Tag Archives: Heaven

Bartholomew: Come, and behold God’s glory

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St Bartholomew, 23 August 2015:

AL SPC

St Bartholomew, whose memory we honour today, is the one apostle whose life-story you will not find recounted beyond his appearance in the lists of apostles in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 10.2-4; Mark 3.16-19; Luke 6.14-16), or his witnessing, in the Acts of the Apostles, of Christ’s ascension (Acts 1.13).

There are a number of reasons why this might be so. The most plausible is that ‘Bartholomew’ is not really a first name, but a patronymic—a surname. ‘Bar’ is a popular Hebrew or Aramaic prefix that, to this day in some modern Hebrew surnames, means ‘the son of’. So just as Jesus sometimes calls Peter by his patronymic ‘bar Jonah’, the Son of John (Matthew 16.17), and blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timothy, is only ever known by his patronymic (Mark 10.46-52), so Bartholomew means ‘son of Ptolomy’—not an unlikely father’s first name in a Galilee so cosmopolitan that it is, at times, disparagingly referred to as ‘Galilee of the Nations’—gentile Galilee (Matthew 4.15).

If Bartholomew is his surname, then what was his first name? Tradition has identified Bartholomew with Nathanael, the friend of the apostle Philip. Nathanael like Philip was Galilean from ‘Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter’, a city at the confluence of the upper Jordan and the Sea of Galilee (John 1.44). And since the three lists of the apostles always name Bartholomew in the same breath as Philip, this is reasonably plausible. Nathanael was not only a close friend of the first three disciples—Andrew, Peter, and Philip—and like them shared the same hometown on lake Galilee, but was also brought to Jesus by his friend Philip.

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Our Gospel reading, from the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, records the encounter between the Jesus, Philip and Nathanael: taken by Philip to see Jesus, Philip remarked that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town some 50 kilometres from Bethsaida as the crow flies. Nathanael flippantly countered, ‘can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46). If Jesus overheard the remark, he did not react in anger. Instead he ‘heaped coals’ on Nathanael’s head by pronouncing him ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit’ (John 1.47). Amazed by this unexpected characterisation, Nathanael asked, ‘where did you get to know me?’ Jesus’ response, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’ is sufficient evidence for Nathanael to confess Jesus as the Christ, and decide to follow him (John 1.48-9).

Again and again I am struck by the simplicity and warmth of this extraordinary call of those first apostles: how Jesus who, in the rapid succession of the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, had been proclaimed both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, turned – and noticed that there are people following him. How he asked them the simple question: ‘What do you seek?’—‘What is it that are you looking for? Come and tell me’ (John 1.38). How the group of friends didn’t tell Jesus what they really wanted, which was presumably to come and to follow him, but instead responded by asking him a question themselves. ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’, they asked him. How Jesus replied, ‘Come and see’. And how they, in turn, remained with him (John 1.38-9).

As usual, St John’s Gospel here is packed to the brim with symbolism. The use of the Greek ‘opsomai’—to see—is much more telling than any of our translations could render. In the short passage that recounts the call of the first apostles, Jesus or the disciples are described as ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’ four times. Each time, the word implies the scrutiny of a situation, or a revelation. Jesus’ words to the disciples to ‘come and see’, then, can mean as much ‘find out yourselves’, as ‘let your minds be changed’.

For what Jesus talks about to the four Galilean friends Andrew, Peter, Philip and Bartholomew is both very much in the present as it is in the future. Consequently, the ‘dwelling’ at which their ‘Rabbi’ is staying is at once the physical place at which Jesus is resting, as is the home to which Jesus truly belongs; the ‘house’ of his heavenly Father. Likewise, the words ‘come and see’ echo both the intent recognition of the four friends, such as his knowing Peter to be Cephas, ‘the Rock’, or his knowledge that Philip and Bartholomew would see even greater things, namely ‘heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ (John 1.51) – a prophecy fulfilled on mount Calvary, when Christ died abandoned by his disciples; and confirmed on the mount of Olives, when the four he first called to his service along many other disciples witnessed his Ascension.

For the gospel writer to ‘see aright’, then, implies to see beyond the physical: to behold heaven opened; to discern Christ in his glory. That is why in verses before today’s second lesson ‘come and see’ serves not only as an invitation to the four friends from Bethsaida, but also as the response Philip gives when his friend Bartholomew questions whether the Messiah can really be someone from such humble circumstances as Jesus, whether he could possibly come from Nazareth.

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In order to follow Christ’s call to come and see, means to be prepared to go out looking for those things which are not readily visible to the eye; those things that can prompt the response ‘we have found the Messiah’, or ‘we have seen heaven opened’. In our epistle reading from the Revelation of St John the Divine (Revelation 21.9b-14), we are given a glimpse of that reality which remains yet hidden from our sight: heaven stands open, and God’s holy city of peace, Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth; radiant like a Jewel. Looking out for the things that may be visible only to the eye of faith in the here and now, and become fully revealed at the end of all time, is one way of sharpening our spiritual gaze.

At the same time, to ‘come and see’ also invites us means to look intently, searchingly at our human relationships, examine the way we look at others. Just as Jesus does on first meeting Bartholomew and knowing him to be an Israelite without guile, or on meeting Peter and knowing him at once to be a man with severe flaws and shortcomings, as well as the rock that will carry his church. We also are invited to look at those we encounter and recognise in them the God-given strengths amidst our —all too human—flaws and shortcomings. We also are invited to look intently at the gifts God gives to us, and to discern the many differing qualities that lie at the heart of each relationship with God. Christians have called those qualities our ‘vocation’ or ‘life calling’. To accept Christ’s invitation to ‘come and see’ invites us to discern our own calling and seek the company of others to pursue that vocation.

Christ’s question ‘What do you seek?’ prompted Bartholomew to abandon any shallow preconceptions—‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’—and instead to know Jesus as the Messiah, ‘the Son of God and King of Israel’ (John 1.47; 49). It motivated him to leave behind his erstwhile profession and familiar surroundings to follow Jesus beyond the cross and resurrection. Bartholomew remained a follower of Jesus even beyond the moment when the prophecy that he would know ‘heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon Christ’. Having seen that prophecy fulfilled at the Ascension, he witnessed to what he had seen by making Christ’s Good News known to others. Accompanied by St Jude, Bartholomew brought Christ’s invitation ‘what do you seek?’ to the people of Armenia; was flayed alive, tradition tells, and died a martyr’s death, testifying in life and death to the Messiah from Nazareth.

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The question that underlies the story of the call of St Bartholomew and his three friends from Bethsaida in the opening chapter of St John’s Gospel—‘what do seek?’—is a question that is addressed to all of us. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Bartholomew, to allow our preconceptions to be radically challenged, and to have our eyes opened to a new reality—that of the heavens opened and the Son of God in glory. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Andrew, to confess Jesus as the Messiah, and to bring our sisters and brothers to him. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Peter, to be known by Jesus, and to be given a new name, and a new task: that of ensuring that God’s good news proclaimed throughout the world.

Christ’s words of invitation, ‘come and see’, are there for all people. The words that brought St Bartholomew to the man from Nazareth, and led him to confess him to be the ‘Christ and King of Israel’, still invite people to believe that all are called, and all have a calling to serve God. Our gifts may differ, our tasks may differ—but we share the same call, alongside Bartholomew, Philip, Andrew and Peter, and all those who have heard and heeded Christ’s invitation, and are now numbered among his friends, and among the Saints.

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It is my prayer for you and me that we may be given strength to respond to Christ’s call to follow him, to make him known through our own words of invitation, and so to enable many to accept Christ’s invitation to encounter him, behold him, and be changed through him: here in this Cathedral and city, here in our own generation.

Saving Souls: at Sea and for Heaven

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Sea Sunday, 12 July 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford:

Red Bay RNLI getting ready to receive replacement Atlantic 85 lifeboat

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Primate of Australia and the metropolitical Cathedral of the Province of Victoria. Thank you, Dean Martyn Percy and Sub-Dean Edmund Newey for your kind invitation to preach this morning: It is a joy to be back at Christ Church, the place of my ordination 14 years ago, and before then the place in which I sang regularly during the summer months as part of your voluntary choir – the Cathedral singers.

This morning’s reading speak of the awe-inspiring nature of the sea, and assure us that the God who, at the beginning of time, made the sea and the dry land is master of the oceans, seas and rivers of our world. They tell us that, at the end of all time, God will gather in his people from all directions of the compass, ‘gather them out of the lands, from the east, the west, the north and the south’ (Psalm 107.3). They remind us that, even though God brings in entire nations and people, he knows each one of us individually and personally, ‘calls us by name’, and makes us his own (Isaiah 43.1). And, in the light of that knowledge, they invite us to place our own trust in the One who commands ‘even the wind and sea’, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to find our haven in the vision of the kingdom of heaven to which he calls those who know him (Mark 4.41).

I encountered the majesty and treachery of the ocean during my formative years on the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. For some two years I served as a helmsman of an Atlantic-class Inshore Life-Boat patrolling a thirty-mile stretch of the coast of South Wales. It was at once exhilarating and awe-inspiring to cut through the gale-swept waves at a speed of more than 25 knots, as our crew responded to the maritime emergency call ‘Save Our Souls’. Those in peril on the seas ranged from small sailing vessels to large commercial craft, included children caught in the tidal change on their rubber dinghies and beachgoers caught out at the bottom of steep cliffs by the high tide. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to ensure the physical safety of those threatened by the elements, and it gave me a first hand insight into the challenges and dangers faced by those serving on the seas on a daily basis.

During my time as part of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution, I learnt as much about saving souls as I have learnt since in my ministry as a parish priest and Dean; and learnt about giving thanks for missions accomplished successfully: bedraggled children returned to their anxious parents, shivering day-trippers restored to safety. At the same time I had my first encounters with violent deaths, as the sea claimed and did not return those we set out to rescue: learnt about the pain and the cost of souls lost at sea. It was at times like these, I now know with the benefit of hindsight, that I began begun to grapple with the challenge posed by the Christian assurance of resurrection: how could it be that there was a life for those who had died? When faced with those we brought back drowned, when faced with an unsuccessful rescue, I began to ponder the hope for souls lost at sea, and all other departed.

The question of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for all souls—not only those lost at sea—is addressed by our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.1-7). The prophet assures those who fear their own future and, as part of that future, their own future mortality, that God has ‘redeemed them’ (43.2). God has responded to his people’s call, far away from safety, in a foreign land of exile and oppression, and he promises them a future: ‘I have formed you; I have redeemed you’, God tells through the prophet (43.1). God cares so much for the people who call on him in their distress, that he knows each individual plight, each individual challenge, we read: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43.1).

And God promises them safe passage to the safe haven he promises them: the place of safety and protection, where God will be with his people, where ‘everyone who is called by God’s name, whom God created for his glory, whom he formed and made’ will dwell forevermore: the eternal haven of heaven (43.7). God not only promises a place of safety and refuge at the end of our journeys through life: he also promises safe passage to that haven, the prophet Isaiah foretells. Neither the natural environment nor people and nations hostile to God’s people shall, ultimately, be a threat to those whom God calls his own: ‘when you pass through the waters I shall be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’, we heard (Isaiah 43.2).

Life’s journey may lead through turbulent waters, Isaiah prophecies, but God will walk with his people: ‘do not fear, I am with you’, God speaks to his own (43.1). Even should God’s people face life in subjection to a harsh taskmaster and overlord—as during their exile in Babylon, the context into which Isaiah’s words were spoken—God has ultimately won the liberty of his people, has ransomed them and set them free: ‘I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life’ (43.3). The physical freedom and life of his people has been won by the ransom of ancient superpowers, our reading knows: ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you’ (43.3). The everlasting freedom and life of his people has been won by another ransom: the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).

Giving entire nations as a ransom so that one people—gathered from all nations—may live in freedom is a steep price to pay. Giving the life of God himself as a ransom so that all people may live forever is an even more precious price to pay. Our second reading, from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, introduces us to the One who would be given as God’s ransom to ensure that death will no longer imperil God’s people (Mark 4.35-41). We meet the disciples and Jesus towards the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ followers do not yet know his true identity as Son of God: at this stage in the story they only know him as a healer and an inspiring teacher. As they cross the Sea of Galilee, a ‘great gale arose’ (4.37).

The disciples knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands: most of them had run their own fishing business, and had navigated its waters on an almost daily basis. Between them, they had had many years of sailing experience, had steered safely through many a sudden gale on the Sea that provided their livelihood. Yet this storm is beyond even their extensive experience: they struggle for control of their sailing vessel: the waves break into their ship, and swamp the hull. Their teacher remains oblivious to his disciples’ danger, ‘asleep in the stern’ as the gale roars and the waves threaten to sink the ship (4.38).

At this point, the disciples acknowledge their failure to control the vessel and send out one of the first recorded ‘SOS’ calls in naval history: Save our souls—‘we are perishing’, they cry out waking their teacher, who rebukes the wind and commands the Sea: ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4.39), Jesus calls on the elements, and the elements obey and are still. Where only moments ago the chaos of gale and flood threatened the lives of those aboard the fishing vessel, now there is a dead calm, as the water and the wind are at peace. This sudden peace is clearly not human work—the disciples drew on all their skill as seafarers to navigate through the gale, and failed—but God’s gift.

And for the disciples it is indeed the ‘peace of God, which is beyond all understanding’: ‘they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”,’ our reading questions (4.41). Where human efforts and skill fail, it is by God’s command and through God’s gift of peace that the waves are stilled and the crew is safely brought home to their haven. ‘Who then is this?’, Jesus’ followers ponder, and fail to draw the conclusion that the One who commands the elements to share in God’s peace is also the very One who called them to being at the time of creation, the One who by ‘his word called the stormy sea, which lifts its waves in power’ (Psalm 107.25).

At the end of the story of Jesus and his disciples, his friends know him to be not only the teacher who saved them from drowning at sea, but as the ‘one Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2.5-6). They had seen him as he gave his life on a cross, and saw him again risen from the dead, saw him as a pledge of the life that is forever, for all. They knew him to be the One whom not only the winds and the sea obey, but whom death and life obey. They know him to be the source of their peace now, and the hope of their eternal rest. They know him to be the One who heard their SOS one gust swept night, and has saved their souls forever; know that the One who brought them to the safe haven when they were perishing as their vessel was swamped will also bring them safely to their eternal haven. And they know the cost of that rescue operation, that salvation: the life of the Son of God as a ransom for many, which opened the haven of salvation—heaven itself—to all people who seek God’s friendship.

It was at sea that I first learnt about responding to the mayday signal ‘SOS’. Indeed it was at sea that I first successfully helped to save souls. It was also at sea that I first asked questions about our unsuccessful missions, pondered the reality of pain and loss, brokenness and death. Those questions for me might have remained perpetual questions, had I not been invited by a group of Christians at this university to reflect with them on the central question that Jesus’ disciples asked themselves in today’s second lesson: ‘who then is this Man?’ (Mark 4.41). It was some five years after my service in the Royal National Life-Boat Institution that I was confirmed in my Oxford College Chapel, and confessed my adult faith in Jesus Christ: that I acknowledged that Christ was the One who, ultimately, has saved all souls—even those we did not manage to bring back to shore alive.

As we give thanks for the seafarers who daily face the risks of the great oceans that surround our Island nation, I invite you to ponder the mystery at the heart of this morning’s readings: the mystery that God saves souls; that God calls each one of us by name, and redeems his own; that God has prepared for all who seek him a haven that is forever—the place where ‘all storms will cease, all waves will be still; all will be at rest’ (Psalm 107.29-30). And as we give thanks for the gift of God’s peace, let us also acknowledge the cost of that peace: wrought at the cost of the One who gave his life as a ransom for many; wrought at the cost of the many lives who, following in his service, have given their own lives so that we might enjoy the freedom and peace we know; wrought in countless conflicts through the centuries, just as it has been, and is being wrought in countless acts of selfless giving, kindness and sacrifice each day.

And now ‘may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant us all peace, love and faith. May his grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus, in life imperishable. Amen’. (Ephesians 6.25).

Photography: Royal National Life Boat Institution UK. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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 

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).

Joining the song of heaven: of songs of covenant, justice and redemption

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St James’ Old Cathedral on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2014, marking the Feast of St James, Apostle, and the 175th anniversary of the Foundation of the Church:

Trumpeting Angel

This morning’s readings (2 Chronicles 5.11-14, Revelation 15.1-8Luke 9.28b-36) record three extraordinary moments in the life of the people of God that tell us about the importance of music, and of silence, in experiencing and responding to the presence of God. They take us back to the moments at which God manifested himself in worship, in glory and in judgment.

They encourage us to learn to sing new songs ourselves in worship of our God: both songs of liberation—the songs that celebrate our being set free from the slavery of sin and death, the songs that celebrate our relationship with God, and songs of judgment—the songs that give voice to our desire for God’s vision for this world to be fulfilled, and to become a place of justice and peace that is shaped by God’s will ‘in earth as it is in heaven’.

Our first reading from the second book of the Chronicles (2 Chronicles 5.11-14) celebrates the culmination of a long journey of faith for God’s people, a journey that began in exile and slavery in Egypt, was granted symbols of the assurance of God’s presence at Sinai, in the form of the tablets of the covenant of Moses contained in the ark of the covenant and tent of meeting, and ended in the dedication of a permanent place to house these signs of faith: the building of Solomon’s Temple. We join God’s people at the moment at which they set apart the holy place that was being built for more than a generation. Not only the Temple itself had taken a generation to shape in stone, cedar, precious stones and gold. The setting apart and formation of a generation of Temple priests and Temple musicians, from among the families of the tribes of Levi and Aaron, also had commenced a generation ago, during the reign of King David.

And it is at the moment of the dedication of the Temple—the permanent physical symbol of God’s presence in the heart of the people of Israel—that the Temple musicians sing a new song to God’s glory. They sing a song of God’s glory that celebrates their long journey of faith: it is a song in praise of their creator, their liberator-God who now deigns to dwell in a house made of human hands. And so the 120 Temple priests, and the singers from three Levitical families, lead the people of God in song. They sing a song that celebrates God’s constancy, lead the people in singing of the Hallel (הלל‎)—words that we now know as Psalm 118, ‘For God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever’, they sing. And as they sing their song of God’s constancy and presence in the house set apart for the symbols of their journey—the tablets and the ark of their covenant—‘the House of the Lord was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud’. They are prevented from moving, or entering the cloud. That cloud, our first reading tells us, was the ‘glory of the Lord filling the house of God’ (2 Chronicles 5.14).

Through the music-making of the Temple musicians, God’s presence was made manifest. Extraordinarily, it was their new song—the song of God’s liberation and constancy—that made visible all that the Temple stood for; made visible the presence of God among his people. God’s presence was made manifest in the form of a thick cloud that covered the entirety of the sacred space—‘the glory of the Lord filled the house of God’—and his ministers were blinded by God’s presence, unable ‘to stand to minister because of the cloud’ (2 Chronicles 5.14). Their song of the steadfastness of God’s love for his people made visible the grace-filled presence of God, as the Temple musicians led God’s people in singing their new song. And from that moment onwards, the singing of the Hallel Psalm has become part of the celebration of the liberation of the people of God at Passover, as God’s people recall the constancy of God’s love and his liberating power—even though the Temple building that first revealed the physical presence of God’s grace in song had long been destroyed.

Our Gospel reading, from Luke’s gospel (Luke 9.28b-36), takes us far away from the assembled people of God to a place of isolation. Jesus takes with him his closest followers—Peter, John and James (for whom your church is named)—away from the crowds that had followed him on his journey through Galilee. He takes them to a mountain-top to pray. And while they were praying, the disciples have a spiritual experience that is as extraordinary as the experience of the Temple musicians at the moment God’s House was set apart for service: their teacher and master becomes transfigured before them; ‘the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white’ (Luke 9.29). And standing by his side, talking with him, were the champions of God’s people—Moses who had led his people through the wilderness to the Land of Promise, and Elijah who had led his people through times of great godlessness and idolatry.

Two long-departed heroes of faith flanked Jesus to talk with him about his own departure Jesus ‘was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.31). They spoke about Jesus’ liberation of God’s people. Jesus’ ‘departure in Jerusalem’ is, of course, a reference to two departures: his departure from life at his ignominious ascent to the cross to die there for the sins of the people; and his departure in glory from this world in his resurrection body at his ascent to the Father. In the increasing darkness of the fading light Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus. Speak of the darkness of the cross and the glory of resurrection. Speak of the life of heaven they already have shared, and will once more share. And the disciples beheld ‘his glory and the two men standing with him’, saw Jesus as he truly was: the glorified Son of Man, and his face reflecting the light of eternity (Luke 9.30). And as Moses and Elijah depart from Jesus’ presence, they sense another presence, might perceive the strains of another song, a song of suffering and glory: the song of Christ’s departure to the cross and to the Father, the song of death and resurrection.

In his sleep-filled thoughts, Peter still thinks about how to capture this awe-inspiring moment by a marker, when a cloud descends on him and the other two disciples. And, unlike the manifestation of God’s glory at the dedication of the Temple, when the cloud prevented the movement of God’s servants, here, on the mountaintop, the cloud opens up to envelope them. And the disciples ‘were terrified as they entered the cloud’, we hear in our gospel reading (Luke 9.34). They were terrified indeed, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31). Not only are the disciples entirely surrounded by God’s presence. They hear God speak to them—for the voice they hear is for their benefit alone—and they hear God confirm that the Son of Man they saw bathed in the light of eternity is, in fact, the Son of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen’, God speaks to them and charges them, ‘listen to him’ (Luke 9.35). And when the heavenly voice had spoken, there was no more voice, no song. Only silence on the isolated mountaintop, and Jesus alone with his disciples. ‘And they kept silent’, our gospel reading concludes. For sometimes the music of our new song may be the stillness of silence (Luke 9.36).

Where in our first lesson and gospel reading we heard about God’s servants experiencing the presence of God in an extraordinary way on earth—through music, voice and silence—the final song our lessons speak of is a song that is sung in the physical presence of God (Revelation 15.1-8). It is a song of praise and justice, of sovereignty and judgment. It is sung in an awe-filled place: a sea that is both still as glass yet at the same time awash with living flames of fire. At its shore stand the servants of God who, in this world have been sustained in their journey and battle of faith by the songs of God’s liberation and faithfulness: the songs of Christ’s death and resurrection, the songs of longing for God’s physical nearness.

They sing a new song, combining the song of covenant—the song of Moses—and the song of sovereignty—the song of the Lamb. A song of God’s presence—for he is among them to hear their song in person at the entrance to the tent of witness—and a song of judgment—for he is about to bring judgment to the nations.

With harps given them by God, they sing of God’s glory, his justice and constancy: ‘Great and amazing are your deeds … just and true are your ways’, their song confesses (Revelation 15.3). You are ‘Lord God Almighty’, you are ‘King of the nations’, ‘you alone are holy’ they sing in God’s presence (again, in the form of a cloud). And, in their song, proclaim the endpoint of the journey of all faith: ‘your righteous acts have been revealed, and all nations will come and worship you’ (Revelation 15.3-4). All nations will be judged, and all nations given voice to worship God, to join the new song of covenant and sovereignty at the shores of the sea of glass and fire; to sing the song of love, glory and adoration at the approach to the heavenly temple. And, as they—in this vision of the endtimes—themselves foreshadow the very end of all things, they behold both the destruction of all evil—‘seven angels with seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God’ about to be poured out on the universe (Revelation 15.1)—and the completion of all justice—the ‘temple in heaven, and the tabernacle of the covenant of the law open’, for from now on God will do away with evil, and open up his sanctuary to those who have responded to his covenant in love (Revelation 15.5).

Three dramatic and extraordinary visions are set before us: the vision of the glory of God filling the earthly sanctuary as the Temple musicians’ song resounded; the vision of the disciples of Jesus beholding the light of eternity and the brightness of resurrection in the silent music of the mountaintop; the song of the redeemed about the behold the judgment of the universe and the coming among them of their sovereign king, their ‘Lord God Almighty’, at the sea of glass and fire. They tell us that it is in silence and in song that we can give voice to our experience of the presence among us of the living God.

And they invite us to enter ourselves into the covenant relationship with God that the singers of new songs of old—both those chosen for the service of God and who have come to know his nearness through their art, and those who have come to know God’s presence in the music of silence—have come to share. The covenant that promises us the knowledge of God’s presence on our own journeys of faith on earth; the covenant that is for us an invitation to be numbered among those who, at the end of all time, will come to behold the gates of God’s tabernacle in heaven, and Jesus Christ opening his kingdom to us.

Today we are invited to join in the new songs of faith ourselves: we are called to join in singing the songs of covenant, and commitment; the songs of calling and service, the songs of love and adoration. We are invited to join our voices with countless who have gone before, in the harmony of earthly and heavenly songs. We are invited to join their song confident that our music-making can resound with theirs in our worship on earth. We are invited to learn new songs to add to those of many generations in adoration of the God who is from everlasting. And, as we sing the song of earth and heaven, we do so in the firm and certain hope that one day, our own voices will resound in God’s dwelling place in heaven.

And now, ‘may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,  so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 15.5-6). Amen.

© Andreas Loewe, 2014

Heaven on earth: living in the places in-between

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Choral Evensong at Magdalene College Cambridge, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 18 May 2014:

IMG_1062

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the metropolitical Cathedral for the province of Victoria in Australia. It is a great pleasure to be back in Cambridge, and to reflect with you on the promise of tonight’s prophetic readings: the promise that we are called to be people who inhabit the in-between places between heaven and earth, and that, in the strength of that hope, we are invited to become people who share with God in the work of becoming a world where ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21.4).

Tonight’s readings both speak words of encouragement and hope to God’s people: our first lesson from the prophecy of Zechariah, speaks words of renewal and hope to the people of God exiled in Babylon where they were unsettled, far removed from their spiritual roots, with little hope of return and recovery. Our second lesson, from the Revelation of St John the Divine, speaks into a similarly unsettled context, but some six-hundred years later. Both communities—the Judean exiles settled at the banks of the meandering rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the early Christian communities nestled on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean—shared a sense of uncertainty and volatility: whether in exile, or as a minority faith in an established Roman colony in Asia Minor. And our two prophets both speak words of incredible hope and radical change to their communities. They forsee nothing less than the coming among them of the living God: ‘I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy’, God declares to the Judean exiles through the word of Zechariah: ’my house shall be rebuilt in it’. (Zechariah 1.16). ‘The home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them’, John speaks to the Churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 21.3). And that home for God, both our lessons assure us, is the Holy City Jerusalem.

In our first prophecy from the book Zechariah, the coming of God among his people is centred on the physical restoration of Jerusalem: God himself will rebuild his city. And in preparation for this return, God himself will measure the city and judge its people (Zechariah 1.16). God’s survey of the physical topology of Jerusalem goes hand in hand with his assessment of its people and their values. His new Jerusalem requires a new way of life altogether: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts’, Zechariah prophecies, ‘render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart’ (Zechariah 7.10). God reaches out to those in exile in Babylon and those living in the ruins of Jerusalem who ‘have been hearing the words from the mouth of the prophets’, in the knowledge that those who believe God’s promises will be the people who enable their fellows to re-enter Jerusalem and there to dwell with their God ‘in faithfulness and in righteousness’ (Zechariah 8.8-9). They will rebuild the spiritual life of God’s people in the same way in which God’s surveyors will measure out Jerusalem’s Temple sanctuary to be rebuilt by human architects (Zechariah 2.1-3).

Tonight’s first lesson, then, is not only a vision of what God’s new City and Temple will look like, but what it will be: graced by a great, golden menorah that either pours golden oil or pure gold—the Hebrew is ambiguous—and which clearly signifies God’s presence. The Temple is God’s home on earth: flanked by two olive trees, each symbolising a descendant of the House of David—Joshua, the high priest and Zerubbabel, the governor—it will be a place where spiritual and temporal rulers will act in unison to make Jerusalem a place where people ‘love truth and peace’ (Zechariah 8.10-13).

Because Joshua and Zerubbabel act unitedly and decisively they are the ‘two anointed ones’—or in Hebrew, Messiahs—‘who stand by the Lord of the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4.14). They are God’s ‘proto-Messiahs’ who will fulfil his vision until the day when God himself will reveal himself as Messiah, and give his own life for his own people.

God’s coming to dwell among his people is begun when God sends his two anointed ones to restore the sanctuary of God’s people: sends Joshua and Zerubbabel to lay the Temple’s foundation and bring out the chief corner stone in order to commence God’s work of spiritual renewal (Zechariah 4.8). God’s coming to dwell among his people is completed when God himself accomplishes the work of grace, when God witnesses, as Zechariah foretells towards the end of his prophecy, the death of the One ‘whom they have pierced’ (Zechariah 12.10). The Christ who, by ‘letting himself be pierced’, will ‘open a fountain [of grace] for … the inhabitants of Jerusalem’, as Zechariah promises (Zechariah 13.1). The Christ who, by allowing his own body to be broken on a cross, will ‘cleanse them from sin and uncleanness’ and thus complete the work of redemption (13.1). That work is completed ‘not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit’: is completed when the final high priest from the line of David, the final and greatest ruler, God’s own anointed Son, gives up his own Spirit for God’s people (Zechariah 4.6). And it is at that moment that heaven comes close to earth, is from that moment onward that God may indeed be found in Jerusalem and makes his home there (Zechariah 8.22).

SPC reredos

The cornerstone of grace which brings God close to his people, that Zechariah spoke of, for Christians surely is the bedrock of Calvary. For the threshold to God’s home on earth is found at the foot of the cross. And that is why, throughout the ages, poets and painters, church musicians and sculptors, have given expression to this hope through their artistic gifts. At the heart of the High Altar sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne their confidence is reflected in a spectacular, golden, Venetian mosaic of Christ’s crucifixion. There Christ is depicted on the cross, not in darkness or isolation, but surrounded by sun and moon and stars on a vibrant dark blue canopy that forms, as it were, a second lapis lazuli nimbus within the larger silver and gold nimbus that already envelopes the arms of the cross. At his feet the disciples and the believing centurion, both faithful Jews and one time sceptical gentiles, gaze up in worship at the moment when God came to make his home with his people: the moment when God’s Anointed One died on the cross; the time when we, people who have come to faith through contemplating this event, were given a place on the approach to the City of the living God.

The altarpiece in Melbourne’s Cathedral does not place us in the historical city of Jerusalem—Zechariah’s ruined city where people longed for their temple to be rebuilt at the time when Joshua and Zerubbabel laid its foundation stone. Nor does it place us outside the city walls of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death, when those who lived there continued to long for liberty from Roman oppression (and would continue to yearn for freedom of faith long after Christ died). Rather, the reredos in St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne places us at the place where the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem intersect. It places us at an envisaged place, where we stand the foot of the cross so that we may approach the heavenly Jerusalem, so that we may come close to the place where all have been set free to worship God. In our second lesson, from the Revelation to St John the Divine, that envisaged heavenly place is described as the haven of our redeemed humanity: it is the place where all is made new by the One who has accomplished all when he gave up his Spirit on the cross. For the Divine John that place is ‘the home of God among mortals … where death will be no more’ (Revelation 21.5).

As Christians, we are called to live in the hope of what is yet to come, while also inhabiting the messy realities of our here and now. As Christians we are called to inhabit that envisaged threshold space between the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem. St John’s ‘first things’ that used to enthral people may have passed away, but we can still feel the effects of those ‘first things’ today.

While you and I may never have to face exile for our faith like Joshua’s and Zerubbabel’s contemporaries, many of us will know—first hand or through media reports—people who have had to leave behind their homelands and families in order to enjoy the freedoms we tend to take for granted—I only have to think of the significant number of young Iranian Christians who worship with us at St Paul’s Cathedral. The visions of the new Jerusalems, whether Zechariah’s or John’s; the vision of the city of God where all tears will be wiped off our eyes, and death shall be no more, is not absolution from accepting the many injustices we observe in today’s society. Rather it is encouragement to us to occupy the threshold space between the here and now and the hereafter, encouragement through our action to address some of the wrongs of our own times. That is why at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne we have sent a strong message the government of Australia to protest against Australia’s inhumane and dehumanising asylum seeker policies by displaying an eight-metre-high banner urging the people of our city to ‘fully welcome refugees’. And I am certain that the same reason motivated your Master [Rowan Williams] to speak out so eloquently and prophetically about fighting poverty in this prosperous nation, promoting the work of our volunteer foodbanks.

Today’s lessons of a heavenly place redeemed by God so that his people may live life to the full, are encouragement to us to remember what has already been accomplished. Our lessons are assurance that to those who trust in the work of God, the world has already been set free. At the same time, our lessons challenge us to address the many injustices of our present age. They urge us to take action against the things that still make people ‘mourn and cry, hurt and die’ (Revelation 21.4). As Christians we are called to inhabit a difficult in-between place: not quite in the city of the living God where God will wipe away all tears; still surrounded by the things that still cause those tears; yet already fundamentally delivered from the things that separate us from God.

And because we live on the ‘not-yet-but-already-there’ threshold to the City of God, I give thanks for the prophets’ assurance that the home of God among mortals is among us even though we may often see and experience difficulty and hardship in the communities in which we live and study, worship and minister. I give thanks that, through in our ‘showing kindness and mercy to one another’, we already are, and can become, God’s fellow workers in the cause of making the good news of God’s City known to others (Zechariah 7.10). As we seek to show forth the way to God’s Heavenly City through the ministry of our Cathedrals, Collegiate chapels and parish churches—whether here in Cambridge, in Melbourne, or elsewhere—it is my prayer for you and for me, that God would continually equip us for his work of living and ministering in the ‘in-between places’: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be the messengers and inhabitants of his City in our own generation (Ephesians 4.12).

‘And now him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Revelation 1.5-6).