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Nicodemus and the Cross: Journeying into God’s Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand o the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 1.24-25)

God’s Covenant: Journeying into God’s promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

Caught up in the Net of Grace: the incredible treasure of God’s kingdom

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on All Saints’ Sunday, 2 November 2014:

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Wise teaching, hidden instruction, and the vision of a kingdom that is always close at hand for those who search for it stand at the heart of tonight’s readings (Isaiah 2.1-6, Matthew 13.44-53). The kingdom our readings speak of is at once near and far off. It is open to all people from ‘all the nations’ (Isaiah 2.2), and yet may remain elusive to those who do not care to search for it. And our readings promise that those who persevere in their search for the kingdom ‘will shine like the sun in their Father’s house’ (Matthew 13.44), will be numbered among God’s servants; his saints: the faithful people of every age we celebrate this All Saints’ Day.

Our gospel reading from Matthew’s story of Jesus takes us to Jesus’ home town: not the city of his birth, Bethlehem, nor the city in which he grew up, Nazareth, but the city in which he made his home to teach the people of gentile Galilee, ‘Galilee of the nations’, about the kingdom of God (Matthew 4.12). Early in Matthew’s story, we read how Jesus ‘left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea of Galilee’ to proclaim the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4.13-15). From his home in Capernaum Jesus taught the people of this regional centre, a busy fishing port and cosmopolitan trading hub where Jews and Gentiles freely mingled and lived together. The way in which Jesus taught takes into account his multi-cultural, international audience: he chooses poignant short stories as his vehicle to teach them about his vision of a kingdom where people from all backgrounds would come to know God, both those who already knew themselves to be among God’s chosen, and those who were yet searching for God.

A few verses before tonight’s Gospel reading commences, Jesus explains to his followers who had gathered at his home, why he chose stories as a way to explain to those who were yet searching about the mystery of God’s kingdom: ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘but to them it has not been given’ (Matthew 13.44-53). For Jesus’ disciples, the secrets of the kingdom of heaven were an open secret, as it were: the open secret that stands at the heart of the gospel—the secret that God sent his only Son into the world to save it from perdition. The ‘secret and hidden wisdeom of God’ is, in fact, and open secret which underpins all Christian teaching: it is the secret of ‘knowing nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2.2, 7). The stories Jesus tells in his home town, then, are first of all a way to reach out to those who do not yet know about God, and God’s purposes: to reach ‘those to whom the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have not been given’.

Matthew has assembled for us three small vignettes as an example of the way in which Jesus taught in Capernaum. There are, of course, much longer teaching stories or parables: the story of the Lost Son, who squandered his inheritance and returned to his Father in shame, only to be feted and restored to his rightful place—a parable about repentance; the story of the differing soils and the Sower we heard a fortnight ago—a parable about spiritual growth, and the extension and growth of God’s message. And then there are the three, short stories that make up tonight’s Gospel reading: two- or three-line verses that speak evocatively of the way in which people may discover the secret of God’s kingdom, and how their knowledge of that secret utterly transforms them. Jesus retells the same story three times, each time a little differently, giving his multi-religious and multi-cultural audience the opportunity to examine his claim that all people may find God’s kingdom, and how the people who become caught up in God’s kingdom react to that revelation.

All of the short stories we hear Jesus tell in tonight’s Gospel speak of the spiritual treasure of knowing the secret of the kingdom of heaven in terms of material value: knowing the secret of the kingdom of heaven is like searching for, and finding an incredible treasure. It had been hidden in someone’s field long ago, and was recovered by a treasure-seeker, who then gives up all his possessions in exchange for the newly-found treasure. The finder ‘sells all that he has’ to gain the treasure he found (Matthew 13.44-45). This story may well have resonated with those who farmed the rolling hillsides around Capernaum, places where past settlements had made way to farmland; where treasures of the past could be unearthed: it is a story addressed to the settled community of Capernaum.

The second story Jesus tells may have been addressed to the itinerant community of foreigners that lent the region its name ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ (Matthew 4.15). It speaks of a merchant who travels far to buy and sell pearls. Again, the merchant uncovers a treasure beyond expectation: he finds a pearl of rare beauty and value, and ‘sold all that he had and bought it’ (Matthew 13.45-46). Discovering the secret of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests, is greater than any value, wealth or treasure. It requires risk and determination, requires our all, to gain and possess it.

Tonight’s final short story is addressed to the third group of inhabitants who made up the cosmopolitan port city of Capernaum: those who made their living on the waters of Lake Galilee, like many of Jesus’ first followers. It speaks of the kingdom of heaven not as treasure in itself, but as a means of gaining treasure: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind’ (Matthew 13.47). A net that catches all in its wake, brings in all kinds of fish; a net that is carefully lifted out of the Lake and brought to port, where its contents are processed: ‘the good fish are collected into baskets, and the bad thrown back’ (Matthew 13.48). Becoming caught up in the kingdom of heaven is easy, Jesus suggests: all are called to be caught up in this large net that is thrown into the sea. It is remaining in the net, being drawn out of the net and collected into the baskets to provide value and treasure for the labourers of the kingdom, that requires a deliberate change of heart. ‘So it will be at the end of the age’, Jesus explains to his hearers: ‘The Son of Man will send his angels to separate the evil from the righteous’ (Matthew 13.40, 49-50).

At the end of the age, Jesus tells in his short stories, it is God, and not the religious, who will separate saints from evildoers. Jesus’ saints are those who are not only caught up in the large net of the kingdom of heaven—many will be drawn into its wake, Jesus confirmed—but those who react to this engagement. It is those who find themselves caught up in the life of the kingdom of heaven, and then decide to take the risk to invest their all into that kingdom, who will ultimately be numbered among the righteous, among the saints of the kingdom.

For the people of his multicultural home town this would have been radical news: in three short stories, each tailored to a specific cultural subgroup of his community, Jesus does away with the established belief that only a certain group of religious people can enter God’s kingdom. While the story of the net would have excited Jesus’ gentile audience, it may well have irked some of his Jewish hearers: it would have been unsettling news to hear the goal of the life of faith described in terms of a broad net that brings together people from all families and nations. It would have been even more unsettling to hear and understand the undertones of Jesus’ Greek – the Greek word Jesus uses when he speaks of catching the fish is the same as that used for the Jewish place of worship: synagagouse. Just as the Greek words for ‘all kinds of fish’ can mean ‘all kinds of peoples and nations’. God’s vision is for all people to be gathered in his kingdom, Jesus tells, is for an assembly—a synagogue—of saints that encompasses Jews as well as Gentiles.

Jesus’ short stories are clearly told within the context of his home town: a unique melting pot of Jews and Gentiles on the crossroads between the Jewish heartlands and the Gentile diaspora. But his stories are not only there for the people of Capernaum. Matthew includes these three vignettes among his collection of longer parables to make a theological point that is also made in our first lesson: that at the end of the age, God will bring together people from any nation and any background to be his saints: ‘all nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house; many peoples shall come’ (Isaiah 2.2-3). The secret of the kingdom of heaven is there for all people, tonight’s readings assure us. Everybody is called to learn the secret of God’s plan: his hope that all people may come to him, and live with him. Everybody is called to make known that secret, share in its future: the secret of the crucified Son of God, through whom sinners can be made saints. The secret of the treasure that exceeds all we can ever possess or own; the secret of the treasure that fills us with such longing that we embrace the risk of losing all in order to gain it, and share in it.

Tonight, we give thanks for the saints throughout the ages, who have responded to the invitation to discover for themselves the secrets of the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, and share in its future. As we celebrate their response in faith to the good news that all are called to share in God’s kingdom, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we like them may show forth in our own generation something of the great treasure entrusted to us: the secret at the heart of God’s kingdom—the open invitation that is extended to all who will hear it, and who will respond to it in faith.

Now may ‘the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe’ in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord (Ephesians 1.17-18). Amen.

Transform the future: care for one another as God cares for you

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 7 September 2014:

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This morning’s lessons remind us of God’s care for us, and urge us to extend the same care to others. They tell us that God’s care is for the whole person—God keeps us safe in body and soul—and assure us that God gives us a home with him forever. Not only that: they tell us that God rejoices in bringing home people who have wandered away or are lost. And because God rejoices in bringing people home, we, too are to reach out both to those who still seek after God, as well as look out for those who have already found him and have committed themselves to God’s care.

Our first lesson, from the book of the Exodus (Exodus 12.1-14), takes us to the beginning of the story of God and his chosen people. This is the moment at which the people are set free from slavery in a foreign land and made God’s own. The beginning of a long journey with their God during which God reveals himself to his people as their Sovereign Lord, and caring protector. God will walk with his people through their long desert journey, and will guide them to freedom in a land that he shall give them. And at the beginning of that journey stands the final, dramatic act of liberation from the powers of Egypt: the judgment of the gods of Egypt by the Passover of God’s Angel of Death.

So significant is this beginning of the journey of God with his people, that ‘this day shall be a day of remembrance for you’, our reading tells: ‘You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it’ (Exodus 12.14). Those who experienced the hurried meal, ‘your loins girded, with sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand’, those who ate and made ready to leave the country of their oppressors to escape from their slavery, were charged to share this extraordinary experience with the generations that came after them (Exodus 12.11). The lamb eaten in travelling clothes, with their belongings packed and their walking staff at hand. The blood sprinkled onto their homes as a sign of God’s presence and of their belonging to God. All this was to become a living memory, a memorial to be enacted in every generation ‘as a perpetual ordinance’ (Exodus 12.14).

Those who were to join the journey with God at a later stage would also eat the hurried meal, share the unleavened bread and thereby recall God’s presence and his promise: that God would judge the institutions that continued to hold people enthralled; that he would tear down the idols that still made people slaves; that he would be present with his people in abject hardship, would be there in their oppression. That he would be with his people and that ‘no plague shall destroy you’ (Exodus 12.13). So important was this beginning of the people’s journey with their God to the home he promised them, that the Day of Passover became the beginning of a new era: ‘this month shall mark the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you’ (Exodus 12.2). A New Year, a new time: to mark the beginning of the journey to the home God promises his people.

For generations the people of God remembered his promise and his action in destroying the structures that enslave. Until, at the beginning of another age, the turning of time when God’s avenging Angel of Wrath gave way to God’s Angel of Peace—at the moment the birth of his Son was made known to frightened shepherds holding watch over their flock at night; at the beginning of another time in the land that had seen much promise and was to be a home for God’s people, but had become a land of oppression and fear; at the beginning of a new journey, God once more spoke to his people through his Son. In our reading from the Gospel according to St Matthew (Matthew 18.10-20), it is God’s Son who speaks to all those who will listen, reminds them of the promise of old: the promise of the new time, the promise of the new journey. The promise that God will remain with his people in spite of their waywardness; that God seeks to bring his people home, even though the land to which he had taken them had once more become a place of oppression and servitude.

God is so close to his people that it is as if he beheld them face to face. Even though we may not always feel that we stand in his presence, our reading tells us that ‘in heaven our angels continually see the face of Christ’s Father in heaven’ (Matthew 18.10). We are continually represented before God, are continually present to him. Just as in the coming among us of his Son Jesus Christ a part of God is permanently among us humans, so in the place to which God calls us, in the heavenly home to which the journey begun at the ‘beginning of all months’ will ultimately lead, we permanently are represented before him. Again, as in our first lesson, it is angels—divine messengers—that span the distance between the eternal God and his people on earth: our ‘angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven’, Jesus tells (Matthew 18.10). Just as the angels behold God in heaven, so God beholds us and cares for us. Each of his people—each one of us—is present before him.

The act of making his people present before God starts with the sacrifice begun in our first lesson: the shedding of the blood of an unblemished lamb, and the sprinkling of that blood on the homes of God’s people as a sign of their commitment, their confidence in the protection of their God. ‘The blood shall be a sign to you on the houses where you live’, our first reading tells, just as the blood is a sign for God: ‘when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you’ (Exodus 12.13). The sprinkled blood of the sacrificial lamb identifies each home as a dwelling of a person who trusts God, and who, in turn, is known and identified by God.

Our gospel reading affirms that what is true for our temporal homes also holds true for the eternal home that God has prepared for the people committed to him. Those who share in the paschal sacrifice completed by God’s own Lamb, the sacrifice wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, also share the marks of that sacrifice. Indeed, they do not only share the marks of sacrifice, but share its benefits: like Christ, they may call on God as their Father. And like Christ who, following his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, continually beholds the face of his Father in heaven, they too—we too—are represented before God in heaven. For in Christ our humanity is ever before God.

No wonder, then, that God cares for his people and wants to seek out those who are lost, or know him not. The sacrifice at the beginning of the new time as the Angel of Death swept away the deities of Egypt and revealed them as idols, and the completion of that sacrifice, as the conqueror of Death swept away death, by dying once and for all on a cross, surely are the ultimate signs of God’s care for his people: God has come among us; and we stand before God, may call on him as our Father; confident that he cares for us, knows us for who we are here on earth, and beholds us as we can be in heaven.

Our readings assure us that God knows full well that we—his people—can err and stray from our ways like lost sheep. Our Gospel reading tells us that God is like a good shepherd who cares so much for his flock that he will seek out the lost (Matthew 18.12). But at the same time, even though God knows us to be flawed and fallible, he also knows who we can be, for our ‘angels continually see the face of the Father in heaven’ (Matthew 18.10).

In the same way, our readings tells us that God knows full well that the land in which we dwell—the good and pleasant land of his promise—and the structures we choose for ourselves, or which are imposed on us, are often likely to be flawed. Our second reading from the letter to the Romans (Romans 13.1-10), with its reflection on good use of authority makes that abundantly clear. Yet even though our structures are often fallible and can fail, God knows them for what they can be: he sets before us a home in heaven in the certain expectation that one day God’s will be done on earth as well as in heaven.

God knows both our potential—as individuals and as a society as a whole—and our shortcomings and flaws. And even though he knows us as we are, he promises to care for us; promises to walk with us and to seek us out again and again. In return, he expects us to remember him by celebrating his saving acts again and again ‘as a festival to the Lord’, recalling the sacrifice of the paschal lamb each day in our celebration of the meal Jesus gave his disciples. God expects us to walk with him in the confidence he promises, strengthened by the tokens of his abiding presence with us.

And in return for his care of seeking out the lost with joy, and not in judgement, God expects us to extend the same care that he affords us to others. The essence of God’s expectations of us is summed up in our epistle: ‘owe no one anything’, Paul reminds the Roman congregation, ‘except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’ (Romans 13.8). Love one another just as God loves us. Care for one another, just as God cares for us. Pray for one another, just as God receives and hears our prayers. Remain with one another, just as God remains with us.

Do all this in the knowledge that by doing so, the signs of our home in heaven may be shown forth here on earth, and may help transform our flawed structures, and our frail humanity, to conform to our image and pattern in heaven on which God gazes in love day by day. Do all this together, gathered as people of faith, in the knowledge and assurance that ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, God is among us’, to aid us in this work of transformation (Matthew 18.20).

‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20-21).

Sent from the Cross: the Spirit that renews the face of the earth

ImageInto the darkness of the first Good Friday, when sun and moon were eclipsed, Jesus speaks his last, ‘It is finished’. And breathed his last, bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19.30). This work of completion is accomplished alone, in darkness. It is witnessed only by those who cared for him most: his mother, his aunt, his beloved disciples Mary and John. They see the man they love wrestle with death; see him struggle against the human sadism that invented this torturous way of ending another’s life. Parched, dried out like a potsherd, they see his lips purged with hyssop and sour wine (Psalm 22.15). They see his final struggles against death and see him lose. They see him gasp for breath like a drowning man, as his life is ripped away from him. They hear his last words. ‘It is finished’. It is accomplished. All is completed, all is now done. They see his head drop in death, and see him give up his spirit.

There, from the cross, God sends again the Spirit that brought into being our universe. The Spirit that hovered over the darkness of an unformed void on the day when God called our world into being. The Spirit that called into being light in darkness, gave shape to sky and earth, created all the creatures that inhabit it. The Spirit that called into being a man and a woman, made human families and gave them life; a life God proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). The Spirit that taught us of love, and goodness, created bonds of belonging, shaped an entire people chosen by God for living. It is that Spirit which now again is given to the world. On the cross as the world is re-created in the formless void between day and night. As the world completes its descent into the dark that gave shape to the knowledge that so much of what once had been ‘very good’ had become cruelly distorted and broken by human selfishness and sin, God in Christ sends out his Spirit once more. Not to create a new world, but to complete his work of restoring the world which he has made to be very good.

‘It is finished’. The work of re-creation is complete and there, in the darkness of Good Friday, all that has to be done to bring about the world that can be ‘very good’ is already accomplished, God knows.

Where those who stand by in the darkness of this death can only see brokenness, God sees the beginnings of a new creation, the potential of a world that can be remade by his Spirit. Where those who stand at the foot of the cross can only see a man ‘struck down by God and afflicted’, God sees his servant ‘wounded for our transgressions’, sees his only, beloved Son, ‘on whom was laid the punishment that made us whole’ (Isaiah 53.5). Where those who bear the weight of grief this first Good Friday, God opens the ‘new and living way’ into his presence (Hebrews 10.20); the way that will transform the finality of death into the gate to life eternal, at the triumph of life on Easter morn. Where those who witness Jesus’ final moments on earth may only feel a dying man’s breath, God sees his Spirit call into being a new covenant. A covenant in which God himself transforms our hearts and minds. A covenant in which God will humble himself to dwell in us, by placing his laws in our hearts and writing them in our minds (Hebrews 10.16). A covenant in which sin gives way to forgiveness, and death to life.

And when, at the end of that long first Good Friday, the soldiers come once again to take Jesus—this time to remove him from the cross—those who saw Christ accomplish all on the cross also witness the signs of that new covenant. They see a soldier pierce Jesus’ side; see blood and water flowing from his body (John 19.34). Blood to sprinkle clean our hearts ‘from an evil conscience’; water to wash our bodies from sin, as we read in today’s epistle reading (Hebrews 10.22). Signs of the new covenant that God established on the cross, symbols of the faithful promise that God made of sin forgiven, lives transformed, and death defeated. Signs for us to share whenever we meet together to worship: water that reminds us of our own baptisms; blood that reminds us of the meal Jesus gave us to remember him. Symbols of our new hope that encourage us to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10.23).

At the foot of the cross, those who saw Jesus die, witnessed the death of an old order and the birth of something new. As they were looking on then, they may only have seen death. But as they came to write the story of this extraordinary death, they began to see the signs of new birth even as they documented death. They wrote down this story, ‘so that we also may believe’ (John 19.35). They knew their testimony to be the truth, and tell the story to us, so that we may share their conviction. The conviction that God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more, where we seek his forgiveness and friendship (Hebrews 10.16). The conviction that in dying, Christ has brought to life a new covenant on the cross. The conviction that because he bore the sins of us all, we might approach God ‘with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts … clean’ (Hebrews 10.20-22). The conviction that because he gave his life for us, Christ also opened for us a ‘new and living way … through his flesh’; has opened the gate to life eternal (Hebrews 10.20).

This conviction was informed by witnessing the tragedy of the cross, and the miracle of the resurrection. It was confirmed by seeing life taken by human cruelty and sin, and life restored by God’s grace and love. It was strengthened by seeing soldiers torture a loved one and by touching the same marks of death—the enduring marks in his hands and side—in Christ’s resurrection body. Today, these witnesses invite us to share their beliefs. Today, they invite us to believe with them that the words Jesus spoke from the cross, ‘it is finished’, marked not the end but a new beginning (John 19.30). Today, they invite us to share their beliefs that the signs of death the soldiers saw, the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, were the symbols of life. Today, they invite us to share their confidence that he, who has promised to make a gracious covenant of life with us by dying on the cross for us, is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).

This Good Friday, I invite you to place your trust in the witness of John and Mary, the beloved disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Clopas. I invite you to share their grief at the loss of one greatly beloved. I invite you to share their sadness at the brokenness of our own humanity, and the sorrow of our own sinfulness. And I invite you to share their certainty that the one who was broken for us on the cross, has conquered death and is alive, and delights in sharing his life with us today. I invite you to approach their beloved friend, Jesus Christ with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, and to find in him your Saviour, Lord and friend. Thanks be to God.