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To understand Jesus is to know about the cross

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 2 B – Mark 8.31-38

8.31 … the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Jesus is saying that whatever he was sent to do, it necessarily involves him going through terrible suffering. And he doesn’t just say it once. This is the first of three passion predictions Jesus makes in Mark’s Gospel. (9.31 & 10.33) The other two times, his closest friends respond selfishly – arguing about which one of them is the greatest 9.34 and asking to sit at his left and right hands in his glory? 10.37 So we can read Peter’s response today as trying to defend some personal ambition of his own.

Where did these ambitions spring from? The answer I grew up with was that people who witnessed Jesus’ ministry up close hoped he might be persuaded to take on a more political role and lead a Jewish uprising against the Romans. And as chosen, close associates of the next head honcho, these disciples nursed ambitions about their own importance come the revolution. But Jesus talks about having to suffer, be rejected, die and rise again. So much for their dream of a military revolution.

To be fair, Peter and the others were speaking for everyone who wanted an end to foreign occupation. They echoed the prophets who’d condemned the arrogance and selfishness of empires and bad rulers; who called for a more just rule, where widow and orphan would receive care. So is Jesus’s message somehow different from these messages of the prophets’? Maybe. We understand the disciples. We see wrongs in our world today that we wish God might solve with a show of force.

We often hear people – including professed Christians – calling for strong-arm solutions to social and political ills. Is that still the delusional voice of Peter? Because Jesus rebukes Peter. He reminds Peter and the others that God’s priorities aren’t there to serve ours. It’ll take a lot for Jesus to get Peter and the other disciples to see and ‘think the things of God’. Jesus’s message has to cut through.

34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, (So Mark’s telling us that this is for us too) [Jesus] said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.…”

The cross is still some way off, but Mark puts this reference to it here. He does this so we can see this early in the Gospel that we only understand who Jesus is – who we follow – when we know about the cross. Jesus is calling us to join with him and serve a very different order – to challenge the wrongs we see, yes, but know that speaking truth to power comes at a cost. These people bite. There are people here who know that from costly personal experience. But what does that achieve.

Let’s look at the words of Alexei Navalny on the back of our service booklets. It’s part of what he said in court after returning to Russia from Germany after the poisoning attempt on his life.

“If you want I’ll talk to you about God and salvation. I’ll turn up the volume of heartbreak to the maximum, so to speak. The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually rather sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists and I was once quite a militant atheist myself.

“But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities, because everything becomes much, much easier. I think about things less. There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less

clearly written what action to take in every situation. It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying. And so, as I said, it’s easier for me, probably, than for many others, to engage in politics…

“ ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’

I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less and instruction to activity.  And so, while certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back [to Russia], or about what I’m doing. It’s fine, because I did the right thing.

“On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction, because at some difficult moment  I did as required by the instructions, and did not betray the commandment.”                    ~ Alexei Navalny, 2021

Navalny found strength in obeying the call of Jesus. He heard Jesus tell us to follow him to a life where we’re free to live; free to risk. He took up his cross and followed Jesus, and the people who worked with him, even though they ridiculed him for his faith, I guess they’ve ended up following Jesus too, albeit indirectly through Navalny.

Jesus is telling us that these are not things we achieve in our own strength or by our own work – or that some strong leader can serve them up to us. This freedom and courage are gifts from God alone. When we truly follow Jesus, the Kingdom breaks into us; the Spirit gives us the courage and the strength to serve justice and peace.

There’s one confusion for us western Christians in hearing clearly what Jesus says. We tend to hear Jesus addressing us as individuals. We’re not like the majority world who hear Jesus addressing us as community. Mark’s gospel makes it explicit here that Jesus spoke to the crowd and the disciples; not just to Peter. v.34

That means this is a call to this community – our community – to be one which takes risks to speak truth where it’s not welcome, to name wrongs which want to masquerade as something normal, and to listen always for the Christ who calls us to embody justice, mercy and faith.

And who for? Just to take one example of many, there’s an epidemic of loneliness and depression in our community, particularly among young people now. We are the community which Jesus has called into being, called to creatively address such a wrong. We are called to seek out, nurture and to assist with the healing of such people. We are called to be the community that receives and welcomes such dear ones – a community where all know we are loved by God and called by Jesus; serving him together as a living sanctuary.   Amen


Jesus’ ministry begins without people

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 1b Gen 9 8-17, Mk 1 9-15

Four things happen right after Jesus passes through the waters of baptism; 1 he sees the heavens torn apart, 2 he sees the Spirit descending onto him; 3 he hears God the Father call him ‘my Son, the Beloved’ and declare he’s ‘well pleased’ with him. So surely he must be ready for his public ministry now; powerful, blessed and deeply connected with God. But no, there’s something else. Suddenly, immediately, 4 the Spirit throws him out into the wilderness for forty days where he’s tempted by the enemy – the accuser – and he’s with the wild beasts, and the angels minister to him.

We need to notice two things here. 1 The ministry of Jesus is not to come out of his divine power, but out of his human vulnerability. And 2 humans are not the whole of God’s plan: part of it, yes; but not all. Once he’s baptised, Jesus goes first to be with creatures other than us: wild beasts; angels. We are not the whole story

Jesus comes out of the water and he’s propelled into the wilderness for forty days; being with beasts. The beasts connect him with the flood story we just heard, and the wilderness connects him with the central story of God’s ancient people; the Exodus. God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt bringing them to safety through the waters of the Red Sea. They got across safely, but found themselves in the wilderness; in their case for forty years.

And at the end of the Exodus story, Joshua (same name as Jesus) led God’s people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and suddenly they had to fight battle after battle if they were to keep hold of the land at all. For God’s people, coming up from the water is not a conclusion, but a new beginning – not a statement that from now on, we are self-sufficient, but that here, we rely on God.

It’s not always an easy beginning. We land in a new adventure that God’s been planning for us. We make our landfall only to feel like we’re starting from scratch. Kindy – school – work – marriage – parenthood … Repeatedly, we’re reminded of how helpless we are – utterly reliant; like newborns. Jesus knows this feeling. And that’s good news. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s experience of the wilderness is one of nurture and care; angels minister to him. Temptation is not the centre of Mark’s version; it’s being in a real world and receiving care when you need it. Jesus is one of us; not aloof – not all-powerful; not invulnerable; quite the opposite.

We learn from him that our pilgrimage is a journey into learning to rely on God; learning to discover God’s care for us – and for the beasts and angels – to learn it from experience; not by right.

We learn from today’s Gospel that like Jesus’ baptism, ours was always going to be a signal of testing to come, but that none of us approaches that time of testing alone. Jesus had beasts for companions and angels to meet his needs. Who do we have? Who’s committed to sharing our years of pilgrimage with us; who are our companions? Who are God’s ministering angels in our wilderness times? Animals?

I’m not being flippant. Those wild beasts out in that wilderness; God loves them just as we know God loves us. What we learned from the flood story this morning, and what we can learn from elsewhere in the book of Genesis (1, 8 etc), in the Psalms (50, 105, 128), and in the prophets Isaiah (11) and Jonah (4.11), is that God has a special care for the wild beasts. Scripture says the wild beasts Jesus was spending time with were creatures that God had declared to be good, creatures that God also made a covenant with, creatures who, as the Psalms tell us, praise God by their very existence.

I believe that now, as we grow increasingly aware of our impact on the other families of Earth, a part of every Christian’s pilgrimage must include owning our responsibility for what happens to God’s other creatures. We can be ministering angels of God to those wild creatures, just as we’ve always been protectors of any human beings who, for whatever reason, can’t speak in their own defence.

We can raise our children and grandchildren to know how to choose to be ministering angels of God to silenced people and wild creatures. But we have to make sure those people and creatures survive now, so our children might have them to care for.

And we have to make sure that children can grow up in a way that gives them space and time to experience wilderness – not distracted, but simply in a wilderness – where they can have the opportunity to learn how they rely, at the most basic level, on their God; the God who calls them into existence, the God who loves them, the God who calls them on their pilgrimage with all God’s people as ministers to all God’s beloved.

And finally, should the world change and our own children come to number among those who are silenced by poverty, disaster or tyranny, we have to ensure that these Bible stories are told everywhere – that the Gospel reaches all families of the Earth – that God’s words might go forth. For when they do, they will not return empty. God will call other carers to follow the example of Jesus – to minister not out of their strength, but simply out of who they are.        Amen.

Jesus Cleanses a Leper

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 6 – Mk 1 40-45

And then along comes a leper! Early in Mark’s gospel, just about every verse begins with kai (and or and then). Events in Jesus’ life seem to cascade in on him at this very early stage in his ministry. Not just little things, though. And then along comes a leper!

What do we know about the illnesses the New Testament calls leprosy? The word lepein that it comes from means scale or peel off It describes a variety of disfiguring diseases, not just leprosy (mouldy, salt-damp infected walls too!). The Law of Moses said anyone with a disease like this must cry out ‘unclean’ wherever they went so that no-one would come near them and be contaminated Lev 13.45. Jews believed that anyone touching a leper may as well have touched a corpse. To do so would shut you out of social and religious life for at least a week. But someone who actually had this sort of disease was numbered among the living dead; an untouchable. Luz II 5

So this man who came to Jesus was an outcast of the most severe order. Rabbinic writings after Jesus’ time show that scholars believed leprosy was as hard to cure as raising someone from the dead. It was really a life sentence. This man was perpetually unclean, and that meant a life forever apart from everyone else. On top of that, many people saw leprosy as divine punishment for some serious sin the sufferer must have committed. So he couldn’t expect to be treated with compassion either – people would think You’ve only got yourself to blame! He lived in the wilderness in many ways. That’s where he came from, and he came to Jesus.

He must have been desperate. The loneliness and desolation must have been gnawing at him from the inside like the disease gnawed at his body to make him so reckless as to approach someone.

And he says to Jesus; if you choose, you can make me clean. It’s as if he is talking to God; only God can heal at will. But actually, he doesn’t ask to be healed. He asks to be made clean; by which he means to be restored to society.

Of course, that meant healing, but the important thing for this man was being clean; to have the chance to be with people again! It meant so much to him – he wanted it so urgently – that when he was healed, he couldn’t wait long enough to see the priest before he talked with people. What use is a priest anyway? They could only declare people clean. Jesus can make us clean. Suddenly he was whole! He had to tell everyone this.

But let’s go back to the way Jesus treated him. It says he was moved with pity. In many Bibles, you’ll see a little footnote mark next to the word pity. And the footnote will read, Other ancient authorities read anger’.

Several commentators opt for the more difficult reading ‘anger’. One of them said; you can understand a scribe who’s making a copy of the gospel changing anger to pity. But what scribe would change it the other way? Bruce Metzger says it may even have first been mistranslated into Greek from Jesus’ heart language, Aramaic. In Aramaic’s modern version, Syriac, ethraham means he had pity and ethra`em means he was enraged). What do you think about this story if the word is anger?

There are certainly angry sounding words later on in the story, After sternly warning him, Jesus sent him away at once.v.43

What could have got into Jesus? (Story of the single Mum left to raise four children. Now adults at her birthday, the heart of their speeches was the statement that ‘Mum taught us never to walk past an injustice.’) The cost of getting involved – the danger, the pushback – these days, the trolling and character assassination. The injustice back then was the custom in that society that people with skin-diseases lived without human touch. Jesus would have been aware what it meant for him to respond to this man’s request and it may well have angered him – yet he reached out and touched him.

There are many things to discuss about this passage if we’re to get to the bottom of it, but in the end, we have to ask what is gospel – what is Good News – about it? For me, the good news is how this story says who Jesus is. Let me explain.

The Gospel of Mark has a thing in it that scholars call the messianic secret. Read the gospel, and count how many times Jesus heals someone and then tells them or the demons to keep quiet about it; not to tell anyone he’s the Messiah. Mark didn’t want readers to focus on Jesus as a miracle worker. For Mark, no-one could never appreciate what it means that Jesus is the Messiah without knowing him as the crucified one. And Mark proclaims Jesus as just that in his good news of Jesus.

The leper comes to Jesus out of the wilderness – out of exile, if you like. He’s untouchable; cut off from going where he wants to go, unable to touch anyone, and a danger to anyone who might touch him. Jesus rejects this man’s isolation. He does it by publicly touching the untouchable. And the man is set free, immediately. Suddenly made whole, he bounds off to bathe in his restored contact with people. Verse 45 says that he goes off proclaiming freely and spreading the word.

He does what Jesus wanted to keep doing. But v. 45 goes on to say that Jesus can’t do this any more. Now he’s the one who can’t go openly into a town – who has to stay out in the wilderness. This is the Jesus we know from the Cross. That leper in the wilderness had been on something like a cross – cursed and condemned. And by touching him and restoring him, Jesus changed places with him. This is the meaning of the Cross. Look at the crucifix – Jesus is there in our place. It’s a source of joy and freedom to the outcast and broken, because Jesus wills our wholeness – and he gives himself to make it happen.

This is the Gospel. Jesus the Messiah becomes one of us and sets us free to be ourselves – whole and connected. And the new freedom – the new life is a taste of the resurrection life he calls us to share with him. You and I must continue to proclaim and live this, and bring people to him from any and every wilderness. Amen.

Be like Jesus

Father John Beiers

Epiphany 5 – Healing Sunday

I delight in this parish. It is full of love, expressed and also unexpressed. While some of the blessings here are easily seen, there are many which are quietly hidden, and we do not know about them unless we ask. Thus the Op Shop is quietly arranged, the toilets are cleaned, and urgent financial needs of some of our brothers and sisters are met. Some actions of love and mercy, we will never know – but they all happen because people love Jesus and want to serve Him.

Sometimes football stars stay behind after a win, and help to clean up the grounds; others prepare the field for a game, but no-one ever sees them do it. The latter may not be motivated by Christian love –but they do it from a grateful heart. Look at Peter’s mother after she was healed. She has new life, she wants to give, she wants to serve;  just try and stop her.

While we do all these things from a grateful heart, there is no doubt that we still fall short of being like Jesus, in some parts of life. Of course, I am leading up to Lent, and what we will do to detect where some few changes probably need to be made.

Let’s look at the fourth Beatitude, the fourth “Blessed” from the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew’s Gospel , chapter 5, verse 6. It says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”. Someone has said that this could be re-written as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for ME.’

If we look at a hymn/song we sang recently “I want to walk as a Child of the light”, the essence is found in some of the following words: –

I want to walk as child of the light.
I want to follow Jesus.
The star of my life is Jesus.
I want to look at Jesus.
Show me the Way to the Father.
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

This may seem to be baby talk, but if we really look at the words, it is all about…Jesus. The composer, Kathleen Thomerson, has an ardent desire to be enfolded in the love of Jesus. Her heart’s desire is to be Jesus in her life. She has a passionate yearning for Christ-likeness.

If our heart’s desire is to be like Jesus, that desire will eventually be granted. Meanwhile, we have this beatitude’s promise if blissful happiness as a “by-product” of our desire. Our lives may be full of sin and failure, but our longing will bring happiness. Although God is full of mercy, it is the opposite for human beings. Mercy and forgiveness do not seem to come naturally to us. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, we tend to want to “get our own back, and to seek revenge, or, at least what we might describe to ourselves as justice, reparation, compensation or asserting our rights. That is why it is so important to measure ourselves against this beatitude as a test of the reality of our Christian faith.

Mercy is part of the righteousness that the fourth beatitude tells us should be our fervent desire. A naturally forgiving spirit is rare, so, if we find that we do now have a forgiving spirit, we can rejoice at this work of God in us.. If we are kind to our adversaries in their distress, it is a sign that “I no longer live, but (that) Christ lives in me”. (Galatians 2:20)

My discipline this coming Lent is going to be a little different. I am going to compare my spiritual and actual life against all of the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5, one by one, and be honest with myself about how things actually are. Some of my complaints are so trivial, I am ashamed of myself. For example, there are often complaints about the hymns that we do not like. Do you know how difficult it is to please everybody? It is impossible. The only way would be to pick a hymn like “The Church’s One Foundation, which everybody (I hope) likes, and sing it four times on a Sunday, every Sunday of the year, perhaps alternating with O Come All Ye Faithful on some occasions.

However, some dislikes are a matter of real concern. In Normanton, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, our church of St. Peter had his symbol painted on the noticeboard by the gate. These symbols are an upside down cross, with golden keys behind it.  Some new, very serious Christians had come along, and were concerned that the upside down cross was , according to them, the sign of the devil, and could I get rid of it. I explained that the cross indicated that Peter was crucified upside down, and the key were the keys of the kingdom, given symbolically to Peter by Our Lord.  Also that these symbols existed together long before the so-called devil’s symbol existed . Their concern was still so great that it was a threat to their faith, so I had the sign taken down, and repainted without the cross. This was according to Jesus’ direction to do nothing that imperils the faith of a weaker believer.

So then, if you know of something that needs changing in me, please tell me. I will not get angry… I will just bite your head off!  Seriously, I need to prepare for meeting Jesus’ face to face, and that may be sooner than later.

All blessings to you this Lent. Amen


Christian self-limiting

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 4B – 1 Cor 8 1-13

A man was driving his mother and his son to the shops. His mother noticed he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. She suggested he fasten it but he said he didn’t think it was necessary. She thought for a moment, turned to her grandson in the back seat and said, ‘Undo your seatbelt darling. Daddy doesn’t think we need them.’  Her son never drove with an unfastened seatbelt again.

Today, we heard Paul challenge some powerful people who were giving a dangerous example to some very vulnerable ones. The church in Corinth had members who were very smug about their religious knowledge. They claimed a special freedom on the basis of this knowledge. They ate meat at public feasts. But the church in Corinth also had new converts whose faith was quite fragile.

Paul was concerned about Christians openly eating meat in Corinth because almost any meat sold in the marketplace came from animals sacrificed in pagan shrines – sacrificed to idols. Many gentile converts in Corinth came to Christianity from a religion where the relationship between a person and their god was like a protection racket. They’d offer animals as sacrifices to their gods to buy protection from things like illnesses or bad harvests. A recent convert to Christianity might take a long time to stop fearing that their old god still had power to hurt them. They might even be spooked into returning to the ‘safety’ of their former ways. God forbid.

The more knowledgeable, confident believers knew the local gods didn’t actually have any power; they couldn’t harm anyone. Paul quoted three slogans from these confident believers in today’s reading. One was All of us possess knowledge. That was manifestly wrong in Corinth. There was a definite ‘in-crowd’ with knowledge, but many others didn’t. The other slogans he quoted were No idol in the world really exists and There is no God but one. By that, the ‘in crowd’ meant the gods that ignorant people fear don’t exist. And if they don’t exist, the animals sacrificed to them aren’t contaminated by association with them. So any meat we buy is just meat; no more. Before God, I’m free to eat it; so I’ll just go ahead and do it openly.

Paul agrees, but he challenges their approach. They treat it as a question about correct understanding. But Paul writes about it as a pastoral matter; about caring for other people. Buying and eating this meat might do you no harm, but it could be a problem for new sisters and brothers in the Church. They all belonged in a wider community where they be invited to weddings and special days where meat would be served at the celebratory feasts. The example to set would be to refuse the meat.

Paul challenges the knowledgeable ones, what if a new Christian who’s recently been freed from a life of appeasing idols – someone who looks up to you as an older sister or brother – what if they see you feasting on meat that’s probably been sacrificed to idols? Their faith isn’t strong like yours; they haven’t thought all this through yet; they don’t understand yet. They’d just see an older Christian eating with pagans v.10. How might this challenge their new faith? They may think that if you can do it, it must be okay for them. Before you know it, they’re drawn back into their old ways. Your example could be the cause of their losing faith in Christ.

Paul writes, if my eating meat could make a vulnerable Christian stumble in their faith, I’d give up eating meat. They might be wrong; I might be right. I might have true knowledge. But if I don’t have love, I’m nothing. Being right is nothing compared with loving my sisters and brothers is. If Jesus died for someone weak and ignorant, I’ll look after their needs, no matter what I feel I’m giving up.

There’s a principle here. It is that confident, mature Christians are called to self-limit for the sake of any whose faith is vulnerable; to nurture new Christians, not risk their faith. This self-limiting principle shapes things we do here at St John’s to include and build up people who’d be left out if we just did things to suit ourselves.

We use service booklets instead of the prayer book, hymn book, reading sheet, pew sheet quadrilateral. The prayer book is obscure enough to newcomers without three other things in their hands and seldom anyone to help them find their way. Cradle Anglicans might feel at home with this and even like it. But it’s alienating and humiliating to newcomers. So we self-limit and offer a booklet. Everyone is on an equal footing that way. And the booklet helps those who can’t attend in person to participate as fully as possible from home as well.

We also serve communion without requiring everyone to climb steps – so everyone can participate equally regardless of physical constraints. We accommodate people’s preferences for kneeling or standing. We use inclusive language, and we have the Eucharistic setting in both our main languages. We put our individual preferences to one side because we’re called to keep everyone together – everyone welcome. We don’t insist on our right to eat meat, as it were, because it’s more important to look after the sensibilities of newcomers, or anyone who, for whatever reason, might stumble if they struggle to do what we decide is normal. I’m sure you can think of ways this principle of Christian self-limiting might be considered on a wider scale. But the vulnerable person’s welfare is always the priority.     Amen

‘Repent and believe the good news’

The Rev’d Dr. Susan F. Straub

Year B – Epiphany 3


Today is the third Sunday of the season of Epiphany. Each Sunday, we hear from our scriptures how people recognised that God was present among them. How they came face to face with the living God and heard God speaking with them. These were personal spiritual experiences.  In last Sunday’s readings, the boy Samuel heard a voice that sounded like the priest, Eli, calling his name. When asked, however, Eli told Samuel that he hadn’t called him.

That same experience was the beginning of my active faith: the voice calling my name in the night but husband and father saying ‘No. I didn’t call’. Later I recognised the voice in that of the parish priest who I hadn’t yet met, Fr. Conrad Patterson.

The gospel reading this morning gave us the call of Simon, Andrew, James, and John by the very Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. Their process of discernment and understanding took years. In Jesus, God was doing something new.

Mark 1:14-20

Simon, who Jesus would name Peter, his brother Andrew, and James and John heard God’s call in Jesus. They left their old lives as fishermen and sons of fishermen to follow him and learn from him how to live in the freedom of God’s Kingdom, and to do as he did. In Him, they saw another way of thinking that enabled freedom of the spirit while still living in the reality of the Roman Empire. They had believed, for example, that everything in their lives was beholden to Caesar alone. The message was everywhere. Caesar was proclaimed ‘Son of God’ throughout the Empire and to serve him socially, politically, and economically was seen as a sacred duty. Living in the Kingdom of Caesar kept the empire not only ticking along but expanding.

The Melburnian journalist, Cheng Lei, released from three years’ captivity in China on 11th October 2023 said this about freedom: ‘There is freedom within and freedom without…the warders were more imprisoned because they were locked in what they could think, say, do, voluntarily, and for life. If you are not free of heart then physical freedom is wasted.’ (Clarke, R., 2024, Weekend Australian, 20-21 January 2024, p. 2).

Those first of Jesus’ disciples followed their fishermen fathers and believed that serving Caesar by providing the fish for the great fish-sauce beloved by the Romans, was their only option in life; that only news of another Roman victory at the edges of the empire, was the ‘good news’; that this Kingdom of Caesar would never end.

See how the words Jesus used: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’, in such a context, had such a powerful effect on Simon, Andrew, James, and John. They heard a call to freedom from the totalitarian grip of Caesar by following Jesus: a freedom of the spirit.  Rabbis, teachers, had their disciples. He promised them that as his disciples, they would learn from him how to bring other people into the spiritual freedom of living in the Kingdom of God: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Real people. Ah! So still in this world of Caesar, of earthly Emperors, Kings, Queens, and Governors, or as today, communist, and other religious dictators, military regimes, or leaders of democracies.

We don’t need to be anxious or fearful, which we tend to be at the thought of any kind of loss or change, when leaving familiar ways, however, comfortable, or uncomfortable we may have found them. Jesus said: “Those who are not against us are for us” and God is not against us. God is for us!  We are free to enter at any time, in any place, the space, the silence, within us where God dwells. The door is always ready for opening.  It helps us to seek a quiet place apart from the crowd, as Jesus did when he communed with God in prayer. Looking to the God of Jesus as the One whose will is to be served, transforms lives from the inside out.

 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul was one whose life was transformed, and he cared deeply for those in the churches.  In his exhortation to the Corinthians, he seemed to have a strong sense of impending doom. I think Paul was seeing and feeling what was happening at that time in the Mediterranean.  He saw the shifts that were occurring with the continuing decline of Greek culture, the ever-increasing ascendancy of the Roman Empire, and the conflicts, rebellions, and turmoil.  All of which sounds a bit familiar to us as well.

We can see here his concern that the Christians in Corinth and their faith should survive this sort of social and political upheaval. The danger wasn’t only from those in the region itself, but from those on the look-out for easy-pickings.  The unrest was drawing the attention of looters, the barbarous hordes of the countries to the north, eager for raiding.  The Corinthians were not going to survive if they didn’t understand their freedom in Christ. Paul wanted them to understand the fullness of the grace they had received and so structure their lives as far as they could, to ensure that the good news, the euvangelion, could still be heard regardless of what was happening around them. The good news of the freedom of the spiritual Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price, like treasure hidden in a field for it brings not just survival but victory over adversity.

Paul was speaking from his own experience of that freedom and victory.  He was brought before rulers, councils and governors, arrested, flogged. Yet, like his Lord and Saviour, he never cowered, never spoke, or acted like the victim. Not a victim of others, of disease, adverse circumstances, old age, his Jewishness. He was fortunate to be a Roman citizen and he experienced all aspects of his life fully, but he wasn’t confined by identifying with any of them.


What happens when we start acting differently from what others may have expected from us? You know the saying; For every action there’s a reaction. Some may grumble, withdraw, or even persecute or bully. Others may simply be perplexed, or maybe pleased or overjoyed. It doesn’t really matter, but those of good will often respond by changing, too. This is the way the Kingdom works in the world, like leavening yeast in a lump of dough. In this way, this one Jewish man, Jesus, changed the world, was Son of God. How did he do it?  By teaching a small group of men and women how to live in the freedom of the Kingdom. They changed on the inside and gradually learned to act in the way that Jesus acted towards other people.  The fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John became fishers of people.

No-one was too high or too low, too respectable, or too disreputable, too wise, or too psychotic. They helped those in trouble: healing the sick, gathering the lost, accepting those who were different from them.  Helped those who believed that they were bound by the circumstances of their lives: the wealthy with their property and weighty responsibilities, the poor doing what it took to survive, those living as incurables. God in Jesus shows us that when people live with the self-reflective awareness that comes from regularly communing with God in prayer and accepting his rule, his Kingdom, they seek unblinkered and fearlessly for truth. They become fully alive to those around them, and in some way transform for the better their small part of the world. Living in the Kingdom of God is true freedom.


The Lord is Here

The Rev’d Dr. Susan F. Straub

Epiphany 2


Way back ‘in the good old days’, we’d go to a dance or a ball, and there’d be a compere.  At the beginning of each dance, what would the compere say? “Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners – for the waltz, the quickstep, the Foxtrot or – oh excitement – the tango or the rhumba.  Who can remember waiting for the ‘take your partners’?  The boys would size the girls up and head over and ask: would you like to dance?  The girls would size the boys up and say ‘Yes’ or ‘Sorry, I’m sitting this one out’.  If they got up to dance, they got to know each other, remember, those were the days when talking to each other was part of dancing.  What was it like the first time you did one or the other? Feel a bit anxious?  What if I don’t measure up? Or maybe not even considering that you’d be left or refused? When you sat down again you were a changed person, not the person you thought you were.

Each of our three readings is about ‘take your partners’, for the dance of life, you might say. Each of them takes seriously that we are spiritual as well as physical beings, and that we should be careful about choosing the spirit in which we commune, in which we unite.

1 Samuel 3:1-10

The boy Samuel went into spiritual partnership with God when he Answered ‘Yes’ to God’s call, with the words ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. Doesn’t matter that he’s a young person. God had seen him and known him as one who’d work with a steadfast and self-giving love for the best interest and welfare of his people, bringing the peace that comes from rising above the anxieties that limit us unnecessarily.

God favoured Samuel to work in spiritual partnership and demonstrate that God was still present with the people. This time to save them from the wickedness of the sons of the good priest Eli and restore life to the people. After Samuel answered ‘Yes’ to God’s call, Eli encouraged him to tell what God had said to him (although he already knew). It took a great deal of courage for the boy, Samuel, to tell Eli what God had said to him concerning the dismal future for Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas and the family line.

Samuel had thought of himself as a boy and servant of Eli. Now, he had the awareness of who he could be and with his answer ‘Yes’, first to God, and then to Eli’s ‘Tell me’, who he would be. Samuel had a different understanding of himself. He was not a servant of Eli, first. He was a servant of God working in spiritual partnership to do God’s will.

John 1:43-51

Philip saw himself differently when he went into spiritual partnership  with God active in Jesus of Nazareth. Philip answered ‘Yes’ to Jesus’ call ‘Follow me’. In becoming a disciple of Jesus, he immediately did what Jesus had done. Just as Jesus had sought and found Philip, so Philip sought and found Nathanael.

Jesus had seen the little exchange under the fig tree between the two men, the look on Philip’s face as he said enthusiastically that he and his neighbours, Andrew and Peter, had in effect found the Messiah and named him as Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s face reflected his words: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth!”. The look was obviously not one of wonder and delight! Not even of feigned, benign bewilderment just to be polite.  More likely the look was one of disdainful disbelief, completely without guile. Yet Jesus had seen in Nathanael one who could work with him to give new life to their people and their world.  The people would not die out in the terrible times that were coming. but survive, overcome fear, and live to flourish. How do we detect this from John’s narrative?

Jesus referenced Jacob when he said of Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (other translations read ‘guile’). Jacob had twice deceived. He deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him the inheritance and blessing that rightfully belonged to the first-born son, his elder brother, Esau.

Nathanael met Philip under the fig tree, the tree symbolically associated with future well-being and prosperity. Jesus told Nathanael “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”’, a similar vision to that of Jacob’s ladder, the vision that began Jacob’s transformation. Jacob was deceived by his father-in-law to labour more than the promised seven years to marry Rachel. For love of Rachel, Jacob laboured fourteen years. When the time came to return home, Jacob overcame extreme anxiety to meet with his brother, Esau, once more. He was a changed person. So great was the difference in the new from the old Jacob that his name became Israel, and with Abraham and Isaac took his place as a revered father of the people, a giver and protector of life. Jacob was no longer the person he had thought he was.

 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Paul was concerned for the Corinthians. Their sexual practices were neither physically nor spiritually life-giving. They had said ’Yes’ to God, but they could not spiritually partner God and continue in their old ways. Paul exhorts them to leave behind an, let’s say, unbeguiling part of who they thought they were, their identity, and transform so that they could partner God in a far greater enterprise, the transformation of humankind.

Stephen Koski wrote this about a woman called Grace who he met on a marathon. Grace was 63 years old and thought she was running in the five-mile fun-run. She’d never run more than that in her life but she’d mistakenly gone to the starting line of the 26-mile marathon. Stephen had to break the news to her that when she hit five miles she had a little further to go. He wrote: ‘Grace’s attitude was amazing. She said, “I’m here so I’ll run as far as I can.” I chose to walk during the water stations and Grace was afraid that if she stopped she wouldn’t get going again so she passed me … I crossed the finish line in a little over four hours and thirty minutes. I had to find Grace to see if she finished. There were 10,000 runners so it took me a while but I found her lying on the ground unable to move. She finished in four hours and fifteen minutes.

She had never run more than five miles in her life. She had a sad expression on her face so I asked her what was wrong. She said, “About the twenty-third mile, I knew I was going to finish and it was like my life flashed before my eyes. I can do this?! I looked back on my life and began to wonder about all the ways I’ve limited myself by what I thought I couldn’t

do,” Then a sheepish grin appeared, “But, let me tell you I’m also looking forward and I’m wondering what’s next.” Grace taught me a valuable lesson. It’s not who you are that holds you back. It’s who you think that you’re not.’

God is here to partner each of us, transforms us, and unite us for the welfare of humankind and the world.




Invite the world into the presence of Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany – Isa 60 1-6 Ps 72 1-7 10-14 Eph 3.1-12 Mt 2.1-12

Visiting a different church one day, I was particularly struck by a welcome note on their bulletin. All baptized Christians, regardless of their denomination, church affiliation or irregular or non-attendance, are welcomed, invited, and encouraged to receive Communion with us or to come forward for a blessing. One of the most important things God calls us to do is to welcome visitors of all kinds to belong as completely as they can in the Church community. It’s a challenge to all churches.

It’s a particular challenge at the feast of the Epiphany; the day when we remember the baby Jesus hosting outsiders; astrologers whose practice is frowned on by many parts of the Church and Judaism. Are there limits to Christ’s welcome? Epiphany marks the day when representatives of the known world were received into the presence of Christ. Let’s consider who was received at Bethlehem; was there anyone Jesus might have left out?

First, of course, there are his parents. We’re told in chapter 1 that Joseph and Mary aren’t married yet. If you don’t think Matthew’s trying to make a point of this, look at Matthew’s record of Jesus’s family tree in that chapter. Four other women named there were illegal or unclean according to Hebrew Scripture (Tamar – incest, Rahab – prostitution, Ruth – forbidden inter-racial marriage and Bathsheba – adultery).

If what we’re seeing in today’s Gospel is a first Christian gathering, it predicts a very broad-minded Church indeed. And it doesn’t stop with just this scandal. We heard from Luke at Christmas that Mary and Joseph had to use a manger, an animal-feed trough, as Jesus’s first bed. The earliest Church began in a cave at the back of the house; the space where the animals lived. The traditional story gives us a donkey, cattle and sheep as Jesus’s fellow tenants; doubtless accompanied by their attendant insects and parasites. So our Church is yet more open.

Then there are shepherds; again from Luke’s account. Shepherds in the Middle East are still mostly children – kids aged between 5 and 11. So the earliest congregation included little urchins too. And of course they’d have brought their sheep and goats with them. So there’s the inaugural service of the blessing of the animals.

Then there’s the star and its attendant Magi. A Magus is a magician; Deut. 18 declares such a person abhorrent. So it seems that abhorrent people are welcome too; and Matthew placidly records their coming. How much more broad minded do you want to get!?

Finally, there are angels in their thousands. I think we can safely say they enjoy universal approval. But what a gathering! Parents of dubious status from a very questionable pedigree; the animal, vegetable, insect, mineral and heavenly kingdoms all represented; and strange foreigners who seek a king – and risk the baby’s life by telling Herod about him! That’s as broad-minded a church as you could want, isn’t it. And the infant Jesus is there in the middle of this wild diversity of angels, people and creatures all gathered under one rocky roof. They were all invited, or else co-opted as hosts. This was no accident.

Is what we’ve imagined so far about God’s welcome – about Jesus’s inclusivity – consistent with the rest of Scripture? The psalm today reminds us of God’s special concern for the poor, the needy, the helpless, the oppressed and the violated. The reading from Isaiah joyfully proclaims the gathering in of a scattered family, all guided by the brightness of God’s light. And the epistle is a prayer for God’s wisdom to be revealed throughout Earth, and indeed beyond it.

That’s quite all-inclusive. And Matthew points us in two further directions – one at the beginning and the other at the end of this gospel. Matthew begins with Jesus’s genealogy. He begins it with Abraham. The most important moment in Abraham’s story is when God promises that through him, all families of Earth will be blessed; not only believers; not just all humans; all families. Gen 12.1-4 The tableau we finally have before us in the crib today shows us this blessing embodied.

We find the other direction Matthew points us in right at the end of the gospel. Jesus commits his followers to work to fulfil God’s desire – Go…and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The tableau before us at Epiphany is a call to us to recognise what God truly desires – universal blessing; grace and peace. It’s a call to recognise God’s desire for all to be gathered in the divine presence, and having recognised God’s desire, it’s a call to us to choose to work for it together with Jesus.

Epiphany calls us to that mission; to invite the world into the presence of Jesus – all families of Earth. He’s hardly intimidating.

Epiphany also challenges us to ask how wide we can open our door; how wide we can open our hearts. As wide as we can open them, Epiphany challenges us to open our hearts wider still – to risk what we can’t yet cope with. Epiphany also challenges us to go outside; to go to the other and trust that Jesus goes with us – goes with us to whatever family of Earth he leads us to. Amen

God with us

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas Day 2023

I think all of us will remember a time when we’ve asked the “big question”: If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen? That’s the “big question”. People have always asked it, ever since we were told that God loves us. If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen?

We’re not the first to ask the big question. The Hebrew people had plenty of reasons to ask it. Years of slavery, countless wars, famines, colonization, exile. They asked the big question, and all through Advent, we’ve been reading about the answer they received. It was a promise that they heard again and again; God would raise up someone extraordinary who would set things right; the anointed one – the Messiah. The Hebrews had huge expectations of this Messiah. They waited for this prince of peace to be born; they waited and waited. They waited so long that they started to ask another question; “How long!” Hab 1.2 They had huge expectations. But I don’t think they ever imagined who would eventually come.

Jesus was greater than the prophets ever expected. And yet he didn’t come in power as some invincible tribal warrior. He came in the most scandalous, defenceless way imaginable. Just before he was born, his unmarried parents had to beg for lodgings one hundred kilometres from home. Jesus’ first bed was a farm animal’s feed trough. The first visitors to come and witness his arrival were scruffy strangers; shepherds. Apparently they turned up in the middle of the night. And shortly, this baby’s family would be on the road again as refugees.

Why in the world must any family endure such humiliation? If this baby is God’s answer to the “big question”, then that question needs to go under the microscope. If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen? This question has a built in assumption; that we expect a loving God should prevent tragedies. Is this true? And if it is, how should a loving God do this?

Should a loving God stop all wars; turn all weapons into farming tools? Would that fix relations between nations? Well, no. Should a loving God fuse the world’s tectonic plates together; stop all storms; get rid of mosquitoes? Would that make Earth a suffering-free zone? Well, no. Should a loving God abolish all disease and injury; even our mortality? Well, no. Should a loving God put a force-field round all vulnerable people; make every bully behave? Would all that stop us suffering? No; that wouldn’t address the human heart.  …  So what’s a loving God to do?

God did something beyond all expectation. One day, the God of the universe was born a tiny, helpless baby; vulnerable to all the hazards of this dangerous world.

Jesus was born one of the colonised, bullied people – so oppressed peoples of this and every land have God with them. Jesus was born one of the people who’d have to depend on the kindness of others just to survive – so today 114 million displaced persons have God with them. Jesus was born among animals and insects in a stable – so non-human beings have God with them. Shepherds were the ancient world’s equivalent of street people. So they have God with them. Jesus grew up to love and care for any people he met who were sick in mind or body, or hungry. So they have God with them. Jesus was arrested, tried and executed by the state. So prisoners and those on death row have God with them. All these outsiders can be told with confidence that Jesus is their Emmanuel – God with them. And the rest of us? God was born, a living, mortal organism on planet Earth. So every creature, the air we breathe and the land we walk on, we all have God with us. In every place, Jesus revealed God; he was – he is – God with us.

And the question of suffering? It hasn’t been forgotten. At the end of his ministry, Jesus would take it all to the Cross – he’d willingly have all wrong and all evil crucified in his own body, and he’d take it to the grave where it belongs. And on the third day after his death, when he rose, alive again from the grave, all the suffering of the world – even death itself – lay defeated at his feet.

Yes, we still experience suffering. We’re still not at the end times. But the Good News is that while suffering has an end, we do not. Just as Jesus came to be with us in our suffering, he promises that when we die, he will come and take us to be with him. Jn 14 And we’re also promised that after the last days, in a renewed heaven and earth, God will again make a home with us and wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Rev 21

One day, the God of the universe was born a tiny, helpless baby; vulnerable to all the hazards of a dangerous world. He came to give meaning to our life, to rescue us all, good and bad, and to let us know we have God with us in every moment. Amen

In Jesus – God born a child of Earth

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas Eve 2023 – Isa 9 2-7  Ps 96  Titus 2 11-14  Lk 2 1-14

You’d never think so, but the Gospel we’ve just heard was written by people who’d been through something quite catastrophic. In the year 70 CE the Roman colonial power had responded to a Jewish rebellion by besieging and then utterly destroying Jerusalem, burning the Temple, and killing most of the remaining inhabitants. Luke wrote this hope-filled Gospel only a decade or two later, with Rome still supreme, still controlling its subjects on pain of death – and Emperor Augustus called himself son of God. Where could Luke find reason to hope in such conditions?

Luke looked back past the catastrophe to tell us of a story of extraordinary hope. Luke wanted us all to share in this hope. The birth of Jesus kindled this hope in the shepherds. And our great hope is founded on this child we’ve just heard was born; this child we’ve joined with the shepherds and angels to see tonight.

We heard Isaiah say a child was coming – a child who would ultimately bring endless peace. This child’s birth would signal the beginning of the end of the oppressors’ yoke. The soldiers’ boots and their blood-soaked garments would be burned. A just and righteous government would be established, and everyone could hope to live in peace. The psalmist says that even the trees of the forest would sing out for joy because of this child’s coming! God knows we need this hope today!

Luke tells us that the child of Mary and Joseph is the one Isaiah foretold; the one anointed to reveal God’s glory, and to bring peace on Earth. What convinced Luke of this was what he saw this child grow up to be and do – Luke had studied the life and ministry of Jesus – and his Gospel goes on to tell us that story.

In Jesus, Luke saw all the love and strength and justice and kindness and goodness of God. In Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his death and resurrection, Luke saw God perfectly revealed. Even the subsequent horrors of Jerusalem’s sacking and all the ongoing pain of colonial rule couldn’t filter out Luke’s conviction that the story of Jesus meant ultimate freedom and joy.

How do we hear this story? For us, it’s filtered through more than two millennia of romanticism, fanaticism and tradition. So what holy family do we see? Do we see super-humans, especially protected by God? Do we see people who survive this sort of celebrity pressure intact? Do we imagine that they weren’t touched by the loneliness of travellers; the vulnerability of travel whilst pregnant – and in a traditional society like theirs, of being unmarried into the bargain.

No, instead we see ordinary, vulnerable people; people like us. God didn’t rig things to make his journey towards becoming mortal any easier. The God who came to us in this little baby came already bearing real human burdens; the misery of the colonised, the vulnerability of the traveller, the defencelessness of the newborn; the violation of not being safe in your own Land.

We usually tend to focus on the true humanity and vulnerability of Jesus in the story of his Passion and crucifixion. But we see tonight that it started well before he was born. God’s solidarity with the most vulnerable is total. This night, we bear witness to God becoming fully and vulnerably human. It could have been you; it could have been me. That’s how strong God’s solidarity is with all who need hope.

When we moved towards (looked at) the crib tonight, who did we think we’d find there? Luke saw in the infant Jesus – in the person he grew up to be, in the things he did and said – Luke saw God calling us to trust him – to become imitators of Jesus; people of hope and justice, people of kindness, peace and love, and in particular for Luke, people of hospitality. From the very beginning, Jesus welcomed people at the bottom of the pile; starting with those shepherds.

Hope, justice, kindness, peace, love and hospitality – these are the gifts which can transform situations of dehumanising misery and danger into places where at least a glimpse of God’s love for us brings back hope. And in Jesus – God born a child of Earth – and in imitating Jesus, those gifts can be brought to birth in us. Then we can continue to bring his hope. May this hope be our Christmas message? Amen.