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

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

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[Click for Audio on Soundcloud]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ⓒ Text and Audio: Andreas Loewe, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Lives made whole: Giving thanks for thirty years of the Ministry of Healing

186_028A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Healing Ministry at Sr Paul’s Cathedral on 27 October 2015:

‘The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs, to every town and place where he himself intended to go’, we just heard in our Gospel reading. And I wonder what the emotions of those newly-appointed ambassadors would have been like when Jesus sent them away? No doubt there would have been a sense of excitement, certainly, a sense of new beginnings, perhaps even adventure. But there would have also been a sense of bereavement, of sadness of leaving behind familiar surroundings, friends and family. And then there would probably have been a sense of awe, perhaps even inadequacy, of feeling ill equipped for the daunting task that lies ahead: the task of being an Apostle, of being sent out.

What was it that went through the disciples’ minds as Jesus directed them away from the familiar surroundings of their Galilean home to travel away from Nazareth and the cities around Lake Galilee? For many of them, the Lake had been their breadwinner. As fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John relied on the Lake for their livelihood, while Levi collected the road tolls on the main trading route—the Via Maris—that encircled the lake. Most of the people whom Jesus called into discipleship were Galileans; many had a home and family in the harbour town of Capernaum. Until now, they had remained in the landscape and among the people that had been their home, and which had been so familiar to them. And now Jesus sent them abroad: away from their Lake, their families and friends.

Unlike St Matthew’s parallel of tonight’s gospel reading, which tells us that the disciples are to go ‘nowhere among the gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans’, St Luke does not explain in detail where it is that Jesus sends the disciples—‘every town and place where he himself intended to go’ covers a huge area. In order to fill in the gaps, we need to take a look at the previous chapters of Luke’s Gospel. A few chapters before today’s reading, in chapter 6, we hear how ‘a great multitude from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon’—the heartlands of the Jewish faith and its neighbouring territories, came to hear Jesus at the lakeside and to seek healing. And in chapter 8 we hear how Jesus himself travelled across the Lake to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’—still on the lakeshore, but no longer Jewish.

As the disciples are being sent away from Lake Galilee, they are instructed to seek out the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, are told to proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and healing to the very people who had already travelled so far to seek out and hear Jesus’ teachings. Because that, I am sure, is what Jesus means when he encourages his disciples, ‘wherever you enter a house … remain in the same house. … Do not move from house to house’—‘when you travel, stay with those who have already come to hear us, and share with their friends the news they themselves had travelled to hear’. Here then, we reach a watershed in the Gospel, as the good news travels far beyond the lake counties, the home of Jesus and his friends, and the seedbed of his message.

This is therefore no ordinary journey. And so, as they set out to bring back into the fold of faith the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, Jesus firmly instructs his disciples not to rely on their own strength and resources but orders them to ‘carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’. Jesus’ directions to his ambassadors of the message of reconciliation and lives made whole here match the instructions for entry into the Jerusalem Temple as laid out in the Mishnah, the orally transmitted ritual law of the Jewish faith (Mish. Berakoth, 9.5). Just as no one was allowed to enter the temple with provisions, or money, or ornate clothing, so Jesus’ disciples also are to travel as if they were on pilgrimage, as if they were journeying to the Holy of Holies—light and taking only the barest of necessities.

Jesus instructs his apostles to travel as if they were pilgrims approaching the Temple Sanctuary, because he believes that the place where God’s presence can be discerned is not only located in Jerusalem, but rather that it can be found within the souls and bodies of those who hear and respond to his message; all who are willing to have their lives transformed. Our reading of the Gospels shows that his own relationship with the ritual temple cult was ambivalent at best, which is surely why he asks his disciples first to seek out those people who respond to his message with generosity—the ‘living temples of the faith’, as it were.

Certainly St Peter later spoke of mission in those terms, when he explained that we all are ‘living stones’ called by God to be formed into a spiritual temple on the foundation that Christ himself has laid (1 Pet. 2.5). Today’s Gospel reading illustrates well this principle: on the foundation of Jesus’ words and works, the seventy messengers are to build up into a spiritual home for God people throughout the Jewish world: That’s why Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel first to seek out the ‘living temples’, those whose interest for the good news is already awakened, whose faith can be discerned, and stay with them awhile as they make known the Gospel in their towns and villages.

And as he sends them on their mission Jesus pairs up his seventy ambassadors—so that each disciple will have a companion who walks with them. He ‘sent them on ahead of them—in pairs’, we read. Again, the reason for Jesus’ action probably has its roots in Jewish law. As we know from the reports of the trial of Jesus and our reading of the Old Testament, in a court of law valid testimony requires two witnesses (Deut 19.15). His disciples are clearly sent to be such witnesses—faithful observers who speak of the wisdom, his works of making people whole, and his deeds of power that had astounded so many in Jesus’ homeland. Yet they are not only sent as witnesses who will testify to another’s deeds—mere ‘hearers of the word of God’, as it were—but rather they are sent to witness to Jesus’ power by their own deeds—‘are doers of the word of God’—when they themselves cast out demons, and heal the sick.

Being sent to speak of Jesus’ deeds to others forms the foundation of Christian ministry, today’s Gospel reading makes clear. We are all called to be ready to be make known what we have witnessed of God’s work in those places into which he sends us. We are all called to be God’s ambassadors, speaking of our experience of the work of God among us, and the hope we have for that work in future. As we give thanks for thirty years of the ministry of healing here at St Paul’s, we acknowledge the many faithful ambassadors of the message of Jesus Christ: lay people and clergy who called others into friendship with Christ, who shared his good news with those who were broken hearted, or broken in body or soul. Faithful ambassadors who reached out to this city in prayer and compassion. People who longed to share with others their experience that this Cathedral is being transformative in their lives, how it has offered a place of welcome to them and many others, without judgement or prejudice, how St Paul’s is growing to be a place that hopes truly to be a home church for the people of this city and diocese, and a place where people can share in the ministry of reconciliation and be made whole.

In an age where the bad news about Church so often dominate public understanding of the Christian faith, it is doubly important that we take our role as ambassadors of Christ’s work seriously. That we tell others—especially those friends of ours who don’t share our commitment to the church–the good news about our own faith, that we share our hopes for our church for the future. And, that we don’t just talk about our faith, but also work on our faith. Work to become a community that truly will welcome and include all—a Cathedral and church community, in short, we‘d not only be happy to talk to our friends about but, more importantly, a place we’d be happy to take them to!

Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of this good news; people who are sent out to make known how Christ’s healing power can transform real lives and communities—our lives and our community. Ours is the calling to be ambassadors of Jesus, sent so that many others may hear about, and come to experience, the love and transformative power of God in this Cathedral and diocese. As we give thanks for the faithful ministry of our Healing Ministry, and consider its future, I want to encourage you to pray about what it may be that God is asking you to do as you seek to serve him, and continue to make known Christ’s good news of lives restored and people made whole, in this place.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved.

Celebrating the witnesses: Prayers from the writings of the heroes of faith

Holy SpiritIn preparation for the third session of the fifty-first Synod of our Diocese, I reflected on the writings of the three heroes of faith we commemorate during Synod week: St Teresa of Avila, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, and St Ignatius of Antioch. Here are the prayers I wrote based on their thoughts, which we will be using at the opening services of each session:

A prayer from the writings of Nicholas Ridley:

Grant us grace, O merciful Lord, to look beyond the things that are present, but with the eyes of our faith to behold the things that are everlasting in heaven: implant this vision in us, strengthen us to forgo the riches, honours and pleasures of this life and instead to bear Christ’s cross, so that, at the end, we may pass through the gate of death into everlasting life in your presence and be numbered with the chosen members of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

based on Nicholas Ridley’s Letter of Farewell ‘to the Prisoners in Christ’s Gospel’s cause (Letter XXXIII, October 1555)
 
A prayer from the writings of St Teresa of Avila:
Beloved Lord Jesus, your Kingdom is like hidden treasure and costly jewels: guide our hearts and show us the way to discover the beauty of heaven in the treasure of your Word, and the joy of heaven in the precious pearls of prayer and sacraments. Enlighten our paths that we may never enter the darkness of the evil one.  Strengthen our trust and love for you that, when this life’s journey is past, we may fully surrender our souls into your hands, and there experience the peace that comes from knowing that your will for us is done. For you are alive and and give life, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one Lord, forever and ever. Amen.
based on St Teresa of Avila’s ‘Fifth Dwelling’ of The Interior Castle (1588)
A prayer from the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch:
Lord Jesus Christ, who prayed with your apostles that they may be one as you and the Father are one: grant us the gift of unity that, founded on your Word and the teaching of the apostles, we may prosper in body and spirit, and grow faith and love into your household on earth. Lead us according to your will, shield us from the assaults of the prince of this world, that we may enter your kingdom and there enjoy you, Our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for you are the source of our unity and our life, our beginning and our end. Amen.
based on St Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians, I and XIII.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015

Bartholomew: Come, and behold God’s glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silence where God speaks: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:

450px-Cenotaph_HiroshimaThis morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.

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On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.

It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).

While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).

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Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.

At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.

God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.

Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.

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That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).

The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).

We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).

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‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.

It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Souls: at Sea and for Heaven

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

Red Bay RNLI getting ready to receive replacement Atlantic 85 lifeboat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015