears God testify how he had set him apart for a ministry of proclamation long before he was born: God had known Jeremiah even in gestation, had shaped him like a potter in the womb, and set him apart before he made his first breath. His task: to be a prophet of God’s love to all people. ‘I have set you apart to be a prophet to the nations’, God tells Jeremiah. ‘I have put my words into your mouth’, God declares, and appoints him speak words of razing down all that hinders, and of building up all that makes holy. Words to ‘pluck up and to pull down, and to build and to plant’. There is a timelessness to Jeremiah’s message. Even though his prophecy was directed to a specific context, our own world still shares many of the hallmarks of Jeremiah’s age: many share the same fear of terror, war and destruction; the distinct sense of lost hope of Jeremiah’s generation has echoes in our own. Jeremiah’s message that the structures of society of his age would be overturned was rejected by those who heard it. Yet the hope he shared prevails to this day: that God would forge for himself a new people from all those who sought his friendship, regardless of their race or gender, previous beliefs, background or actions. It is that very hope, that God would break down the barriers that divide peoples and nations, that motivated the work that led to the consecration of this Cathedral 125 years ago. And today you and I are invited to make that same hope our own, are invited to enter into God’s work of ‘breaking down and overthrowing, in order to build up and plant’, our first lesson concludes.
Our second lesson, depicted in the stained glass window immediately to my right, gives shape to the hope for the world’s unity under God expressed by Jeremiah. Our patron, St Paul, stands accused of spreading dissent, of breaking down the established religious order in his preaching of the good news to those who do not belong to the people of Israel. Paul is granted a hearing by the ruler of Israel and Judah, King Agrippa II, the grandson of King Herod the Great. In his defence, Paul speaks eloquently of his conversion – how he was turned from persecutor of the risen Jesus Christ and his followers to preacher of the resurrection. At his own conversion, Paul was set apart to become God’s ‘instrument chosen to bring God’s name before Gentiles and kings, and before the people of Israel’. And so, Paul does not only recount and defend his actions before the king. He invites the king to consider the claims of Christianity in order to make them the basis of his own faith. In an astonishing defence for any court of law, Paul commends his faith to Agrippa and invites the king to follow Christ. A few verses after the conclusion of our second lesson the king asks Paul, ‘are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ (Acts 26.27), to which Pail responds: ‘whether quickly or not, I pray that to God that not only you, but also all who are listening to me today should become such as I am, except for these chains’.
The courage of Paul’s testimony reflects the intensity of his conversion experience and the radical change to Paul’s life brought about by the heavenly vision of Jesus Christ in the blinding brightness of resurrection light. Paul’s desire ‘for all to become such as I am’, a believer in the God who tears down the walls that divides people and faiths, reflects the catholicity of his commission: his appointment to be the bearer of God’s message of reconciliation, of relationships restored, to all nations and people. Just as his boldness reflects his zeal and conviction: that here was a hope worth trusting, a hope declared to the prophets of old, though often rejected; the ‘promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain’, the hope of sin subjugated and death destroyed. And it is the combination of this courage, desire, zeal and conviction, that led Paul to make disciples of his judges in Israel, king Agrippa and his court, and, later, in chains in Rome, of the Praetorian guard and imperial palace staff whom he encountered in imprisonment.
The message that God tears down division to restore life reaching across the boundaries of faiths, gender and background is as pertinent today as it was in the days when God commissioned Jeremiah and Paul to be his emissaries. It is as acutely important today as it was 125 years ago, when at the consecration of this building for the proclamation of God’s good news, many expressed that hope that in a future not to far off, the divisions between faiths and colonies, nations and people may be no more. God’s vision of unity, that was set before us through the word of the prophets and apostles, and was so iconically expressed by the presence of people of all faiths from across our continent at the consecration of our Cathedral, still eludes our generation.
We live with the continued desire for Anglicans to find unity as a worldwide communion and family of faith, and for Christians to be reconciled and recognise each other as members of one another in the body of Christ. We live with the continued longing for men and women, regardless of their gender, social background or sexuality, to be recognised as equal partners in the ministries of the Church. We live with the continued pain of the marginalisation of the very people on whose land this Cathedral proudly stands: the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and the desire to see their personal rights and their traditional ownership of this land recognised tangibly in law and symbolically through an acknowledgement of their ongoing contribution to our shared heritage. We live with the pain of brokenness and long for reconciliation, at home, in our church, across the peoples of faith, and the nations of this world.
125 years ago, people expressed the hope that St Paul’s Cathedral might become a centre of spiritual energy for this land. The vision expressed then has been lived out in faithful service and ministry: for the people of this city and state, we are a living symbol of faith, a place of encounter, a spiritual home. I give thanks for the energy and sacrifice of previous generations in helping to shape and fulfil this vision. But there remains much work still to be done to fulfil the hope that we might contribute to the breaking down of the many barriers that divide us:
- Yes, the separate colonies of our continent were united in federation ten years after our consecration; but the work of reconciliation with the traditional owners of this land still is in its infancy.
This year, I commit myself and the Cathedral community to furthering the tangible recognition of the contribution of aboriginal people to the life of our nation by beginning the important conversations of how to commemorate appropriately the sacrifice of aboriginal service personnel in the AIF as well as the loss of so many innocent lives in the earlier frontier wars, and how to re-imagine our precinct so that people can easily see and recognise something of the traditional land on which we stand, and honour its traditional owners.
- And yes, many of the barriers to recognise the ministry of women in our church have been removed, but by no means have ‘all the walls of partition been broken down’.
This year, I commit myself and the Cathedral community to create the same opportunities for women and girls in this Cathedral that have been open to men and boys for more than a 125 years. This year, let us complete the work of creating our Cathedral as a house of prayer where all may serve, by inaugurating the girls’ voices of the Cathedral choir and the commissioning of women lay clerks to serve alongside our choir of boys and men.
- And finally, yes, the Anglican church in Australia remains a national church and an important part of the families of Anglican Churches, but the fear of division and the hurt and pain of exclusion remains with us.
This year, I commit myself and the Cathedral community to pray intentionally and daily for our Primate, Philip, in his important role to be a bridge-builder in our hurting Anglican Communion and the communion he serves, and for this Cathedral be a place of hospitality and welcome, conversation and teaching, where people from all backgrounds may feel accepted, included and equipped for ministry.
Friends, just as God called and set part Jeremiah and Paul to be his emissaries, and gave us this wonderful building to be a place where his message spoken through them and many others would be heard, so God still calls women and men into his service to make known the good news that God seeks the friendship of all people. The task of making known that message, of actively reaching out to others, and removing the barriers that divide us from one another and from God, remains the same that it always has been. I am delighted that our Cathedral has already become that ‘centre of spiritual energy’ for our nation that our forebears prayed for, that we truly have been shaped into and daily are becoming a spiritual home for the people of this state. As I give thanks for their foresight and vision I pray God’s rich blessing on us, the inheritors of their vision, as we address ourselves to the tasks that have been their and that now are ours: of being messengers of the good news that God in Christ Jesus is a living body, valuing each member, and that he invites all people to be united to him in a lived relationship. As we give thanks for the past and all that has been, let us commit ourselves to this future: to be ambassadors of the work of reconciliation in our own generation, for our diocese, city, state and nation.
Now to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of Christ the King, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, 22 November 2015:
‘Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him: “are you the King of the Jews?”’ (St John 18.33). For Pilate there was no question that Jesus could not possibly be a proper king. He certainly was not related to one of the local vassal rulers loyal to Rome; Pilate knew them only too well. Herod and his siblings had been educated in Rome. They would have known and preserved the proper courtesies, would have called at a more opportune moment and not visited him at the crack of dawn as this caller did. Come to think of it, his caller did look as if he had slept rough that night; if he had slept at all. True, he did come with an entourage. But the cohort of Temple policemen that accompanied him were certainly not a guard of honour.
For Pilate’s caller early that Good Friday morning was a prisoner. He was bound, and the Temple authorities sent him into the Roman military headquarters with a criminal charge of sorts: ‘if this man were not a criminal’, they had told him, ‘we would not have handed him over to you’. When Pilate had tried to hand the case back to the Temple authorities for their judgement they told him that, as far as they were concerned, this case was already settled: ‘we are not permitted to put anyone to death’, they told Pilate. And the evangelist John fills in the gaps, and tells us that they were not permitted to crucify anyone, only were permitted to put people to death for breaking religious laws, such as stoning adulterers or heretics. Pilate’s early morning caller, then, was not a religious criminal, but was accused by his captors of another crime altogether: ‘it was better for one man to die, than for the whole people to perish’, the leader of the Temple authorities had reasoned when he planned for this course of action.
The charge was insurrection. The man whom they had captured had spoken much about the kingdom of God, had told his followers what they needed to do to enter that kingdom. Only a few days earlier, the prisoner had been accorded a royal progress into the city of Jerusalem: hailed by the crowds as their King. The people of Israel had not had a king of their own for a generation. The offspring of Herod the Great were loyal servants of Rome, not sovereign kings. Rather they ruled under sufferance. Rome might not care about someone proclaiming himself the Son of God. They would take notice, however, of someone proclaiming himself King of Israel. And so they brought their prisoner to Pilate, to be interrogated.
And Pilate knew that this was no ordinary king. ‘Are you the King of the Jews’, he asked Jesus. Jesus neither denied nor affirmed, but rather questioned Pilate on his sources: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Was it a Roman security briefing, or the charge submitted by his captors that caused this extraordinary conversational opening gambit. And Pilate admits that it was his captors who had briefed him, and dismissed both the questioner and the Temple judges: ‘Am I a Jew?’, he sneered, ‘your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me on a charge of insurrection. What have you done?’
And Jesus repeated his teaching, telling the governor of a distant emperor, Pilate, of another kingdom with a divine ruler. A kingdom that is so alien to Pilate, that it seems to him to be from another world altogether. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, Jesus told Pilate, ‘if it were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. But since I am bound and standing in front of you a captive, ‘my kingdom is not from here’, Jesus told his questioner. Who promptly asks a counter-question: ‘so you are a king?’, he asks. And Jesus responds, ‘you say I am a king’, and again affirms the purpose of that kingdom that is so incomprehensible to Pilate: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’.
The essence of God’s kingdom is to bring liberty to all people. And the key to that freedom, that liberty, was the truth of his teaching, Jesus had taught in the temple. ‘If you hold to my teaching you will be my disciples’, he had told the people: ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, he had affirmed. The key to God’s kingdom was to know the word and will of God, and to believe it to be true, Jesus now told his judge. ‘You say, I am a king’, he told, ‘but I really I am a judge, who is able to set the captives free’.
Pilate may have heard Jesus explain, ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. But clearly he did not understand the significance of what he had been told: ‘What is truth?’, he quipped. And for the writer of this interchange it is clear that Pilate cannot possibly belong to the truth. He has no interest in his captive, nor in what he regards as the squabbles between different Jewish sects. He has no time for eternal truths, or kingdoms that cannot be defined in terms of legions and taxes. ‘What is truth?’, he asks, and does not even wait to hear an answer. And it is in this frame of mind – shut to anything other than what he expected to hear in the first instance – that he ultimately condemned Jesus to be crucified. There is no final conversion for Pilate; no sudden insight, as for the leader of the cohort stationed on Golgotha, that ‘truly this was God’s own Son’. Pilate’s heart is set as flint, hardened as the bedrock of Calvary; though that, too, like Pilate, will ultimately be broken.
The story of the king without a kingdom that stands at the heart of today’s celebration of the festival of Christ, the king, is an invitation to us to open our ears to the message of the king who has been captured; the sovereign whose throne is a cross. It is an invitation to look not at the might and power of Pilate’s opposite but his teaching. Indeed, at the time of Pilate’s questioning him, Jesus has divested himself of all worldly power: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’, he affirms, and points to his message as the basis of his kingship: ‘I came into the world to testify to the truth’. The truth that shall set us free. That truth would have sat uncomfortably for rulers like Pilate, whose power was exercised by might; by crushing his opponents and silencing dissent. The truth of the king, whose rule has overcome the rulers of this world, on the other hand, does empower and set free, because it invites us to open our ears to listen – listen to Jesus, and his teaching, and to one another: ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’, Jesus told his questioner.
We live in a world where the values of the king without a kingdom that today’s festival bring into focus are increasingly eroded. The truth that will set us free – the truth that can overcome unjust structures of government like Pilate’s police state, and that can topple powerful empires – is an uncomfortable one precisely because it holds up a mirror. A mirror in which we can discern only too well the flaws of our own generation: the world’s desire for recognition, influence and power. A mirror in which we see countless reflections of the crucified king without a kingdom in the tears and bloodshed, the death and destruction of this age. The truth that will set us free is the realisation that the powers of the Pilates of this world are worth nothing at all unless they can hear the voice of the king without a kingdom and understand that the answer to their existential questions – ‘what is truth’, ‘what is it that will set us free?’ – stands right in front of them: Jesus is truth. The man who neither looks, nor acts like a king; who shuns power, and by so doing breaks all powers.
The events of the past weeks: the acts of terror and counter-terror; the acts of revenge and reprisal that invariably follow are the actions of the mighty; the actions of the Pilates of this world. They are not the actions of those who listen to the voice of the king who rules from the cross who, with his dying breath, prayed: ‘Father forgive, for they do not know what they are doing’. And who, himself forgiving, bade the repentant captive enter that kingdom without boundaries: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, the one crucified at his side prayed, having looked into the mirror of violence and punishment, of action and counter-action, and seen only broken bodies, pierced limbs and sides, and blood flowing freely from the wounds of nails and spears. And having seen beyond the kingship of might; and having recognised the kingship of brokenness, he entrusted himself to the king without a land. The king, who by letting himself be broken, has taken up into himself the brokenness of this world, and overcome it. ‘Fear not’, says the king who rules from the cross, ‘today you shall be with me in paradise’.
Holy God; holy and strong; holy and immortal. Have mercy on us.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on Remembrance Sunday 2015:
In this season of Remembrance we give thanks for the sacrifice of those women and men who served in our armed forces and, who through their often selfless service, have enabled us to live out the values we cherish: a life in liberty, in a society founded on justice, freedom and opportunity. In our remembrance we tend to commemorate those whose service has been recorded in the pages of history: field marshals who led armies into battle or who, like Lay Canon Sir Harry Chauvel, secured a timely retreat for those embroiled in the bloodbath of Gallipoli. We tend to remember those who took up arms, and gave their lives in battle, or took to the skies in bomber squadrons and single combat Spitfires. We recall those who dug trenches and fought in the lines, think of those who operated tanks and advanced battles. Our corporate remembrance centres on those who gave of abundance; who gave of their strength. All too often we tend to neglect those who contributed out of their poverty; who gave all that they had – the unsung heroes of our conflicts, whose service tends to go unseen.
Quite literally so, in the case of Sister Lilian Bessie Kiddle of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Commemorated in this Cathedral not on a large brass plaque in the aisles, but on a simple wooden board in the corridor outside my office. Sister Kiddle was trained in St Kilda, and embarked on one of the first transports to Europe once war had been declared to join the Imperial Military Nursing Service. As a result, Lilian Kiddle was one of the first of 30 Army sisters to cross over into France in October 1914. Her nursing care knew no boundaries, no enmities: she cared for Allied servicemen and German soldiers alike. Anyone caught up in, or between the lines, servicemen or civilians. In her service Sister Kiddle put herself in harm’s way: her nursing apron pierced with shrapnel, her torch often the only source of light in the field hospitals because of blackouts and fear of attacks from the nascent German airforce. Sister Kiddle remained with ‘her men’, working on ambulance trains behind the lines, and moving along the front as they did, retreating only when they did (The Australasian Saturday, 15 March 1919, p. 35). Sister Kiddle survived the war, returning home to Melbourne in 1919 after giving six years in service to a conflict far away from home, giving not out of the strength of force, the abundance of power, but nevertheless ‘putting in everything she had’ in her service.
Also not commemorated among the military heroes in this Cathedral, but a war hero nevertheless, is my illustrious predecessor Frederick Waldegrave Head, the Seventh Dean and also concurrently the Archbishop of Melbourne. The Senior Tutor and Chaplain of Emmanuel College Cambridge when the Great War broke out, Head considered joining up as an Army Chaplain but swiftly rejected the idea: at 41 he felt too old to serve in the forces, so joined as one of the Chaplains attached to the YMCA providing pastoral care to servicemen behind the lines in France in 1915 instead. A year later, he was commissioned as an officer and chaplain with the Second Guards’ Brigade, and soon became a senior chaplain to the entire Brigade. In an interview on his appointment as Archbishop and Dean Head reflected on his experience at the front of the ‘blood-soaked line from the Vosges to the Channel’: it was his sheer hard work that enabled him to cope with the terror of ministering to an endless stream of injured and dying soldiers, comforting, as best as he could, those who had come to the end of their lives, or those who were, once more, thrown into the fray. The war disturbed, but did not break him, Archbishop Head reflected, and would say no further to the Melbourne press on the matter. The fact that he was awarded a Military Cross in 1917, and had a bar added in the final year of the Great War are external testament to his heroism (Table Talk, Thursday 23 January 1930). A heroism borne, again, not out of strength or abundance, but once more out of a desire to ‘put in everything he had’ for his beliefs.
Confirmed in their belief to ‘put in everything they had’ in times of great conflict both Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head continued their work for those most in need. Sister Kiddle continued nursing in Melbourne, even after she married one of the officers whose life she saved in the final stages of the war: the fellow-Victorian Lieutenant Hugh Hanna MC. Kiddle ran first aid and home nursing programs in order to enable others to extend, in times of peace but relative poverty in the post-War years, the care that enabled her save lives through her heroic service. Likewise, it was the experience of the bloodshed and destruction of the Great War, his own experience of having given out of his poverty, that led Archbishop Head to set up programs to promote greater social justice in Melbourne: he was one of the first church leaders to visit, and seriously engage, with those living in what was then the ‘Broadmeadows Camp for the Unemployed’, praying with those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and preparing them for confirmation (The Argus, Wednesday 29 April 1931). His advocacy for those in need was ceaseless: he invited the Brotherhood of St Laurence to move to the diocese, and establish their first social outreach programs in what then were the slums of Fitzroy, in St Mark’s parish.
For both our unsung heroes I believe it was the experience of being able to give out of their poverty that equipped them for their future ministry. Both ended up as highly decorated war heroes: Kiddle a recipient of the Mons Star and Royal Red Cross Ribbon, Head an MC with bar. Yet they are remembered not for their heroism, nor for their winning campaigns or battles, but for their selfless service: ‘out of their poverty they put in everything they had’.
Heroes are sometimes like that. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, they are people who contribute out of weakness rather than strength, bring great riches of character and principle, sacrifice and service out of the poverty of their power. They would very likely say of themselves that they have ‘just done their bit’ or how they wished that they had been able to do more. You very likely know one or two candidates for such quiet heroism. They would probably prefer to remain unsung, unremembered, would prefer that no fuss was made to celebrate their service.
Yet it is that very remembrance, our bringing to mind and making present of their actions, that enables us to ensure that the principles for which they strove are fostered in our own generation. They encourage us to do ‘our part’ in promoting the values of justice – looking out for those who have no one to speak up for them, caring for those who have no one to care for them – the values of freedom and opportunity – enabling others to flourish in spite of their background and to engage those who find themselves at the margins.
All too often we may feel like them: confronted with an almost insurmountable task when faced with so much need. It is especially at times like these, that the example of those who have given out of their poverty, is encouragement for us to go and do likewise.
The examples of Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head encourage me do what I can to ensure that their work of care in this city – a care that for our two unsung heroes was borne out of the wounds of the Great War – is continued. The same care – now borne out the wounds of the acts of terror and warfare of our own generation – needs others to ‘put in everything they have’.
For us at St Paul’s this is a care that, like Sister Kiddle, looks at people, not passports. A care that reaches out to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in making them welcome, safe and enabling them to share in our values of freedom and opportunity. A care that, like Archbishop Head, engages with people, not problems. A care that reaches out to individuals in helping them become the people God calls them to be, and enables them to witness to Jesus’ call: the motivation of all our calls.
This care calls for modern heroes. Some of those are very likely seated right here, in these pews. They probably do not regard themselves as such, but are those who create an abundance out of their own sense of poverty, are those who already put in everything, so that the treasury of God’s care for others may continually be filled. Jesus said: ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put everything she had’.
Lest we forget.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved
‘The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs, to every town and place where he himself intended to go’, we just heard in our Gospel reading. And I wonder what the emotions of those newly-appointed ambassadors would have been like when Jesus sent them away? No doubt there would have been a sense of excitement, certainly, a sense of new beginnings, perhaps even adventure. But there would have also been a sense of bereavement, of sadness of leaving behind familiar surroundings, friends and family. And then there would probably have been a sense of awe, perhaps even inadequacy, of feeling ill equipped for the daunting task that lies ahead: the task of being an Apostle, of being sent out.
What was it that went through the disciples’ minds as Jesus directed them away from the familiar surroundings of their Galilean home to travel away from Nazareth and the cities around Lake Galilee? For many of them, the Lake had been their breadwinner. As fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John relied on the Lake for their livelihood, while Levi collected the road tolls on the main trading route—the Via Maris—that encircled the lake. Most of the people whom Jesus called into discipleship were Galileans; many had a home and family in the harbour town of Capernaum. Until now, they had remained in the landscape and among the people that had been their home, and which had been so familiar to them. And now Jesus sent them abroad: away from their Lake, their families and friends.
Unlike St Matthew’s parallel of tonight’s gospel reading, which tells us that the disciples are to go ‘nowhere among the gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans’, St Luke does not explain in detail where it is that Jesus sends the disciples—‘every town and place where he himself intended to go’ covers a huge area. In order to fill in the gaps, we need to take a look at the previous chapters of Luke’s Gospel. A few chapters before today’s reading, in chapter 6, we hear how ‘a great multitude from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon’—the heartlands of the Jewish faith and its neighbouring territories, came to hear Jesus at the lakeside and to seek healing. And in chapter 8 we hear how Jesus himself travelled across the Lake to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’—still on the lakeshore, but no longer Jewish.
As the disciples are being sent away from Lake Galilee, they are instructed to seek out the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, are told to proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and healing to the very people who had already travelled so far to seek out and hear Jesus’ teachings. Because that, I am sure, is what Jesus means when he encourages his disciples, ‘wherever you enter a house … remain in the same house. … Do not move from house to house’—‘when you travel, stay with those who have already come to hear us, and share with their friends the news they themselves had travelled to hear’. Here then, we reach a watershed in the Gospel, as the good news travels far beyond the lake counties, the home of Jesus and his friends, and the seedbed of his message.
This is therefore no ordinary journey. And so, as they set out to bring back into the fold of faith the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, Jesus firmly instructs his disciples not to rely on their own strength and resources but orders them to ‘carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’. Jesus’ directions to his ambassadors of the message of reconciliation and lives made whole here match the instructions for entry into the Jerusalem Temple as laid out in the Mishnah, the orally transmitted ritual law of the Jewish faith (Mish. Berakoth, 9.5). Just as no one was allowed to enter the temple with provisions, or money, or ornate clothing, so Jesus’ disciples also are to travel as if they were on pilgrimage, as if they were journeying to the Holy of Holies—light and taking only the barest of necessities.
Jesus instructs his apostles to travel as if they were pilgrims approaching the Temple Sanctuary, because he believes that the place where God’s presence can be discerned is not only located in Jerusalem, but rather that it can be found within the souls and bodies of those who hear and respond to his message; all who are willing to have their lives transformed. Our reading of the Gospels shows that his own relationship with the ritual temple cult was ambivalent at best, which is surely why he asks his disciples first to seek out those people who respond to his message with generosity—the ‘living temples of the faith’, as it were.
Certainly St Peter later spoke of mission in those terms, when he explained that we all are ‘living stones’ called by God to be formed into a spiritual temple on the foundation that Christ himself has laid (1 Pet. 2.5). Today’s Gospel reading illustrates well this principle: on the foundation of Jesus’ words and works, the seventy messengers are to build up into a spiritual home for God people throughout the Jewish world: That’s why Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel first to seek out the ‘living temples’, those whose interest for the good news is already awakened, whose faith can be discerned, and stay with them awhile as they make known the Gospel in their towns and villages.
And as he sends them on their mission Jesus pairs up his seventy ambassadors—so that each disciple will have a companion who walks with them. He ‘sent them on ahead of them—in pairs’, we read. Again, the reason for Jesus’ action probably has its roots in Jewish law. As we know from the reports of the trial of Jesus and our reading of the Old Testament, in a court of law valid testimony requires two witnesses (Deut 19.15). His disciples are clearly sent to be such witnesses—faithful observers who speak of the wisdom, his works of making people whole, and his deeds of power that had astounded so many in Jesus’ homeland. Yet they are not only sent as witnesses who will testify to another’s deeds—mere ‘hearers of the word of God’, as it were—but rather they are sent to witness to Jesus’ power by their own deeds—‘are doers of the word of God’—when they themselves cast out demons, and heal the sick.
Being sent to speak of Jesus’ deeds to others forms the foundation of Christian ministry, today’s Gospel reading makes clear. We are all called to be ready to be make known what we have witnessed of God’s work in those places into which he sends us. We are all called to be God’s ambassadors, speaking of our experience of the work of God among us, and the hope we have for that work in future. As we give thanks for thirty years of the ministry of healing here at St Paul’s, we acknowledge the many faithful ambassadors of the message of Jesus Christ: lay people and clergy who called others into friendship with Christ, who shared his good news with those who were broken hearted, or broken in body or soul. Faithful ambassadors who reached out to this city in prayer and compassion. People who longed to share with others their experience that this Cathedral is being transformative in their lives, how it has offered a place of welcome to them and many others, without judgement or prejudice, how St Paul’s is growing to be a place that hopes truly to be a home church for the people of this city and diocese, and a place where people can share in the ministry of reconciliation and be made whole.
In an age where the bad news about Church so often dominate public understanding of the Christian faith, it is doubly important that we take our role as ambassadors of Christ’s work seriously. That we tell others—especially those friends of ours who don’t share our commitment to the church–the good news about our own faith, that we share our hopes for our church for the future. And, that we don’t just talk about our faith, but also work on our faith. Work to become a community that truly will welcome and include all—a Cathedral and church community, in short, we‘d not only be happy to talk to our friends about but, more importantly, a place we’d be happy to take them to!
Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of this good news; people who are sent out to make known how Christ’s healing power can transform real lives and communities—our lives and our community. Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of Jesus, sent so that many others may hear about, and come to experience, the love and transformative power of God in this Cathedral and diocese. As we give thanks for the faithful ministry of our Healing Ministry, and consider its future, I want to encourage you to pray about what it may be that God is asking you to do as you seek to serve him, and continue to make known Christ’s good news of lives restored and people made whole, in this place.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved.
In preparation for the third session of the fifty-first Synod of our Diocese, I reflected on the writings of the three heroes of faith we commemorate during Synod week: St Teresa of Avila, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, and St Ignatius of Antioch. Here are the prayers I wrote based on their thoughts, which we will be using at the opening services of each session:
A prayer from the writings of Nicholas Ridley:
Grant us grace, O merciful Lord, to look beyond the things that are present, but with the eyes of our faith to behold the things that are everlasting in heaven: implant this vision in us, strengthen us to forgo the riches, honours and pleasures of this life and instead to bear Christ’s cross, so that, at the end, we may pass through the gate of death into everlasting life in your presence and be numbered with the chosen members of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:
This morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.
On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.
It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).
While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).
Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.
At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.
God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.
Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.
That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).
The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).
We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).
‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.
It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).
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 (Ephesians 3.20-21).