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Walking in the light of life: bringing others to Jesus

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

Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that our part is two-fold.

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

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

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

Highways to God for the Heart

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, at the second annual Provincial Choral Evensong for the Anglican Province of Victoria, on 9 March 2014, at the Metropolitical Cathedral Church of St Paul, Melbourne:

Tonight’s readings (Isaiah 40.1-112 Peter 3.8-15) encourage us to place our trust in God’s future. They tell us that the future that God intends for this world is to be a place ‘where justice is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13), and they encourage us to become partners with God in shaping our world to reflect that future. Above all, they invite us, as clergy and people of this Province of Victoria, to become ‘heralds of good tidings’ to those among whom we live, work and worship (Isaiah 40.9).

Our first lesson, from the second part of the prophecy of Isaiah, are words of comfort spoken to a people without hope; a people whose homeland and sanctuary had been destroyed, with the city of their faith in ruins. The place where all Israel had come together to ‘give thanks unto the name of the Lord’ lay in ruins (Psalm 122.4). The place promised them during the Exodus, the place ‘that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there’, had been devastated by a superpower (Deuteronomy 12.5). Babylonian invaders, who exiled the nation and turned their city of peace, Yerushalayim, for that is what the Hebrew words from which we derive the city’s name ‘Jerusalem’ mean, into a spiritual and physical wasteland.

For generations, the people of Israel had been in exile, cut off from their homeland and the place of their religious loyalty. For years, they had marked ‘the day Jerusalem fell’; solemnly recalled in their prayers how their enemies cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations’ (Psalm 137.7). The Psalmist tells us how they sat down ‘by the waters of Babylon, and wept as they remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137.1). In Babylon, their pagan tormentors lorded it over them. Their captors not only ridiculed their continued service of the God of Israel, a God who ostensibly failed them in their time of need, but also perverted their worship: they ‘called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, the Psalmist expressed his people’s affliction (Psalm 137.3-4). How can we remain loyal to the city of God in servitude and exile?

And now God’s prophet speaks to the exiles in Babylon, speaks to them as if Jerusalem lived on in their hearts. He speaks tenderly, not to a ruined city, but to a whole nation: ‘comfort, comfort’, he says. And he assures them that in spite of the destruction and devastation they had experienced they remain God’s people: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Now their ‘penalty is paid’; they have ‘received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins’ (40.2). Even though they now live far away from the place where God’s glory dwelt on Mount Zion, their God still cares for them. And God gives them a vision of the future: a highway that leads them out of the desert of their exile. In speaking to them his words of comfort, God in fact inscribes in their heart ‘highways to Zion’ (Psalm 84.4).

Those highways are broad and level; where they lead through the desert the wasteland will become ‘a place of springs’ (Psalm 85.6). They are a way on which those who walk on it ‘will go from strength to strength’; a way that leads each one who travels on it to ‘appear before God in Zion’, as the Psalmist sings (Psalm 85.6-7). The Zion to which it leads is not the ruined city they left behind, but a new Jerusalem. The highways of their hearts will lead to place where ‘the glory of God is revealed’, where God is made known to all nations: ‘all people shall see God’s glory together’ (Isaiah 40.4). Although God’s people still live in captivity, although the city of their faith they left behind still lies in ruins, God sets a future before his people. He points out to them the place where his glory continually dwells. He instils in their hearts not only a deep yearning for that place, but also plants in their hearts the highway to that place, that city.

It is in the strength of that yearning that God encourages his people in the words of prophecy: ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40.3). That highway for God is the highway to Zion. It is a highway of the heart, and not necessarily a physical road. And it does not matter that this road, that lifts up every valley and makes low every mountain, may not at first be a physical road; for it is real in every member of the people of God who yearns for God’s presence, and for his glory to be revealed. Nor does it matter that each generation passes away, ‘withers like the grass, fades like flowers’; for the promise of a road that leads to God has been granted to every generation; that promise will ‘stand forever’, like the word of God that ensures and safeguards our futures (Isaiah 40.7-8).

This yearning for God to establish his city of peace among us so that we might go there, worship him there, and live with him there, is ours as much as that of previous generations of believers. Our second lesson, from the second epistle of Peter (2 Peter 3.8-15) gives us an insight into that yearning for God to rule and reign from the point of view of one of the first generations of Christians: ‘the Lord is not slow about his promise’, Peter writes to the early Christian church (2 Peter 3.9). We may still wait for God to act, want him to bring his city to earth, and build his highway to take us there. But God ‘is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but wanting all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9). God will bring his city, will bring his rule to earth at an unexpected time of his choosing: a time when ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’, a time when ‘everything that is done on earth is disclosed’, Peter assures his readers. In the strength that promise, ‘we wait for a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13).

As they yearn for the coming of God’s new heaven and new earth among them, Peter exhorts his readers to use their time of waiting wisely: ‘while you are waiting, strive to be at peace, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation’ (2 Peter 3.14-15). When God brings in his rule of righteousness, there will be no more room for injustice, Peter explains. Earlier in the chapter, Peter spoke of the fate of those who act against God’s rule of love: they are ‘stored up for fire, are kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly’ (2 Peter 3.7). God’s people will be vindicated on the day God levels the mountains and lifts the plains, and finally reveals the highway to his city: ‘the Lord God comes with might, his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him’, our first lesson put it (Isaiah 40.10). Until that day, however, God places into our hearts that yearning desire for a world of justice and care for those who are oppressed; a world where the hungry are fed as by a shepherd, and the vulnerable gathered like lambs in the shepherd’s arms (Isaiah 40.41). Until that day, God teaches us patience, so that we may bring many to share our yearning for God’s values to shape the world we live in today.

When he reveals his glory, God will break all injustice, and restore the rights of those brought low, our readings assure us; if needs be he will do so by bringing in a new creation altogether. At the same time our readings assure us that God does not wish to bring destruction to the people he made: he does ‘not want any to perish, but rather wants all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9), ‘so that he may be merciful to all’ (Romans 11.32). And in doing so, God relies on us, the people of each generation who heard and believed his word, to assure others that his promise is certain: the promise of a future where all can know and be known by God; the promise of a world where righteousness is at home. This promise is both for our future—a time when God’s glory will be revealed to all people in his kingdom of justice and peace—and for now—a time when many neither know justice nor peace. At the end of time, it will be God who will ‘come with might’, bringing reward and recompense, bringing justice and peace, care and comfort for his people. Until that day, however, it is you and I who are called to show forth, through our actions, the values of God’s rule in own generation.

Here at St Paul’s we believe that this Cathedral can be a place where the transformative message of God’s kingdom can be made visible for our City, Diocese and Province. We believe that by living out the values of God’s kingdom we can be a place where people can find and nurture their own ‘highways to Zion’, their own pathways to God’s rule. We do so through our ministry of prayer: when we pray each day for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven; for God’s people to be given their daily bread; when we pray that God would forgive our sins, and in turn commit ourselves to live by the way of forgiveness and mercy. We do so through our ministry of welcome: welcoming those who increasingly know no welcome in this country, working for and with migrants and refugees in the heart of our state capital. We do so by sharing our conviction that God gives us a future, and by inviting others to put their trust in our hope. We do so by caring for the physical environment around us, and ensuring that generations yet to come will enjoy grass and flowers, mountains and valleys, and God’s breath blowing over them. We do so by inviting others to belong and find their home here in this church, and to know it to be a place where ‘the highway for our God’ can be found.

As we celebrate our belonging together and our joint ministry as Christians in this Province of Victoria, I invite you to share with us who worship and work at your home church in Melbourne’s CBD in being heralds of good tidings to those who may not yet know God’s good news; the good news that God gives us a kingdom and a future, that he assures us that our penalty has been paid in his Son Jesus Christ. The good news that he seeks to be ‘merciful to all people’ and that, as a token of this promise, he inscribes in the hearts of all who love him the map to this kingdom of peace and justice, reveals to us the ‘highways to Zion’.

Breaking down the walls that divide us

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In the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there is a small chapel, bare except for a large piece of rock.  A piece of rock that’s split straight through the middle.  The chapel is right underneath the place where Christians believe that Jesus was crucified.  The rock is the part of the bedrock on which the cross may have stood. That empty place is called the chapel of Adam.  It is named for the person that embodies all human beings.

This chapel is empty.  You’d miss it, if no-one told you it was there, walk past it because it only contains the bare rock of Calvary.  That is all there is, in the chapel of the father of the human race.  For me, that empty place is a strong reminder of how the power of Christ’s crucifixion has broken down the barrier between God and man, literally by splitting the bedrock of Calvary.

In this morning’s psalm—Psalm 51—the psalmist speaks with passion of that barrier that once separated man from God.  He describes his life that is lived apart from God, a life that to him is full of guilt that stands, dark and threatening, like a wall between the writer and God.  So deep is his feeling of guilt that the writer asks God to turn his gaze from his sinful life (51.9).  And yet, although he knows himself far from God, the writer still knows that God is inextricably linked to his own story, knows that ‘God desires truth in the inward parts’ (51.5).

At the same time, he also speaks of the profound realisation that there can be a way out for those who find themselves far away from the love of God: ‘I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me’, the psalmist prays (51.3).  Where we confess our sins, there is a way back to God; where we seek God’s help, there life and spirit can be renewed, the psalm singer has experienced.

And all that follows is God’s work: beyond confessing that he stands in need of God’s healing, there is nothing more the psalmist can do himself to improve his lot.  God does not desire sacrifices for sins, the psalmist knows, ‘for else he would give it to him’ (51.16).  God does not delight in burnt offerings for sins, either.  Rather, ‘the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit’, the acknowledgement of human sin, in the certain hope that God will pardon, the psalmist proclaims (51.15-17).

For me one of the most striking features of the chapel of Adam in the Holy Sepulchre is the fact that there you can see the bare bedrock on which the cross of Jesus is said to have stood.  Centuries later, it is still split in half.  For at the moment of Christ’s death the very rocks that supported the cross were split, we read in St Matthew’s account of the Passion.  Just as the curtain before the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple—the barrier that kept apart the sacred and the sinful—was rent asunder, so the ‘rock of ages’ was cleft for us, and remains there in Adam’s chapel as a visible reminder of our salvation.

At the moment of Christ’s death, the wall of separation, that dark wall of depression and guilt, came tumbling down, and a new relationship between God and man came into being.  A way of life that is based on our understanding that in the face of sin we are frail and helpless without God.  A way of life that is framed by the words of confession prayed by our psalmist—‘I acknowledge my transgressions’—the very words that stand at the beginning of the way to forgiveness.  A way of life that promises new hearts and spirits made new to those who acknowledge their sinfulness and seek God’s friendship.  A way of life that encourages us to become people who trust the saving work of Christ, people who know that it is in turning away from sin and believing the gospel, that we are made whole.

Photo credit: Wikimedia, The Chapel of Adam