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…
My wife Penny and I met at theological college. It was certainly not love at first sight. I was quite introverted, not trying to give away much of who I was, and Penny – well, Penny was very nervous and came across as a terrible caricature of an English middle-class blue stocking type of woman: think, those of you who can remember back that far, of Joyce Grenfell in the old St Trinian’s films. Our college was overwhelmingly full of men, with this being only the second year a handful of women had been admitted. So, when I met Penny in the first hour or so after arriving, I thought: ‘well, if this is how the women are here, I am simply not going to survive!’ I guess that was one factor in our initial relationship: sheer survival in an age and culture still trying to come to terms with the equality of women as a whole, never mind wider gender diversity. It was an earlier reminder that, if Penny and I were to minister, it would be as salt. We would be adding fresh flavour to both the Church and the wider world, seeking to provide healing or simply preservation for some of us, and, from time to time, perhaps irritating others into whose wounds we might be placed to aid healing. Maybe some will have views on how well, or otherwise, we have done that so far. Our hope and prayer is, in the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading today, that we, with others, will never lose out saltiness…
breaking and birthing
Courage - Compassion – Joy: these are the name of the angels we have, above us, this evening. Courage – Compassion – Joy: gifts of grace which our church community, with others, seeks to share at World Pride here in Sydney next year, and at all times. For Courage – Compassion – Joy: which of these, I wonder, do each of us need at this time, for ourselves, or for others? May these gifts truly enrich us, for they take us to the heart of our celebrations this evening: the very presence of God in humanity, in human birthing. As such, they are pointers to the deepest reality of our lives. As we see the angels above us, see and share light among us, and, above all, see and share bread and wine – the symbols of divine humanity in us – so may we know God’s extraordinary Love, within and beyond us. For the various elements of our Christmas celebration proclaim that, as above, so below and all around, between, and in all possible dimensions, the God of Love is born among us. Tonight, in the great Christian narrative, is the hinge of history, the heart of meaning, and the hallowing of human being. Let me briefly touch on three elements. For the Christian Christmas is a truly extra-ordinary happening, and a profound embodying, which is also ‘not quite nice’…
Recently I was given a wonderful handmade doorstop. It was a gift from the main organiser of an event I spoke at in the Uniting Church’s Pilgrim College in Melbourne (see my address here and Talitha's own explanation here). We were marking the landmark first Australian university unit in Queer Theology, before the intensive which Penny and I were about to teach. As such, the doorstop was one fitting symbol of such developments, keeping open the possibilities of hearing the voice of God in contemporary culture, particularly in queer lives and spiritual experience, and enabling some of our collective old pain and exhaustions to leave and new joys and challenges to enter. It is however but one doorstop among many created by my colleague during the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne. For too many doors were closed at that time. Then and still now, she feels it is important to have practical symbols which keep alive horizons of hope and renew possibilities of life and relationship. In that sense, it is also perhaps one fitting pointer both to our Gospel story (Luke 10.25-38) and to the divine possibilities of Christian mission today. For, in a number of other ways, the parable of the so-called ‘Good’ Samaritan is actually quite impossible…
how do you want the story to end?
How do we want our stories to end? Whether it is our own story, or that of our community, our nation, our world, much is up to us. Now, we may not have much room for manoeuvre. All kinds of forces help shape our lives, internal and unconscious, as well as external and recognised. Yet we still have power to shape our stories, even if only by our attitudes, and by how we receive and respond to what happens to us. This truth is at the very heart of the Gospel and the power of love, forgiveness, and justice seeking. For, however you view the Resurrection stories, a common feature is their open, unfinished nature. The tomb is not sealed. The body is not there or is transformed. The end is a new beginning. So how do we want the story to continue?...
baptised to magnify love
Today's baptism was delayed from the end of June by the lockdown this year. It is therefore long awaited. In another way however, it is especially appropriate to take place at this particular time: as we celebrate hope and the embodiment of love, especially with Mary and her extraordinary cry of liberation, typically known as the Magnificat. For the person we baptise is, in my view, a truly remarkable person, and a wonderful embodiment of love: both gentle and fearless, just like Mary, the mother of Jesus. Like each of us, she is a truly special creation of God. In her case, I am deeply humbled and enriched by the love and kindness of her presence, by the deep courage of their journey in life to join us; and by the possibilities and dreams she bears. For, like Mary, in her life and baptism today, she helps birth divine love anew among us. Like Mary, but in her own particular way, she thereby encourages us to magnify God’s love and help make it real among us…
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...
divine hugs in all that we are
‘The Body doesn’t lie’, they say. Well, certainly it can powerfully reveal and prompt us to the truth. Years ago, for example, I remember a yoga teacher asking me to curl up into the foetal position and give myself a hug, expressing my love for myself. But I simply couldn’t manage it. I took up position, but my arms just wouldn’t do it. Even when I actively exercised my mind to give myself the appearance of a hug, my body would not obey. For you cannot simply command love. It has to be received, acknowledged, and embodied. Or, to put it another way, love has to be breathed in and breathed out. All of this takes us to the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments (in Mark 12.28-34), and to the core of the Biblical tradition…
What does the word care mean to you? And what does it mean to us as a community?
In the area where I was born, this particular Sunday in the year is traditionally known as Carlin(g), or Care, Sunday. It includes a centuries old custom of eating meals made of Carlin peas – otherwise known as black, maple, or pigeon peas – warm and nourishing fare for poor communities. Today, though the traditions are slowly dying out, such peas can still be bought in places like the markets in Durham. Where exactly the custom came from depends on whom you ask in the north east of England. Most trace Carling back to at least the British Civil Wars, when the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne was besieged, only to be saved from hunger by ships from overseas carrying black peas – again, depending on whom you ask, from France, or Norway, or somewhere else. The point is that this was about being saved from distressing cares, and also sharing care. To share the poor people’s meal of peas, is thus to share a kind of communion, of salvation, and care. Where then, I wonder, do we find the sources of our care, and share our communion with the poor?...
the cross as nonviolent atonement
Today on Good Friday we affirm the infinite Love of God displayed in the crucifixion of Jesus - not as a metaphysical transaction to change God from punishing us (as if), but as a witness to the love of God for us at all times, even when we have gone astray or are caught in webs of evil. Sadly too many Christians speak of a punishing God, with disastrous spiritual and practical consequences. That is partly understandable from some past inherited thinking in Christian traditions. It is however a partial way of looking at the cross which is not only destructive but wholly unnecessary theologically.
The Franciscan tradition - not least through the great theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) - is in contrast one which has always encouraged us to focus on the infinite Love of God, displayed in the cross as in all other aspects of creation and salvation. As Richard Rohr among others has recently reminded us, if God “needed” a blood sacrifice to love God’s own creation, then God was not freely loving us. For the Franciscans, 'Jesus was not changing God’s mind about us; he was changing our minds about God. If God and Jesus are not violent or vindictive, then our excuse for the same is forever taken away from us. If God is punitive and torturing however, then we have permission to do the same. Thus grew much of the church’s violent history.'
W.H.Vanstone put this beautifully in his great poem and reflection on 'Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense:
Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.
May we know God's Love more deeply this day, and may it transform our lives for the good.
by Jo Inkpin, for Good Friday 10 April 2020
see further: Richard Rohr's reflection - A Nonviolent Atonement
sermons and reflections from Penny Jones & Josephine Inkpin, a married Anglican clergy couple serving with the Uniting Church in Sydney