Bible Study: Ephesians 2:21-22
- Written by: Tim Johnson
Rev Dr Tim Johnson is the Senior Minister of St John’s Anglican Church, Diamond Creek. The following Bible reflection was given at the start of the church’s Annual Meeting in 2022.
²¹In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. ²² And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
The Bible uses a number of images to describe the church. We are probably most familiar with the image of the body of Christ, where each of us is a part of the body and we work together for the good of the whole. In Ephesians 2:21-22 the church is described as a temple. It’s a good reminder for us as we come to our annual meeting of our core identity as the church. There are three things that it is good for us to remember.
Firstly, remember that everything we have as a church comes from Jesus. Each verse starts with the words ‘in him’, that is, ‘in Jesus’:
In him, Jesus, the whole building is joined together… In him, Jesus, you too are being built together…
Our basis, status and existence as a church is in Jesus. We exist because of Jesus and we exist for Jesus. Jesus unites us together and makes us a holy temple.
If I am in Jesus and you are in Jesus then, guess what friends, we are in Jesus together. This is a powerful reminder of what unites us together as a church and our whole reason for being.
Secondly, remember that God’s Spirit is present and at work in us as a church. The key characteristic of the temple of God is that it is where God dwells by his Spirit. In the Old Testament that was in a physical building in Jerusalem, but no longer. God now lives in his people. We are the fulfilment of the temple.
Notice the Trinitarian nature of what God has done in us as his Holy Temple:
in him – Jesus the Son, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God – the Father - lives by his Spirit.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit fulfilling his plans to have his very presence living within his people. The church is not a building; the church is the people.
And ironically, the people are a building: a temple together where God dwells. We are the place of God’s presence and that is true not only when we are gathered together in a building like tonight or on any given Sunday. We are God’s temple, the place of his presence, and the carriers of his Holy Spirit in our schools and our workplaces, in our homes and our neighbourhoods, in our sports clubs and community groups. We are a temple on the move taking the presence of God with us as we go.
And thirdly, remember that the church is a work in progress. The image of the temple we have here is both dynamic and organic. The temple, that is God’s
people, is not a finished work. In verse 22 it is being built together. There is constant building work going on as new people are added, as we grow deeper in relationships with each other, as we strengthen our unity, confess our sins and forgive each other, as we understand more of what God is calling us to do and change accordingly. We are a dynamic work in progress. In verse 21 the language of the building being ‘joined together’ speaks of an organic connection and the word translated ‘rises’ is more literally ‘grows’. We are organically connected together and grow together as the temple of God. This is almost mixing metaphors of the temple with the body but the point is that this is not something that is static but growing and changing. We are a work in progress and God is doing work in us, and through us, constantly.
Our church has recently set a new vision as we recover from the effects of covid and the associated lockdowns. In this vision we use the language of ‘reconnect and build’ and this reflects well the organic and dynamic nature of this verse. And as we come to this AGM we want to commit ourselves to the ongoing building work of the church. We are a work in progress and we come seeking God’s help to grow us and to build us. We do that on the firm foundation of Jesus to whom we owe are very existence. And we do it in the confident knowledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us. So let me pray as we begin our meeting together:
Thank you heavenly Father
That we gather tonight in Christ Jesus
We exist because of Jesus and for Jesus
We are united together in Jesus
May Jesus be the centre of all our deliberations tonight
May Jesus unite us together in this meeting
Thank you Heavenly Father
That your Spirit lives within us
That we are your temple
The bearers of your presence in the world and to the world
May your Spirit lead us and guide us
May you Spirit be on display in our listening and speaking
Thank you Heavenly Father
That we are a dynamic and organic work in progress
You haven’t finished with us yet
Build us together and grow us
Use tonight, even tonight, and even this meeting, to
continue your renovation work.
We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Looking to the Bronze Serpent
- Written by: Rev Dr Fergus King
Henry Nouwen’s classic treatise on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, highlighted an ambiguity of pastoral care: that many who care for others are themselves damaged and wounded. In doing so, he stripped away the pretension that carers must be perfect, superhuman beings, but rather could function effectively as agents of healing and transformation in spite of their own weaknesses and limitations. It is a book which enabled many carers to accept their own weakness and limitation and use their own suffering as a vehicle for healing. It is one of those rare books which stimulate a paradigm shift: a fresh approach to a longstanding phenomenon.
The abuse scandals within our church have stimulated another round of deep reflection, for which we must turn to scripture to assess. This potential of scripture has been recognised by, among others, Gerald O. West in his account of texts such as 1 Samuel 13:1-22 being used for social transformation when community workshops address violence against women in South African contexts. Here, the use of Scripture enables a subject usually considered taboo to be named and addressed. In this vein we turn to the episodes of the Bronze Serpent.
The Bronze Serpent: The Lifted Healer
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, NRSV)
The character of the serpent may be immediately off-putting or negative a feature which serves well to illustrate the response that trauma may have had on the onlooker. As such it may provoke a reminder that the stuff of faith can be turned to harm. But, as the bronze serpent is an image of healing, it must be remembered that the ancients knew that medicine and poison are never far apart.
Derrida could identify three related characteristics: “not only pharmakos (victim or scapegoat) and pharmakon (medicine/poison), but also pharmakeus (sorcerer or magician)”. Indeed, antiquity knew multiple symbolic meanings for the serpent: sixteen which might be classed as negative, and twenty-nine as positive. The gospel belongs to a world which could use serpent symbolism positively. Indeed, it might be used to indicate any of divinity, life, immortality, and even resurrection: the bronze serpent may be understood as divine, a healer, or both. This is not as alien to our modern world as it might first appear: the caduceus (the staff of Hermes with intertwined snakes) remains, up to the present, a sign of healing.
This text provides a distinctively Christian focus for reflection on the nature of healing by drawing on an incident from the history of Israel (Numbers 21: 49) to articulate and understanding of the lifting up of Jesus. The event has a chequered reception within Judaic tradition: 2 Kings 18:4 describes the smashing of a bronze serpent by Hezekiah, whilst Wisdom 16:6 describes it as a “symbol of salvation”. John follows this positive assessment.
The verses highlight an analogy between Jesus and the bronze serpent: both are “lifted up”. The identification of Jesus as the Son of Man has already been made (John 1:51), and will be re-iterated (John 8:28; 9:35-37; 12:32-34). John makes belief in this lifting up of the Son of Man the basis for receiving “eternal life”, his preferred term for a superior mode of existence, distinguishable from natural life as now lived.
Whilst “lifting up” has frequently been identified with the Crucifixion, this identification does not exhaust its full range of meaning. The ambiguity of “lifted up” also stresses the idea of benefit, as the Greek hypsoun/hypsousthai may include a positive meaning: of being exalted. It thus may include both the notions of Crucifixion and “return to the Father in glory”. This allows Jesus’ “lifting up” to be a paradox: his debasement marks his exaltation or glorification.
A reading which uses the motif of “raising up” to connect Crucifixion and exaltation is to be retained. It gives the believer, or reader, confidence and hope because it is based on an event which has already taken place by the time of reading. John does not base hope on propositions about God but roots them firmly in the past events which he describes. The gospel, in its received form, goes even further, making these claims witnessed by the Beloved Disciple (John 21:24). These provide the stuff which makes confidence in Jesus’ identity and promises sure - not speculation, or mythic imagery alone.
Those who have experienced trauma because of the church, or themselves are wounded healers, are highly likely to look askance at it as a source of healing. The bronze serpent, too, initially seems an unlikely source of healing, given our innate instinctive reaction to snakes. However, gazing on the serpent who becomes identifiable as the crucified and risen Christ becomes the means to eternal life. Enabling this gazing in faith through the provision of resources and rituals which allow the Risen Christ to heal allows those who have been wounded to overcome their initial repugnance at the church and be transformed as they look beyond the church to Christ. The image also allows the church to remember its potential to repulse, and strive intentionally to replace the behaviours which provoke, enable, ignore, or deny abuse with those that are genuinely life-giving.
How are you looking to the lifted healer to achieve healing?
Fergus King is the Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry Education at Trinity College, and previously missionary in Tanzania.
This study is an abridged academic article, references have been elided and available on request.
Bible Study : Luke 5:1-11
- Written by: Adrian Lane
Fishing with the Words of Jesus - Luke 5:1-11
Jesus is standing by the Sea of Galilee, otherwise known as the Lake of Gennesaret, and he’s teaching the crowd the word of God. But the people are so eager to hear the word of God that they are crowding around him, pressing in upon him and pushing him into the water!
So Jesus comes up with a wonderfully creative solution, which is going to help him in more ways than one. There are two fishing boats moored at the water’s edge, one owned by Peter and Andrew, and the other by James and John. They’ve been fishing all night. And now they’re cleaning their nets, which are laid out neatly on the beach – cleaning them of all the bothersome bits of reed and shell that’s got caught up in them. Depressingly, they haven’t caught a thing.
Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and asks him to put out a little from the shore. Then Jesus arranges himself in the boat and teaches the crowd from the boat! And now he’s protected from the eager crowd by the lake’s moat of water between them!
And so the first thing I’d like us to notice from the passage is how this crowd was hungry for the word of God. They were pressing in on Jesus, eager to hear his every word. And I want to ask us this, “Has our attitude to the word of God become ho-hum, has it been blunted?”
I’m so grateful that when I first became a Christian I was taught to get into the habit of reading the Bible every day. And I’m so glad to say that God has helped me to do that. And it nourishes me. If I miss a few days, I find I’m missing something, just like not eating the right food. It doesn’t matter how you do it – whether you listen to it on your phone, or read it together with your spouse or a friend, or whether you read The Big Picture Story Bible with the kids in your life or, like me, just read a chapter a day in a Study Bible. Just make sure you’re being nourished regularly by the word of God.
After Jesus has finished teaching the crowd, he turns to Peter and says, “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” “You’ve got to be joking!” thinks Peter, “We’ve been up all night and haven’t caught a thing! We’ve just cleaned the nets and tidied up the boat! (Those of you who’ve been boating know how long that all takes!) We’re tired and smelly and hungry…OK! Because you say so, and only because you say so, we’ll do it.”
And we all know what happens! They catch such a large number of fish that their nets begin to break and they have to signal to James and John to come out in the other boat to help them. And they fill both boats so full of fish that both boats begin to sink! There are fish everywhere!
And when Peter sees all this he realises that Jesus is like no other man. Only the Messiah could have known all this. Only the Messiah could have prepared, timed and organised all this. And Peter realises that Jesus has done this as a lesson for him. And when Peter remembers his hesitation and grumpiness he falls at Jesus’ knees, amongst all those fish, and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Just like Moses in the desert with the burning bush he realises he’s in the presence of God! And he’s not worthy to be. Indeed, he’s so unworthy that he fears for his very life. Jesus’ holiness is about to consume him. And so he begs Jesus to get away from him!
What a turnaround! Just a few moments before he’s been keeping the boat steady as Jesus taught the crowds. My hunch is that he was feeling rather pleased with himself, rather smug, in that up-front pole position. This wasn’t the first time he’d met Jesus. We learn from John 1:35-42 that Andrew had introduced Peter, his brother, to Jesus a short time ago. Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist, and one day John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus as he was passing by and said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” And the first thing Andrew had done after discovering Jesus was to find his brother Peter, telling him, “You won’t believe who I’ve found! We’ve found the Messiah!” (that is, the Christ). And now this massive catch of fish after an empty night has lifted the veil on Peter’s eyes and he’s believed. He’s realised he’s in the presence of the long-looked-forward-to Messiah, the very Lamb of God.
And I can’t help asking you, “Has your life been turned around by Jesus?” Sure, he’s a great teacher, a great healer, which is what the crowds saw. But he’s so much more than that! And are we game to pray that God would open our eyes to who Jesus really is?
You may have a sudden realisation, like Peter, or you may be more like Andrew, who was obviously a seeker. But in Jesus’ presence we too should fall at his feet. Indeed, all the time, every day, we too should fall at Jesus’ feet.
But then Jesus says to Peter, “Don’t be afraid; from now on, you will catch people.” And Luke tells us that those first disciples of Jesus pulled up their boats high upon the shore, just like at the end of the season, left everything, and followed him.
Wow! Luke wastes not a word. He is crisp and straightforward. And he is obviously challenging his listeners and readers to do exactly the same thing. If it is good enough for Peter, Andrew, James and John, those first disciples and apostles, it’s good enough for us.
When Jesus finished teaching the crowd, he hadn’t really finished his sermon, had he? He may have dismissed the crowd, and they probably went off to get something to eat, thinking that that was the end of their day, but he wasn’t finished with those four men. For them, the most powerful, the most memorable, the most important part of the sermon was yet to come. You see, when Jesus said to Peter, “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” he was giving them one massive illustration of what the rest of their lives were going to be. This was to be the end of their fishing career – fishing for fish, that is. And this was to be the beginning of a whole new life when they’d be fishing for people.
And they were going to catch plenty! You only have to think of that crowd at Pentecost, with people gathered from nations right across the world, when about 3,000 people became Christians after hearing Peter’s first sermon. Peter the fisherman!
But first they had to be trained. And that training was going to be hard work and dangerous. And it was going to be focused, because they had left everything – their families, their businesses, to learn how to be fishers for people. Indeed, they spent the next three years with Jesus learning how to fish for people, as he taught them with his word.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about this or not, but when you catch fish, they die. And these first disciples also died, when they themselves were caught by Jesus. They died to their old life, their old values. But then they went into training for a whole new way of living, instructed by Jesus’ words. And when Jesus gave them his Spirit, they were given a whole new eternal life, so much more wonderful than their old life.
What are you fishing for? A nice home and family? Financial security? A quiet life? These are often gifts of God, but are they our Number 1 priority? If we give our lives to Jesus, like those first disciples, he will catch us up as well in his great rescue plan and make us, like them, fishers for people.
Now the great thing about a fishing boat is that there are all sorts of jobs! And there’s a job for everyone! You need people to maintain the hull, and the sails or the engine. You need people who can navigate, steer and keep watch. You need people who can cook. You need people who can sort, clean and store fish. And, of course, you need people who can actually catch fish! All those jobs, every job, works towards catching fish. Indeed, there’s no space on a fishing boat for anything else. It’s not like a cruise ship, where you can just relax and let others do the work!
And it’s exactly the same with God’s church. Even our church buildings remind us of this. They are upturned boats – we’re all sitting here in the nave, the Latin word for boat, and the planking on the ceiling reminds us that we’re all in the same boat. And we’re in the business of fishing, whether it be in Banyule or Regional Australia, with Bush Church Aid. We’re in the business of fishing for people, of making followers of Jesus, through the words of Jesus.
Now, being a disciple is costly. It’s expensive and it’s dangerous – we will get persecuted. Those first disciples left everything to follow Jesus. They saw their Lord crucified and they were persecuted themselves as they took the news of eternal salvation through Christ to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. But Jesus tells us that those who lose their life for his sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Are you, like the crowds listening to Jesus by the Sea of Galilee hungry for God’s word? Has your life, like those first disciples, been turned around by God’s word? Have you become, like those first disciples, a fisher for people? Let’s pray that God would work in us, as individuals, as congregations, as a parish, to make us hungry for his word, to turn us around by his word, and to train us to be fishers for people through sharing God’s word.
Adrian Lane serves as the Victorian Regional Officer for the Bush Church Aid Society and has previously served as the Warden for the Mathew Hale Public Library in Brisbane.
Bible Study - Psalm 96
- Written by: Len Firth
In the summer, after the Christmas season, I have noted that many churches turn to preach from the Psalms. A number of factors may influence this choice. Psalms are often seen as stand-alone units, so useful in a season when members may be coming and going, away from church for reasons of rest and recreation or mission and ministry. CMS Summer Schools, SU Beach Missions and the like are some excellent reasons why people may not be on church on a particular Sunday. This can make preaching problematic, if each seeks to build on and connect with those which have gone before. Preaching a series of psalms may avoid this. Visiting or occasional preachers may more readily accept an invitation if they have a Psalm sermon or two in their preaching kitbag. However one problem with this approach is that the psalms are removed from their canonical context. This serves to denature important developmental themes, such as the interplay between lament and trust. See for example the placement of Psalm 23 affirming the Lord as protector provider, immediately following Psalm 22’s lament ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me?’ It also ignores the arrangement of the Psalter into five books. So I want to consider Psalm 96 first of all in its canonical context.
Psalm 96 is one of a group of “the Lord reigns” or “Kingship of Yahweh” psalms which occur early in Book IV of the Psalter. These have been seen by some scholars as enthronement psalms. The evidence for this as a psalm category is not strong, but most of this particular psalm is used (reused?) in 1 Chronicles 16 to accompany the celebration of the ark being taken into Jerusalem. Kidner observed, ‘The symbolism of the march, in which God crowned his victories by planting his throne in the enemy’s former citadel, is matched by the theme of the psalm.’ (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, TOTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1975), 379.)
Another characteristic of the psalm in its canonical context is the more universal view, beyond the community of God’s OT people, Israel and Judah. This psalm belongs with a group (92-101) which explicitly refer to singing and call on people(s) to worship the Lord (Yhwh).
It can aid our interpretation to also consider this psalm from the perspective of its use in the worship of God’s people, both from its use before and after the coming of Jesus the Christ. Often Psalms used liturgically can be read antiphonally, and if we consider the first three verses, the psalm reads like a conversation of mutual encouragement. Paul seems to have something like this in mind when he urges Christians to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). The first part of these Psalm verse, has a comparable and developing response in the second half.
- Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
- Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
- Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous deeds among all peoples.
The verses begin with a series of imperatives, and urging to sing and worship the Lord (Yhwh). Note the thrice repeated Yhwh, the specific Name of the revealed God of Israel. There is a development in the verses. God’s people are not just urging each other on in song and words of worship and praise, but further into proclamation and declaration among the nations and all peoples (Christians could use the language of evangelism and mission). This wider view was actually implicitly present in verse 1 where all the earth was called to sing to the Lord.
The next three verses give reasons for singing, worship and declaration. The Lord is great, worthy, and to be feared in contrast to all other rival ‘gods’. It is the Lord who is creator of the heavens. Use of the heavens may help users of this psalm to see the wider scope of God as Lord of all who are under the heavens. He also created the land but this would possibly narrow our view, a more human and particular perspective.
Verse seven begins to call on all the families of nations to join in this great corporate recognition of the Lord’s glory and strength. The vision is of all peoples flowing to the Lord’s sanctuary (temple?), bringing offerings in worship and recognition of God’s glory and holiness.
Who is being addressed in verse 10 is open to interpretation. Is it God’s people, or the nations / all the earth? I lean to thinking this psalm is calling on all peoples to be affirming to one another that the Lord is reigning. The rationale for the call is the solidity of the created world and God’s equitable judgment of the peoples. These are reasons which apply more broadly than with Israel and Judah of the OT or the church of the NT era and beyond until the Lord’s return. It is verse 10 which unites this psalm with others nearby as a “Lord reigns” psalm.
The final verses of the psalm are a continuing call to worship, but now the call goes out beyond all humanity. Every aspect of creation: heavens, earth, sea, fields and all living things they contain, the trees of the bush are called to worship, in fact ‘Let all creation rejoice before the Lord.’ God coming as judge is the reason appended to this final call to worship the Lord.
As Christians we read this psalm through the lens of Christ and his coming. It is the salvation brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection, which we proclaim and which is our reason for worship and gospel proclamation. Jesus’ return, his coming as Lord and righteous judge, is our ultimate perspective. When we use this psalm, we should call on one another, the whole world, and indeed all peoples, to acknowledge the one true God and saviour. We are called to worship this God and to declare his greatness and glory in mission. This call and the mission of God’s people goes beyond our own local gathering and looks to all that God has made resounding in the worship and celebration of God.
Len Firth is Lecturer in Professional Supervision for Ridley College; Pastoral Supervisor and Ministry Coach; Associate Minister St John’s West Brunswick. Former Archdeacon for Multi-cultural Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
Bible Study: Breaking Down Walls
- Written by: Chris Porter
REV DR CHRIS PORTER
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism” Acts 10:34
In the book of Acts, Luke repeatedly recounts situations where social boundaries and barriers are broken down by the gospel that is rapidly spreading throughout the Levant. But within the narrative these boundaries are not so easily dissolved, and one particularly pernicious division repeatedly returns to the early church: the distinction between Jew and Gentile. Readers first encounter this distinction and subsequent dissolution of the barrier in Acts 10 and 11, as Peter entertains a visitation request from a Gentile God-fearer—Cornelius—and is subsequently challenged in Jerusalem.
Indeed, this first encounter provides a good paradigm for how social boundaries are broken down, and it occurs at two levels. First, at a human level, the degree of inter-group prejudice is confronted at a personal level and reduced from inter-group interaction to inter-personal interaction by face-to-face contact and conversation. Peter dares to enter Cornelius’ house and eat with him—in transgression of the law (Acts 10:28).
Second, at a level out of human control, the dissolution of the previous inter-group boundary is initially challenged by Peter’s dreams and then confirmed by the presence of the Spirit. We read that just like the other disciples the Spirit was poured out on these Gentile believers (Acts 10:45-46).
Subsequently the dissolution of the inter-group boundary is further confirmed by group witness and consultation (Acts 11:15-18).
While one of these tiers—the sending of the Spirit— is clearly out of human control, the other provides a helpful paradigm for reducing inter-group conflict and boundaries in our world, especially for Christians as we are called to be peace makers and to love one another. This is particularly valuable in this time with the increase of social media silos and ongoing interpersonal isolation from pandemic lockdowns. Truly, it appears that our societies are going to emerge from this pandemic more fractured than united.
The paradigm for reducing social conflict that Acts sets forth is helpful here, and indeed it is strongly reinforced by a series of studies on inter-group conflict and prejudice reduction from Matthew Hornsey and Michael Hogg (1999, 2000a, 2000b, 2000c).
But what does it look like in practice? One approachable example comes from the Boogie-woogie singer and pianist Daryl Davis, who found himself as a lone African-American in close friendship with many members and ex-members of the Klu Klux Klan— despite his obvious Blackness.
In Accidental Courtesy, a documentary on his life, one poignant moment comes when he talks about his motivation for cultivating friendships with Klansmen. There the overriding question he asks is “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” From sitting down in a bar with Klansmen, to being invited into their home, this question—and the associated interpersonal interaction—drives the conversation at hand. The results show how successful it is, as Davis displays a wardrobe full of Klan robes that were given to him after members had left the Klan.
Daryl Davis follows the pattern set out in Acts, of reducing inter-group prejudice to the level of personal interaction.
As we engage in evangelism with friends and neighbours, we too can follow the pattern of Acts in interacting with others as individuals, rather than as group representatives. Perhaps even more critically we can interact with members of other traditions as individuals as well, to understand them and their motivations rather than caricaturing them as a stereotype
We—above all—are called to be peacemakers in our society fractured by social media silos and isolation, and to love one another as Christ has loved us. By this everyone will know what we are His disciples.
Rev Dr Chris Porter is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College, Melbourne