St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

A book…

By popular demand… the twenty sermons that made up the E100 series in 2012 have been collected together into a book. Copies can be purchased from Chris for $20, with all profits going to fund new initiatives at St. John’s!

The Great Story

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | John 20:19-23
Listen!
Over the past six months, we’ve travelled together through the E100 series of Bible readings, taking us week by week through the whole sweep of the Biblical story. And I’ve been amazed and delighted by the number of people who’ve come and told me how much they’ve enjoyed the process; how many passages of scripture they’ve discovered or rediscovered; how much more sense things have made in the broader context; how much they’ve been challenged or disturbed by the things they’ve read.

One advantage of E100 that might not have occurred to you is that for twenty Sundays I haven’t had to spend a lot of time deciding what I was going to preach about! Of course in each week’s set of readings there was always than one option, but I think I can honestly say that each week, by the time I’d read the five passages, I knew, at least in outline, what I’d be saying on Sunday.

So it came as a bit of a shock this week to realise that I was starting with a blank slate. I was thinking I might do some sort of summary of the whole broad sweep of what we’ve read, drawing out broad themes running through the scriptures. But that just seems to go against so much of what we’ve learnt in these past six months: for if there is one thing that stands out for me from the whole process it is that there is no one thing that stands out. That the Bible is glorious mess of different themes intertwined; sometimes coming together in harmony, at other times seeming to drown one another out.

To try to say “the theme of the Bible is basically this” is like saying “Beethoven’s fifth symphony is basically ‘da da da dum’”. You know, there’s more to Beethoven than that. Continue reading

Hope

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Revelation 21:1-8 | Revelation 22:1-7
And so, after close on half a year making our way through the broad sweep of the Bible, we come to the closing act, the book of Revelation.

A book which is, let’s face it, a little bit on the odd side. Over the years people have tied themselves in knots over the right interpretation of different passages: Churches, even denominations have divided over pre-, post- or a-millenial readings of the end times prophecies; different figures in the book have been identified with individuals, movements, nations; highly confident predictions have been made about the date and even time of the end of the world.

All of which has led many to wonder whether this book really does more harm to our understanding of the faith than good. Thomas Jefferson referred to it as “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams”. Indeed, from the very earliest days when the New Testament canon was taking shape the book of Revelation was one of very few matters of controversy.

And a great deal of our trouble with Revelation is that it represents a form of literature that really doesn’t exist in the English language. Apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation and the second half of the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, is a form of prophetic writing in which surreal symbolism is used sometimes to illustrate, sometimes to deliberately confound understanding. Nothing in apocalyptic writing is quite what it seems on the surface, every image echoes aspects of the culture and history out of which it is written, and yet the whole comes together to convey a meaning – or perhaps, a sense of meaning – that is somehow not just the sum of it’s parts. Continue reading

Judgement

2 Corinthians 5:6-21 | 1 John 4:7-21
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I imagine that most of us find the idea of judgement a bit difficult. Difficult to get our heads around, difficult to accept, difficult to believe.

It seems so hard to fit with the image we have painted for us of Jesus – of his unconditional acceptance, his unswerving love, his willingness to go the extra mile, and more, for us. By grace we have been saved, we hear, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, we read, but then suddenly we hit these bumps in the road, these references to judgement.

…all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ… Continue reading

Inspired words

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Psalm 119:97-106 | 2 Timothy 3:14-17
All scripture is inspired by God.

How often have I heard those words in a theological discussion with my more theologically conservative friends when I argue that the way the story is told in the Biblical narrative – Old Testament or New – might not be exactly the way things happened, from a literal, historical, analytic perspective.

All scripture is inspired by God. God-breathed.

I know that I am not alone in finding, or being reminded, while reading the E100 series, that there are many passages of the scriptures which really don’t seem inspired or inspiring. Passages which portray God as acting, or directing others to act, in a way that seems unjust, unnecessarily violent, inconsistent with the gospel of the Kingdom of God that we find in the words of Jesus.

Hardening the heart of the pharaoh, in order to be able to bring more curses on Egypt.

Commanding the slaughter of every inhabitant – man, woman and child, in the land that was to be given to the people of Israel.

Raising up and casting down kings and empires as if they were mere puppets.

All these, and more, are to be found in our scriptures, our sacred writings, our story.

All scripture is inspired by God? Continue reading

Pray

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Philippians 4:4-9 | Colossians 1:3-14
Reading through some of the epistles again, as part of the E100 series, I’ve been stuck by something that I think I’d not really noticed in the past.

In the early days of my Christian life, I read the epistles avidly, seeking in them for understanding, for explaination, for a sort of intellectually coherent laying out of the Christian faith. I didn’t read the gospels for those things; the gospels were inspirational reading, but for rigorous, consistent, thought-out and joined-up exposisition of the faith, the epistles were the thing. The gospels, if you like, were narrative; the epistles were interpretive. They were theology.

So when I read the epistles, I would hone in on the bits which read like propositional statements; bite sized declarations of theological fact that you could take hold of and use to build the temple of your own understanding. Which meant that I tended to skip over the beginnings and the ends of the letters, sections which tend to be more personal, less theological, more specific to the time and place and particular people and relationships, and less like universal truth. Bits, in fact, which read more like parts of a story than like a didactic text.

If there is one thing that has changed, more than anything else, in the way that I approach understanding the world, it is this: that I have come to distrust nuggets of universal truth, and to believe in stories. I can’t remember who said it to me, but I’ve never forgotten the saying: if you want to know what people are like, you’d do better reading Jane Austen than a psychology textbook.

It’s not that I don’t believe in universal truth. I do. I’m not a relativist. I don’t accept that each person’s truth is good enough for them. It’s more that, outside of the realms of hard science, truth is not something you can take apart and look at in isolated nuggets, factual propositions – not if you want to get it. Continue reading

Sharp disagreement

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Acts 15:36-40 | Colossians 4:10-18
In our last E100 service we followed the story of the incredible transition that took place within the fledgling Christian Church, as it took the dramatic first steps out under the wings on the Jewish faith and into a universal movement. And as you read through Luke’s account of events, from Peter’s vision declaring all foods – and all peoples – clean, through the council at Jerusalem where his testimony was heard and accepted by the Church, to the shift in emphasis from Peter and Jerusalem to Paul and the gentile world, you get a picture of a transition taking place more or less smoothly, guided by wise believers attentive to the leading of the spirit of God.

But as we’ve so often found as we’ve read through the scriptures, there is another story going on as well, a story which breaks through from time to time in vignettes which don’t seem to fit into the almost-too-clean narrative.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts we have one of those moments – the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. On the surface it reads as a simple disagreement as to who is best suited to the missionary journey; with Paul arguing that John Mark had not stayed the distance before and was therefore an unreliable partner.

And it’s possible that such an argument could become so intense that Paul and Barnabas, long time co-workers, would be unable to continue together. But when we start to pick through the other things we know about the characters involved, a different – and rather more human – picture starts to emerge. Continue reading

Bridging the Gap

Genesis 12:1-3 | Acts 10:9-16, 24-36
The Christian Church began as a Jewish sect. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it’s really just a fact of history. Jesus was a Jew. The initial disciples were all Jewish. The vast majority of those who heard Jesus speak were Jewish. Even the non-Jews who are mentioned were Jewish sympathisers, god-fearers, or at very least, “righteous men”, as Cornelius is named. The multitude of nations represented at Pentecost were Jews and God-fearing people from around the ancient world. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who came to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the people of Israel.

But within one generation, or perhaps two, Jews would be a minority within the Church. The followers of Jesus broke beyond the walls of their nation, their people, in a way that countless other Jewish sects and movements, before and after, didn’t. And today’s gospel reading takes us to the crux, the turning point, where something Jewish becomes something universal.

For this was far from a foregone conclusion. If you read the different gospels, you find very different attitudes to the Jewish-Gentile divide. Read Matthew, and the emphasis is very strongly on Jesus the good, righteous Jew, the culmination of the tradition of the prophets. He comes to stand for the spirit and heart of Judaism, to overthrow the religious corruption of the day, and call the people of God back to right worship of the one true God. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus doesn’t go the homes of foreigners – those foreigners he interacts with come to him on Jewish terms: the Syrophoenician woman (you remember, the whole, ‘dogs under the table’ story) approaches him with the words “Son of David” – she, a foreigner, approaches him with a Jewish title. She comes on Jewish terms.

It’s probably safe to say that for the Jerusalem Church, the birthplace of the Church, being a follower of Jesus was about being authentically Jewish. And to change this perspective fell to one of their leaders, Peter. The rock. The impulsive, enthusiastic, often slow to get the point, solidly Jewish disciple. Continue reading

Resurrection

John 19:38-42 | John 21:4-14
I’d like you to believe that I planned it this way – soon after Easter, when I was working out the dates of the E100 readings, when we would start, what breaks we would take, I said to myself “Of course, we must have the stories of the death and resurrection on a communion Sunday”. I’d like you to believe that, that it wasn’t just the way it happened to turn out…

For this week our readings and our sacraments take us to the unique, defining core of the Christian faith. The very earliest records we have of Christian practice and belief revolve around this simple phrase “Christ is risen”. In the early days of the persecution of the Church it appears even to have become a sort of password – like in the spy movies, where one agent would say “it’s colder now than it was last week” and the other would reply “but it is even colder in Vladivostok” : Christians would identify one another with the words “he is risen” and the reply “he is risen indeed”.

In the late 1980s there was a great fuss within the Church of England over some words in an Easter service – probably badly misreported words – in which the Bishop of Durham was said to have referred to the idea of a physical resurrection of Jesus’ body as “a conjuring trick with bones”. While Bishop Jenkins was most likely misrepresented, and did go to great lengths to say that he was not denying the physical resurrection, these words represent a powerful idea often heard within the Christian faith: that it is the spiritual truth of the resurrection that really matters.

I have to say I think that would have come as a surprise to the early Church, who made “he is risen” their password, and “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” their first declaration of faith.

Their declaration was that something entirely new, unique, and universe changing had occurred. Continue reading

Blame

Isaiah 29:17-21 | John 9:1-16
The man was blind from birth – and this was a real problem for the Jews of Jesus’ day. Or at least, for some of them.

Generations before, it wouldn’t have been so hard. Any form of infirmity or sickness simply came from God – for, as we saw over and again reading through the Old Testament stories in the first half of E100, the critical Hebrew contribution, the insight of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, was their radical monotheism. In a world populated by a multitude of regional gods and family gods and gods of the weather and the sun and moon – in a world where a plethora of gods, each working their own ends was assumed, the Hebrews insisted “there is but one God, and that God is supreme over all”. And it’s not much of a stretch to say that almost all of the passages in the Old Testament that we find hard to fit with the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ come from an emphasis – over-emphasis, perhaps – on this one vital insight.

For if God is the only God, and is truly sovereign, then everything that happens must be from God. That’s the starting point.

And in the Old Testament tradition, the idea of God punishing people by afflicting their children or their children’s children, is not alien. In the book of Exodus: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” [Exodus 20:5]. King David, in perhaps the best known example, lost a child for his sin.

So in the case of a child born blind the answer, for a particular worldview, was simple: the parents’ sin had brought this to be. Continue reading

Seeds

Isaiah 55:6-11 | Matthew 13:1-9
The thing about this sower, he just doesn’t seem to have been very good at his job. Now I’m not claiming to know a great deal about farming; I’m definitely a city boy. Last time I spoke about an agricultural subject I had several people take me aside afterwards to set me straight about sheep. Apparently they aren’t as stupid as they look. Who’d have thought?

Anyway, I don’t know a lot about the art and science of sowing seed. But I’m fairly sure you aren’t supposed to throw it on the path in front of a flock of hungry birds, or toss it into unprepared soil, full of rocks, or amongst the weeds.

And I’m fairly sure that this isn’t just a failure of cultural translation either. There’s something we miss when we take the words of Jesus too seriously – no, that’s not quite the right word – too solemnly. When we read them with a straight face, rather than a smile.

Actually, when you think about it, lots of Jesus’ parables have this element of the ridiculous about them. The merchant who sells everything he has to purchase a single pearl. The shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the field – in danger – to hunt for the missing one. The employer who pays a full days wage to workers who only did an hours work. The woman who throws a party because she finds a coin she had lost.

The good Samaritan – only a fool would stop in a place of danger to give aid to an enemy. Feigning injury was a common enough ruse amongst thieves, to take generous travellers off their guard. Those who walked by on the other side were the wise ones.

Of course part of this might be a simple style of rhetoric; humour, exaggeration; hyperbole used to make a point. But there’s more to it than that. The medium might not be the message, but it certainly gives it shape, colour, texture. And as an orator, Jesus surely chose his medium with care.

The presence of so many foolish actors in his parables has something to tell us.

There is something deeply foolish about the gospel.

The choice to love and care is foolish. Continue reading