Tag Archives: Church membership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church Universal: forgiven folk living as members of Christ’s body

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A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Trinity Sunday, the eighth in a series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed:

We are almost at the end of our series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. The main points of our faith have all been covered. We have confessed that the world was created by a God who calls us his children and whom we may call Father. We have confessed that this Father-hood is uniquely expressed in the life of Jesus Christ, ‘God’s only Son our Lord’. We have affirmed that in Christ God and humanity have equal place by the childbearing of blessed Mary. We have recalled the life, and death on the cross for our redemption, of Mary’s Son, and anchored the events of our redemption in time by recalling the earthly judge before whom Jesus gave an account of his life: the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate in the first century Roman empire. We have confirmed our faith in the new life Christ brought by rising from the dead, recalled the raising of that renewed humanity into heaven at Christ’s Ascension. We have given thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We have given voice to all of the historic acts of our faith, recalled all the events in the story of the creation and redemption of this world.

What is left in our confession is how the story of the triune God, who creates, redeems and sustains his creation, is lived out daily in the life of those who join you and me in making this statement of faith. Yes, we have completed the remembrance of our story of faith. What follows now is an answer to the question that so many of us carry with us: how can this faith be lived out in our day to day journeys of faith? The answer our creed gives is threefold: ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints; the Forgiveness of Sins’.

Each of the three parts of this statement of faith depends on the next. Our faith is brought to life in the church, Christ’s body on earth. Our faith journeys, in turn, are sustained by the knowledge of those who have completed the journey of faith, God’s saints in Christ’s presence, and the knowledge that by our confession of faith we too affirm our membership in their number, are counted among God’s holy people. And our faith life is based on the knowledge that our sins can be, and have been forgiven; that we, too, can be a part of the community of the redeemed. In fact, the final statement is the one on which the former two are based: without our acceptance of the forgiveness of sins, there can be no membership in the communion of Saints, nor can there be a Church; the statement of faith we examine tonight hinges on our acceptance of the gift of a new life, set free from sin and the fear of death, by the gift of Christ’s own life on a cross for our sakes.

Tonight’s readings (Acts 20.24-32, Colossians 1.9b-20) give us a closer insight into what it may mean to profess our faith in a community shaped by the belief that Christ forgives the sins of those who call on his name and seek his friendship. They give us a better understanding of what it means to be the company of those whose sins have been forgiven, and who have been shaped together as a communion: the Church. That body is holy because it has been sanctified by the One who called it into being to make known the faith of sins forgiven. And that body is universal—the Greek word ‘catholicos’ means ‘universal’—incorporates people wherever they may be ‘whether on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1.20). In the days of the early Christian community that affirmed the then contentious belief that the church is there for those who were born in the land in which Jesus grew up and shared his Jewish roots, as well as the Gentile believers who came to faith through the ministry of apostles like Paul and Barnabas, Timothy and his companions. In our own generation it gives expression to that fact that the Church is enduring and that the church is to people wherever they are, from whatever ethnic, social or faith background they may first have come.

And because it is a community that professes as its founding principle the ‘forgiveness of sins’, the Church is a body that has often stood in need of thar forgiveness itself, and is growing in the knowledge that holiness can begin where people acknowledge their own sinfulness and failure, and receive in turn the assurance of God’s love and mercy. That knowledge is there for individuals as well as for the church as a whole—the church is holy when it confesses its own shortcomings and seeks to live out the message of sins brought to light, and lives transformed by God’s forgiveness.

Both our readings (Acts 20.24-32Colossians 1.9b-20) give voice to our Patron Saint, Paul the Apostle. The first, through the historic writings of Luke, takes us back to Miletus, at a turning point in Paul’s apostolic journeys. The second contains Paul’s counsel to the Christian community in Colossae. Both are spoken texts that were later set down in writing: the first is a farewell speech to the leaders of the church in Asia Minor, the second takes the form of a hymn in praise of life in communion with God. The first addresses the leaders of the church in particular, the second is addressed to all its members. At the heart of both stand the insights that were later incorporated into our creed: that the Church is a living body, a living community, and that that community has come into being through the gift of ‘redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Col. 1.13), and that its purpose is to make known the message of a new, transformed life, which Paul calls ‘the inheritance among all the saints’ (Acts 20.32). The creation of the church as a communion of saints that spans all nations on earth, and encompasses the whole household of God—living and departed—is the gift of our Triune God: it is the ‘Father, who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light’, the ‘Son in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ and the Spirit who ‘shepherds the church of God’; an apt message to recall this Trinity Sunday (Col. 1.13-14, Acts 20.28).

For the Apostles’ Creed, the step from forgiveness to membership of the church is immediate: we are made part of the communion of saints at the moment at which our sins are forgiven. There appears to be no intermediate steps necessary to obtain membership. Our readings echo this sense of immediacy. God’s forgiveness was ‘obtained through the blood of God’s own Son’, our first lesson explains; it is this message that ‘is able to build us up and give us the inheritance among all who are sanctified’, Paul tells the elders at Miletus (Acts 20.28, 32). And in his letter to the Colossians he confirms that ‘through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1.20). It is was the self-giving act of offering the life of his ‘beloved Son’ (Col. 1.13), so that all might come to experience the forgiving love of God, that makes us a member of Christ’s body, the communion of Saints.

The other principal creed, that adopted by the first Council of Nicaea through the course of the fourth century, professes an intermediary step to membership of that body: ‘we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’. Since 381, and the formulation of the Nicene Creed, the formal beginning of the journey as member of the body of Christ has been the confession of faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ symbolised by baptism, in which the washing through the ‘blood of his cross’ our second reading speaks of is ritualised by the washing of our bodies, or foreheads, in water. Baptism, then, is the moment in our Christian journeys, when we come to experience in our bodies, what it means to be a member of Christ’s body: there we are linked to Christ, ‘the head of the body, the church’, there we are given a physical sign of the forgiveness of sins that shapes that body, the church. There we receive the necessary gifts of grace to enable us to live out our faith.

And that living out of our faith through the gifts of grace bestowed to us by the Holy Spirit is the final aspect of tonight’s article of faith. We profess that, in our membership of Christ’s body, we rely on the gifts of others: we rely on the gifts of grace that God gives—the gifts that, as our second lesson puts it—can fill us ‘with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we may lead lives worthy of Christ’ (Col. 1.9). We also rely on the gifts we receive from other members of the church: whether they are those who, as in our first lesson, are set over us as shepherds of God’s flock, the ‘overseers’ or bishops of our church who act on behalf of Christ. Or the gifts of those who share with us in the strength of ‘God’s glorious power’, the strength that both prepares the members of the church to endure trials with patience and gives us the joy of praising God in worship. As those who profess our faith in the body of Christ, ‘the holy catholic church; the communion of Saints’, we are encouarged to live like the saints Paul speaks of in our lessons: as people who live with understanding, bear much fruit through our good works, as people prepared to grow in strength and endurance, as people who praise God together and, above all, as people who share this message of faith with others.

What we profess is not an organisation, but a living organism, given life at the moment at which Christ died for us to know ‘the forgiveness of sins’; the act of liberation at which God came to visit and redeem us—his people.

‘And now I commend you to God, and to the message of his grace; a message that is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified’ (Acts 20.32). Thanks be to God. Amen.