Home » Posts tagged 'Resurrection'
Tag Archives: Resurrection
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:
As 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’ ( 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 ( 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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the Third Sunday after Easter, 19 April 2015, commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli:
‘Lest we forget’, is our national watchword for this day. Lest we forget the countless who gave their lives in the landings on Gallipoli we recall this week, in two world wars, and countless other conflicts since. Lest we forget those who died in acts of genocide, civil war and terror. Lest we forget that to this day people put their lives on the line for others—often as volunteers and just as often as innocent victims, helping neighbours caught between the lines. Yet in spite of our day of national remembrance, people frequently do choose to forget: not just when the focus of our news shifts from one trouble spot to another. Just as there are areas of conflict that hardly ever form part of our active remembrance.
The kind of remembrance that we practise on ANZAC Day is, by necessity, selective. Even the implicit underlying hope of ANZAC Day that, by remembering past national tragedies and sacrifice, we may somehow avert future conflict and wars remains, of course, only ever a fervent hope. The motivations for inner national and international conflicts and war—whether they arise out of greater national ambitions or the breakdown of relationships between ethnic and faith groups—are not removed by our remembering past conflicts and tragedies. The most careful study of past wars, and the intricate steps that led from diplomatic standoff to open warfare—steps that we can correctly identify this very day in the East Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan and many other African and Middle Eastern troublespots—will never prevent future bloodshed.
In order to address the underlying evil of war and conflict, we need to turn to another sort of remembrance altogether: the remembrance afforded by a commemoration often overshadowed by our national recollection. The ‘lest we forget’ that has shaped the Gospel of Saint Mark, on whose feast-day the ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli. An area not unknown to the evangelist Mark who very likely sailed through the Eastern Mediterranean alongside his cousin, Barnabas (Acts 15.39, Colossians 4.10).
Saint Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is as strong an invitation to remembrance as that afforded by today’s ‘other’ day of remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is also shaped by death and sacrifice: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45), the sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, many of whom ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him’, and some of whom even ‘lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the gospel’ (Mark 8.34-35). Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is not about a passive act of remembrance, undertaken once a year and then often forgotten until the next instalment of news of wars and conflict reminds us of the frailty of the commitment to peace and reconciliation so many of us make each year on this day.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is an active remembrance, an invitation to let our lives be transformed by our remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is the promise that, by our corporate remembrance, not only our communities but even our own bodies, will be reshaped, as we re-member—build up—the body of Christ as members of one another. And because the act of remembrance shown forth in Mark’s gospel is so visceral—people and communities reshaped as one body by their re-membering—we do hurt where others are hurting, we do hurt where parts of that body are injured, persecuted or rejected.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’, then, is an invitation to turn our national remembrance with its rituals that give meaning for a few weeks each year only, into a way of life that enables us to live our lives every day of the year. At the heart of Mark’s way remembrance stands the insight Mark makes known in the very opening verse of his story of Jesus: that this story is about ‘Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ and that that is the reason why this story is ‘good news’ (Mark 1.1). The remaining fifteen chapters of his gospel serve to illustrate how it is that Jesus ‘from Nazareth in Galilee’ is in fact the Son of God, and the expected Messiah, and how we can join in remembering him, by ourselves becoming members of him, becoming his followers, his disciples.
For Mark the story of Jesus is immediate and direct—not written to show how the life of Jesus would be a direct fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures like Matthew, not exhorting his readers to be open to the idea of a covenant for Jews as well as outsiders—gentiles and non-believers—like Luke, nor plunging into the depths of the mystery of the-Word-made-Flesh like John. Mark’s story is told rapdily, in staccato reporter-style: with every ‘and immediately’ or ‘and then’ adding evidence for his headline news, ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Those who shape Jesus’ story—his family, the people of his hometown, even his disciples—never fully grasp the truth of Mark’s headline news: his family try and restrain him because they believed that ‘he is out of his mind’, the people of Nazareth ‘took offense at him’, and his disciples never quite understand how it can be that Jesus heals the sick, walks on water, and feeds the thousands: even though they are witnesses to these miraculous events they neither remember nor, as Jesus tells them, do they understand (Mark 3.20, 6.1, 8.18).
Even when viewed from the end of the story and the vantage point of the resurrection—at which point most of the protagonists know very well who Jesus is—even the Roman centurion confesses Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 15.39)—his disciples do not believe Mark’s headline news. They see the empty tomb—today’s gospel reading tells us—they hear God’s messengers and witnesses confirm what Jesus had prophesied, and nevertheless they do not believe.
In fact, the walk away from the news. The first witnesses ‘trembling and in astonishment, saying nothing to anyone’ (Mark 16.8), the second witness, Mary Magdalene, telling the news but not believed (Mark 16.10), the third set of witnesses encountered in the country—surely on the way to Emmaus, as also told in Luke’s Gospel—telling the news and not believed, either (Mark 10.13).
Mark’s gospel is the only gospel where the risen Lord ‘rebukes the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mark 16.14). Until the very end of the story—even when they have all received the crucial information that will make sense of all their experiences—the disciples refuse to remember and understand.
This is what selective remembrance does, Mark tells us. This is what happens when we restrict the sentiment ‘lest we forget’—however strongly and genuinely felt at the time we make it—to one day only: whether ANZAC Day, or Easter Day. Today’s gospel assures us that disciples would have forgotten even the most powerful sign of all—the Lord of life breaking the bonds of death—because their remembrance was selective and passive: recalling only death where there were signs of new life, recalling only sadness at the tragedy that has been where there was astonishment at the encounter with the Risen One.
This ANZAC Day, let the watchword for our nation and our church be Mark’s, ‘Lest we forget’. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we recalled only the tragedy of wasteful death, and not the miracle of life reshaped by those who continue to work for peace and reconciliation when the cameras have long moved on. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we have simply walked away, having either failed to observe or to believe the signs of lives transformed in our nation and communities.
Instead, let us remember purposefully and actively. Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is encouragement for me at St Paul’s actively to remember the plight of migrants and refugees who fled the conflicts that make, or used to make, our television news by offering them a welcome, a listening ear; and the opportunity to learn more about this land, its people and its language. It is the same ‘lest we forget’ that motivates our welcome to 400,000 visitors and pilgrims who come here every year, and our ambition seeking to provide a home for all Anglicans—whatever their background—to find a place where they can come to experience Mark’s headline news: ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Mark’s good news concludes with the conviction that his headline news will be made known everywhere by people who actively remember and re-member: who both recall the transforming life of the resurrection, and seek to build up the resurrection body of Christ on earth in the ways they shape and sustain their communities. Mark’s good news is good news for today, because he assures us that when we live out his ‘lest we forget’ by our active remembrance, ‘the Lord will work with us, confirming this news by accompanying signs’. The signs of resurrection in our midst, that will enable us together to show forth ways that lead out of conflict, hatred and even warfare. The signs that confirm Mark’s good news and which, if we keep on remembering, may even turn our national commemoration of conflicts past into a celebration of future hope: Lest we forget that the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015.
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Holy Trinity, Hampton Park, on Remembrance Sunday 2014:
This morning’s readings (Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Matthew 26.17-19, 26-30) assure us that God remembers each one of his own who has died; that he will bring together, at the end of all ages, all those who have lost their lives; and that it is by our corporate remembrance, our active recalling of those whose lives have been lost, that we can share in that assurance of lives restored.
Our word ‘to remember’ is the direct English equivalent of the Latin verb ‘re-memorari’. The second part of that word—‘memorari’—comes from the noun ‘memoria’, from which we derive our word ‘memory’. The Latin prefix ‘re-’ often means ‘again’ or ‘back’. To remember a person or an event, therefore, means to have an intensive awareness of someone or something in one’s mind: to be intensely mindful of someone.
That is one, and the most conventional, way of looking at the word. Now imagine the same word with a hyphen. If you add a hyphen between ‘re-’ and ‘member’, the word suddenly changes its meaning altogether. To ‘re-member’ may look very much like our first word, but has very different roots. Yes, it shares the Latin prefix ‘re-’—‘again’ or ‘back’—but its second part comes from the Latin ‘membrum’—‘limb’ or, somewhat archaically, a ‘member’.
To ‘re-member’, then, means to bring together, reassemble, members and limbs. It means to bring to life someone or something that was broken and therefore is the direct opposite of the word to ‘dis-member’. This morning’s readings invite us to put our communal remembrance of the conflicts, wars and acts of terror that have brought us together this morning, in the context of both of these words.
Our first reading, a momentous vision from the prophecy of Ezekiel, illustrates well the second—the hyphenated—meaning of the word re-member. The prophet finds himself in a vast plain, surrounded by dismembered, dried out bones; a valley full of dead bones without any hope of life. At first he is not told where these bones come from, God’s hand simply leads him around the bones. Ezekiel may be standing in the middle of a mass grave, or a place where generations of the dead have been placed; at this point the prophecy doesn’t tell us more about their provenance. All we know is that there ‘are very many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry’ (Ezek. 37.2).
And God charges Ezekiel to prophesy to these very many, very dead bones. God commands him to proclaim his word to them. And as Ezekiel makes known God’s word to the assembly of dried up dismembered bones, we hear him speak words of resurrection: ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones’, Ezekiel proclaims to the valley of dry bones, ‘I will cause breath to enter in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37.5). Immediately, at the very time that Ezekiel proclaims God’s message of resurrection to the dispersed bones, they are re-membered: ‘the bones came together, bone to its bone’ (Ezek. 37.7). As the prophet speaks the words of resurrection, the disconnected bones become assembled, limb to limb, member to member, in this divine act of re-membering. And, as he continues to prophecy the words that God gives him, suddenly ‘sinews were on them, … flesh had come upon them; and skin had covered them’ (Ezek. 37.8). A valley of bones, re-membered, re-clothed with sinews and skins standing before Ezekiel, ‘but there was no breath in them yet’ (Ezek. 37.8).
And now Ezekiel is commanded to call on the breath, to fill the empty bodies with life. He calls on God’s spirit, speaks into the four corners of the earth—wherever their breath had been scattered—to fill the bodies, blows on them as one would kindle a fire, in-spires the empty bodies ‘that they may live again’ (Ezek. 37.9). And as God’s spirit filled them, the bodies stand and live, and God reveals to the prophet that the vast multitude before him is the whole house of Israel, a people once dispersed and dead, now re-membered and resurrected.
Yet although they stand, looking to all intents like real people—with fresh skins on their dead bones and the breath of life within their bodies—deep down they remain people who remain disconnected from one another and from God, we read. They tell the prophet: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are lost completely’ (Ezek. 37.12). And the word of God spoken by the prophet addresses them in their hopelessness, prophecies how God will bring them back, not only from their graves, but restore them to the heavenly kingdom that he had promised; how God will put his spirit within them, so that they may live. And all so that they may know that the Lord alone is, indeed, their God.
God will bring life, even in the midst of death, the prophet tells the vast army of the people of Israel. God has re-membered them, and will not forget them either. Another Dean of another St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne of London’s St Paul’s, reflected on this hope like this in one of his sermons:
God knows in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies … and he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his saints and, in the twinkling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sat down at[ the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection (Sermon LXXXI, 19 November 1627).
God re-members, brings together, his broken people, by remembering, recalling each one that has been lost to death.
Just as our first reading proclaims God’s mighty works of re-membering, of putting together again those who were broken, wherever they may rest, so our second reading shows us how we, too, can engage in the work of remembrance. For at the heart of our gospel reading from St Matthew stand words that form the centre of our own worshipping life, as we gather round Christ’s table: ‘This is given for you; do this in remembrance of me’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19). Do this, so that you may remember me, Christ says, and points to the broken bread that symbolises his body, the body that is about to be broken on the cross.
And so our daily sharing in the broken bread becomes not only the ultimate act of remembrance—a time when we recall intently the work of our salvation and the fulfilment of God’s promise that all may one day come to share in the promised heavenly kingdom—but also is meant to be a share in his work of re-membrance, of bringing together the members of the body of Christ, however dispersed, however disconnected from one another and from God they may feel, however broken they may be. At Christ’s table, as we come to remember him, we are all re-membered, are brought together, are given a share in God’s mighty work of deliverance in the death and resurrection of Christ. At Christ’s table, we make present this deliverance in our midst, and we do so by our act of remembering, as each individual member of his body shares in the bread and wine and we, ‘though we are a many, become one body, because we all share in the one bread’ (1 Cor 10.17).
We stand at Christ’s table not merely as a living assembly of humans—like the multitude of dried bones, now covered in flesh and given breath though still without hope, that once filled the valley of Ezekiel’s vision—but as living members, as limbs of Christ’s own body, connected to him, sharing in the pains he feels in the hope that we, too, might come to share the risen life he brings. As we remember him breaking the bread, the sign of his body, at table with his disciples, we also re-member—bring together—his broken body, become members one of another and of Christ; all by doing this ‘in remembrance of him’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19).
On this Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the centenary of the Great War and the enormity of its cost, I invite you to share in the remembrance that both recalls in our minds and brings together again what has been broken by illness, suffering, war or hatred. I invite you to remember—to recall—how by letting his own body be broken on a cross, Christ has taken up in himself all brokenness in order to make it whole. And as you receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion I invite you to re-member—to build up and become—his body on earth: be re-connected with one another and with Christ himself, as members of his body, so that together we may make known the work of his healing, wholeness and redemption in an age still marred by conflict and war.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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:
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).
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).
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Third Sunday of Easter at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne:
‘The Lord is risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon’ (St Luke 24.36), the couple rushing back from Emmaus told the startled disciples—a couple transformed by their meeting, on the open road, with the risen Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Cleopas and his wife Mary, who had stood with the women under the cross of Jesus (John 19.25; for the view that Cleopas’ unnamed companion is, in fact, his wife, Mary of Clopas, see: Richard Bauckham), make their way from Jerusalem through the hill country to ‘a village called Emmaus’ (St Luke 24.13). All their hopes were quashed, ‘they stood still, looking sad’, we hear (St Luke 24.17). And they told the stranger who had joined them on their walk about the things that worried them: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place’ (St Luke 24.19-21). ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’, they said to the stranger. And in their hearts may well have thought: ‘but this was not to be. It was all in vain’, they may have thought. ‘And now it’s too late to do anything about it’.
And the stranger who had joined them on their way told them: ‘You fools—do you not know that the Messiah had to suffer in order to be glorified?’ (St Luke 24.26). The Messiah has to suffer, he told them, before he can be revealed in glory. And he interpreted the Scriptures, so that they would understand why this was so. And they took to him, and asked him to stay with them: ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (St Luke 24.29). And it was there, as night fell and deep darkness surrounded them, that they recognised the stranger by the way he broke the bread at table. And just as they recognised him, Jesus—for it was he—disappeared from their sight. And they said to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (St Luke 24.32). And Cleopas and his wife Mary rushed back into the night to return to Jerusalem, to tell the other disciples that the Lord had indeed risen from the dead.
The couple on their way from Jerusalem were wearied from the events that had led to Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion. Their world had been shattered; they still found themselves surrounded by the darkness that descended onto Jerusalem on the afternoon of Good Friday—during the time that Jesus hung on the cross. That cloud had not been lifted from them. And for some of us, that cloud may not have been lifted, either. On the contrary—news reports from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, closer to home, Nauru—only add substance to that darkness. And then there are the many personal darknesses in our lives. I can understand why Cleopas and Mary want the risen Christ to stay with them: many of us would want the risen Christ to remain with us in our darkness: ‘Stay with us’, we’d like to say to him, ‘because darkness is gathering, and it will soon be completely dark outside’ (St Luke 24.29).
Stay here, Lord, stay with us and shield us from that darkness. But that is not what Jesus does. Jesus does not stay with the couple on the road to Emmaus. Instead the Mary and Cleopas leave their homes once more, and turn back, and enter the darkness once more. They brave the darkness that holds all their fears in order to return to their friends, to tell them that it is indeed true: ‘The Lord has risen, indeed’, they say (St Luke 24.34). And their joy at the news of Christ’s resurrection bursts through the darkness that had frightened them so much. The psalmist assures us that darkness, the thick tangible darkness where those horrors lurk that make the news or the subject-matter of deep and difficult conversations, that that darkness is not dark in the eyes of God: ‘Even the darkness is not dark to you’, we read in Psalm 139, ‘the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139.11). And in the light of this assurance, and the experience of Cleopas and Mary, we are to do as they did: we, too, are to rush out back into the darkness to tell others that there is no reason to be afraid any more.
How great the surprise of Mary and Cleopas must have been when they returned to Jerusalem: they had just finished telling the other disciples what had happened on the road, and how they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread when, we read in the continuation of today’s gospel story, ‘Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (St Luke 24.36). The same Jesus who would not stay with them in their comfortable road-side inn, the same Jesus who sent them hurrying back into the night of their fears and worries, that Jesus appeared before them in the midst of their room and told them: ‘Peace be with you’. And they must have understood why Jesus just could not remain with them in the inn at Emmaus. Why they had to journey through the night—only to be greeted by Jesus at Jerusalem. The peace that Jesus bestows on them—the ‘peace be with you’—was the peace that had overcome their experience of the darkness, on the road back home.
Meeting Jesus can change lives like that. We heard in our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, how the frightened disciples, who in last week’s gospel were still seen meeting behind bolted doors in that desolate upper room of the Last Supper, became bold preachers of the message of Christ’s resurrection. We read how they overcame their own darknesses to spread the light of Christ. And we are told, that we are called to be ‘witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48). We, too, are to tell those around us that there can be light in the midst of all that darkness. We are to tell—we read—‘that forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (St Luke 24.47). And this is the most important message to us this Easter-time: that meeting Jesus changes lives. That Jesus—now as much as then in that Upper Room—speaks words of peace to his people. And I have come to know that this work of transformation from sinfulness to forgiveness, from fear of darkness to peace and radiant light, begins when Jesus’ followers—when you and I—join together in making this Easter vision a reality.
It is this Easter Vision that lies at the heart of our Cathedral’s vision to become a place of transformation in the life of our city and diocese. We can glimpse it when we meet to break bread in our worship Sunday by Sunday; when we share a meal at our monthly congregational lunches and young adults’ group meetings. We can see it in the lives of others whenever our many volunteers—Chaplains, guides, shop volunteers and welcomers—welcome visitors to this building. We observe it through our work with migrants and refugees through our English as a Second Language program, our ministry of prayer and healing. We see it at work when we witness adults and children come to faith through our enquirers’ programs, through baptism and confirmation preparation. We see it at work even when we plan to renew our office and meeting spaces, or our procedures and governance, so that they become resources and instruments for ministry.
A record of this lived-out vision is set before us in our 2013 Annual Report. It gives glimpses into our rich life and many ministries, and pays tribute to the generosity of time and talents of our staff and volunteers, and records some of the milestones on our journey—the achievements our Cathedral community who have already joined to help make our Easter Vision a reality. I am delighted to serve this Cathedral as Dean, and am thankful for the many moments in the past year when the Easter Vision has been shown forth in the lives of our congregations, and our Cathedral community: moments that help us on our journeys to transform our city and diocese through the light of our Easter faith.
The Easter Vision that today’s readings set before us encourage us first of all to recognise the signs of renewal in our midst—the ‘talking on the road’, the sharing in the breaking of bread, that can lead to recognition of the living Lord in our midst, that can set our own hearts aflame. And out of that recognition, our readings tell, comes the motivation for action: with the first disciples, and all those who, through the generations have borne witness to this Easter truth, we, too, are called to share in that life-changing power: we are invited to recognise the signs of Easter life in our midst, and then to go and face the darknesses that surround us. I look forward to contributing with you—through giving of our gifts, our time and our talents—to this Easter Vision. For like Mary and Cleopas, who braved the darkness of the Emmaus road to witness to the true light in their lives, so we, too ‘are to be witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48); people who to carry the good news to those who yet have to recognise and believe that the Lord is risen indeed, and is alive and changing lives in our midst today.
© Andreas Loewe, 2014.
Into the darkness of the first Good Friday, when sun and moon were eclipsed, Jesus speaks his last, ‘It is finished’. And breathed his last, bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19.30). This work of completion is accomplished alone, in darkness. It is witnessed only by those who cared for him most: his mother, his aunt, his beloved disciples Mary and John. They see the man they love wrestle with death; see him struggle against the human sadism that invented this torturous way of ending another’s life. Parched, dried out like a potsherd, they see his lips purged with hyssop and sour wine (Psalm 22.15). They see his final struggles against death and see him lose. They see him gasp for breath like a drowning man, as his life is ripped away from him. They hear his last words. ‘It is finished’. It is accomplished. All is completed, all is now done. They see his head drop in death, and see him give up his spirit.
There, from the cross, God sends again the Spirit that brought into being our universe. The Spirit that hovered over the darkness of an unformed void on the day when God called our world into being. The Spirit that called into being light in darkness, gave shape to sky and earth, created all the creatures that inhabit it. The Spirit that called into being a man and a woman, made human families and gave them life; a life God proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). The Spirit that taught us of love, and goodness, created bonds of belonging, shaped an entire people chosen by God for living. It is that Spirit which now again is given to the world. On the cross as the world is re-created in the formless void between day and night. As the world completes its descent into the dark that gave shape to the knowledge that so much of what once had been ‘very good’ had become cruelly distorted and broken by human selfishness and sin, God in Christ sends out his Spirit once more. Not to create a new world, but to complete his work of restoring the world which he has made to be very good.
‘It is finished’. The work of re-creation is complete and there, in the darkness of Good Friday, all that has to be done to bring about the world that can be ‘very good’ is already accomplished, God knows.
Where those who stand by in the darkness of this death can only see brokenness, God sees the beginnings of a new creation, the potential of a world that can be remade by his Spirit. Where those who stand at the foot of the cross can only see a man ‘struck down by God and afflicted’, God sees his servant ‘wounded for our transgressions’, sees his only, beloved Son, ‘on whom was laid the punishment that made us whole’ (Isaiah 53.5). Where those who bear the weight of grief this first Good Friday, God opens the ‘new and living way’ into his presence (Hebrews 10.20); the way that will transform the finality of death into the gate to life eternal, at the triumph of life on Easter morn. Where those who witness Jesus’ final moments on earth may only feel a dying man’s breath, God sees his Spirit call into being a new covenant. A covenant in which God himself transforms our hearts and minds. A covenant in which God will humble himself to dwell in us, by placing his laws in our hearts and writing them in our minds (Hebrews 10.16). A covenant in which sin gives way to forgiveness, and death to life.
And when, at the end of that long first Good Friday, the soldiers come once again to take Jesus—this time to remove him from the cross—those who saw Christ accomplish all on the cross also witness the signs of that new covenant. They see a soldier pierce Jesus’ side; see blood and water flowing from his body (John 19.34). Blood to sprinkle clean our hearts ‘from an evil conscience’; water to wash our bodies from sin, as we read in today’s epistle reading (Hebrews 10.22). Signs of the new covenant that God established on the cross, symbols of the faithful promise that God made of sin forgiven, lives transformed, and death defeated. Signs for us to share whenever we meet together to worship: water that reminds us of our own baptisms; blood that reminds us of the meal Jesus gave us to remember him. Symbols of our new hope that encourage us to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10.23).
At the foot of the cross, those who saw Jesus die, witnessed the death of an old order and the birth of something new. As they were looking on then, they may only have seen death. But as they came to write the story of this extraordinary death, they began to see the signs of new birth even as they documented death. They wrote down this story, ‘so that we also may believe’ (John 19.35). They knew their testimony to be the truth, and tell the story to us, so that we may share their conviction. The conviction that God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more, where we seek his forgiveness and friendship (Hebrews 10.16). The conviction that in dying, Christ has brought to life a new covenant on the cross. The conviction that because he bore the sins of us all, we might approach God ‘with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts … clean’ (Hebrews 10.20-22). The conviction that because he gave his life for us, Christ also opened for us a ‘new and living way … through his flesh’; has opened the gate to life eternal (Hebrews 10.20).
This conviction was informed by witnessing the tragedy of the cross, and the miracle of the resurrection. It was confirmed by seeing life taken by human cruelty and sin, and life restored by God’s grace and love. It was strengthened by seeing soldiers torture a loved one and by touching the same marks of death—the enduring marks in his hands and side—in Christ’s resurrection body. Today, these witnesses invite us to share their beliefs. Today, they invite us to believe with them that the words Jesus spoke from the cross, ‘it is finished’, marked not the end but a new beginning (John 19.30). Today, they invite us to share their beliefs that the signs of death the soldiers saw, the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, were the symbols of life. Today, they invite us to share their confidence that he, who has promised to make a gracious covenant of life with us by dying on the cross for us, is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).
This Good Friday, I invite you to place your trust in the witness of John and Mary, the beloved disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Clopas. I invite you to share their grief at the loss of one greatly beloved. I invite you to share their sadness at the brokenness of our own humanity, and the sorrow of our own sinfulness. And I invite you to share their certainty that the one who was broken for us on the cross, has conquered death and is alive, and delights in sharing his life with us today. I invite you to approach their beloved friend, Jesus Christ with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, and to find in him your Saviour, Lord and friend. Thanks be to God.
An address by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at a commemoration of the lives of Dr Marie-Faith Fiawoo, Bridget and Alexander Jones, at St Paul’s Cathedral, on 28 March 2014, the first anniversary of their accidental death following the sudden collapse of a wall on Swanston Street:
What is the most important thing in life God gives us, Jesus is asked by a teacher of the law in today’s gospel reading. And Jesus tells him that the most important thing in life is love: ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus responds (St Mark 12.29-31). The greatest thing there is, is love: God’s profound, generous love for us; and, out of that overflowing love, our own capacity to love ourselves and those around us: ‘love God with all your heart and your soul, and your mind, and your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’.
Love is the source and purpose of our being: we were created out of love and for love when God made humankind in his image as women and men, and saw that what he made was ‘very good’. And love is the goal of our being: as Christians we believe that God showed forth his love for us most closely when he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, so that we might share in his love, and live lives freed from the fear of sin, and death. The love we have for one another, the love that sustains our being, is rooted in the profound love that God has for us, and showed forth in the death of his only Son, Jesus.
And because of that love, Christians believe that death has been conquered by love; that although in the midst of live we face death, death is not forever: rather, we believe that love is forever. Love for the God who gives us life when we a born, and a new life when we die. Love for ourselves, and all that is good and life-giving in our lives. Love for those we love, and those God gives us to be our neighbours: our friends and companions on our journey through life.
It is in this confidence that we honour today the lives of the three young scholars who died a year ago today as a wall further up this Street collapsed on them, killing researcher Dr Marie-Faith Fiawoo, whose family join us today to remember her life with us, and students Bridget and Alexander Jones. We remember them today, and give thanks for what they were to us: three people we recall because we love them, even though they have been taken from us. And we give thanks that the gift of love remains for us: the love they gave us, the love we have for them, and the love that God gives us and all who love him. A love that is forever; a love that is stronger than death itself.
‘One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Thanks be to God for the gift of the lives of Marie-Faith, Bridget and Alexander, and for the love that we have for them. And thanks be to God that his gift of love conquers death and has given us, and all the departed, the firm and certain hope of life in his presence forever. Amen.
Photo credit: Wayne Taylor, The Age
Bach’s St John Passion was first heard on Good Friday 1724, in Leipzig’s St Nikolai Church. Bach deliberately crafted the Passion to enable the congregation to reflect more profoundly on the story of the arrest, trials, death and burial of Jesus. Bach’s unknown librettist drew on St John’s Passion narrative, contemporary poetry – some of which had been written for a contemporary Passion Oratorio by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – and traditional Lutheran chorales to tell the story of how Jesus came to be crucified.
Bach’s St John Passion would have concluded Good Friday worship in Leipzig. The work was written for a performance at the evening service, following that morning’s extensive meditation on the death of Christ. Accordingly, in his sermon at St Nikolai following the singing of the first part of the Passion, the preacher reflected especially on the burial of Christ. In his Passion Bach turns the preacher’s message into music: the two final movements of the Passion tell of the believers’ conviction that the death of Christ has broken the power of death itself, and transformed the grave into a place of hope, Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist/ Und ferner keine Not umschließt,/ Macht mir den Himmel auf/ und schließt die Hölle zu (the grave, so is destined for you/ and no further misery surrounds/ Makes heaven open/ And Hell shut to me, movement 39). At the end of the Passion, the hearers are encouarged to give voice to this hope themselves in the words of the closing chorale: death has been defeated, and the grave has become a room to retreat into, a Schlafkämmerlein (little sleeping chamber) where our bodies may rest, Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein/ bis am jüngsten Tage! (gently without any torment or agony at all,/ until the last day, movement 40).
The journey to that place of rest and hope is a dramatic tale of betrayal and power-play, of agony and pain. Bach’s Passion begins and ends in a garden near the city of Jerusalem. We join Jesus and the disciples as they cross over the Bach Kidron (Kidron stream) – it is as if the composer, himself a ‘Bach’, joins the disciples on their journey in music across Jesus’ Rubicon. We take our leave from two other disciples in the garden of the resurrection, where they laid their friend to rest. The story told between the two gardens leaves little doubt that not one of the participants in this drama – not even Jesus’ followers – fully recognised the true identifty of Jesus. Throughout the Passion Jesus’ opponents struggle to understand how Jesus can be called a ‘King’ since he clearly has neither kingdom nor earthly power, just as his close followers fail to comprehend how Jesus can be the ‘resurrection and life’. Indeed, at at the end of the Passion we encounter the disciples as they bury Jesus, with no expectation of ever seeing him again alive.
Much of the musical drama of the St John Passion comes to life because of these misunderstandings. Jesus’ trial before Pilate, with its dramatic crowd scenes, in which the religious leaders of the land accuse Jesus of being an insurgent claimant to the vacant throne of Judea, thrives on misunderstood truths, and confused loyalties. Pilate himself has little understanding – nor, frankly, interest – in truth. Was ist Wahrheit (What is truth? movement 18a) he asks Jesus during his interrogation, a question that Jesus, who earlier in John’s gospel spoke of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), pointedly leaves unanswered. Nor has Pilate any sympathy for faith: he purposefully goads the religious hierarchy into professing their loyalty to the hated Roman Emperor by dressing the flogged prisoner in royal garments. In his music Bach suggests that Pilate’s sense of justice is as twisted as as crown of thorns the soldiers pressed on Jesus’ head. Many of Pilate’s statements are set to augmented fourths – tritones, the Baroque diabolus in musica (devil in music), often used as a symbol of mischief or evil intent. Pilate not only twists Roman justice, but also manipulates the Jewish leaders. At the end of the trial, the high priests are forced to affirm their fealty to Rome: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser (We have no king but the Emperor, movement 23f) they shout, at the risk of foregoing even the little self determination they had enjoyed under the occupying forces.
Even Jesus’ close friends who, John’s gospel tells, had followed and learnt from Jesus for more than two years, do not really understand their teacher. They certainly find it hard to comprehend that when Jesus spoke of the need for his followers to ‘take up their cross’, when he said that his glory would he be revealed by being lifted up on a cross, or when he foretold his resurrection, he was speaking literally. This is shown well in their differing individual reactions to Jesus: one of his followers, Judas, hands him over to the combined forces of Roman soldiers and Temple authorities. Another, Peter, denies him. The others desert him. Only ‘the disciple whom he loved’ remains at Jesus’ side and sees him die on the cross. At the end of the Passion story it is two of his secret followers who bury him. In his music, Bach consistently points to the literal meaning of discipleship. Nachfolge, following Jesus, means taking up the cross: when Peter and John follow Jesus to the high priest’s residence to witness his trial, the composer shapes the words folgete Jesu nach (followed after Jesus, movement 8) like a cross. Following Jesus did mean taking up the cross ‘day by day’; meant journeying with Jesus to the cross, witnessing his death, rather than abandoning or denying him.
Many of the arias of the Passion serve to underline this insight. It is re-told in music in the call on Jesus to support the believers’ journey of faith in the dance-like soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls (I follow you equally, movement 9) as much as by expressing the grief of betrayal and the lack of human wisdom in the tenor aria, Ach mein Sinn (Oh my reason, movement 13). The arias of the Passion, then, give voice to complex emotions. In the paired Tenor Arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel (Consider my soul), and the ensuing Aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (Contemplate, how his blood-coloured back, movement 20), those emotions are the bittre Lust/ und halb beklemmtem Herzen (bitter happiness and half anguished heart, movement 19) of seeing Jesus suffer: happiness that redemption is being wrought by Jesus’ suffering; anguish because it is hard to see someone you love suffer. Jesus’ suffering is at once the believer’s Wermut (wormwood) as it is the key to heaven – Himmelsschlüsselblume (‘heaven-key-flower’) – is at once the believers’ Sündflut (sin-flood) as it is the allerschönste Regenbogen (most beautiful rainbow of all). All of these emotions Bach paints in evocative music: his depiction of the rainbow in music is breathtaking – ‘literally, if you are the tenor soloist’, as the theologian and librettist NT Wright quips in his Foreword to my commentary on Bach’s St John Passion. It is this combination of anguish and happiness, terror and longing, brutality and hope, that characterises many of the arias in the Passion.
At the same time, many of Bach’s arias leave little doubt of the faith in resurrection and new life. In the aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished, movement 30), sung as Jesus spoke his last, the triumph of the Held aus Juda (Hero of Judah) and the Trauernacht (night of mourning) are beautifully juxtaposed to testify to Jesus’ accomplishment: death defeated by death. And if there had been any doubts at all as to the meaning of Jesus’ death, Bach adds another aria immediately after the short, matter-of-fact, recitative that records the death of Jesus: in the aria Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen (My dear Saviour, let me ask you, movement 32), the Bass soloist asks the dead Jesus about the meaning of death, and the hope of new life, while the entire chorus confirms Jesu, der du warest tot/ lebst nun ohne Ende (Jesu, you who were dead/ Live now without end); affirms the hope of believers reconciled to God, and new life gained through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Where the arias of the Passion provide moments of individual reflection for Bach’s hearers on the most important questions of faith – life and suffering, loyalty and discipleship, death and resurrection – the carefully chosen chorale verses enabled hearers to root these reflections in their day-to-day experience of worship: for Lutherans singing was (and remains to date) a central way of giving voice to a lived out faith. And where, as in movement 22, Bach’s unknown librettist was unable to source a suitable Lutheran chorale, a contemporary poem was set to music in such a way that it felt, and sounded, just like a chorale. It serves to express the central doctrine of the Passion, and Luther’s theology of the cross: denn gingst du nicht die Knechtschaft ein/ müsst unsre Knechtschaft ewig sein (if you had not gone into slavery/ our slavery must have been forever).
Bach retells one of the most dramatic stories told in Biblical words, devotional hymns and contemporary poetry; carefully and beautifully set to music. He helps us navigate that story by placing recurrent musical devices in the St John Passion. His Baroque tropes were intended as much for the careful listener, as for the performer: the cross-motifs or shapes in the score or the tritones that reveal that not all that is spoken by Pilate should be taken at face-value (and certainly not his desire to ‘let Jesus go’, movement 21). The sharps, in German called Kreuze (crosses), because they look like two crosses superimposed on one another that appear in the score as the story moves closer to Golgotha. Bach’s plays on numbers: the reference to the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not kill, introduced by five rising chromatic semitones on töten (kill) in the religious leaders’ protest, Wir dürfen niemand töten (We may not put anyone to death, movement, movement 16d), or the reference to all ten commandments in the ten fugal entries of their Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have a law, movement 21f). The rattling of dice as the Roman soldiers gamble for the seamless robe (movement 27b) and, finally, the musical sense of completion at Jesus’ final words, Es ist vollbracht (movement 29).
The hearers who shared Bach’s Lutheran cultural horizon would have heard and understood Bach’s story of the Passion from the vantage point of Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They would have believed that the new life Christians celebrate at Easter was born on the cross. Bach’s St John Passion continues to effect profound personal responses in listeners, whether or not they share his Christian faith. For those who do not share the Christian faith, it tells the story of relationships severed and newly-forged, of the risks and gambles of power-play and politics, of torture and human suffering, of death and the longing for certainty when faced with the existential questions of life. For Christians, Bach’s St John Passion adds a further dimension to this prototypically human story: it gives shape to their story of salvation by taking listeners straight to the cross and placing them firmly at its foot to witness the death of Jesus, in the hope that by travelling on Jesus’ Marterstrasse, ‘road of torture’, by going with him to the cross, they, too, may come to share Christ’s life reborn; to share the Leben ohne Ende, ‘life without end’ in his presence.
Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in Music History at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His book Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary, Brill Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Leiden/New York: Brill, 2014) is for sale at a specially discounted rate for audience members and can be ordered online.