Tag Archives: Cross

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.

 

 

The Servants of all: obeying Christ’s call to discipleship

A sermon preached at the 101st Patronal Festival of the Parish of St James the Great, East St Kilda, by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St James, 2015:

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I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of St Paul’s Cathedral: your home church at the heart of our city. It is a joy to be with you on your patronal festival, as you celebrate 101 years of the foundation of the parish of St James East St Kilda, and to reflect with you on the ministry of your patron, St James. My predecessor, Dean Hussey Burgh Macartney, was, of course, both Dean of St James’ Cathedral and of St Paul’s Cathedral; so the example of St James stands at the very beginning of our story as a Cathedral. It is therefore a delight to be explore together what the example of St James the Great may mean for us today as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ in this generation.

St James was one of the great apostles. Among the first four to be called, together with his brother John, and Simon Peter and Andrew, for the writers of our Gospels, he is one of the examples of what it means to follow Jesus to the cross and, following his glorious resurrection from the dead, what it means to lead God’s people. Before he met Jesus, and responded to his call to leave his former life behind and follow him, James was firmly established in his family’s fishing business on Lake Galilee. A partner together with his brother John and their father Zebedee, they were moored near the shore of Lake Galilee, preparing their nets to fish, when Jesus called them to leave their nets behind and instead to go, follow him, and become ‘fishers of men’. Peter and Andrew, James and John, responded immediately to Jesus’ call. So insistent was Jesus’ call that James and his brother ‘left their father in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him’ (Mark 1.20, Matthew 4.21).

Andrew and Simon, James and John were not only the first four disciples to enter into discipleship, but from the moment of their call they became Jesus’ key witnesses. They were among the ‘chosen witnesses’ who saw Jesus transfigured on a high mountain, they walked alongside Jesus at his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and were taken aside by Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to be near him in his agony (Mark 9.2-8, 13.3, 14.33). They sought to be like Jesus, and promised to follow him even into the darkest moments. And as they promised to follow, they clearly expected great rewards, today’s Gospel story suggests. A chapter earlier, Peter had already questioned Jesus whether there would be a reward for their discipleship: ‘We have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us’ (Matthew 19.27). And Jesus assured them that ‘at the renewal of all things’ they would be seated on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’, adding, ‘but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first’ (19.29). Having been promised great reward by the one who called them to follow, today James and John openly ask for an even greater reward: to share the seats of honour when Jesus came to reign.

Simon and Andrew, John and James serve as much an example of godly leadership and faithfulness, as they are an example of human fallibility. Perhaps it was because they had been witnesses of glory – had been among the chosen four to see Jesus transfigured in resurrection light – that they were unable to grasp the fact that Jesus’ kingdom might not be ushered in by glory but through suffering. In spite of the fact that Jesus openly speaks about the suffering he will undergo at the hand of those who oppose him; that his ascent to Jerusalem would be an ascent to the cross, the disciples still hope to shield Jesus from suffering, hope to enter the kingdom in glory, not through agony and pain. They still hope for a reward of glory, and have not yet understood that the reward they will gain is sharing in Jesus’ suffering.

How could they understand? They had seen Jesus’ deeds of power; had seen him heal the sick, command the elements, raise the dead to life again; had seen him transfigured in glory and confessed him as God’s Son. How would the all-powerful God let his Son not enter into glory, save him from his enemies. And the glimpses of the divine glory they had perceived in Christ to them were signs of the reward they would enjoy. So convinced are they still that Jesus will accomplish his triumph in Jerusalem, that they were arguing among themselves who among them would be the most worthy; who would be allowed to take the place occupied by Elijah and Moses on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Who was greatest among them; who would be seated at the right and the left of their transfigured king on the thrones he had promised them all.

And at each stage of their conversation about greatness and glory, Jesus had stalled the discussion, either by reminding them that his intent was to go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, or by telling them that the hierarchies of his kingdom were not those they had hoped for: ‘the first will be last, and the last first’. Obtaining the prime thrones promised them, then, would require diplomacy and skill. Which is why it is the mother of James and John put in the request for her sons’ glory. Commenting on Matthew’s gospel in the Fourth Century, St John Chrysostom suggests that James and John were too ashamed to ask for themselves. Their mother kneels before Jesus in humble submission, like the Canaanite woman when she begged Jesus to save her daughter’s life (Matthew 15.25), or the woman who knelt before Jesus and anointed his feet with her tears. The posture may be the same, but otherwise the two pleas couldn’t be more different: James and John were not asking for transformed, healed, lives; but for glory and power.

Jesus’ response to the two is charactistic: rather than grant them their request, promise them glory; he promises them suffering. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am to drink’, he asks them; can you drink the bitter of cup of suffering and death that I will pray the Father to let pass from me in my inner agony in Gethsemane? And the two still do not understand, assent to gain glory, and are told that they will indeed drink deep of the draught of suffering, and die for their discipleship; are told that discipleship will mean carrying the cross before entering into glory. ‘The Son of Man’, says Jesus concludes, ‘has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Where in the Hebrew Scriptures God had promised to give rich nations, the local superpowers in ransom for his people, here Jesus tells the disciples that he will give his own Son in ransom so that his creation may, once again, be called ‘very good’.

‘The Son of Man has come to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Jesus has not come to rule the nations in glory; his ‘kingdom is not of this world’. Jesus is not one who ‘seeks great things’: the reverse is the case for God’s servant. For in reflecting on his own servanthood, Jesus recalls the role of the Servant of the Lord from the prophecy of Isaiah; God’s chosen who ‘makes himself an offering for sin’ (Isa 53.10). The humble servant who will take on ‘our infirmities and bear our diseases’ (Mt 8.17); the innocent victim who made no answer to his accusers (27.12); God’s lamb whose blood is ‘poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins’ (26.27-28). God’s Son who gives his life as a ransom for God’s people, who gives himself to die, so that all may have life forever.

I sometimes wonder how much James and John understand of Jesus’s calling to be a victim, a ransom for many. I wonder whether they understood his invitation to follow him in terms of that calling. Their behaviour in the Gospel stories suggests little such understanding. James and John wanted to bring down fire, St Luke tells us, upon the Samaritan village that rejected Jesus (Luke 9.51-56). James and John, were called the ‘Sons of Thunder’ for a reason: the name suggests impulsive characters, people who are ready to repay agression or rejection with like coin. People who understood well what it meant to claim an ‘eye for an eye’ but who had yet to learn what it may mean to ‘love one’s enemies and pray for those who persecute us’. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’, Jesus asked the Sons of Thunder (Mt 20.22). Yes we can, they replied readily, but naïvely.

Of the two only John lived to reach old age in Ephesus. James drained his master’s cup far sooner. In about 44 AD, Herod killed James ‘with the sword’ (Acts 12.2). James received the Roman sentence of a political troublemaker. Ten years after Jesus’s death, the brother we commemorate today was still a Son of Thunder. But at the same time, he will also have known that to be at Jesus’s side on his throne in glory meant to suffer, on his left or his right, like the thieves at Calvary (Mt 27.38). He will have known, like the righteous thief, that the way into paradise was by asking for God’s mercy rather than to enter into God’s glory without first taking up our cross: the mercy that led God to give his only Son as a ransom for many; the glory that shines forth from the cross, where Christ is enthroned as King of all nations.

Today we give thanks for James’ witness to the service that is revealed in suffering. The martyrdom he suffered shines as an example of what it means to exercise true leadership: not the leadership that seeks ‘to lord it over others’ (Mt 20.25), the leadership that is based on good connections and the intercession of intermediaries. On the contrary, the reason we give thanks for the leadership of St James the Great is because he came to realise that the way of ruling among the people he lived was not the way of God’s kingdom. There, to be first among people meant to be the slave of all (20.27). There, to serve God in his people was the only way to experience perfect freedom. As we give thanks for the example of St James, we pray that we, too may be equipped with grace to follow Christ on the way to the kingdom, that we may be given grace to follow in his spirit humbleness and gentleness, by seeking to be servants of others, by seeing the image of Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters, and so to share in building up his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Let us pray:

O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church the same spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Christ’s two Ascensions: victory over sin and death, heavenly gifts to build up his people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue, on the Feast of the Ascension 2015:

Ascension

Thank you Fr Turner, for your kind inivitation to be with you today. It’s a delight to share in your celebration of Ascension Day in this magnificent church at the heart of New York.

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia. At the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral stands our beautiful Ascension Chapel, with a magnificent golden mosaic, framed in gothic alabaster, depicting the risen Christ departing from his disciples. The ascending Christ stretches his hands out in blessing on his disciples as he is from them.

Our mosaic shows the disciples watching in worship, as Jesus stretches open the starry night sky, depicted in costly lapis lazuli, to enter a golden heaven. Two angels hold up scrolls with words from our first reading: ‘Men of Galilee’, the scrolls record their spoken words, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

Whatever the disciples may have thought as they looked on, it seems that for two angels Jesus’ ascension into heaven was no surprise. Indeed, Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story matter of factly, as if these things happened every day. And while they may not exactly have occurred every day, Scripture does tell us about a number of people who ascended to heaven: the prophets Elijah (2 Ki. 1.11-12), Isaiah and Baruch all went up on high (Asc. Isa.), Scripture records.

Ascension to heaven, in Jewish tradition, was a gift of God to those whom he loved. Rather than see death, they would be lifted directly into God’s presence. In the case of Elijah, this took a spectacular form: the prophet was carried on high in a whirlwind, on a chariot of fire, drawn back to God by horses of fire (2 Ki. 1.11-12).

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Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, shares this aspect of the prophets’ ascent to heaven: it is an incredible display of the divine power at work within him. But unlike the ascension of the prophets, who attained glory without first tasting death, Jesus’ ascension certainly was not a way of entering heaven that bypassed death.

During a night-time conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus had spoken at some length about the idea of ascending to heaven. Then Jesus had told Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (Jn. 3.13). In order truly to ascend to heaven, he first needed to descend to earth. In order to show to others the glory of God, he first needed to empty himself of that glory, by taking on our mortal life, Jesus explained to his secret disciple.

In our epistle reading from the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul echoes this insight: ‘When it says, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ (Eph 4.9). For Paul, ‘Jesus ascended’, doesn’t just mean ‘Jesus went into heaven’. Before Jesus could ascend to the heavenly glory, he first had to ascend to the cross, Paul assures his readers.

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And you only need to look beyond me to the great stone reredos of this church to see what Paul meant: there, in the central panel, the ascended Jesus blesses us, his worshippers. He stands above the cross, to reinforce, in stone and statue, the point that it was when Jesus was lifted up high on the cross that he did, in fact, make his first ‘ascension’. Jesus ascended to the cross only to descend, to plunge the depths of suffering and death into hell in order to chain the powers that kept humankind captive. Paul explains: ‘he who descended is the same who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).

This, then, is the first difference between Christ’s ascension and that of those who had ascended to God before him: Christ’s ascension is not a passive homecoming to God’s glory, but rather his active engagement with the powers that had kept humankind imprisoned in sin and death. It is, in fact, two ascensions. One that concluded Christ’s work on earth; the ascension witnessed by the disciples at the Mount of Olives celebrated this day. And preceding that, the ascension to the cross, celebrated on Good Friday. An ascension Christ made alone, deserted by almost all his followers, on another hill outside the city: on Calvary.

The second difference between Christ’s ascension and that of the prophets is this: unlike Elijah’s ascension, which really concerned only one man, Christ’s ascension was not a singular event. His two ascensions, both at Calvary and on the Mount of Olives, include and transform all people. Jesus not only takes captivity captive, but he changes those bonds that enslaved us and makes them the bonds that bind us together, so that we might become Christ’s own body.

Christ’s first ascension on Calvary meant that the lives of his followers and friends could be set free from death and sin. His second ascension on the Mount of Olives brought them the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would strengthen and equip those who love him. That, surely, is the true gift of Christ’s ascensions: the gift of people’s lives, redeemed and renewed, bound together in the power of his resurrection to be the body of his resurrection on earth.

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‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive’, Paul cites the Psalms (Eph. 4.8). But equally important is what the Apostle says next: ‘He gave gifts to his people’ (Eph 4.8). And while these gifts are clearly of heavenly origin, they are not bestowed as it were by remote control, by a resurrected and ascended Christ safe in his heavenly home, but by the Jesus who, following his resurrection, walks among his disciples to teach them about the work of resurrection; who calls them back to enter into his service, and encourages them to become a body of believers that reaches out to the ends of the earth. The Jesus who, following his resurrection, bestows precious gifts upon them.

These gifts are various, and given in a multitude of ways. Firstly, the gift of resurrection itself, shown to the women at the empty tomb; the gift of understanding God’s word, given to the disciples fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus; the gift of peace and his Spirit, given to his frightened friends hiding behind the closed doors of the upper room; the gift of calling, bestowed to a disillusioned band of disciples ready to trade in their apostleship for their old lives at fishermen on Lake Galilee. And, as we anticipate the feast of Pentecost, we look forward also to the gifts of the Spirit: equipping, as Paul says, ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-12).

There may well be times when we feel like those ‘men of Galilee’, the people who watched Jesus ascend to glory on the Mount of Olives. There are times when we, like them, may feel left behind, full of sorrow and unresolved questions. And it is at these times, I believe, that we need to remind ourselves that the spiritual gifts bestowed on them are still alive today. It is at times like these that we need to understand that the angelic word spoken to them is also addressed to us: ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

It is my hope that you and I will come to experience in our lives, and nurture in ourselves, the same gifts that Christ bestowed to his friends in the time between his ascension on the cross and his ascension to the Father. It is my hope that by these gifts we may be equipped to teach to others the work of resurrection. And it is my prayer that we may be shaped into the body of Christ, ‘joined and knit together by every ligament … building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4.16), to make known this message to those around us that even today find themselves ‘captives to captivity’.

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Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

A webcast of the service at which this sermon was preached can be heard here.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, Wikimedia 

Walking in the light of life: bringing others to Jesus

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015:

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In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Nicodemus, a ‘teacher of Israel’ sought out Jesus at night. Jesus had first come to his attention when he entered the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and swept away the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Fascinated by this sacrilegious intervention, Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus. Concerned about his status as a Temple leader, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night. As they spoke, Jesus challenged him to shun the darkness that hid his actions, and instead ‘come into the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ (John 3.21). And explained to him that the Son of Man would be lifted up so that all would have life, just as Moses lifted up a serpent to ward off death in the wilderness.

We heard how, at the end of the story of Jesus, how Nicodemus stood at the foot of the cross on the eve of another Passover. How he saw Jesus lifted up on a cross in the darkness of the eclipsed sun and moon. How it was there that he came to understand Jesus’ challenge, and recognise Jesus to be the Light and Life of the World. We saw how Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, left behind the certitude of his former beliefs. How he decided to step into a future shaped, not by his status in the temple hierarchy which once had compelled him to seek the anonymity of darkness, but rather by his newly-found faith in Jesus as the Light of the World, whom the darkness would not overcome, and the One who by dying would bring life to the world. How he left behind his former identity and became part of a new community of faith and belonging.

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Today’s gospel reading continues the contrast of darkness and light, death and life. Again, Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Again, Jesus had just caused much notoriety by his actions: this time he had been greeted by the people of Jerusalem in a royal progress with palm branches held high. Seated on a donkey, Jesus had made his way across the Kidron valley to the Temple Mount, the people hailing him as their king. This will be the last Passover Jesus celebrates. As he teaches in the Temple precinct, Jesus again challenges his hearers to shun the darkness that already encroaches: ‘walk in the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, Jesus tells them (John 12.36). And promises them, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (12.32).

This time, Jesus’ hearers are not only faithful Jews, like Nicodemus, but also outsiders. We read in today’s gospel reading that ‘some Greeks’ came to ‘the festival’ (John 12.21). The ‘Greeks’ who attended the Passover festival were very likely proselytes. Our English word is a literal rendition of the Greek. And that, in turn, is the word used to translate the technical term for ‘resident alien’, used by the ancient equivalent of the immigration office, in Hebrew ‘ger toshav’ (גר תושב). The Greeks, then, were gentiles who, in return for their right to live in or near the land of Israel, have accepted some of the key tenets of the Jewish faith. They do not yet fully belong to the people of Israel, but know of and share their beliefs. They have permanent residency, but are yet to pass their citizenship test.

The ‘Greeks’ encounter Jesus’ followers in the forecourt of the gentiles, and ask to see Jesus: ‘Sir’, they ask Philip, ‘we wish to see Jesus’. John is very specific about who it was that the ‘Greeks’ sought out, isn’t he? He explains the reason for their choice of go-between with the terse comment, ‘Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee’ (John 12.21). Philip not only bore a Greek name, but was brought up in the cultural melting pot that was ancient Galilee: home to Greek-speakers who had settled there during the Hellenistic colonial days, home to Roman occupying forces such as that commanded by the centurion who would seek Jesus out to heal his slave, home to ordinary Jewish people, who tilled the land, fished the lake and, like Jesus and his father Joseph, built the edifices that made up the Greco-Roman administrative centres, or the Jewish cities.

Philip was a citizen of two worlds: a Jewish world and a Greek world. He was an ideal go-between for the Greeks who wanted to see and speak with the man who, only a day earlier, had been hailed by the citizens of Jerusalem as ‘king of Israel’ in his solemn procession to the Temple mount. Philip in turn sought out Andrew, another disciple bearing a Greek name – Andreas – and both went and told Jesus that here were people who had come to hear him.

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Jesus does not acknowledge the strangers who had gone to so much trouble to see him. John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus had even seen them. Instead, Jesus answers his two disciples that ‘now’ – at the moment that the gentiles from Galilee had sought him out – ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.23). Jesus had spoken of that hour before, and the arrival of his gentile hearers indicated to Jesus that his ‘hour’ had now come.

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ ‘hour’ is a decisive moment in which barriers are broken. The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus breaks cultural barriers by sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman, and telling her, ‘the hour is now here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but … worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21-23). The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus shatters Jewish religious expectations, by assuring them that it was he who would break the final barrier of death: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.29).

Hour by hour, then, the story of the cross unfolds until, at last, the hour comes for Jesus to be arrested, condemned to die, and be crucified. Hour by hour, decisive moment after decisive moment: the Samaritans are brought in to worship God in spirit and truth; the Jews challenged in their beliefs about death and life, darkness and light – both openly and secretly; and now the gentiles are brought near: ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be to be glorified’ (John 12.23). The hour of completion was near as, moment by moment, the ancient and the new people of God were brought together to meet, hear and be deeply perturbed by the One who would call them to a new life altogether.

Not only those brought to Jesus were perturbed by their participation in those crucial moments, their living through these ‘hours’. Jesus himself was ‘deeply troubled in his soul’ at the realisation that ‘now’ was the moment that would – ultimately – lead to that other ‘hour’ (John 12.27). The hour when ‘all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28). That ‘now’ was the moment that would begin to set in train the inescapable process to save all people from condemnation, ‘for the Son of Man to be lifted up … that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.14b-16).

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‘Now’, then, was the hour, the moment in which Jesus would begin to be glorified by being lifted on a cross to die. A deeply troubling kind of glory, John’s glory. For Jesus tells his hearers that it is only by dying that he can bring life eternal, just as a harvest of wheat is brought forth only from buried grains; and that it is only by dying to this world, that they themselves will ‘keep their lives for eternal life’ (John 12.26). And as he challenges Jews and gentiles to strive for that new life, he pours out his own humanity in prayer: ‘what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name”.’ (John 12.27-28). As he denies his own life so that others may share life, and as he bends his own will in obedience to God’s, God speaks to him of another glory – ‘the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ – as God the Father affirms, ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again’ (John 12.28).

The glory of being God’s only Son, ‘close to the Father’s heart’, had been first made known when ‘the Word became flesh to dwell among us’ (John 1.14). Soon it will be made known again, ‘when [he is] lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to [himself]’ (John 12.31). For now, there remain the Father’s words of glorification, spoken and heard by those who believe, or perceived as thunderous noise by those who do not yet have ears to hear. For now, another hour has passed on the way to the cross: some Greeks have been added to the growing group of believers that now include Samaritans, Jews and gentiles. And all of them are the recipients of Jesus’ challenge, to ‘walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, and to ‘believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.36).

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What, then, is our part in this story of transformation?

I think that our part is two-fold.

First of all, we are called to be witnesses to the story of Jesus. People who understand and believe that glory can mean suffering, and death does not always mean the end of life. People who believe that faith in Jesus means changing our lives, dying to the life of this world, and serving and following Jesus, so that ‘where I am there my followers may be also’ (John 12.26). People who believe that Jesus was glorified in his death, and that he died to draw all people to himself, died that we may not be condemned but instead be granted eternal life.

Secondly, we are called to become people who bring others to Jesus. People like Philip and Andrew, who have ‘dual citizenship’, who know what it means to be both on the inside and what it may be like for those still on the outside. People who, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, like the Greeks and the women gathered at the foot of the cross, have ourselves experienced the ‘hour’ in which Jesus was shown forth as he really was – the Son of God who tore down the barriers that separate and segregate, that keep people apart from people, and people apart from God. People whose own lives have been radically changed, and who now bring others to Jesus so that their lives may also change.

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Jesus said to them: ‘The light is with you for a little longer. … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.35-36).

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)

The light to lighten all nations: ‘an obstacle in its original place’

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the 145th Anniversary of the Foundation of St Philip’s Church Cowes, Phillip Island, 1 February 2015, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

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On Monday, 25 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘Cowes Church Hall Dedicated – Vicar mixed the Concrete – Fate of the Archbishop’s doorstep’ (The Argus, Monday 25 February 1935, p. 3). Completed to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary-year of your church, your church hall was a labour of love: volunteers dug the foundations, your then vicar, the Revd William McAully Robertson, drew the plans and mixed the concrete, and the seventh Dean of Melbourne and Archbishop, Frederick Waldegrave Head, laid the doorstep, as the works commenced.

It was the Archbishop’s doorstep that proved to be both ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21.42) and a ‘stumbling block to many’ (1 Corinthians 1.23) – quite literally: as the Hall was dedicated, the vicar confessed that the stone the Archbishop had laid as an entrance stone now supported the kitchen sink: ‘it had proved to be an obstacle in its original place’, the vicar explained.

Our lessons today (Malachi 3:1-4,Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40) remind us that our faith is not always a bright ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people’, but that it sometimes can be a stumbling block, can be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, as our Gospel reading puts it (Luke 2.32, 34). They encourage us to place our hope in the One who was rejected by many, Jesus Christ, and to become ambassadors of that hope. And they give us the example of two faithful people, Simeon and Anna, as signs of that longing, and proclamation.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, Simeon prays holding the infant Jesus in his arms, we heard in our Gospel reading (Luke 2.19). Simeon has become old while waiting for the promised Saviour. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the certain knowledge that the Saviour has come among his people. Simeon, we read in our Gospel reading, was looking forward to ‘the consolation of Israel’ Luke 2.25). The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the coming of the Messiah, picking up the prophet Isaiah’s rallying cry to the exiled people of God in Babylon: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had spent a lifetime longing for that promised hope. Now at last salvation is at hand, not only for his own people, but for all nations who seek to share in the hope of the Messiah. Now, at last, he can go home to God, can ‘depart in peace’.

If I have suggested an image of Simeon as a fully contented man with a message that brings nothing but comfort then, I am afraid, I have only described one side of the man. For Simeon knew well about how faith, like your erstwhile Church Hall doorstep, can be a stumbling block; how its challenging message may give offence, can feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’. His prophetic words, addressed to Mary and Joseph, then, temper his own consolation and desire to depart in peace, with a distinctive shadow of darkness.

Where the prophets foretold how God would set free his people by an act of power—a physical act of liberation—Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel: not so much a sunlit highway for the Lord, prepared by his faithful messenger, but rather more a valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a Via Dolorosa, a way of suffering and a crown of thorns. The doom of Israel is foretold in this Infant, born to be a crucified King. While Simeon speaks of light and glory, he also points to ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentation’.

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’, Simeon proclaims as he blessed Mary and Joseph (Luke 2.34). The first stumbling block for Simeon’s contemporaries surely is that the ‘many’ in Israel are both the chosen people as well as the ‘nations’, the gentiles, whom the child in the prophet’s arms will call to the radiant light of God’s goodness. If the prophet’s words that infant’s life is inextricably tied up with the fate of nations and people are unsettling, feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’, then his blessing for the child’s mother is even less comforting: the lance, thrust into her Son’s lifeless side on Calvary, will be as if a sword would pierce her soul, too.

Simeon’s prophecy is mirrored in our reading from the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2.14-18). There the promised Messiah, whom we today see presented to the Lord as an infant, is shown to be the last High Priest of Israel who, will sacrifice himself for our sake: ‘so that through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-5). The destiny of Mary’s child’s, today’s epistle reading makes clear, is to be the final offering to be sacrificed in the Temple, the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ as well as to be the last, the ‘merciful and faithful, high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17).

Jesus’ offering in the temple—both as an infant in Simeon’s arms, and as the last High Priest of Israel on the cross—initiates a new relationship with God, today’s festival makes clear. The stumbling blocks of Simeon’s prophecy lie not only in naming the child in his arms as the promised Messiah, but by proclaiming, in the sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple, that here was the final High Priest who would do away with sacrifices for sin forever, the One who would open the Temple to all nations in order to be ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ (Luke 2.32); words that surely would have been offensive to any believing Temple worshipper, would have been an ‘obstacle in its original place’.

In the midst of the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the Lord, Simeon prophecies that the Temple’s very purpose will come to an end: the child himself will be the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ our epistle speaks about (Hebrews 2.17). And indeed, the epistle to the Hebrew reminds us later that, at the moment the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two, at the moment at which Jesus dies on the cross, the relationship between God and his people had been fundamentally redefined.

Here, then, is not only a firstborn infant come to be dedicated to God, but a rightful High Priest who takes his place in the Temple; a self-understanding that Jesus himself shares from the beginning when he tells his worried parents a few verses after this morning’s Gospel reading, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49). The prophecy that the child presented by Simeon was a High Priest would have been startling enough. The fact that, in the midst of the Temple, he is proclaimed Messiah to the gentiles, who will provide his own sacrifice in his own body on a cross, and that by offering himself will do away with the need for sin offerings, with the need for a Temple altogether, is what makes Simeon’s prophecy so offensive, such a stumbling block to the faithful.

All is changed as the infant is presented in the Temple. The very reason for faith is radically redefined by Simeon’s prophecy: that here is the One who will, by his own offering of himself on the darkest of all days, Good Friday, put an end to the darkness of sin and the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death altogether. That here is the One, who by his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, will in his own risen body show forth the light of new hope, of sins forgiven and lives restored—the light of eternal life—to all those who trust the words of Simeon, that the infant in his arms is indeed, ‘your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2.30-32).

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As we give thanks for 145 years of faithful witness in this place, I invite you to hear again the words of Simeon’s song and discern through them God’s radical work of transformation among his people throughout the ages: a work that turns our preconceptions upside down; a work that transforms people and communities; a work that seeks to shed forth the radiant light of resurrection into the dark places of our world where people long for assurance and hope.

As we give thanks for the past, I pray that may God richly bless you in your future ministry: may your future show forth the same unity of spirit and action that led to the creation of your church and hall—where priest and people created together the place and shape of your ministry.And may your future be characterised by the same imagination and perseverance that, when faced with a stumbling block doorstep, saw in it not a ‘stone to be rejected’ but a foundation for a new, and essential kitchen, and a new function and ministry altogether.

And so, as we approach this crossroads of the church’s year, as Lent draws near, as our gaze shifts from the miracle of the manger to the triumph over the tomb, it is my prayer for you and me, that God will continue to touch our lives, so that we may become people who know in our own lives the mystery that those who come share the Infant’s bonds and burial, shall also be made partakers of his resurrection, and make that message known in our own generation, to all who long for the ‘light to lighten the nations’ today. Amen.

St Philip’s Cowes Photography: nipper30

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:

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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).

Bach’s St John Passion: Re-telling the story of death and life

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Bach’s St John Passion was first heard on Good Friday 1724, in Leipzig’s St Nikolai Church. Bach deliberately crafted the Passion to enable the congregation to reflect more profoundly on the story of the arrest, trials, death and burial of Jesus. Bach’s unknown librettist drew on St John’s Passion narrative, contemporary poetry – some of which had been written for a contemporary Passion Oratorio by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – and traditional Lutheran chorales to tell the story of how Jesus came to be crucified.

Bach’s St John Passion would have concluded Good Friday worship in Leipzig. The work was written for a performance at the evening service, following that morning’s extensive meditation on the death of Christ. Accordingly, in his sermon at St Nikolai following the singing of the first part of the Passion, the preacher reflected especially on the burial of Christ. In his Passion Bach turns the preacher’s message into music: the two final movements of the Passion tell of the believers’ conviction that the death of Christ has broken the power of death itself, and transformed the grave into a place of hope, Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist/ Und ferner keine Not umschließt,/ Macht mir den Himmel auf/ 
und schließt die Hölle zu (the grave, so is destined for you/ and no further misery surrounds/ Makes heaven open/ And Hell shut to me, movement 39). At the end of the Passion, the hearers are encouarged to give voice to this hope themselves in the words of the closing chorale: death has been defeated, and the grave has become a room to retreat into, a Schlafkämmerlein (little sleeping chamber) where our bodies may rest, Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein/ bis am jüngsten Tage! (gently without any torment or agony at all,/ until the last day, movement 40).

The journey to that place of rest and hope is a dramatic tale of betrayal and power-play, of agony and pain. Bach’s Passion begins and ends in a garden near the city of Jerusalem. We join Jesus and the disciples as they cross over the Bach Kidron (Kidron stream) – it is as if the composer, himself a ‘Bach’, joins the disciples on their journey in music across Jesus’ Rubicon. We take our leave from two other disciples in the garden of the resurrection, where they laid their friend to rest. The story told between the two gardens leaves little doubt that not one of the participants in this drama – not even Jesus’ followers – fully recognised the true identifty of Jesus. Throughout the Passion Jesus’ opponents struggle to understand how Jesus can be called a ‘King’ since he clearly has neither kingdom nor earthly power, just as his close followers fail to comprehend how Jesus can be the ‘resurrection and life’. Indeed, at at the end of the Passion we encounter the disciples as they bury Jesus, with no expectation of ever seeing him again alive.

Much of the musical drama of the St John Passion comes to life because of these misunderstandings. Jesus’ trial before Pilate, with its dramatic crowd scenes, in which the religious leaders of the land accuse Jesus of being an insurgent claimant to the vacant throne of Judea, thrives on misunderstood truths, and confused loyalties. Pilate himself has little understanding – nor, frankly, interest – in truth. Was ist Wahrheit (What is truth? movement 18a) he asks Jesus during his interrogation, a question that Jesus, who earlier in John’s gospel spoke of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), pointedly leaves unanswered. Nor has Pilate any sympathy for faith: he purposefully goads the religious hierarchy into professing their loyalty to the hated Roman Emperor by dressing the flogged prisoner in royal garments. In his music Bach suggests that Pilate’s sense of justice is as twisted as as crown of thorns the soldiers pressed on Jesus’ head. Many of Pilate’s statements are set to augmented fourths – tritones, the Baroque diabolus in musica (devil in music), often used as a symbol of mischief or evil intent. Pilate not only twists Roman justice, but also manipulates the Jewish leaders. At the end of the trial, the high priests are forced to affirm their fealty to Rome: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser (We have no king but the Emperor, movement 23f) they shout, at the risk of foregoing even the little self determination they had enjoyed under the occupying forces.

Even Jesus’ close friends who, John’s gospel tells, had followed and learnt from Jesus for more than two years, do not really understand their teacher. They certainly find it hard to comprehend that when Jesus spoke of the need for his followers to ‘take up their cross’, when he said that his glory would he be revealed by being lifted up on a cross, or when he foretold his resurrection, he was speaking literally. This is shown well in their differing individual reactions to Jesus: one of his followers, Judas, hands him over to the combined forces of Roman soldiers and Temple authorities. Another, Peter, denies him. The others desert him. Only ‘the disciple whom he loved’ remains at Jesus’ side and sees him die on the cross. At the end of the Passion story it is two of his secret followers who bury him. In his music, Bach consistently points to the literal meaning of discipleship. Nachfolge, following Jesus, means taking up the cross: when Peter and John follow Jesus to the high priest’s residence to witness his trial, the composer shapes the words folgete Jesu nach (followed after Jesus, movement 8) like a cross. Following Jesus did mean taking up the cross ‘day by day’; meant journeying with Jesus to the cross, witnessing his death, rather than abandoning or denying him.

Many of the arias of the Passion serve to underline this insight. It is re-told in music in the call on Jesus to support the believers’ journey of faith in the dance-like soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls (I follow you equally, movement 9) as much as by expressing the grief of betrayal and the lack of human wisdom in the tenor aria, Ach mein Sinn (Oh my reason, movement 13). The arias of the Passion, then, give voice to complex emotions. In the paired Tenor Arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel (Consider my soul), and the ensuing Aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (Contemplate, how his blood-coloured back, movement 20), those emotions are the bittre Lust/ 
und halb beklemmtem Herzen (bitter happiness and half anguished heart, movement 19) of seeing Jesus suffer: happiness that redemption is being wrought by Jesus’ suffering; anguish because it is hard to see someone you love suffer. Jesus’ suffering is at once the believer’s Wermut (wormwood) as it is the key to heaven – Himmelsschlüsselblume (‘heaven-key-flower’) – is at once the believers’ Sündflut (sin-flood) as it is the allerschönste Regenbogen (most beautiful rainbow of all). All of these emotions Bach paints in evocative music: his depiction of the rainbow in music is breathtaking – ‘literally, if you are the tenor soloist’, as the theologian and librettist NT Wright quips in his Foreword to my commentary on Bach’s St John Passion. It is this combination of anguish and happiness, terror and longing, brutality and hope, that characterises many of the arias in the Passion.

At the same time, many of Bach’s arias leave little doubt of the faith in resurrection and new life. In the aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished, movement 30), sung as Jesus spoke his last, the triumph of the Held aus Juda (Hero of Judah) and the Trauernacht (night of mourning) are beautifully juxtaposed to testify to Jesus’ accomplishment: death defeated by death. And if there had been any doubts at all as to the meaning of Jesus’ death, Bach adds another aria immediately after the short, matter-of-fact, recitative that records the death of Jesus: in the aria Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen (My dear Saviour, let me ask you, movement 32), the Bass soloist asks the dead Jesus about the meaning of death, and the hope of new life, while the entire chorus confirms Jesu, der du warest tot/ lebst nun ohne Ende (Jesu, you who were dead/ Live now without end); affirms the hope of believers reconciled to God, and new life gained through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Where the arias of the Passion provide moments of individual reflection for Bach’s hearers on the most important questions of faith – life and suffering, loyalty and discipleship, death and resurrection – the carefully chosen chorale verses enabled hearers to root these reflections in their day-to-day experience of worship: for Lutherans singing was (and remains to date) a central way of giving voice to a lived out faith. And where, as in movement 22, Bach’s unknown librettist was unable to source a suitable Lutheran chorale, a contemporary poem was set to music in such a way that it felt, and sounded, just like a chorale. It serves to express the central doctrine of the Passion, and Luther’s theology of the cross: denn gingst du nicht die Knechtschaft ein/ müsst unsre Knechtschaft ewig sein (if you had not gone into slavery/ our slavery must have been forever).

Bach retells one of the most dramatic stories told in Biblical words, devotional hymns and contemporary poetry; carefully and beautifully set to music. He helps us navigate that story by placing recurrent musical devices in the St John Passion. His Baroque tropes were intended as much for the careful listener, as for the performer: the cross-motifs or shapes in the score or the tritones that reveal that not all that is spoken by Pilate should be taken at face-value (and certainly not his desire to ‘let Jesus go’, movement 21). The sharps, in German called Kreuze (crosses), because they look like two crosses superimposed on one another that appear in the score as the story moves closer to Golgotha. Bach’s plays on numbers: the reference to the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not kill, introduced by five rising chromatic semitones on töten (kill) in the religious leaders’ protest, Wir dürfen niemand töten (We may not put anyone to death, movement, movement 16d), or the reference to all ten commandments in the ten fugal entries of their Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have a law, movement 21f). The rattling of dice as the Roman soldiers gamble for the seamless robe (movement 27b) and, finally, the musical sense of completion at Jesus’ final words, Es ist vollbracht (movement 29).

The hearers who shared Bach’s Lutheran cultural horizon would have heard and understood Bach’s story of the Passion from the vantage point of Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They would have believed that the new life Christians celebrate at Easter was born on the cross. Bach’s St John Passion continues to effect profound personal responses in listeners, whether or not they share his Christian faith. For those who do not share the Christian faith, it tells the story of relationships severed and newly-forged, of the risks and gambles of power-play and politics, of torture and human suffering, of death and the longing for certainty when faced with the existential questions of life. For Christians, Bach’s St John Passion adds a further dimension to this prototypically human story: it gives shape to their story of salvation by taking listeners straight to the cross and placing them firmly at its foot to witness the death of Jesus, in the hope that by travelling on Jesus’ Marterstrasse, ‘road of torture’, by going with him to the cross, they, too, may come to share Christ’s life reborn; to share the Leben ohne Ende, ‘life without end’ in his presence.

Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in Music History at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His book Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary, Brill Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Leiden/New York: Brill, 2014) is for sale at a specially discounted rate for audience members and can be ordered online.