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Sleepers wake: the Advent call to rise from the darkness and be lights in our world

A reflection given by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015, as part of a service of lessons and carols for Advent:

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[Click for Audio on Soundcloud]

One of the first classical concerts I ever took part in, as a boy treble attending a German Lutheran High School named for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was a liturgical performance of Bach’s famous Advent Cantata, ‘Sleepers wake’ – ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’. We were all dressed in our black and white concert gear, assembled on the choir galleries of the large impressive city centre church, the orchestra at our feet, with the conductor poised to break the silence of the audience with Bach’s wonderful music.

As the violins soared, the trebles called out the solemn cry of the watchman on the city wall of Jerusalem, ‘Sleepers, wake, the bridegroom comes; wake up, all you who sleep in the city of Jerusalem’, we sang. It was an electrifying moment when the director gave us trebles our entry: ‘Wachet auf’, we called in Bach’s unforgettable setting of the timeless words. And the basses, tenors and altos took up our theme, calling the audience to be alert, awake; to listen to the Good News that the long awaited bridegroom had finally arrived.

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The text on which Bach’s famous cantata is based is one of the last parables (or teaching stories) Jesus tells his friends, the disciples (Matthew 25.1-13): Jesus tells of those who kept alert, awake, through the night, who had kept the light going in the middle of darkness, and were able to see when the bridegroom arrived. As they joyfully entered the brightly-lit wedding hall for a midnight feast, those who had let their lights go out remained outside, were left behind in the darkness, Jesus told his friends. And encouraged them, ‘be alert, therefore, for you do not know the time or the hour’ (Matthew 25.12).

We do not know the time or the hour when Jesus Christ will return, joyfully like a bridegroom, to take us out of the many darknesses of our nights into his brightly-lit chambers for a feast of light. For each of us those darknesses may be different, may pose different challenges, represent different fears. For some, those nights of waiting are spent in fear or nightmares – the fear of persecution for their faith or displacement, the nightmare of terror or war; the fear of ill-health or age, the nightmare of depression and anxiety; the fear of redundancy or injury; the nightmare of unemployment, or of no longer being able of to make ends meet. Each of our nights, each of our Advents; looks and feels different.

But in each of these seasons of waiting through the hours of our nights and darknesses, we are encouraged to keep a light burning. Jesus’ story tells us to keep a light burning. A light that will both cast a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and that will keep our eyes alert, wakeful, ready to see the light-filled procession when the bridegroom comes. Jesus’ story tells us to keep our lamps trimmed; drawing on the resources of our faith – our prayers, our intent to love the Lord our God, and our neighbours as ourselves – in order to keep those lights burning through the night.

And Jesus’ story invites us to come together in our waiting; to leave behind the isolation of the darkness and to seek out glimmers of other lights, others who will share with us in our season of waiting. Because where many small lights come together, there the darkness is already disappearing. Jesus’ story invites us to fill the dark hours of our world with our lights, and to do so together, as a community of faith: encouraging one another as we wait for the greatest light of all to come, and extinguish all darkness forever. And as we wait, as a token of that hope, we are each given a lamp, a light, to share and to shine into the darkness, as we await the promised feast when Jesus comes again.

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I loved performing Bach’s music as a child, and am delighted that I still get to sing today, once or twice a year, with the MSO Chorus. I well recall the excitement of that first performance, poised for my entry to sing the joyful song that the darkness now is over, and the bridegroom is here: ‘Wachet auf’, we sang, ‘Sleepers wake’, we sang out; telling all who would hear that those who kept their lights burning through the night were already on their way into the wedding hall, and inviting others to join the joyful feast of the Light that has overcome the darkness, of the Light that illumines even the middle of the darkest night.

The season of Advent is a bit like preparing for a musical performance, like Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. Rehearsed and ready, in our concert clothes, standing in our places, with music in our hands and the song ready in our heads, watching out for the conductor to signal us to sing. Alert and awake, ready to sing out at the right signal, ready to call others to join the joyful song, ready to call any who will listen to hear that now is the moment to awake, to leave behind the darkness and to enter into the light.

This Advent, I give thanks for the joyful song that promises to call us from darkness to light. I give thanks for the time of preparation, the time when we rehearse that song through our prayers, our reading of the stories that remind us of God’s promise that the darkness will not have the upper hand, when we share our works of hope in a world where there is still so much hopelessness. I give thanks for those who rehearse, who wait, with us, who share their light, their companionship, with us as we wait. And I give thanks for those who lead us in our song, who keep their eyes alert with us, who encourage us to keep our joyful song ready in our hearts – ready to call out: ‘Sleepers, wake: the Lord is here’.

Ⓒ Text and Audio: Andreas Loewe, 2015 

The King who rules from a cross to bring justice and peace

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of Christ the King, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, 22 November 2015:

CrossThen Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him: “are you the King of the Jews?”’ (St John 18.33). For Pilate there was no question that Jesus could not possibly be a proper king. He certainly was not related to one of the local vassal rulers loyal to Rome; Pilate knew them only too well. Herod and his siblings had been educated in Rome. They would have known and preserved the proper courtesies, would have called at a more opportune moment and not visited him at the crack of dawn as this caller did. Come to think of it, his caller did look as if he had slept rough that night; if he had slept at all. True, he did come with an entourage. But the cohort of Temple policemen that accompanied him were certainly not a guard of honour.

For Pilate’s caller early that Good Friday morning was a prisoner. He was bound, and the Temple authorities sent him into the Roman military headquarters with a criminal charge of sorts: ‘if this man were not a criminal’, they had told him, ‘we would not have handed him over to you’. When Pilate had tried to hand the case back to the Temple authorities for their judgement they told him that, as far as they were concerned, this case was already settled: ‘we are not permitted to put anyone to death’, they told Pilate. And the evangelist John fills in the gaps, and tells us that they were not permitted to crucify anyone, only were permitted to put people to death for breaking religious laws, such as stoning adulterers or heretics. Pilate’s early morning caller, then, was not a religious criminal, but was accused by his captors of another crime altogether: ‘it was better for one man to die, than for the whole people to perish’, the leader of the Temple authorities had reasoned when he planned for this course of action.

The charge was insurrection. The man whom they had captured had spoken much about the kingdom of God, had told his followers what they needed to do to enter that kingdom. Only a few days earlier, the prisoner had been accorded a royal progress into the city of Jerusalem: hailed by the crowds as their King. The people of Israel had not had a king of their own for a generation. The offspring of Herod the Great were loyal servants of Rome, not sovereign kings. Rather they ruled under sufferance. Rome might not care about someone proclaiming himself the Son of God. They would take notice, however, of someone proclaiming himself King of Israel. And so they brought their prisoner to Pilate, to be interrogated.

And Pilate knew that this was no ordinary king. ‘Are you the King of the Jews’, he asked Jesus. Jesus neither denied nor affirmed, but rather questioned Pilate on his sources: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Was it a Roman security briefing, or the charge submitted by his captors that caused this extraordinary conversational opening gambit. And Pilate admits that it was his captors who had briefed him, and dismissed both the questioner and the Temple judges: ‘Am I a Jew?’, he sneered, ‘your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me on a charge of insurrection. What have you done?’

And Jesus repeated his teaching, telling the governor of a distant emperor, Pilate, of another kingdom with a divine ruler. A kingdom that is so alien to Pilate, that it seems to him to be from another world altogether. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, Jesus told Pilate, ‘if it were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. But since I am bound and standing in front of you a captive, ‘my kingdom is not from here’, Jesus told his questioner. Who promptly asks a counter-question: ‘so you are a king?’, he asks. And Jesus responds, ‘you say I am a king’, and again affirms the purpose of that kingdom that is so incomprehensible to Pilate: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’.

The essence of God’s kingdom is to bring liberty to all people. And the key to that freedom, that liberty, was the truth of his teaching, Jesus had taught in the temple. ‘If you hold to my teaching you will be my disciples’, he had told the people: ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, he had affirmed. The key to God’s kingdom was to know the word and will of God, and to believe it to be true, Jesus now told his judge. ‘You say, I am a king’, he told, ‘but I really I am a judge, who is able to set the captives free’.

Pilate may have heard Jesus explain, ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. But clearly he did not understand the significance of what he had been told: ‘What is truth?’, he quipped. And for the writer of this interchange it is clear that Pilate cannot possibly belong to the truth. He has no interest in his captive, nor in what he regards as the squabbles between different Jewish sects. He has no time for eternal truths, or kingdoms that cannot be defined in terms of legions and taxes. ‘What is truth?’, he asks, and does not even wait to hear an answer. And it is in this frame of mind – shut to anything other than what he expected to hear in the first instance – that he ultimately condemned Jesus to be crucified. There is no final conversion for Pilate; no sudden insight, as for the leader of the cohort stationed on Golgotha, that ‘truly this was God’s own Son’. Pilate’s heart is set as flint, hardened as the bedrock of Calvary; though that, too, like Pilate, will ultimately be broken.

The story of the king without a kingdom that stands at the heart of today’s celebration of the festival of Christ, the king, is an invitation to us to open our ears to the message of the king who has been captured; the sovereign whose throne is a cross. It is an invitation to look not at the might and power of Pilate’s opposite but his teaching. Indeed, at the time of Pilate’s questioning him, Jesus has divested himself of all worldly power: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’, he affirms, and points to his message as the basis of his kingship: ‘I came into the world to testify to the truth’. The truth that shall set us free. That truth would have sat uncomfortably for rulers like Pilate, whose power was exercised by might; by crushing his opponents and silencing dissent. The truth of the king, whose rule has overcome the rulers of this world, on the other hand, does empower and set free, because it invites us to open our ears to listen – listen to Jesus, and his teaching, and to one another: ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’, Jesus told his questioner.

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We live in a world where the values of the king without a kingdom that today’s festival bring into focus are increasingly eroded. The truth that will set us free – the truth that can overcome unjust structures of government like Pilate’s police state, and that can topple powerful empires – is an uncomfortable one precisely because it holds up a mirror. A mirror in which we can discern only too well the flaws of our own generation: the world’s desire for recognition, influence and power. A mirror in which we see countless reflections of the crucified king without a kingdom in the tears and bloodshed, the death and destruction of this age. The truth that will set us free is the realisation that the powers of the Pilates of this world are worth nothing at all unless they can hear the voice of the king without a kingdom and understand that the answer to their existential questions – ‘what is truth’, ‘what is it that will set us free?’ – stands right in front of them: Jesus is truth. The man who neither looks, nor acts like a king; who shuns power, and by so doing breaks all powers.

The events of the past weeks: the acts of terror and counter-terror; the acts of revenge and reprisal that invariably follow are the actions of the mighty; the actions of the Pilates of this world. They are not the actions of those who listen to the voice of the king who rules from the cross who, with his dying breath, prayed: ‘Father forgive, for they do not know what they are doing’. And who, himself forgiving, bade the repentant captive enter that kingdom without boundaries: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, the one crucified at his side prayed, having looked into the mirror of violence and punishment, of action and counter-action, and seen only broken bodies, pierced limbs and sides, and blood flowing freely from the wounds of nails and spears. And having seen beyond the kingship of might; and having recognised the kingship of brokenness, he entrusted himself to the king without a land. The king, who by letting himself be broken, has taken up into himself the brokenness of this world, and overcome it. ‘Fear not’, says the king who rules from the cross, ‘today you shall be with me in paradise’.

Holy God; holy and strong; holy and immortal. Have mercy on us.

 

 

Abundance out of poverty: remembering our unsung heroes

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

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Jesus said: ‘All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had’ (St Mark 12.44).

In this season of Remembrance we give thanks for the sacrifice of those women and men who served in our armed forces and, who through their often selfless service, have enabled us to live out the values we cherish: a life in liberty, in a society founded on justice, freedom and opportunity. In our remembrance we tend to commemorate those whose service has been recorded in the pages of history: field marshals who led armies into battle or who, like Lay Canon Sir Harry Chauvel, secured a timely retreat for those embroiled in the bloodbath of Gallipoli. We tend to remember those who took up arms, and gave their lives in battle, or took to the skies in bomber squadrons and single combat Spitfires. We recall those who dug trenches and fought in the lines, think of those who operated tanks and advanced battles. Our corporate remembrance centres on those who gave of abundance; who gave of their strength. All too often we tend to neglect those who contributed out of their poverty; who gave all that they had – the unsung heroes of our conflicts, whose service tends to go unseen.

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Quite literally so, in the case of Sister Lilian Bessie Kiddle of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Commemorated in this Cathedral not on a large brass plaque in the aisles, but on a simple wooden board in the corridor outside my office. Sister Kiddle was trained in St Kilda, and embarked on one of the first transports to Europe once war had been declared to join the Imperial Military Nursing Service. As a result, Lilian Kiddle was one of the first of 30 Army sisters to cross over into France in October 1914. Her nursing care knew no boundaries, no enmities: she cared for Allied servicemen and German soldiers alike. Anyone caught up in, or between the lines, servicemen or civilians. In her service Sister Kiddle put herself in harm’s way: her nursing apron pierced with shrapnel, her torch often the only source of light in the field hospitals because of blackouts and fear of attacks from the nascent German airforce. Sister Kiddle remained with ‘her men’, working on ambulance trains behind the lines, and moving along the front as they did, retreating only when they did (The Australasian Saturday, 15 March 1919, p. 35). Sister Kiddle survived the war, returning home to Melbourne in 1919 after giving six years in service to a conflict far away from home, giving not out of the strength of force, the abundance of power, but nevertheless ‘putting in everything she had’ in her service.

Also not commemorated among the military heroes in this Cathedral, but a war hero nevertheless, is my illustrious predecessor Frederick Waldegrave Head, the Seventh Dean and also concurrently the Archbishop of Melbourne. The Senior Tutor and Chaplain of Emmanuel College Cambridge when the Great War broke out, Head considered joining up as an Army Chaplain but swiftly rejected the idea: at 41 he felt too old to serve in the forces, so joined as one of the Chaplains attached to the YMCA providing pastoral care to servicemen behind the lines in France in 1915 instead. A year later, he was commissioned as an officer and chaplain with the Second Guards’ Brigade, and soon became a senior chaplain to the entire Brigade. In an interview on his appointment as Archbishop and Dean Head reflected on his experience at the front of the ‘blood-soaked line from the Vosges to the Channel’: it was his sheer hard work that enabled him to cope with the terror of ministering to an endless stream of injured and dying soldiers, comforting, as best as he could, those who had come to the end of their lives, or those who were, once more, thrown into the fray. The war disturbed, but did not break him, Archbishop Head reflected, and would say no further to the Melbourne press on the matter. The fact that he was awarded a Military Cross in 1917, and had a bar added in the final year of the Great War are external testament to his heroism (Table Talk, Thursday 23 January 1930). A heroism borne, again, not out of strength or abundance, but once more out of a desire to ‘put in everything he had’ for his beliefs.

Confirmed in their belief to ‘put in everything they had’ in times of great conflict both Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head continued their work for those most in need. Sister Kiddle continued nursing in Melbourne, even after she married one of the officers whose life she saved in the final stages of the war: the fellow-Victorian Lieutenant Hugh Hanna MC. Kiddle ran first aid and home nursing programs in order to enable others to extend, in times of peace but relative poverty in the post-War years, the care that enabled her save lives through her heroic service. Likewise, it was the experience of the bloodshed and destruction of the Great War, his own experience of having given out of his poverty, that led Archbishop Head to set up programs to promote greater social justice in Melbourne: he was one of the first church leaders to visit, and seriously engage, with those living in what was then the ‘Broadmeadows Camp for the Unemployed’, praying with those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and preparing them for confirmation (The Argus, Wednesday 29 April 1931). His advocacy for those in need was ceaseless: he invited the Brotherhood of St Laurence to move to the diocese, and establish their first social outreach programs in what then were the slums of Fitzroy, in St Mark’s parish.

For both our unsung heroes I believe it was the experience of being able to give out of their poverty that equipped them for their future ministry. Both ended up as highly decorated war heroes: Kiddle a recipient of the Mons Star and Royal Red Cross Ribbon, Head an MC with bar. Yet they are remembered not for their heroism, nor for their winning campaigns or battles, but for their selfless service: ‘out of their poverty they put in everything they had’.

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Heroes are sometimes like that. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, they are people who contribute out of weakness rather than strength, bring great riches of character and principle, sacrifice and service out of the poverty of their power. They would very likely say of themselves that they have ‘just done their bit’ or how they wished that they had been able to do more. You very likely know one or two candidates for such quiet heroism. They would probably prefer to remain unsung, unremembered, would prefer that no fuss was made to celebrate their service.

Yet it is that very remembrance, our bringing to mind and making present of their actions, that enables us to ensure that the principles for which they strove are fostered in our own generation. They encourage us to do ‘our part’ in promoting the values of justice – looking out for those who have no one to speak up for them, caring for those who have no one to care for them – the values of freedom and opportunity – enabling others to flourish in spite of their background and to engage those who find themselves at the margins.

All too often we may feel like them: confronted with an almost insurmountable task when faced with so much need. It is especially at times like these, that the example of those who have given out of their poverty, is encouragement for us to go and do likewise.

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The examples of Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head encourage me do what I can to ensure that their work of care in this city – a care that for our two unsung heroes was borne out of the wounds of the Great War – is continued. The same care – now borne out the wounds of the acts of terror and warfare of our own generation – needs others to ‘put in everything they have’.

For us at St Paul’s this is a care that, like Sister Kiddle, looks at people, not passports. A care that reaches out to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in making them welcome, safe and enabling them to share in our values of freedom and opportunity. A care that, like Archbishop Head, engages with people, not problems. A care that reaches out to individuals in helping them become the people God calls them to be, and enables them to witness to Jesus’ call: the motivation of all our calls.

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This care calls for modern heroes. Some of those are very likely seated right here, in these pews. They probably do not regard themselves as such, but are those who create an abundance out of their own sense of poverty, are those who already put in everything, so that the treasury of God’s care for others may continually be filled. Jesus said: ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put everything she had’.

Lest we forget.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved

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:

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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.

Letting go to walk with God in the greater peace: celebrating Frank Callaway

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on 11 August 2015, at a Memorial Service commemorating the Hon. Frank Callaway QC RFD:

Cross of GloryAs Frank Callaway retired from the Supreme Court of our State, he thanked his colleagues in his accustomed gracious manner, and told them that in retirement he would return to his first loves: ‘history and philosophy and those aspects of human experience that, even now, are best expressed in religious language’ ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 19). As we give thanks for Frank’s life, we also do well to turn to his first loves to make sense of the hope of the life that is forever: history and the kind of philosophy that is best expressed in terms of the language of our faith.

For Frank shared the faith in a life that is forever, even should our life here on earth be cut short. Just as he scrutinised the history that stands at the heart of that faith: the history of the carpenter from Nazareth, who was revealed to be the Lord of life one Passover eve in Jerusalem, as his life, too, was taken; at the time that the sun hid his face and the moon obscured her gaze, in darkness and alone. The mystery of the empty tomb, with its neatly rolled up grave-clothes, and a somewhat officious young man that turns the grieving away, redirecting them to the place where their journey with Jesus had begun: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16.7).

Frank’s life was profoundly shaped by this story, and this faith. It was this story that led him to excel, to strive to serve a cause greater than self: to seek to bring justice to others. It was the desire to serve the cause of justice that led him, at an early stage in his career to choose to devote his energies to cases in the appellate court. Seen by some to be a risky move, his specialisation, ultimately, led to his appointment to the Appellate Bench, and an opportunity significantly to shape Victorian jurisprudence ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 3).

At the heart of the desire to serve an earthly justice was, without a doubt, Frank’s conviction that in so doing he would take a share in doing ‘what the Lord does require of you: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’, as the prophet Micah reminded the people of Israel in our first lesson (Micah 6.6-8). In that sense earthly justice was an expression of divine justice – a justice that did not seek material recompense in the first instance ‘thousands of rams …, ten thousand rivers of oil’, even giving our ‘firstborn for my transgression’, but rather a justice that sought a change of heart, sought metanoia, repentance, and the transformation of life and circumstance (Micah 6.7, cf. Mark 1.15).

This is how Frank himself would put it in his retirement magnum opus of philosophy and faith, Reflections (‘Dougall A. S. Smith’, Reflections [North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2013]): ‘the intution of God led to compassion, not retributive justice’. And that compassion was shown forth most fully in the life of the builder from Nazareth who was himself both the one formed our universe, and was himself God in human form; the divine logos at the beginning of all creation, and the divine Son, Jesus Christ the Lord: the author of this world, of all life and, as our second lesson knows, the author of our salvation (Romans 8.31-35).

Through the incarnation of Christ, the ‘intution of God’ turned a retributive justice into compassion, opening a way beyond the material principle of repaying evil to the principle of justice itself, whereby neither ‘hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword’, neither ‘death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’, as St Paul reminded the Roman church (Romans 8.35, 38-39).

In the last few years, Frank pondered these questions deeply. In doing so, like many of the first hellenistic Christian writers, he drew on the work of the Greco-Roman philosophers to make sense of the ‘inexpressible and glorious joy’ of knowing and believing in the invisible, risen Son of God. The apostle Peter put this act of believing like this in his first epistle general: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1.8-9). That joy, Peter knew, was motivated by the telos, the end result, of our faith: ‘the salvation of our souls’ (1 Peter 1.9).

Frank grappled with the concept of the truth, the validity, of St Peter’s claim in his Reflections: ‘if Christianity is true, the image and likeness of God would become the goal or telos of humanity and that image and likeness would be revealed in Christ’ (Reflections, p. 48). If Christianity is true, then the goal of our human journey is the inxepressible joy of knowing that divine justice. The justice that by right could demand full repayment for our tresspasses, but instead is reflected by the selfgiving compassion of the author of our salvation.

And it is that knowledge, that can enable us to bear the burdens of seeing others suffer; whether through illness and pain, or through injustice and ill-treatment. And it is that strength which can enable us to do, in this life, what ‘the Lord requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8).

In his Reflections, Frank hedged his bets on what the reward for a life lived according to the maxim of Micah and the apostles Peter and Paul might be like. For him it seems to have been not so much inexpressible joy, as simply inexpressible. This is what he wrote: ‘In the final analysis, life after death can be intuited or believed in, but it cannot be understood or imagined: … to do so, is literally impossible’. Frank concluded: ‘I often think that one should therefore live this life as well as possible and leave the afterlife to take care of itself’ (Reflections, p. 32).

Frank himself chose to let go of the constraints of this life and embrace the inxepressible, indefinable life of eternity. As part of his reflections on life, justice and the life after death, he also spent time reflecting on what it means to let go: ‘It is of the essence of the spiritual life … that one must first “let go”: … [this is first of all] a matter of stopping and, as it were, doing nothing. Later it extends to letting go of ideas, as well as mental habits that cause unnecessary suffering. For some people there is a release from anxiety and a sense of inner peace.’ (Reflections, p. 1). ‘Put very simply’, he would conclude his work, ‘to let go of the ego, the source of separation, anxiety and much else that is destructive, [is] to walk with God’ (p. 74).

At the end of his own life, Frank did let go, and entered the simply inexpressible life to walk with God. Now, having himself ‘let go’, Frank shares the closer walk with God, and the greater peace – that peace which passes all understanding. And we, who are still facing the complexities of this life, who still live by faith and not by sight, are now invited to ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank.

For us who are left behind, remains the task to celebrate his having succeeded in his intent to live his life as well as possible: touching the hearts of many, hearing the pleas and appeals for justice of many, meeting them with fairness and compassion and, wherever appropriate and possible, a justice tempered with mercy. We now may ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank. We now may let Frank go into the greater peace to walk there with God, because we share his hope and trust in the compassion of God that shone forth in the person of Jesus Christ. We now may let Frank rest in God’s peace because Christians believe that the author of the life of the universe at the beginning of all things is also the author of resurrection, ‘the conqueror of death’ (Romans 8.37).

And so, in this hope, let us commend Frank to the mercy and protection of the God who calls the departed to walk with him, live with him, in his peace; the One who invites us to become ‘more than conquerors with him through his love’ (Romans 8.37). The One who convicts us by his mercy, and bids us believe ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.37-39). Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

‘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.

John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:

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‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.

‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

Let us pray:

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

Returning to the garden of God’s goodness: doing God’s will of reconciliation

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, 7 June 2015

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Today’s readings are all about God’s work of forgiveness in a world of conflicting standards. They take us to key moments in the life of God and his people, to explain how evil entered the world and what God is doing in order to ensure that evil will not have the upper hand. They remind us that evil can take many forms – like the serpent in our first lesson or the demons referred to in our Gospel reading – and that it is impossible to make a good bargain or deal with evil – for evil delights in deceiving. They urge us to call on God when we feel burdened; when find ourselves in the depths out of which our psalmist addressed his heartfelt prayer to God. They show us how, through Jesus Christ God has already bound evil, and plundered evil’s store of deceits and deceptions, like the property of strong man in our gospel reading.

Because God was there at the beginning of the story of evil’s sway over humankind, and because Christ has already taken away the ultimate power of evil and death, today’s readings encourage us never to lose heart: even if our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. And the key to that constant renewal, our lessons tell us, is seeking God’s friendship, his protection, and forgiveness.

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Our first lesson (Genesis 3.8-14), from the first book of the Bible, tells the story of creation in allegorical terms. God has created a universe he knew to be very good, and placed humankind in the middle of his garden of delights. There is no no harm, no hardship, no death; only goodness, growth and life. Everything in God’s garden promotes life; especially the trees at the heart of the garden: ‘the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2.9). In return for life in his presence, in return for his goodness and the absence of any evil, God commands humankind not to consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In an environment that is all good, with the tree of life to give life, and no form of evil at all, there is no need to discern between good and evil, God knows. Indeed, the very act of seeking to know of evil in an environment that is all good, God knows, invites evil, harm and death into the garden of goodness. And so God tells humankind not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Genesis 2.15).

The people did not die immediately, once they had eaten of the fruit that invited evil into God’s good creation. But with the knowledge of evil in a world of goodness came evil itself – not only the temptation to be like God and to be enabled to navigate the complexities of discerning what is good and wholesome and what is evil and destructive – but the very evil that leads to death and mortality. Indeed, a chapter after our first lesson sees the first fruits of evil and death: a deep-rooted jealously that led to pre-meditated murder as Cain killed his brother Abel. Once evil had been admitted into God’s good creation, our story tells, there was no more protection from the ultimate fruit of evil. Where once the fruit that sustained humankind had been the goodness of the fruit of life; now there only remained the decay of the fruits of death, as people daily are confronted with the need to discern what is good and what is not, and folk sense more and more how their outward nature is wasting away, on the way to the ultimate, universal, human destiny: death (2 Corinthians 4.16).

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It is this very physical experience of evil and oppression, of death and destruction, that led our psalmist to cry out to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130.1). Our Psalm is one of the fifteen psalms of ascents, the songs of pilgrimage of the second temple that were sung by faithful followers of the God of Israel on the way to, or on the steps of, the restored Jerusalem sanctuary. Our psalm is written from the perspective of exile and distance, recalls the time in captivity, when God’s people were driven away from the land of their promise by fault of their own disobedience, when they were ‘led away’, by the Lord, ‘with the evildoers’ (Psalm 128.5). As in the garden of goodness, so here, on the steps of the temple sanctuary, our writer recalls, appeals to, God’s goodness. We might find ourselves in the depths, might find ourselves afflicted and oppressed, like God’s faithful followers in exile. Yet even when confronted with the reality of the fruits of evil, and an absence of goodness to discern, there remains a sign of our hope: our direct appeal to the One who created this world to be very good, and who will hear the supplications of those who call on him – wherever and in whatever circumstance of life we might find ourselves: ‘let your ears be consider well – be attentive to – the voice of my supplication’, our psalm writer prays God (Psalm 130.2)

Our psalmist knows that, having presumed to take the place of God and discern between good and evil, humankind had, all too often, chosen the path of evil rather than goodness. If God were to do what humankind appropriated to itself – the right to pronounce judgement of what is good and what is not, the right to know what is good and what is not – then none would stand; all would fail and fall, the psalmist has experienced: ‘If you, Lord, should note what we do wrong: who then, O Lord, could stand?’ (Psalm 130.3).

At the same time, the writer, who plunged the depths of human experience, also knows that God will readily show mercy, if only we ask him to take away our the evil that oppresses, and our own sins: ‘there is forgiveness with you … with the Lord there is mercy, and with him ample redemption’ (Psalm 130, 4, 7). ‘Trust in the Lord’, the writer appeals to those who, like him, have known of the misery of the depths of evil and human frailty: ‘God will redeem his people from the multitude of their sins’ (Psam 130.8).

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Our gospel reading from Mark’s account of the story of Jesus and his followers, gives us a very practical insight into how God has redeemed his people from the multitude of their sins through his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus had just called to himself a group of twelve apostles, followers whom had had commissioned ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out evil’ (Mark 3.14-15). These returned with him to his home in Capernaum and, because he had healed many, ‘a great multitude followed him’ (Mark 3.7). So large was the crowd, so desirous to be healed, to be set free from the fruits of disease and death, that Jesus and his apostles ‘could not even eat’ (Mark 3.20). Jesus’ own family come to take him home for a meal and a rest: the experience of healing so many, of setting folk free from the fruits of evil – which for Mark included possession by evil forces – had worn Jesus out, they believed. Or at least their neighbours thought so, the people who kept on saying: ‘he has gone out of his mind’ (Mark 3.21). But they are rebuffed by their son and brother: are sent away so that Jesus is enabled to explain why it was that he did what he did.

Until now in Mark’s gospel, we have only seen the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of countering evil in all its guises – at this stage only evil personified knows Jesus’ true identity and mission: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’, the demons address him (Mark 1.24). Until now in Mark’s account, we have only seen the fruits of his mission to be a physician to those who are sick in body, mind or soul; to be the One who pronounces forgiveness to those who have sinned, or are so deeply affected by evil that they feel as if demons had conquered their innermost selves. Until now in Mark’s story, only those set free, only those healed, know Jesus’ true identity: the others are amazed, attracted and follow him; or are unsettled, upset and call him a blasphemer.

The reason why Jesus does not have time to go home and rest, why he sends his own family away, and calls his disciples and anyone else who ‘do the will of God’ his ‘brother and sister and mother’, is not because he does not love, or care for them, but because he is about to engage those who are unsettled, and reveal to all what doing the will of God entails for him. For Jesus doing God’s will means nothing less than entering ‘the house of the strong man and plundering his spoils’ (Mark 3.27).

The ‘strong man’ in our gospel reading is evil personified. From the moment of the story of evil entering human existence in the garden of God’s goodness, evil had steadily increased in power, built for itself a strong fortress, gathered for itself spoils from frail humans. Jesus’ task is to bind evil, to storm his fortress, and to plunder his spoils, Mark tells in his story. Only by binding evil and setting free those drawn into its sphere of influence, drawn into the strong man’s house, people will be able to taste again of the fruit of the tree of life. Jesus tells the scribes and teachers of the law who have come from Jerusalem to ascertain his motives: ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins’ (Mark 3.28). Those who believe that Jesus is the agent of this deliverance will be able to call on God out of the depths of even the deepest distress, and be given the assurance of a new beginning, a new life. Those who only see the power of the strong man, ‘Beelzebul, the ruler of demons’, do blaspheme against the power of God, and the Holy Spirit through whom God accomplishes the work of deliverance (Mark 3.29). Those people, Jesus says, will remain in their depths of distress, will not able to lift their heads above the parapet of the depths from which they call: ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’, Jesus rebuked those who had come from Jerusalem to rein him in (Mark 3.29).

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This liberation by Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope expressed so poetically in our epistle reading: because Jesus has bound the powers of evil, and set free those in death’s domain from eternal death, we may have hope, Paul knows. The fruits of the tree of life are given us to sustain us in our own journey of mortality, the apostle tells, are set against the wasting away of our outer nature. Where the outward is wasting away, ‘the inner nature is being renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4.16). Where the fruit of evil and sin is death, the One who has overcome death by his own death, and bound evil by overcoming this world and its ruler, has returned to us fruit from the garden of God’s delight. And that is why ‘we believe: because we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus, and will bring us – with you – into his presence’, Paul affirms this firm and certain hope (2 Corinthians 4.14). Hope this certainly is: hope that cannot be seen – ‘for what can be seen is temporary’, and is subject to destruction by death; hope that cannot be seen, because ‘what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4.18).

The call from the depths of our oppression, the call from the depths of death, has been answered, Paul proclaims. Even though ‘the earthly tent we live in is destroyed’, even though we continue to share the certainty of mortality with the first Adam, we also share the hope of immortality of the second Adam. The hope of heaven reopened, a garden prepared for us, and it it a tree of delights and life: ‘we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’, Paul knows (2 Corinthians 5.1). Evil may well be a daily reality; the discernment of good, in a world that shows so much evil, will continue to be a labour of sweat and toil of tears, ‘till we return to the ground’ (Genesis 4.19). But we undertake this labour in the knowledge that the root of all evil has been bound, and the stronghold of evil been conquered, by the One who calls us to be his brothers and sisters, his family; people who join him in doing the will of God.

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God’s will is for this creation to be very good. God made it good, and remade it by binding the power of evil and giving us fruit from the tree of life to sustain us in our journey to his ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1). God invites us to join in the work of promoting goodness and life, invites us to be members of the family of his Son, who share with Christ in doing the work of reconciliation and resurrection.

As we seek to do God’s will at the heart of this city, by our listening to God’s word, our sharing of his good news, and our ministry of bringing others closer to God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we may know God’s salvation, trust in his mercy and know his love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

Cathedrals: Places that make known God’s call

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17 May 2015, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC:

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I am delighted to be with you this morning, and I thank Dean Gary for his kind invitation to come and visit with you, and preach here this morning. Although I have come a long way today, I am not a complete stranger to your neighbourhood: some eighteen years ago, I had the privilege of living in Cathedral Heights. Then, I was a seminarian from the Church of England working at an inner-city parish in your diocese, and I daily undertook the audacious (some might say foolhardy) commute by bike from my temporary home near your beautiful Cathedral down to the centre of town via Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Oaks. The way to work was exhilarating and fast; the way home was quite literally an uphill struggle.

Since my time in this city, discerning God’s call for my life and preparing for ordained ministry, I have served churches in the West of London and the heart of Cambridge in England as a parish priest, and worked as the Senior Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne. And so it is that a former neighbour from Cathedral Heights today brings you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, which I am privileged to lead as Dean. St Paul’s is the Seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia, and I bring you warm greetings from our Primate, Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, and our four Sunday congregations.

St Paul’s stands at the heart of Australia’s second largest city. Built in warm sandstone, with soaring gothic spires—the second tallest in Anglicanism—it is an icon of God’s call to all people to encounter and know him. Our Cathedral is a church that not only the parishes, agencies, schools and colleges of our province call their home, but that is the regular place of worship for people from more than 25 nations; people whose backgrounds and stories, languages and cultures, could not be more diverse.

At St Paul’s we delight in the Good News that God calls people into his friendship and service regardless of their background or past. And we are profoundly aware that as Cathedrals, you and we are uniquely placed to invite others to come to know and serve God through our own witness and ministry.

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God’s call to all people to testify to his love stands at the heart of this morning’s readings. Our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows probably one of the more unexpected ways in which God can call people to serve him (Acts 1.15-26). The story of the call of Matthias to be added to the number of the twelve is extraordinary: a lottery to decide who should take the place of Judas ‘who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus’ (1.16). For me, though, Luke’s story as told in Acts is not only an account of the surprising way in which God has called into his service an apostle of old. I believe that our first lesson says just as much about discerning and responding to God’s call to follow him in our own lives today.

We heard in our first lesson how the apostles and the 120 believers met in Jerusalem to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. The Apostle Peter instructed the early Christian community of how this important choice would be made: the person to be chosen was someone who had ‘accompanied us … beginning from the Baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken up from us’ (Acts 1.21-22). The person would be someone who had known Jesus at first hand, someone who might even have been baptised like Jesus with the baptism of John, who heard Jesus’ call, who saw the works of power he undertook, who saw him arrested and raised from the dead, was to take the place of Judas to become ‘a witness with the other apostles to his resurrection’ (Acts 1.22). The pool of potential candidates cannot have been unlimited, and so it should not surprise that the apostles proposed only two names to be a potential fellow-witness to the resurrection: Joseph the Son of Saba—Barsabbas—and Matthias.

The narrow field of candidates reflected the importance of their task. The apostle-elect was to share with the other apostles in the ministry of oversight, which in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles meant first of all the building up of the people of God by ‘daily adding to their number’ (Acts 2.47). Such a ministry not only required a personal experience of the transformational power of resurrection, a personal knowledge that ‘God gave us eternal life, and [that] this life is in his Son’, as our epistle puts it (1 John 5.11). It also required having walked with Jesus and the other disciples, having ‘accompanied us’—the word literally means ‘having broken bread with us’—‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’ (Acts 1.21).

Not only a personal knowledge of Jesus, but knowledge of the other followers of Jesus, the people with whom the Lord himself had broken bread. The person allotted the ministry of apostle was to be a fellow overseer with Peter and the other ten. Both Joseph and Matthias were already well equipped for their task: they knew Jesus, they had heard the ‘words that you gave to me … and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you’, as our Gospel reading tells (John 17.8). They also knew well the eleven apostles, and the 120 new Jerusalem Christians, and they were respected among them.

The call of the new apostle was not that of the early church, but Jesus’ call. Those who serve Jesus were called to be Jesus’ own, are called to be set apart: ‘sanctified in the truth’ and ‘protected in the Father’s name’, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 17.17). Therefore, the apostles left the choice of their new fellow overseer to the One who had also called them, as Peter’s prayer in our first lesson makes clear: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen’ (Acts 1.25). Peter’s prayer is addressed to the ascended Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel, the word Lord, kyrie, is almost always a reference to Jesus. Peter and the ten regard the calling of the twelfth apostle entirely in terms of their own calling: Jesus himself would call Joseph or Matthias to the office and work of an apostle. The eleven would merely identify and confirm that call. And so it was that lots were drawn, and Matthias was called into his allotted place as an apostle, a fellow overseer, a fellow episkopos or bishop, of the growing group of early Christians.

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Today’s first lesson (Acts 11.15-26) tells us as much about discerning and following God’s call in the early church as it tells us about responding to God’s call to ministry in our own lives. As we think of the calling of Matthias to be an apostle, I would like to offer you four areas for your own further reflection on how God may call people to his service, and on how you and I may be equipped to serve God in our own communities:

  • First of all, I think it is important to realise, as Peter knew so very clearly, that the One who calls is not the Church, nor the council of overseers or bishops, nor the congregation of the faithful, but Jesus Christ. Peter is confident that it is Jesus who calls people into his service, and that the Church, and the overseers or bishops, merely identify and confirm that calling. The call is Christ’s, but the people who identify this call are members of the community of believers and those who are given gifts of leadership and authority in that community.
  • Secondly, it is important to remember that those who are being put forward as candidates for apostolic ministry are often people who have already acted upon a sense of calling in their lives. Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry: like Peter and the other apostles, they knew him to be not only their own Lord, but the Lord over life and death, whom they saw ascend to heaven to reign at God’s right hand. They already had much personal experience of what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This does not only mean that they knew Jesus to be Lord and God. It means that they knew his teachings and were able to share them with others with confidence: they were already people ‘who believe in the Son of God and have his testimony in their hearts’, as our epistle reminds us (1 John 5.10).
  • Thirdly, the two candidates, like the other eleven apostles, were people of prayer. Their process of discernment about what it might be that God calls them to do in their lives began and ended with prayer—in fact ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, we read in the first chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1.14). Not only the process of discernment, but their entire lives were shaped by this habit of prayer. The prayer in which the eleven apostles shared, and of which the calling of Matthias in today’s first lesson is an example, was corporate prayer: the apostles prayed together with the family of Jesus, shared in prayer with ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). Together they forged a community, a family, of believers who centred their lives around learning to pray together.
  • Finally, the candidates were fully equipped and ready to take up their allotted task. Joseph and Matthias did not know where they would be sent—the Greek word apostolos means someone who is being sent—nor did the know with whom they would minister in future. Yet they chose to accept the call to the apostolate as if Christ himself had spoken to them through the casting of lots. Matthias to join the eleven and to take the place of Judas as an overseer, Joseph to continue his ministry as a respected member of the Jerusalem community of believers who knew and was able to testify personally to the power of resurrection.

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I said at the beginning that I believe that as Cathedral churches at the heart of our nations, our Cathedrals are uniquely placed to make known God’s call to fellowship and ministry to others. We are places where our bishops gather with their people to pray and confirm, through the laying on of hands, the calling of the Christ and his Church. We are natural places of invitation, where people from all kinds of backgrounds—tourists who visit our wonderful buildings, committed members and those who perhaps do not yet fully know what it is that they are searching for—can come together to worship, and thus learn more about God’s call to us and all people. We are places of prayer, whose common life is shaped by the rhythm of our daily life of communal prayer. And we are places from which those chosen for ministry are sent or are enabled to enter into their own apostolic ministry in the places in which they are to serve. As Cathedral churches we are placed like few others to equip and confirm others for ministry.

I give thanks for the gift of God’s call in the life of our church, and the role we can play, as Cathedrals, in bringing others to God so that they may receive his gifts of fellowship. As the season of Easter comes to a close, and we look forward to the season of Pentecost, with its promise of the gifts of the Spirit to equip and build the body of Christ for its ministry, I should like to encourage you to ponder what it is that God is calling you to do in your lives of worship and witness—both in your own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, and in the lives of the communities of which you are a part.

Again, our first reading provides us with a number of important pointers:

  • Remember that the call to serve God is Christ’s. The ministry of Joseph Bar Sabbas would have been as important as that of the apostle Matthias. Not all people are called to an ordained office, yet all are called to exercise the ministry of making known the message of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in that calling.
  • Remember that it is important to know Jesus and know about Jesus. Joseph and Matthias knew Jesus first hand. We, too, can know Jesus through the words that are recorded about him in the Scriptures, as well as through our personal prayers. Use the opportunities given to you at the National Cathedral, your local church, or the community from which you are visiting today, to further your own understanding of Jesus; to learn more about his words and works recorded in Scripture, and about the ways in which we can deepen our understanding of Jesus in worship and spirituality.
  • Remember that it is important to pray as a community. The decision to appoint Matthias was clearly underpinned by communal prayer. It is important to pray as a community—and the first Chapter of Acts makes clear how a community can be shaped by regular common worship and the breaking of bread, and so be equipped to grow. Come and join the daily prayers at the National Cathedral, or share in weekday prayer at your home churches as often as you are able to do so. It is in this way that we belong to, and are shaped into, communities of prayer.
  • Finally, remember that there is grace in accepting your allotted place. Matthias readily stepped into the role allotted to him, yet he did not know where his response of faith might lead him. It is often easier to assert with the benefit of hindsight that the allotted place was indeed the right place, and I would encourage you to take courage from the example of Matthias whenever you may be presented with your own ‘allotted places’ of ministry; your own allotted calling.

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‘The apostles prayed and said: Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one you have chosen. … And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.24-26). As we give thanks that God continues to call women and men into his friendship and service, I pray that the examples of Joseph and Matthias sustain us in our own journeys of faith, and ask that God would bless you and me, as we continue to discern and seek to follow his call.

‘Now to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, ministers serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Revelation 1.6).

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: carmengroup.com