Thursday, 1 June 2023

Pentecost meets Reconciliation Week

The importance of the commemoration of the day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, overlapping with Reconciliation Week is poignant because they remind us both of giving space for a voice to be heard, but also being granted the gift of hearing and understanding. Having a voice needs to be matched by a people with the capacity to listen with open ears and open hearts.

The day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit both transcends cultures and affirms them. People speak in their own dialect from within  their own culture but outsiders understand them as if they are speaking their own language. I believe the event invites us to consider who we are and where we belong in the same way that thinking about our personal connection to country does when First Nations people welcome us to their country. I have learnt this from many of the First Nations people I have worked with and who have taught me over the years. Despite carrying the trauma and hurts of the past they make a choice to still extend a welcome. This is a welcome filled with grace and even an act of reconciliation in itself as they convey their deep sense of connection to country.

 However, through these people I have come to realise country isn’t Gosforf where I was born, not New South Wales where I grew up. My sense of country isn’t Australia, a place that some of my ancestors came as colonising invaders. It isn’t Scotland where my ancestors fought on both sides of the battle of Culloden in 1746, nor for that matter is it England with whom some of the traitorous lowland Scots sided. It is certainly not France from which the first Lockard’s came with the invading Normans into Briton.

Whilst all these places have shaped who I am and my culture, my sense of country is not a place but, rather, is a way of being. My country, my home, my way of being is in Jesus Christ. I believe this sense of country has come to me through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit which united people on the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago, and who has worked in this land for thousands of years. A Spirit which I believe dwells in each one of us and invites us to contemplate the invitation to unity and community in Christ. A place where our uniqueness is valued as individuals but where we also find deep sense of belong to God and to each other.

May we continue to give space to hear each others voices and may we have the grace to listen and learn from one anther with response when that space has been made.


Sunday, 21 August 2022

We love because God First Loved Us

 Faithworks UC Camp Hill 21.08.2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10 

In 1 John 4 verse 19 it says, “we love because God first loved us.”

It might seem a bit strange to start my sermon on Jeremiah with a quote from 1 John. But I think it is really important for us to consider that God’s action of loving the creation and its people is always, is always, the first move.  Anything that we do is a response to God’s love. Therefore, it is this fundamental truth of the love of God, as the first cause of all things, which should shape how we interpret these passages and understand ourselves and our own personal life stories.

Now this is not the first sermon I have preached on these passages this week.  In Chapel, on Tuesday, I reflected on this passage with the students at the school where I am a Chaplain. And I am going to pick up on one of the key themes that was identified by the students who form my Chapel team. In calling Jeremiah, God says this:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born, I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

The question raised by the Chapel team was whether Jeremiah had any choice about God's plan for his life. The students then wondered, how much control do we have over own lives if God has a plan for us? This is actually a very complex question and probably lies as a conundrum in each one of our own lives. It involves the age-old question of free will and determinism.

However, the phrase we love because God first loved us implies that we do have a choice to reciprocate the love that is shown to us. I believe the statement infers that we have freedom to choose to love God and others even if God has a plan for our lives. I will return to this question of free will and determinism a bit later in the sermon.

The choice for Jeremiah is expressed in the formulaic way the call to be a prophet is expressed.  God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah expresses humility and unworthiness to that call, and then God reassures Jeremiah that God will guide him and give him the words to say, and that God will be with him through the work that he's going to do.

God's love for Jeremiah and for the people of Israel, and for the nations that Jeremiah was to prophesy to, precedes Jeremiah’s answer. Jeremiah may not appear to have a choice about God’s plan but there are choices that he does appear to be make.

 Now, lest we be a little deluded about what being called by God and being part of God's plan might mean, it is important for us to deal with the context.  Jeremiah lived around 600 years before Jesus and his task was no easy one.  God was sending Jeremiah into the world with God's message precisely because people had gone astray. The implications for Jeremiah’s life were not going to be good ones. In his commentary on Jeremiah, Chris Knights, says this.

 “The example of the life of Jeremiah shows that all too clearly [being called does not equate to an easy life]. ‘I am with you and will keep you safe,’ God said to him, but that did not prevent him from being rejected, worse being imprisoned and being left for dead. It didn’t stop him from wishing that he had never been born. The promise of God being with him and keeping him safe was not a promise that he would be kept from all the changes and chances of this fleeting world. But it did give Jeremiah the conviction of the rightness of his cause, it did keep him loyal to the message he had been given by the LORD when pressures on body, mind and spirit were encouraging him to pack it all in.” (end quote)

 My point in sharing what Jeremiah was going to face, after being called by God, is to remind us that being involved in God's plan is not always easy and being a follower of Jesus does not mean that we are going to necessarily have a good life. What it does mean is that we understand that God's love is with us in this life whatever our experiences might be. I am emphasising the idea that God's love is with us in this life because Jeremiah did not have a concept or understanding of life after death. Jeremiah’s prophecies revolve around consequences for lived existence not something that was going to happen after people died.

So, being called by God, or seeing ourselves as part of God's plan, is not an easy thing. It is a complex notion and a complex interplay between how much freedom we have to respond to God's love and God's plan for our lives and how much of it is predetermined.

This takes me back to the question of the students. If God has a plan for my life, do I have any control over what is occurring? Am I actually participating in making my own decisions and can I actually choose to love God? 

When I preached on this topic with the students, I suggested that the question of determinism and free will is as old as humanity as itself and is as current as the newest thinking in the frontiers of science. 

I am not going to rehearse all of what I said to the students the other day, but I will mention a little bit of it to give you a sense of the scope of this conversation. In terms of Christian thought, we can go back to the debates between Augustine and Pelagius at the 6th century, we can talk about the interface between Erasmus and Martin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century. We could also discuss the debates between Whitfield and Wesley in the 18th Century.  The debate between Whitfield and Wesley is particularly pertinent to us as people in the Uniting Church who come from two different traditions of thought which true on Whitfield and Wesley. 

Having noted the history of Christian thought around this topic I thought it pertinent for the students to understand that the issue of determinism and free will is not something that is restricted to Christian thought.  It is certainly part of philosophy, politics, and economic theory but I think even more so science. In terms of political theory and economics we might want to point at someone like Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto which suggests a deterministic journey of humanity towards the end of history played out in economic theory.  Or we could point at Max Weber and his Protestant Work Ethic as another expression of inevitable economic systems.

In psychology we can begin with Sigmund Freud and discuss how he thought our unconscious desires determine how we're going to act and then we could trace how psychology has developed for last 150 years. We could mention the experiment of Benjamin Libert in 1983 who demonstrated that prior to our conscious mind kicking into action our unconscious mind is already influencing our decision making. With science we might explore the progress from Newtonian physics which suggested a deterministic universe to the current understandings of quantum mechanics which I have very little idea about but once again buys into whether things are random or determined. 

The reason these debates remain important is because I would suggest to you that most people who live in western culture travel through life having a false belief that we have complete control over our own lives and our own destinies. Even as Christians we think this way.  Kathryn Schultz in her wonderful book “Wrongology” basically says that our default setting is that we think we're omniscient and omnipotent. We think that we are right all the time and that we have power over what is happening to us.  This, of course, according to Schultz is incorrect.

The thing I would suggest we are not wrong about is the fundamental idea that I began with. We love because God first loved us. But of the different things for us to believe and think this is one which we constantly forget, ignore, or simply do not believe.

Returning to Jeremiah the task of a prophet was not to speak about the future, to predict things, but was to speak about who we are in relationship to God. God who created us. God who loves us. God who desires us to enter relationship with us. And, so also, God who becomes one of us. As already indicated, in the case of the prophet Jeremiah, sharing a message about God's love for us and God's desire that we love one another and the creation in which we live is not popular.  In the TV series “Good Omens”, based on the book by the same name, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the scene when Jesus is being crucified involves one of the key characters asking what Jesus said that got everyone so upset.  The answer is “he told them to be kind to one another.” It seems that we really do struggle with this notion of living one another as human beings.   

The other day one of my year nine students approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me the question did I believe in the miracles that Jesus did. My answer to this is like many things with me, a complex one. I might say yes, I do believe that Jesus did miracles, there are too many miracles recorded in the New Testament for me not to believe that Jesus did some.  Whether Jesus did all the miracles described or did them in exactly the way they are described, is a completely other question. But, regardless of whether I believe in the miracles or not I do believe that the gospel writers recorded the miracles not so that I would believe in the idea that Jesus did miracles, but I would be able to answer the question who Jesus is.

 My answer to this question is that Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.  He is God incarnate. And therefore, he is God’s love in the flesh. How do we know God loves the creation? We know this because God became a part of it.  To return to 1 John 4, but now in verse 16, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

If there is anything that I think is predestined, it is this, that God loves us and that ultimately in and through the person of Jesus we love God. And so, the restlessness within us around whether we have complete freewill or things are predestined, in my opinion becomes somewhat secondary to our immersion in God's love. In Augustine’s great work The Confessions he says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” The restlessness of our hearts might be reflected in Jeremiah’s self-doubt “I am only a boy” or the question of my students “If God has a plan for my life do I have any choice” or in the great debates of history about free will and determinism.

Ultimately, many of the answers to these ultimate existential questions elude us. They remain mysteries of our existence but what we believe is important. Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler in the journal Psychological Science say that “Studies have … revealed a connection between belief in free will and experiencing life as meaningful and fulfilling. People who find their life meaningful tend to believe in free will. Conversely, when people’s belief in free will is undermined, they tend to report that their lives are less meaningful.”

The reality of life that we all experience is that our choices are limited but that we still can make choices or at least believe we can. In the context of the choices that we make, believing that we love because God first loved us, invites us into a relationship with God which immerses us in love and thereby encourages to make choices which reflect that we are loved. The good news of Jesus’ existence transcends our inability to love one another as we should and encourages us to move beyond being indignant when we see God’s love being played out for other people and into sharing in the mystery, wonder, and joy at the possibility of God’s love for all people being not only the origin of all things but also the destination of all things.


Monday, 3 January 2022

Domesticating the Divine

 John 1:10-18 January 2, 2022

It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead. 

However, time is an abstract and we could at this point consider whether what Noah Yuval Harari points out in his book Homo Deus is true.  He says everything we do as human beings is based on stories. Stories we've made up for ourselves to help us understand our lives and make them work better.  This would include how we understand time.  In this case we would be asking ourselves the question is it really a new year after all?  After all doing a quick scan of the internet I found at least 11 cultures that do not celebrate New Year’s day on January 1st.

Alternatively, we might think about the problem of time philosophically buying into the ancient debates of Parmenides and Heraclitus around how time operates.  Or we could contemplate the fact that in the 16th century we changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Yet, I digress, and as we gather on this day we gather as Christians who have just heard read the astounding claim that the Word became flesh and lived among us. 

This somewhat perplexing claim is the claim of the church that in Jesus God became, becomes, and is becoming flesh. It is the doctrine of the incarnation, which the great theologian Thomas Torrance called “utterly staggering.”  Torrance notes in his book Space, Time and Resurrection, “that after the incarnation He [Jesus] is at work within space and time in a way that He never was before.” Noting the work of the Early Church theologian Origen, Torrance goes on to say, “as soon as we talk like this, however… or even say about the Son that ‘there never was a time when he did not exist’, we are using terms ‘always’, ‘has been’, ‘when’, ‘never’ etc., which have a temporal significance, whereas statements about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, must be understood to refer to what transcends all time and all ages, and all eternity, since even our concept of eternity contains a temporal ingredient.”   As a Christian one may say somewhat sceptically “New Year’s, indeed.”

In my understanding of the Christian faith this is the defining point and distinctiveness of what it means to be Christian, to believe that in Jesus God became one of us. All else is secondary.  The virgin birth, the ministry, the miracles, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension are all aspects of Jesus’ life as God with us. All point to this utterly astounding claim of our faith, the incarnation.

So, on this first Sunday after what we call the new year, we wade into the deep waters of our faith to contemplate the mystery of God with us and consider what God is doing in our midst.  As I contemplated the question of the Word becoming flesh it caused me to ask whether our attendance in church is about us using Jesus to drag God down to earth, to domesticate the divine, if you will.  To try to make Jesus and God more relevant to us.  Or, in coming to church, do we come to encounter the mystery of God in Jesus dragging us up into the heavenly realm, to share in God’s divine existence.

The complexity of this question is reflected by the complexity of the writing of John's gospel which occurred at least 60 years after the ascension of Jesus.  Far more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it is John who leads his readers into a deeper contemplation of the implications of Jesus’ identity as God among us.  In the passage from John 1 John challenges us with these words. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” And more confronting, “No one has ever seen God.” 

I have wondered what John’s readers may have made of this statement almost 200 years ago and what we make of it in our time as we consider the ways in which people claim to encounter and experience God.  Thus, as part of today’s message I want to share a poem with you, entitled “Eyes to See”.

Eyes to See

No one has ever seen God, yet

Abraham greeted three strangers in the heat of the day.

Jacob wrestled with a man until the break of day.

Moses stood before a burning bush as he worked through the day.

Elijah met God, after a storm, in the silence of the day.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has even seen God, yet

I have looked into the eyes of a lover.

I have beheld the birth of a child.

I have seen the joy and laughter of my children.

I have watched for wisdom in the eyes of my elders.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has ever seen God, yet

I have contemplated as the waves roll crashing against the shore.

I have wandered in the bush and seen the desert bloom with life.

I have stared up at the mountains reaching towards the sky.

I have gazed at the stars wheel through space putting on their nightly show.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has ever seen God,

This is what John teaches us

This is his controversy with his people

But, this is his conviction: Jesus came to make God known

This is his hope for a world gone blind

No one has ever seen God, but Jesus.


Jesus has seen God, the Word made flesh.

Jesus sees God, at the moment of creation.

Jesus sees God, when God chose a people for himself.

Jesus sees God, as he walked through his life.

Jesus sees God, in his death and in his resurrection.

And Jesus sees God now and evermore.


Jesus has made known to us what he has seen.

Have we seen God?

Have we beheld Jesus?

Have we sensed the Spirit?

Have we understood God’s love?

God’s invitation to see glory is the incarnation.


No one has ever seen God.

This day, God, we implore you send your Spirit

Give us eyes to see

Give us ears to listen

Give us minds to know

Give us hearts to hope

For we who see the Son, see God.

For we who have already seen the Son I wonder what it is you see when you hear Jesus’ name mentioned.  In Chapter 14 of John Jesus says to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”  I do wonder at Jesus tone of voice at this point.  Is there a bit of exasperation and frustration at Phillip?  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Or is it more encouraging and formational?  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Whichever the case we might well ask how our glimpses of Jesus are glimpses of the divine?  How do you see Jesus?

Do you see Jesus in the manager and pray to ‘baby’ Jesus like Ricky Bobby in Talladega nights?

Do you see Jesus on the beach calling his first disciples? A leader of men and women.

Do you see Jesus’ healing and performing miracles? The wonder worker full of compassion.

Do you see Jesus’ teaching his disciples or arguing with the Pharisees? An earnest teacher.

Do you see Jesus turning over the tables in the temple? A prophet full of righteous anger.

Do you see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet? A servant leader.

Do you see Jesus before Pilate? A man standing before the unjust powers of the world.

Do you see Jesus hanging on the cross? Our wounded healer.

Do you see Jesus cold and lying in his tomb? Sharing our descent into the undiscovered country.

Do w you e see Jesus coming to Thomas who was full of doubt? A comforter and encourager of faith.

Maybe there is an image, an event, a concept that comes to mind when you think abut Jesus.  Glimpses of who he was.  Ironically, when I asked one of my students what first came to mind when I mention Jesus, she said the toy Jesus that I have. It is still in its packaging, in my office.

We all play with our ideas of Jesus. Sometimes like Phillip we don’t see past the man to the divine. Sometimes like Peter, we deny our relationships with him. Sometimes like Thomas, we doubt the stories.  Sometimes we simplify Jesus’ existence so much that we avoid the concept that Jesus is the Word made living among us.  He becomes a teacher to follow, a wise sage, a friend but not the one that we sung of at Christmas in the great carol of the Church, Hark the Herald Angels sing.

Late in time behold Him come,

Offspring of a Virgin's womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Deity,

Pleased as man with man to dwell,

Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Notwithstanding the anachronistic language of the hymn the carol asserts John’s claim afresh for us and reminds us that “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” – Jesus.  God’s purpose in sending Jesus undoubtedly affirms our created existence but in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we also see a human living God-wards.  In preparing today I read a fascinating article about the translation of very first phrase of John’s gospel, “and the Word was with God.”  Christopher Atkins connects John’s writing to the thought of Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher, who brought the thinking of the Greek philosophers into conversation with the Jewish theology of the time.

Atkins argues that the phrase might be better translated “and the Word was God-wards”, suggesting that the eternal existence of the Word, in Greek the logos, existed towards God.  Through Jesus becoming flesh and the sending of the Holy Spirit our lives are drawn Godwards into the mystery of the divine.  It is as Paul wrote to the first Christians in Ephesus, With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s plan in Jesus is to gather all things into him, to share in God’s divinity.  It is the ancient notion of theosis.  In his prayer of John 17 he says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Knowing Jesus, or maybe better put being known by Jesus, and by God is eternal life.  Again, a better translation might be read as eternity life.  Although, returning to where I started with Torrance and Origin, knowing Jesus means that at some spiritual level we transcend the abstract concept of time and might I dare to suggest space as well.  God in Jesus and through the Spirit lift us beyond our mundane mortal existence to encounter and experience the promise of the gathering of all things into him.

Today we will celebrate the communion.  It is a time we look back into the past and remember what Jesus did in dying for us, so that we might see the risen Jesus, who is our host, coming from the future, to meet us in the present.  We declare the mystery of our faith as we share communion “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”  He is the alpha and the Omega, the beginning and ending of all things, he is our origin and our destination, because our lives are hidden in his.

It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead.  So, I do say to you Happy New Year but let me conclude with these words and this reality that because the Word became flesh we should now and always remember until time passes into irrelevance “God’s mercies are New Every morning” and we who seen the Son have seen the face of God.


Wednesday, 29 September 2021

All the world's a stage

Job 1:1; 2:1-10, Mark 10:2-16

The Kingdom of heaven is like a young child who has a big box of dress up outfits. Who comes out each day dressed as a different character to play its part in the day based on how it's feeling or what the child thinks the household might need.

As I contemplated the difficult readings set down for this Sunday, both in Job and in Mark, the phrase which stood out to me, as possibly the easiest to preach on, was this one: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  There is an innocence that is being suggested in the faith of a child, an innocence that we are all encouraged to learn from.

Yet Jesus is speaking to adults and as I thought about young children the image of a child playing dress-ups day by day stood out.  We start our acting career early, but the reality is that as we go through life our acting career continues. 

     We play the part of a school student in a uniform. 

    We play the part of an athlete as we participate in sport. 

    We play the part of a dutiful son or daughter to our parents, or maybe the rebellious one!

    We play the part of an employee sometimes dressed in a uniform for the job that we work. 

    We play the part of being a faithful husband or wife or a loyal friend. 

    We play the part of being a parent and then possibly even grandparent or great grandparent.

    And dare I say, we play the part of being a Christian.

It is as Shakespeare observed in his play “As you like it:

     “All the world’s a stage,

    And all the men and women merely players;

    They have their exits and their entrances;

    And one man in his time plays many parts.”

 Each person plays many parts through their life as they navigate life's complexities and seek to live a “good” life.  So, the innocence of the child, playing dress-ups and becoming different characters, helps form us for our daily existence.  And our childlike play prepares us for the kinds of complexities that we have struck in today's readings.

Today's sermon then is a preparation for you to go from this place to play-act your part and enter the world that is a stage.  There are three phases in this preparation.  The first phase is to understand the theatre of our existence and the stage on which we will tread the boards. The second phase is to consider the prompts and the cues that we will receive from side stage as we enter each act.  In the third phase, I will consider our freedom to improvise as we respond to those prompts. And finally, with these three phases of formation and preparation completed we will prepare ourselves to go from here as God's people into the world.

The first phase of our preparation and our formation is to consider the theatre of our existence.  To do this I take us back to the book of Job and the central character. He was a man from the land of Uz.  It has long fascinated me that Job is from this faraway land called Uz. In reading various commentaries about where this land of Uz actually is, there appears to be some agreement that wherever it is, it is not Israel.  Now there is a possibility that Job was a Jewish man living in the diaspora, but scholars seem to agree that by locating Job in this fictitious and faraway land the author was expanding our understanding of Job’s story as transcending the history of the Israelites.  The theatre of our existence is the cosmos created by God. The cosmos which unfolds in the stories of Genesis which transcends the limitations of our ethnicity, our politics, our religion, our race, and our gender.  It is a place in which we encounter blessings and a place in which we encounter suffering.

Thus, Job’s Story has implications for all people and for all time. This is the world in which we as characters will tread the boards. The stage itself has been set.  Below us, supporting us, is the story of Jesus Christ.  The very first words of Mark's gospel are this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” The story of Jesus Christ is the story of God's grace and God's love en-fleshed and living among us.  The book of John begins with these words “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”   Paul in his letter to the Colossians wrote this, “For in him [that is to say Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  Again, Paul writing to the Romans said this, “but God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This is the stage on which we walk in the theatre of our existence - God's unconditional grace and love in and through Jesus.

This is vital for us to understand because the reality is that we all make mistakes as we walk on this stage. Not one of us lives a perfect life. In fact, far from it.  Kathryn Schulz Says this of human beings:

     A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about         basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs,     our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds, when we         stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very         close to omniscient. (Schulz Wrongology)

I have much empathy for what Schulz is saying here. It is difficult for us to really know whether or not many of our decisions are right or wrong. So, what most of us assume is that we're right, most, if not all time. When we gather for worship, in the presence of God, prompted by the Holy Spiri,t we reflect on this reality when we say a prayer of confession. This prayer helps keep us humble and listening for the prompts from side stage as we act out our lives.

The prompts from side stage may come to us as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or through the influence of the Scriptures.  When we gather for worship, we listen to words read from the Bible as prompts for us.  As I said at the beginning today's readings contain complex and difficult messages.  This means that the prompts we receive may not always be as clear cut and helpful for us as we might hope.  In the book of Job, we encounter a discussion around the origin of suffering and notions of determinism.  Job infers that what happens to us in life all comes from God, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  In his commentary, David Hester says of Job, “The book of Job is God's word in its most enigmatic form, carried in an ancient tale and poetic dialogue, that raises questions yet shelters answers.”  Thus, the prompts we receive cause us to pause and consider how we are viewing our lives, God, and the world around us.  But the answers are not necessarily in plain sight.

The same is true of the reading in Mark.  Many Christians these days interpret Jesus’ words about marriage to support the concept of the 1950s idea of the nuclear family.  To view what Jesus was saying, when the Pharisees were testing him about divorce, is take the conversation out of its context and impose our modern concepts of marriage on them.  In Jesus’ time women were viewed as the property of men. Without a family structure to support her a woman may have been isolated or even ostracized.  Primarily Jesus seems to be trying to protect women against being hung out to dry by men.  The difficulty in listening to the ancient prompts is often that we bring our own layers of expectation to them without considering their context.  Even people in Jesus’ time struggled with his words.  In Mark 4, Jesus says to his disciples:

To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God,

but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

they may indeed look, but not perceive

and may indeed listen, but not understand:

so that they may not turn and again be forgiven.”

We, as Jesus disciples, may also feel that we have been given the secret of the kingdom of heaven.  However, when we consider this, we should remember the context of the conversation Jesus was having.  It was precisely because the disciples as “insiders” did not understand Jesus’ parables that he said this.  In fact, throughout Mark’s gospels the disciples constantly get it wrong whilst outsiders recognise Jesus’ identity.  Ultimately, it is left to a Roman centurion at the end of Mark’s gospel to echo the words from Mark 1:1 when he declares as Jesus dies “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”


There is a reminder here to remain humble in our acting out of our part and listening to the prompts that we receive.  Pride and hubris can blind us to the mystery of faith, the boards beneath our feet that support us is Christ’s unconditional love, not the self-righteousness of how we interpret our part or interpret the complex prompts we are given.  This should also mean that we take a step back before we judge anyone else and their interpretation of life.

This brings us to the third phase of the refection our adaptation to the theatre, stage and prompts.  Shannon Craigo-Snell suggests that as actors playing our part as Christians the Scriptures acts like a script.  She says, “Scripture, like script, is both complete and incomplete.”  In other words, it still requires our interpretation.  She is asking, how should we live treading the boards of God’s grace as we interpret the script?  But what if there is actually no script!

In his book on Christian Ethics Samuel Wells pushes beyond Craigo-Snell suggesting that as actors it is more like the craft of improvisation.  We listen humbly to the prompts from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, and we walk onto the stage of Christ’s grace, in the theatre of our existence, in a cosmos and creation which is full of both joy and suffering.  You could say we are set free to live an improvised life with Christ.  We are set free from the mistakes we will inevitably make, our missteps and misinterpretations, and we are set free to celebrate the good, to seek out signs of God’s peace breaking into the world, to speak out for justice, and to advocate for those who are oppressed.

This brings me back full circle to the children playing dress up day by day.  There is an innocence of children at play, experimenting with life and how to live it.  There are costumes and props to choose from and ideas that they copy from other people to help them interpret their playfulness.  Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes it gets silly, sometimes its serious or sad or celebratory.  There are usually boundaries to their playfulness, to keep them safe, and then there are boundaries which they create for themselves, limits beyond which even they are not prepared to go.  How similar is our daily life as Christians to this?

The stage of grace on which we walk with humility gives us freedom to be the best versions of who we can be.  As inspired by the prompts of scriptures, of the Holy Spirit, of each other we improvise our being Christians against the backdrop of a constantly changing and complex context.  The safety net of God’s grace is below us and the love of Spirit prompts us to live in freedom, free from our constant mistakes, and free to live gratefully towards the God who gave us our part for if all the world is a stage, then the theatre is and can only be, God’s.


Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books, 2011.

Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics. Baker Academic, 2018.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Mark 7 The Limitlessness of God's Grace and Wideness of God's Mercy

There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain.  It is this limitlessness to God's grace and wideness to God's mercy which allows each one of you and us as a community to gather on this day. And, it is precisely this grace and mercy of God that gives us hope for all people everywhere.  We gained that hope again today as we heard the story from Mark’s gospel, a story which is one of the most complex and difficult within Mark’s gospel.

This morning I want to explore with you this limitlessness to God's grace and wideness to God's mercy by addressing three aspects of the reading.  firstly, the difficulty of the language that we encounter in Jesus words which drive us to see the bigger picture of who Jesus was.  Secondly, the nature of the two healings that take place. and finally, the response of Jesus followers to these events.  In each of these three we will encounter the scriptures interpreting our lives and hopefully God speaking into our existence through the power of the Holy Spirit with a word of grace and mercy for us today.

So turning to my first point, Jesus language is difficult in his passage.  I have preached on this passage on numerous occasions, and I have always stumbled on the point of Jesus language in relationship to the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus essentially calls a dog.  Regardless of the previous ways in which I have dealt with this issue as a chaplain working in an all-girls school in the 21st century and in the context of the vigorous public debate that we have had over the last 18 months about the treatment of women in Australian society this particular issue feels even more poignant as I mention today.

Working with girls and young women it would be very easy for them to stumble on what Jesus does here and rather than read on label Jesus as a misogynist and potentially a racist as well.  Through a modern lens of interpretation Jesus’ words are highly uncomfortable for us.  He is speaking of a woman of another culture and of another religion in a way that we would deem disparaging.  So, it is important in this respect to not limit our understanding of who Jesus is to this particularly interaction.

In addition to this problem, another issue that can arise from such an interpretation of Jesus’ words would be a misunderstanding that somehow Jesus was actually distinguishing women as somehow this are or people of another race as somehow lesser.  A cursory glance at the history of Christianity would tell us that there have been Christians and are still Christians who behave in manners that are sexist and are racist.

There are many ways and that I could address this particular issue but today I would begin by pushing us back to Mark chapter 4. In Mark 4 versus 10 to 12 Jesus says this:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Mark's gospel is an enigma and within it we encounter many mysteries including the one which is why Jesus speaks this way at this particular time.  It is difficult for us to contextualise that moment 2000 years ago but it is pertinent for us to look at Jesus comment in light of the whole of Mark's gospel.  Jesus has followers who are women, there are encounters in Mark's gospel with people who sit outside the Jewish faith, it is women who are the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  Far from excluding or demeaning women and outsiders Jesus’ behaviour breaks down social religious and racial barriers that were almost incomprehensible to the people of Jesus time.

Such was Jesus’ behaviour that Paul would later write that in Christ there is no male or female.  Such was Jesus’ behaviour that Paul would become a missionary to the gentiles.  There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain and that we certainly cannot limit to one encounter that Jesus has.  ultimately, Jesus responds to the woman's cries, and he grants healing to the daughter. this brings me to my second point which is to speak about the two healings.

There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we encounter in the healing of the girl with demons and the healing of the man he was deaf and had a speech impediment. 

Let us firstly consider the healing of the girl.  It is important for us to understand a number of things about this girl. She was not Jewish, she was of a different religion, she probably did not know anything about who Jesus was. She was not present in the room, and there is no evidence or suggestion that she repented of anything nor that after the healing she became a follower of Jesus.  Despite all of this she is healed when her mother makes the appeal to Jesus.  The girl experience is salvation.  Let me say that bit again the girl experiences salvation.

One of the things was that we easily lose sight of as we look back at these ancient stories is it salvation was often understood as a transformation in the lived experience of the person encountering the healing.  So often when we speak of salvation as modern Christians, we tend to think about what's going to happen after we die. But in the ancient world salvation was very much understood about bringing a person back into the community to live a full life.  By casting the demon out Jesus saves her.

The second healing story is very similar.  The man who could not hear and who had difficulty articulating was brought to Jesus by others.  Given that the man had no capacity to hear and had limited capacity to speak it is more than likely he had no understanding who Jesus was.  How much his the who brought the man understood about who Jesus was is left again I would you use the word an enigma, a mystery.  Jesus saves this man as well.  He says, “Ephphatha”, which means “be opened”, and immediately the man is able to hear and speak again.  The consequences of this healing were salvation for this man.  Through this action this man was able to re-enter society and participate in being part of the community again, he was given life in all its fullness.

For both the young girl and the man there was a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy as Jesus saved them and gave them the capacity to participate in the life of the world again.  We can only speculate that the transformation in this life might have also had implications about their transformation for the next life.  However, we should not interpret that they ever proclaimed and confessed Jesus as Lord as we do because the way we do that is completely transformed by the 2000 years that have passed. The story gives to us hope that Jesus does have a deep concern for people in this life, in the midst of their personal struggles.

This brings me to the third aspect of the story that is pertinent to address when considering the limitlessness of God's grace and wideness of God's mercy.  The second last line in the story that we read today raises significant questions about our behaviour as Jesus followers. let me remind you of what it says, “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Jesus says to his followers I don't want you to tell this story at the more that he told them not to do it the more they did it. In other words, Jesus followers do precisely what he says for them not to do to the point at which Mark wrote the story down years later. And, here we are, nearly 2000 years later still talking about a story that Jesus told us not to share.  The situation is more than a little ironic.

If we go back to Mark four, the passage I quoted earlier, I'm going to remind you again of something that it said Jesus said to the disciples his followers, “to you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus followers are given an immense privileged insight into who Jesus was and what he was doing.  However, the context of Jesus saying this to disciples was a moment in which they did not understand one of the parables that Jesus had told.  The whole of Mark operates like one long parable weather disciples who are insiders and are given the insights from Jesus himself continually, almost predictably, muck things up.

What this does is affirm the limitlessness of God's grace and wideness of God's mercy because the spite their erroneous ways Jesus continues to encourage those disciples, his followers, to continue on their journey with him.  And more than that, he entrusts to them the message of the good news of the Kingdom of God to carry forward after his death.  This is grace and mercy enacted within Jesus’ followers right down to the present day.

As people who follow Jesus now, as his disciples in this the 21st century, we know but there are moments in which we all fail Jesus.  We know that there are moments in which we do precisely the opposite thing which Jesus commands us.  And I'm not just talking about not sharing this story that we're sharing.  Let me just dwell on Jesus teaching to love one another as I have loved you.  We are sitting in a church called the uniting church because the church in history has failed to be one.  We have denominations many of whom do not love one another.  Unlike Jesus even within congregations we find so many things to have conflict about.  I have been in ministry for 22 years, I am the son of a minister, and in not one congregation have I ever seen people loving one another perfectly there is always conflict.  Whether it is about the colour of the paint that you're going to paint the hall or how you interpret the scriptures we as human beings are really good at not loving one another and not being gracious and merciful to one another.

Yet, there is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy. Simply seen in the fact that we're sitting here drawn together by the power of the Holy Spirit to be worshipping God and today to gather around the table where Jesus as our host will serve us as he served his disciples in the Last Supper. What an astounding story of grace and mercy in which our lives are embedded.

So, I'm going to say it again: There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot domesticate.  As people cry out for healing and for hope it is not for us to limit who God may choose to save in this life or in the next.  Jesus’ healing reached the Syrophoenician woman's daughter and the man bought to Jesus who could not hear and could not speak properly.  In the power of the Holy Spirit and in faith and hope I would say to you that Jesus is present with us as he was with his followers 2000 years ago even when they did precisely the opposite thing he asked them to do. and finally, the wideness of God's mercy and that limitlessness of God's grace challenge us to see beyond a single story about Jesus to understand that the boundaries of gender and religion and race crossed by Jesus should cause us to consider again what it means for us to love one another.

Hear this good news There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain and may you receive the gift of the release from your demons and may you this day be opened by the miracle of God's presence in your life.

I invite you to take a moment to contemplate all that has been said and consider what might God be seen to you this day.

And under God we ascribe all the glory honour and power. now and forever. Amen.