Today’s Gospel reading is a very rich passage, full of extraordinary metaphors, story and meaning. It includes, for example, that powerful central affirmation of Christian Faith that God so loved the world that they sent their Beloved One that all who believe may have eternal life. Note well the heart of this good news: that God loves the world so much that all who believe – not just the doctrinally righteous, or the ethically conservative, but all may have eternal life. For the God we celebrate today is the God of unlimited, inexhaustible, love. As our Gospel text says, Christ comes among us not for condemnation, but for love and salvation. Let us therefore affirm again that you, we, all of us, are loved. The Gospel, our Good News, invites us to claim this, and live it. All of which brings us, in this passage, to the person of Nicodemus, and to light, and darkness…
So, angels are coming. How will we greet them? At once, perhaps we start to ponder: but what are we greeting? And are there such things as angels anyway? Modernity’s functional materialism has so much to answer for! From a Reformed Christian perspective today it is also sometimes hard to engage. For whilst the classic Reformed theologians were quite clear that angels are to be taken very seriously, as they appear in so many places in the Bible. Yet later thinkers have found less value. In some quarters of liberal and progressive Protestantism they almost became erased: rejected with supposedly passé doctrines like the virgin birth, miracles and even major articles of the historic creeds. Ironically, as liberal Protestantism declined, other faith constructions began to thrive, not least New Age spiritualities with their extraordinary mix of angelic and other speculations. Did demythologising thereby open the door to old heresies? - as well as to a loss of divine wonder in the secular world? Certainly, as Les Murray pondered in his poem ‘The Barranong Angel Case’, which we heard read earlier, do we have the capacity to see and receive the angels of Christian tradition today?
In recent years some of my Aboriginal friends have said to me that they do not really believe in the Australian concept of Reconciliation and some of the activities, like Reconciliation Action Plans, which have accompanied it. Meanwhile some Church leaders have said to me that they do not see much point in engaging actively in ecumenical endeavours. So why, we might ask, are we marking the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this morning? Actually I did wonder about changing the title on the front of our liturgy sheet today to ‘Prayer for Just Relationships and Communion in Christian Diversity’. That, for me, would be at least part acknowledgment of the difficulties of the words Reconciliation and Christian Unity and the need for re-imagining as well as building on the good work of the past. However I have left Reconciliation and Christian Unity in the title for the present, so we honour where we have traveled. Nonetheless, as we hear our two readings this morning (from Revelation chapter 22 and John chapter 17), we do well to reflect more deeply on the words and constructions we may use in order that we share in more fruitful pathways for our work together with others. For that purpose I also offer you the cartoon meme entitled the #4thBox, as an encouragement to deeper prayer, more imaginative reflection and more creative action…
relationship, galgala, yabun
Good morning! It is a delight to be back here in Pitt Street after several weeks away on personal ‘sorry business’ and study leave. In the context of the continuing pandemic, it has certainly been what some might call an ‘interesting’ time, marking an important watershed in my own life and that of my wider birth family. In offering some reflections today, I would therefore like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the many, many. wonderful expressions of support from members of our Pitt Street community, and for the prayers which have been offered. I continue to be so grateful for the gift of loving relationships I am given as part of our life together, and I look forward to their further and deeper unfolding in the days to come. For relationship is such a core element of our lives, and never more important than at times of loss, grief, challenge and growth. As such, it is so absolutely foundational to the Day of Mourning we mark today, as well as to the trials of the pandemic world with which we continue to journey, and the struggles of our own particular lives. In the light of these things, my own recent and continuing journey, and of our readings today, I offer up relationship as one of three words which might be central to our considerations at this time.
on kings, and kingdom language
Growing up, even as a little child I was fascinated by what was then known as the English Civil War (although, to be accurate historically, this is now rightly recognised as several different wars across the islands of Britain and Ireland). It was a bitter and brutal period, culminating in the judicial trial and execution of the King. For this was a powerful revolution. Indeed it saw the establishment of a republic, the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Moreover, in that latter period there was also an extraordinary flowering of truly radical religious and political life and thought. That, I think, was what especially drew me into the study of history. For the origin of many liberal democratic things we take for granted lie there – for example, the insistence on no taxation or legislation without representation, on regular elections, fixed parliamentary terms, equal votes, and, vitally, on religious freedom for different types of groups, particularly the marginalised. Indeed, Cromwell even reopened England to the Jews, who had been banned for centuries. For his supporters were also part of the movements which helped create Congregationalism, the original founding tradition of Pitt Street Uniting Church...
WWJD - in the climate emergency?
WWJD – What Would Jesus Do – in the climate emergency? In the face of the increasing climate crisis, highlighted by the latest IPCC report and weather events across the world, how are we to react? As people of faith, what might guide us in our responses, as individuals and as a community together? This is the challenge which, with Gerard and Vivien, I ask us all to consider today. For, during this Season of Creation, we have rightly given expression, in several different ways, to our wonder at God’s world of which we are a part. We have joined with others elsewhere and received the gifts of Ecopella and other artists. We commit ourselves to continuing to grow more deeply in the soil of God’s love in Creation and to share more deeply in that grace and beauty. What however will we now do to honour that same Spirit of Christ?...
how do we relate to the Earth?
When you step out of your door in the morning, do you feel that you are stepping into a world of wonder in which you are intimately connected? Or, are you simply stepping into mere location? Is it just dead space which you are crossing so that you can get to where you need to go? Or, do you believe you are walking into a living universe? Those are questions which the great spiritual writer John O’Donohue used to ask and they lie right at the heart of the Season of Creation we have just begun this month. For it matters vitally how we view the world and where we locate God in relation to it. So much of our politics, our business and trade activities, and our lifestyles, are affected. If we believe that matter, material existence, doesn’t really matter to God, then we will end up acting in problematic ways. Or, as John O’Donohue used to say, if we do believe that when we step out we are walking into a living universe, then our walk ‘becomes a different thing’. So let us explore some of the theological paths which can underpin more loving and sustainable ways of living together on the Earth…
where are we going to live?
I’ve always loved words and the play of words – puns and shades of meaning, not always obvious in translation. All translations of the cluster of texts we call the Bible are exactly that – translations. As such they are always inadequate to some extent. And even if we read the original language, we read it with our own twenty-first eyes, and through numerous other lenses of gender, ethnicity, and other particularity. Hence, we need to be on the alert for nuances that are sometimes missed.
There is a little word play happening in today’s Gospel text – it’s around the word meno, which the writer of John uses a great deal, because of its fluidity of meaning. “Live on in me as I live on in you” Jesus says in our version. The older translations read ‘abide in me as I abide in you’ and that’s the translation offered in the passage we heard from 1 John. Now, abide and abode are not words we use much these days, which is no doubt why the Inclusive Bible has made the change to the Gospel passage that it has. But there are some shades of meaning that enrich our understanding here. That original word meno means many things - to stay, to rest, to dwell, to remain (and yes, with that sense of continuity) to live on. It can mean to stay strong in ones resolve. But we need the underpinning of the dwelling words as well. As a noun, menai, it means a dwelling place, an abode, a lodging – a place indeed, somewhere to live, to have life as well as furniture! When the disciples early in John’s gospel ask Jesus ‘where are you staying?’, it’s the same word – and not used idly. Eventually they will come to understand that Jesus stays, remains, dwells, lives on - in God – and we do too if we remain part of the vine – because as Jesus will eventually say in John 17, ‘in my Abba’s house are many dwelling places’ – same word.
So where are we going to live in every sense? Well one metaphoric answer that John’s Jesus gives is ‘in the vine’. It’s a metaphor that tells us something vital about our relationship with God - that it is a relationship of mutuality. We need God, but - and this is the bit we often forget - God also in some mysterious ways needs us to bear fruit. So, let’s think a little about vines...
myths, memories and making peace
One of things I’m thankful for in my years of ministry is the memorial cross I helped install in the Warriors Chapel in St Luke’s Church Toowoomba. It remembers the battle of Meewah, otherwise known as One Tree Hill, or Table Top Mountain. This was part of the devastating Frontier Wars in this country. It was led, on the Aboriginal side, by the great warrior Multuggerah and part of deep, and extraordinary skilled, schemes of resistance. It is intimately connected to the continuing debilitating impact of colonial dispossession. Without remembering and reconciling, such deep wounds endure. Yet so little of this story is named or reflected upon. In contrast, on this day (25 April), the awful pain of the Gallipoli landings is recalled: often, in recent years, with exceptional noise and attention. Why is it that some stories become enduring, and even ever enlarged, myths, whilst others, no less historically significant, are hidden or left to fester? How do we best make peace with our past? And how do myths and memories of faith distract or assist?
For some of my early years, my heart would sink when I was invited to join a bible study group. My mind would start screaming, and my body sometimes even began twitching. Maybe you, or others you know, have had that kind of experience - of bible studies, or another avenue of faith exploration? For me, it wasn’t that the people who asked me were often a little unctuous, or patronising about my existing faith. Sometimes they were wonderful, beautiful, humble, with an open and expansive love of God and others. It was just that so many bible studies seemed so very narrow. Where they weren’t working with extraordinary assumptions about sin, God, and the way the world is created, they were often, frankly, simply a little boring. My experience in many Christian groups was that the scriptures were typically read as if they were flat in nature: straightforward and easy to interpret. This was because simplistic frameworks, or sets of formulae, were constantly applied to every passage. After I’d been to one bible study, I pretty much picked up the central message. Just repeating it again and again seemed neither interesting nor life-giving. When it was full of shame and guilt-inducing misdirection it was particularly alienating. Yet what an awful misuse that is of the Bible, and not least, Jesus’ own use of Scripture…
sermons and reflections from Penny Jones & Josephine Inkpin, a married Anglican clergy couple serving with the Uniting Church in Sydney