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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:

AL SPC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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