Tag Archives: Faith

‘Their Pattern and their King’: Together Singing God’s Praises

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the 2015 Keble Mass, at St Martin’s Hawksburn, on 20 July 2015:

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John Keble, whose memory we honour at this annual Eucharist, is probably one of the most prolific hymnodists of the nineteenth century. In his The Christian Year: thoughts in verse for the Sundays and holydays throughout the year, the Oxford Tractarian succeeded in providing a hymn for each day of the Church’s calendar, many of which have become firm favourites among Anglican congregations. Most of you will have a favourite Keble hymn, though you may not necessarily think of it as a ‘Keble’ hymn. Your favourite might be an eventide or morning hymn, like Keble’s translation of the traditional Greek evening hymn, Hail, gladdening light, or his joyful, New ev’ry morning is the love, his Lord in thy name, thy servants plead, his majestic hymn in celebration of the fourth evangelist, Word supreme before creation, or his contemplative Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear.

Many of Keble’s hymns are characterised by their vivid imagery and fine poetry, as befits a theologian who also held the position of Professor of Poetry—then as now very much a working poet’s post—at the University of Oxford. In hymns such as Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear, each verse is a poem in itself:

Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if thou be near;
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes.

The presence of Christ in the human soul is likened to the sunrise of Easter morn: the risen Son becomes the sunrise of the human soul that can illumine even the darkest night. Here, in a single stanza, the great mystery of salvation is translated from the events of Easter that changed the course of human relationships with God forever, and is brought closer to the experience of those who would hymn the One who shines in our hearts: bright Easter light chases away the remaining shadows, ‘it is not night if thou be near’. Death is overcome by life, and makes our own deaths journeys home to God:

till in the ocean of thy love
we lose ourselves in heaven above.

                                                                   Sun of my soul

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Keble’s hyms are both pastoral, and theological. They seek to strengthen us, the singers, in our own understanding of the faith, and in our devotion to God—the subject of all of Keble’s hymns. In his Pentecost hymn, When God of old came down from heaven, he creates bridges in poetry between the eternal, and the universal and the personal and individual. God who is ‘of old’ sends his Spirit to ‘fill the Church of God’, and seeks to fill each human heart with his goodness and love: ‘to turn to God and be saved, all the end of the earth’, as our first lesson puts it (Isaiah 45.22). Keble ends his Pentecost hymn with this passionate appeal:

Come Lord, come Wisdom, Love and Power,
open our ears to hear;
let us not miss the accepted hour;
save, Lord, by love or fear.

                                    When God of old came down from heaven

Or, in his hymn for St John’s-tide, when he sets forth in words of poetry the mystery of the Word-made-flesh at the heart of our Gospel reading (John 1.1-14):

Word supreme, before creation
born of God eternally,
who didst will for our salvation
to be born on earth, and die. …

                                        Word supreme, before creation

The eternal God takes flesh, Keble tells in his hymn, so that at the end of all time, we humans might partake in God’s presence forever; be assured of God’s judgement of love. With God, the God-with-us in Christ, there is no more need for Christ’s followers to fear the day of reckoning, Keble writes. Indeed, God’s wrath has been turned to love, for those who trust his promise, Keble has us sing:

Lo! heaven’s doors lift up, revealing
how thy judgments earthward move;
scrolls unfolded, trumpets pealing,
wine-cups from the wrath above,
yet o’er all a soft voice stealing
‘Little children, trust and love!’

                                Word supreme, before creation

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Portrait_of_John_Keble_(cropped)

Keble’s hymns have profoundly influenced Anglican worship. True, some of his many hymns have fallen out of use, mainly because of their length: the four-verse hymn that lent its title to this sermon, Blest are the pure in heart, for instance, started off as a seventeen-verse hymn for St Matthew’s Day—we just don’t sing hymns that long any more. Other of Keble’s hymns have been significantly re-edited for modern use: many of the translations of hymns from the ancient church, such as his ‘Faithful Cross! Above all other’, and his ‘Sing my tongue’, for example, form the textual basis for later hymns of the same titles compiled by J.M. Neale and the editors of the English Hymnal and, as such, have shaped much of our Holy Week observance, or our ritual understanding of the Eucharist.

The enduring popularity of Keble’s hymns derives from his skill to bridge the world of theological thought—of often intricate abstract concepts such as the Incarnation or the real presence in the Eucharist—with the world of human experience. In order to achieve this, Keble draws on his own theological depth, and his profound understanding as someone redeemed, loved, and claimed by Christ. The overarching purpose of Keble’s hymnody is this: that Christ is ‘our pattern and our King’, and that, through Word and Sacrament

still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart
And for his cradle and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.

All of these strands—the evangelistic, the theological, the personal and devotional—Keble skilfully renders into poetry and, some might say, ‘Anglicanism’: Keble’s rendering of ageless theological truth in a very Anglican garb gave shape to modern Catholic Anglican theology. His output and his insight made him a natural choice for the editors of the English Hymnal; indeed, while Keble is outshone by his earlier contemporary Charles Wesley, and his fellow Tractarian J.M. Neale, in the New English Hymnal, he still does maintain a very strong popular presence in our hymnals.

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In tonight’s epistle reading (Romans 10.10-15) St Paul asks the questions that motivated Keble and his fellow Tractarians, and the many evangelists, apostles, priests and faithful, before him in their mission. How may those who are still far off in the life of faith ‘call on one in whom they have not believed?’ How are those outside, or at the margins of the church, ‘to believe in one of whom they have never heard?’ Indeed, ‘how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ?’ (Romans 10.14). Keble, who sought to bring the truth of the gospel close to us by the words of his hymns and tracts, is to be counted among the bearers of Good News. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’—Paul concludes today’s epistle, citing Isaiah (Romans 10.15, Isaiah 52.7). How beautiful are those who bring Good News: and you will agree that Keble’s hymns cause us to sing of the Good News of our salvation most beautifully.

How can we come to know Christ, and how can we come to a closer relationship with him, Paul asks in our epistle, and provides himself the answer: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10.10). Earlier in our Chapter, Paul spoke of how his heart’s desire is for all to be saved, to be called to come close to Christ. And in the light of this fervent desire, he considers the role of those who proclaim Good News, who bring the Word of God close to us, so that all can proclaim: ‘the Word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts’ (Romans 10.8).

Keble shares this desire to expound the gospel, in his own day, and still does so today through his hymns (though he also wrote countless poems—sonnets, hymns and ballads—some on key aspects of the faith, such as the role of Scripture, others on heroes of Anglicanism such as Ridley, Cranmer and Hooker, others on the danger of dissenters and the necessity for church unity, the ‘love of mammon’ he perceived in the United States, the dwindling of congregations, or the desire to keep the service short: ‘but faith is cold, and wilful men are strong,/ And the blithe world, with bells and harness proud,/ Rides tinkling by, so musical and loud,/ It drowns the Eternal Word, the Angelic Song;/ And one by one the weary, listless throng,/ Steals out of church, and leaves the choir unseen/ of winged guards to weep, where prayer had been,/ That souls immortal find that hour too long’, Length of the Prayers).

It was St Augustine who famously asserted that ‘those who sing, pray twice’. Keble’s skill with pen and words enabled him to add instruction in the Christian faith to St Augustine’s sung prayers. ‘How can they believe in one of whom they have never heard?’, Paul asked (Romans 10.14). Throughout his life Keble sought to bring the faith he had inherited to the people around him. His motivation to do so was to bring the faith of the universal church to the English-speaking people where they were, in words and music they understood. Throughout his life Keble yearned for the hearts of his fellows, and his own heart, to become ‘a place where angels sing!/ … And enter in and dwell,/ And teach that heart to swell/ With heavenly melody, their own untired employ’ (In Choirs and Places where they Sing, here followeth the Anthem).

Like our gospel writer, Keble is a poet of the Word made Flesh. And like our gospel writer Keble puts the coming of the Word of God in human flesh at the centre of his hymnody. But equally important to him is a second central strand of John’s gospel: that God’s Word can come so close to us that it can truly be said to dwell in us, that it can sustain us, in body and soul. And for Keble, as for John, this personal in-dwelling is found in the bread of the Eucharist. Keble expounds the true presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist, when he invites us to sing with him:

Oh, come to our Communion Feast:
There present, in the heart
As in the hands, th’ eternal Priest
Will His true self impart.

       Gunpowder Treason

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‘The word of God is near you’, Paul knew, if it is brought to us by evangelists who make known the Good News. The word is so near that it is on our lips and in our hearts, Paul explained. The Word of God dwelt among us not only as the historic person in the incarnate Christ, who walked this earth; but that Word dwells with us in us today, comes close to each one of us, as we come to receive him on our lips in the sacrament we are gathered to receive, and in order to render our hearts to him.

By right, the final words ought to belong to the poet and priest we celebrate today:

Thou didst come thy fire to kindle;
Fain would we thy torches prove,
Far and wide thy beacons lighting
With the undying spark of love.
Only feed our flame, we pray thee,
with thy breathings from above.

    Hymn for Easter-tide

It is my prayer for you and me, that we may come to know Christ in our hearts, by receiving him in the gifts of bread and wine he bestowed on his Church. It is my prayer that, filled with his presence we, too, might come to share in the work of making him known with all the skills and gifts God has given us, translating again the faith of old to a new generation longing, like Paul’s and Keble’s contemporaries, for someone – for you and for me – to proclaim to them Good News.

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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