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God’s Covenant: Journeying into God’s promise

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1 March 2015:

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Today’s readings (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Romans 4.13-25 and Mark 8.31-38) tell us about God’s promise to us: they make known to us God’s promise to be with us in what lies ahead, just as they are about God’s promise that you and I symbolise for this place and community. They reflect on the promises that have been, promises that have been fulfilled and for which we can express our thanks, just as they invite us to make God’s promise of a future in his presence our own by entering into a loving covenant with God. And they invite us to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead by becoming bearers of God’s promise ourselves.

At the heart of the story of God with his people stands a complex relationship between promises made, promises heard, and promises followed. God’s promise is founded on a recurrent pattern of constancy and faithfulness, and the regularity in which God’s past promises have been fulfilled can give a sense of certainty. The story of God also teaches us about the way in which promises have been fulfilled and opportunities been grasped; it tells us something about how we humans take up opportunities, or whether we let them pass by.

The story of God, then, can tell us more about ourselves: whether we grow into a promise and the potential that lies within us, or whether we disregard God’s promise in us altogether. And today’s lessons give us a particular insight into the pattern of promise fulfilled and followed found underlying all our Scriptures, show well the pattern of God’s promise in order to give us hope for our own futures and journeys of faith.

Our first two lessons (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4.13-25) take us the patriarch Abraham, the father of God’s people, and spiritual parent for three world faiths. It is in the promises made to Abraham that the story of God and his peoples begins. As, of course, does the story of the promise itself. In our first lesson we meet Abraham as he grapples with the implications of having believed in God’s promise. God had called Abraham from his home to travel to ‘the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12.1). God had promised that he would be with him, and bless him, and that he would make a ‘great nation’ of Abraham. Our first reading, with its poignant conversation—in a series of visions—between God and Abraham, comes after many miles of travel, and numerous adventures on the way: conflicts in Egypt, troubles by the Dead Sea, battles with local rulers. Our first lesson follows Abraham’s victory in battle. He should be contented, one would think, about having left the field victorious, prosperous in flocks, land and men. But Abraham is anything but happy: one crucial thing in his life is still lacking—he has no children, no heirs, to call his own.

‘How can I become a great nation without populating the lands that I have gained’, Abraham asks himself, and questions God about his intentions again and again: ‘You have given me no offspring’, he says, ‘how then am I to inherit this land?’ (Genesis 15.1-2) And God responded to Abraham’s plea, led him outside his tent, asked him to observe at the night-sky, and assured him: ‘As numerous as the stars of heaven, so shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15.5). And ‘Abraham believed in the Lord’, we read, ‘and the Lord reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness’ (Genesis 15.6). God not only gave direct answers to Abraham’s questions about whether the promise he made was true. God also took note of Abraham’s trust, of his faith, and he counted that trust as righteousness, we read.

The fact that Abraham took God’s promises on trust, and continued to put his faith in God’s purposes for him, is of great importance for us, the people who trace our spiritual lineage back to Abraham. That certainly is what St Paul believed when he wrote in our second lesson from the epistle to the Romans. For if Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was counted by God as righteousness, as setting the relationship between God and Abraham right, then that says something really important about the role of faith, and of trusting in God’s promises for all us, St Paul explains in our second lesson. For Paul, the story of Abraham becomes a test case for all the other promises God makes: Abraham’s trust in God’s good purposes is not only a sign of Abraham’s faith but a source of confidence for us, as we seek to discern God’s purposes, trace the pattern of new promises, and promises fulfilled, in our own lives.

For those who already believe in Jesus Christ, Paul says, the fact that God kept his promise to Abraham shows that they will never be disappointed in their faith in God. And for those who do not yet believe in Jesus, Paul says, the fact that God fulfilled the promises he made says something essential about God’s constancy. God is faithful and keeps his promises, Paul tells. And if we put our trust in that belief, then we, too, can grasp the promises that lie ahead of us in confidence, can safely step into the future, because we are entering into a pattern of many promises already fulfilled.

That is why Paul concludes: ‘The words “it was reckoned to him” were written not for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also’ (Romans 4.22-23). For these words give us hope that we, too, can safely put our trust, our faith, in God’s promises and purposes.

Where Abraham was promised to be the father of a great nation, we are promised to be children of God, are promised eternal life through Jesus Christ, Paul says. Knowing that Jesus died so that all people who believe in his promise can have life, Paul says, is the greatest hope there can ever be. A hope that will enable us to bear hardship and suffering, secure in the knowledge that God will keep his promises to us, just as he kept the promise made to Abraham. Immediately after the end of our second lesson, Paul reflects on that truth, and explains: ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Romans 5.3-5).

As we enter God’s promise, we won’t be shielded from setbacks, Paul makes clear, echoing our Gospel reading (Mark 8.31-38). ‘If anyone want to become my followers’, Jesus said in Mark’s Gospel, ‘let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8.36). No, we will not be kept from suffering. Rather, our setbacks will teach us endurance, a quality that will shape our characters, St Paul knows from his own experience. Endurance and hope, in turn, is what will make us the people we are called to be, St Paul says, is what will help us fulfil the potential that lies within us. And even though that potential may, at present, only be a promise, it certainly is already there. It is this potential and trust that invites us to step into what lies ahead with confidence.

God’s promise of a new life, and a future ‘throughout all generations’, his promise ‘to be God to you’ is fulfilled in each generation (Genesis 17.9). It embraces the past and the present; was there for the generations of Abraham, Jesus and Paul; and now is there for our generation.

God’s promise is fulfilled in every age, whenever people join together to enter into the covenant God makes, whenever people are marked as God’s people. Its future is ensured because every individual, each bearer of God’s promise, is invited to contribute their own gifts to perpetuate God’s gift of promise to those who have yet to hear it. For God’s promise of a future is only ever achieved in community, when many contribute their skills and, by fulfilling their own promise with other promise-bearers, fulfil a greater promise, accomplish abundantly more than they might have been able to do on their own.

Each one of us can bear God’s promise of a future to our world, where we recognise signs of that promise in one another, and together act to live as members of God’s covenant.

This morning’s readings invite us to make our own the promise made by God to Abraham and to Paul, and the promise made by Jesus to his followers. They invite us to step into the pattern of promise that God is faithful and constant, to experience and learn for ourselves that God worthy of our trust in him, and his purposes for us. They invite us to step into the promise that God will give us a life-long journey, give us a future, and a new life in return for our own lives.

They invite us to discern the promise that lies within us, our hidden gifts and talents, our potential for leadership or service in this community. Just as they invite us to regard one another in terms of promise: I have found that it often was other people who identified some of the potential and promise that lay within me. Above all, they invite us to step into what lies ahead together: as promise-bearers who, with others, can shape this community in the terms of the great promise that is given us; the promise that God will be constant, will bless us, and remain close to us, in all the opportunities that he will bring.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, give us, your people, grace
to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes and chances of this fleeting world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where lasting joys are to be found,
that we, loving you in all things and above all things,
may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.

Mary, Cleopas and we: Making the Easter Vision real

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:

Cross of Glory

‘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.