St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Curious about faith?

Ever wondered about Jesus? Ever curious if faith can makes sense of your life? Interested in whether God and church are related?

The Growing Place @ St John’s invites you to a series of Sunday afternoons to explore the Christian faith and its meaning in the 21st century.

There are no strings attached. You don’t have to believe anything or commit to anything. Come if you’d just like to check things out, come if you used to have faith but it’s faded away, come if you have a different faith and are curious about Christianity or come if you follow Jesus and would like to re-examine your understanding.

‘Animate: Faith’ is seven sessions exploring God, religion, Jesus, salvation, the cross, the Bible and church. Each session features a contemporary Christian speaker, and an open discussion of the issues raised.

‘Animate: Faith’ will run on Sundays at 4pm-6pm from 4 May to 22 June 2014 (with a break on June 1). There will be a children’s activity running in parallel, and creche facilities for little ones, so bring the whole family. Each evening will end with a light supper. Click here for a more detailed program.

A $10 contribution for the whole series will go towards the cost of supper and the Animate Journal that provides further material to help stimulate and capture your own thinking.

So clear your diaries, and book your place online now or email minister@stjohnswahroonga.org

Download a printable flyer to invite your friends!
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Two Encounters

Listen!
strong>Exodus 17:1-7 | John 4:5-30
As we travel through the weeks of Lent, the lectionary is offering us a series of vignettes onto Jesus’ life and ministry, a series of conversations between Jesus and different people who came across his path.

Last week we had the story of Jesus and Nicodemus; today, the Samaritan woman at the well. Two stories that are placed almost next to one another, and yet, in many ways, couldn’t be more different.

Nicodemus sought Jesus out. Despite the risk to his reputation – a respectable, educated, senior Pharisee – a member of the Temple council (which, in passing, was a rather significant achievement for a Pharisee at the time, given the dominance the Sadducees held in the Temple) – wanting to hear what an uneducated peasant preacher had to say, he went to find him, at night, so drawn by what he had seen and heard in public that he needed to know more.

The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, doesn’t even seem to have heard of Jesus. And indeed, why would she? His ministry to this point had been in Jerusalem and in Galilee, and while Samaria lay between the two regions, there was next to no contact between the people of Samaria and the people of the Jewish capital or the provinces.
We make a lot, and rightly make a lot, of the fact that in this conversation Jesus crosses all sorts of social barriers, breaks all sorts of social conventions. He, a Jewish man, on his own, talks to a Samaritan, a woman, and (as the conversation unfolds) an unmarried woman. It’s a profoundly important part of the story.

But I wonder if, captivated, and challenged, by Jesus rejecting the social mores of the day to reach out to another human being, miss something else in the encounter. That this conversation starts, for Jesus, from a place of weakness.

The contrast with the Nicodemus story is stark: Nicodemus, a powerful man, comes to Jesus as student to teacher, asking his questions. But in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus is tired, alone, thirsty, and lacking the bucket needed to draw water from the well.

Perhaps it is this very weakness that makes the encounter possible at all – everything about this woman would have made it impossible for her to approach Jesus, but his need, and his willingness to ask her for help breaks through those barriers.

I’ve alluded before to the dangers for the Church of being a place where everyone has their act together, where we would not feel comfortable admitting that we are, in fact, in need: admitting what, deep down, we all know, that none of us actually has it all together. But here we see it even more starkly: weakness and need, willingly admitted, as an evangelistic tool!

Not that it ought to surprise us, if we stop to think: the whole story of the Gospel is the story of God becoming weak, becoming one of us. And in a sense all we see here is an echo of the incarnation: Jesus, God become man, allows the frailty of his humanity to be seen by another, and from there, the conversation can begin.

And the difference between Nicodemus, and the Woman of Samaria, the difference in their status, and in their power, pervades the whole of the conversation each has with Jesus. In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of the uncontainability of the Spirit of God – the wind blow where it pleases, you cannot tell where it comes from, or where it is going. Nicodemus is a scholar of the law, a man whose system of faith is one of knowing God’s commands and obeying them, and Jesus’ description of God challenges that sense of knowledge, and the sense of control that comes from knowledge and understanding.

But the imagery of God that Jesus uses with the woman at the well is quite different. It carries with it a similar sense of mystery, but instead of the invisible power of the wind, Jesus alludes to the refreshing, thirst quenching power of water. Where Nicodemus is challenged to rethink his sense of the power and unboxability of God, the Samaritan woman is challenged to recognise that there is more to life than food and drink. For each of them, we might speculate, the thing that is most important is the point at which Jesus introduces a new understanding of God.

And one more difference: to Nicodemus, a man of authority, used to telling people what they needed to do, Jesus gives a direction: “you must be born again”. A man of power, Jesus challenges him to accept his limits, to submit to God.

But to the Samaritan woman, Jesus, from his place of need, offers a gift: “if you asked, I would have given you living water”.

Two encounters. Two very different people meeting Jesus and having two very different conversations. And, at least on the surface, two very different outcomes.

For Nicodemus leaves silently, returns to his day job. Later he will speak up for Jesus in the council: later still, he will go with Joseph of Arimathea to help bury Jesus’ body. Probably he joined the early Church; so tradition, at least, would say. But at the time, he remains silent. Thinking, perhaps. Waiting. Watching. The wind blows Nicodemus along, unseen, taking him with it.

But the woman of Samaria cannot contain herself. She runs and tells everyone about the conversation: “could this man be the Messiah?” – for the Samaritans, too, were waiting for one to come to save the people of God – and, through her words, others come to hear, and through her introduction, many come to believe. The water Jesus spoke of does indeed well up inside her, overflowing to those around.

Really, the only thing these two encounters have in common is that someone meets Jesus, and nothing is ever the same again. All the details are different. There isn’t a pattern that can be seen and followed, emulated. There isn’t a mould. Jesus took two individuals and showed them what it might mean for them to belong to God.

We love methods, structures, curriculums: two ways to live, four spiritual laws, creeds and doctrine and exegetical paradigms; and all that has a place of value. But the heart of our faith lies in an encounter with the living God. And what that looks like for you, for me, for each one here and not here is unpredictable, unrepeatable, unique. Perhaps we sought Jesus out, by day or by night; perhaps it was a chance encounter, perhaps he walked by and called us.

As we travel on through lent, I’d invite you to reflect on your encounter or encounters with our living God; reflect on how God has met you, as an individual created in God’s image; on how God has challenged you, inspired you, reassured you.

And I’d encourage you, in the coming weeks, to renew that encounter. To take the time to be available, to listen for God’s call, to hear again God’s words for you, whether in the words of the scriptures or of other writings, or in the voice of nature, or in the calm quiet of your heart.

Hear again God’s words of invitation, of assurance, of challenge. Words that will be uniquely for you; for the wind blows where it will, and the water wells up, not according to our rules or expectation, but as inspired by the love of God.

Amen

In Memoriam

St. John’s has lost an old and much loved friend with the passing on Saturday of Pat Barringer. The Funeral will be held at St. John’s at 10:30am on Wednesday.

Congregational Lunch

On Palm Sunday, April 13th, we’ll be gathering for a shared congregational lunch after the morning service – around 11:30am. Put the date in your diary, and see Mary Smith if you’d like any more information, or to offer to help out!

Blessing or Curse

Listen!
Genesis 12:1-4 | John 3:1-17
A couple of favourite passages come together, today. Our New testament reading from John, containing as it does the most cited verse in the Bible – John 3:16 – a favourite, especially, it seems, of people who hold up banners at American sporting events.

And Genesis 12 – much less famous, but a huge favourite of mine, a passage that I quote, or at least make reference to, probably more often than any other text, certainly in the top few. Containing, as it does, one of the core pieces of my understanding of the Christian – and Jewish – faith; that we are called by God, made God’s people, blessed, primarilly not for our own benefit, but for the blessing of the world: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.

And the problem, of course, with favourite texts is that it’s very hard to read them with fresh eyes; hard to read them for what they say, rather than what you know to expect from familiarity.
So I struggled this week, wanting to find something fresh in these scriptures for me – because really the alternative is to find the sermon I preached three years ago, reword it a little, and hope no-one notices. I do that from time to time, you know…

And what got me going in the end was a few words in the Old Testament reading that I think I tend to skip over in my reading and my memory: “those who curse you I will curse”. I don’t want those words to be in the story. I want it to be about God’s blessing, given to a man,a family, a people, a movement, in order that the world might be blessed.
But it is there. Abram is blessed to be a blessing, and those who bless him God will bless, but those who curse him God will curse.

It seems as if it’s harder to separate God’s blessings and curses than we might like.

And once you start reading with that in your mind, the theme seems to reoccur. Even in the wonderful encouraging verses of John’s gospel.

For in John’s telling, Jesus foreshadows his own crucifixion with these words: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.

A quick recap of the story that Jesus is alluding to: the people of God are in the desert, wandering, fighting skirmishes with the occupants of the land of Cana. And at one point they complain against Moses and, the writer tells us, against God, that there is no water, and miserable food. The story goes on: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live”

And when we hear this story, in the context of John’s gospel, we are quick enough to identify it with the crucifixion. And sure enough, it’s about that.

But the thing about this story, of the snake being lifted up as a cure, is that the snake was also the problem. The snake, before it was the cure that would save the people, was the judgement from which the people needed to be saved.

Is this a pattern Jesus follows? Just as I prefer to glide over the mention of curses in the Genesis passage, so we in the Church – or at least, in our sort of Church – tend to slip quietly past references to Jesus as the judge; but that doesn’t make them go away. Even in our gospel reading today, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved” only makes sense if it is first understood that the Son being sent to condemn the world would be a perfectly reasonable act. That the Son, is, that Jesus is, legitimately, the judge of the world.

And then Jesus’ words take a different feeling: God did not send me to condemn, but to save. And notice that he does not say “God did not send me to judge, but to save”. For in the very next few verses Jesus makes it clear that his coming into the world is very much an act of judgement: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”.

For judgement is not the opposite of salvation; judgement is the first step in salvation, a necessary part of the reality of salvation. For if we do not have judgement – a correct, moral assessment of right and wrong, whether a judgement we make of ourselves or a judgement passed on us by another – if we do not have the clarity, the light, of right judgement, then we cannot begin to make right. We cannot meaningfully apologise if we do not accept or understand that we have done something wrong; we cannot begin to repent, to change, if we have not seen the need for change; we cannot be saved from what is broken within us while we continue to claim to be whole.

John Newton captured this idea in those words from Amazing Grace that so much used to trouble me: “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear” – an act of God’s grace that brought him to judgement on his past life – “and grace my fears relieved” – before it took him to the salvation that removed the fear of penalty from the knowledge of sin.

And perhaps this gives another edge to the story of the fall from last week: that the sin of Adam and Eve was desiring the “knowledge of good and evil” – perhaps what they wanted was to be allowed to judge themselves, instead of being subject to another. And of course if we accept only our own ethical judgement for our actions, and no other, it is a very short step to all sorts of self justification, rationalisation, denial.

The first step in making anything right is to know that it is wrong.

The first step in anything resembling repentance – and growth – is an admission that we are in the wrong.

The first step in salvation is right judgement.

And this is, I believe, something that we have lost in the Church. We are not good at accepting the need for judgement. We are not good at judging ourselves, or realising that by right standards, we fall short. We are not good at hearing those few voices that would challenge us; and we are even less good at being willing to be such a voice for others.

Irish theologian Peter Rollins writes that Church ought to be like an AA meeting: my name is Chris, and I’m a sinner in need of God’s judgement and salvation. But too often Church is the last place that we would be able to admit our failings, our doubts, our temptations.

We come to communion, and share together the body and blood of Christ; broken for us, shed for us. But broken is the very last thing that we are able to admit to being; we expect to have it together – we expect it of others, but worse, we expect it of ourselves.

Lent is, in many cultures and contexts, an opportunity for self reflection, for spiritual growth. I’m coming to believe that there is no growth without honest reflection, without a willingness to let light shine into the darker corners of our lives. I wonder if we have the courage to allow God’s grace to judge us, so that we might discover, with John Newton, God’s grace our fears relieved.

Amen

Temptation and trust

Listen!
Genesis 3:1-7 | Matthew 4:1-11
The forty days of Lent are an obvious, deliberate echo on the part of the early Church, of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, as told by both Matthew and Luke. Which has always struck me as a little bit odd. Lent is a period of preparation for the great mystery of Easter – the end of Jesus’ ministry as one of us, his betrayal, abandonment, death, and resurrection.

But the forty days in the wilderness stand at exactly the opposite end of Jesus’ ministry. They mark, not a preparation for death, but a preparation for life, not for an ending, but for the beginning of his ministry.

If we were to seek a temptation story for Lent, surely the garden of gethsemane, with Jesus’ pleading with God to be spared the ordeal that faced him, would fit the bill? Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were not to avoid suffering – at least, not in the very specific and immediate sense that Holy Week captures – but to take shortcuts – to claim the glory that was rightfully his without going through the life of love and teaching and ministry that must of looked so much like hard work.

But here we have it – the temptation of Jesus, paired with the temptation of humanity in the Genesis story – placed at the beginning of Lent.

And I suppose that if we are going to spend Lent reflecting on the spiritual life, on the long road that walk as Jesus’ people in the world, the temptation to take short cuts isn’t a bad place to start.

And since we aren’t expecting our ministry here on earth to finish at Easter, perhaps reading a story that reflects on how Jesus prepared to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God isn’t such a bad idea either.

But I’d like to reflect more today on the Old Testament reading, on the old, oft caricatured, widely derided, frequently misused, story of the fall. A story which, told though it is, as the world broken by the choices of two original individuals, surely acts as a parable for the decisions that each of us take, the harm that each of us does.
A story which, to me, perfectly illustrates three great lies that we are told, that we tell ourselves, and that, too often, we tell each other, about God’s commands, God’s desire for our lives.

The first is found in the serpent’s opening question: “did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”? The image of God that is immediately created; the image many outside the Church have of God, and that on some level many of us carry around inside us: that the fundamental description of God’s nature is the word “no”. That God’s relationship with us is defined by “thou shalt not”, by forbidding.

But when we read back in the story, to the command God gave, it is given in the affirmative – giving permission, giving freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. God’s command is not “do exactly what I say, when I say it, the way I say it” – it is “here’s a whole garden of option, good choices. Take your pick”. Obedience to God is not finding the one right option out of many, many wrong ones; it is enjoying a wide range of good choices.

But of course, there is the restriction as well: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. But even here, the restriction is framed not so much as a command as it is a warning. “You can eat anything you like, but don’t eat that one, that one will kill you”. The only command given, as the story is told, is that of self preservation. Of course, that leaves open the question of why God would put such a dangerous thing in the garden anyway – but for today, I’m letting that one go.

The lie, then, with which the serpent starts is to suggest that God’s commands are far more restrictive than they really are. To paint God as the great “no”. And though Eve, in the story, doesn’t fall for it, the question, and her response draws attention away from all the other trees, all the other good things, and onto the one thing that has been forbidden. From this point on in the story the question has been crucially changed – from “which of the many different good fruits shall we eat” to “shall we eat this one”. As anyone good at sales knows, control the question people are asking and you are most of the way to getting the answer you want.

No longer is Eve considering all the good options available to her; now the question is whether or not this, forbidden, thing, is desirable. And this reflects the second lie: that the forbidden thing is somehow uniquely more desirable than the many which are permitted.

While I was writing this sermon an email came into my inbox from Quora, a question and answer website, and, always ready for a good interruption, I followed one of the links, in which a Catholic Priest was writing about what it was like to hear confessions. And one thing he said was that, while it was a powerful and profound experience, it was much less exciting than most people seemed to think. Almost all sin, he said, is boring. Or, as Eddie Izzard put it, “you want your sin to be original? Poke a badger with a spoon.”
The lie which we accept, which tells us that God’s will for us is very specific, very restrictive, a single path that we must follow, morphs into this second lie; that the things God would deny us are much more interesting, desirable, and exciting, than the things God freely gives for our enjoyment.

But, the serpent goes on, why should God be the one who decides? Why should God get to pick what is good for you and what isn’t, what is good and what is evil. Why shouldn’t you make those decisions for yourself?

The third lie – that God would have you remain childish in your understanding of good and evil; never making any decisions for yourself, never trusting your own judgement, but running back to God, or the Bible, or the teaching of the Church whenever you need to decide anything.

“eat it, and your eyes will be opened, you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Isn’t that desirable; to be able to make your own mind up, figure out for yourself what is right and wrong, good and evil? Isn’t that what we put so much emphasis on in our education – teaching kids how to make good decisions for themselves, not just to go along with the crowd or the loudest voice? Isn’t that growing up?

And of course, the answer is yes. Because, once again, the question has been changed. The question is not “should we grow up, learn how to make good decisions, learn how to tell right from wrong ourselves?”. That’s a simple yes. The question is, when we are doing that growing up, that learning, who will we trust to guide our growth? What authority will we accept reliable?

For the reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly explore every conceivable option first hand. Working it all out for ourselves, trying all the alternatives, taking no-one’s word for it, isn’t possible, logical, mature, or even sane.

The need to experience for oneself before deciding is a paradox of wisdom and stupidity.

I was listening yesterday morning on the radio to an expert on funnel web spiders. He said that the male bite is particularly venomous, and, he implied, best worth avoiding.
Now I’ve never experienced the bite of a funnel web, first or second – or even third – hand. But I’m guessing that most of us would agree that there is nothing wise or mature about deciding I need to test his knowledge personally. Maturity, here, lies in making wise decisions about who I will believe, who I will trust. And so I accept the restriction to my freedom – I will not poke my hand into funnel shaped webs – because I trust that the instruction is given for the benefit of my greater freedom and happiness and (in this case) survival.

A limitation can be a gift of freedom, a gift of love. It all depends on whether we trust.

Three lies, that we tell ourselves and one another.

Rejecting the first lie reminds us that there are an infinite range of good options available to us, an uncountable number of ways that we can live lives that are honouring to God, productive for the Kingdom, loving of one another and creation.

And rejecting the second lie tells us that those options that we are forbidden are not better, or more attractive, or more rewarding than those available to us.

And together, that allows us to reject the third lie – that God calls us to abdicate all choice and blindly follow God’s command.

Our call, instead, is to grow in maturity, to make our own decisions, the most fundamental of which is to decide who we will trust enough to listen when they speak words of guidance and restraint.

Amen

Art group

The St. John’s Art Group (or Painters’ Fellowship) has been delighted to welcome a number of new members in the past few weeks! It’s great to see a steadily growing group of artists young and old exploring their creativity each week! Their web page has a selection of images well worth the look…

Transfiguration

Listen!
Exodus 24:12-18 | Matthew 17:1-9

This week, and over the weeks that follow as we head through to Easter, we take a break from the main flow of the narrative of Matthew, to follow through the traditional gospel readings for Lent, a series that starts this week with the story of the transfiguration.

A story that all three of the synoptic gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke considered important enough to include in their telling of the story of Jesus. Which is in itself interesting, because in many ways it’s such a very Jewish story, it wouldn’t have been in the least surprising to find it only in Matthew’s gospel.

More interesting still, for those who study the relationship between the gospels, the three accounts are very similar, but differ in the wording: that is to say, they are telling the same story, in detail, but they are not directly copied, one from another. Both Matthew and Luke lift chunks of Mark’s gospel word for word in places, but here it seems as if they are each retelling a well known story. Which in turn suggests that this story, in pretty much the form we have it, was well known within the Christian Church, before Mark, the first gospel writer, ever set pen to paper. Or reed to papyrus, I suppose.

From the very first days, this was one of the stories that was remembered and retold across the whole of the Christian Church.
Not only that, but in each of the three gospels, the story is used in the same way, in the same place, more or less, in the narrative. Marking, essentially, the end of Jesus’ time as an itinerant preacher, making his way around the towns and villages of Galilee, and the start of his progress, his pilgrimage, his final trip to Jerusalem.

And so it takes its place in our lectionary, playing the same role: marking the start of the trip that will end at the cross.

It’s a story, of course, that is replete with images and echoes of what has gone before. Going up the mountain, and being enveloped in a cloud, the cloud of the glory of God, so reminiscent of the story of Moses, from our Exodus reading today. And Matthew even adds the detail of Jesus’ face shining like the sun, a description given of Moses when he comes down from the mountain; “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”. And then the words that the voice from the cloud proclaims – the same words spoken at the baptism of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”. And these words, or this voice, so awesome that Peter, James and John fall to the ground in fear.

And then it’s over.

Jesus touches them: “don’t be afraid, get up”. And everything is normal. the cloud is gone. Moses and Elijah are gone. The voice is silent. And Jesus – well, presumably he too is back to normal.

Nothing has actually changed.

So why is this story so important?

For Matthew’s Jewish readers, of course, the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah was hugely significant. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been exploring the way that Jesus entered into a conversation with the Law and the Prophets, the way his teaching joined in the debate, the creative tension, between the statute of law and the spirit of law; and here, in the story of the transfiguration, that conversation becomes quite literal – Moses and Elijah, the Law giver and the great prophet, talking together.

And Peter – good old impulsive Peter – he’s so often the butt of the joke in this story. We’re told he wants to hold onto something transient, wants to take this spiritual experience and build a memorial.

And sure, he missed the point, with the benefit of hindsight that’s clear enough. But I’m in no hurry to criticize him for wanting to do something, to recognise the significance of what he saw. And so he suggests building three tents, dwelling places – but the word has more meaning than that for a Jew, raised on the stories of the people of God. For that same word was ‘tabernacle’; the holy tent that the people constructed before they had a Temple; the place where the ark of the covenant was kept as they travelled in the desert; the place where God dwelt amongst them.

And in his enthusiasm, Peter would build three, one each for these three great figures. And it is here that the voice of God interrupts: this is my Son – listen to him.

Peter saw three great figures; the law, the prophets, the messiah. But the voice drew his attention to just one. The son. I’m pleased with him. Listen to him.

Jesus was in conversation with Moses, with Elijah. But in the end, the message for Peter, and the message he would pass on to all in the early Church, was that it was Jesus that he needed to hear. That the conversation of Jesus, the law and the prophets, was not a conversation of three equals; but that both Moses and Elijah, both law and prophets, were to be heard through the voice of Jesus.

Which, when you come to think of it, is pretty good advice for us when we read and struggle with some of the Old Testament – the demands of the law, the challenge of the prophets. That we do not ignore them, we cannot pretend that they are not part of the conversation, the history, the story of faith: but that we read them through the lens of the life of Jesus. That we read the military history of Israel through the command to love your enemies; that we read the exclusion of the unclean though Jesus’ embrace of the excluded; that we read the patriarchy through Jesus’ welcoming of women and children.

And, perhaps more than that, as we head into Lent, this time of reflection and preparation for the events of Holy Week: that we read those stories through the lens of the death of Jesus. For so much of the Old Testament – like so much of all human writing – is told as if what mattered was to win, the triumph over adversity, to be on top; but the truth of Easter week is that that is not necessarily where God is to be found in the story – that God is as likely to be found pushed to the edges, found in the courtroom as the defendant, not the judge, found dying in the rubbish tip outside the town, found defeated in the borrowed grave.

And that victory was not won by going head to head with evil, but by turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving the cloak, pushing evil to its limits and finding that love can go further still.

That the law of Moses, with its demand for purity, and the prophets with their call for justice, make sense only in the light of the love that they are both reflections of.

The love of which God said: this is the beloved. Listen to him.

Amen