Tag Archives: Renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven on earth: living in the places in-between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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