Tag Archives: Cathedral

Sleepers wake: the Advent call to rise from the darkness and be lights in our world

A reflection given by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015, as part of a service of lessons and carols for Advent:

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[Click for Audio on Soundcloud]

One of the first classical concerts I ever took part in, as a boy treble attending a German Lutheran High School named for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was a liturgical performance of Bach’s famous Advent Cantata, ‘Sleepers wake’ – ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’. We were all dressed in our black and white concert gear, assembled on the choir galleries of the large impressive city centre church, the orchestra at our feet, with the conductor poised to break the silence of the audience with Bach’s wonderful music.

As the violins soared, the trebles called out the solemn cry of the watchman on the city wall of Jerusalem, ‘Sleepers, wake, the bridegroom comes; wake up, all you who sleep in the city of Jerusalem’, we sang. It was an electrifying moment when the director gave us trebles our entry: ‘Wachet auf’, we called in Bach’s unforgettable setting of the timeless words. And the basses, tenors and altos took up our theme, calling the audience to be alert, awake; to listen to the Good News that the long awaited bridegroom had finally arrived.

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The text on which Bach’s famous cantata is based is one of the last parables (or teaching stories) Jesus tells his friends, the disciples (Matthew 25.1-13): Jesus tells of those who kept alert, awake, through the night, who had kept the light going in the middle of darkness, and were able to see when the bridegroom arrived. As they joyfully entered the brightly-lit wedding hall for a midnight feast, those who had let their lights go out remained outside, were left behind in the darkness, Jesus told his friends. And encouraged them, ‘be alert, therefore, for you do not know the time or the hour’ (Matthew 25.12).

We do not know the time or the hour when Jesus Christ will return, joyfully like a bridegroom, to take us out of the many darknesses of our nights into his brightly-lit chambers for a feast of light. For each of us those darknesses may be different, may pose different challenges, represent different fears. For some, those nights of waiting are spent in fear or nightmares – the fear of persecution for their faith or displacement, the nightmare of terror or war; the fear of ill-health or age, the nightmare of depression and anxiety; the fear of redundancy or injury; the nightmare of unemployment, or of no longer being able of to make ends meet. Each of our nights, each of our Advents; looks and feels different.

But in each of these seasons of waiting through the hours of our nights and darknesses, we are encouraged to keep a light burning. Jesus’ story tells us to keep a light burning. A light that will both cast a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and that will keep our eyes alert, wakeful, ready to see the light-filled procession when the bridegroom comes. Jesus’ story tells us to keep our lamps trimmed; drawing on the resources of our faith – our prayers, our intent to love the Lord our God, and our neighbours as ourselves – in order to keep those lights burning through the night.

And Jesus’ story invites us to come together in our waiting; to leave behind the isolation of the darkness and to seek out glimmers of other lights, others who will share with us in our season of waiting. Because where many small lights come together, there the darkness is already disappearing. Jesus’ story invites us to fill the dark hours of our world with our lights, and to do so together, as a community of faith: encouraging one another as we wait for the greatest light of all to come, and extinguish all darkness forever. And as we wait, as a token of that hope, we are each given a lamp, a light, to share and to shine into the darkness, as we await the promised feast when Jesus comes again.

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I loved performing Bach’s music as a child, and am delighted that I still get to sing today, once or twice a year, with the MSO Chorus. I well recall the excitement of that first performance, poised for my entry to sing the joyful song that the darkness now is over, and the bridegroom is here: ‘Wachet auf’, we sang, ‘Sleepers wake’, we sang out; telling all who would hear that those who kept their lights burning through the night were already on their way into the wedding hall, and inviting others to join the joyful feast of the Light that has overcome the darkness, of the Light that illumines even the middle of the darkest night.

The season of Advent is a bit like preparing for a musical performance, like Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. Rehearsed and ready, in our concert clothes, standing in our places, with music in our hands and the song ready in our heads, watching out for the conductor to signal us to sing. Alert and awake, ready to sing out at the right signal, ready to call others to join the joyful song, ready to call any who will listen to hear that now is the moment to awake, to leave behind the darkness and to enter into the light.

This Advent, I give thanks for the joyful song that promises to call us from darkness to light. I give thanks for the time of preparation, the time when we rehearse that song through our prayers, our reading of the stories that remind us of God’s promise that the darkness will not have the upper hand, when we share our works of hope in a world where there is still so much hopelessness. I give thanks for those who rehearse, who wait, with us, who share their light, their companionship, with us as we wait. And I give thanks for those who lead us in our song, who keep their eyes alert with us, who encourage us to keep our joyful song ready in our hearts – ready to call out: ‘Sleepers, wake: the Lord is here’.

Ⓒ Text and Audio: Andreas Loewe, 2015 

The King who rules from a cross to bring justice and peace

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of Christ the King, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, 22 November 2015:

CrossThen Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him: “are you the King of the Jews?”’ (St John 18.33). For Pilate there was no question that Jesus could not possibly be a proper king. He certainly was not related to one of the local vassal rulers loyal to Rome; Pilate knew them only too well. Herod and his siblings had been educated in Rome. They would have known and preserved the proper courtesies, would have called at a more opportune moment and not visited him at the crack of dawn as this caller did. Come to think of it, his caller did look as if he had slept rough that night; if he had slept at all. True, he did come with an entourage. But the cohort of Temple policemen that accompanied him were certainly not a guard of honour.

For Pilate’s caller early that Good Friday morning was a prisoner. He was bound, and the Temple authorities sent him into the Roman military headquarters with a criminal charge of sorts: ‘if this man were not a criminal’, they had told him, ‘we would not have handed him over to you’. When Pilate had tried to hand the case back to the Temple authorities for their judgement they told him that, as far as they were concerned, this case was already settled: ‘we are not permitted to put anyone to death’, they told Pilate. And the evangelist John fills in the gaps, and tells us that they were not permitted to crucify anyone, only were permitted to put people to death for breaking religious laws, such as stoning adulterers or heretics. Pilate’s early morning caller, then, was not a religious criminal, but was accused by his captors of another crime altogether: ‘it was better for one man to die, than for the whole people to perish’, the leader of the Temple authorities had reasoned when he planned for this course of action.

The charge was insurrection. The man whom they had captured had spoken much about the kingdom of God, had told his followers what they needed to do to enter that kingdom. Only a few days earlier, the prisoner had been accorded a royal progress into the city of Jerusalem: hailed by the crowds as their King. The people of Israel had not had a king of their own for a generation. The offspring of Herod the Great were loyal servants of Rome, not sovereign kings. Rather they ruled under sufferance. Rome might not care about someone proclaiming himself the Son of God. They would take notice, however, of someone proclaiming himself King of Israel. And so they brought their prisoner to Pilate, to be interrogated.

And Pilate knew that this was no ordinary king. ‘Are you the King of the Jews’, he asked Jesus. Jesus neither denied nor affirmed, but rather questioned Pilate on his sources: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Was it a Roman security briefing, or the charge submitted by his captors that caused this extraordinary conversational opening gambit. And Pilate admits that it was his captors who had briefed him, and dismissed both the questioner and the Temple judges: ‘Am I a Jew?’, he sneered, ‘your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me on a charge of insurrection. What have you done?’

And Jesus repeated his teaching, telling the governor of a distant emperor, Pilate, of another kingdom with a divine ruler. A kingdom that is so alien to Pilate, that it seems to him to be from another world altogether. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, Jesus told Pilate, ‘if it were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. But since I am bound and standing in front of you a captive, ‘my kingdom is not from here’, Jesus told his questioner. Who promptly asks a counter-question: ‘so you are a king?’, he asks. And Jesus responds, ‘you say I am a king’, and again affirms the purpose of that kingdom that is so incomprehensible to Pilate: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’.

The essence of God’s kingdom is to bring liberty to all people. And the key to that freedom, that liberty, was the truth of his teaching, Jesus had taught in the temple. ‘If you hold to my teaching you will be my disciples’, he had told the people: ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, he had affirmed. The key to God’s kingdom was to know the word and will of God, and to believe it to be true, Jesus now told his judge. ‘You say, I am a king’, he told, ‘but I really I am a judge, who is able to set the captives free’.

Pilate may have heard Jesus explain, ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. But clearly he did not understand the significance of what he had been told: ‘What is truth?’, he quipped. And for the writer of this interchange it is clear that Pilate cannot possibly belong to the truth. He has no interest in his captive, nor in what he regards as the squabbles between different Jewish sects. He has no time for eternal truths, or kingdoms that cannot be defined in terms of legions and taxes. ‘What is truth?’, he asks, and does not even wait to hear an answer. And it is in this frame of mind – shut to anything other than what he expected to hear in the first instance – that he ultimately condemned Jesus to be crucified. There is no final conversion for Pilate; no sudden insight, as for the leader of the cohort stationed on Golgotha, that ‘truly this was God’s own Son’. Pilate’s heart is set as flint, hardened as the bedrock of Calvary; though that, too, like Pilate, will ultimately be broken.

The story of the king without a kingdom that stands at the heart of today’s celebration of the festival of Christ, the king, is an invitation to us to open our ears to the message of the king who has been captured; the sovereign whose throne is a cross. It is an invitation to look not at the might and power of Pilate’s opposite but his teaching. Indeed, at the time of Pilate’s questioning him, Jesus has divested himself of all worldly power: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’, he affirms, and points to his message as the basis of his kingship: ‘I came into the world to testify to the truth’. The truth that shall set us free. That truth would have sat uncomfortably for rulers like Pilate, whose power was exercised by might; by crushing his opponents and silencing dissent. The truth of the king, whose rule has overcome the rulers of this world, on the other hand, does empower and set free, because it invites us to open our ears to listen – listen to Jesus, and his teaching, and to one another: ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’, Jesus told his questioner.

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We live in a world where the values of the king without a kingdom that today’s festival bring into focus are increasingly eroded. The truth that will set us free – the truth that can overcome unjust structures of government like Pilate’s police state, and that can topple powerful empires – is an uncomfortable one precisely because it holds up a mirror. A mirror in which we can discern only too well the flaws of our own generation: the world’s desire for recognition, influence and power. A mirror in which we see countless reflections of the crucified king without a kingdom in the tears and bloodshed, the death and destruction of this age. The truth that will set us free is the realisation that the powers of the Pilates of this world are worth nothing at all unless they can hear the voice of the king without a kingdom and understand that the answer to their existential questions – ‘what is truth’, ‘what is it that will set us free?’ – stands right in front of them: Jesus is truth. The man who neither looks, nor acts like a king; who shuns power, and by so doing breaks all powers.

The events of the past weeks: the acts of terror and counter-terror; the acts of revenge and reprisal that invariably follow are the actions of the mighty; the actions of the Pilates of this world. They are not the actions of those who listen to the voice of the king who rules from the cross who, with his dying breath, prayed: ‘Father forgive, for they do not know what they are doing’. And who, himself forgiving, bade the repentant captive enter that kingdom without boundaries: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, the one crucified at his side prayed, having looked into the mirror of violence and punishment, of action and counter-action, and seen only broken bodies, pierced limbs and sides, and blood flowing freely from the wounds of nails and spears. And having seen beyond the kingship of might; and having recognised the kingship of brokenness, he entrusted himself to the king without a land. The king, who by letting himself be broken, has taken up into himself the brokenness of this world, and overcome it. ‘Fear not’, says the king who rules from the cross, ‘today you shall be with me in paradise’.

Holy God; holy and strong; holy and immortal. Have mercy on us.

 

 

Saving Souls: at Sea and for Heaven

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:

Red Bay RNLI getting ready to receive replacement Atlantic 85 lifeboat

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.

John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

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:

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‘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

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.

Casting wide the net: fishermen become fishers of people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance: the God who takes up our brokenness and makes all things whole

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Holy Trinity, Hampton Park, on Remembrance Sunday 2014:

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This morning’s readings (Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Matthew 26.17-19, 26-30) assure us that God remembers each one of his own who has died; that he will bring together, at the end of all ages, all those who have lost their lives; and that it is by our corporate remembrance, our active recalling of those whose lives have been lost, that we can share in that assurance of lives restored.

Our word ‘to remember’ is the direct English equivalent of the Latin verb ‘re-memorari’. The second part of that word—‘memorari’—comes from the noun ‘memoria’, from which we derive our word ‘memory’. The Latin prefix ‘re-’ often means ‘again’ or ‘back’. To remember a person or an event, therefore, means to have an intensive awareness of someone or something in one’s mind: to be intensely mindful of someone.

That is one, and the most conventional, way of looking at the word. Now imagine the same word with a hyphen. If you add a hyphen between ‘re-’ and ‘member’, the word suddenly changes its meaning altogether. To ‘re-member’ may look very much like our first word, but has very different roots. Yes, it shares the Latin prefix ‘re-’—‘again’ or ‘back’—but its second part comes from the Latin ‘membrum’—‘limb’ or, somewhat archaically, a ‘member’.

To ‘re-member’, then, means to bring together, reassemble, members and limbs. It means to bring to life someone or something that was broken and therefore is the direct opposite of the word to ‘dis-member’. This morning’s readings invite us to put our communal remembrance of the conflicts, wars and acts of terror that have brought us together this morning, in the context of both of these words.

Our first reading, a momentous vision from the prophecy of Ezekiel, illustrates well the second—the hyphenated—meaning of the word re-member. The prophet finds himself in a vast plain, surrounded by dismembered, dried out bones; a valley full of dead bones without any hope of life. At first he is not told where these bones come from, God’s hand simply leads him around the bones. Ezekiel may be standing in the middle of a mass grave, or a place where generations of the dead have been placed; at this point the prophecy doesn’t tell us more about their provenance. All we know is that there ‘are very many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry’ (Ezek. 37.2).

And God charges Ezekiel to prophesy to these very many, very dead bones. God commands him to proclaim his word to them. And as Ezekiel makes known God’s word to the assembly of dried up dismembered bones, we hear him speak words of resurrection: ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones’, Ezekiel proclaims to the valley of dry bones, ‘I will cause breath to enter in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37.5). Immediately, at the very time that Ezekiel proclaims God’s message of resurrection to the dispersed bones, they are re-membered: ‘the bones came together, bone to its bone’ (Ezek. 37.7). As the prophet speaks the words of resurrection, the disconnected bones become assembled, limb to limb, member to member, in this divine act of re-membering. And, as he continues to prophecy the words that God gives him, suddenly ‘sinews were on them, … flesh had come upon them; and skin had covered them’ (Ezek. 37.8). A valley of bones, re-membered, re-clothed with sinews and skins standing before Ezekiel, ‘but there was no breath in them yet’ (Ezek. 37.8).

And now Ezekiel is commanded to call on the breath, to fill the empty bodies with life. He calls on God’s spirit, speaks into the four corners of the earth—wherever their breath had been scattered—to fill the bodies, blows on them as one would kindle a fire, in-spires the empty bodies ‘that they may live again’ (Ezek. 37.9). And as God’s spirit filled them, the bodies stand and live, and God reveals to the prophet that the vast multitude before him is the whole house of Israel, a people once dispersed and dead, now re-membered and resurrected.

Yet although they stand, looking to all intents like real people—with fresh skins on their dead bones and the breath of life within their bodies—deep down they remain people who remain disconnected from one another and from God, we read. They tell the prophet: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are lost completely’ (Ezek. 37.12). And the word of God spoken by the prophet addresses them in their hopelessness, prophecies how God will bring them back, not only from their graves, but restore them to the heavenly kingdom that he had promised; how God will put his spirit within them, so that they may live. And all so that they may know that the Lord alone is, indeed, their God.

God will bring life, even in the midst of death, the prophet tells the vast army of the people of Israel. God has re-membered them, and will not forget them either. Another Dean of another St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne of London’s St Paul’s, reflected on this hope like this in one of his sermons:

God knows in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies … and he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his saints and, in the twinkling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sat down at[ the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection (Sermon LXXXI, 19 November 1627).

God re-members, brings together, his broken people, by remembering, recalling each one that has been lost to death.

Just as our first reading proclaims God’s mighty works of re-membering, of putting together again those who were broken, wherever they may rest, so our second reading shows us how we, too, can engage in the work of remembrance. For at the heart of our gospel reading from St Matthew stand words that form the centre of our own worshipping life, as we gather round Christ’s table: ‘This is given for you; do this in remembrance of me’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19). Do this, so that you may remember me, Christ says, and points to the broken bread that symbolises his body, the body that is about to be broken on the cross.

And so our daily sharing in the broken bread becomes not only the ultimate act of remembrance—a time when we recall intently the work of our salvation and the fulfilment of God’s promise that all may one day come to share in the promised heavenly kingdom—but also is meant to be a share in his work of re-membrance, of bringing together the members of the body of Christ, however dispersed, however disconnected from one another and from God they may feel, however broken they may be. At Christ’s table, as we come to remember him, we are all re-membered, are brought together, are given a share in God’s mighty work of deliverance in the death and resurrection of Christ. At Christ’s table, we make present this deliverance in our midst, and we do so by our act of remembering, as each individual member of his body shares in the bread and wine and we, ‘though we are a many, become one body, because we all share in the one bread’ (1 Cor 10.17).

We stand at Christ’s table not merely as a living assembly of humans—like the multitude of dried bones, now covered in flesh and given breath though still without hope, that once filled the valley of Ezekiel’s vision—but as living members, as limbs of Christ’s own body, connected to him, sharing in the pains he feels in the hope that we, too, might come to share the risen life he brings. As we remember him breaking the bread, the sign of his body, at table with his disciples, we also re-member—bring together—his broken body, become members one of another and of Christ; all by doing this ‘in remembrance of him’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19).

On this Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the centenary of the Great War and the enormity of its cost, I invite you to share in the remembrance that both recalls in our minds and brings together again what has been broken by illness, suffering, war or hatred. I invite you to remember—to recall—how by letting his own body be broken on a cross, Christ has taken up in himself all brokenness in order to make it whole. And as you receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion I invite you to re-member—to build up and become—his body on earth: be re-connected with one another and with Christ himself, as members of his body, so that together we may make known the work of his healing, wholeness and redemption in an age still marred by conflict and war.

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

God’s Angels: Messengers of hope in a world of conflict

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels 2014:

Angels

Today’s readings (Daniel 7.1-18, Revelation 11.9-12.10, John 1.45-51) set before us dramatic visions of the end-times that tell of the terror of destruction and war: they remind us of the political, military and spiritual causes of conflict, and paint a sweeping picture of the disregard for human life when powers wage war against one another. At the same time, our readings set before us the assurance of a just ruler, ‘one like a Son of Man’, who will break this cycle of violence, who will prepare a place of safety for his own and, ultimately, will bring in his realm of peace. Until that time, our readings assure us, the people of God journey together protected by the hand of God, and aided in hope by the ministry of Michael and the angels whose festival we mark today.

Our first lesson, from the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 7.1-18), retells a terrifying night vision the prophet received in the form of ‘dreams and visions of his head as he lay in bed’ (Daniel 7.1). In his blood-filled dream Daniel saw four mythical animals, each representing an ancient middle-Eastern empire, each riding to power on the crest of a tidal wave of war, each animal devouring one another. In their struggle for political and military supremacy, many lost their lives: the prophet describes this incredible loss of lives in terms of a savage beast ‘devouring many bodies’ (Daniel 7.5). After the mass destruction of three successive empires raking across the nations of the Middle East, the final empire destroyed all that remained: ‘devouring, breaking in pieces and stamping what was left with its feet’ (Daniel 7.7). The motivation for this mass destruction is the human desire to affirm superiority: Daniel’s dream tells how the empire’s leader asserted the power he gained through terror and destruction ‘arrogantly’ (Daniel 7.8).

Where our first lesson speaks of the terror of human powers contending with one another, our second lesson from the Revelation of John the Divine (Revelation 11.9-12.10), speaks of another form of war: that of the powers of heaven; a spiritual war made visible in the message of our seer. The power of evil manifested in the form of a ‘great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his head’: a powerful beast that already holds many human empires in its sway—the seven crowns tell of the dragon’s temporal power—and that now contends for the power of heaven: ‘his tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth’ (Revelation 12.4). Its object of destruction is not only the firmament and the earth below but humanity and its relationship with God: ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12.1). In John’s vision humanity stands at the heart of the cosmos: the miracle of new human life in the form of a heavily-pregnant woman enrobed in the powers of sun and moon, yet at her most vulnerable, ‘crying out in birth-pangs in the agony of giving birth’ (Revelation 12.2).

The object of destruction in both end-time visions is vulnerable humanity. Temporal and spiritual powers contending to assert their authority over the created order. Both visions place the human race at the heart of God’s universe; both speak of human frailty when faced with such overpowering adversaries. And both visions clearly identify the source of this terror: human and superhuman arrogance—the inordinate desire to dominate and destroy, suborn and obliterate. At the same time both visions also speak of the timeless hope for those who contend with the—equally timeless—manifestations of the human struggle for dominion: the vision of a divine ruler who will break the cycle of violence and bring in his kingdom of justice and peace.

Daniel’s ‘Son of Man’ to whom was ‘given dominion and glory and kingship’, the One whom ‘all peoples, nations and languages shall serve’ (Daniel 7.14). The ruler foreseen by the Divine John, who will bring to the universe ‘the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God’ (Revelation 12.10). A ruler who is ‘like a Son of Man’, yet the eternal Lord: who is both human and divine. A ruler who was at the beginning and will have endless sovereignty: who holds together the eternal and the temporal in a single span. A ruler who shows his power in weakness: who defeats the powers of destruction by his own death; who receives glory and kingship by first ascending to the throne of the cross. That ruler is Jesus Christ, our Gospel reading tells (John 1.45-51).

It is the ascent to the cross, John’s Gospel asserts, that confirms Christ’s sovereignty over the people of God, and his identity as the Son of God. In the brief encounter between Philip, Nathanael and Jesus, that stands at the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading the two Galileans immediately identify the teacher seated under the fig-tree as the man of Daniel’s vision: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’, Nathanael exclaims (John 1.49). And Jesus tells Nathanael that he will ‘see greater things’ than a man who can judge the purity of his heart and know and declare him to be ‘an Israelite in whom there is no guile’: ‘Amen, amen, I tell you: you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1.51).

John’s Gospel leaves no doubt that the moment at which Nathanael’s ‘greater vision’ is fulfilled is the moment at which Christ breathes his last on the cross and confirms, ‘it is accomplished’ (John 19.30). Where the bystanders saw Jesus breathe his last, the universe witnessed the sending out of the Holy Spirit, and ‘heaven opened’ to reveal God’s glory and sovereignty (John 1.51, 19.31). Where the bystanders saw an ignominious death, the universe witnessed the triumph of the war of heaven: the Archangel Michael and ‘his angels fighting against … the deceiver of the whole world’ (Revelation 12.7-8). Where the bystanders saw the execution of a condemned man, the cosmos saw the restoration of the connection between heaven and earth by the ministry of the angels: ‘angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ on the cross as on a ladder (John 1.51).

The dramatic and disturbing visions held before us this morning are as much visions of the past as they are visions of the future. Some aspects of them might even seem to us to be visions of the present, as the nations of the Middle East once again ride the precarious crest of a tidal wave of destruction and turmoil. Yet they also assure us that held against the human tide that seeks to destroy and sever the relationships between humans and God, is God’s tide of grace: grace that has been won on the cross, grace that already has restored, and forever continues to seek to restore, the relationships between God and humankind.

In this ebb and flow of human ambition, arrogance and sin, and divine grace, it is the angels of God who are the messengers of our hope. For they continually make known the message of heaven open and grace bestowed as they ascend and descend upon the crucified and glorified Son of Man. With the cross a ladder that spans heaven and earth, and that forever recalls the Fount of Grace, God’s angelic messengers proclaim on earth the message of a righteous ruler and judge, who seeks the friendship and welfare of all people. Just as they have done at the time of the birth of the Son of Man and Son of God in Bethlehem, when they sang of God’s vision for his world to become his kingdom of peace and goodwill for all humankind, so they still make known the message of that kingdom today.

We may not be given the vision to behold God’s angels as the winged warriors of heaven led by the powerful Archangel Michael. Yet we will, without doubt, encounter God’s angels as we journey to God’s kingdom. The Greek word, angelos from which we derive our word ‘angel’, first of all means ‘messenger’: a messenger of the Good News that God will guide his people through the skirmishes of life to a place of peace. We all will have encountered angels that shared this hope with us in times of difficulty—they may have been a neighbour, a friend, a member of your family, a colleague, or your priest. We all are called to share in the ministry of the angels, are all called to become messengers of God’s Good News: that warfare and terror will not have the final word, that the ultimate conflict has already been fought and won, and that God seeks peace for his world and his people.

As we give thanks for the many messengers of God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we too might become messengers of God’s hope in our own generation: share here on earth the ministry of his angels, his messengers, in heaven.

Now to him, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him, to him be glory in the Church now and and forever. Amen (1 Peter 3.22).