Tuesday, 27 March 2018

"Alive to God in Christ Jesus": a sermon (Romans 6:5-11; Mark 16:1-8)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

A few things –four, in fact - have jumped out at me as I was preparing to preach for Easter this year.


The first thing that jumped out at me is the fact that there are some high-profile legal proceedings going on in Melbourne, and that these legal proceedings promise to go on for a few months.

A senior leader of a mainstream Christian Church has been accused of a number of charges of sexual assault against minors, with many of these charges being decades old.  I don’t know if he’s guilty or not.  I don’t want to speculate on his guilt or innocence.  I believe Cardinal Pell has the same common law right to the presumption of innocence as anyone else accused of a crime, whether this be a VIP or some homeless wino accused of shoplifting.

Nevertheless, this case will be hard for many people:
·        the Cardinal,
·        his accusers,
·        any other person who is a survivor of child sexual abuse,
·        any family member of a survivor or a victim of child sexual abuse.

This will also be a hard time for the life of all the Christian churches in this country, not merely for the Catholics.

Following the findings of the Royal Commission last year, as far as the average person in our community is concerned,
·        for the bulk of our neighbours,
·        for the sort of people who aren’t worshippers because the churches haven’t given them any good reason to become worshippers,
·        particularly for the sort of person who is attracted by the example of Jesus but repelled by the social conservatism of the churches,
this case merely confirms the worst of everything they’ve come to believe about the Christian churches. 

A few years ago, they would have said, “I don’t bother with the churches.  They’re all the same:  full of wowsers and hypocrites.” 

Now they say, “I don’t bother with the churches.  They’re all the same:  full of wowsers, hypocrites, and paedophiles.” 

In a real sense, the credibility of the churches – the credibility of all the churches - is at rock bottom.  I believe the churches will rebuild our credibility, slowly, steadily.  We will only do so if we are honest about our past, humble about our present, and hopeful about our future. 

In all of this, we are nevertheless fearful about the future of the churches. 

Our gospel lesson speaks to this issue of fear.  Mark tells of the first witnesses to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene and her friends, being seized by fear and saying nothing to anyone.  This was the earliest ending to Mark’s gospel. 

Those who read this ending knew two things:
·        The first was that the fear was real.
·        The second was that the fear wasn’t the end of the story.  The good news got out, despite the fear.  Otherwise the gospel would have never been written in the first place.

The good news of Easter is this:
·        Fear never has the final word.
·        Sin never has the final word.
·        Death never has the final word.


The second thing that jumped out at me had to do with some comments made by a senior Australian politician to the effect that a number of people who were critics of his policies were, effectively, “dead” to him.  This, of course, provoked a great deal of comment, both in social media and in the media media. 

A friend of mine, who is a lay Anglican and one of the most competent lay theologians I know, made the comment on Facebook that, in this, is found the meaning of life.  We need to live lives that are so full, so meaningful, and so loving that, in effect, we are “dead” to Peter Dutton.

I added the comment, “and that, once dead, our funerals are picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church”.

Thinking about it a bit more I thought about Paul’s comments in Romans 6, the part about considering ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.  (This lesson is one of the ones for the Easter Vigil, so if we had our service in the middle of the night last night that would have been one of our lessons.)  Anyway, we had this as one of our readings this morning.  We are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.

I was encouraged to see a Facebook post by Father Rod, the bloke who maintains that brilliant church signboard in Gosford, New South Wales, who also made the same link between the politician’s comments and those of Paul.

A lot depends on how we define “sin”.  Many of us were brought up to define “sin” as being a bit too frisky in our sex lives, or being a bit too rowdy in our choice of beverages.  But, if we’re serious about being “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”, we need a far wider and broader definition of sin. 
·        We must consider ourselves “dead to bigotry and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.
·        We must consider ourselves “dead to cruelty and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.
·        We must consider ourselves “dead to greed and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.


The third thing that jumped out at me is the fact that, here in the Southern Hemisphere, we celebrate Easter during the autumn.  The springtime imagery we find in many Easter hymns and in many secular Easter songs … spring flowers and chubby little bunny rabbits … just doesn’t cut it in the Southern Hemisphere, … in Australia, or New Zealand, or South Africa, or Argentina, or Chile, or anywhere else south of the Equator.

Here, Easter takes place in the autumn, at the time of harvest, at a time when the earth produces food.  There are some creative possibilities here for Christians celebrating Easter within the Southern Hemisphere.
·        We celebrate the Risen Christ, who is the first fruits of God’s great harvest of humanity.
·        We celebrate the Risen Christ, who gives himself to us as food from the earth, as bread and as wine.

I looked through our hymnbook and found precisely one hymn that links this theme of harvest to that of Easter (Pamela Stotter’s hymn “Christ is alive, with joy we sing…”).  We’ll sing it just after this sermon.


The fourth thing that jumped out at me is the fact that, in addition to being Easter Day, today is also April Fool’s Day.  (At the beginning of Lent this year, Ash Wednesday was also St. Valentine’s Day.)

In a real sense, that first Easter Day was also the first April Fool’s Day. 

On the first Good Friday, Death thought it had prevailed against Jesus, against humanity, and against God.

On that first Easter, Jesus looked Death squarely in the eye and said “April Fool!”

(Thanks.  I was hoping someone would laugh.  Resurrection people laugh.)

 Alleluia!  Christ is risen! 
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

“Jesus… God…”: a sermon (John 2: 13 - 22)

Please note, this sermon is part of a series of sermons preached by a number of different people at All Saints’ Anglican Church, South Hobart, Tasmania, during the season of Lent, 2018.

The series is based on the acronym “ICHTHUS”, in which the first letters for the Greek words for the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” also form the Greek word for “fish”.
I was asked to preach on the Third Sunday in Lent (4th March 2018) on this phrase from the acronym:  “Jesus… God…”. 

The gospel lesson for this Sunday, as found in the ecumenical lectionary, is John 2:13-22:  John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was asked to preach as part of this Lenten series, on the acronym “ICHTHUS” (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour) this particular Sunday was given to the phrase “Jesus… God…”.  When I saw this phrase, I initially thought of one heavy-duty theological word:  “Incarnation”. 

Now, as y’all know, the Incarnation and myself are not strangers in this pulpit.
  • Over the past few years, I’ve frequently preached from this pulpit during the season of Advent.  The theme of Incarnation was never far away.
  •  Last year, I preached from this pulpit on Trinity Sunday.  (One of the Ten Commandments for parish clergy – in all denominations - has always been “Thou shalt always try to organise a guest preacher for Trinity Sunday”.  Well done, Father David!)  Anyway, when I preached (or is that “praught”?) on Trinity Sunday, the theme of Incarnation was never far away.

What more can I say on the Incarnation from this pulpit that I haven’t said?
Here goes.

The Incarnation is only good news depending on the nature of the God who is incarnate.

We celebrate God who is incarnate in Jesus.  We celebrate the incarnation of a Jesus-shaped God.  We celebrate the incarnation of God who is mercy, God who is compassion, God who is love, deep at the centre of God’s very being.  This is definitely good news.  It’s excellent news.  It’s brilliant news.  If we were in California, I'd say it was "awesome" news.

If, however, our message was of the incarnation of a god who wasn’t a Jesus-shaped God, our message would not be one of good news.
  • The incarnation of a Hitler-shaped or Stalin-shaped god would be bad news.
  • The incarnation of a Pauline Hanson-shaped god would be bad news.
  • The incarnation of a Hugh Hefner-shaped god would be bad news.
  • The incarnation of a Rolf Harris-shaped god would be bad news.
  • The incarnation of a Donald Trump-shaped god would be bad news.
But we have good news, the good news of the incarnation of a Jesus-shaped God, of God who is love at the heart of God’s very being.

We see this in our gospel lesson.  It’s the account of Jesus cleansing the Temple as told in John’s gospel.  John treats this incident a bit differently from the other gospel writers.  They have it at the beginning of the week before the crucifixion. 

John, on the other hand, has this event at the very beginning of Jesus’ public life.  John has this as what the management people would call Jesus’ “mission statement” or “vision statement”.
John has one detail in the account of the cleansing of the Temple that the other gospel writers didn’t include.  In addition to overturning the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus also chased the animals out of the Temple, the animals brought to be sacrificed.  Not only did Jesus flip a few tables, he also caused a cattle stampede in a public place.

By doing this, Jesus took sides in an argument that had been going on among the Jewish people for the previous 800 years or so.  The argument was about sacrifice.
  • There were some who said that the sacrifices in the Temple were an essential part of worshipping God.
  • There were others who said that the sacrifices in the Temple were cruel and unnecessary.  They were those who said that the true worship of God needed to be focused on prayer, study, ethics, and lifestyle.  One of the earliest statement of this viewpoint was found in the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet depicts God as saying “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.”

By the time of Jesus, this viewpoint expressed by Isaiah had become pretty much the mainstream view within Judaism.  Those who insisted on the need for sacrifices had become a bit of a reactionary rump within the community, hanging on to their influence by virtue of sheer social inertia. 
A generation later, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Jews managed to reconstruct their life as a community very well without a Temple and without sacrifices, as a faith based on prayer, study, ethics, and lifestyle (as the faith of our Jewish neighbours continues to be today).  Those who, a generation earlier, insisted on the necessity of sacrifice were nowhere to be found.

When Jesus chose to express the “mission statement” or “vision statement” of his new movement in terms of causing a stampede of animals meant for the sacrifice, he was not rejecting the faith of his ancestors.

He was, however, expressing the compassion of God, the God with whom he identified in his very being.  In his actions, he expressed the radical compassion of the living God who declared, “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.”:
  •  the God of mercy,
  •   the God of compassion,
  •  the God of love,  
  •  a Jesus-shaped God.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.