A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the 2015 Keble Mass, at St Martin’s Hawksburn, on 20 July 2015:
John Keble, whose memory we honour at this annual Eucharist, is probably one of the most prolific hymnodists of the nineteenth century. In his The Christian Year: thoughts in verse for the Sundays and holydays throughout the year, the Oxford Tractarian succeeded in providing a hymn for each day of the Church’s calendar, many of which have become firm favourites among Anglican congregations. Most of you will have a favourite Keble hymn, though you may not necessarily think of it as a ‘Keble’ hymn. Your favourite might be an eventide or morning hymn, like Keble’s translation of the traditional Greek evening hymn, Hail, gladdening light, or his joyful, New ev’ry morning is the love, his Lord in thy name, thy servants plead, his majestic hymn in celebration of the fourth evangelist, Word supreme before creation, or his contemplative Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear.
Many of Keble’s hymns are characterised by their vivid imagery and fine poetry, as befits a theologian who also held the position of Professor of Poetry—then as now very much a working poet’s post—at the University of Oxford. In hymns such as Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear, each verse is a poem in itself:
Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if thou be near;
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes.
The presence of Christ in the human soul is likened to the sunrise of Easter morn: the risen Son becomes the sunrise of the human soul that can illumine even the darkest night. Here, in a single stanza, the great mystery of salvation is translated from the events of Easter that changed the course of human relationships with God forever, and is brought closer to the experience of those who would hymn the One who shines in our hearts: bright Easter light chases away the remaining shadows, ‘it is not night if thou be near’. Death is overcome by life, and makes our own deaths journeys home to God:
till in the ocean of thy love
we lose ourselves in heaven above.
Sun of my soul
Keble’s hyms are both pastoral, and theological. They seek to strengthen us, the singers, in our own understanding of the faith, and in our devotion to God—the subject of all of Keble’s hymns. In his Pentecost hymn, When God of old came down from heaven, he creates bridges in poetry between the eternal, and the universal and the personal and individual. God who is ‘of old’ sends his Spirit to ‘fill the Church of God’, and seeks to fill each human heart with his goodness and love: ‘to turn to God and be saved, all the end of the earth’, as our first lesson puts it (Isaiah 45.22). Keble ends his Pentecost hymn with this passionate appeal:
Come Lord, come Wisdom, Love and Power,
open our ears to hear;
let us not miss the accepted hour;
save, Lord, by love or fear.
When God of old came down from heaven
Word supreme, before creation
born of God eternally,
who didst will for our salvation
to be born on earth, and die. …
Word supreme, before creation
The eternal God takes flesh, Keble tells in his hymn, so that at the end of all time, we humans might partake in God’s presence forever; be assured of God’s judgement of love. With God, the God-with-us in Christ, there is no more need for Christ’s followers to fear the day of reckoning, Keble writes. Indeed, God’s wrath has been turned to love, for those who trust his promise, Keble has us sing:
Lo! heaven’s doors lift up, revealing
how thy judgments earthward move;
scrolls unfolded, trumpets pealing,
wine-cups from the wrath above,
yet o’er all a soft voice stealing
‘Little children, trust and love!’
Word supreme, before creation
Keble’s hymns have profoundly influenced Anglican worship. True, some of his many hymns have fallen out of use, mainly because of their length: the four-verse hymn that lent its title to this sermon, Blest are the pure in heart, for instance, started off as a seventeen-verse hymn for St Matthew’s Day—we just don’t sing hymns that long any more. Other of Keble’s hymns have been significantly re-edited for modern use: many of the translations of hymns from the ancient church, such as his ‘Faithful Cross! Above all other’, and his ‘Sing my tongue’, for example, form the textual basis for later hymns of the same titles compiled by J.M. Neale and the editors of the English Hymnal and, as such, have shaped much of our Holy Week observance, or our ritual understanding of the Eucharist.
The enduring popularity of Keble’s hymns derives from his skill to bridge the world of theological thought—of often intricate abstract concepts such as the Incarnation or the real presence in the Eucharist—with the world of human experience. In order to achieve this, Keble draws on his own theological depth, and his profound understanding as someone redeemed, loved, and claimed by Christ. The overarching purpose of Keble’s hymnody is this: that Christ is ‘our pattern and our King’, and that, through Word and Sacrament
still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart
And for his cradle and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.
All of these strands—the evangelistic, the theological, the personal and devotional—Keble skilfully renders into poetry and, some might say, ‘Anglicanism’: Keble’s rendering of ageless theological truth in a very Anglican garb gave shape to modern Catholic Anglican theology. His output and his insight made him a natural choice for the editors of the English Hymnal; indeed, while Keble is outshone by his earlier contemporary Charles Wesley, and his fellow Tractarian J.M. Neale, in the New English Hymnal, he still does maintain a very strong popular presence in our hymnals.
In tonight’s epistle reading (Romans 10.10-15) St Paul asks the questions that motivated Keble and his fellow Tractarians, and the many evangelists, apostles, priests and faithful, before him in their mission. How may those who are still far off in the life of faith ‘call on one in whom they have not believed?’ How are those outside, or at the margins of the church, ‘to believe in one of whom they have never heard?’ Indeed, ‘how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ?’ (Romans 10.14). Keble, who sought to bring the truth of the gospel close to us by the words of his hymns and tracts, is to be counted among the bearers of Good News. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’—Paul concludes today’s epistle, citing Isaiah (Romans 10.15, Isaiah 52.7). How beautiful are those who bring Good News: and you will agree that Keble’s hymns cause us to sing of the Good News of our salvation most beautifully.
How can we come to know Christ, and how can we come to a closer relationship with him, Paul asks in our epistle, and provides himself the answer: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10.10). Earlier in our Chapter, Paul spoke of how his heart’s desire is for all to be saved, to be called to come close to Christ. And in the light of this fervent desire, he considers the role of those who proclaim Good News, who bring the Word of God close to us, so that all can proclaim: ‘the Word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts’ (Romans 10.8).
Keble shares this desire to expound the gospel, in his own day, and still does so today through his hymns (though he also wrote countless poems—sonnets, hymns and ballads—some on key aspects of the faith, such as the role of Scripture, others on heroes of Anglicanism such as Ridley, Cranmer and Hooker, others on the danger of dissenters and the necessity for church unity, the ‘love of mammon’ he perceived in the United States, the dwindling of congregations, or the desire to keep the service short: ‘but faith is cold, and wilful men are strong,/ And the blithe world, with bells and harness proud,/ Rides tinkling by, so musical and loud,/ It drowns the Eternal Word, the Angelic Song;/ And one by one the weary, listless throng,/ Steals out of church, and leaves the choir unseen/ of winged guards to weep, where prayer had been,/ That souls immortal find that hour too long’, Length of the Prayers).
It was St Augustine who famously asserted that ‘those who sing, pray twice’. Keble’s skill with pen and words enabled him to add instruction in the Christian faith to St Augustine’s sung prayers. ‘How can they believe in one of whom they have never heard?’, Paul asked (Romans 10.14). Throughout his life Keble sought to bring the faith he had inherited to the people around him. His motivation to do so was to bring the faith of the universal church to the English-speaking people where they were, in words and music they understood. Throughout his life Keble yearned for the hearts of his fellows, and his own heart, to become ‘a place where angels sing!/ … And enter in and dwell,/ And teach that heart to swell/ With heavenly melody, their own untired employ’ (In Choirs and Places where they Sing, here followeth the Anthem).
Like our gospel writer, Keble is a poet of the Word made Flesh. And like our gospel writer Keble puts the coming of the Word of God in human flesh at the centre of his hymnody. But equally important to him is a second central strand of John’s gospel: that God’s Word can come so close to us that it can truly be said to dwell in us, that it can sustain us, in body and soul. And for Keble, as for John, this personal in-dwelling is found in the bread of the Eucharist. Keble expounds the true presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist, when he invites us to sing with him:
Oh, come to our Communion Feast:
There present, in the heart
As in the hands, th’ eternal Priest
Will His true self impart.
‘The word of God is near you’, Paul knew, if it is brought to us by evangelists who make known the Good News. The word is so near that it is on our lips and in our hearts, Paul explained. The Word of God dwelt among us not only as the historic person in the incarnate Christ, who walked this earth; but that Word dwells with us in us today, comes close to each one of us, as we come to receive him on our lips in the sacrament we are gathered to receive, and in order to render our hearts to him.
By right, the final words ought to belong to the poet and priest we celebrate today:
Thou didst come thy fire to kindle;
Fain would we thy torches prove,
Far and wide thy beacons lighting
With the undying spark of love.
Only feed our flame, we pray thee,
with thy breathings from above.
Hymn for Easter-tide
It is my prayer for you and me, that we may come to know Christ in our hearts, by receiving him in the gifts of bread and wine he bestowed on his Church. It is my prayer that, filled with his presence we, too, might come to share in the work of making him known with all the skills and gifts God has given us, translating again the faith of old to a new generation longing, like Paul’s and Keble’s contemporaries, for someone – for you and for me – to proclaim to them Good News.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Sea Sunday, 12 July 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford:
I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Primate of Australia and the metropolitical Cathedral of the Province of Victoria. Thank you, Dean Martyn Percy and Sub-Dean Edmund Newey for your kind invitation to preach this morning: It is a joy to be back at Christ Church, the place of my ordination 14 years ago, and before then the place in which I sang regularly during the summer months as part of your voluntary choir – the Cathedral singers.
This morning’s reading speak of the awe-inspiring nature of the sea, and assure us that the God who, at the beginning of time, made the sea and the dry land is master of the oceans, seas and rivers of our world. They tell us that, at the end of all time, God will gather in his people from all directions of the compass, ‘gather them out of the lands, from the east, the west, the north and the south’ (Psalm 107.3). They remind us that, even though God brings in entire nations and people, he knows each one of us individually and personally, ‘calls us by name’, and makes us his own (Isaiah 43.1). And, in the light of that knowledge, they invite us to place our own trust in the One who commands ‘even the wind and sea’, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to find our haven in the vision of the kingdom of heaven to which he calls those who know him (Mark 4.41).
I encountered the majesty and treachery of the ocean during my formative years on the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. For some two years I served as a helmsman of an Atlantic-class Inshore Life-Boat patrolling a thirty-mile stretch of the coast of South Wales. It was at once exhilarating and awe-inspiring to cut through the gale-swept waves at a speed of more than 25 knots, as our crew responded to the maritime emergency call ‘Save Our Souls’. Those in peril on the seas ranged from small sailing vessels to large commercial craft, included children caught in the tidal change on their rubber dinghies and beachgoers caught out at the bottom of steep cliffs by the high tide. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to ensure the physical safety of those threatened by the elements, and it gave me a first hand insight into the challenges and dangers faced by those serving on the seas on a daily basis.
During my time as part of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution, I learnt as much about saving souls as I have learnt since in my ministry as a parish priest and Dean; and learnt about giving thanks for missions accomplished successfully: bedraggled children returned to their anxious parents, shivering day-trippers restored to safety. At the same time I had my first encounters with violent deaths, as the sea claimed and did not return those we set out to rescue: learnt about the pain and the cost of souls lost at sea. It was at times like these, I now know with the benefit of hindsight, that I began begun to grapple with the challenge posed by the Christian assurance of resurrection: how could it be that there was a life for those who had died? When faced with those we brought back drowned, when faced with an unsuccessful rescue, I began to ponder the hope for souls lost at sea, and all other departed.
The question of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for all souls—not only those lost at sea—is addressed by our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.1-7). The prophet assures those who fear their own future and, as part of that future, their own future mortality, that God has ‘redeemed them’ (43.2). God has responded to his people’s call, far away from safety, in a foreign land of exile and oppression, and he promises them a future: ‘I have formed you; I have redeemed you’, God tells through the prophet (43.1). God cares so much for the people who call on him in their distress, that he knows each individual plight, each individual challenge, we read: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43.1).
And God promises them safe passage to the safe haven he promises them: the place of safety and protection, where God will be with his people, where ‘everyone who is called by God’s name, whom God created for his glory, whom he formed and made’ will dwell forevermore: the eternal haven of heaven (43.7). God not only promises a place of safety and refuge at the end of our journeys through life: he also promises safe passage to that haven, the prophet Isaiah foretells. Neither the natural environment nor people and nations hostile to God’s people shall, ultimately, be a threat to those whom God calls his own: ‘when you pass through the waters I shall be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’, we heard (Isaiah 43.2).
Life’s journey may lead through turbulent waters, Isaiah prophecies, but God will walk with his people: ‘do not fear, I am with you’, God speaks to his own (43.1). Even should God’s people face life in subjection to a harsh taskmaster and overlord—as during their exile in Babylon, the context into which Isaiah’s words were spoken—God has ultimately won the liberty of his people, has ransomed them and set them free: ‘I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life’ (43.3). The physical freedom and life of his people has been won by the ransom of ancient superpowers, our reading knows: ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you’ (43.3). The everlasting freedom and life of his people has been won by another ransom: the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).
Giving entire nations as a ransom so that one people—gathered from all nations—may live in freedom is a steep price to pay. Giving the life of God himself as a ransom so that all people may live forever is an even more precious price to pay. Our second reading, from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, introduces us to the One who would be given as God’s ransom to ensure that death will no longer imperil God’s people (Mark 4.35-41). We meet the disciples and Jesus towards the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ followers do not yet know his true identity as Son of God: at this stage in the story they only know him as a healer and an inspiring teacher. As they cross the Sea of Galilee, a ‘great gale arose’ (4.37).
The disciples knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands: most of them had run their own fishing business, and had navigated its waters on an almost daily basis. Between them, they had had many years of sailing experience, had steered safely through many a sudden gale on the Sea that provided their livelihood. Yet this storm is beyond even their extensive experience: they struggle for control of their sailing vessel: the waves break into their ship, and swamp the hull. Their teacher remains oblivious to his disciples’ danger, ‘asleep in the stern’ as the gale roars and the waves threaten to sink the ship (4.38).
At this point, the disciples acknowledge their failure to control the vessel and send out one of the first recorded ‘SOS’ calls in naval history: Save our souls—‘we are perishing’, they cry out waking their teacher, who rebukes the wind and commands the Sea: ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4.39), Jesus calls on the elements, and the elements obey and are still. Where only moments ago the chaos of gale and flood threatened the lives of those aboard the fishing vessel, now there is a dead calm, as the water and the wind are at peace. This sudden peace is clearly not human work—the disciples drew on all their skill as seafarers to navigate through the gale, and failed—but God’s gift.
And for the disciples it is indeed the ‘peace of God, which is beyond all understanding’: ‘they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”,’ our reading questions (4.41). Where human efforts and skill fail, it is by God’s command and through God’s gift of peace that the waves are stilled and the crew is safely brought home to their haven. ‘Who then is this?’, Jesus’ followers ponder, and fail to draw the conclusion that the One who commands the elements to share in God’s peace is also the very One who called them to being at the time of creation, the One who by ‘his word called the stormy sea, which lifts its waves in power’ (Psalm 107.25).
At the end of the story of Jesus and his disciples, his friends know him to be not only the teacher who saved them from drowning at sea, but as the ‘one Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2.5-6). They had seen him as he gave his life on a cross, and saw him again risen from the dead, saw him as a pledge of the life that is forever, for all. They knew him to be the One whom not only the winds and the sea obey, but whom death and life obey. They know him to be the source of their peace now, and the hope of their eternal rest. They know him to be the One who heard their SOS one gust swept night, and has saved their souls forever; know that the One who brought them to the safe haven when they were perishing as their vessel was swamped will also bring them safely to their eternal haven. And they know the cost of that rescue operation, that salvation: the life of the Son of God as a ransom for many, which opened the haven of salvation—heaven itself—to all people who seek God’s friendship.
It was at sea that I first learnt about responding to the mayday signal ‘SOS’. Indeed it was at sea that I first successfully helped to save souls. It was also at sea that I first asked questions about our unsuccessful missions, pondered the reality of pain and loss, brokenness and death. Those questions for me might have remained perpetual questions, had I not been invited by a group of Christians at this university to reflect with them on the central question that Jesus’ disciples asked themselves in today’s second lesson: ‘who then is this Man?’ (Mark 4.41). It was some five years after my service in the Royal National Life-Boat Institution that I was confirmed in my Oxford College Chapel, and confessed my adult faith in Jesus Christ: that I acknowledged that Christ was the One who, ultimately, has saved all souls—even those we did not manage to bring back to shore alive.
As we give thanks for the seafarers who daily face the risks of the great oceans that surround our Island nation, I invite you to ponder the mystery at the heart of this morning’s readings: the mystery that God saves souls; that God calls each one of us by name, and redeems his own; that God has prepared for all who seek him a haven that is forever—the place where ‘all storms will cease, all waves will be still; all will be at rest’ (Psalm 107.29-30). And as we give thanks for the gift of God’s peace, let us also acknowledge the cost of that peace: wrought at the cost of the One who gave his life as a ransom for many; wrought at the cost of the many lives who, following in his service, have given their own lives so that we might enjoy the freedom and peace we know; wrought in countless conflicts through the centuries, just as it has been, and is being wrought in countless acts of selfless giving, kindness and sacrifice each day.
And now ‘may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant us all peace, love and faith. May his grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus, in life imperishable. Amen’. (Ephesians 6.25).
Photography: Royal National Life Boat Institution UK. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:
‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.
‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.
‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.
‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.
‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).
‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).
Let us pray:
God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, 7 June 2015
Today’s readings are all about God’s work of forgiveness in a world of conflicting standards. They take us to key moments in the life of God and his people, to explain how evil entered the world and what God is doing in order to ensure that evil will not have the upper hand. They remind us that evil can take many forms – like the serpent in our first lesson or the demons referred to in our Gospel reading – and that it is impossible to make a good bargain or deal with evil – for evil delights in deceiving. They urge us to call on God when we feel burdened; when find ourselves in the depths out of which our psalmist addressed his heartfelt prayer to God. They show us how, through Jesus Christ God has already bound evil, and plundered evil’s store of deceits and deceptions, like the property of strong man in our gospel reading.
Because God was there at the beginning of the story of evil’s sway over humankind, and because Christ has already taken away the ultimate power of evil and death, today’s readings encourage us never to lose heart: even if our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. And the key to that constant renewal, our lessons tell us, is seeking God’s friendship, his protection, and forgiveness.
Our first lesson (Genesis 3.8-14), from the first book of the Bible, tells the story of creation in allegorical terms. God has created a universe he knew to be very good, and placed humankind in the middle of his garden of delights. There is no no harm, no hardship, no death; only goodness, growth and life. Everything in God’s garden promotes life; especially the trees at the heart of the garden: ‘the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2.9). In return for life in his presence, in return for his goodness and the absence of any evil, God commands humankind not to consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In an environment that is all good, with the tree of life to give life, and no form of evil at all, there is no need to discern between good and evil, God knows. Indeed, the very act of seeking to know of evil in an environment that is all good, God knows, invites evil, harm and death into the garden of goodness. And so God tells humankind not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Genesis 2.15).
The people did not die immediately, once they had eaten of the fruit that invited evil into God’s good creation. But with the knowledge of evil in a world of goodness came evil itself – not only the temptation to be like God and to be enabled to navigate the complexities of discerning what is good and wholesome and what is evil and destructive – but the very evil that leads to death and mortality. Indeed, a chapter after our first lesson sees the first fruits of evil and death: a deep-rooted jealously that led to pre-meditated murder as Cain killed his brother Abel. Once evil had been admitted into God’s good creation, our story tells, there was no more protection from the ultimate fruit of evil. Where once the fruit that sustained humankind had been the goodness of the fruit of life; now there only remained the decay of the fruits of death, as people daily are confronted with the need to discern what is good and what is not, and folk sense more and more how their outward nature is wasting away, on the way to the ultimate, universal, human destiny: death (2 Corinthians 4.16).
It is this very physical experience of evil and oppression, of death and destruction, that led our psalmist to cry out to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130.1). Our Psalm is one of the fifteen psalms of ascents, the songs of pilgrimage of the second temple that were sung by faithful followers of the God of Israel on the way to, or on the steps of, the restored Jerusalem sanctuary. Our psalm is written from the perspective of exile and distance, recalls the time in captivity, when God’s people were driven away from the land of their promise by fault of their own disobedience, when they were ‘led away’, by the Lord, ‘with the evildoers’ (Psalm 128.5). As in the garden of goodness, so here, on the steps of the temple sanctuary, our writer recalls, appeals to, God’s goodness. We might find ourselves in the depths, might find ourselves afflicted and oppressed, like God’s faithful followers in exile. Yet even when confronted with the reality of the fruits of evil, and an absence of goodness to discern, there remains a sign of our hope: our direct appeal to the One who created this world to be very good, and who will hear the supplications of those who call on him – wherever and in whatever circumstance of life we might find ourselves: ‘let your ears be consider well – be attentive to – the voice of my supplication’, our psalm writer prays God (Psalm 130.2)
Our psalmist knows that, having presumed to take the place of God and discern between good and evil, humankind had, all too often, chosen the path of evil rather than goodness. If God were to do what humankind appropriated to itself – the right to pronounce judgement of what is good and what is not, the right to know what is good and what is not – then none would stand; all would fail and fall, the psalmist has experienced: ‘If you, Lord, should note what we do wrong: who then, O Lord, could stand?’ (Psalm 130.3).
At the same time, the writer, who plunged the depths of human experience, also knows that God will readily show mercy, if only we ask him to take away our the evil that oppresses, and our own sins: ‘there is forgiveness with you … with the Lord there is mercy, and with him ample redemption’ (Psalm 130, 4, 7). ‘Trust in the Lord’, the writer appeals to those who, like him, have known of the misery of the depths of evil and human frailty: ‘God will redeem his people from the multitude of their sins’ (Psam 130.8).
Our gospel reading from Mark’s account of the story of Jesus and his followers, gives us a very practical insight into how God has redeemed his people from the multitude of their sins through his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus had just called to himself a group of twelve apostles, followers whom had had commissioned ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out evil’ (Mark 3.14-15). These returned with him to his home in Capernaum and, because he had healed many, ‘a great multitude followed him’ (Mark 3.7). So large was the crowd, so desirous to be healed, to be set free from the fruits of disease and death, that Jesus and his apostles ‘could not even eat’ (Mark 3.20). Jesus’ own family come to take him home for a meal and a rest: the experience of healing so many, of setting folk free from the fruits of evil – which for Mark included possession by evil forces – had worn Jesus out, they believed. Or at least their neighbours thought so, the people who kept on saying: ‘he has gone out of his mind’ (Mark 3.21). But they are rebuffed by their son and brother: are sent away so that Jesus is enabled to explain why it was that he did what he did.
Until now in Mark’s gospel, we have only seen the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of countering evil in all its guises – at this stage only evil personified knows Jesus’ true identity and mission: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’, the demons address him (Mark 1.24). Until now in Mark’s account, we have only seen the fruits of his mission to be a physician to those who are sick in body, mind or soul; to be the One who pronounces forgiveness to those who have sinned, or are so deeply affected by evil that they feel as if demons had conquered their innermost selves. Until now in Mark’s story, only those set free, only those healed, know Jesus’ true identity: the others are amazed, attracted and follow him; or are unsettled, upset and call him a blasphemer.
The reason why Jesus does not have time to go home and rest, why he sends his own family away, and calls his disciples and anyone else who ‘do the will of God’ his ‘brother and sister and mother’, is not because he does not love, or care for them, but because he is about to engage those who are unsettled, and reveal to all what doing the will of God entails for him. For Jesus doing God’s will means nothing less than entering ‘the house of the strong man and plundering his spoils’ (Mark 3.27).
The ‘strong man’ in our gospel reading is evil personified. From the moment of the story of evil entering human existence in the garden of God’s goodness, evil had steadily increased in power, built for itself a strong fortress, gathered for itself spoils from frail humans. Jesus’ task is to bind evil, to storm his fortress, and to plunder his spoils, Mark tells in his story. Only by binding evil and setting free those drawn into its sphere of influence, drawn into the strong man’s house, people will be able to taste again of the fruit of the tree of life. Jesus tells the scribes and teachers of the law who have come from Jerusalem to ascertain his motives: ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins’ (Mark 3.28). Those who believe that Jesus is the agent of this deliverance will be able to call on God out of the depths of even the deepest distress, and be given the assurance of a new beginning, a new life. Those who only see the power of the strong man, ‘Beelzebul, the ruler of demons’, do blaspheme against the power of God, and the Holy Spirit through whom God accomplishes the work of deliverance (Mark 3.29). Those people, Jesus says, will remain in their depths of distress, will not able to lift their heads above the parapet of the depths from which they call: ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’, Jesus rebuked those who had come from Jerusalem to rein him in (Mark 3.29).
This liberation by Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope expressed so poetically in our epistle reading: because Jesus has bound the powers of evil, and set free those in death’s domain from eternal death, we may have hope, Paul knows. The fruits of the tree of life are given us to sustain us in our own journey of mortality, the apostle tells, are set against the wasting away of our outer nature. Where the outward is wasting away, ‘the inner nature is being renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4.16). Where the fruit of evil and sin is death, the One who has overcome death by his own death, and bound evil by overcoming this world and its ruler, has returned to us fruit from the garden of God’s delight. And that is why ‘we believe: because we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus, and will bring us – with you – into his presence’, Paul affirms this firm and certain hope (2 Corinthians 4.14). Hope this certainly is: hope that cannot be seen – ‘for what can be seen is temporary’, and is subject to destruction by death; hope that cannot be seen, because ‘what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4.18).
The call from the depths of our oppression, the call from the depths of death, has been answered, Paul proclaims. Even though ‘the earthly tent we live in is destroyed’, even though we continue to share the certainty of mortality with the first Adam, we also share the hope of immortality of the second Adam. The hope of heaven reopened, a garden prepared for us, and it it a tree of delights and life: ‘we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’, Paul knows (2 Corinthians 5.1). Evil may well be a daily reality; the discernment of good, in a world that shows so much evil, will continue to be a labour of sweat and toil of tears, ‘till we return to the ground’ (Genesis 4.19). But we undertake this labour in the knowledge that the root of all evil has been bound, and the stronghold of evil been conquered, by the One who calls us to be his brothers and sisters, his family; people who join him in doing the will of God.
God’s will is for this creation to be very good. God made it good, and remade it by binding the power of evil and giving us fruit from the tree of life to sustain us in our journey to his ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1). God invites us to join in the work of promoting goodness and life, invites us to be members of the family of his Son, who share with Christ in doing the work of reconciliation and resurrection.
As we seek to do God’s will at the heart of this city, by our listening to God’s word, our sharing of his good news, and our ministry of bringing others closer to God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we may know God’s salvation, trust in his mercy and know his love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015
A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, 24 May 2015:
I bring you warm greetings from the clergy and congregations of St Thomas’ Fifth Avenue New York, and the National Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Washington DC, with whom I spent the past week. During my brief journey to the United States I reflected on with my colleagues what it may mean to belong to, to be a member of a Cathedral, and thinking more about how our ministry as Cathedrals or civic churches at the heart of our metropolitan cities, can enable people to belong and to become equipped for the ministry of making known the good news of the transforming love of the Holy Spirit.
It is a particular pleasure to welcome this morning two new members of our Cathedral Chapter and their families and friends, welcome to Canon Rosemary Maries and Lay Canon Campbell Bairstow, who have come to join us in sharing in our mission of proclaiming the good news of Christ at the heart of our city, and taking it to the places where they worship and minister: to Barwon hospital and Geelong in the case of Canon Rosemary, and to Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, in the case of Lay Canon Campbell. It is a joy to welcome you to your home church, and to reflect with you, and our congregation, on the promise of this morning’s readings. That we are called to be people who live the life of Pentecost; people who, by the way we live, minister and worship, give others an insight into the values of God’s kingdom, and so show forth the way to walking close with God.
This morning’s lessons not only call us to live out the good news of Pentecost as a community of believers, and make it known so that each may hear ‘in their own languages … about God’s deeds of power’, as our as our first lesson tells (Acts 2.11). They also invite us to be open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to recognise the gift of the Spirit in others. Both men and women, young and old; people from across the known compass of the globe: ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2.9-11). Our readings invite us to recognise that all people are called, to be bound together by the Holy Spirit, as a community of believers that together makes known the transforming power of God’s Spirit.
Christ calls people from all backgrounds, with different languages and stories, from different ages and with diverse gifts, with differing abilities and skills, to follow him. Today’s festival reminds us that the way by which Christ calls people, the agency through which we and others are enabled to hear, follow and share his call, is God’s Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit who unites God’s people on earth, who amplifies God’s message, and enables people to respond to and testify to Christ’s call. Our Gospel reading tells us how ‘the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and … declare to you the things that are to come’ (John 16.14). And it is the same Holy Spirit who enables people to live and work together as a community of believers, and equips them with the needful gifts of ministry.
Those who have responded to Jesus’ call already and have chosen to follow him, are invited to live according to the promptings of his Holy Spirit (John 16.14). For it is the Christ-given values declared to us through the power of the Holy Spirit that will equip us for our journey of discipleship on earth. And not only on earth: the Holy Spirit’s guidance and promptings have the capacity to bridge heaven and earth: for ‘the Spirit of truth comes from the Father’ (John 15.26). Those who obey Jesus’ call are to live knowing that by their actions they have the capacity to bring about here on earth something of the life of heaven: ‘all the Father has in mine’, Jesus assures his followers; all the things of heaven are already Christ’s (John 16.15). And the Holy Spirit will make those heavenly gifts known to us, to equip us for our pilgrimage on earth: ‘the Holy Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you’, Jesus promises us (John 16.15).
Jesus tells his followers that living the life of Pentecost has the capacity to transform all relationships. Not only the relationships between individual humans will be changed through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The values of this world have already been fundamentally changed: ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about … judgment’, Jesus asserts, ‘because the ruler of this world has been condemned’ (John 16.11). The values declared by the Holy Spirit also will transform the relationship between God and us. By reminding us that righteousness has given way to grace ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about righteousness’ (John 16.10). And it is the Spirit who will help us testify, on Jesus’ behalf, how God loves to bring home the lost; will enable us to extend to others the invitation contained in our first lesson from Acts, that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2.21).
The key to this profound transformation of relationships between God and humans, and individual humans, can be found in this morning’s epistle reading from the letter to the Romans (Romans 8.22-30). Paul reminds the people of Rome that our hope of restored and transformed relationships was wrought by the redemptive power of Christ. By Christ’s death on the cross, by his resurrection, ‘creation itself [was] set free from its bondage to corruption and [we are enabled to] obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’, we read a few verses before our epistle reading begins (Romans 8.21). By his dying, Christ broke down the rule of any other power once and for all: ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.34).
The death and resurrection of Christ is a cosmic event, both the writer of of Gospel and our epistle readings know. Christ’s death on the cross broke down of powers that stood opposed to the values of God’s kingdom. Christ’s resurrection brought us the promise of a new life that is forever. These cosmic events assure us of the certainty that relationships can be transformed, where people accept Christ’s invitation to enter into life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the hope to which we are called, the unseen hope for which we wait with patience: that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’, as Paul tells the Roman church (Romans 8.30). And we are assured that this hope can sustain each one of us during our life on earth, and prepare us for life in heaven.
Paul speaks of this hope in terms of an inheritance into which we enter when we respond to Christ’s call. And the pleage of that inheritance, our epistle reading affirms, is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.22). The first fruits of the Spirit are already at work within us, Paul assured the Romans. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freely granted to all who desire to enter into the new life that Jesus offers. And in order to equip his people for this new life, with all the riches we are promised and all the hardships of which we are forewarned, we are given Christ’s ‘advocate’: the Holy Spirit who is given us as our guide through life.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, the Spirit ‘dwells in us so that God might give life to our mortal bodies’ (Romans 8.11). It is this Spirit that will enable us to face hardship the disciples were foretold, the ‘sufferings of this present time’ (Romans 8.18). It is the Holy Spirit that ‘helps us in our weakness’, assisting us to reach out to, and include in our community, people from all nations and languages. And it is the Holy Spirit that helps us reflect here on earth something of the certainty of the life of heaven, helps us to be the community of God’s people—his saints—on earth: ‘because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.27).
All of us are called to be God’s people, his saints, this morning’s readings assure us. All of us are invited to become, and to be, people who live life in the assurance that the ultimate battle against sin and death has already been accomplished, when ‘God raised Christ from the dead … and put all things under his feet’ (Ephesians 1.20-22). And in the strength of that conviction we are called to reflect in our lives something of the life of heaven: are inbvited to lead lives lived in the convictions that the kingdom of heaven here on earth can be ours, lives where we live out the values of the Holy Spirit (and do not shrink away from the kingdom-promise, should life become difficult or should we encounter hardship, rejection and ridicule because of the hope that lies within us).
In my time as Dean I have come to appreciate that as Cathedrals we have a special role to show forth and make known that way of Spirit-filled living. We are uniquely placed at the heart of our city and diocese to testify to the good news of Pentecost, to introduce others to the ways of the hope that motivates us as Christians: ‘that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 1.21). And this has very practical implications for the way we conduct and resource our ministry: whether by a ministry of intentional reconciliation that seeks to bring together Aboriginal and other Australians, or through our ministry of Christian education that enables and encourages frank and searching conversations about our convictions and hopes. Whether by reaching out to those who are the object of racial hatred or those who find themselves on the margins of society; by ministering to the homeless or those who are reduced to begging from others, or by comforting those who come to our Cathedral broken-hearted, who know the pain of ‘inward groaning in labour pangs’ our epistle reading speaks of (Romans 8.22).
I am grateful that as the home church of our diocese at the heart of this wonderful city we have countless opportunities to make known, through our ministry, the powerful hope of Pentecost. I give thanks for the assurance of Pentecost that the kingdom of heaven is ours already; is growing among us now. I give thanks that it is both when we see and experience difficulty and hardship, and when we experience growth and blessing, we are assured that the ‘Spirit intercedes on our behalf’ as a sign of our hope (Romans 8.26).
I give thanks that the ministry of Pentecost is a shared ministry, which brings together people from all cultures and backgrounds and all ages, binding us all together in fellowship, and equipping us for our shared mission. I give thanks that through this joint Pentecost minstry, we can live out the promise that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’; the promise that we and many others have already become, and will be, God’s Saints (Acts 2.21).
I pray that we may be richly blessed in living out the shared ministry of Pentecost as members of our congregations, as Cathedral volunteers and staff, as those entrusted with the leadership of our ministry here in this place, and as those charged with the oversight of that ministry as members of our Cathedral Chapter—old and new. I pray that we may be richly blessed in our shared ministry of inviting others to walk with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we commission our new Chapter members, I invite you to recommit yourselves with them to our shared calling.
It is my prayer for you and for me, that God the Holy Spirit would continually equip us for the work of ministry: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be people who know, believe and trust, that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’ (Romans 8.30).
‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ (Ephesians 4.20-21).
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17 May 2015, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC:
I am delighted to be with you this morning, and I thank Dean Gary for his kind invitation to come and visit with you, and preach here this morning. Although I have come a long way today, I am not a complete stranger to your neighbourhood: some eighteen years ago, I had the privilege of living in Cathedral Heights. Then, I was a seminarian from the Church of England working at an inner-city parish in your diocese, and I daily undertook the audacious (some might say foolhardy) commute by bike from my temporary home near your beautiful Cathedral down to the centre of town via Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Oaks. The way to work was exhilarating and fast; the way home was quite literally an uphill struggle.
Since my time in this city, discerning God’s call for my life and preparing for ordained ministry, I have served churches in the West of London and the heart of Cambridge in England as a parish priest, and worked as the Senior Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne. And so it is that a former neighbour from Cathedral Heights today brings you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, which I am privileged to lead as Dean. St Paul’s is the Seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia, and I bring you warm greetings from our Primate, Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, and our four Sunday congregations.
St Paul’s stands at the heart of Australia’s second largest city. Built in warm sandstone, with soaring gothic spires—the second tallest in Anglicanism—it is an icon of God’s call to all people to encounter and know him. Our Cathedral is a church that not only the parishes, agencies, schools and colleges of our province call their home, but that is the regular place of worship for people from more than 25 nations; people whose backgrounds and stories, languages and cultures, could not be more diverse.
At St Paul’s we delight in the Good News that God calls people into his friendship and service regardless of their background or past. And we are profoundly aware that as Cathedrals, you and we are uniquely placed to invite others to come to know and serve God through our own witness and ministry.
God’s call to all people to testify to his love stands at the heart of this morning’s readings. Our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows probably one of the more unexpected ways in which God can call people to serve him (Acts 1.15-26). The story of the call of Matthias to be added to the number of the twelve is extraordinary: a lottery to decide who should take the place of Judas ‘who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus’ (1.16). For me, though, Luke’s story as told in Acts is not only an account of the surprising way in which God has called into his service an apostle of old. I believe that our first lesson says just as much about discerning and responding to God’s call to follow him in our own lives today.
We heard in our first lesson how the apostles and the 120 believers met in Jerusalem to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. The Apostle Peter instructed the early Christian community of how this important choice would be made: the person to be chosen was someone who had ‘accompanied us … beginning from the Baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken up from us’ (Acts 1.21-22). The person would be someone who had known Jesus at first hand, someone who might even have been baptised like Jesus with the baptism of John, who heard Jesus’ call, who saw the works of power he undertook, who saw him arrested and raised from the dead, was to take the place of Judas to become ‘a witness with the other apostles to his resurrection’ (Acts 1.22). The pool of potential candidates cannot have been unlimited, and so it should not surprise that the apostles proposed only two names to be a potential fellow-witness to the resurrection: Joseph the Son of Saba—Barsabbas—and Matthias.
The narrow field of candidates reflected the importance of their task. The apostle-elect was to share with the other apostles in the ministry of oversight, which in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles meant first of all the building up of the people of God by ‘daily adding to their number’ (Acts 2.47). Such a ministry not only required a personal experience of the transformational power of resurrection, a personal knowledge that ‘God gave us eternal life, and [that] this life is in his Son’, as our epistle puts it (1 John 5.11). It also required having walked with Jesus and the other disciples, having ‘accompanied us’—the word literally means ‘having broken bread with us’—‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’ (Acts 1.21).
Not only a personal knowledge of Jesus, but knowledge of the other followers of Jesus, the people with whom the Lord himself had broken bread. The person allotted the ministry of apostle was to be a fellow overseer with Peter and the other ten. Both Joseph and Matthias were already well equipped for their task: they knew Jesus, they had heard the ‘words that you gave to me … and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you’, as our Gospel reading tells (John 17.8). They also knew well the eleven apostles, and the 120 new Jerusalem Christians, and they were respected among them.
The call of the new apostle was not that of the early church, but Jesus’ call. Those who serve Jesus were called to be Jesus’ own, are called to be set apart: ‘sanctified in the truth’ and ‘protected in the Father’s name’, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 17.17). Therefore, the apostles left the choice of their new fellow overseer to the One who had also called them, as Peter’s prayer in our first lesson makes clear: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen’ (Acts 1.25). Peter’s prayer is addressed to the ascended Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel, the word Lord, kyrie, is almost always a reference to Jesus. Peter and the ten regard the calling of the twelfth apostle entirely in terms of their own calling: Jesus himself would call Joseph or Matthias to the office and work of an apostle. The eleven would merely identify and confirm that call. And so it was that lots were drawn, and Matthias was called into his allotted place as an apostle, a fellow overseer, a fellow episkopos or bishop, of the growing group of early Christians.
Today’s first lesson (Acts 11.15-26) tells us as much about discerning and following God’s call in the early church as it tells us about responding to God’s call to ministry in our own lives. As we think of the calling of Matthias to be an apostle, I would like to offer you four areas for your own further reflection on how God may call people to his service, and on how you and I may be equipped to serve God in our own communities:
- First of all, I think it is important to realise, as Peter knew so very clearly, that the One who calls is not the Church, nor the council of overseers or bishops, nor the congregation of the faithful, but Jesus Christ. Peter is confident that it is Jesus who calls people into his service, and that the Church, and the overseers or bishops, merely identify and confirm that calling. The call is Christ’s, but the people who identify this call are members of the community of believers and those who are given gifts of leadership and authority in that community.
- Secondly, it is important to remember that those who are being put forward as candidates for apostolic ministry are often people who have already acted upon a sense of calling in their lives. Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry: like Peter and the other apostles, they knew him to be not only their own Lord, but the Lord over life and death, whom they saw ascend to heaven to reign at God’s right hand. They already had much personal experience of what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This does not only mean that they knew Jesus to be Lord and God. It means that they knew his teachings and were able to share them with others with confidence: they were already people ‘who believe in the Son of God and have his testimony in their hearts’, as our epistle reminds us (1 John 5.10).
- Thirdly, the two candidates, like the other eleven apostles, were people of prayer. Their process of discernment about what it might be that God calls them to do in their lives began and ended with prayer—in fact ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, we read in the first chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1.14). Not only the process of discernment, but their entire lives were shaped by this habit of prayer. The prayer in which the eleven apostles shared, and of which the calling of Matthias in today’s first lesson is an example, was corporate prayer: the apostles prayed together with the family of Jesus, shared in prayer with ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). Together they forged a community, a family, of believers who centred their lives around learning to pray together.
- Finally, the candidates were fully equipped and ready to take up their allotted task. Joseph and Matthias did not know where they would be sent—the Greek word apostolos means someone who is being sent—nor did the know with whom they would minister in future. Yet they chose to accept the call to the apostolate as if Christ himself had spoken to them through the casting of lots. Matthias to join the eleven and to take the place of Judas as an overseer, Joseph to continue his ministry as a respected member of the Jerusalem community of believers who knew and was able to testify personally to the power of resurrection.
I said at the beginning that I believe that as Cathedral churches at the heart of our nations, our Cathedrals are uniquely placed to make known God’s call to fellowship and ministry to others. We are places where our bishops gather with their people to pray and confirm, through the laying on of hands, the calling of the Christ and his Church. We are natural places of invitation, where people from all kinds of backgrounds—tourists who visit our wonderful buildings, committed members and those who perhaps do not yet fully know what it is that they are searching for—can come together to worship, and thus learn more about God’s call to us and all people. We are places of prayer, whose common life is shaped by the rhythm of our daily life of communal prayer. And we are places from which those chosen for ministry are sent or are enabled to enter into their own apostolic ministry in the places in which they are to serve. As Cathedral churches we are placed like few others to equip and confirm others for ministry.
I give thanks for the gift of God’s call in the life of our church, and the role we can play, as Cathedrals, in bringing others to God so that they may receive his gifts of fellowship. As the season of Easter comes to a close, and we look forward to the season of Pentecost, with its promise of the gifts of the Spirit to equip and build the body of Christ for its ministry, I should like to encourage you to ponder what it is that God is calling you to do in your lives of worship and witness—both in your own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, and in the lives of the communities of which you are a part.
Again, our first reading provides us with a number of important pointers:
- Remember that the call to serve God is Christ’s. The ministry of Joseph Bar Sabbas would have been as important as that of the apostle Matthias. Not all people are called to an ordained office, yet all are called to exercise the ministry of making known the message of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in that calling.
- Remember that it is important to know Jesus and know about Jesus. Joseph and Matthias knew Jesus first hand. We, too, can know Jesus through the words that are recorded about him in the Scriptures, as well as through our personal prayers. Use the opportunities given to you at the National Cathedral, your local church, or the community from which you are visiting today, to further your own understanding of Jesus; to learn more about his words and works recorded in Scripture, and about the ways in which we can deepen our understanding of Jesus in worship and spirituality.
- Remember that it is important to pray as a community. The decision to appoint Matthias was clearly underpinned by communal prayer. It is important to pray as a community—and the first Chapter of Acts makes clear how a community can be shaped by regular common worship and the breaking of bread, and so be equipped to grow. Come and join the daily prayers at the National Cathedral, or share in weekday prayer at your home churches as often as you are able to do so. It is in this way that we belong to, and are shaped into, communities of prayer.
- Finally, remember that there is grace in accepting your allotted place. Matthias readily stepped into the role allotted to him, yet he did not know where his response of faith might lead him. It is often easier to assert with the benefit of hindsight that the allotted place was indeed the right place, and I would encourage you to take courage from the example of Matthias whenever you may be presented with your own ‘allotted places’ of ministry; your own allotted calling.
‘The apostles prayed and said: Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one you have chosen. … And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.24-26). As we give thanks that God continues to call women and men into his friendship and service, I pray that the examples of Joseph and Matthias sustain us in our own journeys of faith, and ask that God would bless you and me, as we continue to discern and seek to follow his call.
‘Now to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, ministers serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Revelation 1.6).
© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: carmengroup.com
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue, on the Feast of the Ascension 2015:
Thank you Fr Turner, for your kind inivitation to be with you today. It’s a delight to share in your celebration of Ascension Day in this magnificent church at the heart of New York.
I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia. At the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral stands our beautiful Ascension Chapel, with a magnificent golden mosaic, framed in gothic alabaster, depicting the risen Christ departing from his disciples. The ascending Christ stretches his hands out in blessing on his disciples as he is from them.
Our mosaic shows the disciples watching in worship, as Jesus stretches open the starry night sky, depicted in costly lapis lazuli, to enter a golden heaven. Two angels hold up scrolls with words from our first reading: ‘Men of Galilee’, the scrolls record their spoken words, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Ac. 1.10-11).
Whatever the disciples may have thought as they looked on, it seems that for two angels Jesus’ ascension into heaven was no surprise. Indeed, Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story matter of factly, as if these things happened every day. And while they may not exactly have occurred every day, Scripture does tell us about a number of people who ascended to heaven: the prophets Elijah (2 Ki. 1.11-12), Isaiah and Baruch all went up on high (Asc. Isa.), Scripture records.
Ascension to heaven, in Jewish tradition, was a gift of God to those whom he loved. Rather than see death, they would be lifted directly into God’s presence. In the case of Elijah, this took a spectacular form: the prophet was carried on high in a whirlwind, on a chariot of fire, drawn back to God by horses of fire (2 Ki. 1.11-12).
Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, shares this aspect of the prophets’ ascent to heaven: it is an incredible display of the divine power at work within him. But unlike the ascension of the prophets, who attained glory without first tasting death, Jesus’ ascension certainly was not a way of entering heaven that bypassed death.
During a night-time conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus had spoken at some length about the idea of ascending to heaven. Then Jesus had told Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (Jn. 3.13). In order truly to ascend to heaven, he first needed to descend to earth. In order to show to others the glory of God, he first needed to empty himself of that glory, by taking on our mortal life, Jesus explained to his secret disciple.
In our epistle reading from the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul echoes this insight: ‘When it says, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ (Eph 4.9). For Paul, ‘Jesus ascended’, doesn’t just mean ‘Jesus went into heaven’. Before Jesus could ascend to the heavenly glory, he first had to ascend to the cross, Paul assures his readers.
And you only need to look beyond me to the great stone reredos of this church to see what Paul meant: there, in the central panel, the ascended Jesus blesses us, his worshippers. He stands above the cross, to reinforce, in stone and statue, the point that it was when Jesus was lifted up high on the cross that he did, in fact, make his first ‘ascension’. Jesus ascended to the cross only to descend, to plunge the depths of suffering and death into hell in order to chain the powers that kept humankind captive. Paul explains: ‘he who descended is the same who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).
This, then, is the first difference between Christ’s ascension and that of those who had ascended to God before him: Christ’s ascension is not a passive homecoming to God’s glory, but rather his active engagement with the powers that had kept humankind imprisoned in sin and death. It is, in fact, two ascensions. One that concluded Christ’s work on earth; the ascension witnessed by the disciples at the Mount of Olives celebrated this day. And preceding that, the ascension to the cross, celebrated on Good Friday. An ascension Christ made alone, deserted by almost all his followers, on another hill outside the city: on Calvary.
The second difference between Christ’s ascension and that of the prophets is this: unlike Elijah’s ascension, which really concerned only one man, Christ’s ascension was not a singular event. His two ascensions, both at Calvary and on the Mount of Olives, include and transform all people. Jesus not only takes captivity captive, but he changes those bonds that enslaved us and makes them the bonds that bind us together, so that we might become Christ’s own body.
Christ’s first ascension on Calvary meant that the lives of his followers and friends could be set free from death and sin. His second ascension on the Mount of Olives brought them the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would strengthen and equip those who love him. That, surely, is the true gift of Christ’s ascensions: the gift of people’s lives, redeemed and renewed, bound together in the power of his resurrection to be the body of his resurrection on earth.
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive’, Paul cites the Psalms (Eph. 4.8). But equally important is what the Apostle says next: ‘He gave gifts to his people’ (Eph 4.8). And while these gifts are clearly of heavenly origin, they are not bestowed as it were by remote control, by a resurrected and ascended Christ safe in his heavenly home, but by the Jesus who, following his resurrection, walks among his disciples to teach them about the work of resurrection; who calls them back to enter into his service, and encourages them to become a body of believers that reaches out to the ends of the earth. The Jesus who, following his resurrection, bestows precious gifts upon them.
These gifts are various, and given in a multitude of ways. Firstly, the gift of resurrection itself, shown to the women at the empty tomb; the gift of understanding God’s word, given to the disciples fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus; the gift of peace and his Spirit, given to his frightened friends hiding behind the closed doors of the upper room; the gift of calling, bestowed to a disillusioned band of disciples ready to trade in their apostleship for their old lives at fishermen on Lake Galilee. And, as we anticipate the feast of Pentecost, we look forward also to the gifts of the Spirit: equipping, as Paul says, ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-12).
There may well be times when we feel like those ‘men of Galilee’, the people who watched Jesus ascend to glory on the Mount of Olives. There are times when we, like them, may feel left behind, full of sorrow and unresolved questions. And it is at these times, I believe, that we need to remind ourselves that the spiritual gifts bestowed on them are still alive today. It is at times like these that we need to understand that the angelic word spoken to them is also addressed to us: ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Ac. 1.10-11).
It is my hope that you and I will come to experience in our lives, and nurture in ourselves, the same gifts that Christ bestowed to his friends in the time between his ascension on the cross and his ascension to the Father. It is my hope that by these gifts we may be equipped to teach to others the work of resurrection. And it is my prayer that we may be shaped into the body of Christ, ‘joined and knit together by every ligament … building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4.16), to make known this message to those around us that even today find themselves ‘captives to captivity’.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
A webcast of the service at which this sermon was preached can be heard here.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, Wikimedia
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the Third Sunday after Easter, 19 April 2015, commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli:
‘Lest we forget’, is our national watchword for this day. Lest we forget the countless who gave their lives in the landings on Gallipoli we recall this week, in two world wars, and countless other conflicts since. Lest we forget those who died in acts of genocide, civil war and terror. Lest we forget that to this day people put their lives on the line for others—often as volunteers and just as often as innocent victims, helping neighbours caught between the lines. Yet in spite of our day of national remembrance, people frequently do choose to forget: not just when the focus of our news shifts from one trouble spot to another. Just as there are areas of conflict that hardly ever form part of our active remembrance.
The kind of remembrance that we practise on ANZAC Day is, by necessity, selective. Even the implicit underlying hope of ANZAC Day that, by remembering past national tragedies and sacrifice, we may somehow avert future conflict and wars remains, of course, only ever a fervent hope. The motivations for inner national and international conflicts and war—whether they arise out of greater national ambitions or the breakdown of relationships between ethnic and faith groups—are not removed by our remembering past conflicts and tragedies. The most careful study of past wars, and the intricate steps that led from diplomatic standoff to open warfare—steps that we can correctly identify this very day in the East Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan and many other African and Middle Eastern troublespots—will never prevent future bloodshed.
In order to address the underlying evil of war and conflict, we need to turn to another sort of remembrance altogether: the remembrance afforded by a commemoration often overshadowed by our national recollection. The ‘lest we forget’ that has shaped the Gospel of Saint Mark, on whose feast-day the ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli. An area not unknown to the evangelist Mark who very likely sailed through the Eastern Mediterranean alongside his cousin, Barnabas (Acts 15.39, Colossians 4.10).
Saint Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is as strong an invitation to remembrance as that afforded by today’s ‘other’ day of remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is also shaped by death and sacrifice: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45), the sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, many of whom ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him’, and some of whom even ‘lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the gospel’ (Mark 8.34-35). Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is not about a passive act of remembrance, undertaken once a year and then often forgotten until the next instalment of news of wars and conflict reminds us of the frailty of the commitment to peace and reconciliation so many of us make each year on this day.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is an active remembrance, an invitation to let our lives be transformed by our remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is the promise that, by our corporate remembrance, not only our communities but even our own bodies, will be reshaped, as we re-member—build up—the body of Christ as members of one another. And because the act of remembrance shown forth in Mark’s gospel is so visceral—people and communities reshaped as one body by their re-membering—we do hurt where others are hurting, we do hurt where parts of that body are injured, persecuted or rejected.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’, then, is an invitation to turn our national remembrance with its rituals that give meaning for a few weeks each year only, into a way of life that enables us to live our lives every day of the year. At the heart of Mark’s way remembrance stands the insight Mark makes known in the very opening verse of his story of Jesus: that this story is about ‘Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ and that that is the reason why this story is ‘good news’ (Mark 1.1). The remaining fifteen chapters of his gospel serve to illustrate how it is that Jesus ‘from Nazareth in Galilee’ is in fact the Son of God, and the expected Messiah, and how we can join in remembering him, by ourselves becoming members of him, becoming his followers, his disciples.
For Mark the story of Jesus is immediate and direct—not written to show how the life of Jesus would be a direct fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures like Matthew, not exhorting his readers to be open to the idea of a covenant for Jews as well as outsiders—gentiles and non-believers—like Luke, nor plunging into the depths of the mystery of the-Word-made-Flesh like John. Mark’s story is told rapdily, in staccato reporter-style: with every ‘and immediately’ or ‘and then’ adding evidence for his headline news, ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Those who shape Jesus’ story—his family, the people of his hometown, even his disciples—never fully grasp the truth of Mark’s headline news: his family try and restrain him because they believed that ‘he is out of his mind’, the people of Nazareth ‘took offense at him’, and his disciples never quite understand how it can be that Jesus heals the sick, walks on water, and feeds the thousands: even though they are witnesses to these miraculous events they neither remember nor, as Jesus tells them, do they understand (Mark 3.20, 6.1, 8.18).
Even when viewed from the end of the story and the vantage point of the resurrection—at which point most of the protagonists know very well who Jesus is—even the Roman centurion confesses Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 15.39)—his disciples do not believe Mark’s headline news. They see the empty tomb—today’s gospel reading tells us—they hear God’s messengers and witnesses confirm what Jesus had prophesied, and nevertheless they do not believe.
In fact, the walk away from the news. The first witnesses ‘trembling and in astonishment, saying nothing to anyone’ (Mark 16.8), the second witness, Mary Magdalene, telling the news but not believed (Mark 16.10), the third set of witnesses encountered in the country—surely on the way to Emmaus, as also told in Luke’s Gospel—telling the news and not believed, either (Mark 10.13).
Mark’s gospel is the only gospel where the risen Lord ‘rebukes the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mark 16.14). Until the very end of the story—even when they have all received the crucial information that will make sense of all their experiences—the disciples refuse to remember and understand.
This is what selective remembrance does, Mark tells us. This is what happens when we restrict the sentiment ‘lest we forget’—however strongly and genuinely felt at the time we make it—to one day only: whether ANZAC Day, or Easter Day. Today’s gospel assures us that disciples would have forgotten even the most powerful sign of all—the Lord of life breaking the bonds of death—because their remembrance was selective and passive: recalling only death where there were signs of new life, recalling only sadness at the tragedy that has been where there was astonishment at the encounter with the Risen One.
This ANZAC Day, let the watchword for our nation and our church be Mark’s, ‘Lest we forget’. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we recalled only the tragedy of wasteful death, and not the miracle of life reshaped by those who continue to work for peace and reconciliation when the cameras have long moved on. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we have simply walked away, having either failed to observe or to believe the signs of lives transformed in our nation and communities.
Instead, let us remember purposefully and actively. Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is encouragement for me at St Paul’s actively to remember the plight of migrants and refugees who fled the conflicts that make, or used to make, our television news by offering them a welcome, a listening ear; and the opportunity to learn more about this land, its people and its language. It is the same ‘lest we forget’ that motivates our welcome to 400,000 visitors and pilgrims who come here every year, and our ambition seeking to provide a home for all Anglicans—whatever their background—to find a place where they can come to experience Mark’s headline news: ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Mark’s good news concludes with the conviction that his headline news will be made known everywhere by people who actively remember and re-member: who both recall the transforming life of the resurrection, and seek to build up the resurrection body of Christ on earth in the ways they shape and sustain their communities. Mark’s good news is good news for today, because he assures us that when we live out his ‘lest we forget’ by our active remembrance, ‘the Lord will work with us, confirming this news by accompanying signs’. The signs of resurrection in our midst, that will enable us together to show forth ways that lead out of conflict, hatred and even warfare. The signs that confirm Mark’s good news and which, if we keep on remembering, may even turn our national commemoration of conflicts past into a celebration of future hope: Lest we forget that the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015:
In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Nicodemus, a ‘teacher of Israel’ sought out Jesus at night. Jesus had first come to his attention when he entered the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and swept away the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Fascinated by this sacrilegious intervention, Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus. Concerned about his status as a Temple leader, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night. As they spoke, Jesus challenged him to shun the darkness that hid his actions, and instead ‘come into the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ (John 3.21). And explained to him that the Son of Man would be lifted up so that all would have life, just as Moses lifted up a serpent to ward off death in the wilderness.
We heard how, at the end of the story of Jesus, how Nicodemus stood at the foot of the cross on the eve of another Passover. How he saw Jesus lifted up on a cross in the darkness of the eclipsed sun and moon. How it was there that he came to understand Jesus’ challenge, and recognise Jesus to be the Light and Life of the World. We saw how Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, left behind the certitude of his former beliefs. How he decided to step into a future shaped, not by his status in the temple hierarchy which once had compelled him to seek the anonymity of darkness, but rather by his newly-found faith in Jesus as the Light of the World, whom the darkness would not overcome, and the One who by dying would bring life to the world. How he left behind his former identity and became part of a new community of faith and belonging.
Today’s gospel reading continues the contrast of darkness and light, death and life. Again, Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Again, Jesus had just caused much notoriety by his actions: this time he had been greeted by the people of Jerusalem in a royal progress with palm branches held high. Seated on a donkey, Jesus had made his way across the Kidron valley to the Temple Mount, the people hailing him as their king. This will be the last Passover Jesus celebrates. As he teaches in the Temple precinct, Jesus again challenges his hearers to shun the darkness that already encroaches: ‘walk in the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, Jesus tells them (John 12.36). And promises them, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (12.32).
This time, Jesus’ hearers are not only faithful Jews, like Nicodemus, but also outsiders. We read in today’s gospel reading that ‘some Greeks’ came to ‘the festival’ (John 12.21). The ‘Greeks’ who attended the Passover festival were very likely proselytes. Our English word is a literal rendition of the Greek. And that, in turn, is the word used to translate the technical term for ‘resident alien’, used by the ancient equivalent of the immigration office, in Hebrew ‘ger toshav’ (גר תושב). The Greeks, then, were gentiles who, in return for their right to live in or near the land of Israel, have accepted some of the key tenets of the Jewish faith. They do not yet fully belong to the people of Israel, but know of and share their beliefs. They have permanent residency, but are yet to pass their citizenship test.
The ‘Greeks’ encounter Jesus’ followers in the forecourt of the gentiles, and ask to see Jesus: ‘Sir’, they ask Philip, ‘we wish to see Jesus’. John is very specific about who it was that the ‘Greeks’ sought out, isn’t he? He explains the reason for their choice of go-between with the terse comment, ‘Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee’ (John 12.21). Philip not only bore a Greek name, but was brought up in the cultural melting pot that was ancient Galilee: home to Greek-speakers who had settled there during the Hellenistic colonial days, home to Roman occupying forces such as that commanded by the centurion who would seek Jesus out to heal his slave, home to ordinary Jewish people, who tilled the land, fished the lake and, like Jesus and his father Joseph, built the edifices that made up the Greco-Roman administrative centres, or the Jewish cities.
Philip was a citizen of two worlds: a Jewish world and a Greek world. He was an ideal go-between for the Greeks who wanted to see and speak with the man who, only a day earlier, had been hailed by the citizens of Jerusalem as ‘king of Israel’ in his solemn procession to the Temple mount. Philip in turn sought out Andrew, another disciple bearing a Greek name – Andreas – and both went and told Jesus that here were people who had come to hear him.
Jesus does not acknowledge the strangers who had gone to so much trouble to see him. John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus had even seen them. Instead, Jesus answers his two disciples that ‘now’ – at the moment that the gentiles from Galilee had sought him out – ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.23). Jesus had spoken of that hour before, and the arrival of his gentile hearers indicated to Jesus that his ‘hour’ had now come.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ ‘hour’ is a decisive moment in which barriers are broken. The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus breaks cultural barriers by sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman, and telling her, ‘the hour is now here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but … worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21-23). The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus shatters Jewish religious expectations, by assuring them that it was he who would break the final barrier of death: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.29).
Hour by hour, then, the story of the cross unfolds until, at last, the hour comes for Jesus to be arrested, condemned to die, and be crucified. Hour by hour, decisive moment after decisive moment: the Samaritans are brought in to worship God in spirit and truth; the Jews challenged in their beliefs about death and life, darkness and light – both openly and secretly; and now the gentiles are brought near: ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be to be glorified’ (John 12.23). The hour of completion was near as, moment by moment, the ancient and the new people of God were brought together to meet, hear and be deeply perturbed by the One who would call them to a new life altogether.
Not only those brought to Jesus were perturbed by their participation in those crucial moments, their living through these ‘hours’. Jesus himself was ‘deeply troubled in his soul’ at the realisation that ‘now’ was the moment that would – ultimately – lead to that other ‘hour’ (John 12.27). The hour when ‘all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28). That ‘now’ was the moment that would begin to set in train the inescapable process to save all people from condemnation, ‘for the Son of Man to be lifted up … that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.14b-16).
‘Now’, then, was the hour, the moment in which Jesus would begin to be glorified by being lifted on a cross to die. A deeply troubling kind of glory, John’s glory. For Jesus tells his hearers that it is only by dying that he can bring life eternal, just as a harvest of wheat is brought forth only from buried grains; and that it is only by dying to this world, that they themselves will ‘keep their lives for eternal life’ (John 12.26). And as he challenges Jews and gentiles to strive for that new life, he pours out his own humanity in prayer: ‘what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name”.’ (John 12.27-28). As he denies his own life so that others may share life, and as he bends his own will in obedience to God’s, God speaks to him of another glory – ‘the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ – as God the Father affirms, ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again’ (John 12.28).
The glory of being God’s only Son, ‘close to the Father’s heart’, had been first made known when ‘the Word became flesh to dwell among us’ (John 1.14). Soon it will be made known again, ‘when [he is] lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to [himself]’ (John 12.31). For now, there remain the Father’s words of glorification, spoken and heard by those who believe, or perceived as thunderous noise by those who do not yet have ears to hear. For now, another hour has passed on the way to the cross: some Greeks have been added to the growing group of believers that now include Samaritans, Jews and gentiles. And all of them are the recipients of Jesus’ challenge, to ‘walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, and to ‘believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.36).
What, then, is our part in this story of transformation?
I think that our part is two-fold.
First of all, we are called to be witnesses to the story of Jesus. People who understand and believe that glory can mean suffering, and death does not always mean the end of life. People who believe that faith in Jesus means changing our lives, dying to the life of this world, and serving and following Jesus, so that ‘where I am there my followers may be also’ (John 12.26). People who believe that Jesus was glorified in his death, and that he died to draw all people to himself, died that we may not be condemned but instead be granted eternal life.
Secondly, we are called to become people who bring others to Jesus. People like Philip and Andrew, who have ‘dual citizenship’, who know what it means to be both on the inside and what it may be like for those still on the outside. People who, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, like the Greeks and the women gathered at the foot of the cross, have ourselves experienced the ‘hour’ in which Jesus was shown forth as he really was – the Son of God who tore down the barriers that separate and segregate, that keep people apart from people, and people apart from God. People whose own lives have been radically changed, and who now bring others to Jesus so that their lives may also change.
Jesus said to them: ‘The light is with you for a little longer. … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.35-36).