Do you love me? (A sermon on John 21:15-29)


As you know, this may well be the last Sermon I give from this pulpit, and will most certainly be the last sermon I give here in my current position as Acting Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill, which may help explain why I’ve taken the unprecedented step of disregarding the scheduled Gospel reading for the day!

Yes, some of you may decide to walk out (or switch off) at this point. Who would believe that I could be such a maverick in this final fling, after thirty years of faithful adherence to the common lectionary, but, yes, the inner rebel has finally emerged, and I’ve given ‘doubting Thomas’ the flick this year.

Yes, this Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, is the Sunday were every year we are given the reading from the Gospel of John, chapter twenty – the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ – and, to be quite honest with you, I’m sick of him.

It’s not that I dislike the man – honestly. In fact, I feel a real affection for him, and yet I truly don’t understand why, where our readings are normally scheduled in a three-yearly cycle, we get this reading, not every three years but every single year!

I truly don’t understand it. Even the Christmas and Easter readings differ from year to year. Why is the story about Thomas so important?

I can only assume that Thomas’ ‘doubting’ is something that has been so close to the heart of the Christian community over the centuries that we feel a need to keep coming back to this story again and again, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting that doubt is a bad thing, but is it really such a key thing in the life of the Christian church that we have to keep readdressing it like clockwork every year at this time – a time when you might think we would be busy proclaiming the resurrection?

Perhaps it is that important, and if you were looking forward to finding strength in your doubts today, or affirmation of your doubts, now is the time to make a hasty exit (or switch Facebook or YouTube channels, as the case may be) and avail yourself of any number of other churches where there’s a less rebellious priest in the pulpit!

At any rate, instead of focusing on the Gospel of John, chapter 20, I’ve made the radical move of focusing instead on the following chapter – John, chapter 21, which doesn’t find its way into the lectionary at all this year, so I’m not stealing anybody else’s sermon. This reading just happens to be a personal favourite, and one that I’ve found to be particularly helpful to me at the moment. It’s the passage that deals with the reconciliation between the resurrected Jesus and his best friend, Peter.

I appreciate that Jesus doesn’t use the term ‘best friend’ with regards to Peter, and some might argue that John (often referred to as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’) should be given that title. Some might even argue that Mary Magdalene or some others might be equally worthy of that title. Even so, I think the dialogue between Jesus and Peter itself points to the deep and profound nature of their friendship.

I’m beginning from verse 15 of John chapter twenty-one.

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:15-19)

We are familiar enough, I think, with the history of the relationship between Jesus and Peter so as to make full sense of this dialogue. Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?”, and it doesn’t escape us, any more than it would have escaped Peter, that this three-fold question from Jesus paralleled Peter’s three-fold betrayal.

It was just after they had shared the last supper together that Peter had said to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33), to which Jesus had replied, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:34)

And indeed, Peter did deny Him:

  • A slave-girl says, “This man also was with him”, but Peter replies, “Woman, I do not know him.” (Luke 22:57)
  • A nameless man says, “You also are one of them”, but Peter said, “Man, I am not.” (Luke 22:58)
  • “Still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.”” (Luke 22:59-50)

That sad story ends with Jesus turning and looking at Peter, and Peter running away and weeping bitterly. (Luke 22:61-62)

We don’t know exactly how long the gap was between Peter’s betrayal and this meeting on the beach where reconciliation took place. We know that it was at least ten days, and it could have been significantly longer. We know too that this was by no means the first time Peter had seen Jesus again after the resurrection.

Often that is the way reconciliation works. Often it takes time. We want things to be fixed up quickly and to put the pain of the past behind us, but it doesn’t always work that way. Genuine reconciliation can take time.

‘Do you love me?’, Jesus asks Peter? ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

It is significant, I think, that it is Jesus – the one who was betrayed – who takes the lead in initiating reconciliation. I don’t know whether it could have worked the other way around – if Peter had been the one to initiate the conversation – “Hey, Jesus, I know I betrayed you three times but I want you to know that I still love you”.

Maybe it can never work that way? It’s hard to know. In this case, at any rate, Jesus controls the process, and every act of betrayal is countered with an affirmation of love – “Yes, I love you”, “Yes, I love you”, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”

What Jesus said next, as recorded in John, chapter 21, verse 18, was unexpected, I think, and it’s this verse that really drew me to the passage today.

You might have expected Jesus to conclude this intimate moment of reconciliation with Peter by saying something like, “let’s have a hug!”, or even “have you got any beer?” Instead, Peter receives from Jesus something far more solemn:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were young you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”” (John 21:18)

We are told that Jesus gave this to Peter as a prophecy as an indication of exactly how Peter was going to die (John 21:19) but you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was hardly the time! Why would you want to juxtapose all these intimate expressions of love with images of violence and death?

Even so, my reading of this verse has, for as long as I can remember, been heavily influenced by the wisdom of the late Henri Nouwen, who saw this prophecy to Peter as being archetypal of the growth into maturity of every follower of Jesus: when you are young you dress yourself and go where you want, but when you are old you stretch out your hands, and someone else leads you where you do not want to go’

Henri Nouwen, for any who aren’t familiar with him, was a Dutch Catholic priest and spiritual writer, and a man who struggled greatly in his life. He struggled with his sexuality, with his friendships, and with the exact form of his vocation.

For Nouwen, this image given to us in John, chapter twenty one, is the path set for every true believer. When we are young, we do our own thing, we have our own plans, we nurture our own visions and ambitions. As we get older, we loosen our grip on the hopes we had for ourselves, and ultimately, in faith, we stretch out our hands and allow others to lead us to places where we do not want to go.

This, of course, is where I find myself today – stretching out my hands and allowing others to drag me off to places where I do not want to go. I don’t want to lose my church community any more than I wanted to lose my wife and children. I don’t want to lose my home or my vocation, and if I had it my own way, I would cling on to all of these things.

Even so, I believe Nouwen is right in pointing to the words of Jesus in this instance.  This is not the way for the disciple of Christ. When you are young you dress yourself and you follow your own dreams and your own ambitions. Following Jesus means being wiling to let go of all of that and be led instead into places I don’t want to go.

Of course, it’s not as if I haven’t been to places that I didn’t want to go already.

  • Despite what some may think, I had no desire initially to go to Syria in 2013 where I was surrounded by misery and death and bombs going off.
  • I didn’t want to go to Manus Island either, to be almost drowned in a dingy, bouncing between coral reefs, while being pursued by the local navy.
  • I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem in 2004, to see my friend, Morde Vanunu, released from prison, only to be mobbed and almost killed in a riot.
  • And when it comes to my thirty years here of ministry here in Dulwich Hill, did I really ever want to be led into so many of the things we’ve done here?

I thought I’d conclude today by sharing a few of those experiences here in Dulwich Hill that I never expected to have, and generally didn’t want to have. I thought I’d limit myself to three experiences out of many thousands, otherwise I’d be here all day. These three though are amongst the most memorable for me.

The first incident happened in our youth centre, which was where we saw so much joy and sadness and so many miracles and also so crime and death, and on this particular occasion there was a threat of real violence (which was not uncommon).

We had a female youth worker managing the centre that day and she had to ask one of the young boys to leave. I don’t remember what the boy had done wrong, and I don’t think it was all that serious as he was only banned for the day, but the problem was that his father found out, and his dad was a local thug who I didn’t know well but who I did know had some bad connections in what was then a bad neighbourhood.

The dad stood for a while out on the street in front of our Youth Centre, loudly threatening our youth worker and all the kids who were with her, and saying that he was going to return in a little while with some of his mates and they were going to teach us all a lesson. I asked our youth worker to call the police and explain what was going on, which she did, and meanwhile I got all the kids (I think there were between 20 and 30 of them)  inside and shut the door where they played pool.

Half an hour later the father hadn’t returned, which was god, but the police hadn’t shown up either, so things were still tense. Then one of the Samoan boys got on his phone, and a few minutes later came over and told me not to sweat. Within ten minutes a series of small cars showed up. Perhaps the cars weren’t really that small, but what I remember is that the size of the Islander boys who emptied themselves out of the cars looked like they could not have possibly fitted inside of them.

Within about 10 minutes we had a group of enormous young Islander men – at least a dozen of them, all milling about in front of our Youth Centre, like a football team in search of a playing field. Most of them were Christians too, as it turned out, and one of them had a guitar, and it didn’t take long before they were singing choruses together on the street. I still have a photo of this that I treasure.

The father and his gang never showed (or it they did, they didn’t make themselves obvious) and neither did the police. I enquired down at the Local Area Command the following day why the police hadn’t responded and was told that they had showed up but couldn’t see a problem. In other words, they saw a dozen or so enormous Islander men on the street and decided to keep driving. All’s well it ends well.

The second incident that stands out in my memory regarded one of the people our church put up in one of our flats. Years ago, before development work was done, we had two small flats alongside the rectory, and I had another room at the back of the rectory that was referred to as ‘the rehab room’, and we had different people stay in those flats and in that room over the years, and it was a real gift to be able to offer that service to so many in need, but in some cases it got us into real trouble too.

I don’t want to identify the person who caused us the most trouble as a resident in one of those flats but suffice it to say that we had to get the police involved on a number of occasions, due to criminal activity on the part of our guests, and this normally resulted in the guest moving on. On one occasion though we found we were dealing with someone who had experience in knowing how not to get evicted from places where they wanted to say, and this person caused us a lot of grief.

In the middle of this dilemma I received a late-night visit from Ray Hawkins, who was one of the most colourful characters I’ve ever known and who was, amongst other things, one of Australia’s greatest Elvis impersonators.

I knew Ray through Morna Molesworth, who some will remember as a beloved member of this parish and who sadly did a lengthy prison term during her years with us here as well, and I only mention that to indicate that she herself had some very colourful connections in her life, and Ray was, I suspect, the most colourful of all!

Ray showed up at about midnight and invited himself in. I offered him a drink and we had a quiet beer and talked trivia for a while, and then Ray asked me whether he could bring his mate in. I said, “You’ve got a friend waiting in the car!?” It was mid-winter at the time. Ray said, “Oh, he’s OK, but can I bring him in?” I said, “of course!”

Moments later Ray reappeared at the door with a guy who had the soma-type of a gorilla – short, with enormous trunk and arms – who was looking at the ground, and muttering, and it was immediately obvious that this guy had a mental illness.

Ray said, “Dave, this is Nick. Nick is a debt-collector. He’s a very good debt-collector. Nick has come to have a word to that person you have living in your church flat next door that you’re trying to get rid of”.

I had no idea what to do, except to offer both Nick and Ray another drink. Meanwhile, Ange called me into the kitchen and told me in no uncertain terms that, in her opinion, I should not utilize the services of Nick, the debt-collector.

I eventually returned to the lounge room where both men were enjoying their drinks – Ray quietly humming Elvis tunes and Nick looking at the ground, chuckling to himself. I said to Ray, “brother, I really appreciate you trying to help us but I’ve got the police involved and I’ve got other government departments involved, and I really think we’ve got this one covered.”

Ray paused for a while, then looked back at me and said, “I suppose a clean broom sweeps best, doesn’t it, Dave?” I said, “Yeah, Ray – a clean broom, a clean broom”

Ray then put Nick back on his leash and went home. Ray died shortly after that night in mysterious circumstances, but I can only remember him as a lovely man at heart and one who, in his own way, did his best to serve Christ’s church.

Now, I know I’m already well over the time allowed for the regular sermon, but what are you going to do – fire me? I want to share one more memory.

In truth, the most vivid memory I have of the last thirty years here in Dulwich Hill, and the most wonderful memory is of our church barbeques in the early 90’s.

It wasn’t really the food and drink I remember, of course, though I do recall once making the mistake of supplying free beer (at my own expense) at one of those barbeques, and at the following Parish Council meeting it was ruled that I should not do that again.  We were a rough lot, in some ways, but those people were the greatest group of human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

I can still see their faces – not only when I think of our barbeques. of course, but when I look out at the church pews on a Sunday morning.

I can still see them sitting there – Bob and Glen Thomas, Rashed and Margaret Saleeb, Marge Yarham (who used to ring me up late at night sometimes after she’d had too much to drink and tell me how much she loved me), Jean George, Madge Aspinall, Inis Dalgarno, Jan’s mum, Theresa, and, of course, Richard Smith, who used to play the organ for us, often with my darling Veronica sitting at his side and helping him with the music sheets, back when she was still a toddler. Veronica is in her 30’s now, but it still all seems like yesterday.

Then there were our Sri Lankan friends – Kumar, Heddy, and her husband Nihal, who died of pneumonia while still in his thirties, and I remember sitting with him all night in the hospital as he died, and then being in hospital myself the following week with the same illness.

There were Bill and Ena Pattison, dear John Thurling, Alf Davies, Ruth Paddle, Elvie Boehme, and all the old girls we used to bring up by car to the Youth Centre every Friday morning for what was colloquially referred to as the ‘stitch and bitch’ session.

I mention those names but I can see other faces in my memory whose names I can no longer remember, whether by virtue of my own advancing age or as a result of the number of hits I’ve taken to the head, I do not know.

So often I so wish I could go back there. Those great souls were my mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and I loved them all. I still sense their presence with me – a part of that great cloud of witnesses who stand with us in worship in this place. I’ve sensed them celebrating the Eucharist here with me every week!

So often I wish I could go back, but we can’t go back. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on” as the great Persian mystic, Omar Khayyam, wrote a thousand years ago, and we must move on too – arms outstretched, being led to places where we do not want to go – because that’s where Jesus needs us to go.

We don’t know what the future holds. It’s hard enough coming to terms with our regrets over the past without having to deal with our fears for the unknown future, Even so, we look forward together to the day when all the saints will from their labors rest, and when we, together with all those who’ve gone before us, cast our crowns before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise. Until that great day comes though, the Lord only requires of us that we answer Him one simple question: “do you love me?”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 19th of April 2020.

 

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Crucified and Risen – Easter 2020


I know many of you have already seen this gift I received from my friend, Luke Cornish. It’s an image of a crucifixion, but not of the crucifixion of Jesus, of course. You don’t need to look too closely to see that it’s the crucifixion of Julian Assange.

I probably should have put it in a frame by now as I do treasure, but Luke is a graffiti artist, known (amongst other things) for doing graffiti art in the streets of Aleppo, shortly after its liberation by the Syrian Arab Army (with images of Dora the Explorer emblazoned across the walls of burnt out buildings) and then there was his amazing depiction of the head of Khaled al-Asaad that he spray-painted on to a metal door inside the Roman Amphitheater in Palmyra, shortly after Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded there by ISIS, and shortly before ISIS retook the area and blew up the amphitheater.

Luke has also done some more light-hearted works too, of course, including the depiction he did of me on the wall of the MLC building in Martin Place. Even so, his artworks always make a serious point, and the point he is making here is indeed a serious one.

Our brother, Julian, is indeed being crucified (in a very real sense) as we speak. While other prisoners (even those convicted of quite serious crimes) are being paroled at the moment and having their trials delayed, the prosecution in Julian’s extradition hearing is pushing ahead full-steam, and from what I hear from Julian’s father, the treatment Julian is receiving is simply sub-human.

Julian is locked in some sort of plastic box even while appearing in the courtroom, unable to communicate with his legal team. It’s as if he’s some super-villain with special powers, such that if they let him out of the box he may use those powers to melt the judge or put a death choke on the prosecuting attorney.

And why are they pushing ahead with the extradition hearing so relentlessly now while so many others cases are being rescheduled for later dates? The answer, of course, is because they know they can get away with it now – that nobody will mobilize to protest at the moment because nobody is allowed to mobilize.

And even if we could mobilize, who would be interested right now? There is only one item in the news at the moment and only one thing on everybody’s mind. It’s like when you have a toothache – you think about your tooth and you think about a dentist and there’s not much room left to think about anything else. Pain and fear have a way of making us look in on ourselves and narrow our horizons. Julian who?

And that’s what the cross was all about! I don’t mean that’s what the cross meant for the early church, but the Christians weren’t the ones who invented the cross, and they weren’t the first to use it as an icon either. Long before the cross became a symbol of faith for the Christ’s followers, it was a symbol of imperial power for Rome.

People look at Luke’s artwork and say he’s being blasphemous, as if Jesus of Nazareth were the only person ever to die on a cross. On the contrary, the Romans killed hundreds of thousands of people this way – anybody who stood up to them.

The cross was not only an efficient way of torturing someone to death. It was a way of making a public statement – ‘this is what will happen to you if you stand up against us.’ People would die slowly and painfully on their crosses, in full view of the public so that all might be suitably admonished.

The cross was Rome’s way of declaring to the world that ‘we are all-powerful’ and ‘you are nothing. We hold the power over life and death. Who are you to dare to question us?’

After the failed revolt of the slaves, led by Spartacus, in 73 BC, the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 slaves and put their tortured bodies on public display over a two-hundred kilometer stretch of the Via Apia.

They didn’t post these crosses in some remote field of execution, tastefully out of the sight of civilised society. They lined the highway with the tortured and dying bodies of those who raised their hands against the Empire so that everybody would see. – so that everybody would get the message!

Of course, that was a long time ago, I hear you say, and thankfully we don’t live in Ancient Rome anymore – let alone in occupied Judea, where Jesus spent His earthly life. Life is a lot easier now than it was then. Back then the Romans could stop you meeting for worship on the Sabbath if they chose to, and indeed, you couldn’t really even leave your house without risking being interrogated by an armed member of the occupying forces, asking you where you were going and what business you had being out of doors!

Perhaps things haven’t changed that much? Indeed, when you look about the world, Greece seems to have collapsed, Rome is in deep trouble, and everyone’s worried about what the Persians are up to (in Iran). Welcome back to Biblical times!

Ok, I am exaggerating in order to make the point, but I do think that our current crisis in the midst of this virus pandemic should at least give us one clear insight into the mindset and culture of Jesus’ contemporaries in first-century Judea.

We are now in a society where there is really only one news item and one thing on everybody’s minds. It governs our thoughts and our conversations and our decisions for the future and it governs our prayers. Next time you read the New Testament and find yourself asking, “why were all Jesus’ contemporaries so obsessed with political liberation from the Romans?”, remember what this feels like.

They weren’t free to worship. They weren’t walk the streets except under the ever-watchful eyes of the Roman military. Their entire lives were circumscribed from morning to night by Roman rule and Roman law, and the people of Judea hated it! No wonder when Jesus came along speaking of ‘Good news for the poor’ and of the ‘liberation of the oppressed’ His contemporaries could only see His good news in terms of the end of Imperial oppression.

What is amazing about the New Testament church is that it started to proclaim a message of liberation and hope, not after Rome had fallen but during that same period where Rome still had the power of life and death over them! And what is even more amazing, in some ways, is that Christ’s followers took as their symbol the cross – Rome’s own weapon of mass destruction, and the symbol of their Imperial power!

It seems almost perverse! Was it initially intended as a form of irony?

I remember when I was quite young, working with (what was then) the Sydney City Mission, and helping to staff the ‘Missionbeat’ van, where we would drive around the city, picking up homeless people and taking them to places of shelter.

One of the guys I was in regular contact with then who worked at the Salvation Army Men’s home used to have a fantastic tattoo of a rolling stone on his arm. He explained to me that, as a Christian, he didn’t think it right to focus on suffering, so he didn’t like the image of the cross. His focus was on resurrection and new life, and so the image of the rolling stone seemed far more spiritually appropriate to him.

He had a point! The question is, why hasn’t the church throughout history grasped that point? Why aren’t we all wearing images of rolling stones rather than crosses?

As I say, it could be the church’s sense of irony. Was the image of an empty cross (most especially) the church’s way of saying to Rome ‘is this the best you can do?’

I suspect that was part of the point – that the cross is itself an anti-imperialist parody. The Empire thinks it is all powerful, but it is not all-powerful. The principalities and powers did their worst to Jesus, and their worst was not bad enough!

This is indeed the central proclamation of the New Testament – that Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Empire nailed to a cross, came back! Rome’s weapon of mass destruction turned out to be not as destructive as it first appeared! If that was as terrible a torture and as terrifying a weapon that the Empire could come up with, perhaps there is nothing to fear! The cross can’t hurt you! Is that the message?

I don’t think that is exactly the message – that the cross can’t hurt you – as I think the Gospels go to great lengths to make clear that the cross did in fact hurt Jesus. It’s not as if Jesus sails through the experience of crucifixion unharmed. Jesus is tortured on the cross and it does kill him. It’s just that His story doesn’t end there!

Read through the Gospel of Mark. It’s been described as a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction! There is no by-passing the sufferings of Jesus, and no way of sanitizing them either.

I was brought up Protestant, of course, and our religious artwork rarely features much blood when it comes to depictions of Jesus. Contrast that with the artworks on display at St Paul of the Cross and St Brigid’s – our two local Catholic parishes. There’s blood everywhere! Jesus bleeds. Mary is always likewise depicted with a bleeding heart. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t bleeding!

In truth, I think Catholic artwork actually captures the culture of the New Testament far better than our sanitized Protestant alternatives. Read the Gospel accounts. There’s blood everywhere. Look at the central sacrament Jesus left us with. It’s all about blood. And then look around our world.

You don’t only have to look at battlefields in far-flung countries. One of the disturbing statistics I read recently was that lockdown procedures in Italy have led to a 34% increase in levels of domestic violence. I haven’t seen comparable figures from the local scene, but I have been told that whatever figures are coming in, they are likely being massively underreported.

Think about it – if your abusive spouse never leaves the house, are you more or less likely to be able to report what is going on to the police?

I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic about all this, but our world is awash in a sea of blood.  There’s violence in the home just as there’s violence on the battlefield. We struggle, mentally and emotionally, to come to terms with it all and we do our best to rise above it but sometimes it’s just too much. We want to fight the Good Fight and be good rebels for the cause of Christ, but the principalities and powers are strong and so often they threaten to overwhelm us.

I know that not everybody experiences the cross in this way. There are some people who, whether for reasons of privilege or good fortune, seem somehow to avoid the pain and the fatigue and the bloodshed. There may indeed be a lot of people like that, and God bless them, but my key point here is that Jesus wasn’t one of them!

Jesus didn’t just die on a cross. Jesus lived the cross, and those disciples who came after Jesus – they took up their crosses, just as He told them to (Matthew 16:24), and followed their master down that same dangerous and painful path.

This is why, I believe, the cross became the symbol of the faith of the early church.  It wasn’t just the way Jesus died. It was something they lived, and lived together. Even so, the great thing about the cross, in the light of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is that you realise that imperial power and human suffering don’t have the final word.

“If we suffer together, we shall reign together”, says the Apostle (2 Timothy 2:12). Those who endure the cross will ultimately experience the resurrection. When all seems dark and hope seems to have disappeared, know that Jesus has been there. Jesus has experienced that darkness. Jesus has suffered that darkness. Jesus is with us in that darkness, and ultimately, as He rises, so we will rise with Him!

Sisters and brother, the Good News of the Gospel is not simply that ‘He who was crucified has risen’. It is, I believe, even more importantly, that ‘He who is risen is the one who was crucified’.

Things are not good at the moment. I know that. We feel lonely, isolated, cut off. We miss our friends and our families. We miss our familiar lives. We yearn to find our way out of this dark tunnel and get back into the light. Perhaps this cross seems to be more than we can bear.

Don’t despair. Listen carefully and you will hear the sound of the stone being rolled back from the empty tomb. A new day is dawning. New life is on its way, for the one who was crucified is now risen – risen indeed – and this one who is now risen is indeed the one who was crucified!

Love’s redeeming work is done
Fought the fight, the battle won

Made like Him, like Him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

(Charles Wesley)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 12th of April, 2020.

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What, never thirst again? (A sermon on John 4:4-42)

Earth’s fountains fair but mock our souls,
Like desert phantoms lure,
And they that drink, the fainter grow,
The keener thirst endure.

You’re not likely to recognise the hymn from which these words are taken – words that cleverly highlight the enigma that no matter how much we drink, the human thirst for water is never ultimately satiated. You may well recognise though the passage from the Bible that inspired these words – namely, our Gospel reading form John chapter four, where Jesus speaks of the living water which, should you drink of it, you will never thirst again!

The hymn is entitled, “What, never thirst again?” and was written about a century ago by Mary Agnew Stephens and I know it well as it was a favourite of my dad’s, and he used to sing it to me when I was little. I remember the chorus:

What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again;
What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again,
For he that drinketh, Jesus said,
Shall never, never thirst again.

According to my dad, it was one of those hymns where you’d get one side of the church singing one line – “What, never thirst again?” – and the other half replying with “No, never thirst again!”.

I did toy with the idea of doing that together with the congregation, after downloading the tune to back us up, but the only rendition of the tune I could find on YouTube had the song being sung in Thai (with English subtitles). I’m sure Mary Agnew Stephens would be chuffed to know that her hymn is being sung in Thai but I confess that I lost my enthusiasm, in terms of how that would translate into our context (so to speak).

These are, at any rate, well-known words and images that we encounter in John, chapter four – the metaphor of living water for the sprit of God – and as with the well-remembered words and images of John three, which spoke of wind and new birth, these words and images come to us as part of a dialogue between two people – Jesus, on the one hand, and this time a Samaritan woman on the other.

I think it’s worth starting our probe into this Gospel reading by stepping back and looking at the big picture, and to how these two encounters in John, given to us in chapters three and four, respectively, appear alongside each other. They are markedly similar in many ways and starkly contrasting in others. In both cases Jesus enters into deep theological dialogue with the person He is talking to, and in both cases His partners in dialogue are similarly confused by what He is saying. At the same time though, these two people couldn’t really be any more different!

In John chapter three, we met Nicodemus – a wealthy and educated man, and a loved and respected spiritual leader of his people. In John chapter four, we meet a woman who is not a Jew, and so was not respected at all by most Jewish people, and who was also not respected by her own people – the Samaritan people. Whereas Nicodemus was rich, educated, powerful, loved and respected, this woman is none of those things – neither wealthy nor educated nor powerful nor respected. She is an isolated figure – a powerless and vulnerable nobody.

It’s interesting that we never learn her name. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Perhaps very few people knew her name. Perhaps she didn’t want people to know her name. Either way, we know quite a bit about her, and we learn quite a lot about her simply by the fact that she turned up at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day:

“It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.” (John 4:6b-7a)

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, Rudyard Kipling famously said, referring to those who would brave the heat of the day in 19th century India. Much the same could be said of those who would brave the heat of the day in first century Samaria. You wouldn’t be out there unless you had good reason to be out there at that time, meaning that this woman had good reason to be avoiding her peers, and the reason for this becomes clear in the conversation she has with Jesus:

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”” (John 4:16-18)

Obviously, there was a lot more to this woman’s story, but this is enough to help us understand why this woman was being shunned by her community. She had had five relationship breakdowns, and nobody respects somebody who has had five relationship breakdowns.

Nothing has really changed in that regard, I think. I find it hard enough to retain people’s respect after having had two relationship breakdowns. Perhaps I should find it encouraging to be reminded that there are persons out there who are greater failures than me. Perhaps, in as much as I hate having other people look down on me, at least I can look down on her!

Of course, we don’t know what caused all her relationship breakdowns, and neither do we know anything about the relationship she was in when she met Jesus, but over the years there has been plenty of speculation.

The assumption made by most commentators is that she was a sex-worker of some sort. Perhaps she’d had multiple children to multiple men, each of whom eventually tired of her sex-addicted, money-grabbing lifestyle, and, rather than have her stoned, simply divorced her and moved on. That’s the most unsympathetic interpretation.

At the other end, some speculate that perhaps she couldn’t have children, and so perhaps her partner’s tired of her for that reason. If she were infertile of course, that wouldn’t mean she was not to blame. Surely, you must have done something pretty bad to be cursed by God with infertility!

Of course, we don’t have to assume that all the woman’s husbands divorced her. It’s quite possible that some of them died. Perhaps they all died? That in itself would make her look pretty suspicious, of course, but you’ll remember that story the Sadducees told Jesus about the woman who was married to seven brothers, one after the other, and they all died on her (Matthew 28). Perhaps that story was based on a true-life example. Perhaps it was inspired by this woman?

What is really interesting here, I think, is what Jesus Himself tells us about the details of this woman’s failed relationships. The answer, of course, is ‘absolutely nothing!’.

We who have followed Jesus have used our imaginations to fill in all the blanks, but it seems to me quite significant to me that Jesus Himself offers no comment on the woman’s failed relationships whatsoever.

Jesus pushes the woman to tell him about her marital status – “I have no husband”  (John 4:17) – presumably because He wants to let her know that He is already fully aware of her domestic circumstances and that He does not judge her.

Jesus does not say to her, “Go, and sin no more”. He does not say to her, “Your sins are forgiven”. Jesus doesn’t say anything about this woman’s sinfulness, on the one hand, or about her victimhood, on the other. He affirms her for telling the truth, but he makes no comment on the specifics of her personal history whatsoever!

We don’t find that nearly so easy! We want to judge the woman, just as her first century peers wanted to judge her. Perhaps that’s the natural human thing to do, though it seems to me to be a tendency that especially afflicts religious communities. When things go wrong, we search for someone to blame. We can’t feel at peace with God or with ourselves until we have a straightforward explanation as to why the bad thing happen to apparently good people. Someone must be at fault?

Yes, of course I’m allowing my personal pain to affect how I experience this story but, having been through two relationship breakdowns, I now find myself looking back with wonder and admiration at the community who nurtured me through my first relationship breakdown – that elderly group of women and men (but mainly women) who only every seemed to have one question for me – “how can we help”.

That was thirty years ago. Having come back to the same low point a second time, the far more common question this time around has been, “who do we blame?”

As one friend said to me one the day my separation was announced, “you now have no credibility”. I suspect that’s exactly what they said to the woman too. The key difference, I suspect, was that she had no one to support her – no one, at least, until she met Jesus!

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again”, Jesus says to the woman, “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15)

Jesus doesn’t judge the woman. He offers her life!

It’s hard to be sure how much else of what Jesus said that day was properly heard. As with the Nicodemus dialogue in John’s previous chapter, there is a play on words in the original text, and while Jesus is speaking about ‘living water’, the woman thinks He is talking about ‘flowing water’ (which is the same word in the original language), as in contrast to the still water of the well.

It’s hard to know how much else the woman took away from that meeting, but note that this is the longest recorded dialogue that Jesus has with anyone in any of the four Gospels, and that Jesus clearly took this woman seriously as a partner in theological dialogue, and this despite her being a Samaritan, being uneducated, being a woman, and being a woman who was looked down upon by her community.

I don’t know how many others here have read Foucault’s, “Discipline and Punish”. I read it back in my University days and have never forgotten it, or at least I’ve never forgotten what I remember as the central premise – namely, that our ‘correctional institutions’ don’t really exist for the sake of correcting anybody but exist rather so that people in regular society have another group they can look down upon.

I’m sure more erudite scholars of Foucault will tell me that’s a very partial reading of the great man’s work on the subject. That’s what I remember, and it’s an understanding that has been reinforced in me over the years that I’ve visited prisons around this country. We know the statistics – that the recidivism rate (the rate of those who return to prison, term after term) is ridiculously high. These places don’t seem to be designed to help their clients. Even so, Foucault is the only one I remember being bold enough to suggest the prison system’s real function.

The village idiot was another vital member of the community who once played that role – giving everybody else in the community someone they could feel superior to. It’s part of the way human communities operate. We have a pecking order. Celebrities are at the top of the order and pedophiles on the bottom. Even in prison, pedophiles have their own ‘protection wing’ so that they aren’t killed by the other prisoners, as the regular prison population needs people they can look down on too.

This is the way human societies work. We evaluate, we judge, we respect and we disrespect. We admire and elevate some people and we denigrate and lynch others, and being the fickle people that we are, we can switch in an instant – shouting hosannas to someone one day and crucifying them the next. That wasn’t only Jesus’ experience. Look what’s happening to Julian Assange at the moment.

This is the way human societies work. It’s not the way Jesus works. In no instance in the New Testament do we see Jesus looking down on anyone on the underside of the community. On the contrary, he doesn’t look down. He gets down. He gets down with those at the bottom, and offers them the living water that wells up to eternal life!

Let me finish as I started, with the words of Mary Agnew Stephens:

Oh, blessed stream of pure delight!
Oh, balm for every pain!
To thee I haste, for Jesus said,
I’ll never thirst again.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 15th of March, 2020.

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For God so loved the world (A sermon on John 3:1-17)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

We are in the second week of Lent – that period of somber reflection and self-examination – and it seems like and odd time at which to encounter this most positive and affirming of texts – “for God so loved the world …”

I don’t remember at time at which I didn’t know this verse. I suspect many of you who were likewise nurtured in the Christian faith from infancy would say the same thing. For those of us brought up in the Evangelical tradition, this verse has always been a sort of talisman – a one-line summary of our faith, the essence of the Gospel.

I remember as a young Christian, this verse was something you were expected to quote all the time as a kind of shibboleth through which you showed your adherence to the one true faith. We would wear T-shirts and wristbands, displaying this text, and sometimes not even the text but just the textual reference – John 3:16 – a message that would only make sense to the others who likewise branded themselves as being part of the same evangelical Christian tradition – a badge of spiritual tribal identity.

And yet, of course, this verse is not given to us as an isolated aphorism. It comes to us as a part of a conversation between two men – our Lord Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus, and the more I read this verse in the context of the greater dialogue between the two men, the less bravado I feel as a religious person.

I do believe that what we have in this account from John, chapter three, is an account of what was a real conversation between two historical people. I know that some academics see these dialogues in John’s Gospel merely as literary creations designed to outline the theology of the early church, with no necessary connection to any historical events or persons. I don’t take that view.

Nicodemus – introduced to us in John chapter three as a Pharisee and as a member of the Jewish ruling council – turns up at two other points in John’s account of the life of Jesus. In chapter seven, we see him defending Jesus against other Pharisees who would condemn Jesus without first hearing what he had to say (John 7:51). After the crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus appears again, this time working alongside Joseph of Arimathea to see that Jesus is given a proper Jewish burial (John 19:39).

We can speculate as to when the details of this first meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus became public. The description of the meeting suggests that no one apart from Jesus and Nicodemus was present, so the story must have been passed on to the Apostles either by Jesus Himself or, more likely I suspect, by Nicodemus.

While we don’t have any historical records of Nicodemus outside of John’s Gospel, I think it entirely likely that the man who helped bury Jesus came into contact with the Apostle John – the only disciple who was there at the cross of Jesus, and the man I assume to be behind the gospel that bears his name. Indeed, I suspect that John and Nicodemus may have met on numerous occasions where Nicodemus told John how Jesus spoke to him on that first night about new birth and about the wind.

It’s interesting, when you think about the way the New Testament came to us – these stories about Jesus that we find in John’s Gospel probably weren’t written down until a generation after they had taken place. They started out as stories that were verbally told and retold, passed on from one follower of Jesus to another, and, no doubt, retold as dramatic performances in some cases to much larger groups.

It’s interesting when we look at the final written form of these stories that we’ve received – I think we get a sense of what was most crucially remembered in these accounts as they were passed on. The exact words used by Jesus and the precise details of the context were often remembered a little differently, but what people remembered best were the stories and images. Isn’t that what we best remember?

We remember the story about the lost sheep, about the prodigal son, about the good Samaritan, and even the story about the mustard seed that becomes the greatest of all weeds. We remember the imagery of wind and spirit and new birth.

I imagine an initial meeting between John and Nicodemus, with Nicodemus talking excitedly while sharing a flask of good wine at a local inn:

“It was very confusing. I guess I thought I had it all worked out. After all, I’ve been studying the Torah since I was a child and I did very well in all my theology exams, and my religious community had appointed me a member of their ruling council. In terms of having it all worked out, I thought ‘if not now, when?’, and yet Jesus told me that I had to begin all over again, or did He literally mean that I had to be born again, or was he saying that I had to be born ‘from above’ (of God), or did He mean something altogether different? I was very confused by that first conversation, and Jesus didn’t seem to be particularly committed to clearing up my confusion.”

I imagine that meeting was confusing, as the written text in John’s gospel is itself confusing. When Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’, the Greek word (‘anothen’) is the same as the word meaning ‘from above’, and so it’s not clear whether Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs to be ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’, or simply that he had to ‘begin again’, or that he had to ‘begin again from a different starting point (ie. from above)’, or some combination of the above.

Nicodemus’ response – “How can someone be born when they are old? … Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4) – is an attempt to strike out one of these alternatives, but Jesus’ response – “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit… The wind blows wherever it pleases.” (John 3:6-8) – doesn’t really do a lot to clarify exactly what He was talking about.

It’s worth taking a step back and thinking about these images of wind and birth. We don’t want to let our imaginations run wild and attach all sorts of inappropriate meanings to these images, but what exactly was Jesus trying to convey here?

I have never given birth (obviously) but I have been present at four births as the designated support person, and I can tell you that what I’ve been left with from each of those experiences was, most fundamentally, the level of trauma involved!

Giving birth is a painful and bloody and protracted experience. Is that a part of what Jesus is wanting to convey here? If it is, it stands in sharp contrast to the way the exhortation ‘you must be born again’ is regularly used by evangelists.

Again, if I go back to my university days, it was generally accepted that in order to be ‘born again’ all you had to do was to say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ or some similarly well-worded form of confession and faith, after which the person leading you to faith would declare, “there you go! You’ve been born again!”

It was a pretty straightforward process – quick and painless, and no blood at all. Is that really how it works, or is spiritual renewal a slow and agonizing process during which we repeatedly feel like we are dying, and where we scream and pray that the pain will just stop, and we try to get relief but nothing really helps. My experience of the spiritual life is that it is a lot like that a lot of the time. Even so, I have a feeling that the force of the birth metaphor, as intended by Jesus, had less to do with the pain of the birth process as with the loss of control.

Again, this is not something I can pretend to have experienced myself, but it is something I have learnt from those I have supported through the birthing process – that it’s a journey you just have to go along with, as you can’t just decide to just get off when it gets uncomfortable.

I think this, at any rate, is where the imagery of birth and the image of the wind come together. The point of the wind metaphor is clear, I think – “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8). You have no control over the wind – that’s the point – just as we have no control over where the birthing journey takes us, just as we have no control over what God is doing in the world.

That’s a disturbing thought, I think – disturbing for Nicodemus, no doubt, and disturbing for us too. Nicodemus is a great man of religion, and we are people of religion too, and some of us are seasoned religious people, and what’s the point of being religious if it doesn’t give you some control over God?!

OK, we might not put it that way but isn’t a great deal of religion about taking control? We want Jesus to teach us how to pray because we want our prayers to be effective. We want to be like Elijah, who when he prays for rain, it rains (1 Kings 18) and when he prays that it will stop raining, it stops raining (James 5;17), and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty good about seeing all the rain of late, as that’s exactly what we were praying for, even if we weren’t praying for quite as much as we actually got.

We want control. We want control over our health. We want our children to be safe. Every morning I begin my day by praying for protection for my children. I suspect that countless other people of religion around the world do exactly the same thing, and don’t we all do it because we believe our prayers are making a difference? I do.

We want our prayers to be effective. We want our lives to make a difference. Whether I’m a full-time ordained cleric or whether I see my main spiritual contribution as being through my faithful devotion to my ailing mother, we all want our lives to make a difference and we believe, don’t we, that God works with us in that process, and that the Spirit of God isn’t just blowing about like the wind such that we have no control whatsoever over what God is up to?

Maybe the answer here is not simple, and maybe there is a difference between believing you can control God and believing that your prayers will be heard by God.

Going back to my university days, I remember one friend whose spiritual wisdom has stuck with me over the years. This friend had gone on a visit to Latin American over one holiday period and told me he saw there the extremes of both pre-Tridentine Catholicism, on the one hand, and Evangelical fundamentalism on the other, and he came to the conclusion that the real distinction between these and other faith groups was not the obvious tribal divisions – protestant, Catholic, charismatic, evangelical, etc. – but the distinction between those who believed in salvation by grace and those who believed in salvation by magic.

Believing in salvation by magic, to his reckoning, meant simply that your religion gave you the power to force the hand of God – to control God. At the Catholic end, he said, that seemed to involve participation in specific rituals. At the protestant evangelical end, it was all about holding on to the right doctrinal beliefs.

In its simplest form, for Evangelicals, this just means that so long as you believe exactly the right stuff, God has to let you into Heaven when you die, and that was pretty much the religion I was brought up on. I still remember the preacher from a well-known Sydney Anglican church asking us in his sermon, “When you get to Heaven and they ask you why they should let you in, what will you say?” The right answer, of course, was that “Jesus died for my sins”.

That is the right answer, but I remember at the time thinking that I should write it down so that I would be ready with the answer for when my time came, because if I gave that answer, God had no choice but to let me in, and that is salvation by magic.

If the thought that the movement of the Spirit of God is as uncontrollable as the wind is disturbing, there is a positive flip-side to it too – namely, that while we might not be able to control the wind, we can’t mistake it when it’s blowing.

Jesus says, “we testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11), and we can do that because the movement of the Spirit of God, while it is mysterious, is also obvious.

This is my testimony – that over the last thirty years in Dulwich Hill I have seen the Spirit of God move with power! I’ve seen multiples lives turned upside-down. I’ve seen addicts cured of their addiction. I’ve seen people who we were sure were going to die who have been healed. I’ve seen people who have felt marginalized and unloved discover the joys of community. I’ve seen homeless people find homes and hungry people find food – both literally and figurately. I’ve seen frail and elderly women from our church community share living-giving wisdom with young girls who didn’t know where their lives were going. I’ve seen the Spirit of God move through young people and old people, through gay people as well as straight people, through women as well as men, and through Muslims as well as Christians.

No – none of this has been under my control. It’s been like watching the wind blow. But just because you can’t control the movement of the wind, doesn’t mean you can’t engage with it when it is blowing.

“For God so loved the world …” – that’s mysterious too, and I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the salvation of the world all works itself out. What I do understand is that I don’t understand much, and what I do understand I don’t control. Even so, God understands, God’s Spirit is all-powerful, and God so loved the world.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 8th of March, 2020.

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Don’t Crucify the Messenger – Father Dave speaks in support of Julian Assange

Don’t Crucify the Messenger! – that’s my simple plea today.

I know a lot of people have said they find my friend, Luke Cornish’s, image of Julian being crucified offensive, as it makes him out to be a Christ figure.

They miss the point. The Roman Empire crucified a lot of people apart from Jesus. They crucified thousands of people. Indeed, they crucified anyone who dared to question their ultimate authority, and long before the cross was ever adopted as a symbol of faith it was a symbol of Imperial Power.

After the failed revolt of the slaves, led by Spartacus, in 73 BC, the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 slaves and put their tortured bodies on public display over a two-hundred kilometer stretch of the Via Apia. That was the Empire’s way of reminding everybody, ‘We are all-powerful and you are nothing. We have the power of life and death – the power to imprison and kill! Who are we to question us?’

Empires change as the centuries go by, but the lust for power and the arrogance and the assumption of impunity remains the same. Who are you to question us? How dare you call us to account? What is your truth when we have power?

Today’s empire is doing its best to turn our brother, Julian Assange, himself into a symbol of their power. Like the crosses that lined the Via Apia, they hold him up for the world to see, as a warning to anyone who would question their authority. ‘Dare to call the empire to account and this will happen to you too!’

And yet, around 2,000 years ago, the cross was adopted as a symbol of faith by one small group of people who came to believe that imperial violence did not have the final word. Some people, they believed, just couldn’t be crucified. Some voices just could not be silenced. When the light of truth is truly shining, the darkness just cannot ever ultimately put it out!

Forgive me if I’m starting to sound a bit religious (it’s an occupational hazard) but this really is a battle of light and darkness. Julian is being crucified because he spoke the truth – because he exposed crimes – terrible crimes of violence and murder, and it’s the persons responsible for those crimes who should be being dragged before the courts to give an account of themselves.

Don’t crucify the messenger – that’s my plea. Don’t bother, because you cannot silence the message, and don’t do it, because we, the Australian people, want that this fellow son of our sunburnt country, Australia’s son, our brother, Julian Assange, to come home.

Address given in Martin Place, February 24, 2020

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Judgement and Grace (A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ‘but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29)

Yes, we’ve reached the pointy end of the Sermon on the Mount, and in many ways it’s hard to believe that this is the same sermon that began with such an effusive outpouring of blessings:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers

We started on such a positive note with Jesus, and then the blessings seem to give way to curses or sorts, and it gets worse – particularly if you’ve been divorced:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

What do you do with that? Well, we know what the church has historically done with that. It has reviled and excluded divorced people – forcing them out of the church or, at the very least, treating them like second class citizens. I shouldn’t say ‘them’, or course. They treat people like me as second-class Christians. Mene, mene, tekel and upharsin – we have been weighed in the balance and found lacking.

Of course, it all depends on which side of the ledger you stand. If you’re one of the many church-goers who have a perfect marriage (or seem to), this is one of those pieces of Scripture which gives you a bit of a platform from which you can look down on the great unwashed, and the beauty of it is that it’s very clear on which side of the ledger you stand in this instance. Are you divorced or not? If so, fail. If not, well done!

I remember hearing someone say how his grandmother’s marriage had been “saved by her death”. My grandparents had hated each other for years, he said, and she was always talking about leaving him, but she never did. At the funeral everyone spoke about how the two had stuck it out through thick and thin and stayed in their for the long term – a virtual archetype of marital fidelity, whereas if she had got up the guts to leave their marriage would have been considered an epic fail! That’s how our society still works in many instances. I just didn’t think it was how Jesus worked.

Mind you, when it comes to the warnings about lust and the associated sin of anger, I’m starting to feel a lot more smug myself about which side of that ledger I’m on.

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27)

Yes. There are a lot of people out there like that – consumed by lust and the associated sins of the flesh! I don’t include myself anymore in that sorry league of the great unwashed, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m 58 (tomorrow). I’m old!

For those who have read Plato’s Republic, you may well remember that it begins with Socrates on his way to the temple, talking about the benefits of old age – the chief of which is that you find yourself increasingly released from the temptations of the flesh!

Oh … I remember when I was all of 18 years of age and the pastor of one of the churches I was attending then sat me down to counsel me over what was blocking the spiritual gifts from properly emerging in me (the gift of tongues in particular). He looked at me with searing eyes and asked me whether I struggled with the temptation to lust, and he even questioned me about the ‘m’ word (masturbation).

I wish I could go back now and look straight back at him with the confidence of someone who is his moral equal! Actually, I’m glad I can’t go back, because before he died, he confessed to a series of crimes of sexual abuse against children. I was never one of his victims, but perhaps I should feel morally superior to him now?

And it’s the same of course with anger.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

I’ve been working my way through a rather lengthy book of late by Professor Angela Duckworth, entitled “Grit”, in which the author tries to assess the contribution personal ‘grittiness’ makes to long term success. ‘Grit’ is a very American term, of course. We might prefer ‘determination’ or ‘stubbornness’, but you get the idea. At any rate, one of the studies she discusses tries to assess whether people get more gritty as they got older, and there is apparently no evidence that they do. What the evidence does suggest though is that as we get older, we get calmer.

So … yes, despite the fact that I almost got into a fist fight with a group I found in the old rectory this week who were there without permission, I do find that I am getting calmer as I get older (on most days, anyway) and I suspect most of us do.

It seems to be a very divisive passage – this piece from the sermon on the mount. There seems to be a stark division being drawn between the over-sexed and the under-sexed, between those who are rowdy and violent and those who are calm and serene, between the pillars of marital fidelity and the wreckages of family breakdown, between the righteous and the unrighteous. If you are old and calm and serene, the Church of Jesus Christ is waiting for you! If, on the other hand, you are young and over-sexed and full of passion, give it a few years. We aren’t going anywhere. Is that the message from today’s Gospel reading? I don’t think so.

As I say, how you feel about these teachings from Jesus will depend very much on which side of the ledger you see yourself on, but I want to suggest to you that maybe, just maybe, the whole point of some of these teachings is that nobody is on the right side of the ledger.

“You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not murder … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

Does that sort of exhortation from Jesus really allow us to point the finger at someone else? As I heard one commentator say, “I keep really well to that commandment until I get in the car and drive to work” … “Fool!”

Perhaps part of the point Jesus is making here is that everyone is guilty. We’re not all guilty of murder, literally, but we may well have been angry enough at some point in our lives to have murdered someone. Perhaps the real difference between the person who murders and the person who is murderously angry is just opportunity?

And likewise, when it comes to lust. If you think you’re morally superior to other people because you’ve never committed adultery, have you ever really wanted to? Have you thought about it? Has it taken place in your heart plenty of times? Is the only difference between you and those adulterers who you despise opportunity?

I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t saying that being angry and lustful is a bad thing. Anger and lust can be horribly destructive human emotions, but they are emotions that, at one time or another, we all experience. Maybe it’s time we recognised that we are really in no way morally superior to those for whom anger and lust become their undoing. Maybe, but for the Grace of God, there go we all!

Maybe it’s time we stopped feeling superior to the lustful and the rambunctious just because we’re old. Maybe it’s time I stopped looking down on that pastor who was a pedophile? Maybe it’s time we realised that no one is righteous – no, not one!

And what about the prohibition against divorce? That seems clear, isn’t it?

It’s curious, I think, when you read through today’s Gospel in Matthew chapter five as a whole, there are lots of disturbing lines in it:

  • “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (vs. 22)
  • If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (vs.29)
  •  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (vs.30)

I don’t think at any point in the last 2000 years has the church ever taken any of these statements from Jesus literally. For some reason though, the snippet about divorce and remarriage has repeatedly been taken completely literally as an eternal command from Jesus, forbidding divorce under any circumstances and forbidding those who are divorced from ever re-partnering. That is not the Lord Jesus I know.

I don’t think you have to be too brilliant a scholar to work out what’s going on here:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’, but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Yes, it seems that a law that was originally designed to help people make a transition in cases of marital breakdown had become a tool of oppression used by men (specifically) to retire partners who no longer suited them for the sake of an upgrade. Jesus is simply calling a spade a spade – saying that adultery is adultery, regardless of whether you can produce a certificate to legitimate it.

I don’t think I need to say more on that, but what I believe we really need to see is the broad way in which Jesus, who ‘did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ (Matthew 5:17), reinterprets these ancient laws of God to make them relevant to the people He is dealing with. His goal, I believe, is not to divide people into the righteous and the unrighteous, any more than it is to penalize those who fail in their marriages. The goal, I would suggest is simply to clear the path for love.

If you’ve read the Gospel stories, you know that there were really only two groups of people that Jesus ever took issue with, and it wasn’t the weak and the sinful. It was – the very rich and the very religious. His problem here is with the very religious, and the way the law of God can be used and abused to block the path to love. When it comes to how we are to treat the weak and the sinful, Jesus’ command is clear:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 16th of February, 2020.

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You are the salt of the earth (A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (14) “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. (15) No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. (16) In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Yes, we are still in the Sermon on the Mount –the sermon that Jesus has been best known for throughout history – and we are still at the popular end of that sermon.

When I was a young Christian, still in my teens, I had a poster on my wall that featured the text of this sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes, of course, and including this section about us being the ‘salt of the earth’ and a ‘city built on a hill’.

These are empowering words! In John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), but here He says, “You are the light of the world!”. You can’t ask for a more encouraging statement than that or a more empowering passage than this one, at least until you get to the second half of the passage.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (18) For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
(19) Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (20) For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

It is good, I think, that we follow a lectionary that tells us what sections of Scripture we need to read each week. If it was left up to me, I think I would have ended today’s reading with the bit about salt and light. I’d deal with this second half of the passage next week, at which point I’d organise somebody else to preach on it.

What is going on here? Jesus, the keeper of every letter of the Law, is not the Jesus I am familiar with. Indeed, this sounds a lot more like the Jesus my Islamic friends believe in – Jesus, the custodian of the law of God – than the Jesus I see depicted elsewhere in the Gospels and in the writings of Saint Paul. What exactly is Jesus saying here, and why contrast this with these affirmations about salt and light?

I’m sure you remember Cicero’s first rule of public speaking – “render your audience benevolent”. In other words, always begin your address by getting your audience onside, which we generally do by beginning with a joke.

I obviously didn’t begin with the joke today, largely because I’m trusting that my audience is already benevolent, and because I figure that if you’re not benevolent by now, the joke isn’t going to make a lot of difference anyway.

Is that what Jesus was doing here with all the ‘salt of the earth/light of the world’ talk? Was He trying to get everybody smiling before He laid the law on them, for certainly, these concluding words of Jesus are harsh, and they are confusing!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

It’s not immediately obvious what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling’ the law and prophets, but the part that really confuses me is how those who break the commandments and teach others to break them get off more lightly than the Scribes and Pharisees who, from my understanding, did their best to keep all of them!

Are you keeping up with me here? Jesus says: “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19). Ok. That’s pretty bad – being called ‘the least’ in the Kingdom of Heaven – but at least you’re still a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his year in medical school? You call him ‘doctor’, don’t you? He wasn’t the greatest in his class, but he still made it through, just like those who break the commandments and teach others to do so. They may be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but they are still there! Conversely, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, from what we read in the rest of the New Testament, did everything they could to hold fast to even the most trivial of the commandments, they get an epic fail and are not there at all!

Maybe this is an indication that we shouldn’t be squeezing everything Jesus says in this passage too literally, and maybe I’m doing the text a disservice too by suggesting that there’s an enormous contrast between the sweetness and light of Jesus’ opening words and the dour and forbidding warnings parceled out at the end?

After all, those words of encouragement, “you are the salt of the earth” have a flip-side to them – namely, “that if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but being thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13b). Is ‘you are the salt of the earth’ meant to be an encouragement or a warning?

And besides that, who is Jesus really addressing anyway when He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a)? I know we all immediately assume He’s talking to us, but we know full well really that He was talking first and foremost to whoever that group of people were who happened to be sitting around him that day back in first century Palestine, and the truth is that we don’t have a clue who those people were. We know a few of them by name (the disciples) but the vast majority of the people Jesus addressed these words to are complete unknowns!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Matthew 5:17)

I think that’s the best starting point through which we can unlock the ambiguities of this passage. It provides a context for everything Jesus says that follows.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets”. It’s not a question that comes out of nowhere, is it? It’s a response to what people were saying or thinking about Jesus.

Why would anybody think that Jesus had come to abolish the law and prophets? Well … you don’t have to read very far through the New Testament to come up with lots of good reasons for thinking that this might have been exactly what Jesus was doing. Indeed, any of us who have read the Gospels know full well that Jesus was under constant attack from the very same scribes and Pharisees that He mentions in this passage for His alleged repeated failure to live in accordance with the Torah!

Jesus was particularly notorious for His apparent repeated failure to keep the fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy”

On the Sabbath Day, you will remember, you are not supposed to do any work (neither you nor your man-servant nor your maid-servant nor your ox nor your ass) but Jesus seemed to be quite happy to work as hard on the Sabbath as He did every other day of the week, and when pushed on the subject would say things like, “well, my Father in Heaven is working, so I’m working too!”(John 5:17), which is hardly a response that I think Moses would have been comfortable with.

And it wasn’t only the Sabbath laws that Jesus was accused of violating. He seemed to pay scant attention to the whole range of ceremonial rules about who you should have contact with and how you should wash and what you should eat and drink.  Jesus had the reputation, you may remember, for being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) – hardly an example of religious scrupulosity!

So whatever Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to fulfil the law”, He evidently didn’t mean what we normally mean when we talk about ‘fulfilling the law’ – namely, that we intend to keep it. Jesus was going to do something with ‘the Law’. He wasn’t going to dismiss it, but neither was He simply going to go around repeating it verbatim either, despite what He says about preserving every letter. 

If we go by the teachings that follow in this same Sermon on the Mount, ‘fulfilling’ the law seems to involve reinterpreting it to a degree. Even if we stick to this passage though, I think we get a clue as to what Jesus was up to in his ‘fulfilling of the law’ through the warning He gives at the end: “Unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5:20)

That seems intimidating at first, for the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were models of religiously piety and scrupulosity when it came to law-keeping! Keeping to the letter of the law was their thing, so if ‘righteousness’ and law-keeping are synonymous, we are all in trouble. But what if they’re not the same thing.

“I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.” (Luke 18:12)

That’s the Pharisee speaking, as depicted by Jesus in Luke chapter eighteen. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to fasting. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to tithing. Indeed, when it comes to keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees and their mates, the scribes, were exemplary.  They stayed away from all the ‘Thou shalt nots’ and they constructed their entire lives around the ‘Thou shalts’.  Nobody was more ethical or religious or morally upright than they were. It appears though that, for Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the story of a Scribe and a Levite who saw the prone body of a man on the road, and they passed by on the other side, presumably (at least in part) because they wanted to remain righteous by not touching something unclean, such as a dead body. For Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

When we think of the lepers who came to Jesus (Matthew 8, Mark 1) or of the poor woman who couldn’t stop bleeding (Luke 8), they came to Jesus and they touched Jesus and Jesus touched them. No righteous Scribe or Pharisee would do that since it would make him unclean. For Jesus, that was not what righteousness was about.

Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard, as the friend of tax-collectors and sinners! (Mathew 11:19). Evidently, keeping to the letter of the law and keeping yourself uncontaminated was not what Jesus thought righteousness was about.  

So, what is it about? “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” That’s what it’s about! It’s about making a difference!

And Jesus is talking to us. Yes, He is obviously addressing the crowd sitting around him and, no, we have no idea who most of those people were because they were nobodies, but I think that’s the whole point. The people Jesus was speaking to who were light and salt – they could have been anybody.

Jesus wasn’t addressing the group about to be awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – ‘you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world’. That would make sense, yes, but no, He was addressing a crowd of nobodies – a crowd of ordinary people like you and me who Jesus knew had the capacity to make a difference.

I was greatly encouraged this week when I heard this week that our brother, Julian Assange, was finally released from solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison and allowed to mix with the regular prison population. I, along with a number of influential people have been campaigning for mercy for him for some time now. What was amazing though was that, according to what I’ve read, it was Julian’s fellow inmates at Belmarsh Prison whose petitions for mercy influenced the governor! There’s something very Biblical about that, I think. We are all capable of being salt and light.

We can be salt. We can shine. We’ve been shining our little light here in Dulwich Hill for a lot of years now. In the last week I’ve had the privilege of having a number of people in the community come up to me who hear my term as Parish Priest is coming to an end. They say, “but what about the way you’ve changed this place?”

Not only me, and not only us, but this community over the last 150 years – we’ve built schools and established community centres, helped the blind to see and the lame walk, and we’ve been good news to the poor of this village.

Of course, we know that things change, and we know that salt can fail at spicing things up, just as lights do grow dim. Even so, salt never really stops being salty, and even if the light is hidden for a while, it never goes out, and there’s no reason to think we won’t continue to shine on for another 150 years here yet.

You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13, 14, 16)

First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 9th of February 2020.

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Jesus, the Lamb (A sermon on John 1:29)

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

I am trusting that we are past the worst of the fires now. I am no expert, of course, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, but I’m trusting that the prayers of this nation have been heard and that rain is going to continue to fall and that we are somehow going to be able to recover, though I’m not at all sure how that’s possible.

Apart from the terrible loss of those who were killed and the 3,000 homes that were destroyed, there have apparently been 17.9 million acres of land burnt out and over a billion animals killed, and God-knows-how-many insects, all since the fires started last September. Can we really expect things to just go back to normal now?

Each of us has been dealing with this crisis in our own way, relative to our own specific circumstances. Many of us had to abandon holidays but were thankfully able to safely return home. In the case of one member of our community, she and her son weren’t able to properly evacuate their holiday destination in time, but had to stand waist-deep in the ocean, along with most of the rest of the town and their animals, while they watched all the homes along the coastline burn!

Certainly the most impacting news footage I’ve seen was that taken on Kangaroo Island by a crew of firefighters who were attempting to escape from the blaze in their firetruck. The video feed is both frightening and inspiring – frightening because the raging fires seem more like a depiction of hell than anything earthly, but inspiring too by virtue of the cool and collected way the team handle themselves under pressure. They listen to instructions on the radio, quietly put up their fire curtains along the inside of their vehicle when the blaze hits them directly, and efficiently navigate their way out of the firestorm (thanks be to God).

While the link may not seem immediately obvious, that scene of firefighters trying to escape the blaze reminded me very much of what’s going on in Gaza at the moment.

They’re not surrounded by fire in Gaza, of course, but by a fence that seals the population off from the outside world and, since 1991, all food and all other materials going in and out of Gaza are monitored and restricted by the Israeli army (IDF).

In 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, said that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Having said that, this is the year – 2020 –in which experts at the United Nations (UN) predicted that Gaza would become unliveable.

The population of Gaza is over two million, more than 50% of whom are children (18 and under). According to the UN, ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s water is now undrinkable, meaning that only 40% of Gaza’s children are consuming water that is fit for human consumption. Even disregarding the food shortages, the massive unemployment, and all the other myriad problems that beset these people, the water situation alone means that this year Gaza is under a real threat of Genocide. Like those caught in the fires, the people of Gaza are looking for a way to escape.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

That’s our text today from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, and you may well ask what that text has to do with escaping from bushfires or escaping from Gaza. The answer, surprisingly perhaps, is quite a lot!

We are in the season of Epiphany, of course, and, as the word implies, Epiphany is all about discovering unexpected things – unexpected things, in this case, about who Jesus was and who Jesus is.

On the actual day of the Epiphany we remembered the coming of the magi – those strange Iranian astrologers who came to see Jesus as a child because they had ‘seen his star in the east’. Their question to Herod, you may remember, was “where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) This was their epiphany – their unexpected discovery – that the Jews had a new king – Jesus!

On the first Sunday after Epiphany – last Sunday – we were given a second unexpected revelation about the identity of Jesus. As Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, a voice was heard from Heaven, saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). This was the second Epiphany (so to speak). Jesus is the ‘Son of God’.

Today, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we have a third revelation about Jesus, this time from John the Baptist. Jesus, John tells us, is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

If you’ve been a member of the church for any length of time, you should be familiar with each of these epiphanies as we use these titles with regards to Jesus every week in worship. We refer to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ every time we say the creed, and we sing of Jesus as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ every time we celebrate the Eucharist. None of this is to say, of course, that we understand what we are talking or singing about, but these are familiar epiphanies nonetheless!

I want to take a moment today to unpack these epiphanies a little, such that if someone were to ask you what the Bible means when it says that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ or the ‘Lamb of God’ or the ‘King of the Jews’, you might be able to offer them a reasonably coherent answer.

That is not to say that you don’t already have a coherent answer, nor is it to suggest that your current answer may not be more coherent than the one I’m about to offer you. Even so, I am convicted that, for the most part, our popular understanding of what these terms mean doesn’t have a lot to do with what the Gospel-writers originally understood by these terms.

Let’s start with the most familiar title – ‘Son of God’. It’s a title that refers to the kingship of Jesus.

“I have installed My King on Zion, upon My holy mountain.” I will proclaim the decree spoken to me by the LORD: “You are my Son; today I have become Your Father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:6-8)

To say that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ is to say that He is the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people. This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t also metaphysically and ontologically share in the divine essence in some way, which the Gospel-writer, John, clearly believed He did. ‘Son of God’ just doesn’t mean that in and of itself.

‘Son of God’ was what you called the king. In other words, the first epiphany, given to the Magi, and the second epiphany, given by the voice from Heaven, are actually the same epiphany. Jesus is the king of the Jews, the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people.

I think when we understand this it helps us make sense of a whole lot of the New Testament.

I think we often wrongly depict the struggle Jesus has in the Gospel stories as one being between Jesus’ agenda for the spiritual salvation of the world and political agenda of His contemporaries in first century Palestine which was for liberation from the Roman occupation. I think this depiction is only half right.

Yes, the main thing on the mind of Jesus’ contemporaries was liberation from the Roman occupation. Of course it was!

If you were able to talk to the average Jew in first century Palestine and ask them what was really bothering them, it’s unlikely that many would have responded by talking about their need to confess and deal with their sins, any more than if you walked around Gaza today and asked people there what was most bothering them, any more than if you asked someone on a property in the bush with fire closing in on all sides … Actually, maybe in that case you would find someone ready to confess their sins and ask for mercy on their immortal soul, but if they thought God was going to send someone who would lead them out of the fire to safety …

This is the person the Jews were waiting for in first century Judea – someone who would lead them out of the fire that was the Roman occupation – most probably a more brutal military occupation than anything we see today.

We Christians have taken on the cross as a symbol of our faith, and this for understandable reasons, but for most first century Jews, the cross was a symbol of Imperial control over their lives.

People were always crucified in very public places where they died slowly and excruciatingly. It was Rome’s way of reminding you that they were all powerful and that you were nothing. After the slave revolt lead by Spartacus, which took place about seventy-three years before Jesus was born, the Roman army crucified more than 6,000 slaves and lined the Appian Way for 130 miles with their bodies. This is what happens to those who raise their hands against Rome.

If you were a first century Jew, you’d been brought up on stories about the good old days when your people were independent and lived under the rule of great and godly kings, like the legendary David – not pathetic despots like Herod, who wasn’t a real king anyway as he was really just the servant of the emperor.

Those were the days when you were able to worship your God in the way your God expected you to, without interference from any pagan overlords, who had their soldiers on every street corner and who taxed you on every shekel you made and who imprisoned your uncle and crucified two of your cousins…

You were brought up on stories of the good old days, and you were also brought up on stories about how God was going to send another David – another great king who bring this foreign occupation to an end and lead his people to a better tomorrow.

Of course Jesus contemporaries saw in Him their long-awaited king who would bring an end to the Roman occupation. The mistake we make is in thinking that the Gospel writers didn’t also see this in Jesus, for in fact, the first Epiphany we are given about Jesus is that he is the King of the Jews – the King of Israel – which is then confirmed by the voice from Heaven – ‘this is my beloved Son’. The mistake we make, I’d suggest, is in seeing this third epiphany – that Jesus is ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ – as being less political than the first two.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

I know that sounds very ‘spiritual’ compared to the other two titles but, according to Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, talking about ‘forgiveness of sin’ in first century Judea was just another way of referring to the end of the Roman occupation.

That might sound counter-intuitive, but not when you realise that the whole thrust of the Jewish Bible, which ends with God’s people under foreign occupation, is that they were suffering because they had sinned and were under God’s judgement.

The Roman occupation, like the occupation of the Greeks that preceded it, like the occupation of the Medes and Persians, like the occupation of the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem and deported her inhabitants almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus – they were all a part of the same punishment for the people’s sin,

When the people had suffered sufficiently for their sins, the hope was that their punishment would end and that independence would be restored. Another David – indeed, an even greater King than David – would take charge and rule God’s people. This is the great Old Testament hope, and John the Baptist says it’s going to be brought about by Jesus – the lamb of God who will take away their sin.

If you’re thinking that the image of the lamb is taken from the sacrificial system, as outlined in the book of Leviticus, it’s not. The sacrifice that takes away sin, according to the Torah, is always a bull and not a lamb. There’s also a goat that the people prayed over and transferred their sins onto, after which the beast was shewed away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16) but no lamb.

The image of the lamb is taken from the Exodus – from the Passover. The lamb was sacrificed just before God’s people, who were slaves in Egypt, began their journey to freedom, and the blood of the lamb protected their children from the angel of death.

Forgive me. Epiphany is a difficult time of year, for these revelations about the true identify of Jesus may be difficult for us to connect with. Most of us don’t have much to do with lambs, and we probably don’t see the Exodus from Egypt as our story.

In the US tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and if you are an African American, you might well see the story of the exodus – of God’s people coming out of slavery into freedom – as being your story too.

If you’re living in Gaza at the moment, the story of God’s people emerging from a land of death and oppression and into freedom might resonate deeply with you too.

I think for most of us Australians though, the image of the firefighters being led out of the death zone on Kangaroo Island and into safety might be as close as we can get to John’s intended meaning.

Forgive me if you haven’t seen that footage, but a big part of the power of that scene for me is that there is a truck that is going ahead of the one that is doing the filming, and the eyes of the driver a constantly looking to that truck for guidance, and there’s constant, calming commentary coming over the radio all the time too, telling them that they’re doing great, and I assume that’s coming from the truck ahead as well.

This is Jesus as He is manifested to us today – as a Moses-like figure who is moving ahead of us through the dangerous waters and leading us out of chaos and slavery and pain and into freedom – the Passover lamb of God who frees us from our past and give us hope for a better tomorrow. Glory to His name!

First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 19th of January 2020.

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Epiphany 2020 (Matthew 2:1-12)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

It’s the feast of the Epiphany once again, which means we’re in that post-Christmas no-man’s land period where all the partying is over but the decorations are still up and where we’re wondering whether it’s still safe to eat some of that leftover food.

The crowds of carolers who filled the rectory lawn have all gone home and the triple-figure attendance we enjoyed on Christmas Day seems like a distant dream. Now it’s just the serious Christians left – just us and the baby Jesus … OUR baby Jesus.

And since it’s the feast of the Epiphany, it’s also time to do what I do every year at this time in honour of those ancient astrologers who followed the star to Bethlehem – namely, I consult my horoscope (courtesy of www.astrology.com):

“With Mars in Sagittarius at the beginning of the year, you’ve got big plans – and won’t want to waste any time getting started. But you may be overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources you have. …

After all, Aquarius, you’re not just out to make a quick buck – your work serves a higher purpose and answers to a higher authority. And with Jupiter and Pluto aligning three times this year, intangible rewards are just as important, if not more, than material ones. Fortunes may rise and fall this year, but as long as you know your work is serving the greater good, you’re happy to ride out the ups and downs. The sextiles between Jupiter in Capricorn and Neptune in Pisces assist you in aligning your career path with your deepest humanitarian values.

Still, there may be some conflicts of interest when planets in Cancer, your house of work, oppose Jupiter, Pluto, and Saturn in Capricorn. Your eagerness to serve feels at odds with your low-key ambition for money, status, or power. But Aquarius, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve more in your career – as long as you’re honest about your true objectives. When put in the service of the greater good, ambition can be a powerful thing!

Stick with it, and your disciplined efforts should pay off in December, …”

DECEMBER! That’s twelve months away (almost). I don’t want to wait twelve months before I see any results for my efforts. That’s a rather disturbing thought, and surely overly pessimistic, or am I being “overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources [I] have.”

Why December anyway? Oh, read on …

“Your disciplined efforts should pay off in December when Saturn and Jupiter move into your sign and make their Great Conjunction on the twenty-first.”

The 21st of December! That really is almost twelve months away! That’s next Christmas, and we haven’t taken down the decorations from this Christmas!

Perhaps I need to consult another horoscope? I’m sure I can find something more encouraging out there than this, or perhaps I should just read last year’s horoscope again, which I’m sure promised lots of good things, even if not many of them turned out to be true. Or perhaps I should just follow the advice of the prophets of old and have nothing to do with these astrological star-gazing pagans!

“Those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble,” says the Lord (according to Isaiah the prophet). “The fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.” (Isaiah 47:13‑14)

Likewise, Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of these peoples are false.” (10:2‑3)

Well … that was the Old Testament, I hear you say, and the people of God had evidently lightened up a lot by the time Jesus was born as they welcomed those astrologers from the East! Well … maybe, but these people are referred to as ‘magi’ by the Gospel writer, Matthew, and there are only two other references to ‘magi’ in the New Testament, and neither of them is encouraging.

Both turn up in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first magi is Elymas, known as  ‘Elymas, the false prophet’ (in Acts 13) and the second is Simon Magus (in Acts 8) – the magician who offers money to the Apostles in order to buy the powers of the Holy Spirit. Both these men receive rather short shrift from the Apostles!

Of course, I’m not suggesting that these two rogues who turn up in the Book of Acts were necessarily on the same track, spiritually, as the magi who appear at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Even so, they are all ‘magi’ in the original Greek text – the word from which we get our English word, ‘magician’.

To say that these men were magicians doesn’t tell us a lot, but it does tell us some things, and this is probably a good point at which to try to extract what information the Gospel-writer does give us about these characters from the myths and legends that have grown up around them over the course of Christian history.

Firstly, They are magicians. They are not kings. We happily sing “We three kings from orient are”, but maybe that’s because “we three magicians from orient are” doesn’t fit the metre of the song so well, or maybe it’s because the three kings myth has a long history to it, most likely going back to the pious imagination of the early church who saw in these men the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 72:11 – “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him”

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your imagination a bit when it comes to some of these more bizarre Biblical stories, and yet I’m conscious that some of those imaginings stray fairly radically from the Gospel account.

The Gospel never tells us how many magi there were that visited Jesus. We tend to assume that there were three because three gifts are mentioned, but over the years these three were even given names – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – and if you look at a lot of the traditional artistic depictions of these men, you’ll see that they are often taken to represent three distinct racial groups.

Balthazar is normally depicted as black. Melchior has a more swarthy, Arabic, complexion, and Gaspar is regularly depicted as being oriental. When they are depicted as worshipping the new-born king, Jesus is invariably depicted as white, such that you have all the other races bowing down before the white guy – a depiction that few of us would see as being consistent with Gospel values.

As I say, we have to be careful where the pious imagination takes us. Even so, I don’t think it’s stretching the imagination too far to suggest that Matthew sees these men (and they almost certainly were men) as Zoroastrian court officials from Persia (modern-day Iran).

It’s worth pausing and reflecting on that for a moment – at a time when the American President seems intent on provoking a war with the descendants of these magi. The Persians of old were renowned for a number of things, including proficiency in the mathematics, the sciences, and in warfare. They had plenty of wise men and plenty of great warriors, and no ancient king with any sense would have rushed into war with Persia. Modern-day kings might best be well advised to show similar caution.

In terms of their religion, Zoroastrianism is still around today in the Islamic Republic of Iran and is still embraced by the government as an acceptable form of religion.

Zoroastrianism goes back to the prophet Zoroaster, who himself was believed to have been born of a 15- year-old Persian virgin. Like Jesus too, he started ministry at age of 30 after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”

Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrians were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior. This suggests that these magi came to Jesus, not only because they saw unusual signs in the sky, but also on the basis of Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. If this is indeed the story St Matthew is telling, Matthew clearly believed that other Scriptures outside of the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Israel’s Messiah.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that St Matthew had a more universalist view of religion, such that he saw all religions as being different paths leading to the same great truth. On the contrary, Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the most intent on connecting Jesus to the religion of ancient Israel, and in the Torah and the prophets, the religions of the astrologers were always seen as false alternatives to the one true faith – as bad religion, and even as idolatry!

You may remember the battle that Moses and Aaron had with the magi of Pharaoh as recorded in the book of Exodus, chapter seven (verses 10 to 12). Both Moses and Aaron and the magi of Pharaoh display their proficiency in turning their staffs into snakes, you may remember, but the magic of Moses and Aaron is more powerful than that of the magi in that case. Their snakes eat those of the Pharaoh’s magi!

If we shoot forward to the book of Daniel, Daniel and his three friends (shake your bed, make your bed, and in to bed you go) – they themselves were magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.

They show themselves to be wiser than the other magi. Daniel can interpret dreams when the others can’t, and in many and various ways Daniel and his three friends demonstrate time and time again their superiority over their professional peers, and there is a very simple reason for this: Daniel and his friends are servants of the one true God and the rest of the magi are not!

This pretty much sums it up, I believe, when it comes to the greater Biblical view of magi. They are not respected members of an alternative religious group, worthy of serious consideration for their contribution to the broader religious landscape. Their spirituality is not affirmed as an authentic expression of godly intuition.  From a traditional Biblical point of view, the magi are members of a pagan religion that is incompatible with the worship of the one true God!

They do not seek for God in the right way. Their predictions are not to be relied upon or even listened to. The magi are not in any way members of the historic people of God, and yet … when we look around the Nativity scene … there they are, standing alongside us – the magi – and when we ask them how they got here, they tell us that they saw it in the stars!

‘Who invited you here?’ That’s the obvious question, and yet we know the obvious answer too, and we know too that while, in the great divide between us and them, these people are most archetypally them, nonetheless, they have as much right to lay claim the baby Jesus as their own as we do.

I don’t know how many of you had the privilege of being part of our Christmas Carols on the old rectory lawn a couple of weeks ago. There were about a hundred of us there, and the highlight for me was most definitely the arrival of my friend, Sheikh Shoiab Naqvi, who has graced us with his presence for a series of Christmases now.

I’m sure some people thought Shoiab was a part of the nativity presentation as he came in his formal Sheikh’s robes and he looked like a wise man from the East, which, in fact, he is – a wise man from Pakistan, to be more precise.

Shoiab showered us with Christmas presents from his community, the Muhammadi Welfare Association of Kemp’s Creek, as he always does. Their generosity is frankly embarrassing, but it did give us a number of extra hamper-style gifts that we were able to distribute amongst the residents of our local boarding house.

And why were Shoiab and the other members of his community here that night? Were they just there to show us respect as a different religious group on one of our holy days? No! They came to honour Jesus in accordance with their tradition, and so Shoiab read out some appropriate words about Jesus from the Qur’an – honoring Jesus as he understood Him from within the Shia Muslim tradition. And I don’t think you could have had a more Epiphanic event if you tried (if that’s a word).

It is a hard truth to come to terms with, but what Epiphany proclaims to us this year as it does every year is that our baby Jesus is also their baby Jesus, and by ‘them’ I mean all of them – all peoples of all nations, regardless of gender, race or religion. Our baby Jesus is their baby Jesus. Our savior is their savior. Our God is there God. Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is valued.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 5th of January 2020.

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