What is faith? (A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-16)

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1-3)

I’m focusing today’s sermon on our epistle reading from the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’, and I appreciate that Hebrews is not a book of the New Testament that we tend to spend a lot of time with.

There are obvious reasons for that. Hebrews is one of those ‘how did he get in?’ books of the New Testament. It’s one that most of us feel no particular kinship with, as it seems to be written for a very ethno-specific audience, namely for Hebrews.   It’s full of references to high priests and blood sacrifices in a way that seems alien to those of us who aren’t don’t have any of that as a part of our direct spiritual heritage.

It’s not one of the letters of Saint Paul, such that the early church might have felt they had to include it in the canon of Scripture. We don’t know who (male or female) wrote the book. What was it that led the early church to insist that this letter should be included in the collection of books to be recognised as the ‘word of God’, whereas any number of other early writings, claiming to be inspired by God, were excluded?

My guess is that it was sections of the book such as those we deal with today from chapter 11 that clinched the deal for Hebrews – not so much the opening verses that I just read, but the great list of heroes of the faith that fills up the rest of the chapter.

It’s a list that starts with the Abel, whose faith, we are told, earned him favour with God, in contrast to his brother, Cain, and Abel is followed by a great list of other ancient heroes such as Enoch, Noah, and, of course, Abraham and Sarah. 

As you proceed through the chapter, the other greats of the past are rolled out too – Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets … It’s a bit like a line-up of the who’s who of old-time Biblical celebrities, and the point is that each one of these greats only achieved what they were able to achieve because they were people of faith, just as we are people of faith. 

As a young Christian man, I used to find this list inspiring, and Indeed I remember giving one of my first sermons on this passage when I was a part of Saint John’s church in Kings Cross, back in the 80’s. If these ordinary people achieved great things through the workings of their faith, what is to stop us achieving great things?

That was when I was a younger man. Now I read through this list of superheroes and find the comparison more humiliating than inspiring. What happened?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Tony Robbins seminar or read one of his books. I know a lot of good people who have been helped by that sort of thing, but I only got about a third of the way through one of his tomes and couldn’t stomach it. It was all his ‘power of positive thinking’ stuff – the ‘you can do anything if you only believe you can do it’ line. I just can’t buy into that anymore.

They said that it could not be done.
He said, ‘just let me try’.
They said ‘other men have tried and failed’.
He answered, ‘but not I’.

They said, ‘it is impossible’
He said, ‘there’s no such word’.
He closed his mind, he closed his heart
to everything he heard.

He said, ‘within the heart of man
there is a tiny seed
It grows until it blossoms.
It’s called ‘the will to succeed.

Its roots are strength, its stem is hope,
its petals inspiration.
Its thorns protect its strong green leaves
with grim determination.”

“Its stamens are its skills
Which help to shape each plan,
For there’s nothing in the universe
Beyond the scope of man.”

They thought that it could not be done.
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done …
And he couldn’t bloody do it!

That may be the only time you ever hear the late, great Benny Hill quoted from the pulpit. Even so, ‘they said that it could not be done’ really strikes a chord with me.

How long have I been pursuing that World Middleweight boxing title now? I’m nearly 58 now and I’m still looking for that breakthrough fight. Is that faith or is it stupidity?

Mind you, one book I really got a lot out of was Steven Pressfield’s “Do the work”, and Pressfield says that we have just two assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity. Pressfield suggests that we resist the temptation to give them high-sounding names like ‘perseverance’ and ‘daring’. Let’s call them what they are – stubbornness and stupidity. His point is that we need plenty of both if we are going to accomplish anything worthwhile in life.

Perhaps that’s right, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty of both. Perhaps we could even translate the Letter to the Hebrews using those terms: 

‘Abraham was stupid enough to set out for a place that he would receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going, and he was stubborn enough to live there in a tent as a foreigner, as were Isaac and Jabob after him!’ (Hebrews 11:8-9)

Both Pressfield and Tony Robbins would have been proud of them. Even so, as I say, I’ve got lots of stubbornness and stupidity. Why haven’t they worked for me?

Perhaps I’m being unfair to our Biblical superheroes. Indeed, one of the key points made by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is that none of these great spiritual archetypes ever actually saw in their own lifetimes the things they were working for.

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they desire a better country – a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13,16)

Is that what faith is – the strength to die without seeing the outcome you’ve been working for but believing that better things are still ahead? Perhaps it is, and it’s certainly worth recognising that the Biblical superheroes we find in the letter to the Hebrews bear little resemblance to the graduates of Tony Robbin’s seminars.

I’m sure that if you look those who’ve harnessed the ‘power of positive thinking’ you’ll see a list of CEO’s and big-money executives who have ‘made it’ in life, according to contemporary standards. When you look on at the superheroes in Hebrews chapter eleven, most of them didn’t crack the big time in any way that we would recognise. On the contrary, a disturbingly high percentage of them had lives characterized by persecution and poverty that concluded with a grisly death! 

Is this what faith is – the ability to endure pain and failure and misunderstanding throughout your life because you believe that good will eventually come out of it?

I’m reminded of the story of the Henry Francis Lyte – a fellow Anglican priest who lived in the first half of the 19th century. Lyte’s life work was his vocation as priest to the fishing village of Lower Brixham, in Devon. He was rector there for twenty-three years and was so successful in building up the parish that the church building had to be enlarged, resulting in what his grandson referred “a hideous barn-like building”.

However, from about the twenty-year mark people in the parish started to leave. Some say this was because they didn’t like Lyte’s high churchmanship, and others say it was all due to arguments between families in the congregation. Either way, he lost the entire choir in 1846, with many joining ‘dissenter’ congregations, such as the Plymouth Brethren, and all this left him very depressed. 

The following year Lyte decided to take a holiday but discovered he was seriously ill just before leaving. He died while on leave in France at age 47. A couple of hours after his final service in his church though, just before he left and not long before his death, he penned the words of a hymn that were published posthumously:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

And so the man was able to contribute more to humanity in those final hours through that hymn than he might have done through a dozen careers as a parish priest!

Is that what faith is – is it doing what God inspires you to do even if you don’t know whether it’s ever going to accomplish any good? In point of fact, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us exactly what faith is at the opening of this passage:

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1,3)

Faith, in other words, is always hanging on to the big picture. It’s believing in the good things God has promised, even when there is absolutely no sign of them, and this is a hard thing to do. It is hard to pour your life’s energy into things that never give you the results you are looking for!

I think of so many of the kid’s we’ve worked with over the years here – lovely young men like Daniel, who was a part of my fight club and became a part of our church and eventually even became one of our paid youth-workers. He was at rock bottom when he joined the club after being expelled from Dulwich High school. We helped him become a champion kickboxer and an asset to the community. The local paper even featured a lovely picture of him with Father Elias that we still have – all from the glory days, before things fell apart for him again and he suicided. I think of him every time I walk past his ashes that are contained in our memorial wall, and wonder why.

Or dear Shannon, who was a part of our church community only a couple of years ago. Again, he came in through the fight club and we had him gainfully employed at our bush camp for more than a year, and I thought we’d helped him make a fresh start in independent living again, before he threw himself off a building.

The problem is seeing how these stories (and so many like them) can be woven into any great tapestry of love and triumph. Maybe they can, and maybe I will see how it all fits together one day but, as Kierkegaard said, even if you can understand life in reverse, it unfortunately has to be lived forwards! That’s the challenge of faith – seeing it backwards while living it forwards!

I think of the time and passion I’ve poured into our work in Syria over the last eight years, and in Palestine. I think of my night spinning around in a boat off the shores of Manus Island in the blackness, sure I was about to drown, and I wonder what it all achieved. Have we saved any lives in Syria? Have we liberated anyone in Gaza? Have any of our friends from Manus Island found freedom?

And what of the vision I’ve always had for our church. I’ve always seen us growing to have a regular congregation of more than a hundred each week – one hundred plus souls from diverse backgrounds, representing many nations and expressing every aspect of social, cultural and sexual diversity known to humanity while all being one in Christ! That’s been my vision that has kept me going at all those times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel (and there have been many). Now I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to see that. I guess faith is seeing it anyway!

“I’ve been to the mountain top. I’ve seen the promised land!” Who said it? Martin Luther King Jr, of course. Yes, he did, but who said it before he said it? Moses said it, and before Moses, Abraham and Sarah both shared that vision and they said it too. In fact, all the great heroes of the faith said it, and that’s what faith is!

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen”. It’s having your stupidity, stubbornness, daring and perseverance focused on Christ.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 11th August, 2019.

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Media Advisor of INHR to Syria met Mufti Hassoun

Thanks to my friend, Nahad (‘Nana’) Lancaster for this account of my 2019 meeting with my friend the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun, appearing on the UN International Human Rights Council website.

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IHRC representative in Damascus met with Father Dave Smith

Thanks to my friend, Nahad (‘Nana’) Lancaster for this account of our meeting with Dr. Nabil Toumeh appearing on the UN International Human Rights Council website.

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The Rich Idiot (A sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:13-21)

“Jesus is the Answer!”

When I first became an active Christian back in the early 80’s, that was a popular catch-cry amongst my peers. I’m sure I had a T-shirt with ‘Jesus is the answer’ imprinted on it. Indeed, the slogan became so popular that some others came out with a counter-slogan, with T-shirts, displaying the words, “what was the question?”

The popular pious response to that counter-slogan, of course, was “Jesus is the answer to all your questions”, but, of course, that is simply not true. I had a stand-up comedian convince me of that one night as a part of his routine. As he said, if Jesus were the answer to every question, imagine how boring game shows would become:

“Round two, hands on your buzzers. The first question is …

Bzzzz … Jesus?

That is correct. Next question 

Bzzzz … Jesus?”

Jesus is not the answer to all our questions, as illustrated in today’s Gospel reading:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13) ‘Speak to the hand’, says Jesus. ‘Ask someone who cares!’ 

Ok. That’s not exactly what He said, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.

“Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14) is the precise response, but it amounts to the same thing. Jesus is radically uninterested in helping this man solve his problem, which is not what we are used to.

It wasn’t’ a trick question from what I can see. Indeed, it may well have been exactly the sort of question that you’d take to your local rabbi and expect him to sort out. This was a family issue, it was a justice issue and, yes, it was a money issue, and I know that money isn’t the most important thing in the world, but, as Zig Ziglar said, “money is not everything but it ranks right up there with oxygen”

When I was young, I never worried about money. I suspect most of us were like that. Why is it that when we don’t have money, we don’t seem to care much about it? We get older and we get credit cards and we get mortgages and some of us get stock portfolios, and then we hire accountants and brokers to keep us out of trouble,

I am ashamed to confess that in recent years I have spent many hours lying awake at night, worrying about money. I used to think that was other people and that I was too spiritual for any of that. Having come close to bankruptcy now on one too many occasions, I confess that it is me too.

Why was I so carefree when I had nothing, and yet have been so anxious when I’ve had relative plenty? The answer is straightforward enough (in my case, at any rate). When I was young, I always knew my dad had my back. He’s not there now.

I think that’s why most of us worry about money. I think it’s just fear.

I appreciate that for some people money is about power. It’s about personal and social significance. It’s about being a somebody and standing out from the pack.

When we look at some of these business people who earn enormous pay-packets, and companies that generate squilliions of dollars in profit, but just seem to want more and more, that’s not about security , is it? It’s something more pathological – a lust for power, a desire to be like God perhaps?

That’s not us, is it? At least it’s not most of us, most of the time, or is there a fine line between wanting security for the future and wanting to replace God?

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

G.K. Chesterton said “Now we could have quite a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. That would be a matter of which we could have endless speculative discussion.  However, there is no debate to be had over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble.  The evidence in Scripture is just too great, there are too many stories.  Jesus said too much on the subject.”

It’s true, though we don’t like to admit it. Even the most fundamentalist of preachers who insist that we take everything literally when it comes to the Scriptures, somehow don’t take literally Jesus’ commands about money.

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out.” (Luke 12:33) Jesus didn’t mean that literally, of course, did He, of if He did mean it literally, He obviously wasn’t talking to me.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ … ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? (Luke 12:16-20)

Death is such a sobering reality. It helps us put things in perspective. Indeed, the thing that amazes me, having now taken hundreds of funerals, is not how people find clarity at funerals and suddenly see life in perspective, but rather how quickly they seem to forget after the funeral and manage to go straight back to the treadmill!

Let me conclude by telling you one of my own funeral stories – a simple funeral I took in Dulwich Hill that has always stayed with me.

I can’t remember the name of the deceased now but what I do remember was that she was one of this country’s greatest circus performers. She had been the trapeze artist whose performance was the climax of every show in the big top of one of Australia’s great circuses.

And I spent time with the son of this amazing woman both before and after the funeral, and he told me how, as a boy, he could never watch his mum perform. Indeed, he said that she would always conclude her routine with a particularly dangerous manoeuvre (a triple-somersault with a double twist, or something like that), and that she’d always perform this stunt ‘old school’ (without a safety net)!

The son said that he’d always stand outside of the tent at that point and listen to the crowd. When he heard the drum roll and the crowd gasp, this was when his mum was making the leap, and he would hold his breath. When (an eternity later) he heard the crowd break into rapturous applause, he knew his mum was okay.

She only ever missed the jump once, he told me. She survived, but she never went back to the trapeze again after that.

Anyway, what stayed with me the most from the funeral of this great woman was that in the family reminiscences during the funeral itself, her amazing life on the trapeze barely got a mention! It’s as if the children barely remembered her incredible athletic accomplishments. All they could remember was what a wonderful mum she was!

That says it all for me! When we get to the end of life, all the things that obsess us most today – nobody’s going to remember any of them! That might not be entirely true, but for the most part, the things that we sweat and strain over today, along with all the professional accomplishments that we’ve achieved and the records we’ve set and the degrees we’ve earned – they may get a footnote in our eulogy, but I don’t think my friends and family are really going to care about any of those things very much, let alone about my net worth (if I have any).

Be assured that we all have the same net worth when we are dead. I don’t know the actual value, but dead bodies aren’t worth a lot.

We worry so much about things that really don’t matter, and the flip side of that is that we don’t have the resources – financial or emotional – to devote to the things that really do matter. The trick for me, I know, is simply to keep reminding myself of what I knew when I was young – that my dad has my back, because our Heavenly Father really does have our backs. 

Seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into place.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 4th of August, 2019.

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Hosea; how much further can you push the prophecy envelope?

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)

There is so much to dislike in that snippet of Scripture, and it’s just one verse! As the story unfolds, things don’t get any better. Indeed, they degenerate further! Even so, as an opening line, I don’t think you can get much more offensive than this.

It’s the language, I think, that I find so jarring – “take yourself a wife of whoredom”! Of course, I thought it might just be the translation I was working with (the New Revised Standard Version in this case) so I compared it to some of the other translations, and it didn’t help a lot:

  • “Go, take thee a wife of fornications, and have of her children of fornications” (Douay Rheims Bible)
  • “Go, take unto you a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry”
    (American King James)
  • “Marry a prostitute and have children with that prostitute.”
    (God’s Word translation)

I think a part of my problem here is that a lot of the words used are words that have been used over the ages to specifically denigrate women who fail to stay chaste!

The point is often made that our language has a whole variety of awful words that are applied to women who fail to live up the standards of sexual purity set by the community, whereas when men behave in similar ways they are often admired and referred to as ‘studs’ or something similar.

Indeed, from the reading I’ve done, it seems to me that there has been a consistent campaign through history to control female sexuality, sometimes in very obvious and horrible forms, such as chastity belts or female genital mutilation. At other times the mechanisms of control are more subtle, such as through language.

The curious thing that has paralleled that, according to anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (in “Sex at Dawn”) has been a constant insistence by anthropologists and biologists that the female of the species is naturally more ‘coy’ (to use the term that Darwin regularly employed) – that women are by nature far more subdued and restrained in matters of sexuality.

Ryan and Jetha make the point that both these things cannot be true. If Darwin and his colleagues are correct, why has there been such a consistent history of the repression of female sexuality. Why build a barbed wire cage with an electric fence to contain a tame bunny that doesn’t want to go anywhere anyway?

My point is that these opening verses of the book of the prophet Hosea seem to immerse us right away in that awful context of female repression though the use of these words – whore, harlot, etc. – and if we take the whole story literally it appears that Gomer (the woman of notorious reputation that Hosea chooses for his project) is simply a tool in the hand of the prophet, used to make a point.

“Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.” (Hosea 1:2-3)

It all sounds very contrived and deliberate, as if Hosea, after hearing God’s instructions, wandered down to the local brothel, found a likely-looking candidate, and put the proposition to her:

“How about we get married so that I can use our relationship as an example of how terrible this society’s relationship with their creator is, and then we have children and we’ll call them horrible names to reflect the doom coming on the land?”

Gomer replies, “Hey, why not?”

Call me a skeptic, but I just wonder if that’s how it really happened, and, in truth, a lot Biblical scholars question whether it could have really happened that way.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that Hosea and Gomer got married as a regular couple with all the hopes and dreams that regular couples have, but that their marriage went disastrously wrong. Gomer took on other lovers, and Hosea, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to him and his family, interpreted his personal tragedy as being a reflection of what was happening in the life of his nation.

Whichever interpretation of the life of the prophet Hosea is correct, one thing is obvious – namely, that this man made no distinction between his personal and his professional life.

It’s curious that this is something that modern churches today almost insist upon (at least at the Protestant end of the ecclesiastical spectrum). I remember when I was at Moore College there was a lot of discussion about this – about the importance of separating your family from the ministry and how you should try and make sure that they rectory is a long way away from the church, so as to shield the rest of your family from the comings and goings of church members, let alone from the dubious characters who tend to descend on rectory properties in the middle of the night to get assistance from the priest.

Suffice it to say that I have never been an advocate of this model. I’ve always seen ministry as being a lot like boxing, in that you can’t afford to hold anything back.

I remember hearing Kostya Tszyu talk about this once – specifically, about why he lost his title fight against Ricky Hatton in 2005. He said that, while he was tipped to win that fight, he went into the ring not ready to die. His point was that, as a boxer, you’ve always got to be ready to die in the ring rather than lose if you want to win.

I totally believe that, and I think if that’s good enough for boxing, that surely should be our attitude when it comes to the main event – to the real fight of life: the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. You’ve got to be willing to commit yourself completely to what you’ve been called to do, even if it kills you.

Having said that, I don’t think I could have pushed the envelope to the extremes that Hosea did. He didn’t just commit himself and his family to his prophetic ministry. He was the ministry. They were their message. They were the living embodiment of Hosea’s prophecy, and let’s remember that it was not a happy prophecy.

“[Gomer] conceived and bore [Hosea] a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:3-4)

The naming of Hosea and Gomer’s first-born son takes us straight into the nitty-gritty of Hosea’s prophetic message, and indeed it is one of the only places in the book where Hosea speaks in specific terms about what exactly Israel has done wrong.

If you read though the whole book of Hosea – all fourteen chapters – you’ll find that most of it is an extended poem, and most of that poem revolves around the metaphor of God, the faithful husband and Israel, the unfaithful wife.

Amos, Hosea’s predecessor, had been very specific about the way the people of Israel had failed. They would “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6). Israel had become a very stratified society, with the rich and the powerful working with the courts to exploit the poor, and Amos said God hated that.

Hosea, who seems to have started his prophetic ministry at around the same time Amos concluded his, is not so specific as to what he saw as being Israel’s great sin. He rarely speaks outside of the metaphor of God’s marriage to His unfaithful partner, and while there are references to idol-worship, where Hosea says the people have opted to worship the Baal rather than the God, it’s not clear whether he means that they had literally changed religion in some obvious sort of way or whether it was their behavior towards each other that amounted to idol worship.

Part of the problem here is that the Hebrew meaning of the word ‘Baal’ is literally ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’ or even (in a patriarchal society) ‘husband’. Hence the prophet plays on words, saying “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master” (Hosea 2:16). It’s a play on the word ‘Baal’.

The worship of Baal can take on a lot of different forms, and it doesn’t necessarily involve the casting of a golden calf or any such obvious forms of paganism. Those whom Amos had railed against for exploiting the poor were, I think, to Hosea’s  mind, worshipping the Baals instead of worshipping God – the God who created both the oppressor and the oppressed and loves them both equally.

Biblical scholar Tom Wright says that in the end there is only one sin in the Bible – idolatry. All sinful acts towards ourselves, towards our neighbours and towards creation itself are, from a Biblical point of view, Wright says, ultimately just another  failure to worship the creator.

I think Wright may be right, and I certainly think Hosea was of this mindset – that all forms of moral failure and relationship breakdown are ultimately forms of idolatry, though, as I say, the naming of his first-born son, ‘Jezreel’, does give us a clue as to one of the specific forms that Israel’s idolatry took.

Those who are familiar with their Hebrew Bibles will recognise Jezreel as the place where Jehu put an end to the household of Ahab, and bloody end it was.

It’s all recorded in the second book of Kings, chapter ten, if you haven’t read it, but be warned that it is a grizzly chapter in a grizzly saga, and the highlight is the piling up of the heads of the seventy sons of Ahab at the entrance to the city of Jezreel.

Interestingly, in the book of Kings this is recorded as being part of a great cleansing of the land after the tyranny of Ahab and Jezebel. Even so, by the time of Hosea, it must have been obvious that nothing good had come from this cleansing, and that the violence at Jezreel was just another dark chapter in the history of a nation that had been built on blood rather than on the love of Israel’s ever-faithful partner.

This is Hosea’s prophecy – that in the exploitation of the poor and in the violence of Jezreel and in more obvious forms of idol-worship perhaps, Israel had turned away from their creator to worship other gods. It’s only right that we do hear the message, rather than just get caught up in the personal life of the prophet, as bizarre as it was.

I don’t doubt that if Hosea was prophesying today over our country that he would see bemoan the multiple instances of violence and bloodshed in our own history just as he did in Israel, and no doubt he would see idolatry everywhere.

He would see it in our worship of the almighty dollar. He’d see it in the way we idolize celebrities simply because they are celebrities. He’d see it in the way we, as individuals and as a nation, repeatedly choose security and stability over freedom and compassion. He wouldn’t call it greed or stupidity or poor foreign policy. He’d give it the name it deserves – idolatry.

As I say, it’s important that we hear the message of Hosea, rather than simply get caught up in the biographical details of the prophet and his family. At the same time though, in Hosea’s case, as we’ve recognised, you can’t divide the man from the message all that easily. Hosea was his message. Hosea and Gomer together were the message. Hosea, Gomer, and their poor children were a living parable to the people of Israel, urging the nation to change direction before it was all too late!

In a sense, of course, it’s true for all of us that our lives are our message.

As St Francis was supposed to have said, “preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” We are always preaching the Gospel of Christ to those around us in the way we live and work and connect with them in love. The problem comes, I think, when the message we feel called upon to embody, looks more like Hosea’s prophecy of doom than it does like St Francis’ Gospel of peace.

Having said that, I find some encouragement here in the person of Hosea too, as he is a reminder that we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order in order to be embodiments of the message. On the contrary, perhaps even the hopeless parts of our lives can become a part of the proclamation of the Gospel of grace.

I remember my brother once sent me a graphic of one of those inspirational posters which has motivational words written on it. When I looked closely at this one though it was a picture of a ship going down at sea, and the writing said, “perhaps the purpose of your life is to be an example to others of what not to do”.

This was sent to me at a different stage of my life and I took it in good humor, and of course I’d like to think that I will leave behind me more than an example of what not to do. Even so, the encouragement I get from Hosea is that we don’t have to be examples of perfection either in order to be embodiments of the Gospel of truth. In the great things we do and in the small things we do, and even in the things we do really badly, God can speak. God will speak.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on July 28, 2019.

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We are all Samaritans (A sermon on Luke 10:25-37)

One of the last things we did during our recent trip to Damascus was to meet with Dr Nabil Toumeh – a member of the Syrian Parliament and advisor to the International Human Rights Commission.

Dr Toumeh’s Ph.D studies must have been in the area of the sociology of religion as he certainly knew a lot about the subject, and at one stage produced a couple of enormous charts that visually graphed the history of religions across the globe.

Our group was impressed with Dr Toumeh’s learning and with these charts that compared Christianity and Islam and a variety of other religions, tracking their global influence over the centuries. If we’d been thinking that our version of religion was the only show in town, these charts would have given us a sobering corrective.

I’m not sure exactly what response Dr Toumeh expected from us. My response was that these charts covered only one dimension of religion – namely, the tribal side. They said nothing about the evolution of religious belief, and they could, of course, say nothing about the spiritual integrity of religious believers.

I shared a little with Dr Toumeh the basic thesis of my soon-to-be-published book in which I suggest that every religion has two sides to it – a tribal/identity side and a belief side – and that while it is important for believers to know their tribe, it’s also the tribal side of religion that generates prejudice and violence, and fuels wars!

Religion is the opiate of the masses”, Karl Marx famously said, but it’s not religious beliefs as such that start wars. It’s the belief that my religious tribe is superior to your religious tribe and, indeed, that your religious tribe are a bunch of heretics!

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” So Jesus told him a joke …

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …

OK, it wasn’t that one, and I’m not going to tell you that joke today as you probably remember it from the last time I peached on this passage. If you missed it, look up the last sermon on www.fatherdave.com.au. Yes, it is, predictably, a joke that plays off racial stereotypes, and even if you’re not familiar with that particular joke, you are undoubtedly familiar with the genre – Irish jokes, Polish jokes, Australian jokes …

Yes, I do remember comedian Dave Allen telling an Australian joke. He said he’d been warned before how came here that Australians were difficult people, yet he found them the be the most generous and hospitable people he’d ever met. He added, it was only the white bastards I couldnt get on with.

Telling racial jokes like these are generally another means through which we reinforce tribal identity (racial tribal identity in this case) and such jokes always require that the members of the group we are making fun of be all the same.

I read a fascinating book about this phenomenon recently – a book called Tribesby Seth Godin – which introduced me to the term outgroup homogeneity.

Outgroup homogeneitymeans that when it comes to the othergroup (whatever otherthat might be – other religion, other race, etc.) they are basically all the same.

I remember one study quoted in the book looked at the perception university students had of elderly people in a retirement village, compared to the view these people had of themselves.

According to the book, the retired people saw their community has being made up of a rich variety of people from various backgrounds, cultures, religious groups and political persuasions. The university students saw them as being all the same – frail and fearful, overly religious and politically conservative.

When the study looked at what the perception of the university students was, the stereotypes turned out to be just as strong in reverse. While the students saw themselves as a diverse and multi-faceted community, the elderly group saw them all as being loud and licentious and politically liberal.

The term is outgroup homogeneity. Our group is rich and diverse. The othergroup are all the same, like those conservative evangelical churches that are all made up of people who hate LGBTI people and oppress women – all of them!

Of course, Jesus’ joke isn’t about conservative Evangelicals any more than it is about the Irish. It’s about Samaritans, and we all know what Samaritans were like. They’re all the same – lazy, dishonest, ignorant, and, religiously speaking, heretical!

“A [Jewish] man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” (Luke10:30-33)

“As if!” I hear you say! ‘As if a Samaritan would stop for a wounded Jew out of pity? If a Samaritan stops near the prostrate body of a Jew, it’s to check if he has money in his pockets! We know what these people are like, and they’re all the same!’

I guess that’s why Jesus goes on to fill in the details of His story, lest we fill them in with our imagination.

“[The Samaritan] went to [the injured Jew] and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” (Luke 10:34-35)

This is an offensive story because we all know that a Samaritan wouldn’t do that. We know what they are like. They aren’t the sort of persons who care about us.

We’ve heard of plenty of stories like this, of course – true stories – but they generally have the Samaritans playing the role of the robbers who beat up on the defenceless Jew and not the other way around. Of course, this is just a story!

That’s the weakness of Jesus’ joke, of course, or at least it seems to be. It’s a story about a Samaritan who doesn’t perform in accordance with the stereotype we constructed for him. Even so, it’s just a story and we’ve got no reason to believe that it was a true story. Do Samaritans ever really behave like that? None that I know of!

If we feel tempted to think that way, it shows that we didn’t actually get the joke, which is not really a joke about Samaritans but it’s one where the joke is on us!

It easy to miss the punchline in this joke as it actually comes quite early in the story!

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.(Luke 10:31-32)

I know we covered that part of the story already, but were you offended by it?

I remember, as a youth, being brought up in the church and listening to sermons on this passage where the preacher would often speculate at this point of the story as to why the good guys – the priest and the Levite – would pass by on the other side.

After all, priests and Levites are a part of our tribe. They are one of us (or two of us) and they are exactly the persons we would expect to stop and help one of us if one of us where in trouble. And so preachers speculate:

  • Perhaps the priest was late for his synagogue service?
  • Perhaps they were worried that the man was dead, meaning that they would be rendered ritually unclean if they touched the dead man’s body?
  • Perhaps they were concerned that the robbers who assaulted the man were lying in wait for another victim? It was my friend Stephen Sizer (an Anglican priest in London) who pointed out to me that Jesus actually makes it quite clear why these two avoid the injured man. Indeed, it’s stated quite explicitly in the opening words of the joke. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. The robbers left the man naked and half-dead (in other words, unconscious), meaning that the priest and Levite couldn’t see his clothing nor hear his accent. They therefore had no way of knowing whether he was one of us or one of them! This is how we distinguish between us and them. We discriminate on the basis of the way we dress and the way we speak. When someone says “G’day mate!”, he’s one of us! When someone speaks with a ‘funny’ accent, she’s one of them! When you see someone wearing a hijab, she’s one of them, and when you see a guy with a big, square beard, you know he’s one of them – a Muslim (or maybe a hipster). I do have a problem with my stereotypes in that area. How many times have I been about to say ‘Salam Aleykum’ to someone with a great big beard when I’ve noticed that they’re drinking beer … out of a jar!

Even so, this is the way, and it’s generally the only way, that we can tell whether somebody is one of us or one of them – by looking at the way they dress and by listening to the way they speak.

In Jesus’ joke, in the case of the injured man, the priest and the Levite don’t stop because the man was naked and unconscious. They couldn’t tell whether he was one of us or one of them, and the bottom line is, if he is not one of us then he is not our responsibility! The shocking thing about the Samaritan in this story then is not simply that he is an impossibly nice guy who doesn’t fit his racial stereotype. It’s rather that he himself is one who doesn’t pay attention to these stereotypes! He just doesn’t play that game.

The Samaritan doesn’t stop feeling responsible for someone just because they belong to the other team. He doesn’t care whether the injured guy is one of his own! He doesn’t care whether he’s a Jew or an Arab, and obviously Jesus doesn’t care either! Perhaps you thought that the “no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free” thinking started with St Paul. No! It all starts here, in the jokes of Jesus!

I know some of you are disappointed that I’m not telling you the one about the Jewish and the Chinese guy in the bar, so let me offer you a different joke.

There’s a guy about to throw himself off a bridge and a woman sees him and rushes over to him, saying dont do it. You have so much to live for!

The guy on the edge of the bridge says, like what?and she says, well, are you a religious person?and he says yesand she says Great! So am I

She says, are you a Christian or a Muslim or something else?He says, Well Im Anglican, and she says Hey! Thats great! So am I

She says, are you a high Anglo-Catholic or from the low end of Anglicanism?and he says, Im a low-church evangelicaland she says Wow! I am too!

She says, Are you from the liberal, inclusive end of evangelical Anglicanism or from the more conservative end?He says, I guess youd call me a conservative.

She rushes over and pushes him off the bridge, yelling die, heretic, die!

I told that joke to Dr Toumeh in Damascus too. I couldn’t tell whether he liked the joke, nor whether he agreed with my thoughts on the dangers of religious tribalism. He did offer to publish my book in Arabic though, and I took that as a good sign.

Jesus’ joke comes in response to a specific question – who is my neighbour?The obvious answer to that question was, Your neighbour is your fellow Jew, your fellow Australian, your fellow Christian, your fellow low-church, liberal, inclusive Anglican.

The point of the question of was to get clarity over where our responsibility to love stops. It stops with our own tribe, surely? So Jesus told him a story about a man who didn’t pay any attention to tribal boundaries and didn’t know when to stop.

‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, and in case you misunderstood the punchline, the challenge is not simply to go find another injured guy and put him on your donkey. The challenge is to do what the Samaritan does and to move beyond the distinction between us and them!

First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday July 14th, 2019.

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Trinity Sunday Sermon 2019

One of the highlights of my almost thirty years at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, was the 2015 publication of the book by John Coleman and Bob Irving – “A Church for our Times” – which did an amazing job of detailing the colourful history of our church community over the last 150 years. One of the things though that the book did not tell me was why our community was ever called ‘the church of the Holy Trinity’.

I read through the first chapter of the book again yesterday, just to make sure I didn’t miss something, and then I rang one of the authors, just to make really sure. No, there was no mention of why we are the Church of the Holy Trinity, and that’s because neither John nor Bob have a clue!

If you wander down Marrickville Road you’ll bump into St Brigid’s – the largest church in our region. There’s no great puzzle there as to why that community was named after Brigid. Brigid of Kildare was a great saint, who founded numerous monasteries. We can only hope and pray that our churches produce a few more like Brigid.

Or wander up New Canterbury Road towards Hurlstone Park and you’ll bump into the community of St Paul of the Cross. Again, we don’t have to think too hard to as to why someone would name their community after the great Saint Paul. If only our region could produce a few more Saint Paul’s. it might generate a degree of chaos and bring down the housing prices a little, but no doubt it would be a very good thing.

The more difficult question is why those good souls who had the vision to found our community decided to name us after a concept rather than a person, and not just after any concept, but after an extraordinarily obscure and divisive concept!

Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps I shouldn’t be referring to the Trinity as a concept. The Trinity is a person, isn’t it, or rather, it is three persons, or, at least, it is three persons so long as we don’t confound the persons nor divide the substance:

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.

Sorry. I’m lapsing into the Athanasian creed, which hard not to do when you’re discussing the Trinity as it’s there that you’ll find the concept most fully laid out.

Appropriately, as the church of the Holy Trinity, we love that creed, though I suspect that many of us would agree with Dorothy Sayers’ summation – “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible”.

Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity is an obscure and difficult – even incomprehensible – concept, and, as I say, it is divisive. Indeed, it has historically been the litmus test, determining who is a genuine member of the church universal and who is not. This is how we determine who are insiders and who are outsiders. Do you accept the first three creeds of the church? Do you believe in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

Those who answer ‘yes’ to the Trinitarian shibboleth include all Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches. Those who fall into the outer darkness by balking at doctrine include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians and, of course, Muslims!

When I asked my friend, Sheikh Mansour, what he thought it would take to bring real unity between Christians and Muslims worldwide, he said to me I think if we could get past this doctrine of the Trinity there would be no real barrier”.

It was a couple of years ago since we had that conversation in Tehran, but I remember it well as Mansour became quite passionate about it. He said he had Christian friends who asked him if he could explain the doctrine of the Trinity to them and he said he could not. Mansour’s point was that if neither Christians nor Muslims really understood what this doctrine was about, why were we allowing it to divide us?

Why indeed, and why, you might ask, would a person like me, who is passionately invested in trying to build bridges between Christians and Muslims be unwilling to abandon this teaching even though I admit it is incomprehensible.

To answer that we need to know the history of the doctrine of the Trinity and how it came to be formed.

It all started in the year 313, in a town called Baucalis in Alexandria, where a man named Arius had just been appointed rector of the local church.

Arius was a tall and distinguished looking man with a charismatic flair that apparently had the women of the parish doting on him and the men impressed by “his aura of intellectual superiority” (so Epiphanius).

Arius taught his flock that the Lord Jesus was like God – indeed that Jesus was ‘homoiousios’ (to use the Greek word), meaning that He was made of a similar substance to God the Father. One day though one of his parishioners made a complaint about him to the bishop (whether out of genuine conviction or out of jealousy for Arius’ popularity with the girls we don’t know) saying that Arius was denying the faith! Arius was called to account by his bishop, Alexander, who put the case into the hands of his capable Archdeacon, Athanasius.

Athanasius agreed with the parishioner – that Arius was indeed denying the Christian faith. According to the Scriptures, Athanasius said, Jesus not just godlike, but was God. Jesus was not simply ‘homoiousios’ (of similar substance to God the Father), but was ‘homoousios’ (of the same substance as the Father). And so began a debate that raged for almost a century, became the basis of three world-wide Church Councils, enduring the reigns of three emperors, and which wasn’t completely settled until well after the death of both Arius and Athanasius!

Homoousios or homoiousios, of like substance with the father or of the same substance of the father, Jesus is very similar to God or Jesus is God – what’s the difference? Most church-goers at the time probably didn’t see a lot of difference between the two positions, and most likely most church-goers today wouldn’t see a whole lot of difference either! But the fact that differences don’t appear to be great doesn’t mean that they are not significant!

My father used to say to me that if I pulled up the floorboards and looked at the electrical circuitry of our house – both correctly wired up and incorrectly wired – it would all look pretty much the same to me. Who cares whether we have it exactly right? Well … when you find yourself sitting in the dark you start to care, for being close to right and being exactly right can sometimes be highly significant!

Was the conflict between Arius and Athanasius, over whether Jesus was of like substance to the Father or of the same substance as the Father, really that significant? I think so! For one thing, the problem with Arius’ position – that Jesus is like the Father – is that it makes good sense! A human being surely cannot be God, without God ceasing to be God. Therefore, it makes sense to see it all in terms of a hierarchy. God the Father is at the top of the ladder, Jesus the Son is on the next rung down, and perhaps we place the Holy Spirit on the rung below that.

The beauty of this hierarchy too is that it can help us to make sense of other religions. God, Jesus and the Spirit occupy the top three rungs of the ladder, we might say, but there’s plenty of room for Buddha and Muhamad and any number of other godlike figures to take their proper places on the lower rungs. It all makes a great deal of sense. Athanasius’ position, on the other hand, doesn’t make much sense at all. The very concept that Jesus is God, while the Father to whom He prayed is also God, and that while they are both clearly distinct and separate persons, they are both the one God, just doesn’t work as a logical concept.

Holding the two doctrines side by side, it must be hard to envisage how Athanasius’ concept of God ever won the day. Even so, I would suggest to you, while it was Arius’ concept of God that made sense, it was Athanasius’ concept of God that was more true to the Scriptures. Indeed, I would suggest to you that what Athanasius did, in all his fumbling paradoxical language, was to preserve for us the mystery of God as revealed in the Scriptures, whereas Arius simply followed the logic of his day.

Someone says, ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, and our natural response to that might be to try and tell them something more about Jesus. I have a feeling though that Athanasius would have probably turned that challenge on its head! ‘What sort of God do you envisage, such that you do not think Jesus could be this God?’ For when someone says ‘I find it hard to believe that Jesus could be God’, they obviously already have a predefined concept of God, such that they cannot approximate Jesus to that concept.

If you were an educated Roman citizen of the fourth century, whose mind had been shaped by the thinking of the great Greek philosophers, you probably grew up with a concept of God as a distant ‘force’ that embodied eternal logic. You probably believed that your disembodied spirit was moving towards this God, and if this were your concept of God it would be rather hard to envisage how the man Jesus could be that God, for Jesus was certainly a man.

Or what if you started out with a different concept of God? What if your concept of God was the Hindu god Shiva – god as the eternally active cosmic birther and destroyer, the great god of the dance? You’d probably find it equally hard to see how Jesus could be that God. Or what if you start with an Islamic conception of a God – one who is so holy and transcendent that He is really entirely beyond this world? You’d probably find it impossible to equate Jesus with that god too.

Athanasius says what if, instead of starting with whatever concept of God your culture has given you, we turn the whole process upside-down? What if, instead of starting with a concept of God and trying to build Jesus into it, we start with Jesus, and try to shape our understanding of God around Him.

What if we try to be humble enough to say ‘we probably know nothing about God, except what we see and hear in Jesus’? What if we stop pretending that we were born with some innate knowledge of who or what God is, and take as our starting point ‘Jesus is God!’

The problem for all of us, I think, is that we begin with a working concept of God, passed on to us by our culture, long before we get any real understanding of Jesus. In white-Australian culture we generally inherit a version of the Greek concept of God as a distant spiritual force who inhabits another dimension of time and space – either that or a combination of that with the modern concept of God as a sort of therapeutic force that warms and inspires, but never really interacts with us too aggressively.

God in popular culture is a force that cares and strengthens but doesn’t get too involved. God is like that guy who, when your car is broken down at the side of the road, drives by and calls out ‘hey, bad luck buddy, I hope things improve’ and then drives on – empathetic but ineffective, sincere but remote. If that’s your concept of God – omniscient, omnipresent, and distant – and somebody asks you ‘could Jesus be that God?’… it just doesn’t make any real sense.

But what if we turn it on its head? What if, instead of starting with our culturally defined concept of God, we start with Jesus? What if we say, ‘I don’t know much about God, but what I do know is that He had arms and legs and lived in Palestine, that He liked parties, touched lepers, and gave healing and dignity to people whod never known it, and that He suffered on the cross, but on the third day rose again!’

It’s starting to sound a bit like the creed, isn’t it, and not by coincidence, for that, I believe, was the basic mindset of our fathers and mothers who wrote those creeds! The doctrine of the Trinity was a historic decision of the church that we begin our thinking about God with the person of Jesus because we are never going to know more about God than what we see in Jesus.

I understand why many of my Islamic friends and feminist friends and others find this way of thinking repugnant! ‘Are you saying that God was Jewish and that God had a penis? Are you saying God went to the toilet?’ … If these questions disturb you, you’re feeling the pull of Arius’ position. For indeed, I think the proper Trinitarian response to such questions is ‘Hey! That’s not even half of it! We are saying that God bled and suffered and died in Jesus!’

How do you make sense of that? Maybe we don’t need to make sense of that. Perhaps incomprehensible is okay? Perhaps it’s trying to make sense of God that is the beginning of all heresy? Perhaps instead of trying to think our way towards a logical conception of God, we should simply grab hold of the near end of God – the human end that we see in Jesus – and begin our thinking, prayer and worship there!

This is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not just an incomprehensible set of beliefs about God. It is a different way of approaching God. This is why we cling to this doctrine and name our communities after it, because we insist on doing our thinking about God starting at God’s human end, because we recognise that whoever or whatever God is – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent or … whatever, God is first of all our brother in the flesh, Jesus, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, but on the third day …

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 16th of June.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Love one Another (A sermon on John 13:31-35)

We are in the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to St John’s this week, and I’m going to unpack our reading verse by verse as it is a difficult passage.

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” (John 13:31)

The person who had ‘gone out’ was Judas, and the sentence seems to suggest that Judas’ leaving somewhat brought glory to Jesus, which sounds really odd.

“If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” (John 13:32)

I really have no idea where to begin with that statement!

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” (John 13:33)

That statement makes sense to us as Jesus speaking about his own impending suffering and death, though at the time it made no sense at all to His disciples.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-45)

That concluding pronouncement, I suspect, is the most difficult to understand of all!

“All you need is love!” – so said the Beatles.

When I read statements like these from the lips of Jesus, I can almost hear the soundtrack of that well-known Beatles song playing in the background.

“Love is all you need. Love is all you need …”

It’s not true, of course. Love isn’t all we need – not in relationships, not in families, not in governments.

We had an election yesterday. Did you vote for the most loving candidate? Should you have?

I tried to give some thought after reading this passage as to who the most loving candidate for electoral office was. It wasn’t obvious.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the names of politicians who were definitely NOT full of love and sweetness, but it seemed less obvious to me which candidates actually were.

Did the candidate who loves us the most win? Do we care?

In truth, in as much as we might say, “all we need is love”, I don’t think we really care whether our political leaders love us, any more than we really care whether our boss at work truly loves us. Love is not all we need. A good capacity for management is probably far more important in cases like this than is love!

Love is not all we need in government or in families, and it’s not even all we need in a system of morality! This might sound counterintuitive. Is not all of morality – all our statements about what is right and what is wrong – really an extension of that basic ideal of love?

Certainly, over the generations, scores of philosophers and other great thinkers have suggested that all of our moral intuitions can be reduced to one simple exhortation – if not ‘to love’ exactly, to something very akin to that.

The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, saw all of morality as a system of increasing pleasure for people and reducing harm. He is probably best remembered for his ‘harm principle’:

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

I have a feeling that if you’d asked Mill what the essence of morality was, he might not have said ‘love one another’, but might well have said ‘don’t’ harm one another’, which is pretty similar.

Likewise, the great 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that morality could be reduced to a single maxim – the ‘categorical imperative’:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

That’s always sounded to me like a really complex way of saying ‘love your neighbour as you would love yourself”, which, of course, was Jesus’ ‘golden rule’ that many people see as being His one-line summary of the moral law, along with the first and great commandment, of course, that you have to love God:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We are familiar with these commandments. We hear them every week in church, and they do seem to suggest that everything in the law of God comes down to love, and that the rest is just commentary.

Is that really what Jesus was saying? St Augustine thought so, and in my previous sermons on these passages, I have suggested exactly that – that there is really only one law of God – that we love – and that the rest is just application. My more recent reading though has suggested that it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, at least if Jesus really was being true to His Hebraic tradition.

The Hebraic law centres around the Ten Commandments – the ten words of God to the people of Israel – and while it seems straightforward to see commandments like “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not murder” as being extensions of the commandment to love, other commandments like “honour thy father and thy mother” do not seem to be so easily reducible. Honoring your father and your mother seems to be more about respecting authority than it is about love.

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately by moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, called “the Righteous Mind”, in which he outlines what he calls ‘moral foundation theory’.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should rush out to get a copy of this book. It is not an easy read and could prove difficult if you don’t have an academic background in the study of philosophical ethics (which, thankfully, I do).

The author’s key point, at any rate, is that our moral intuitions can’t be reduced to any one simple maxim such as ‘love one another’ as morality is invariably more complex than that.

Haidt suggests that there are five reasonably independent dimensions to our moral awareness, and ‘caring’ for others is just one of those dimensions. The others are:

  • Fairness (which is all about justice, rewards and punishments)
  • Loyalty (which is associated with values such as faithfulness and patriotism)
  • Authority (where you honour your father and your mother, king and country)
  • Sanctity (which involves respecting your body and potentially embracing things like chastity, temperance and cleanliness)

Forgive me if I’m now sounding more dry and esoteric than the book I mentioned.  My point is actually a simple one – that ‘all you need is love’ is both simplistic and inadequate. We don’t only need love – not if we are going to be successful in our relationships or in all of life. We actually need a lot of things – courage, self-discipline, wisdom, nurture and support and a good education, and more!

Of course, Jesus didn’t say “love is all you need”. That was ‘The Beatles’. What Jesus did say was “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. In other words, Jesus didn’t say that love is all we need to live a full and productive life. What He said was that it was all we needed in order to show the world that we are His disciples. That might sound like much the same thing but it’s actually quite distinct.

The life of love is not a strategy for success, despite what any number of tele-evangelists might have told you. Indeed, if it’s right to consider it a strategy at all, the life of love could only be a strategy for getting yourself killed. That’s certainly how it worked for Jesus.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that friend who said to me “I’m sick of hearing people tell me about all the problems they had before they met Jesus and how He solved them all for them. My problems didn’t start till I met Jesus!”

That’s difficult to hear, I think. We don’t want to think of Jesus as the one who leads us down a path of suffering and misery. We want to think of Jesus as one who elevates us to heavenly places.

Isn’t that what religion is for after all? Isn’t good religion supposed to benefit our lives and help us live more fully and peacefully with a great sense of purpose and fulfillment? Surely, it’s not just about suffering in this world so that we can enjoy a better life in the next? Surely there’s more to it than that?

I don’t think Jesus is saying that discipleship is all about suffering any more than it is all about success. Discipleship, Jesus says, is all about love, and everything else depends on what Jesus means by love.

Jesus says His command to love is a new commandment, and that’s a surprise. Certainly, the commandment to love is as old as the Scriptures themselves, so it must be the latter part of the commandment – to love one another ‘as I have loved you’ – that makes it new.

When we hear those words, I suspect most of us immediately think of the cross and Jesus laying down his life for us. That makes sense, and indeed the same Gospel writer, John, writes in his first letter “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Even so, without wanting to press the issue of the timeline too heavily, the exhortation we have in today’s Gospel reading –to love one another “as I have loved you” happens before the cross, suggesting that the model on view here may not be the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus!

Further, as noted, today’s reading begins with a reference to Judas – “when he had gone out” – and Jesus’ exhortation to love each other as He has loved us comes immediately before the two terrible betrayals from disciples whom Jesus had just broken bread with and whose feet Jesus had just washed – the one betrayal being from Judas, of course, and the other one being from dear Peter!

Jesus loved Peter, was betrayed by Peter, and would eventually be reconciled with Peter. Jesus loved Judas but would never be reconciled with him. Even perfect love does not guarantee a perfect ending to the story. Even so, love anyway – that’s the new commandment.

Yes, “greater love has no one than this – to lay down one’s life for their friends” (John 15:3). That is true, and bodily self-sacrifice is indeed the ultimate example of love, but most of the time love is not so grandiose and (thankfully) not quite so painful. The far more common (and in some ways more difficult) labor of love is the ongoing work of having to forgive those who fail us, and sometimes fail us very badly.

This, I believe, is the love by which everyone will now that we are His disciples – it’s the love that breaks bread with those who betray us and that washes the feet of those who turn their backs on us. It’s the love that finds its ultimate inspiration in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, but which likewise finds daily encouragement in the simple acts of grace shown by Jesus towards those whom He knew would radically fail Him.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-45)

It’s not a strategy for success. It’s not a means to a better life or more successful relationships. It’s just the way that we demonstrate to the world that we are followers of Jesus. We break bread, we wash feet, we empathise, we forgive. We love one another just as He loved us.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 19th of May, 2019.

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In a battle royale between church and state, Father Dave just wants to box (SBS News, May 9th, 2019)

On March 22nd, 2019, I was scheduled to do four rounds with Jason MacGura at Club Punchbowl. I was hoping that this would be my breakthrough bout. An hour before I was due to go on, the promoter received an email from the ‘Combat Sports Authority’ (CSA), prohibiting the fight from going ahead (read full story here).

Apart from writing to the CSA and approaching my local member, seeking an explanation, I put out a promo video, telling my story and appealing for a fight somewhere in the world where the CSA doesn’t have jurisdiction. This story came in response to that promo video.

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