Creation, Re-creation and Spirit


Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21

It’s happening again. God is repeating history.

In the Biblical languages. ‘breath’, ‘Spirit’ and ‘wind’ are the same word.

God breathes into the man of mud and he becomes a living breath (Genesis 2:7). Or you can read it:  At creation, God breathes his Spirit into a human being, and he became a living spirit.

Not just human beings, but every living thing.

Psalm 104 paints a spectacular picture of all of the Lord’s ‘manifold works’: the heavens ‘stretched out like a tent-cloth’ (v.3), ‘the earth on its foundations’ (v. 6), the sea and the mountains (vv. 7 and 9), wild and domestic animals (v. 12), the birds (v. 13), and the water and food to provide for them all. Human beings have a place to work (v.25).  

God’s world is a supremely fertile and attractive universe. And it all depends on God breathing God’s Spirit:

When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit they are created. (Psalm 104:29b-30).

So on the first Pentecost, God was doing both a new thing and repeating an old thing. God was breathing His Spirit into human beings and all creation, and giving them new life.

But there’s more. The first human being was an individual, Adam. At Pentecost, communities spring to life, not just as individuals; a community of disciples able to pass on the word of Jesus – the first Church members. An even larger community of listeners is brought into being. Its separate components are listed:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  Cretans and Arabs…’ (Acts 2:9-11)

In other words, the whole known world is gathered into a community. They are gathered by hearing the same language: the very opposite of the scattering into mutually incomprehensible language groups at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Community happens where we talk to each other and understand each other.

The Spirit still breathes into our lives, gathering us into communities. During these strange days of pandemic, for example, members of the St Mary’s community in Busselton have continued the enormous task of providing meals three days a week for those who need them. As they work together, Spirit is breathed into the workers to gather them closer to each other, and the people who come to the Family Centre are also held in community.

‘God is faithful’ (I Corinthians 1:9), so we can expect God’s breath to breathe into us again and again, bringing us new life and gathering us into godly communities. This is the promise of Pentecost.

The Glory is God


1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

At the Busselton foreshore I watched my four grandchildren spread over the playground in the shape of a shipwreck. They laughed as they climbed through rigging and tunnels to the crow’s nest.  They squealed with delight as a slide and a ‘fireman’s pole’ brought them down in a rush of speed. They rollicked in sand; they splashed in water. The kids shouted with joy, their imaginations and bodies nourished by the playground’s brilliant design.

I look forward to the time post-Covid-19 when they may return to the ship playground.

The youngest kids, I am sure, believe that this ship was created just for them. As they grow, they will realise that the playground was built, not just for them, but for all kids who visit the foreshore, even those they don’t like! Soon enough, they will recognise that the City of Busselton, who provided the ship, provides roads and libraries and dog pounds for everyone.

Sitting there on the edge of the playground, I realise that it is all about the kids, but it is also about something much bigger: how we work together to build a community.

Today is the seventh, and last, Sunday in the Easter season when we cry, ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ Our Gospel readings during the Easter season have so far traced the benefits of the resurrection for humanity and creation:

* we don’t need to be perfect to receive resurrection benefits,

* the risen Good Shepherd cares for us and provides for us,

* the Spirit of the risen Jesus comes to us as an Advocate, companion, and guide on the way.

The keyword for this Sunday is ‘glory’. Easter reveals God’s glory, and ‘we are blessed because that spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God is resting on us.’ [1 Peter 4:14].

If we were children, we might conclude that Easter is all about the godsends provided for human beings by the resurrection. It’s a gift of hope for us; it’s for us to receive eternal life; it’s for us to delight in the community of the faithful. If we were children, it would be quite in order to believe that Easter is all about us.

But we are not children and the good news of Easter is not only about us creatures. Easter is first about God and God’s work in creating a stunningly beautiful universe and blessing it as a resurrection gift for the ages to come. The glory is God’s.

We can get the order wrong. If we put humanity first, then the shadow side of humanity including our cruelty, our negligence, our selfishness can have its full impact and we war with each other and degrade the rest of creation. If we think it is all about human beings, we reap the sinful self-centredness we sow.

What Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel is that he shares in God’s glory because he, Jesus, did God’s will. The disciples – including us – share in the glory of Jesus when we put God first.   

Paraclete presence of the Risen Jesus


John 14:15-21

Many years ago I stood in a court in North Perth charged with ‘Reversing Without Caution’. It was a nerve-wracking experience for a naïve 17-year-old. I felt sick. I shook. I was told, ‘Stand there!’ ‘Don’t speak until the Magistrate asks you to.’ When I did speak, I squeaked. I could not find the words. I felt like a sheep being pushed through a race without really understanding what was happening, except I knew that the stakes were high.

The Police Prosecutor eventually told me that he was withdrawing the charge and I was free to go. I went. It took me some time to work out that I had persuaded the court that another driver was at fault. Lawyer friends later told me how lucky I was.

Magistrate’s Court

What I needed that day was someone with me who knew the courts who could stand next to me, plead my case for me, to explain the proceedings and to re-assure me. I needed an Advocate, or in Greek, the language of the Gospels, a Paraclete. The word literally means ‘someone called to be next to you’.

At the Last Supper, Jesus reassures the disciples that he will continue to be ‘next to them’ after his coming death. They cannot envisage a different mode of presence than the bodily presence of Jesus, the face to face encounter that they had enjoyed to that point. After our self-isolation in the past weeks we may imagine diverse ways of being present one to another a little better than the disciples could.

One thing we have learned in these strange times: whether we are naturally inclined to solitude or we are party-loving people, we all need someone really present to us, someone ‘next to us’. Someone who can be with us in good times and hard, someone to speak up for us, someone to reassure us. Our need for a companion goes deep within us. Our lovers and friends provide this need, but like us they are mortal. There are limits to their companionship. Saint John tells us that Jesus is offering the ongoing, never-ending, companionship of his Spirit.

For the disciples about to be bereft of face to face contact with Jesus, this was good news indeed. For us, especially in times of need, it is also welcome news. We might be waiting anxiously by the phone for the results of medical tests. There might be parts of our family where people are splitting apart. We might be lonely and alone, longing for contact with a loved one outside our region. For all our needs, Jesus has provided the Paraclete, the comforting and strengthening presence of his ever-living Spirit.

This sounds too good to be true. There is only one way to test it: that is, to reach out for it, trusting that God is as a good as God’s word. There may be times when the Spirit’s presence is mediated by a human being’s presence. There may be other times when we just know deep in our hearts that God is with us and God is for us.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is our model for loving one another. Our plan should be to find ways to ‘stand next to’ another person, to reassure that person. The more we are ‘paracletes’ one to another, the more we will be able to experience the Holy Spirit standing next to us.

Advocate – Photo courtesy Catholic Education Office, Sydney

Caravans on the Way


 John 14:1-14

I love the romance of camel caravans trading across deserts and continents in Jesus’ time.

Travel was dangerous, but there were established routes. A caravan of camels, loaded with rich goods, would set out each day. They were guided by a ‘dragoman’; his job was to travel ahead of the caravan to find and prepare the night’s stopping place and return to the caravan and guide it in.

The stopping places were called ‘khans’, which is sometimes translated as ‘inns’, but these inns were nothing like today’s Holiday Inns. A ‘khan’ was a basic circular mud-brick wall enclosing a water supply and spaces for animals and people to sleep. Just places to stop along the journey.

According to Jesus, in his Father’s household, ‘there are many stopping places’. (John 14:2) Jesus compares himself to a dragoman, going ahead of the caravan and preparing each night’s stopping place (John 14:2-3). He returns day by day to guide us there.

Because we regularly read this passage at funerals, we often read it upside down. We think Jesus is telling us about a destination for the dead, a ‘room’ in his Father’s ‘mansion’. That may be true, but it is not the main meaning.

Being a Christian is not so much about the dead as it is about living on the Way. This is strength for times of anxiety, times like the present. The risen Jesus spurs us ‘not to be disturbed’ (John 14:1), because he walks with us on the Way. He prepares our stopping places for us every day (not just at the end of our lives) and guides us to them. He is not simply a companion on the Way: he is the Way (John 14:6)

The Good News is two-fold: Jesus has gone ahead to prepare us a place, so he is a knowledgeable companion, wise in the Way of living. He’s already been this way, through plague and pain. There is nothing that we face that he has not already experienced. Secondly, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the Father. We don’t need to wait for the appearance of a shadowy God from heaven: God in person, in Jesus, already treads the Way with us.

We know the risen Jesus, both in every act of kindness done to us and accepted by us, and in every act of kindness we do to others. The Way is as simple, and as profound, as that, so ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ (John 14:1)

We all like sheep are gone astray (Isaiah 53:6)


One of the tragedies of our times is the war on animals, the war we have been waging for two or three centuries, seizing their territory and subjecting them to ever more inhumane conditions.

Human activity was one of the causes of this year’s bushfires in the Eastern States which took away from koalas much of their habitat. Iconic species such as the Bengali tiger and the white rhinoceros are on the brink of extinction. Presumably the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger) and the dodo would still be thriving in Tasmania and Mauritius if human beings had not ravaged their living space.

Only a few wild animals thrive under the relentless expansion of human activity. Mobs of kangaroos near my town relish in the green pasture and endless water supplies human beings have created.

We clobber our domestic animals too. In the past decades, more and more cattle have been squeezed into feed-lots, unable to exercise and terrified by their imprisonment. Battery hens are confined to less than a square metre and never see the sky or scratch in the fresh air.

We use horses and dogs for sport. Not only do they strain to entertain us, but our society allows some of their keepers to inflict on them excruciating pain when they are away from public view.

Our treatment of animals shames us human beings.  We are given no licence by Scripture to dominate the environment and crush our fellow-creatures. There is no Biblical excuse for setting ourselves up as gods destroying whatever we will.

We consider ourselves superior to other creatures, but the evidence shows that we do not make a good shepherd. We are cruel and despotic in our treatment of the environment.

In today’s Gospel, John teaches us two things about animals and salvation. The first is that Jesus is the good shepherd. No creature, including us human beings, can put ourselves above other creatures. Jesus is our shepherd, caring for us, and he is the shepherd of all creation, restoring all things, not only the human world.

Secondly, we are called to be part of the community of creatures, living together with animals and ecosystems as our brothers and sisters. This is the great vision of Saint Francis of Assisi: to live in harmony with all life as part of the community of creation.

The Good Shepherd proclaims to us that God will draw into a community all his creation and that we will live in harmony with death adders and scorpions, both of them wild animals Jesus ’was with in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:13a), as we will with cats, horses, and especially dogs, the animals who have co-evolved with us and who are our familiars. 

There are many signs of new life. Most farmers I know are concerned about any animal cruelty and do all in their power to care for their animals. WWF and other organisations keep on reminding us of the plight of the non-human world and establish programs to restore habitat and rescue species. More and more middle-class people express real care for pets. Our Jack Russell Lottie is our little sister, a member of our family. There are new ways of feeding the hungry that do not exploit animals, so I have hope that lifting the poor out of poverty will be done ethically.

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, 1834

[‘We have like sheep gone astray.’ (Isaiah 53:6). Quoted in I Peter 2:25, and in the Introduction to Evening Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer]

Finding the Plot


They were walking away from the city, just two of them, when they were joined by a third. Chapter 1 of this story is entitled ‘Meeting’, or ‘A Gathering.’ The two share their hopes, their dashed hopes, with the stranger. ‘We had hoped,’ they say.  ‘We had hoped we could find acceptance in the church,’ we say. ‘We had hoped that our fellow believer would forgive and reconcile with us,’ we say. Like the two followers of Jesus, we too have dashed hopes.

The stranger then begins to explain the Bible to the two men. ‘He opens the Scriptures.’ This is Chapter 2, ‘Making Sense of the Bible’. The Scriptures are not just history. They are not just theology. They apply to our day to day experience. They prepare us for an encounter with the living God.

Eventually, the three travellers arrive at Emmaus. The two men assume that this place of rest and hospitality is where they will spend the night. But in the sharing of bread, they recognise the third man. They know him to be Jesus. Chapter 3 is ‘Jesus Reveals Himself’. However, at the moment of recognition, Jesus disappears. There is an elusive quality to the presence of the Risen Christ. Where we might want to pin him down and feed on his presence, Jesus constantly moves us on.

Emmaus is not the resting place the two travellers expected. After their long walk, they are so filled with energy that they run back to Jerusalem to tell the other believers that they have met the risen Lord. Not only that, their understanding of who he is has been deepened by the teaching Jesus has given. This final Chapter is ‘Being Sent’.

The shape of the story is familiar to us from worship. Every Sunday, before the pandemic stopped us, we gathered, the Scriptures were opened to us, bread was broken and shared and we experienced the often elusive presence of the risen Lord with us, and then we were sent out to encourage others on this same journey; this journey away from Good Friday, away from dashed hopes and into the joy and energy of living in the power of the risen One.

Our worship follows the same story line as today’s story of the two travellers going to Emmaus. But just because we can’t gather for worship doesn’t stop us from living out this pattern. We find ways to gather, even if it is remotely by technology. We read and reflect on the Bible and the way it prepares us to encounter God. We read and hear sermons and reflections that are delivered through the internet. The presence of the living Lord still encourages us – to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (Westminster Shorter Catechism) and the whole story invites us to declare ‘how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread’.   (Luke 24:35b)

Five senses for Easter – and a Word


The cup and the bread are held up high so we can see and worship. The bread snaps as it is broken. The white circle lands softly in our palm. We caress the cup as it is handed to us. We taste the wafer and the wine, and the rich sweet aroma of the wine greets us as we drink.

Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell: five senses animate us as we come to Holy Communion. 

And our five senses together trigger a sixth sense: that of memory. The heart of the ritual of Holy Communion brings vividly to mind all the hundreds, or thousands, of celebrations of the Eucharist that we have been part of. For me, they have been in parishes, in cathedrals, in homes, in school chapels and in the bush – everywhere Christians gather for the Lord’s Supper. Our memory reaches further back through generations of Christians to the night Jesus gave bread and wine as a presage of his death.

Salvador Dali – The Last Supper

The memory of that night, the night he was betrayed, the night before he died, is strong, so strong that the events of the Last Supper reach forward into our time. We re-member Jesus, his disciples and his actions, and it’s as if they are happening here now. The scholars call this phenomenon of re-membering anamnesis’ – the very opposite of amnesia.

There’s a paradox at work here. The Eucharist is focused on the material of bread and wine, and yet its heart is the presence of Jesus with us. This presence is in fact an aching, loving absence that Franciscan friar Fr Thaddée Matura calls An Ardent Absence . Some Christians speak of the Real Presence, others of the memorial meal, but the effect is the same. When we touch the bread, we name it the Body of Christ, but we are not touching the actual body of Jesus; the bread somehow invokes his presence with us.

This is the Easter mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus Christ is both absent and truly present.  Only with the consummation of all things at the end of time will the absence and the presence be drawn together into one ubiquitous and unambiguous presence.

This Easter most of us will miss the Eucharist, the touching, the tasting and smelling, the gazing, the hearing. At best we will have disembodied seeing through the medium of a screen. But in these times of quarantine and physical isolation, the risen Lord is even more closely present to us. The Psalmist affirms,

‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18)

And there is one rich gift, a gift of the Risen Word, which binds us all together. Words reach across the screen, whether in text like this, or the words spoken by a priest somewhere streaming the Eucharist. Because of Him who is the Word, these words have the power to hold us, to enfold us, to bring us into the presence of the Risen One.

Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The suffering, the forgotten: Good Friday


The Disappeared
(The Dictatorship, Argentina, 1976 – 1983)

They’re rolling bodies from the soiled airplane,
they’ll hose the cargo hold when all are gone.
Did they cry ‘Our Father’ before were slain
not by the sea but by all who looked on?

Truth: so hard to hear that we dismiss it.
With Pontius, hands are washed in hypocrisy.
Not us, in crimes in our name complicit,
We choose systemic evil not to see.

We leave to Jesus burden of the cost,
to carry the pain, to accept the blame.
We roll him out and dump him with the lost:
For this he was born, and for this he came.

Look on, he becomes our mocking mass song.
Onlookers, felons – we compose the throng.

  • Lamentations 3:63
  • John 18:37
  • Ted Witham
  • Published in Sonnets for Sundays
The mothers of the disappeared – Argentina

This Good Friday I pray for the poor and oppressed.  

Jesus suffering on the cross is Jesus suffering with the oppressed.

  • I pray for children and women and men in refugee camps in Syria and in neighbouring countries and around the world.
  • I pray for the people of Gaza.
  • I pray for people in the slums of Mumbai and Lagos and in the barrios of Rio de Janeiro.
  • I pray for women and other vulnerable people trafficked in many parts of the world.
  • I pray for civilians caught up in conflict situations.
  • I pray for health-workers, including Médecins sans frontiers, and for other humanitarian workers, who are dedicated to helping the poor and oppressed.

On these people, and people like them, the heaviest burden of the Covid-19 pandemic will fall.

Refugee camp, Somalia – courtesy UNHCR

The featured image, ‘Jesus Falls for the Second Time’, comes from the Stations of the Cross, Church of Notre Dame des Champs, Normandy, France.
Image courtesy: Paul Davis

Palm Sunday: The Pilgrimage


Entry in Jerusalem – Duccio Maesta

We human beings are sometimes called homo viator, meaning a person on a journey, a pilgrim. We think of the pilgrimage we make each year from Palm Sunday on as the journey to Easter.

Palm Sunday is a journey by itself; a journey through packed and narrow streets, trying to keep the man riding the donkey in our sight. But he is always just ahead around a corner. It’s a journey where we cheer ourselves hoarse. ‘Hooray,’ we shout, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ it’s a journey where we are jostled in the friendly crowd. Excitement is contagious. ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!’ we cry out together.

I recall Palm Sunday processions at St David’s, Applecross, when the whole congregation walked from the nearby oval to the church, singing ‘Hosanna, hosanna!’ to a guitar accompaniment, chatting and socialising on the way.

I also recall more formal processions around church buildings with processional cross leading, robed servers and clergy, and all waving zamia palms and singing ‘All glory, laud and honour’. Usually, we managed to get out of time with the organ inside thumping out the tune!

This year, because of the pandemic, we will miss these cheery processions. We will make do with worship at home and online, poor substitutes for the real thing.

We can still reflect on the pilgrimage of Palm Sunday. We know that we are in a crowd that cries ‘Hosanna!’ today and ‘Crucify Him!’ tomorrow. We know that it is hard to keep in view the real Jesus, the humble donkey-rider. We know that our enthusiasm for Jesus will be challenged by the realities of suffering. And we know that our faith holds out against darkness. But this does not erase the truth of joyous praise as a season in our pilgrimage.

As we hear the story of the Entry into Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, whether it is our solitary voice reading it, or someone reading it to us from our screen, let us enter into the emotions of the Jerusalem crowd that day: the joy, the hope, the cheeriness, and the enthusiasm. These emotions can be a powerful antidote to the fear and uncertainty around us. We can own those feelings as a valid and notable season in our journey of faith.

Let us walk in imagination this Palm Sunday with the pressing crowds in Jerusalem and shout with them, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!’

Palm Sunday procession in Madrid, Spain

God’s Stubborn Insistence on Life.


Lent 5 (March 29) 2020. Reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14, ‘The Valley of Dry Bones’.

I grew up on a farm and remember being able to wander far from the house. Often, I would come across old bones. They intrigued me. I would wonder whether they were bones from sheep, which was most likely, or from kangaroos or dingoes. I would try to picture where the bones had fitted into the animal when it was alive. I found this hard to imagine: the difference between the bone in my hand and the living creature was too great.

Holding the bones, I felt how dry they were. Bleached by the hot sun, the smooth bones were made even smoother by the drying-out process. Even though I knew it to be the case, I couldn’t imagine how these bones were once alive, part of a creature that knew hunger and fear, vitality and the cool taste of water.  

It amazes me when I hear of scientists who extract DNA from old dry bones, much older than the sheep in our paddocks. To measure the life in the bones needs extraordinarily sensitive equipment.

So Ezekiel’s question of the Lord, ‘Can these bones live?’ is perfectly understandable. The common-sense answer, even the scientific answer, must be that life from dry bones is impossible. But in his vision, Ezekiel sees God choreograph the resuscitation of an army of dry bones. Ezekiel describes a drama of rattling, the sound of the four winds, the bones being covered with sinews and skin, then rising in their ranks.  He then pictures God breathing into them and making them again living human beings.

Ezekiel is in exile with the people of Israel, a captive with them in Babylonia. Many of them believe that Israel is destroyed. The Israelites will assimilate into Babylon and lose their identity altogether. They will become a footnote to history.

But Ezekiel becomes their comforter. He is disgusted by their ‘shepherds’ who have no vision of the future. He insists God will put a new Spirit into the people of Israel. Even if they seem as dead as dry bones in a valley, God will breathe life into them, just as God did for the first human, Adam.

In the midst of death, Ezekiel is a strident voice of hope.

Ezekiel speaks into the guts of this pandemic, where death is stalking our community, tearing loved ones away from each other. He reminds us that God is Creator. Where there is death, God insists on creating life.

The impact of Covid-19 will fall disproportionately on the poor in our community and the poorer nations of the world. We see the sweep of its story in Italy and China and know we will see something similar here. We have work to do caring for each other in the valley.

Yet Ezekiel reminds us that there will be an end to the scourge of this infection, and there will be new life – new, surprising life.

Our task as Christians is to speak that hope. We are to be Ezekiels, prophets, who speak our hope into the valley of dry bones and affirm, ‘Yes, Lord God, these bones will live!’