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Bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost – Acts 2 1-21 Ps 104 26-36 1 Cor 12 4-13 Jn 20 19-23

We don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. We talk about what Jesus did and said, we talk about Christian values like justice, mercy and faith. We talk about scripture, ethics – lots of things, but we don’t say much about how the Holy Spirit fits in. So how would you and I recognise the Holy Spirit if we bumped into each other? If we’re not sure we could recognise the Spirit, how might we learn to do so reliably?

They say you can never quite catch the Holy Spirit, but you can always tell where she’s been. So maybe that’s a good place to start; like a careful tracker, let’s look for signs that she’s been with us. Those tracks will leave these characteristic marks in people: love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Gal 5:22-23

I’ve comer across clear tracks this week talking with someone who is generous enough to feel deep, true gratitude, despite the terrible suffering their life has brought them. Gratitude is a generous gift to everyone around such a person. And then there was another person who’s been terribly wronged and injured, but who doesn’t seek revenge, but rather chooses the healing path of forgiveness and love. These are clear tracks to show that the Holy Spirit is at work in these people, and through them, offering astonishing gifts to all of us.

These people have been free to make their own choices. If their choices tend towards these things – love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – then we see evidence of the Spirit’s involvement. But they are choices; always. The choice is to follow the guidance of the Spirit calling from within us, or to choose a different path. It’s often a costly, tentative choice. And often too, one we can only really evaluate in hindsight. You may know how the poet, Robert Frost, ended his poem, The road not taken, ‘I chose the path less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’ There’s a huge difference in a life that chooses the trajectory of the Spirit towards love and joy, peace and patience – so different from a life that turns its back on kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In today’s epistle, Paul writes about this sort of choice to the church in Corinth. They were a church whose gatherings were plagued by issues of class distinction and spiritual one-upmanship. Paul urges them stop this. It would have been a very counter-cultural choice for them to make in their cosmopolitan, nouveau-rich city. On the subject of spiritual one-upmanship, Paul argues that spiritual growth isn’t about the ambition or importance of the person manifesting a spiritual gift. Spiritual gifts are given for the common good; not as a status symbol. The Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual gifts; and they are given ‘as the Spirit chooses’.

There are two other things Paul writes about in today’s epistle reading that help us learn how to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit: first about us being the body of Christ, and second about our baptism.

First, as the body of Christ, our call is to be filled with the Spirit, just as Jesus was. Rowan Williams writes about how Jesus was so utterly filled with the Spirit of God that he was the physical embodiment of the Wisdom, the Word and the Love of God. It meant all he did and said brought people face to face with God. And that’s our calling too; we are now Christ’s body, his hands, his feet, and his voice for the world now.

Paul obviously felt that the Corinthian church had work to do on that front. We do too! It’s a process for each of us as individuals and all of us as a congregation, as a denomination and as the national and worldwide Church – are we embodying Jesus? Does the world encounter the Holy Spirit through us? The opposite or a counterfeit can be dreadful! (The graffiti on the sacred Mt Beerwah QLD saying ‘Jesus saves, just ask him’) Whether it was a Christian or someone pretending to be doesn’t matter: it’s the harm done that is so shocking.

The process of developing the gifts of the Holy Spirit for each one of us is inaugurated at our baptism – and that’s the other thing Paul mentioned. Our baptism is new birth into resurrection life. It’s when we acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has come to live within us, at the centre of our being. We can encourage each other to follow the Spirit’s guidance within us; recognise and name the Spirit’s fruits when we see them.

What’s the Spirit doing in there, inside us? Paul writes that the Holy Spirit, living in us, perceives the deepest needs of our hearts – needs we may not yet know of; needs we have no words to express. From inside us, the Spirit offers those needs in prayer for us; offers them in sighs and groans deeper than words. Rom 8.26

Our part in this prayer – both as individuals and as a congregation – is to learn to hear what’s being prayed for, and willingly let ourselves be healed, renewed, and made whole; to willingly become Spirit centered like Jesus. The vision of the Spirit-filled Jesus before us is our role model. He beckons us to follow him; to become more like him; to embody more truly God’s wisdom and love; you and me, and all of us together.

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, for the sake of the world you love, help us to be attentive to the Holy Spirit, and bear the fruits of the Spirit in our lives: love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Amen

Jesus’ Great High Priestly Prayer

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 7 A – Ac 1.6-14, Ps 68.1–10, 32–35, Ist Pt 5, Jn 17.1–11

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Holy Father, protect them in your Name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Jn 17.11b. John 17 begins each year’s international Week of Prayer for Christian unity – in the lead-up to the first Christian Pentecost.

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of a passage that the Church calls Jesus’ Great High Priestly Prayer. Here we see Jesus as priest, praying for those in his care that we may be one. What do we make of Jesus as our Great High Priest – which means someone who intercedes with God on our behalf? How do we take hold of that? I’m used to encountering this idea of prayer in churches where saints and angels are also asked to pray for us.

I’ve had conversations over many years with people who view that sort of prayer with deep suspicion. They see it more as a sort of superstitious lobbying than prayer. They feel that ‘real prayer’ should be between just me and God – direct, with no intermediaries. They feel that teaching people to pray by asking Mary or Jude or Christopher or anyone else to pray for us is some sort of heresy. But then I also hear of God answering just such indirect prayers in quite spectacular ways.

And then there are plenty of faithful Christians who look at us Prayer-Book Anglicans with at least one eyebrow raised: Can’t you pray unless it’s written down in front of you? they ask. What sort of prayer is that? Where’s the spontaneity? How do you expect the Spirit to find room to move if your prayers have all been written down years in advance? Providentially, the Holy Spirit is astonishingly versatile – not constrained at all by time; God is very broad minded; and Jesus is welcoming of the most unlikely.

You might think it’s pretty odd for me to be talking about all these differences between Christians on this first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. No lobbyist worth their salt should do that. But I think it’s really important to enter this week in the clear knowledge that we are all different, and yet, we are all alike loved by God. It’s really important that we don’t confuse a week of prayer for Christian unity with hopes of a week of prayer for Christian uniformity. The two things are not the same. If we try to define unity as uniformity, we are violating something that is fundamental to our created being, and to all our different ways of belonging to Jesus.

Story: The week of prayer for Christian unity in Jerusalem.

Something that’s absolutely basic to the faith of all varieties of Christians is that Jesus did what he did for us before we had taken a single step towards him. So no-one was out in front; no-one stood out as being ‘right’.

St Paul puts it this way in Romans 5.6-8

… while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

What Paul is saying is that our relationship with God doesn’t depend on whether or not we’ve got our theology straight. Paul – once a persecutor of the Church himself – learned that our relationship with God depends purely and simply on one thing; the gracious love of Jesus. And that goes for everyone, even persecutors of Christians.

None of us can say another Christian’s way of responding to God’s is unacceptable to God. It’s up to God to decide. And frankly, what God is gracious enough to accept is always likely to astonish us. That is, quite literally, our saving grace.

Jesus prayed that we may be one. That prayer is the reason for the week of prayer for Christian Unity. The first unity we need to recall is that despite our squabbles and failings, we all stand equal before God – all alike, loved by God. And the proof of this is Jesus’s coming for our sake before any of us knew him. So much for our partisan, tribal disunity. That’s a different world. Our unity is in the welcoming, all-embracing call of Jesus.

But then what? This is where the link with prayer comes in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Prayer opens us to the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. She will receive our multitudes of apparently conflicting various yearnings, and somehow weave that chaotic variety and contradictions into a blessing that is whole and unified – a blessing which can empower us to be Christ’s blessed presence in this world. This comes through the grace of unity – then effect of Jesus’ prayer – and our response.

Yes; we have agency in this. Sr Joan Chittister put it this way. She said that …prayer is not something given to us to change the world. It is meant to change us, so that we can change the world. Prayer is something given to us so that we can change the world.

I pray that we may join our Lord Jesus in his prayer that we may be one. May we overlook and even celebrate our variety – because that doesn’t seem to bother Him at all – and so let the world know that no-one can be separated from the love of God, in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen

Our calling to be part of Christ’s grace and love for the world

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 6 A – Ac17.22-31, Ps 66.7-19, Ist Pt 3.8-22, Jn 14.15-21

The story of the altar to the unknown God reminds me of the first thing you see when you go into Westminster Abbey. It’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; one of the most striking of the 170 odd monuments that you can see there. It’s just inside the west door, right in the middle of the aisle, surrounded by a tiny hedge of brilliant red poppies or other flowers. The flowers set it apart. So does the inscription – not just what it says, but also its brand new appearance. The lettering on this stone is as crisp as it was on the day it was unveiled – Armistice Day 1920. Other tombs set in the floor of the abbey are barely legible; worn out by the feet of millions of pilgrims. But no-one walks on this one. Even last week’s coronation processions detoured around it.

We have a memorial to the unknown God by the entrance to this church. The centre window above the baptistery remembers today’s story of Paul talking to the philosophers on the Areopagus about an altar he’d discovered in Athens; an altar dedicated to ‘the unknown God’. The Unknown Soldier and the Unknown God – the Unknown Soldier represents an ordinary person – it could be you or me. The unknown God could be our God; somehow bound to us by the same sense of mixed familiarity and mystery. No arcane knowledge or ritual stands between us and the possibility that this God might just be our God – yours, mine, everyone’s.

The Unknown Soldier and the Unknown God could be nothing to us, yet somehow they represent something common to all of us. Somehow they are present to us, as they may be to everyone else too. In today’s gospel, Jesus touches on this commonality between us. He’s in the upper room with his friends – where we spent time with them on Maundy Thursday – and he’s just told them – us – that he’s going away. But two things will protect us from losing our connection with him; first, keeping his commandments – particularly the new commandment he had just given to love each other as he loves us – and second, the gift to each of us of the Holy Spirit. These two things – love and unity – will work together to see us embody and honour Jesus who will soon be invisible to them, as he is to us.

Our two monuments to Jesus are our love and our unity as people blessed by the Spirit’s presence. They are sacred. The altar to the Unknown God, and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier – express these sacred gifts in a similar way. They each speak of those who’ve been like Jesus for us; blessing and defending us even before we knew of them – before we were born. They also say there’s something sacred about each of us; they assert our commonality through the mystery of our connection to a God and a Soldier who were unknown to us.

Undeserved grace is the name of this connection; the Soldier, the Unknown God, Jesus – they’ve taken us on trust; they’ve given us the benediction of their trust, and by doing that, they’ve somehow declared us to be their family. And they’ve called us to be that family for each other. Grace believes in us. Grace takes us on trust.

Christians proclaim this grace to be perfectly expressed in Jesus. His acceptance and support were available to us before we’d ever been, and he still offers us free acceptance no matter how – or how often – we let his trust down. When someone trusts you to be a better person than you think you really are, it’s lovely! When you know there’s someone who always thinks the best of you, it helps you do just that little bit better. You want to vindicate their trust; make them glad they trusted you. This grace is something we experience as healing. It’s much more than physical healing. Something much deeper than what we ask is given to us. Grace can make us whole.

What do the Unknown God and the Unknown Soldier have to do with all this? They’re unknown to us, but all the same, we sense deep down that they’ve done something for us. They have a mysterious friendship with us, and everyone around us. These Unknowns are pictures – symbols of an invisible friend whose identity we discover through countless little meetings and experiences; a secret friend who, we ultimately discover, is with us – who is in us – just as Jesus said he would be.

Jn 14.18 I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

May we respond to our calling to be part of the connective tissue of Christ’s grace and love for the world? It may be that we’ll serve anonymously – unknown. But that seems fitting in a in a world where the unknown poor and downtrodden cry out to be heard and known. Amen

John – Apostle and Evangelist

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

John – Apostle and Evangelist – Prov 8 22-31, Ps 97 1, Jn 1 1-15, Jn 20 2-8

In 2012, Vicky and I visited the site of Ephesus; a great city which had stood on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Türkiye. In Jesus’ time, Ephesus boasted the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (See Acts 19 for Paul’s encounter with the Artemis cult) Near Ephesus we saw two sites revered as the burial places of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John, the beloved disciple, Apostle and Evangelist. You’ll recall how on the Cross, Jesus gave them to each other as mother and son. (Jn 19.26) So it makes sense to find their graves close to each other.

Living in Ephesus, John inhabited two cultures, like we do today. John straddled the Jewish traditions of his homeland, and the Græco-Roman ways of Asia Minor. We live a similar dual life. We inhabit the deeply symbolic expressions and traditions of our Christian faith, and also a cosmopolitan western culture that has practically no idea what we’re about. We’re viewed with anything from good-humoured tolerance of our peculiarities right through to deep resentment and contempt. It’s in this environment, and with our self-imposed constraints, that we bear witness to Jesus. What might our patron John teach us about doing this?

John has left us plenty of material; his Gospel, three letters, and possibly also the Book of Revelation. A major theme in his writing –one which we encounter today – is seeing and believing. The central moment in our Gospel today was that the beloved disciple saw and believed. Likewise, in his first letter, we heard him say …1 2 this [eternal] life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. So being an eyewitness to what Jesus reveals, seeing, believing and bearing witness, is John’s life’s work: Apostle – sent out, and Evangelist – bearer of the Good News.

But what’s that to us? We’re not eyewitnesses. The Melbourne Jesuit Bible scholar, Brendan Byrne argues (JSNT 23 pp 83-97) that in today’s Gospel, after that running race to the tomb with Peter, we should be careful to remember that what they saw there was an empty tomb; the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. They didn’t see the resurrected Jesus – not yet. But even so, the beloved disciple saw and believed. Peter wouldn’t get it for some time yet. But our John did.

Later in this chapter, when Thomas received the proof of his own eyes and hands to enable him to believe, (20.27) Jesus pointedly blesses those – us – who have not seen, and yet have come to believe. (20 29)

So today, John who doesn’t see, yet believes, just like us – John calls us to risk trusting our inner sight. The theme that unites this whole chapter is seeing and believing. And we are called to look through the eyes of the people in this story.

The beloved disciple outran Peter. John got to the tomb first. But whether he meant to show deference to his older friend, or he was overcome by a moment of shocked paralysis after glancing inside at the scene which greeted them, in those few moments, something huge happened in John.

It wasn’t like him to hold back. He’d gone with Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest while Peter stayed outside, (18.15) he’d stood by Jesus with Jesus’ mother and the other Marys at the foot of the Cross, (19.25-26) while Peter was nowhere to be seen.

So this pause at the mouth of the tomb was uncharacteristic for John. Something huge was happening inside the beloved disciple. And the call of the Gospel that he and his community have left us is to see through his eyes, let the scene do its work in us, and together with him, move deeper into faith. Whatever it was that he saw conquered on that early morning stands before us too. For us as for John, our way is into the gift – not the work – the gift of deeper faith.

The Welsh poet and Anglican priest, Ronald Stuart Thomas described this in the final lines from his poem, The Answer.

…There have been times when

after long on my knees in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled

from my mind, and I have looked

in and seen the old questions lie

folded and in a place

by themselves, like the piled

graveclothes of love’s risen body.

John, our patron invites us to believe deeper into Christ. And his reason is what we heard in his letter this morning. He tells what he has seen and heard so that others may enter this fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ – that others may share such joy.

Just like John, we live in two contrasting cultures. And thanks to John, we see through his eyes what it means to live that life in company with the Jesus he knows: Jesus who celebrates with us (Jn 2.1-11), Jesus who cleanses us (2.13-22), Jesus who brings us to new birth (3.1-21), Jesus who crosses cultural divides, (4.1-42) who puts religious taboos in their place and stands with the lost and needy.(4.46–5.18) John has seen and told about Jesus the creator who feeds the hungry (6.1-14), about Jesus the healer, (Ch 9) about his compassion,(8.1-11, 11.28-43). John had told us that in the shadows of the spiritual night, Jesus the Good Shepherd lies across the gateway of our souls; a living gate, strong in the face of despair and even death itself. (10.7-10)

What might John ask of us who bear his name – St John’s?

John’s Hebrew name, יוֹחָנָן (Yochanan), means ‘God is gracious’ – ‘God gives undeserved gifts’. That’s a joy we discover daily in God’s beautiful creation. A community of Christ, hearts and hands overflowing with the riches of God’s grace. And like John, our call is to hand those gifts on – gifts which can pour through us from the never ending wellspring of God’s grace.

Let’s all read John’s Gospel and his letters again. We are a community of Christ as John was, in a very different world, yet ours is similarly often apathetic and hostile too. Like John, we have not seen and yet we believe. Because of John and our more recent forbears, we embody a culture as a Christian community of love, respect, compassion, generosity, humility, peace, vision, and joy. This culture springs from a living relationship with Jesus; the one who John reveals to be the eternal Word, our Way, our Truth and our Life.

I pray that together, we may believe deeper into Christ, and be living bearers of God’s Grace to all whom John has shown us Jesus loves so deeply. Amen.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Good Shepherd Sunday – Acts 2 42-47, Ps 23, 1Peter 2 19-25, Jn 10 1-10

Budget night approaches and big questions are being put to government about their commitment to the poor and down and out: housing; jobseeker; tax cuts – what’s their legacy going to be? Anglicare’s been in the news with ACOSS and other agencies confronting government with these questions. That’s their job and ours; speaking up for the needy. We’re mindful of this today, Good Shepherd Sunday, as the readings are about caring leadership. In today’s Gospel, John the Evangelist reveals Jesus as the Good Shepherd. John contrasts Jesus’ leadership of wisdom, loving kindness and willing vulnerability with the negligence, stubborn blindness, pastoral insensitivity and political fearfulness of the established leaders of his day.

Nowadays, where leadership is routinely under the microscope, it seems fair to ask what history makes of the leadership of Jesus. Is the legacy Jesus left behind enough to prove that he really was the Good Shepherd? You can best tell how good a leader is by the legacy they leave behind; not just how things were when they were around. So did everything good about Jesus’ community depend on his being physically there? Did he only keep up the quality and momentum of his movement by his personal charisma and skill? Did everything fall in a heap once he was gone?

Or did Jesus leave us a legacy of more inspired, skilled leaders? Did the people who took up his mantle keep up the good work he modelled? Because that’s the measure of a true leader; what happens once they’ve moved on. Today, in our reading from Acts, we get a chance to look at just that. It’s a short reading, but it’s got a lot in it. It’s a picture of the new-born Church in the days after the first Pentecost. So what was it like? In Acts 2.42, we read that the new believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

So four things made up the foundation-stones of the community life of Jesus’ earliest followers; learning together, sharing fellowship together, breaking bread together, and praying together. These are foundation stones which have served us for twenty centuries. And where these foundation stones are present, we truly experience Jesus’ care of us. The extraordinary is somehow possible. So we read in the next verse, 43… awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. Wonderful; but is that where it stops? It could be quite inward looking and cosy, couldn’t it. But what actually happens?

I’m struck first by the extraordinary inclusiveness of this community. Just before today’s passage, we’re told it numbers about 3000 people v.41, and that it’s drawn from ‘every nation under heaven’ v.5; 15 regions are named. And today we see this new, multicultural community spontaneously assume care of its needy members.

We’ll do it for a family member: but for some strange people from far to the east of the Holy Land, or way down in Africa; people we’ve never met before? They’re Jews too, but even so, this is wild. And it gets wilder. 44… all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

They’ve only just met! I’d say the Good Shepherd lives on here; wouldn’t you?

Another thing that strikes me is the way the new-born Church doesn’t huddle together in a ghetto and hide from confrontation. And heaven knows, with what happened to their founder, they’d have every right to be cautious. But no, they’re out there in the general community, even in the Temple, enjoying each other’s fellowship and hospitality, and making a positive impact wherever they go. 46And day by day continuing with one mind in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. NAS

This is no reclusive cult, is it. Again I’d say, the Good Shepherd lives on in these people. The good things they enjoy, they receive with gladness and share with open hearts. They make themselves vulnerable to strangers by doing this. And their impact is all the more powerful because they do. Jesus’ legacy lives on.

It’s perfectly clear from these few verses that Jesus is the Good Shepherd: that his good leadership practices of wisdom, loving kindness and willing vulnerability left an astonishing legacy. They were taken up consciously and passed on by his followers. So the Church’s gifts to the world include hospitals, pilgrim hostels, soup kitchens; care offered to total strangers often at great cost and risk.

These gifts the Church passes on came to us first through those four basic practices the new-born Church inherited as Jesus’ legacy all those years ago; 42… they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Learning together, sharing fellowship together, breaking bread together, and praying together. I delight in the fact that this legacy lives on in us – in our commitment to Christ, to each other, to others, to the various missions and causes each of us supports, to the care we offer together through St John’s Youth Services. The Good Shepherd calls us on.

So I wonder what’s next? Any one of us could be the bearer of our next mission. What do you hear him calling us to do next? His legacy lives on in us. Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!    Amen.

The Emmaus Walk

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 3ALuke 24.13-49

Kids: The Horse and his Boy: CS Lewis; Ch 11 p.157f ‘The unwelcome fellow traveller’

The Emmaus Walk is a journey which means something different to each of us. For some, it’s an eyewitness account of the risen Jesus. For some, the fact that Jesus eats with the two disciples is a witness to his physical resurrection. Other people respond more to the disciples’ hearts set afire by Jesus’ teaching. It echoes how the teaching of Jesus has opened up new life for them.

For many people, though, the Emmaus Road is a journey that all of us travel again and again, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to parenthood to retirement to dependence. These changes are often marked by significant changes in central relationships, or the endings of those relationships. Every stage begins with a mixture of loss and emptiness and fear. But later on, God willing, we’ll always look back with quite a different perspective. Philip Newell captures this in a lovely prayer.

Like an infant’s open-eyed wonder and the insights of a wise grandmother, like a young man’s vision for justice and the vitality that shines in a girl’s face, like tears that flow in a friend bereaved and laughter in a lover’s eyes, you have given me ways of seeing, O God, you have endowed me with sight like your own. let these be alive in me this day, let these be alive in me. J Philip Newell Sounds of the Eternal

The Emmaus Walk is a journey of farewell to old certainties; a journey through times where expectations abandon us. We suddenly journey without direction; we stumble blindly. And then, just as the emptiness threatens to swallow us entirely, we’re found. And in being found, we’re given a new perspective. Once everything is new and hopeful again after this Emmaus Walk, in hindsight we see that it’s in clear continuity with all we’ve ever been.

The Emmaus story represents the human journey beautifully. Just as we seem to be walking away from all we believed most real and it feels like hope and truth have abandoned us, we’re given a new, transformed way of seeing.

The Filipino artist, Emmanuel Garibay, offers one such new way of seeing in his picture on our service booklets. He writes, I have a different image of Jesus, which is that of woman, a very ordinary-looking Filipino woman, who drinks with them and has stories to tell. The idea of laughing is very common among Filipinos – to laugh at their mistakes. It’s all part of understanding the culture, and it’s also part of contextualising the concept of faith within the culture.

A healthy faith needs to be open to evolve. So is it strange that a healthy faith can necessarily involve times of walking away, despondent and sad, from cherished certainties? Sometimes, the old, fading truth we’re clinging to can seem impossible to let go – far too precious. But unless we can let go, we can’t be reborn. We’ll be like a chrysalis that never becomes a butterfly.

What were Cleopas and his friend talking about so sadly? It was the greatest hope of their lives; the redemption of Israel. But it all depended utterly on Jesus living on in the way they’d known him to live until then. That hope had been dashed. Anywhere they went now was away; away from that lost joyful hope. But Jesus came to accompany them – gently to teach them again – to prise open those wounded hearts and eyes to reveal a deeper hope; a hope so deep in them that they had to learn how to recognise it. But even so, they could feel it. Talking about it later, they told how their hearts had been set on fire by his words.

There was nothing inherently bad about their old hopes and dreams. But their old hopes and dreams depended on the continuation of Jesus’ earthly life, and so they were inadequate to the bigger picture that Jesus’ death and resurrection opened up. Walking sadly away from Jerusalem was a necessary part of their faith journey. The Emmaus Walk was the part of their journey where the unrecognisable, risen Jesus would meet them and give them what they needed to see him. Then they could go back and give new heart – new eyes to the others – and now to us. The Emmaus Walk isn’t only a personal healing journey; it’s the way along which God begins the transformation of communities – through you and me.

You’d think spiritual renewal might only come to those who are actively seeking it. But what we see here is that it comes looking for those who least expect it. And it comes in a category different altogether from what we’d normally imagine possible.

A delightful part of this enigma is that the exact location of Emmaus isn’t known. Abu Ghosh is traditional, but Emmaus may be anywhere. Hearts burning and eyes opening aren’t confined to just one place, either geographical or spiritual. Nor is spirituality confined to one way of doing things or seeing things. Emmaus comes into sight wherever a path has led us into a new communion with God; whenever we recognize that the risen Christ has been among us. That’s just like the Holy Spirit; you can never quite catch her, but you can always tell where she’s been.

Have you had an Emmaus Walk? Has Jesus come to travel with you when you least expected him to? Did he tell you something you need to run back and tell us? Amen

Forgiveness is a joy; not a burden

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Kids: Aslan breathing on the petrified Narnians and restoring them to life.

Easter 2A —John 20 19-23

Jn 20.23: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;  if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

I remember speaking with someone who’d been badly mistreated—betrayed really—betrayed by a person who should have been trustworthy and caring—a person who claims a Christian faith, but who acted like a vicious bully. My friend didn’t want to retaliate and spoke instead about having a duty to forgive.

When you’re in a place of injury and fear, it’s a terrible burden to think you have an obligation to forgive. If means you have an unrepentant bully on one side of you, and on the other, a God who, apparently without regard for your safety, demands that you simply forgive the bully. Did Jesus give us forgiveness to be a burdensome duty? Today’s gospel helps us to explore this question in a helpful way.

Today we meet Jesus’ friends locked in a safe place together. They feared for their safety. The same people who persecuted their teacher might well start on them now. They didn’t feel safe to go out in the community—they were cut off. Security for them was a locked door—a barrier between them and dangerous enemies. The risen Jesus came to them in this situation, and stood among them. He gave them a blessing of peace, and then showed them the wounds of his crucifixion. At this, the disciples rejoiced. Then he repeated his gift of peace, and sent them into mission.

John says they were frightened of Jesus’ persecutors. v. 19 So is this sudden joy they feel a freeing from that fear? What did the sight of the living Lord, and the sight of his wounds do for them? v. 20 In showing them his wounds, Jesus showed them two things. Firstly, that he knew what their fear and grief felt like. And thanks to the gospel, we know he understands our fears and griefs too. Secondly, he showed them that the danger they feared does not have the last word; it is overcome.

It’s in his two gifts of understanding and release that I find Jesus’ forgiveness. This forgiveness is not expressed as a demand that we remember our duty to forgive. It’s a liberation; a setting free. Jesus sends us to offer his understanding and his release to people. But we have a choice—to forgive or retain that release. v. 23

We see Jesus’ greeting of peace offered to frightened, vulnerable people. But what about the people they’re frightened of?

On Good Friday, we heard that Jesus died for us while we were yet enemies. So that means that the bullies and the powerful are to hear the message too. In the Hebrew Scriptures, I hear the prophets telling such people that God’s heart is for the poor and downtrodden. And in today’s Gospel, I see Jesus offering peace and freedom through his experience of being downtrodden. What does a bully make of that? What does a dictator make of that? What do we do with this?

Forgiveness doesn’t turn a blind eye to wrongs. It names them and offers a chance to change. It calls wrongdoers back from isolation into community. Forgiveness meets people’s woundedness not with power, but with its own wounds. Forgiveness meets fear with compassion, and turmoil with peace. Peace be with you, he says.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s understood that a disciple learns the faith and receives the gifts of God in the expectation that they/we will hand them on. This is made explicit in today’s gospel. Jesus repeats his greeting of peace to his disciples, and then says that as God has sent him so he sends them/us. The second greeting of peace is directly connected with the sending saying. v. 21 So the peace Jesus has brought them from God is the peace that they are sent to hand on, and now in our turn, that we are sent to hand on; hand on to all who need it—and who we pray can receive this peace. But what is this peace?

Jesus gives it to his disciples tangibly by breathing on them—giving them the Holy Spirit. v. 22 This passage is often called John’s Pentecost. But what else might it make us think of? For me, it evokes the story from Genesis Gen 2.7 where God forms the human being from the dust of the earth, and then breathes into its nostrils the breath of life. In today’s Gospel, we see the resurrection life which raised Jesus from the dead being breathed into his disciples. People who had believed they were in danger of their lives went out as he sent them. They passed on his new life and it has come ultimately to us. What we have received is what we must pass on.

It’s in this context of life-restoring that Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness comes. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. We are to think of forgiveness more as freeing people from bondage than binding them in obligations—as giving a chance at free, new life; as transforming the hearts of the powerful, so it’s a gift to the poor and oppressed. Forgiveness is a joy; not a burden; something we long to do; not a mere duty. As God has sent Jesus so Jesus sends us. May we go freely and joyfully and share his new life. Amen

Easter 2023

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Jesus died for us, then rose from the dead – and his rising is also for us.

He dies for us – dies in our place. It’s as though a bullet’s coming at you or me and a total stranger suddenly jumps in the way to take it in our place. An astounding thing to do. ‘So what!’ says the existentialist. ‘It’s a kind thing to do. But it’s easy to get sentimental about it. It’s pointless; it only postpones the inevitable. We all die eventually anyway. What’s the difference?’

The difference is that Jesus rose again. We just heard Peter telling the household in Jaffa how he and the other witnesses ate and drank with the risen Jesus; how the risen Jesus commissioned them to proclaim a new hope to everyone.

Our existentialist got something wrong. Jesus’ rising again – like his dying – was for us too. And his rising changed death itself; for us and for all life. Jesus changed death from the existentialist’s inevitable end point into a transition; a transition from mortal life to abundant life. Abundant life with God, and with all whom we love.

I’ve been meditating over the past week on a sentence from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 5.10

Enemies!? We are a warlike, planet-wrecking, prejudiced, self-serving species. Fair judgement of those characteristics of ours would be to leave us to suffer their consequence: unimaginable suffering and utter extinction.

Jesus puts himself between us and that extinction. He dies our death, and rises again to offer us abundant, eternal life. The life we received when that stranger took the bullet for us – it’s much more than what would have remained of our earthly life. It’s abundant, eternal life, no longer overshadowed by its mortal end. And it’s given by Jesus, who for many is a perfect stranger. Christ is risen, Alleluia! Amen

Meditation on the Cross for Good Friday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

The Cross, as we picture it, is in its completed form. The upright has the Cross piece fixed to it near the top to make a shape like the lower case letter ‘t’. That’s the Cross we see on the walls of churches, on the tops of church buildings and hanging from chains or strings round our necks. The only difference we notice is whether it is an empty Cross or a crucifix—a Cross with Jesus depicted on it.

This notion of what a Cross is meant to look like has shaped a lot of graphic art over the centuries. It’s particularly shaped the way paintings, and more recently, movies about the crucifixion have shown Jesus carrying the Cross from his prison to Calvary. They tend to show him carrying the familiar small-‘t’-shaped Cross over his shoulder, with the long, heavy upright dragging along behind him.
This is in spite of the fact that scholars have known and taught for a long time that it is unlikely that the real thing looked like this traditional image. What they tell us is that the upright of the Cross would probably have been at Calvary already, set in the ground and probably equipped with a winch on the top. So as Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem, he would have had the cross-piece lying across his shoulders, and his arms would have been lashed at the wrists to each end of it. They also tell us that he would most likely have been naked.

When you walk through the narrow stone streets of Jerusalem, particularly when they are crowded, it is clear just how vulnerable he’d have been in this position.

Onlookers were viewed with deep suspicion if they didn’t throw things at condemned prisoners, and taunt them or spit at them. The soldiers escorting a prisoner through the streets would shove their charges and bully them with that gratuitous discipline bullies like to inflict on their victims; maybe trip them over a few times along the way. If you fell with that wooden beam across the back of your neck and your arms outstretched, tied back to it, when you fell your face was driven into the road by the weight of the wood. You couldn’t save yourself.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captured this, and also named the present experience of many of his own people, in his poem, You are mine, with all your wounds. He asks Jesus,
Did your feet,
dirty and swollen,
have to pick their way over these smooth stones,
covered with the usual debris
of rainwater and rubbish—
watched by some bored soldiers
who were passing the time of day?
Did your feet,
dirty and swollen,
have to take the long route
right around the road block,
picking their way
past puddles as large as lakes—
watched by some bored soldiers
who were passing the time of day?

It gives you a different perspective when you get a local person’s view. It makes you see that for Mahmoud Darwish, what happened all that time ago, was as immediate for him and his friends as it is for them today; he personally knows the person it happens to. And it could just as easily be him.

The Cross says that this sort of compassion—this shared pain is deeply true of God. I remember a shocking story about a young girl who was bullied at school—bullied so hideously that she gave up her will to live. What the Cross says is that the violation, the shame, the fear and the torture that were inflicted on that child are something that God knows from personal experience.

We know that God doesn’t stop people doing terrible things to others. God has a different answer. In the way of the Cross, we find God who will never allow us to suffer alone. Where was God in that young girl’s horror? Right with her; God suffered with her in her fear, her grief, even her death—as any parent would who wants to take their child’s suffering on themselves instead.

On the Cross, we see God helpless; we see God who is the one who represents all of us who know pain, despair, loneliness, fear, mental breakdown, or who suffer from bullying. On the Cross, we see in God all of us whom God aches to embrace and soothe and comfort and heal.

Of course, we also see the terror; we also see the cruelty. But overriding all of it, in the Cross we see God’s love that seeks to heal both perpetrator and victim. In the Cross, we see God’s love, that alone can offer abundant life where otherwise there is only a way to death.  Amen

Maundy Thursday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Tonight, we’ve heard again how four of our ancient, sacred traditions began—the Feast of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper, the Christian principle of Servant Leadership—shown by washing each other’s feet, and the New Commandment—to love each other like Jesus loves us.

From Exodus, we heard the story of the first Passover—the final rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt began with a meal where people ate standing up and dressed for travel—ready to flee at a moment’s notice. It’s called Passover for a strange reason. Before this meal, each household had to sacrifice a perfect, unblemished lamb and roast it over a fire. They had to daub their front door frames with blood from this lamb. The blood would be a sign to protect the household. God was sending the angel of death on Egypt to kill all the first-born in every household. But if the front door frame of a house was marked with the blood of a lamb, the angel of death would pass over without killing anyone within it. A short time later, the Hebrew people were delivered from slavery through the Red Sea.

We’ve read this story tonight because it connects with our Christian story. Ours tells of the blood of a perfect man being the means of our rescue from slavery. We remember this every week at Holy Communion.

Passover meals are happening this week too. Jewish people celebrate their rescue and thank God. They drink three cups of wine at this feast: the cup of sanctification celebrates the special bond they have with God; the cup of praise celebrates God rescuing them from captivity; and the cup of redemption celebrates God redeeming them so they are no longer slaves.

In this evening’s Psalm, we read about another cup; the cup of salvation. The Psalmist wants to offer it as a new sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving, offered by someone who knows freedom in God.

Paul links the imagery of Exodus and the Psalm to describe the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. For him, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb and his blood is our protection. And Paul also names a fourth cup for remembrance of salvation, which proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes.

Into this mix, the Church also gives us John’ story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It also happened at a meal—but not at the meal we might first think of. The meal where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples in Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25 and Lk 22:7-20 was the Passover meal. But in John’s gospel the meal where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet happened before the Feast of the Passover.

In this Gospel Jesus will die on the day of preparation for the Passover 19:31. That’s the time that the Passover sacrifices begin in the temple. So in this Gospel, Jesus is the lamb––the Paschal Lamb––the Passover Lamb––the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the same as Paul’s understanding; Jesus’ blood will save us.

But now Jesus adds something new. During the meal, he takes off his outer robe. Now, clothed only in a loincloth, he ties a towel around his waist. And then dressed as a slave, he washes his disciples’ feet. Then he says, “… if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

This is the definitive picture of Christian ministry: the leader is always a servant, and service is always given for love. It’s summed up in the New Commandment. We care for others like Jesus does as a sign to all people. This is why we’ve been set free—it’s the reason God’s people were freed from slavery in Egypt, and it’s the reason we’ve been set free; free from slavery to futility and despair. We are set free so we can show people that God loves them; we show them by serving them and each other in love.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This night, we remember his blood which is daubed around the doorframe of our souls; his blood which protects us from the angel of death. We remember that he’s the lamb who gave himself to be sacrificed for us; to free us from slavery; to lead us into a community of freedom and love; to build us up into a people willing to shine in the world’s night, like a bonfire of hope, burning on a mountaintop, guiding lost travellers to safety, to welcome, to love—to Jesus.

Grant, Lord, that we who receive the holy sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be the means by which the work of his incarnation shall go forward. Take, consecrate, break and distribute us, to be for others a means of your grace, and vehicles of your eternal love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.