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Grace is even better than being fair

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 17 – Matthew 20.1-16: The Labourers in the Vineyard

When I taught English to refugees, I had to get them to speak with each other in English. One of the best discussion starters I ever had for provoking discussion in my classes was today’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard. It never failed. A frigidly passive class would read this story and suddenly erupt into a storm of conflicting points of view all eager to be heard.

The Eastern Europeans always opposed the landowner. Paying the latecomers first was an affront to the dignity of the first-hired workers with whom they unquestioningly identified themselves. South Americans were deeply suspicious of the motives of the landowner. They thought he wanted to use his wealth to preen his ego, humiliating the ‘all-day-suckers’ by making them a laughing stock at pay time. Others were disgusted at the owner’s insensitivity, or else deeply worried by the disorderliness of it all.

When the hubbub eventually died down, the eldest Vietnamese man in the class would stand to speak for his people on this weighty matter. And each time, it was the same message: We think the landowner is a good man. He understands that everyone needs the same amount of money to give their families food and clothes, and he gives it to them. He is a good man. On one occasion the Vietnamese elder added that the latecomers to the vineyard had been waiting all day for work, and so it was a cause for deep joy that their good faith was rewarded.

As far as the other students could see, the Vietnamese students might as well have been from a different planet. But they were displaced persons too!? So whether it was the severity of the Vietnamese experience of escape, something to do with their particular stream of Mahayana Buddhism, or simply being the most recent wave of refugees, whatever gave them their perspective remains a mystery to me. But they always understood the need of the labourers who’d waited all day for work and were last to be hired, and always rejoiced with them in being paid a day’s wage. For them, the Kingdom of God is not fair or just. It’s better than that. It’s generous.

I met this parable in the flesh while living in Jerusalem. Around quarter past five each morning, the call to prayer would sound from the minaret just down the street and wake me up. Morning Prayer in the cathedral was an hour later, so I had a quiet time to contemplate the sounds of the new day. One sound always came just after prayers at the mosque finished. It was the sound of hundreds of feet; young men walking wordlessly from the mosque down towards the old city. They were walking down to an open market place on Sultan Suleiman Road, opposite the Old City’s Damascus Gate. They waited there from very early each morning hoping to be hired as day labourers by Israeli farm and factory owners.

I passed this market place often. I saw the way the young men were hired. An Israeli truck or a car would pull over to the kerb, and one of the occupants would bellow out the number of labourers they needed. Several of the young labourers would run over and jump aboard, and off they’d go.

But where people live under military occupation, gatherings of young men are not favourably viewed. Several times each day, a truckload of young soldiers would drive onto the market place and give the would-be labourers a hard time. They’d demand to see their identity papers, search them, shoving and kicking them around. It was all part of a daily ritual of humiliation and oppression. But still the young men came every day. They had no other way of providing for their families.

I read this parable and my Vietnamese students have taught me what those young workers would feel for a land-owner who came back every few hours to rescue more of them from their plight; what their families would think of him paying them enough for their daily bread, regardless of the hours worked. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner…the Kingdom which operates on the principles this land-owner lives by is a Kingdom which humanity desperately needs; a Kingdom where a person is valued; valued regardless of work done or ethnicity. In God’s Kingdom, generous grace abounds simply because it’s needed. And Jesus’ parable tells us this Kingdom grace can be embodied in an individual; in you or me.

Today’s parable is like a miniature of salvation history featuring us—the Church—as the late comers! We, Gentile Christians never endured the early start that the slaves in Egypt did. We weren’t called through the Red Sea at 6.00 am on the first morning of our pilgrimage. We weren’t called at 9.00 am to Mount Sinai either; nor roasted at noon by the prophets’ fiery summons to faithfulness. We weren’t even in the 3.00 pm cohort caught up in the tragedy of the exile. We’re the five o’clockers; the eleventh-hour people, who, a bare hour before knock-off time, had nothing to take home to our families. Then suddenly, we were called from certain humiliation and offered all the blessings of Kingdom life.

If we’re ever tempted to imagine that it’s our present power or wealth that gives our lives meaning, we are warned by this parable that our life’s true meaning comes from grace alone; from that unexpected call that we or our ancestors responded to.

The labourers in the Jerusalem marketplace also tell me to watch out for cultural blind spots. Most ordinary Israeli citizens are as oblivious to plight of Palestinians as we are to the injustice Aboriginal Australians continue to endure. Jesus tells us to be aware – like the landowner obviously was – and to be gracious and generous.

Be aware, be generous. Be better than simply just or fair. Go for grace. God wants all his little ones to experience grace. God calls us to be a mighty river of peace and justice in order that his little ones might drink deeply from the cup of grace. Amen

God welcomes all – abstain from passing judgement

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 3 – Pentecost + 16 – Rom 14.1-14, Matt 18.21-35   

Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat [meat] must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain [from meat] must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Rom 14.2-3

This is our last Sunday with Paul’s letter to the Romans; a journey which we began three months ago. It’s time to draw some threads together.

Paul’s strange mention of vegetarianism today helps us do that. What was the issue about meat?

Again, it’s because of something we’ve talked about for months. The Emperor Claudius expelled all Jewish people from Rome in the year 49 CE. They could only return after his death in 54 CE, trickling back cautiously. And this included kosher butchers. Restarting a business takes time. If you think what a two-year Covid lockdown did to our small businesses, imagine what five years of exile did to Rome’s network of kosher butchers. Jewish Christians trickled back to rejoin their faith communities in a city where there were no kosher butchers, and probably none on the horizon.

Many Jewish Christians continued to show their loyalty to God the only way they knew; by observing Jewish laws about clean and unclean foods and holy days. Becoming Christian hadn’t changed that. But now, without kosher butchers, the only way to keep food laws would have been to avoid eating meat altogether.

Of course some, like Paul v. 14, had found freedom from those laws in following Jesus. Mark 7.19 The Gentile Christians of Rome, now a majority in the church, would have seen Jewish food laws as strange; weak. Paul has heard of spiteful words from these strong ones ridiculing the ‘superstition’ of this weak kosher-observant minority.

They wouldn’t have been the only ones to be ridiculed. Many gentile converts to the Way of Jesus would previously have belonged to cults where animals were sacrificed to appease pagan gods. In the way of black markets the world over, such a valuable commodity as a shrine’s excess fresh meat would’ve quickly found its way to high street butchers and be sold as regular meat.

People knew this went on, but for some recent converts to Jesus, the thought of eating meat that may have belonged to their old god could have held a particular terror. So people who avoided meat for fear of breaking a taboo may also have counted among Paul’s Roman vegetarians. Together with the kosher-observant converts, Paul refers to these people as the weak in faith.

But he doesn’t say they should change. Nor should anyone try to make them change. Abstaining from meat was their way of honouring God; this was their integrity before God. As Paul put it, 5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God. So don’t pass judgement on them; don’t despise them.

British scholar James Dunn interprets Paul to be saying in v. 5 something really lovely. Dunn writes: Paul’s point is that the strength of your conviction shouldn’t intimidate anyone. We can weigh important issues before God and reach our own judgement, even if it means differing quite fundamentally with each other. Paul recognises that Christians will disagree with each other on important issues, and yet each be convinced that they are right. They can disagree and both be right [both accepted by God].Christian truth can be expressed in a range of views and lifestyles and all be legitimate, strongly held in good faith. Romans p. 814 So we are not to judge each other’s faith. Today’s Gospel underlines how severely God views people passing judgement on each other.

All this ties in with some fundamental insights we’ve drawn from Romans over the past months. Here are some; it’s not what we do that connects us to God; it’s God’s grace and broad-mindedness that does it. We’re all different, but God likes diversity. Look at biodiversity if you want proof. God loves us all, as various as we are. God wants connection with us. And in Jesus, God offers gifts of friendship, acceptance, community, faith, hope and love to bind us to God and to each other. The Gospel Paul proclaims is that of the inclusive God he has found embodied in Jesus – and we’re meant to become as like him as we can.

And vegetarianism? Last week, Vicky participated in a theological conference in Sydney called ‘Pilgrims with the Planet’ – coming to terms with the Anthropocene.  At dinner, she sat with a young PhD candidate who’s working on animal theology. The food options were a red-meat stew or a chickpea and rice one. Her new friend had taken the chickpea option, and Vicky had taken a bob each way. She felt a bit awkward about it in front of her friend, particularly given that their chapel reading before dinner had also been Romans 14. What would this woman think of her!?

Today the tables are turned on the Rome that Paul wrote to. Today, the strong Christians Paul might address would be vegetarians and vegans – people who know the cost of meat production in water consumption, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and in global equity. Today’s strong people show their care for creation by abstaining from meat. That means the weak Christians Paul might address now are people like me; people who continue eating meat, in spite of the warnings – but ever more reluctantly.

So once again, the question – Should I eat meat or not? – is a critical community matter; just inverted. But the warning against judging others remains the same.

3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

And the call to each of us to face God with integrity is likewise unchanged.

6b Those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

It’s a good way to end our time with Romans; challenged head on about our discipleship by the feisty Apostle Paul. Amen.


Love is the fulfilling of the Law

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 2 – Pentecost + 1. Rom 12.21 – 13.10, Matt 18.10-20

I’ve taken a liberty with today’s Romans reading. I’ve added the last verse from the previous chapter; 12.21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Because this verse is a pair with the closing verse of today’s reading – 13.10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. With those verses bracketing all those words about being subject to the governing authorities, it’s a reminder that this is the part of the letter where Paul’s been teaching about how to manage relationships between people within the Christian community, and also between us, the Christian community and the wider society. It means the verses calling Roman Christians to be subject to governing authorities are part of this managing relationships teaching too. We need to remember that if we are to really get what Paul is trying to say.

I wrote in my weekly that one commentator said of Romans 13.1-7 that ‘these verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other 7 verses in the New Testament by the license they have given to tyrants.’ R Cassidy Exp Tim 121 (2010) p.383.By that, Cassidy is referring to tyrants who have held these verses over Christian populations, using them to claim a divine right to be obeyed, no matter what they tell us to do. We are witnessing this abuse literally at work right now in the invasion of Ukraine by the church-endorsed Putin. It’s not just a Russian thing; there are recent American politicians from the Obama era and since who have also invoked these verses to coerce people to do what they say.

I’m sure Paul never dreamt that a Christian king or ruler would abuse his words in such a way as to say that God authorised their crimes. The first Christian nation, Armenia (Christian in 301 CE) was still 240 years into the future for Paul, and Rome’s Emperor Constantine would only convert 11 years after that. I don’t know if Paul ever envisaged such a thing as a Christian state. But anyway, tyrants claiming to be Christian have misused these verses down through the centuries. It’s suited them to make it seem that Paul was saying they must be obeyed; that God wanted them to. They lied. It’s easy to tell a lie, and very complicated to explain how it’s wrong.

To get a clearer idea of what Paul really meant, I went to scholars who wrote back in the shadow of the world wars, where various competing armies were each told they had God on their side. I figured they’d be answering the lies of leaders who’d co-opted Paul’s words. So I looked first at the Swiss scholar, Karl Barth wrote his commentary on Romans just after WW I and revised it in the troubled times of the early ‘30’s. He made me include the verse from the end of ch. 12; Don’t be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. For Barth, those words put what followed in its relational context, and not to blow it out of proportion. Barth also warned that Paul doesn’t call us to pass judgement on the existing order. We’re no more objective judges than the people we oppose. He reads these words from 12.21 and 13.10 neither as an incitement to be a radical opponent of the state, nor its apologist. Rather, we are to recognise God’s ultimate authority in these matters. Otherwise we can make things worse, as the aftermath of WW I showed so terribly. Don’t fight a monster by becoming one yourself – was Barth’s basic message.

It’s a good message, but I didn’t feel completely helped by this. WW II was going to drive considered Christian leaders in Germany like Bonhoeffer to the point of attempting to assassinate Hitler. So how were these words, 13.1-7, interpreted in the aftermath of that horror? And how can we read them, knowing that so many people still hear them as an order to obey tyrants? Knowing that tyrants still misuse them?

The other commentator I went to was a German, Ernst Käsemann, who wrote his Romans commentary after WW II. He wrote this about verses 1-7. ‘Paul doesn’t say anything about the state as such or about the Roman Empire. The personal form of address [to individuals] is not accidental. [Paul] has in view very different local and regional authorities. And he’s not so much thinking of institutions as of agencies and functions, ranging from the tax collector to the police, magistrates, and Roman officials. [These seven verses in Käsemann’s view deal] with that circle of bearers of power with which a common person may come in contact and behind which they see the regional or central administration.’ p.354

So he’s not talking about a prime minister or president leading their nation off to war. After all the bloodshed and misery, these words about being polite to parking officers and paying taxes; not about marching off to blindly follow our glorious leaders on their next election cycle strategy?

But it makes sense, given what we know about the fragile safety of Jews and Christians in Rome back then. Remember how we were talking about the way Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome? By the time Pau’s writing this letter, those poor souls have got Nero to deal with! Paul’s saying, very sensibly, lie low; don’t forment revolution; keep your nose clean; blend in. And that’s it.

I thank God for Cassidy, Barth and Käsemann. And with them, the Australian Jesuit, Brendan Byrne, on whom I’ve relied very heavily during this sermon series. Brendan Byrne reminds us the Greek word for being subject to authorities is very different from the one we’d translate as obeying them. That’s crucial too. We have agency as people under God to say yes or no – to obey or to hold on to truth. I think those four commentators we’ve heard from have comprehensively nailed the coffin shut on any leader’s claim to a divine right to their citizens’ obedience.

So these seven verses – for centuries, they’ve been deliberately misused to justify starting wars, to justify colonising stolen land, to justify racist oppression, and to justify exploitation of the environment. The on-going misuse of this scripture relates directly to the theme set this year for the Season of Creation; ‘Let Peace and Justice Flow’. We’re watching yet another war waged in the name of the divine-right delusion. And in the process, humanity’s chronic war on the environment, that so often goes unremarked, has been laid bare for us all to see. It goes into hyper drive during wars. We are watching invading forces do all they can to make another people’s land uninhabitable for them, or for any creatures or crops that might otherwise draw life from it.

Let peace and justice flow. How? In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the model we need for conflict resolution; he said do it personally. And that’s what we’ve heard Paul say too; do it personally. Jesus also gives us the reason for doing it his way. It’s for the welfare of God’s little ones. Chapter which began with the disciples asking Jesus who was greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus replied by calling a small child in their midst, and saying it’s this one. And finally, Jesus tells us the implications are the spiritual glue that binds us all to God so that in God’s power, we can set peace and justice flowing unimpeded to God’s little ones.

Love is the fulfilling of the Law. Amen.

As we care for the most vulnerable, we reflect the image and likeness of God.

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 14 – Season of Creation 1 – Rom 12: 9-21

We do an unusual thing in church each Sunday. We delve into ancient writings, and in them, seek wisdom and truth to inform our choices and values some millennia later. In this Season of Creation, how might we expect to find wisdom in them for this Anthropocene age? Could the ancients ever have imagined what we might be consciously doing to life on Earth in our time, and what would they say if they did?

Since June this year, we’ve been listening every week to the voice of one such ancient writer – Paul. We’ve been studying his letter to the Christians in Rome. So I wonder, could Paul have imagined what we are doing to Earth now? Paul took the natural world very seriously. In Rom 1.18-20, he said our blindness to creation’s message about God meant we’ve ignored God’s character; that we’ve suppressed the truth about God. In Rom 1.20, he wrote, Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and his divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. So we are without excuse.

For Paul, creation reveals God’s power and character. Could he have imagined the sort of things we’re doing to creation today? He may have. Paul knew the Hebrew Scriptures backwards, and there’s an awful story in Judges 9.45 where the would-be king of Shechem, Abimelech, put down a revolt. He killed the city’s inhabitants, demolished the buildings and then sowed its fields with salt (using it as a sort of a proto-agent-orange) to ensure they could never rise against him again.

Salting the fields of defeated enemies was not unknown in the ancient world. There are legends of the Romans having done this to Carthage. I wonder if Paul knew these stories, and if they lie behind his words about the ungodliness and wickedness of people who’d suppress the truth Rom 1:18; who’d ignore Earth’s role in sustaining all life; who’d ignore the way Earth reveals God’s power and character. If they’d salt the ground, what else might such people do to control their environment?

These stories of utter erasure of rivals are not alien to us these days. The expression cancel-culture is becoming more common to describe people who utterly write off the humanity of people they disagree with. This polarising force is a terrible curse. God calls us to offer an alternative to these divisive, artificial tribal distinctions.

In face of a scorched-earth, cancel-culture ethos, God’s people are called to embody a relational biosphere that mirrors creation’s life-sustaining balance and diversity. Paul calls us to embody a life-giving interplay of compassion, justice, mutual love and respect. Instead of social Darwinism for which competition is natural, and where the powerful salt the fields of the vulnerable, Jesus calls us to be salt and light; to embody and share the savour and vision of God’s Kingdom life.

This is Paul’s purpose in the passage we read from Rom 12 today. Some scholars see Rom 12.9-21 as a loose collection of moral exhortations. I think it’s much better than that. Paul’s just been speaking about us all being parts of one body, each with different gifts; each with our part to play. 12.4-8 Now, he lists a series of qualities that ought [to] attend the interplay of gifts in Christian community lifeByrne 375

Interplay to me is an organic, ecological word. We use the word organic to describe natural co-operation; the interplay of parts of a body or an eco-system. It has a lot to do with the character that God has implanted in each of us, and particularly in the relationships which bind us together. Why do I say that? Because when Paul begins this passage with Let love be genuine, he uses a special word for love; agape.

Up until this point in the letter, the word agape has only referred to the love that comes from God. Suddenly now, Paul says this is the type of love that comes from us believers. So all the qualities that follow – which are to proceed from this love of ours – are to be like those of God. They are life-giving qualities; 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. They are relationship building qualities; Bless … and do not curse … Live in harmony … Do not repay anyone evil for evil … so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Our love is to mirror God’s love. And how do we know what God’s love looks like? Remember what Paul said in chapter 1, 1.20 God’s eternal power and his divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.

In this Season of Creation, we look to the things God has made. We explore ecological spirituality. So let me share a story in which I find profound resonances with the wisdom we’ve heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees p. 17 described his early duty as a forester to thin out young trees in the forest by ringbarking some of them. The idea was that this would let more light through and help the rest of the trees. But the trees knew better; their interplay as a mutually supportive community works better. Thinning out would let in more heat and wind, and disrupt the moist, cool climate at the forest floor. So through their interwoven root system, the surrounding trees shared with the ringbarked trees some of the sugar that their own leaves had photosynthesised. Amazingly, this has kept the ringbarked trees alive for decades.

Paul’s message is very like the one Wohlleben learned from the trees. God’s power and character – love and compassion – are revealed in our weakness. And our care for our most vulnerable reveals the extent to which we have let our character as Christians, and as a community, reflect the image and likeness of God. Amen.

Pay it forward together

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 13a  – Romans 12.1-5 – Our call to pay it forward together

Pay it forward is the name of a movie where people who’ve experienced kindness pay the generosity forward – even to complete strangers – rather than paying it back to the kind person.

Romans 12 is a turning point in Paul’s message. Over his previous eleven chapters, he’s laid the groundwork, teaching the Roman Christians his Gospel of God’s inclusive grace and love. He’s finished chapter 11 where he has argued away any thought of factionalism in the Christian community, and concluded by saying that all things (not just people) are from God, through God and [belong] to God.

Those eleven chapters included hints about how Paul thought we should choose to live in response to God’s love. He saw us called to be a distinctly different community. 6.12-14 & 8.5-13 So having wrapped up his Gospel of inclusion, love and grace, in chapter 12, Paul begins a sustained argument ‘… summoning Christians to live out the logical consequences of the inclusive Gospel that has taken hold of them.’ Byrne 361  12.1 So he begins, I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable offering.

Reasonable offering? Logical? The logic is that if God could save us through the gift of his Son, and if we’ve been convinced that God loves everyone, then we owe it to God to pay it forward; to declare that love to everyone we meet; to pay it forward as our thank-offering to God. Paul calls us to do that through our thoughts, words and manner of living. We have to change. 12.2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, (logic again) so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We know Paul was presenting this challenge to a mixed community – Gentiles and Jews; people from every known nationality. What an undertaking! Even though there were cultural norms that most people around the Mediterranean might have subscribed to, and there were common laws imposed across the Roman Empire – even so, there were very strong cultural differences between the people who made up the Christian community in Rome; not least between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Yet Paul argues that God’s love embraces this diversity.

So today, we’ve heard Paul begin his argument with a focus on how we should relate to each other in a Christian community. He’ll move on from there to the relationships we have with people outside the Church community. But all through his argument, his guiding principle will be the debt of love we owe to God. 5.8 God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

We’ve experienced God’s grace and love. We know that God loves everyone. So it’s only right and fair that we should make that blessing available to anyone who doesn’t yet know that God loves them. But what about our cultural differences; what about the way western Christianity has conducted a world mission which has been distorted by a misguided belief in our cultural superiority? Paul could only say we’ve been warned: 12.… by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Paul knows that this sort of insight isn’t something that comes naturally to us. So he focuses us on our complementarity with his image of one body with many parts working together. Our Christian life is not expressed in our individuality, but through community; diverse gifts contributing to a mutual unity of God’s purpose.

12.3 [Do] not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…. Maybe a more helpful translation might be one which warns against trying to do the whole work of the Church on our own. What we take on, we must do in the strength of the community, and not in the strength of our own personal giftedness. Our gifts are given to be used, certainly, but always and only with the strength to work being drawn from God, and through God’s chosen instrument, the whole Christian community.

It’s deeply frustrating at times, but Jesus didn’t call experts. He called a community into being where everyone could receive the opportunity for growth and transformation. This is the meaning of Paul’s vision of Church: 5… we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

Let’s pray that God’s love may continue to shine through our community of St John’s and that we continue to be living channels of God’s blessing.     Amen


God never gives up on us. What joy!

Pentecost + 12 a  – Rom 11.13-36 with Gen 45.1-15 & Matt 15.21-28

Today’s reading from Romans finishes up a long section Chs 9-11 where Paul’s been at pains to assure the Roman Christians of God’s faithfulness to all believers, including Jewish people who have not accepted Jesus. For us, he’s raised the question, who are the people of God?

Who is anyone to dare to make such a judgement? But it was a real question that divided people of faith back then, and still does now. Those of us who’ve had visits from doorknocking evangelists, or followed the impassioned debates between churches in the global north and south will know how much of a live issue it is today. People actually dare to say who they think is in, and who is out. And these three chapters are often mentioned by both sides of the debate as the authority behind their case. The two main principles on which they base their arguments are, on the one hand, God’s sovereign right to decide who’s in or out, and on the other, the choice of people to have faith or not; some saying you might self exclude.

I heard Jenny Wilson (cathedral canon precentor) preach about this passage many years ago, and she made a very helpful observation. She said that just before Paul embarked on this contentious part of his letter, he wrote that wonderful paragraph at the end of chapter 8 where he concluded that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 8.39 This was effectively the top of a scroll framing this part of the letter. And Paul gave the bottom frame to this section by writing the equally wonderful doxology we just heard. 33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! 34 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ 35 ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.  All things. So who is to exclude?

What Rev’d Jenny was saying was that by framing these three chapters with God’s all-embracing love at their beginning, and God’s universal embrace at their conclusion, we must assume that Paul meant to be read pastorally rather than legalistically. We’re all meant to step aside from our debating and simply recognize that God is acting in every life with love and wisdom; we can all trust God.

It was certainly a pastoral matter for the early Roman Christians. Who are God’s people? Paul was entering a live debate. He tackled this question with his analogy of the olive tree. The image of our God pruning us from the tree or grafting us back on to it says that God is at work in all of us all the time. Who are God’s people? God’s people are the tree; root, branch, and fruits. God as gardener is also an image of God as provider. God’s people are the tree and those for whom the tree provides.

In the image of the olive tree, Paul acknowledges God’s claim to form and nurture everyone. Formation involves unexpected pain for us when we are re-shaped by God’s pruning and grafting. And the purpose, as it always has been with God’s work with us, is not only for us to be blessed, but for us to become the means by whom God blesses all families of the Earth. Gen 12.1-3

Today’s Joseph story from Genesis and the story of Jesus with the Canaanite woman are well-timed reminders of God acting in totally unexpected ways, and the blessings those divine actions bring. Joseph could have chosen to hurt those brothers who’d sold him into slavery. But he saw the hand of God at work – love, wisdom, forgiveness – and chose a better path; a greater purpose. And he thereby rescued Israel. And Jesus admitting the faith of a Canaanite woman; even he seemed baffled by it. But once again, we see inclusive God reach out to all families of Earth.

So Paul today emerges from the agony of fear for his own people Israel that we saw at the beginning of Ch 9. He’s scoured the scriptures for wisdom to know what forces might be at work, and he has found hope in God’s kindness, God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. As Yale teacher Martha Highsmith writes … Paul proclaims that ‘the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’ (v. 29)—once given, forever ours. Nothing we do can convince God to let go of us (cf. Rom. 8:38–39). … These twin constants, gift and call, are signs of God’s unbounded faithfulness, which is unaffected by anything we do and, at the same time, never ceases to call us back to our own faithfulness. The gift, the grace, is irrevocable, and so is the call.

When we encounter a loss of faith, or an obstinate refusal, these chapters remind us that God never gives up on us. What joy! 36 For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory for ever.            

Faith in such a God is a delight for anyone to share!  Amen.


How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 11 – Gen 37.1-4, 12-28, Ps 105.1-6, 16-22, Rom 10.4-15, Matt 14.22-36

I know it seems odd not to preach about Joseph’s escape from slavery in Egypt, or Peter’s rescue from drowning – both last-minute, unpredictable rescues, and wonderful testimonies to God’s saving grace. But we’re still on our way through Romans, and we’re up to a part where another rescue is at stake – the rescue of a whole people caught in a seemingly unstoppable tragedy. Paul’s concern is for the rescue of his own people, Israel, who have largely rejected Jesus. They can’t come at a crucified Messiah. They’ll keep waiting for the promised one. What will happen?

A while ago, I spoke of a moment I’d had in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was upstairs in the twin chapel of Calvary/Golgotha, revered as the site of the crucifixion. It’s upstairs to give people access to the top of a limestone outcrop where it’s believed the Cross stood. The church itself was built over the site of a stone quarry. This outcrop was poor quality stone, left behind as unsuitable for use in building work. In a chapel below, through a glass panel you can see the base of this outcrop. There, people remember verses from a Psalm (118.22) ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, and from Isaiah (8.14 and 28.16) a stone that will make people stumble.

Paul recalled Isaiah’s words back in chapter 9. Rom 9.33 See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame. Like Isaiah, he was referring sadly to his fellow Israelites – their stumbling rejection of Jesus. Today, we heard Paul quote Isaiah again in a shorter form: Rom 10.11 … scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ But now he’s moving towards a more hopeful place.

Last week, we looked at the beginning of Paul’s extended argument about God’s ongoing care for the majority of Israel despite their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. He was continuing an argument about God’s inclusiveness, and there was no doubt how committed Paul was to seeing his Jewish siblings access God’s kindness. Paul was in anguish over the fact that most of his fellow Jews continued to seek righteousness through the law rather than through faith in Christ. 9.3-4 Could he do something drastic to help them, he wondered? His compassion and longing for them draw us along with him today – on the way to his conclusion later in the letter that 11.26 …all Israel will be saved. Today, the question he tackles is this: Either Law of Moses or faith in Jesus; is there a meeting place, or is God up to something else?

Today’s reading takes us straight into this question. Verse 4 raises this either/or issue of the law versus faith in Christ. Rom 10.4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. In English and Greek, end / telos can mean termination or fulfilment. Reading ‘end’ as fulfilment is very like what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – Matt 5.18 Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets; I’ve come not to abolish but to fulfil.

Both Paul and Jesus acknowledge the significance of the Law, but both see an essential new thing happening. What was the old thing, and what’s the new one?

For the old order, Paul goes to the Hebrew Scriptures and in v. 5, quotes Moses’ teaching Lev 18.5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if you do them, you will live by them. Over time, Jewish teachers had come to equate ‘doing the Law’ with qualifying for eternal life. But you had to establish your own righteousness rather than depend on God’s saving acts. Jewish Christians in Rome and elsewhere tried to impose that old order on their house-church lifestyle – food rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision and so on.

So what was the new order? Paul introduces it with more words from Moses Deut 30.12-13 who says you don’t have to ascend to heaven or plumb the depths to find righteousness; it’s been placed on our lips and our hearts (Jeremiah prophesied the same about the new covenant. Jer 30.31) Paul tells us that with the coming of Christ, the new covenant has arrived; a gift for everyone, 10.9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

It’s important to see here that Paul is not arguing just from what he thinks or wishes. That’s not how our faith is shaped. He draws constantly on the Hebrew Scriptures. So in v. 11, he quotes Isaiah 8.14 and 28.16, and in v. 13, he quotes Joel 2.32 … everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. No-one who believes and calls on the name of the Lord will be shamed – no matter what the religious authorities might say.

You can see where Paul’s going; drawing on Moses and the prophets to gradually build his case that 10.12 there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.

What did that mean for the Christians of Rome – Jewish and Gentile Christians locked in a factional struggle about the right way to be a Christian? I think Paul saw them as a work in progress.

What does that mean for us? I think first, we need to continue to get better acquainted with Scripture and witness how God perseveres with people – no matter how pig-headed or blind we might be. And we need to open ourselves to constructive dialogue with people of faith who see things differently from us – however strange they may find us to be.

And finally for us, Paul finishes today with a call to proclamation: it’s a bit different from ‘mission’. We focus on compassion and social justice, but telling others of the faith is a place where we’re not comfortable. Paul asks us,  14 … how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’

I’m struck that in this time of focus on the beautiful game, Paul calls us to develop beautiful feet. Amen

God is inclusive, not exclusive

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 10 – Transfiguration – Rom 9 1-16

People who grieve for friends in trouble sometimes wish they could take their friend’s place; suffer in their place. It’s rarely possible; parents can’t swap places with their sick children; friends can’t take the place of prisoners. But it doesn’t stop us feeling it; wishing our dear ones safe and free. That’s how we meet Paul this morning. He’s just finished his argument that in Christ, the Gentiles are fully included in God’s chosen people. But now he has to deal with the obvious question; what about God’s ancient, chosen people, the Israelites. So many didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah. Today in ch 9, Paul begins his argument that they’re also fully included.

You may wonder why we spend time with this question. What do the politics of the earliest Christian communities have to do with us? One reason is that neo-Nazis and others still represent the New Testament in selective ways that rationalise their anti-Semitic views. And we know how extremist views can still take root and wreak astonishing harm. Christians need to be able to trace the real story – both so we’re protected from the lies, and so we can protect others who might get sucked in by them. We also need to learn what the New Testament teaches about handling tensions within a Christian community, and the survival of that community within a hostile wider society. That’s what Paul’s on about here.

Paul is walking a diplomatic tightrope as he writes this letter. He’s writing to the Christians of Rome – a diverse community that he didn’t found. He knows only a small number of people there personally. He’s aware of strong tensions within the Roman Christian community. Exiled Jewish Christians are returning after five years away to find their former roles and the culture of their house churches changed. There are disagreements about the way Christians should live; if Jewish customs and traditions should also be observed by Gentile Christians. And the Jewish Christians’ temporary exile from Rome was a result of tensions between them and the synagogues of Rome coming to the attention of the Emperor Claudius.

There was probably no commonly-accepted, specifically Christian authority that community members could refer to when negotiating these disputes. They had the Hebrew Bible, but the first Gospel’s still about fifteen years away. So what Paul writes to them has to be based in the scriptures they do have. And it has to be true to Christ’s teaching and example; it has to build up an inclusive community life and faith. Paul wants to help them negotiate the tensions within their community like he’s done with all the churches he’s founded elsewhere. And he has to help them function faithfully and yet live safely within a hostile, broader Roman society. It’s a diplomatic mine field!

Yet it’s a gospel of inclusion that Paul is writing – there’s no ghetto mentality on show. So in ch. 8, he concluded his argument that Gentiles Christians are in; they’re also God’s called and chosen people. Nothing can separate us from the love of God for those who are in Christ Jesus. But what if you don’t accept Jesus? Roman Christians are in contact – sometimes conflict – with Synagogues, and the question is obvious. What about people in the Synagogues? Has God withdrawn the ancient promises to them, and chosen someone else?

Last week, we saw that the way God chooses 8.29 was Paul’s focus. And in today’s ch. 9, he raises the issue of our choice; asking particularly about people who don’t choose Christ? The last verse we read today is our key. Paul says that 16it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. Seems simple, but we who come later are in a minefield here too. And it’s not one of Paul’s making. It’s been laid in the centuries since; interpreters of Paul’s teachings who sought to define the limits of God’s grace.

Augustine of Hippo wrongly read parts of this letter (eg 8.20, 33; 9.10-13, 18) to come up with a doctrine called double predestination – that before we’re even born, some of us are predestined for salvation, and some for damnation. This was later adopted by Calvin and others during the Reformation. It misrepresents Paul’s argument by taking one element in it without its refutation later in the letter. (11.25-26) Paul’s style of argument was to posit one side of the issue and pursue it for a time before offering its counter-argument and then coming to a conclusion. It’s wrong to take either side out of its other side – and particularly wrong to ignore the conclusion Paul has drawn. For Paul God is inclusive, not exclusive – and in particular, Paul will conclude that God’s promises to Israel will definitely be fulfilled. Antisemitism has no basis in Paul; nor does anyone’s attempt to decide who is outside God’s love.

There’s a correlation between the passages we’ve heard from Romans in recent weeks and the readings we’ve been hearing from Genesis. Paul is reminding us of the second children we’ve met in those stories – Isaac born after Ishmael, and Jacob born after Esau – second children who unexpectedly receive the blessing normally reserved for a firstborn. For Paul, it’s like the way we Gentiles have been chosen to receive the blessing which was originally promised to Israel. But Paul’s proclaiming a radical Gospel of inclusion: the promised blessing is available to all. He will argue that the descendants of God’s first people – the ancient, chosen people of Israel – are still the bearers of God’s blessing and love too.

Which all underlines that key line in verse 16 that we remembered earlier: …it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. We can do nothing to earn God’s blessing; nothing to deserve it. It’s just there – offered with an open, loving and amazingly forbearing hand. I pray that we might take hold of that love, and be so transfigured by its goodness, and respond with such gladness and gratitude, that we bring the light of God’s healing love, kindness, joy and peace to all families of Earth.  Amen

Nothing can separate us from God’s love

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 9A – Rom 8 26-39 – Comprehending God’s love for all

Prayer is a conversation; we listen and we speak. It probably doesn’t help much if I say that, I know. I remember plenty of fruitless times trying to hear God speak when I was younger. It was as frustrating as meditation is for me; I was hopeless at it. Thoughts and worries poured into the silence and I ended up exhausted by all the emotion and problem-solving when I was meant to find stillness and refreshment. And I didn’t think I heard God. I’ve learnt a lot since then, and I think Paul describes the learning process in today’s reading from Romans.

Prayer is a conversation; we listen and we speak. Okay; speaking I can do. But what’s the trick with this listening bit? That’s where Paul starts with us today. He tells us that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. He says when we’re unable to pray, the Spirit prays for us, offering up whatever it is that we can’t find the words to pray.

Those prayers of the Spirit are described as sighs / groans too deep for words. (You might remember last week creation groaning with us. vv. 22-23) We might have thought we weren’t really praying if we couldn’t tell our feelings and our hopes and our thanks to God – if all that came out was helpless groaning. But that’s exactly what was needed. Paul is telling us that’s alright; that God hears it as real prayer. The Spirit dwells within us and knows from the inside precisely how we feel. 5.5 God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. So those groans we hear are coming from our hearts; the Spirit dwelling there and offering them to the Father on our behalf. Hear that, and we hear God speaking. There’s the beginning of our learning to hear God’s side of our praying; the Holy Spirit speaking from within our hearts.

27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

God searches our heart and knows our deepest prayers because the indwelling Spirit prays them with us and for us from right in t/here. God understands those prayers, even when they only seem to us to be inarticulate groans. Jesus bore an execution which wrings precisely that shocking noise from its victim; God knows it from the inside. That’s the divine model of care; true empathy. God’s heart hears the groans of the Spirit crying out from within our hearts. We are called to listen for that conversation of love – for us and for all creation.

Our learning to pray – to know it as a conversation – it’s a process of hearing and entering into a much wider conversation. It’s about more than us; creation is groaning, and our prayers are part of that. Creation is our responsibility. God called us to care for Earth; to serve Earth. So our prayer is both personal and cosmic.

This is very important to understand, because of the way some Christians have misused the next verse. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Often, you’ll meet people who’ve been in tragic situations and the only care they received from a fellow Christian was this part of the verse – all things work together for good for those who love God. Whoever offered them this trite brush-off simply didn’t want to risk being with them in their pain.

But this verse isn’t talking about the tragic event which caused someone’s pain and grief. ‘All things’ doesn’t mean all happenings. It means all creation. We’re meant to work together with the universe for God’s good purposes. How wonderful!

That’s not the only hurtful misuse of this passage. The next two verses have copped it too.

29 …those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

From this and other passages (eg Rom 11) influential Christian thinkers have drawn the conclusion that before they’re even born, some people are chosen for salvation and others for damnation. It’s clear that Paul had no such thing in mind. Firstly, his focus is on the call: God’s call to people to be like Jesus, and for the answering, enabling response of the Spirit calling from within us – the conversation that is prayer. And secondly, for Paul, the language of choosing and call echoes Abraham’s call and Jesus’ coming. It’s a declaration that the promised blessing to/through Abraham of all families of earth is fulfilled in Jesus. And this makes Paul confident to offer us the wonderful question and answer dialogue that follows.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

What a wonderful pile up of graces! The counsel for the prosecution is sent by the judge to become one and the same as both victim and accused, then returns to stand by the judge to plead on our behalf. Who/what will separate us from the love of Christ? Paul lists some of the calamities that have befallen him (35b) and some of the miseries that have plagued the Jews. (36) Then he answers his own question: 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

So finally, every obstacle cleared away: I am convinced says Paul. This is Paul’s testimony to something he has incontrovertibly experienced.

What might separate us from God’s love? Here; try another list: he starts with death…death which it has dogged us since chapter 5; this is its last appearance in Romans!

Death, life, angels, rulers, the present, the future, powers, heights, depths – these things of the end times, these marks of an enslaved creation – they’re barriers no more. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That question he asked – Who will separate us from the love of Christ? – it’s not even a question any more. The gap has closed and finally we are free to hear that the love of Jesus for us is one and the same as the love of God for us and for all creation. God’s commitment to us in Jesus is central and final.

This is the heart of Paul’s theology; this is the heart of his Gospel. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Anyone can pray knowing God is like that! Amen

Spirit life and the hope of future glory

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 8A  Rom 8.12-25

You’re shopping, hopeful of a bargain. But they say, ‘What you see is what you get.’ When they say that, it’s a way of keeping your hopes in check. They don’t want you to burden them with too much expectation. Please, they say, just accept what you see now. But even so, you hope. And hope is indomitable. It sends your caution to the wind, and lets you dream. Hope’s an extraordinary gift. It can inspire resilience and joy, persistence and patience where otherwise there might be worry and bitterness. Paul wrote about this at the end of our reading from Romans today: 8.24 … in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

In hope we were saved. One of the greatest stories of hope in Jewish hearts is the story of the Exodus: the story of God’s people being rescued from slavery in Egypt, and journeying towards freedom, towards the Promised Land. But reading the story, your most persistent emotion is one of hope. Because despite their escape from slavery, there’s a life-long journey before their children will finally enter their promised home. Their hope and faith ebb and flow along the entire journey. Is Paul echoing this memory when he writes his words about hope to the Christians of Rome – 8.24 in hope we were saved.

I think so. Paul does proclaim that we are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the Spirit of Christ has come to dwell within our hearts. Yet we’re still on the journey of mortal life. So we’re caught in the space that theologians call the already and the not yet. And as we saw a few weeks ago, even for Paul, that’s anything but a picnic. Our old selves constantly struggle to reassert control – old habits of mind and behaviour take charge despite our will to have the Spirit transform us. That transforming – which Paul calls sanctification – is a slow journey of that gift of the Spirit, gradually transforming and renewing our wills.

In the Church, we mark a person’s receiving this gift in the sacrament of Baptism. Our baptism marks our adoption as God’s children, and that we have become full members of the Body of Christ. We enter a covenant with Jesus and with each other. And each week, we re-affirm this covenant with Jesus and with each other in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

But throughout our lives, we face a constant choice between a self-centred orientation (flesh) or a God-centred orientation (Spirit).

Last week, we heard Paul underline the significance of this on-going choice for Spirit over flesh. 8.6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Today Paul starts to describe what happens for us when we make the choice to set our minds on the Spirit.

Verses 12-17 tell us that unlike the flesh (selfishness), the Spirit doesn’t make slaves of us, but rather makes us God’s children. The Spirit, received in Baptism, marks our adoption as God’s children. Paul says this means we can address God as intimately and trustingly as Jesus did. 15 When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. … Abba … Jesus’ Aramaic heart language … now ours.

Remember Paul’s writing to a twin community, Jewish and Gentile Christians, where the Jewish Christians would see themselves as God’s natural, chosen children. Paul’s calling them to see that we Gentile believers are being afforded that astonishing honour as well.

But with the great honour comes challenge; Jesus didn’t escape suffering, and we shouldn’t expect to escape it either. We are joint heirs with Christ if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

It was a dangerous struggle to live a life of faith back then, and not much has changed. On top of the inner struggle, there’s an outward struggle which is most obvious in the social media world. There people of faith are hounded and bullied for their convictions by anonymous trolls. And in the physical world, people who champion care for the vulnerable and downtrodden are confronted with the demand to compromise their values, if not to shut up completely.

Paul names us God’s daughters and sons. He identifies our task of faithful witness to compassion and justice as something much more than a personal journey. He sees it as something of cosmic significance. Verses 19-22 recall where God said in Gen 3.17 that the ground was cursed because of the selfish ambitions of the first humans. That curse is daily more obvious in what’s happening to Earth now. Paul tells us that creation longs for us to be revealed as God’s true children.19 When that happens, he says, creation will be freed from its bondage to decay and together with humanity, will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.21

This is our calling. The groaning and waiting – the struggle with hope in the last four verses – they link us with God’s people who’d been freed from slavery in Egypt, yet struggled on their long journey to the Promised Land.

As we – freed slaves ourselves – as we travel the journey into life and peace, the way we bear faithful witness to God’s priorities is of cosmic significance. God’s heart yearns for us to champion the health of creation, to advocate for justice for the downtrodden and dispossessed in this land and more widely, and to do all we can to ensure that all are welcomed in God’s Church; all revealed equally to be God’s children.

In hope we were saved. May we open ourselves more and more to the Spirit within and among us. May we vindicate that hope by the hope we share, and by the hope we inspire in others who wait with creation for freedom from bondage to decay; freedom to live in the peace of God’s love. Amen