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Be an effective witness to the love of Jesus

Rev’d Balabanski

Ascension b – Acts 1 1-11; Ps 93; Eph 1 15-23; Mk 16 15-20

A colleague of mine – a priest – was out at a local community event when a stranger asked if she had a moment to chat with him privately. As they moved away from the crowd, he said, ‘I don’t have anything to do with the Church, but I have a couple of questions.’ He was very churned up. A good friend of his had died, just a few weeks ago. And now, with the funeral over and a growing sense of emptiness and loneliness, two questions kept plaguing him. His tears started when he asked his questions out loud. ‘Where is she now? Is it okay that I keep talking to her?’

They’re really important questions. Probably every one of us will ask them one day. It’s a terribly painful place to be; Where is s/he? Will s/he hear me if I talk to her/him? None of us knows for certain. And our unknowing clouds our peace; it unsettles our happiness. You’d have hoped before Jesus’ Ascension he might have allowed a little light on our questions. But no, the light is blocked by a cloud. And the cloud of unknowing is a barrier they say only Love can pierce.

Jesus’ friends thought they’d lost him forever on Good Friday. But he rose to life again on Easter Day. It was so unexpected that they didn’t recognise him until he said their name, or broke bread with them. Today we watch with them as Jesus disappears into the cloud of all our unknowing. Jesus, the one who knows the answer to our hearts’ most agonized questions – dead on Friday, alive again on Sunday – and then he leaves us without answering.

Does that mean our questions have failed us? No; they haven’t. They’ve drawn us to Jesus. They’ve drawn us to this place where we can strain to see where it is he does go. We concentrate on that last glimpse – will we see what others have missed? Maybe we can work out his trajectory. Our questions must be answered.

But maybe we concentrate so hard on our questions that we miss what Jesus has said. Let’s face it; our priorities and questions aren’t often that important. Apart from times when we have lost someone precious or when someone we love is deathly ill, our questions can be amazingly trivial – tomorrow’s shopping plans; our favourite team; dinner tonight. His disciples were like that too. We saw them today in the Acts reading. They had their resurrected Lord with them, for heaven’s sake, and they asked him about politics … will you get rid of the Romans now?

But even if they had asked him the Big Questions – the life and death questions – I think his answer would have been the same. Jesus replied, ‘It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth

Poor question: huge answer. Our questions don’t fail us. Deep or trivial, they’ve drawn us to this place where Jesus is. And then he calls us to journey on with him. So we’re not given answers to our questions; we’re set free from them. We can leave them safely and respectfully at the foot of the Cross. Then, in place of our heavy load of questions, we’re given a journey. We are entrusted with a quest that is utterly breathtaking. Our calling is to carry on the ministry of Jesus himself. We’re invited to put on his sandals, and journey out to bless the world. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It’s not that our questions have been ignored. Jesus does know the pain of our questions. He’s lived and died them. There’s nothing wrong with our questions? They’ve done their job. They’ve brought us to the foot of the Cross. We can leave our questions there and follow Jesus, baptizing and teaching as he commanded.

Our job is to get out of our churches and help people to get to know Jesus. I bang on about this quite a bit; that we all have to get out and tell people about Jesus. It’ll take us out of our comfort zone. It’s not something we’re used to. When we ask the question, ‘How’s the Church going to continue if young families won’t come along?’ we seem to be expressing regret and helplessness. I don’t get the impression that we’re asking for ideas about how we might get personally involved in the renewal. But we must.

Today, let’s cry out to our risen, ascended Lord Jesus – way up there somewhere. ‘How’s your Church going to continue if young families won’t come along?’ I think Jesus’ answer will be the same as it was before his Ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.

We’ve been blessed with the faith of the resurrection. We can bring our burdens and our limitations to the Cross, and then leave them there to travel on unburdened. We’re set free to join in the mysterious journey trodden by all Christians.

Next Sunday is Pentecost – when we will remember how the power of the Holy Spirit dissolved the boundaries of a frightened Church’s comfort zone and sent out the most ordinary women and men to bring the freedom of Christ’s reign to their neighbours.

Remember that heartbroken man who spoke to my friend; ‘Where is she now? Is it okay that I keep talking to her? Please pray this week –Holy Spirit, make me an effective witness to the resurrected Jesus; please use me to help others to bring their questions to him. It’s important.’         Amen.

I chose you

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 6 – Acts 10 44-48 & John 15 v 16a

I had a conversation on Friday with a Hindu friend about an American conservative Christian group that contacted him. Many of their views worried him: vehement condemnation of gender diversity; unconditional opposition to abortion; absolute support for Zionist political and military supremacy; denial of climate-change science; opposition to gun control. They preach a political and moralistic agenda to impose these views on entire populations. My friend and I agreed that these sorts of views and agendas are expressed not only by conservative Christians, but also by conservative Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

So how does anyone enter into productive dialogue with militant puritans? How do I talk with someone from my own religious tradition when I think they’re preaching a message Jesus would not endorse? Who am I to think that? How do I respond to the fires lit by these media-savvy people when they make inflammatory public statements and claim they speak for the whole Church?

How? Bp Jack Spong used to say, we have to know scripture really well. And I find that our scriptures today are a good place to start; particularly the reading from Acts. Today’s reading needs more context to make much sense of it. It’s the third in a sequence of stories where Luke describes the infant Church suddenly receiving, as full members, people who’d never have been accepted into Jewish fellowship. These three stories paint a picture of a religion with no fences; no borders.

Last Sunday’s reading from Acts (the second in this sequence of three) ended with Philip baptising an Ethiopian eunuch. We were told an angel had commanded Philip to go to the road between Jerusalem and Gaza so he’d meet this person. The eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship, and was on his way home in his chariot. As they met, Philip heard him reading out loud from the prophet Isaiah.

This was a person who was drawn to the Jewish belief in one, universal God. In the language of Acts, he was a God-fearer; someone who revered the one true God. But as one of our zoom study group reminded us, Hebrew law forbade a eunuch from being accepted into Jewish fellowship, no matter how deep his faith. Deut 23.1 So when he was in Jerusalem, the closest this eunuch would have got to joining in worship would have been from one of the outer courts of the Temple.

God obviously had other plans for him, and sent Philip to meet him. Philip baptised the eunuch, making him a full member of the Church.

God chose an Ethiopian eunuch – a gender-diverse foreigner – to become one of the first non-Jews ever to become a member of the Church. We heard Jesus in today’s gospel say, You didn’t choose me; I chose you. Jn 15.16 This Ethiopian, along with the Samaritans Philip had baptised just days earlier, and today, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his guests who Peter is compelled to baptise – these show that God wants us to be a faith community with no border police. These stories tell us that from the beginning, the Church was called to be open to diversity. You could almost say we’re the fish John West reject.

But I haven’t given you the context of today’s story where Peter was interrupted mid-sermon by the Holy Spirit falling on all his foreign listeners. It’s a story that started with two people having visions. The centurion Cornelius was told in a vision to send for a stranger called Simon Peter. And Peter in a trance state was told (three times!) to abandon kosher dietary laws. Eat anything with anyone; everything’s clean if God says it is! No sooner does he come out of his trance than Cornelius’ messengers appear and the next day, he and his associates go and visit foreigners.

As they talk, the penny starts to drop for Peter. He’s invited to speak to the household, and he starts to preach about God showing no partiality about anyone’s ethnicity. That’s a good start. He goes on to speak about the ministry of Jesus, about his death and resurrection. But then he starts to suggest that only he and some chosen others were selected as witnesses and preachers. This is not looking good. He doesn’t seem to be making the connection between his first words about God’s multicultural revolution and the people in front of him – not like Philip did with the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Peter is slowly returning to the idea that everyone (note that word) everyone who believes in Jesus will receive release from sins through his name … and it’s just after this that we enter the story today … when suddenly, the Holy Spirit precipitates the finale, falling on all the foreigners, and giving them spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and extolling God; and this before they’d even been baptised!

This little sequence of three stories – Philip baptising Samaritans – the ancient heretics despised by the Jewish scholars; Philip baptising the Ethiopian eunuch – so much for those ancient rules; and today, Peter compelled to baptise Romans who were the modern enemy colonisers. These stories all say what Jesus says in the Gospel; you didn’t choose me. I chose you. No conservative agenda can exclude anyone Jesus has chosen. Jesus does the choosing. Praise God for his love!  Amen.

I am the true vine

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 5b / Anzac Day John 15 1-8

Today’s Gospel passage happens to be the text that was chosen by Fr Francis Horner SSM when he preached at my deaconing here in this church in 1995. Francis was a self-confessed gardener, and he focused on the words about pruning – the Father removing any branches that don’t bear fruit. Francis advised me to let it happen; focus on fewer things and let them bear plenty of fruit.

So since then, I’ve tried to focus on learning the original context of what I read in scripture. I find it very fruitful to learn what was going on around the people who lived back then. I find a story’s context and the events around it help us get what it’s really saying, and imagine our way into what it calls us to do in our context.

Jesus told his disciples, I am the true vine – I am the vine, you are the branches. We are that intimately connected to Jesus. But context? His I am statements often make a connection between Jesus and the Temple. Today’s I am statement does this. It evokes the Temple’s Golden Vine; a huge sculpture of a vine wreathed around the columns of the Temple porch. It recalled the prophets who often called Israel God’s vineyard. Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem would bring offerings of solid gold leaves and grapes to add to the Golden Vine, adding to its splendour. I am the true vine. When Jesus says this, he’s declaring that he embodies in a living form what the Golden Vine of the Temple represented in sculpture; he embodies God’s people.

Sculpture is static, but living vines have a mind of their own. What their tendrils grab onto sets the direction of growth for the rest of the vine. But if they’re going to flourish and bear much fruit, they need attention. (Neglected Bulgarian vineyards courtesy of the EU) So the true vine tended by the Father is the beautiful picture Jesus gives us of the bond between us and him, and through him, with God. As his branches, we abide in Jesus, and we’re called to provide abundant fruit for the world he came to save.

Often when we think of an image for the Church, we think in terms of Paul’s image of us as a body; the body of Christ. In that image, Christ is the head and we are the various members. It’s a wonderful image. But in terms of what a local 21st-century church should be doing, today’s image of us as a plant can be really helpful. It demands that we look at the connection between us and our context. Plants of the same species can be quite different from each other in different contexts. Each individual plant has to adapt to its own environment. And then wherever they are, through the fruit they bear, they do their job as providers of God’s bounty.

Let’s consider a plant that has a bit more to do with our church’s European heritage; one called the Major Oak.

It’s an ancient oak tree growing in Sherwood Forest. Over 800 years old, it first sprouted from its acorn in the time of King John. (He reigned from 1199 – 1216) The Major Oak is held up by beams which support its branches. Steel hawsers suspend other branches, and a metal band around the trunk makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. It’s magnificent; people revere this ancient beast. It’s still producing acorns, and every year, its acorns are gathered up and planted in different countries around the world. The Adelaide Hills are full of its descendants. In every place they’re planted, the acorns carry the DNA of the original tree. But the shape of each tree is different depending on local environmental conditions.

Peter Pillinger writes about the Major Oak as an image of church life. He’s a Methodist from the UK. He refers to the Major Oak to talk about a mixed ecology church. Mixed ecology church means that in every niche of our society, there needs to be a Christian presence which is the right plant to be growing there. It has to shape itself to bear fruit for the ecological niche that it’s growing in. And just as every ecological niche on the planet is interlinked, so this expression mixed ecology speaks about the inter-connectedness of this diverse Christian Church.

So to us and our context. For 132 years, this new St John’s building has stood here, originally dominating its surroundings, but over recent years, steadily dwarfed by developments around us. Until WWII, it was surrounded by majority Anglo-Celtic households. But with returning soldiers only able to get loans for new builds further out, our demographic changed. The Methodists just down the street had to close and we were also on the brink of closure by Don Wallace’s time in the ‘70s. Like a vine or an oak or a gum tree, we relate to our context, or we wilt away.

So what does it mean for us to be pruned so we can bear much fruit? And what fruit are we talking about? Paul says the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Gal 5 22-3 These are fruits that can nourish anyone, and they need to be the first things anyone would notice here. Is there anything hiding them in today’s Church? What are the opposites of the fruits of the Spirit? Indifference, bitterness, violent anger, intolerance, selfishness, wickedness, inconstancy, callousness and self-indulgence? Because that’s where the pruning will happen. In an era of epidemic loneliness, epidemic gender-based violence and the beating drums of war again, the fruits of the Spirit must be every church’s focus. And that requires that we abide in Christ, that we accept being actively pruned and reshaped by God, and that we rejoice to see our fruit harvested and distributed. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Are we ready?  Amen

Jesus, the Good Shepherd

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 4b – Good Shepherd Sunday – John 10 11-18

Kenneth Bailey’s book The Good Shepherd studies the image of God as our shepherd through the Old and New Testaments. When he gets to today’s Gospel, he reminds us that it’s a parable. He says Jesus told parables because they’re a form of teaching you can give people in a context of powerlessness and oppression. p.233 Teaching in parables is a way of protecting the people who hear the teaching, because the authorities can’t prove that what you’re saying is subversive; that you are in solidarity with the people they’re persecuting.

We can tell Jesus’ teaching method here was necessary from the context of his Good Shepherd parable. In the previous chapter, we read that Jesus had given the gift of sight to a man who’d been born blind. But because the religious authorities were out to get Jesus, and the man was completely open about who had given him his sight, the religious leaders drove him out of synagogue-fellowship; a shocking punishment.

By placing today’s parable straight after this story, John the Evangelist is giving us a pretty strong hint who the hired hands and the wolf might be. Jesus’ parable was a picture of the bad shepherds; the type of self-serving religious leaders that the prophets before him had exposed so eloquently. Jrm 23.2, Ezek 34.1-10, Zech 10.2-3 John’s gospel is effectively denouncing as ‘hired hands’ the Pharisees and other members of Jerusalem’s religious establishment who challenge Jesus’ healing work. And quite possibly the Roman governor is the wolf. John is the evangelist who tells us that Rome alone had the legal power to pass a death sentence. 18.31

And Jesus is talking about himself in this parable too. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. Kenneth Bailey says this is the closest John’s Gospel gets to Jesus telling his disciples of his coming passion and death. And it says a lot more than that too. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. Jesus is saying that we have a relationship with him as intimate as the relationship he has with the Father. We see this in the commitment of the good shepherd to the sheep. And this relationship is possible because of the cross. p.231 I am the good shepherd, says Jesus. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

But what’s the point? What’s the use of a dead shepherd? Aren’t the sheep more vulnerable than ever if the shepherd dies?

It’s definitely not pointless. We experience suffering as a part of being mortal – it’s a part of who we are. We don’t like suffering, but without it, we aren’t real people. Suffering is the great leveler – it comes without fear or favour. Whether someone hits me on the head or I forget to drink enough on a hot summer’s day, the end result is the same; I go to bed with a headache, like anyone would.

If God sent Jesus as a bodyguard who took away my attacker’s club, it may save me from a headache. But that doesn’t change anything really. The world stays the same and God is still remote. The bodyguard, Jesus, is immune, and while I’m spared, many other people aren’t. A god of that Jesus would be choosey. That god would have favourites. That god isn’t the real one.

So, no big Jesus the bouncer. Instead, God came to us in Jesus as someone who was just as vulnerable to a beating as we are; someone who probably also got dehydration headaches on those long sessions when he was out caring for the crowds. The real Jesus is at one with us in our vulnerability; and I’m so grateful that he is. Because then, even the tiniest child has a God who knows what it feels like to be them in their hard times; helpless and blameless when someone or something hurts them. As the shepherd who’s willing to lay down his life for us, Jesus is saying he has compassion for us. He’s in our situation, feeling what we’re feeling. He won’t let us face our pain alone.

Our pain is not a weakness; it’s an integral part of who we mortals are. When Jesus says he’s the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, he’s telling us that in our pain, in our fear, in our danger, in our brokenness and our indignity, he is with us. He is an integral part of who we are too.

So he’s not asking us to break bits off ourselves and throw them away. He’s taking us as we are, and asking to relate to us as we are to show us that we can love like he loves. It’s in receiving that love, from Jesus, from ourselves, and from each other that we move towards believing that we are whole and wholly loveable. That we can change and grow because we are together with the one who knows and loves us most deeply – the one who can transform our wounds and fears into wellsprings of compassion and love just like his.

Jesus can help us discover that it’s in our vulnerability to pain and mortality that we discover compassion, and in our compassion that we discover ourselves as made in the image of the lovely God who is the real one – that we can be agents of God’s healing too. Praise be to our God who sent us Jesus the Good Shepherd! Amen

God is vitally connected with the physical creation

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 3b – Luke 24 36b-48, Acts 3 12-20

The Emmaus travellers have just got back to Jerusalem and the various disciples are exchanging their stories. They even say Peter has seen Jesus alive! Everyone’s saying the Lord has risen indeed! And then Jesus himself stands among them and says, Peace be with you. But now when he appears among them, they take him for a ghost!

Is this what days of terrible grief make you do; avoid easy hope; avoid risking further pain? Jesus shows them he is physically resurrected. Just like he did at Emmaus where he broke bread, food is involved here too. He eats with them.

At the Easter day service, I mentioned a strange thing we keep being told about the risen Jesus. On the one hand, his closest friends don’t recognise him, but on the other, they twig to who he must be when he eats with them – or says their name. He’s the same person, yet somehow very different.

In John’s gospel, we’re told that the risen Jesus somehow gets past locked doors. And in John, as in Luke, he eats with his friends. In both Gospels, he’s not recognised, then he is. What are they telling us? Is he spirit or is he body? Are the gospel-writers describing some different order of being here? It looks like it.

Whether we take the resurrection story of Jesus literally or metaphorically, the story is that in Jesus, the God who is spirit, took on a physical body, lived a physical life, died a physical death, and in whatever form, rose again as a physical being. That’s a profound affirmation of physicality – reaffirmation really, because the biblical story also tells of God as creator of a physical universe.

This says that an idea we’ve absorbed from our culture that spirit is pure and godly, whereas physical is somehow inferior – this is not what the scriptures are telling us. Yet, I think it’s a belief that has long distorted the way Christians have thought about ourselves, and the way we’ve thought about creation too.

Sometimes the Church seems to let people believe that our physical life and physical environment are not the really important parts of our existence. Have you ever seen funeral notices with the epitaph Called Home?

What’s that meant to say about what this life here has meant? And what does it say about our planet home – this creation? Temporary; some sort of waiting room?

I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the Christian world is deeply responsible for the mind-set which has permitted the destruction of the natural world. In fact committed Christians are often the loudest voices lobbying for its continued exploitation because they think the Bible says we’ll get a new one.

The resurrection narrative tells us again that God always was, and still is, vitally connected with the physical creation; committed to our nurture and restoration, and to the nurture and restoration of the whole creation. That has serious implications for the way we treat each other and our earth. It’s something we need to explore together. It reminds me of that famous charge from St Teresa of Avila …

Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours,  ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, ours are the feet by which Christ is to go about doing good    and ours are the hands by which Christ is to bless others now.

I want to finish by making a few observations about the change in Peter from the Gospel story to the way he behaves later on – the way we see him in today’s reading from Acts. Before Easter, we saw what he was like; blustering and over-confident, then completely overcome with terror – committed to self-preservation at any cost. But in the gospel today, we saw him set out alone to check the women’s story. The change is under way.

So in Acts, we meet him with John brazenly going to preach in the Temple – apparently on a regular basis. Doing that is what got Jesus killed, and now Peter’s doing it. What an astounding change. Something’s changed him utterly. What does that mean for you and me? What would it take for you or me to risk so much?

We’re told in painful detail how reluctant Jesus’ disciples were to accept the truth of his resurrection. And yet, a short time later, the book of Acts shows them utterly transformed. Their new unparalleled hope is the Easter message that has rung out down the ages. And now ours are the mouths that have this message to proclaim in a world that is daily in more desperate need of hope. May we be so bold and do so! Amen

Forgiveness frees people from bondage

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 2  – John 20:19-23

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

A friend of mine had been badly mistreated – betrayed really – betrayed by a person who should have been trustworthy and caring – one who claims a Christian faith, but who’d acted like a vicious bully. My friend didn’t want to retaliate, but 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 to forgive. If means that on one side of you, you have an unrepentant bully, and on the other, a God who apparently, without caring if you’re safe or not, demands that you simply forgive the bully. Did Jesus give us forgiveness to make us vulnerable to abuse? I can’t claim to have a clear statement about this, but today’s gospel helps us to explore this question.

Jesus’ friends had closed themselves away in a safe place together. They feared for their safety – the same people who persecuted their master might well start on them now. They didn’t feel it was safe for them to be out in the community – they were cut off. So like the friend I was talking about, security for them lay in a closed door – a barrier between them and dangerous enemies.

Into this situation, the risen Jesus came and stood among them. He gave them a blessing of peace, and then showed them the wounds of his crucifixion. And we’re told that at this, the disciples rejoiced.

Some commentators have read this to mean that the disciples felt sudden relief that Jesus wasn’t angry with them – angry with them for having denied him or deserted him. But the gospel doesn’t tell us that. It says that they were frightened of Jesus’ persecutors; not of him. They rejoiced at seeing him again – disarming the power of their fear. It happens when Jesus comes, gives them his blessing of peace, and shows them the marks of his suffering and death.

With those marks, Jesus showed them that he knew what their fear and grief felt like – and because of the gospel, we know that he understands our fears and griefs too. In this, I find forgiveness; but what does this forgiveness consist in? Is this an inflexible demand that people remember their duty, or is this a setting free?

And is this greeting of peace offered to oppressors – to bullies – or to their frightened victims? When I read the Hebrew Scriptures, I hear the prophets telling oppressors that God’s heart is for the poor and downtrodden. In today’s gospel, I see that heart revealed most perfectly.

Forgiveness does not turn a blind eye to wrongs. But it sets us free from their power. So it calls us back from isolation into community; it meets our woundedness not with power, but with wounds of its own; it meets our fear with compassion, our turmoil with peace. What a gift; what a lovely gift.

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. The second greeting of peace at this point – directly connected with the sending saying – tells me that the peace Jesus has brought them from God is the peace that they, and now we, are meant to hand on.

Jesus then gives them that peace tangibly by breathing on them – giving them the Holy Spirit. This passage is often called John’s Pentecost. But what else does it make you 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. Is this the new life which raised Jesus from the dead now being breathed into those disciples who had believed themselves in danger of their lives? And again, if what you receive is what you must pass on, is this our mission too?

Obviously it is. It’s into this context of life-giving – or life-restoring – breath that the teaching about forgiveness comes. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. I believe this might well cause us to think of forgiveness more as freeing people from bondage than binding them in obligations – more as a gift to the poor and oppressed than a free reign for bullies – more focused on release from unnatural debt than turning debt into guilt.

But I think I’ll leave it there with questions left hanging, because we should talk about this together at some length; not just take things as read. Amen

Easter Day

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 2024: John 20.1-18

Early – so early that it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. And in the early-morning gloom, Mary sees that the massive, flat-based wheel of stone has been heaved back from the entrance. She can only imagine one reason; the violation of his precious body has continued. It must have been grave robbers. Suddenly, there’s something she can do for Jesus again; get the others and recover his body.

She brings them and what they find is strange. The linen wrappings are lying on the body-bench in the tomb, and the cloth that covered Jesus’s head is in another place. Would grave robbers leave these cloths behind? One of the disciples sees all this and believes, but what he believes, we aren’t told. Then the two men go home.

Magdalene stays. Again, she’s alone in her grief, weeping outside the tomb. Then stooping to look inside again, she sees two angels sitting one at either end of Jesus’s body bench. They ask her, Woman why are you weeping? She tells them her new grief, but then turns to find him standing there. But she doesn’t recognise him. He asks her the same question the angels did, Woman why are you weeping?

She assumes he’s the grave-yard caretaker – the only person you might find there so early – and she asks him if he’s removed Jesus’ body. Why doesn’t she know it’s him? … There are other times in the gospels after Jesus has been raised where his other close friends don’t recognise him. It’s something about Jesus himself; at once different, yet very much himself. We’ll see this over the coming weeks.

Magdalene is the first to confront this bewildering mystery. One moment, she’s consumed with grief; the next, Jesus calls her by her name. Suddenly he’s got his hands full managing her joy. Stop holding on to me – trying to prise her loose.

The Gospels are written by eye-witnesses who couldn’t believe, but then they did. They tell us that Jesus rose from the dead physically. Some people have no trouble believing this; that Jesus rose and you could physically touch him; sit down and eat with him. Such faith exists; it’s not escapism or empty-headed naivety. It’s a gift. Some can’t risk believing it, though; knowing what death is; knowing the empty pain after someone precious is ripped from our life. How could we risk hoping for anything again when we fought to hope but in vain? The Easter Gospel tells us that because of Jesus, we can risk such hope.

I find it strange that the perspective that isn’t often represented in the Gospel stories of the resurrection is this simple, immediate belief that Jesus had risen as he said he would. No-one in today’s Gospel twigs to it at first – unless the disciple whom Jesus loved did – the one who reached the tomb first and saw and ‘believed’. But we’re not told what he believed.

So he and Peter have gone home, and Magdalene’s still at the tomb, alone again. But everything changes. Mary – My teacher – Stop holding on to me.

It began very early – so early that it was still dark. But for Mary Magdalene, the shadows parted at this moment. The agony was over! He tells her to stop holding on to him and to go and tell the others he was going to ascend to his Father and our Father, his God and ours. She’s the first apostle, and her message is astonishing Tell them I’m taking mortal life into the fullness of risen life with my God and your God; I’m connecting all of you directly and for ever with the source of your being!

It’s a message for us. My God and your God … means we’re directly connected with Jesus. And maybe shockingly that means we’re not going to be saved from dying – he wasn’t. But it does mean we can be set free from the hopelessness that imagines everything stops at death. It means we and our loved ones are freed like him to rise; to be, even now, God’s agents of new life and growth and nourishment for the nations; for the whole Earth that he came to live and die for.

Over the centuries, we whom Jesus has called by name have found this hope in ourselves – in our own callings – come to be convinced of it; so convinced we’ve faced their own deaths in his name; not as fanatics who take our own lives and the lives of others for reasons of their own, but as women and children and men so free that we can give our own lives in the service of others so they might live in his hope, his joy, his love.

Easter is the time we celebrate this gift to the world; the resurrected, ascended life that God always holds out to the Earth community. To find it, we have to be ready, like Jesus was, to let go of it. But that’s alright; you can see what became of death in his hands. That’s what he intends for us; for us, his loved ones and for ours; for the whole world. …  Easter means this: God loves us to life. And nothing, not even death, can stand in the way!   Amen.

Maundy Thursday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Maundy Thursday 2024 – John 13 1–17, 31b–35

The Last Supper that we read about in John’s Gospel happens on a different day from the Last Supper stories in the other Gospels. (Mt 26.17ff, Mk 14 12ff and Lk 22.7ff) For them, it’s the Passover meal. But in John, the Passover was not going to be eaten until the following evening – after Jesus’ crucifixion. (cf Jn 19.31f)

So on Maundy Thursday, the choice of John’s Gospel suspends the symbolism of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb which is so present in the other Gospels, and instead, we’re asked to focus on some of his final teachings.

Those teachings are given in the best possible way – first by example, and only then with words.

First, Jesus washes his friends’ feet – the steady friends and the flaky ones. He does this to show that genuine leadership in the community of Jesus’ followers is expressed not through domination but through humble service.

And while they, and we, are still in shock at what’s happened, then he says that that humble service is something we are not to express out of a sense of duty. It’s only real when it springs from genuine love; like his love for us.

We still find footwashing confronting and awkward. As it’s happening, maybe we’re a bit too bewildered about what it means to think about this as our love for each other – never mind for strangers.

Maybe we’re just meant to go ahead and do humble service, and over the years, to discover in ourselves that it’s the way we love. Maybe it does that for us.

I must say I puzzle about how we teach this to our children and to people exploring Christian faith. I can see no other way than involving them in it directly. I’m sure some young people might find it pretty gross. You have to be careful who you pair them up with. And people from some other cultures have very strong views about feet and heads.

We’ve just seen Jesus do what the servant of a middle-eastern household was expected to do for guests. What’s an equivalent today? Take a job below your station? Do community service? Volunteer for something you find embarrassing? Is this how we are to discover the love of Christ within us?

I don’t think we’re meant to overthink this. Self-forgetting for the sake of others seems to be a good starting point. So maybe this is where I should stop talking as we prepare to answer Jesus’ call, when he said to us – 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.        Amen.

Accept the yoke of obedience, and commit to do God’s perfect will.

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 5 B – Jrm 31 31-34, Ps 119 9-16, Heb5 5-14, John 12 20-33

Today’s gospel reading takes us a little bit out of sequence. Just before today’s scene there was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we’ll mark next Sunday. That scene ended with some exasperated Pharisees grumbling to each other: 19 …“You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

They didn’t know how truly they spoke, says John. In the very next verse – the one we began with today – we’re told that ‘…among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.21 They came to Philip … and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ These Greek Jews don’t come directly to Jesus, they go to Philip. And Philip doesn’t go straight to Jesus either. He goes to Andrew.

Is this a chain of access through social secretaries; the birth of Church bureaucracy? No, there’s more to it than that. Philip goes to Andrew with the foreigners’ request to see Jesus. What’s so special about Andrew? In John’s gospel, Andrew’s the first-named disciple of Jesus. John 1.40 He’s one of those two disciples of John the Baptist who were first to follow Jesus. He was also the first disciple to recognise Jesus’ true identity. In Jn 1.41, we see him find his brother, Simon Peter, and tell him, “We have found the Messiah.” Going back to Andrew, the gospel writer has taken us back to the beginning; to where Jesus was first recognised for who he was. Why?

John the evangelist is saying that with the request of foreigners to see Jesus, we’re at a new beginning in our understanding of who Jesus is; we’re at a turning point in the Gospel. By doing this, John helps us see what Jesus’ enigmatic answer might mean. 23 … “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Earlier, Jesus puzzled us by telling his mother – my hour has not yet come. 2.4 –at the wedding at Cana But today, he says his hour has come. And it has something to do with foreigners seeking him. Now Jesus’ mission broadens as he starts to become available to the wider world. But just how he’s going to be glorified is going to challenge us all. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jesus is telling his friends that it’s soon time for him to die. It must have bewildered them. Buoyed by the great triumph of the Palm Sunday procession, the disciples would have been filled with hopeful expectation. No-one would stand in their teacher’s way now! But suddenly they’re confronted by some of Jesus’ most solemn pronouncements. And they’re not just pronouncements about Jesus.

There’s the grain of wheat saying, but what Jesus says next calls his followers to join in his path to passion and death too. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Following Jesus means turning from our priorities to his; choosing the way of Jesus over the way of many instinctive choices we might make. We are disciples, students, followers of Jesus. In fact, together, we are him. He will die; he will give up everything – to bring life to the lost. And we who follow him need to be prepared for the same.

The call to be a disciple of Jesus is utterly uncompromising; but we can miss seeing that. We look back at all this through the great triumph of Easter. Easter filters our vision; it makes the passion and death of Jesus somehow less terrible for us; less demanding of us. But we can’t let that happen. We can’t pretend that any more than we can pretend that the suffering and evil of our time makes no call on us.

Greeks to Philip to Andrew to Jesus, John took us back to the beginning to alert us to a new beginning. That’s what we do each year as a Church at Holy Week and Easter. We go back to our beginning; to our sharing in the Cross of Christ at our baptism, where the power of evil to own us was broken, and we committed ourselves to let Christ’s goodness to work new life through us. That’s our new beginning, and we must always return to it. We heard Jeremiah describe it as a new covenant.

Let’s consider all this in words taken from the Church of South India’s covenant service. Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some suit our natural inclinations and material interests; others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us. Therefore let us make this covenant with God our own, trusting in the eternal promises and relying on divine grace. Let us pray: Lord God, in baptism, you brought us into union with Christ who fulfils your gracious covenant; and in bread and wine we receive the fruit of his obedience. So with joy we take upon ourselves the yoke of obedience, and commit ourselves to seek and do your perfect will. … I am no longer my own, but yours …

I remind myself that this is the prayer of people who, when they pray the Lord’s Prayer, literally ask only their bread for this day. Are we brave enough to make such a prayer our own?   Amen

Fearful decisions that can lead to a new life, new purposes and possibilities

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 4 / Mothering Sunday – Num 21 4-9, Jn 3 14-21

I remember Victor Borge talking in one of his skits about his grandfather who invented a cure for which there was no disease. Back to front ideas like that are puzzling and arresting. They certainly grab people’s attention.

There’s something back to front in this morning’s readings that seems to have a similar effect. God tells Moses to fashion a bronze image of a serpent, a creature scripture names as cursed. Gen 3.15 We heard Moses was told to raise a bronze serpent on a pole so people who’d been bitten by snakes could look at it and live. It worked, but on the face of it, it seemed like a reverse hair-of-the-dog remedy.

Jesus took up this image and compounded its strangeness one night when he was visited by a Pharisee called Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of the most senior Jewish religious figures at that time. He visited Jesus at night presumably so that no-one would notice. Jesus was someone the religious authorities were doing all they could to sideline and silence. To be caught visiting Jesus was not good public relations for a Pharisee. Nicodemus was taking quite a risk. In Jesus’ position, I think I’d have been relieved that at least one of the authorities might take me seriously and try to deepen the friendship. But not Jesus.

After baffling Nicodemus with his teaching about being born again, Jesus went on to confront him with an image of himself as being just like the cursed serpent of Moses up on the pole. He’s talking about his crucifixion, and the fact that his being raised on the cross is a means of healing for anyone who can truly see. Nicodemus certainly can’t truly see at the moment, but he will understand later. We know this because Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the women will be the only followers of Jesus brave enough to claim Jesus’ body from the cross and lay him to rest.

Today, Nicodemus shows us how embracing a change that you fear might spell your end is a decision that leads to new life, new purpose and new possibility. International women’s day on Friday celebrated many women who’ve demonstrated that to us; few more powerfully than Lowitja O’Donoghue, whose life was celebrated with a state funeral on that day. Today, we see Nicodemus risk his standing in his own community for the sake of an instinct that this dangerous Jesus might just be the one he should follow. … And of course, God took the risk too, loving us this way; he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Risk-taking is our calling and that calling comes from our risk-taking Lord. I pray that we open ourselves bravely to this adventure. Amen.