The gift we share of the breath of life


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 5A – Ez 37 1-14, Ps 130, Rm 8 6-11, Jn 11 1-45

Lazarus Sunday has been precious to me for a long time now. Every three years, we hear this story on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. In the Holy Land, the traditional Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem used to begin at Al ‘Azaria – Lazarus’s place – in the Biblical village of Bethany, over the far side of the Mount of Olives. The march began at Lazarus’s tomb – the place where, once upon a time, the people of that district were given a sign by Jesus that God’s love for us – God’s commitment to us – is stronger than death. The people of Bethany have never let the memory of this sign pass from knowledge.

On Palm Sunday nearly 30 years ago, my family walked the road from Bethany to Jerusalem amongst the enormous annual throng of Christians from the various Palestinian churches, and with a great many others who, like us, came from churches of all nations. Tragically, that way is now blocked by the separation wall, so Palestinian Christians who live beyond it can’t join in the march any more.

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from death to life has had added poignancy for me too since we attended a funeral in Papunya of one who died too young. Just like in the story of Lazarus, the whole community joined with the family, supporting them in wave after wave of heart-broken wailing. I felt myself longing there for the voice of Jesus to cry out again – to call our beloved friend back from death to life.

Jewish leaders and their community gathered with Mary and Martha and wept with them. The shared love and sadness of a whole community is both beautiful and shattering. John’s story tells us that Jesus joined with them in their weeping; that Jesus shares in our sadness as we mourn; Jesus also loves the ones we mourn.

This story also tells us that Jesus risks more than just sharing in our sadness. When he decides to respond to the call of Mary and Martha, his disciples remind him of the danger that confronts him there.  7 [when] he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8They … said to him, ‘Rabbi, the leaders of the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’

The American Lutheran scholar, Karoline Lewis writes that for John’s Gospel “it’s the raising of Lazarus to life that incites the plot for Jesus’ arrest and death 11:53, 57. In the verses which follow today’s reading about the raising of Lazarus, 11:46-57, the chief priests and the Pharisees are told what Jesus has done, and from that day on they planned to put him to death. More than that, the chief priests want to get rid of the evidence as well, and they plan to put Lazarus to death since it was on account of him that many of their people were deserting and were believing in Jesus 12:9-11. It’s Jesus’ claim, I am the resurrection and the life 11:25 that provokes his death in the Fourth Gospel.”

I attend many funeral services – few like that one in Papunya – but they all share a tension with this story from John’s Gospel. And unless the one who’s died was a person rich in years, the grief always has an element in it which says to Jesus what Martha and then Mary said to him. 21‘Lord, if you had been here, this one would not have died.‘ If Jesus loves us, why did this happen?

Into that tumult of feelings, and at the beginning of each funeral service, Jesus’s words cry out to us from this story: 25…‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ He asks us all, and I guess the answer varies for each one of us, from one day to the next.

Martha shared a faith in resurrection which had been nurtured in part, I assume, by our reading from the prophet Ezekiel today. It’s a vision of God’s power and will to raise the dead to life again; to restore us to our families and our friends. Ezekiel records something extraordinary though. Even after the bones have come together, the sinews, flesh and skin have come on them, and even the breath has restored them to life, God still refers to them as ‘these bones’. Ezekiel is telling us that their life, and ours, is entirely and always dependent on God – moment by moment. Without God, we are very dry bones.

In this vision, God addresses us directly:  12 Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” 

Then we will know.

It’s important for us to ponder all these things a week out from Palm Sunday. They raise questions we must face about our own life, and our death. What do we make too of these images and words which have shaped our faith and our values. What is our image of Jesus as we enter the week before his public self-offering? What is our understanding of resurrection?

Ezekiel and Jesus both make a distinction between mere resurrection or resuscitation and the fulness of life. And so we need to ask ourselves what we are doing with the gift we share of the breath of life. Are we only apparently living, like those reconstituted dry bones? If we are, can we hear the voice which calls us by name to come out to life again? Will we come out? Are we open to receiving abundant life? My prayer is that we are, and that we can open ourselves and others to this gift.  Amen

Mothering Sunday


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 4 A — Jn 9 1-41

Children’s wonderings

Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’.

Mother Earth – mud

The first human was made from the dust of the Earth – did Jesus make that man new eyes out of the mud?

Go and wash – and he did.


A man blind from birth. We just heard how Jesus gave him his sight. Despite the amazing, good things Jesus did, the religious authorities feared Jesus. They said they’d expel anyone from their faith community who followed Jesus. But we just saw the man born blind refuse to be cowed – like his parents were. After his interrogations and excommunication by the authorities, Jesus sought him out – and this second time, he could see him. And far from regretting his new outcast status, he declared his belief in Jesus, and worshipped him. The man born blind willingly chose the life of an outcast – something he’d known as a blind person all his life. That’s what it would cost him to follow Jesus. And he chose it.

It’s very much less challenging for us to follow Jesus. People say we’re God botherers, flat-earthers and fanatics. It’s taken for granted that we want to ram religion down innocent people’s throats; that followers of Jesus want to interfere with other people’s personal relationships; tell people who they can and can’t love. But Jesus wasn’t moralistic or judgmental like that, and for the most part, neither are his followers. We’re called to follow his life-example – his way – not a set of rules. The way he gave us was love. And he taught that way mainly by example.

We’ve seen Jesus meet the man born blind today, and far from judging him or forcing anything down his throat, he’s given him his attention, his time, and his love. That’s Jesus’ example: John gave us a ringside seat – really close – so we could actually feel the tension, then the joy, as his love prised open the shell of blindness and outsider status this man had lived in all his life. We saw all this so we could learn to do the same as Jesus; to give people acceptance, attention, time, love.

Many people carry terrible burdens. We know Jesus wants people freed from the tyranny of those burdens. He’s given us his healing gifts to offer, and his example of how it’s done – as he did for this man born blind, and for so many others. Jesus offers relief from that pain, that isolation, and a chance to start afresh – to be reborn. It’s happened for us. We know all that, and we know lots of people who struggle.

So will we choose to be the means by which they find Jesus’ healing love? The man born blind did it for others before he even knew what Jesus looked like.

He met Jesus, and he even invited Jesus’ enemies to get to know him. Can we consider that? Introduce people to him – or put another way, will we bring people’s questions to the one we know has the time and attention and love to truly address them; the one who takes them seriously when they are crushed by fear and loneliness; the one who will be with them their whole life long?

Let’s help people meet this Jesus – the one we’ve got to know. Let’s help these people meet the real Jesus who has time for people – let’s help these people meet the Jesus who offers acceptance, attention, time and love; Jesus who said he hadn’t come to judge people, but to give us abundant life. Let’s help people meet this Jesus and let his love do it’s healing, freeing work in many more lives. Amen

Mothering Sunday Thanksgiving

Dear God

We thank you for mothers. We thank you for all those who care for us in quiet, often unrecognised ways; we thank you for all those who care for others in patience and love.

We’re sorry for those times when we’ve failed to care for others and we pray that you will teach us to care as you do and that you will hold all mothers and carers in the light of your presence and guide them to you. Amen.

This prayer was produced by the Mother’s Union. Used with kind permission.

 Mothering Sunday Simnel Cake and Posy Blessing

Loving God, giver of all joy: We ask that you bless this cake and these posies, that they may be to us symbols of our communion with you and with each other. As they were once scattered over our land as blossoms and blooms, grasses, vines, trees and cane yet are now one, so let us in our diversity be your one redeemed people, and your delight.  Amen.


Worship in Spirit and Truth


Rev’d Susan Straub

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42


Most of us can remember an experience where we reached a moment of truth, a full realisation of our true situation – for better or worse. It usually initiates action of some sort. Consider that moment when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and saw that they were naked. Reach for the fig leaves! We’re seeing ourselves as God sees us – nothing hidden, nowhere to hide – the naked truth revealed because we’re face to face with the living God.

However, we’re God’s people and in a covenant relationship with promises of commitment on both sides. Both may see the truth. Consider that moment when God heard the cries of the wilderness-wandering Hebrews in their thirst, for water … and for faithfulness from their God! God seeing Godself as seen by God’s people, nothing hidden, nowhere to hide. The omnipotent One willing to be revealed. God face to face with lives created in God’s own image:  both thirsting and thirsting for righteousness, impartial justice, and above all, faithfulness. Do the right thing and keep your promise. Stick to the covenant we made. Show your love through faithfulness. Let us trust you: don’t let us down!

Then we have moments of truth which bring joy and delight, so rejoice and show thanks! Consider that moment when a woman of Samaria, that once a great city of the northern kingdom of Israel, met Jesus of Nazareth.  She related to God under the covenant canopy of truth and faith, thirsting for God’s impartial justice.

John 4:5-42

Jesus was travelling from Judea to Galilee and had to go through Samaria. Tired out by his journey, he sat by Jacob’s well at the noon hour. A woman of that country came alone to draw water, and he said to her:  “Give me a drink” and they argued together.  We all know that this was highly unusual: a Jewish rabbi and a Samaritan woman, discussing, debating, arguing.

Then came the moment of truth. The woman became aware that she was known, that he saw her: nothing hidden from him.  ‘Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”’  She was pulled up short. How did he know? Surprised, probably, nevertheless she accepted what Jesus said as the truth: no denial, or dissembling, Her faith stood that test! Then she uttered a truth to Jesus about his people. She put the faith of God working in Jesus to the test, just as the Hebrews in the wilderness had done. “We thirst. Give us water or we’ll die.”

The Samaritan woman said: “Our ancestors (that is, the people of the northern kingdom of Israel) worshipped on THIS mountain, but YOU (that is, the people of the southern kingdom of Judah) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

In her eyes, the sin of Jesus’ people was that of making the observance of the whole law almost impossible for them. One law broken was the law broken. The Samaritans had the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible containing the law. However, the southern kingdom of Judah centralised sacrificial worship to the temple in Jerusalem, which was a long way for  Samaritans to travel.

She voiced the deep grief and resentment of her people’s loss of this vital part of their identity: taken by the people to whom they were most closely related spiritually. The Samaritans thirsted for recognition from the Jews of the truth of their claim to belong also to the people of God, to Israel.

Most unusually, this woman was not afraid to answer back, arguing with the truth as she saw it to this Jewish man. Jesus said to the woman, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

What has Jesus done for her with his words? He has heard that the Samaritans wanted to pursue righteousness according to the law and given her hope. God’s impartial justice transcended the current realities, ‘neither this … nor that’. He gave a glimpse of ‘beyond’ where things could and would be different. He pointed to a beyond, where neither his people nor her people could claim a religious imperative tied to place.  Nothing would change her historical or current personal circumstances immediately. But she could be inwardly freed from their shackles, transcend them, based on a righteousness of faith, hope, and love. Faith that needs would be met ‘I’ll give you living water’, hope for the future ‘believe … the hour is coming …’, and love ‘… the Father seeks such … as … worship in spirit and truth’, like you, not necessarily those who keep the law alone.

Whether she was guilty of sexual impropriety or had been subjected to the loss of husbands by death or divorce, she was loved and shown a saving way. She could worship the God of Samaritans and Jews in spirit and truth within her current circumstances, in her life, and in any place. Wherever she and anyone else worshipped in spirit and truth, God would be present.  Grasping this saving way, she spoke of the Messiah, and Jesus confirmed her in the truth she thought she saw: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  He was the sign for her that God was there at the well. Not only that, but the saviour of the Jews was her saviour, too:  just as she was.

Seeing this spring of life begin to assuage her thirst, was food indeed for Jesus: a spiritual food more satisfying than ordinary food.  Letting go of resentment, the woman joyfully took the living, life-giving water now bubbling inside her, back to her city, and told what had happened at the old well. More Samaritans came and Jesus gave them that same spiritual food and drink. Then the Samaritans said to the woman: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”  He was more than the Messiah for whom his people thirsted. The Samaritans prophesied that Jesus is the Saviour for all persons and peoples thirsting for faith and hope in an uncertain or hostile world – thirsting for loving-kindness that releases spiritual bonds and brings forth joy and right-living.

It is for we who have experienced such loving-kindness to communicate to those who thirst – those grieving, weeping, withdrawn, isolated, shouting, or acting out of their spiritual poverty – that we have met this Saviour and offer them the experience of a certain Samaritan woman at a well on a certain day at noon who worshipped in spirit and truth.


Love by direct action


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 2A – Gen 12 1-4a, Ps 121, Rom 4 1-5, 13-17, John 3 1-17

What does a preacher do when confronted with two of the most important passages of scripture in the Bible? They are the call of Abraham, Gen 12 1-4a, and John 3.16-17 – the verses we normally remember starting with ‘God so loved the world…’.

I’d better start by saying what’s so important about them for us and for everyone.

In short, without these six verses, we certainly wouldn’t be here today. If Abram hadn’t been called, and if God hadn’t given his only-begotten Son, there’d be no Judaism, Christianity or Islam today. We wouldn’t know that God loves the Earth and loves all the people and creatures who live on it. So they’re very significant words. They record the amazing, courageous sacrifices that got us all here – sacrifices on Abram’s part, and on Jesus’ part. So first to Abram (later renamed Abraham).

When God told Abram to leave his country, kindred and ancestral identity, and go to the land God would show him, I feel that obeying that call put Abram in a similar position to those poor, uninsured people of the recent floods: taking only what can be salvaged, and setting out on a new life with no idea of where it will lead. Except Abram did it by choice. In the face of extraordinary risk, Abram answered God’s call; Abram believed God’s promise.

The promise – God promised Abram, a childless seventy-five-year-old, that he would become the ancestor of a great nation. And as well as being blessed himself, all the families of the Earth would be blessed through him. Would we have gone? Abram had to be prepared to trust God and set out – who knew where! And the last half verse tells us that he did. He believed what God told him, he set out, and the rest is history.

There’s very little detail in this story. We don’t know how Abram learned to hear God. He had no Bible, no Jewish Law to guide him, no tradition of belonging to God’s Chosen People, and he’d never seen the Promised Land, whatever that was. No wonder Paul was so moved by Abram’s faith. In Rom. 4.5, (But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness), Paul sums up what Abram believed. If I may paraphrase Paul’s words, Abram, who’d done nothing we know of to earn God’s trust, believed that God trusted him. And Abram trusted that God would make him and his, as yet, non-existent descendants God’s means of blessing everyone else on Earth, regardless of whether they knew God or not. Abram believed all that!

But why would God want to do all that? These verses give us much more than just the origin story of the three Abrahamic faiths. They tell us that God loves the Earth and every living thing; that God’s motive for calling Abraham – for engaging with us at all – is Love for us and for all the Earth.

If you ever wanted evidence of genuine continuity between the Old and New Testaments, here it is. God’s unearned love for everyone; God’s grace. Pure Gospel!

Which brings us to those wonderful verses from today’s Gospel – John 3.16-17. What’s so important about them?

First of all, let’s hear them in a more accurate translation. 16 … God loved the world in this way*: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

(*Many versions make the mistake of translating the Greek here as an adverb of degree – ‘how much’ – rather than manner – ‘how’. In the 200+ other times this word occurs in the New Testament, it is an adverb of manner – how, in this way, thus. So the HCSB version quoted here gives it that form in English.)

That’s how God loves the world: by direct action: by giving Jesus. And Jesus is sent into the world not to judge, but to save! We need to hear that loud and clear. The only judgement this part of John’s Gospel describes is the loss involved for any people who choose not to accept this love. Judgement is by our choice, not God’s. And as far as needing salvation is concerned, a flip through the daily newspaper should make it clear how desperate is our plight.

So these verses record the fact of another son leaving everything to go out and bring God’s blessing to all families of Earth. That’s the connection between these two stories: sacrifice of the deepest intimacy – the sacrifice of voluntary separation – for the sake of strangers. I can only vaguely imagine what it cost Abram to set out on his journey. I can’t imagine what it cost Jesus. If the love of God is the source of all the love there is between all living creatures and their young – us included – what could possibly describe the cost Jesus bore to choose his journey to the Cross?

So these are some of the most important scriptures in the Bible. Love is their message; God reaching out to the whole world in love to bless, to save – us. And that love is a verb; real love is an action, not just a feeling. Direct action.

Everyone is a bottomless pit when it comes to needing love. We have this message to share, and it’s a message of limitless love – enough and more to fill any number of bottomless pits. God’s love can be experienced by acts of justice, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, risk-taking for others.

And now it’s our turn bring that message to the world – by direct action, like God does. Amen

No food for thought


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 1 A – Gen 2.15-17, 3.1-7: Matt 4.1-11

Many years ago, a very small daughter and I happened to be talking about this morning’s ‘forbidden fruit’ story. She said, ‘Dad, I don’t think Adam and Eve could have eaten the whole fruit. I think they probably only took a bite each and left the rest.’ I asked her why she thought that, and she said, ‘Because everyone thinks different things are good and evil.’ She made good sense. Everyone who’s come to that fruit since those two did – we’ve each bitten off a different bit of it, and so we each have a different angle on what we think is good or evil. Sometimes, agreeing on even basic things can be like pulling teeth – to stay with that bite theme.

Today’s stories are about the temptation to replace God with ourselves – to make God redundant – to remake God into our own image. How can we be tempted to do that? The tempter in the garden tries to make the woman believe God is a liar; to believe God is petty and selfish. From there, it’s only a very small step to imagine that we could do God’s job ourselves, and do it better. All it takes is a little bite of extra knowledge.

When we acquire any new knowledge, one of the foolish things we can do is imagine we’ve got the whole picture. That’s what the serpent tempted the woman to do; to imagine that she and the man might suddenly have, or even be, the whole picture. They weren’t: as my little one said, they must only have taken one bite each.

It did give some knowledge. We’re told that after eating, they knew their own nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to conceal their nakedness from each other. Concealment; lying entered the world. It brought division from each other, and later, we’ll also read that they hid from God.

The immediate effect of swallowing a lie was to divide them from God and from each other – the man would later blame the woman. Their primary relationships with each other and with God were damaged. God said death would come from eating this fruit. Lying and division were its immediate effects. They are the first nails in the coffin of relationship, risking the living death of loneliness.

The serpent’s message was like that old slogan: ‘Knowledge is power’. Fill yourselves with knowledge – quite literally; eat it, said the serpent. Power was the temptation in this forbidden fruit story; power was offered as a bribe to trick the woman and the man into losing their primary relationships. ‘Eat – fill yourself with God’s power. You will be like God.’ It sounds a bit like ads for those fat burning tablets that are on the market nowadays – take these for an instant Godlike body. Don’t bow to mere reality; eat like a pig and still knock ’em dead in your bathers.

Spiritual challenges address us as living, physical beings; as people in relationship. Today’s Gospel is the mirror of the forbidden fruit story. It has to do with food and loyalty too. Genesis is about the lie that filling yourself with God’s knowledge can make you independent of God. The Gospel is about the truth that freely emptying yourself of God’s power, doing it for the sake of those you love, is to be like God.

So it’s no coincidence that we see Jesus begin his story of healing the Genesis story when he fasts. And in the extremity of his need, the temptations to assert God-like power come to him too. But he resists them.

What do fasting and the power to resist temptation have to do with each other? And by fasting, I don’t just mean from food. We can fast from speech, from self-righteous anger, from other bad habits – and we have six or seven weeks to replace them with good habits.

On an empty stomach, with no prospect of a meal-break, you have time to dwell with aspects of yourself you hadn’t noticed since those endless summer holidays of your childhood. Boredom; aimlessness; they are the realm of acutely heightened senses, of self-doubt; demons.

Fasting from routines and habits, you wrestle with demons that, only recently, you doubted even existed. But the point is that slowly – ever so slowly – as your weakness increases, you discover a power that is not yours. God’s power. You learn to rely on God.

You’ve emptied yourself; you’ve opened yourself to being filled by God. You’ve discovered not power, but service; not competition, but community. And at that point, you’re discovering interdependence and vulnerability as cornerstones to the relationship of love and freedom we find together in the service of Jesus. Amen.


Reject all selfish living


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 7A – Matt. 5 38-48

In the Sermon on the Mount (SoM), Jesus is talking to his followers; to us. Jesus is teaching us how he wants us to live as the community of people we call the Church. His teaching is deeply challenging for mature Christians and brand new ones. Jesus gives us many confronting teachings which unsettle us very deeply.

It’s not for nothing that John Stott called the SoM a manifesto for a Christian counter culture: turn the other cheek; give more to those who take from you; go the extra mile, give to all who beg or want to borrow from you; love your enemies; be indiscriminately good to all, just like God is – be like God. If the Church truly embodied all the actions and attitudes Jesus describes in the SoM, we’d be radically different from every other culture on earth. The Church would truly reflect the character, the courage, the example and the love of Christ. But we resist.

American Baptist minister Amy Butler tells how one Sunday, instead of preaching a sermon she’d written, she decided to ‘preach’ the SoM — three full chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus. In coffee hour after worship, several people came up to her to tell her they really did not like or agree with some of the parts of her sermon that day. Three chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.

This is not an isolated incident. I’ve experienced the same reaction in Europe and here too. The SoM calls us to such a different way of being that we really struggle with it. We know it’s right to be peaceful, generous, compassionate, to speak out for justice, to turn the other cheek and not retaliate, not to judge others, to follow the golden rule: all of that. But doing all that makes you incredibly vulnerable, and we fear being taken for mugs. Imagine what life would be like for such push-overs! Actually we don’t have to imagine it; just remember what happened to Jesus.

Our choice is to follow him and risk hurt to share his love, or to cave in to market forces. Some parts of the Church are market driven. Their message is barely distinguishable from the advertising fantasies of our surrounding culture.

In the SoM, Jesus calls us to be distinct. We hear that call most distinctly and most provokingly in our baptismal liturgy. I was talking with a friend last week who talked about how confronting they and others find some of the words at the baptismal presentation. Do you reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust? I reject them all. Do you renounce Satan and all evil? I renounce all that is evil.

It’s very uncompromising language and we might shrink from it. But if you think about the consequences of selfish living, dishonesty and injustice, that’s what we should be shrinking from: global and national inequities in the basic necessities of life, preventable famines, wars, enslavement and violation of children, women and first nations people, vulnerable workers being deliberately used as the consumables in production processes, and our ecological catastrophe – all from selfish living.

At our baptism, we’re all called to reject those ways of being; to renounce that evil. Babies have sponsors promising to help them do that. And as a Church family, we receive and welcome new Christians into a community where we have all made those commitments. The community of Christ is supposed to reject that evil: we’re called to build a haven where new Christians are safe to grow and flourish. We’re called to be different; distinct; in the world, but not of it. A gift to the world.

Imagine if we did have that integrity; everywhere. Imagine that every poor, displaced, vulnerable, abused person could approach any church, any Christian household, and be sure of receiving relief from their misery. Imagine if every criminal could approach any church, any Christian household and find the acceptance and support needed to turn around and live freely as a follower of Jesus; not because they or we had earned it, but just because God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

The SoM is bewildering; challenging. And we’ll arrived at the season of Lent only one chapter into it. Let’s agree to continue to read it; to struggle with it and to argue with it; and to let Jesus’ words continue to challenge us to remember what kind of community he has called us to be.   Amen

Jesus calls us to cultivate respect, trust, humility and integrity


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany +6a – Deut 10 12-22 – Ps 119 1-8 1 Cor 3 1-9 Mt 5 21-37

At our Zoom Bible study last Tuesday, we discussed today’s (the next Sunday’s) readings as usual. We were covering lots of good ground and enjoying our conversation. But when we got to the Gospel, I believe the polite expression is that ‘the switchboard lit up’. You’d expect that, because we’re still reading the Sermon on the Mount (SoM). It’s full of Jesus’ most challenging and treasured teachings.

The switchboard lit up particularly because today’s part of the SoM has words about divorce. For a long time, the way the Church has misinterpreted Bible teaching about divorce has hurt people who’ve suffered marriage breakdown, regardless of the cause of the breakdown. And to add further injury, the Church has in the past invoked these teachings to withhold its blessing from divorced people when they want to enter a new marriage. So these words are full of bitter hurt for many people.

It’s a bitter irony that the Church’s unjust treatment if divorcees has been based on teaching that Jesus gave to confront cruel abuses of divorce law in his own time. A man in Jesus’ time could divorce his wife simply by handing her a written statement to that effect in front of a few witnesses – for ‘any reason’; for burning a meal; if he didn’t find her attractive enough. (Matt 19.3-12) Divorcing a woman in those days left her without any support or means of living. Divorcing your wife ‘for any reason’ was abusive. Jesus challenged this: he confronted its perpetrators and its proponents.

Yet over centuries, far from confronting injustice and abuse in marriages, the Church has counselled abused partners to stay in marriages where it wasn’t safe for them or their children to be. That’s because the Church chose to understand these sayings as Jesus simply being more strict about staying in marriages than his contemporaries were.

To an extent, this is understandable when reading this passage where Jesus was upping the ante about several matters. Jesus’ words about divorce here come among a series of six so-called antitheses:

Thesis:  You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times THIS … Antithesis:  But I say to you THIS.

Jesus is challenging people’s assumptions about the Law. But the particular people he’s challenging – as always – are the entitled ones whose privilege somehow makes them imagine they can misuse weaker people with impunity. Jesus is not looking to imprison vulnerable people in unsafe relationships; he’s challenging people who misuse the Law to make others vulnerable in the first place. The things Jesus challenges are all to do with self-entitlement and misuse of others.

When we look at all the things Jesus confronts in today’s passage, it helps to remember that Matthew is aiming these sayings at members of his church community. He’s saying that being angry or insulting or abusive to another follower of Jesus is not on.

In our wider Australian community, we see the fatal potential of entitled anger or contempt in all our domestic violence, in our road rage, in our online trolling and in political tribalism. The resulting deaths and injuries show what it means to dehumanise another person in our heart, and to imagine that’s okay.

There’s no place in the Christian community – or any society for that matter – for the sort of anger or disrespect that harbours within it the potential for harm. In the Church, we don’t yell at each other without sincerely apologising as soon as possible afterwards. We don’t belittle others; we of all people should know that we have no grounds to be contemptuous, because it’s the heart of our faith to acknowledge that we all need God’s grace. Yet the angry, entitled, contemptuous behaviour of many Christians is often indistinguishable from people of no faith

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew presents Jesus explaining how a repentant person ready for God’s rule should live(Keener 160) Angry, entitled, contemptuous behaviour has no place in such a life.

Repentance means to turn from sin and face God: to choose to live consciously in the presence of God. That’s what we see spelt out in today’s Gospel. The Law said (and still says) don’t murder. But Jesus says turn from nursing the anger and contempt that can lead to murder. The Law said don’t violate marriages. But Jesus says turn from nursing the lust that can lead to acting that out. The Law in Jesus’ time said men could initiate divorce for any reason. But Jesus tells us to turn from nursing the delusion that God wouldn’t mind our motives or the violation we’d perpetrate if we did that. The Law said (and still says) don’t swear falsely. But Jesus says turn from the delusion that God might turn a blind eye in our case. It’s important to God and to the community that every member can be trusted to be a person of integrity.

How can we be a community of repentant people ready for God’s rule?

Today, we heard Jesus call us to cultivate respect, trust, humility and integrity. In short, grace. I invite you to picture in your mind’s eye one person to whom you might show a special measure of grace this week. May God give us all the integrity to live into our high call.        Amen

We are to be a lamp in the darkness


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 5a – Mt 5 13-20

Jesus said: Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Mt 5.16 That’s an amazing charge; and amazing sentence; the goodness of God; the light of Christ – people are meant to see it through you and me. Or even more daunting, how we live is supposed to affect people so profoundly that they’ll see God in our lives and seek God for themselves.

So what is it we’re meant to do that will have this extraordinary effect on people? Are they meant to see us heading off here each week and then want to experience God for themselves just because they see us do that? Are they meant to come to church with us and see us praying and singing – and because of that, will they suddenly have an experience of God that makes them break forth in praise? Would that constitute the sort of life-changing experience that makes people burst out in praise of God. Well sometimes, yes. But isn’t it normally a more blinding light – an overwhelming, transforming realisation; some sort of Epiphany? What is that light? How do people experience it? In this season of Epiphany, the central symbol is light – light shining in the darkness which:-

Light which drives away fear and replaces it with peace;

Light which drives away ignorance and replaces it with understanding and tolerance;

Light which drives away deception and replaces it with truth;

Light which drives away despair and replaces it with hope;

Light which exposes bad motives, revealing their selfishness and injustice, and enabling equity and justice to flourish.

When light makes peace drive away fear, when light makes hope drive away despair, when light makes justice drive away oppression, then kindness drives away isolation and people rejoice; people feel gratitude; people their own selves are being given back – their dignity and their worth. And those feelings and re-births give glory to the God who inspires and enables all such blessings. But how are you and I meant to be involved in all that?

I think that today and last week, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount tells us how we are to be involved in all that in a very surprising way.

Last week, we heard the beatitudes. Jesus declared blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled, persecuted, and falsely maligned on account of Jesus. He declares all of them blessed – which means they’re as much a source of blessing as people receiving blessing.

For Jesus, such people are true disciples. Somehow our weaknesses and our desire for peace and goodness enables the Kingdom light to shine through us. It’s harder still to imagine that some of these conditions are really things Jesus treasures in us; that he sees our weaknesses are his opportunities to shine through us. Harder still to imagine them as qualities that mean we shine with God’s light. How can we believe we are blessed if we feel unworthy, grief-stricken, sinful or persecuted and misrepresented? That’s what’s so surprising about this first part of the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus is saying it’s true; that’s how we shine.

This year, I’m reading a commentator – Craig Keener – who believes that Jesus means exactly what he says. He hears Jesus telling us today that if we have these feelings – feelings that, as Elizabeth said last week, no society actually values or respects or counts as important – if we have these feelings and don’t hide them from others, Keener reckons that Jesus says that can make us Kingdom salt and light. Which means that we can effectively communicate to the world that the Kingdom is available to anyone. Even, and especially to people who feel unworthy, grief-stricken, sinful or persecuted or misrepresented! I think Keener is right, and that’s a wonderful gift we bear. Our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities are our gifts.

If we’re able to be open to ourselves and others about where we are vulnerable, and about our hopes for better things, then we’re authentic; we are real; we’re not hiding behind any sort of mask. And being open to this vulnerability in ourselves opens us to our need for God’s strength and love, and it opens us to being compassionate towards – well everyone – because we’re all in the same boat.

As an aside, this helps me come to terms with the frightening words that our Gospel finished with today about the Law and our righteousness – that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees; how?! Who can obey the 613 laws?

Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares that love of God and neighbour is what keeps the Law. Matt 22.34-40 The Law and the Prophets hang from our love of God and neighbour. When we open up to our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, and know we’re safe in Jesus’ arms, and so become able to risk the vulnerabilities named in the Beatitudes, we can love God and neighbour; we can be salt and light, because we can recognise we’re in this together. We can be compassionate. And that’s a wonderful wellspring of love.

We are the ones who have the awesome privilege of being named the carriers of Christ’s love. I’ve always thought Jesus is the light of the world, but here he is telling us that it’s we who are that light too. We are to be a lamp in the darkness – a lit-up city on a hill – an approachable beacon of peace, hope, justice, trust, love. So, during the season of Epiphany, our focus is on the way we embody that baby boy – and everything we saw him become – in a world that is desperately in need of all the qualities that his light can offer. I find that a staggering privilege, and a daunting, inspiring trust. We don’t have to be anyone else but ourselves. Thanks be to God! Amen

Living Micah’s way or the way of the Beatitudes.


Rev’d Elizabeth McWhae

4th Sunday after Epiphany, Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12


As I have reflected upon the readings for today I have been struck by the question. How does God want us to live? I think our readings from Micah, 1 Corinthians, and Matthew can shed some light on this question, as I hope to show you. So let’s get started.


Let’s consider Micah first. He lived in a small town about 23 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He was a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. He prophesied during the precarious period of the fall of Israel to the Assyrians, around 722 BC. During this time both Israel and Judah were kingdoms suffering tumults within and without. Micah’s words had two main focuses. The judgment and fall of Israel and Judah and a future restoration of God’s people.

The reading we have today is set in the context of a metaphorical court-room scene. God has a controversy with his people. Charges are being brought against them. God is saying, after all I have done for you people of Israel, you still are wondering how I want you to live?

And the people ask, With what shall I come before the Lord…..shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? But God is not interested in what sacrifices the people will offer, the things they offer. God is interested in the people themselves, what they will do. So the answer to the question how does God want us to live is not, bring more sacrificial offerings to appease God but this, He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.


Many centuries later when Jesus appeared on the scene, he became the living example of what it meant to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. And he called disciples and expected them to live like this as well. And he calls us to live the same way today. This is where our reading from Matthew is relevant. The Beatitudes, as they are called, are essentially a description of what doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God are all about. They are a blueprint that answers the question, how does God want us to live?

The difficulty is that the beatitudes are not an easy blueprint for the world that we live in. They are asking us to live in a way that is almost diametrically opposed to our culture and often our nature as human beings. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. In our world we do not applaud the meek. We think they are weak. We applaud those who are strong. Those who get ahead. Those who are important. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are often regarded as religious zealots and mocked. Those who are merciful are regarded as the exception, rather than the rule. .And who are the pure in heart? What does this even mean to us? Blessed are the peacemakers, as the war continues in Ukraine, and the world refugee crisis continues to escalate. And who wants to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake or reviled because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ? Not many of us, I am guessing.

My point is that to actually live the beatitudes is very countercultural for us, and yet if we are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, this is what we are being asked to do.


Let me add that I do not think we are the only people to struggle with living Micah’s way or the way of the beatitudes. I think the church at Corinth had exactly the same issues as us. Let me remind you that they would not have had the luxury we have of Matthew’s record of the beatitudes. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written roughly 30 or 40 years before the Gospel of Matthew was compiled. They just had the Old Testament and Paul’s letters to work with. So how does Paul convince them to be followers of Jesus and understand how they should live. His answer is to talk about the cross of Jesus. For Paul the crucifixion was the epitome of what it meant to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God. He says to the people at Corinth, the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Paul is saying to the Corinthians, in order to be saved you need to be broken, as Jesus was broken on the cross. You will embrace God when there are no other options, when all is lost. That is when the cross will stop seeming foolishness and will start to make sense to you.


We should not kid ourselves. To live justly, kindly, and humbly is not easy, and it never has been. The model Jesus set for his followers led to a cross remember. By the world’s standards of fame, the cult of celebrity, social media influencers, wealth, superficiality, cybercrime, phone addiction, food waste, body image obsession and the list goes on, Micah and Jesus hardly get a look in. But, the cross of Jesus and his way of life have not disappeared. They are still the gold standard for those who identify as

Christians. How do we as individuals and as a community live out Micah’s call to justice, loving-kindness, and humility or Matthew’s words of the Beatitudes? That’s what we need to figure out, living in a society and a world that does think the cross of Jesus is foolish or just irrelevant?

 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption……

Follow Jesus anew


Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 3A – Matt 4 12-25

Children: The baby possum and Mum reunited – I don’t know how many of you got to read Barbara’s email last Friday week, but please do. Barbara told a story of a ringtail possum joey that she and her cat Wolfie rescued. The tiny possum must have fallen off its Mother’s back.

Barbara wrote that the baby possum made a hissing clicking sound, which is its distress call. Possum rescue people came to help Barbara get this joey reunited with its Mum, and they made a recording of its distress call. ‘Then, after dusk, with the joey tucked up in a pouch, they walked around playing the recording and looking for a possum to show some interest. If a possum does respond, they place the baby in a box attached to a very long pole and hold it up as near as possible to the adult possum to see if it will come down for the baby.’ They were out for four nights looking for the mother, but ‘after several false alarms they found her on a neighbour’s property and mama and joey (or Joanne, in this case) were reunited.’

People have distress calls too; we’ll hear one from today’s Psalm. The writer was surrounded by enemies and cried out, 9O Lord, hear my voice when I cry: have mercy upon me and answer me. I’m sure God heard that distress call: and did something about it.

I want you to remember two things. First, we all have different voices, and we believe that God recognises each one – yours and mine and everyone’s. And second, if anyone’s too sad or sick to cry out, God wants us to cry out for them – help them cry out and find help – like Barbara and her friends did for that little possum. God will hear you when you cry out for yourself, or for anyone else.

Sermon:     I talked with the children about distress calls – like the one we read in the Psalm. It’s really important that we hear distress calls and respond to them. In the Gospel, we heard another kind of call. Jesus found Simon and Andrew, then James and John and he called them, saying ‘Follow me’. And they did, immediately. They left everything and took up their new calling – their vocation.

Jesus called those four fishers to follow him. And the example he gave them to follow was: 1, to preach the same message that landed John the Baptist in prison, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ – that was risky; 2 to teach in synagogues and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom – that would mean trouble too; and 3 to cure every disease and every sickness among the people; not for the faint hearted. Simon and Andrew, James and John were called to follow Jesus, as he put it, as fishers. Their fishing changes from hunting fish to a search and rescue operation for people: to net people to safety from the trials and dangers of life.

There’s a definite link between Jesus’ call to follow him and the distress calls we thought about with the children. Jesus was building a team to work with him and respond to the distress of people trying to live up to a religious system where they were told they had to earn God’s acceptance and love. And he and his disciples shared everyone’s distress as they endured the corrupt, dangerous rule of Herod Antipas. And Jesus called his team to work like him responding compassionately to people who struggled with illnesses, disabilities and spiritual burdens. Jesus is a team player. He called Simon, Andrew, James, John, and he calls you and me to follow him and, like him, to get alongside people and face their burdens with them: as fishers, to net them into the safety of the Kingdom. Jesus’ call – follow me – is his call to us as well. So how are we to respond?

At Christmas I said we study the Gospels and the stories of Jesus to learn to be like him – like Simon, Andrew, James and John did, to learn his passions and his motivations, his methods and his priorities: to learn from Jesus how to show everyone just how much God loves them and us.

It’s always shocking how even a few days of illness can make us doubt God’s love for us, never mind chronic debilitating conditions. The people Jesus cured didn’t just get better and carry on. They experienced God’s love for them. That meant they were healed in more ways than they imagined, not just cured of their presenting condition!

And that’s a major part of the vocation we’re called to. In a way, it’s part of the justice focus of Jesus’s ministry that people who are suffering should be relieved of it as soon as possible. But in our busyness, it’s easy put compassion on the back-burner and to lose touch with Jesus as our foundation. Following him is a constant re-connecting process. Reading the Good News each week, like new Christians, we renew our passion and our understanding for this vocation – this thing Jesus calls us to do with our lives.

This re-focusing – re-newing – re-starting process is something we find Jesus modelling more than once in the Gospels. And today’s Gospel records one of his new starts. It began this time with Jesus hearing of the imprisonment of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas (probably in nearby Sepphoris; Herod’s temporary capital). Upon hearing this, Jesus withdrew from Nazareth to relaunch his mission down by Lake Galilee. His new start after that withdrawal signalled an explosion in new ministry; it’s something of a pattern in this Gospel. Mt 12.15f, 14.13f, 15.21f

Two things in the past week have made me ponder this withdrawal – restart pattern. One was the weekly email from Bower Place, a well-known psychology teaching practice in Adelaide. They wrote about New Year’s resolutions, saying it’d be better if our resolutions weren’t about taking on new things, but rather about dumping things that undermine us. One thing they advised was to put our phones out of reach for several hours a day so we could be present to people who are actually physically with us. – like the Gospel’s withdrawal, re-start message.

The other thing that made me ponder this withdrawal – restart pattern is the stonework that’s happening in the rectory right now. Peter, Zac and Kim are getting rid of the rising salt damp that’s been fretting plaster away from walls in several rooms. The method they’re using is called undersetting, and it’s astonishing; I’ll show you later if you’d like. Starting at floor level, the stonemasons remove the first six or eight courses of bricks and stone from the bottom of a wall, everything infected by the salt damp. Amazingly, the wall doesn’t fall down, but stays suspended above the hole. Then they put down an impervious plastic barrier and lay new bricks on it to rebuild back up to the wall, hanging above. – also analogous to the Gospel’s withdrawal, re-start message.

So, New Year’s pruning resolutions and the act-of-faith shown in undermining a wall to repair it – they give me a helpful, more courageous perspective on today’s Gospel, where we saw Jesus withdraw strategically from his vulnerable home-base only to explode out of the blocks from a new base with an invigorated mission.

We were recalled to that mission with him today – 1. Proclaiming repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven, 2. Teaching in places where people gather and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, and 3. Curing … all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.

These three ministries take courage and energy to get on with; a freedom from inhibition and very clear priorities. And they need a regularly renewed, fresh, clear sense of who Jesus is – the one who calls us to work with him, and shows us how to do it.

So does today’s Gospel challenge any habits that disconnect us from Jesus and each other? Are we smothering our spirits under busyness or habits of uncompassion? Is there any salt damp rising to dissolve our ways of being disciples?

Jesus left behind a toxic environment in Nazareth and started again in a new home. He built a team of co-workers to join in his mission to turn people’s lives around to the free Kingdom of Heaven, to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and grace where people gathered for worship, and to bring healing to needy, suffering people. The messages I’ve heard from the psychologists and the stonemasons this week align with Jesus’ decision to cut loose from old danger and decay, and freed from them, to follow him anew, turning other lives around to experience his love, his wisdom and his healing.

Have we received a new perception of Jesus today? Has the Gospel challenged anything in our assumptions about the way we follow him – even foundational assumptions? And if so, what do you think we might do with our old ways of thinking; our old ways of doing things?

Let’s pray, and then observe a time of silence.

Inviting God, you call us to follow in many ways:

  • to witness with public deeds of justice;
  • to the quiet work of companionship;
  • to proclaim your truth from our hearts;
  • and to sing your love.

Invite us to follow you by respecting the many different ways of witness, and rejoicing that we have so many chances to answer your call. Amen.