Marked as Christians

Romans 8:15-28 and Matthew 16:21-28

How can you tell which ones are the Christians?

We are the ones who are marked with a cross. We are the ones who are drawn to suffering. We are the ones who provide meals for the disadvantaged through soup kitchens. We operate Op. Shops to help them be dressed with dignity. We are the ones who nurse the dying in hospice care. We are the ones who accompany the grieving at funeral services. We visit prisoners. We care about the suffering of the Rohingya people forced into exile. We protest the treatment of refugees and send money to care for those in camps. We take our part in attempting to preserve wildlife.

Of course, Christians are not the only ones who do these things. Christians don’t have a monopoly on the works of mercy. But we Christians do these things because we are marked with a cross. This cross is not just a piece of jewellery or our logo. This cross, traced on our forehead when we were baptised, is a symbol of our willingness to follow Jesus in his suffering. We identify with his pain.

It’s not rational, this putting ourselves on the side of suffering. The rational thing is to avoid suffering. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and begin to learn solidarity with all people and all creation. We follow the suffering right through to its end and learn how character grows with suffering.

Jesus asks us to walk with him to Jerusalem.  If we follow, we must be prepared to die with him. His promise is that, if we die with him, if we identify as much as possible with his death, we will be raised with him. Jesus is inviting us into this cycle of death to life, suffering to freedom, pain to release.

Aidan Hart Sacred Icons

There is a tradition of beautiful painted crosses with two sides: on the grey side are depictions of Jesus being crucified and grim symbols of death. On the richly coloured side are depictions of the empty tomb and saints and angels applauding Jesus as he bursts to new life.

We are people of the cross, people of both sides of the cross. We identify with the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all creation. As we enter more deeply into this suffering, we discover, to our joy, signs of healing, love and new life.

Being found on The Third Way

St George’s Dunsborough

Sermon for Epiphany 6 (February 16) 2020

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Psalm 119:1-8

I Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

In Busselton’s Queen Street, there is a statue of the Wadandi warrior Gaywal. You know the history of Gaywal and George Layman. The two men got into an argument at Wonnerup over the allocation of damper and Layman pulled Gaywal’s beard. In Noongar culture, this was a grave insult to such a senior law man. Gaywal retaliated by spearing Layman who died. In revenge, Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers and a posse of soldiers hunted down any Noongars they could find and killed at least seven.

It’s sad that this is all history tells us about Gaywal – at least, as far as I can find out. Was he an effective bridge between black and white? Did he proudly resist the colonisers?  We don’t know.

Gaywal: courtesy Busselton-Dusnborough Times

But the story of his end, killing Layman and being killed himself is well attested. The story fits a pattern that is described in this morning’s Gospel: if you feel angry and lash out madly, the situation will escalate into in the hell of violence, often in a flash of  time: from Layman pulling Gaywal’s beard to the end of the killing spree was less than a week.

Jesus knows our humanity well. He recognises that all of us feel anger. He himself was angry with the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers in the Temple.  He expressed that anger vigorously, but none of the merchants was harmed. There was no violence.

But if we human beings fail to recognise our feelings of anger, two things may happen: One possibility is the explosion of violence like that around Gaywal. A Palestinian today, angry that his village has been simply taken over by Israeli settlers, may fuel his anger and end up in a suicide vest. He leaves behind him the hell of grieving families on both sides.

The second possibility is that we will push the anger down, suppress it deep inside ourselves. If we do that, the anger certainly won’t go away. It will fester and end up with hotly felt grudges. Sometimes, people will push their anger down and dowan, and suddenly lash out madly at everything around.  Bystanders and the person themselves ask, Where did that come from?

Jesus, as our physician, diagnoses similar reactions to sexual desire. If feelings of desire are acted on in an uncontrolled manner, people are damaged, injured, sent to hell, the victims of violence. How sad the reasons that Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris are household names. Or sexual feelings may be suppressed, just like anger can be, and the poison that grows in that person may result in the abuse of children or women. Jesus names this too as violence, as hell, because of the life-long injury it causes.

Jesus expects us to be mature human beings. We prevent violence by acknowledging our feelings, rejoicing that being human is to be a feeling person. We name the feeling and then act on it appropriately: channelling sexual desire into loving our spouse and family, and channelling anger into fighting for justice. Being mature for Jesus means being thoughtful, mindful, about our emotions.

Just imagine for a moment if Gaywal had overcome his surprise and anger and mindfully offered his beard to be pulled by Layman a second time? Is it possible that George Layman would have reflected on his action, realised that he had profoundly insulted Gaywal and both men backed down? Imagine the power of that positive action, refusing to use power to injure.

There are times when it is appropriate to act like that. We are usually so taken by the injustice of situations that we, like Gaywal and most people, demand justice for ourselves or others. I call the alternative pre-emptive forgiveness. We say to ourselves, I’m angry. I may even be justified in being angry. But, in love, I refuse to escalate the situation into violence, so I am offering forgiveness even if the other person has not recognised their wrong-doing.

If we read further on than this morning’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints some pictures of pre-emptive forgiveness for us. ‘If someone compels you to carry their gear for one mile, carry it for two.’ (Matthew 5:41) There was no law permitting Roman soldiers to make you carry their pack. It seems they just did it because they were bigger and tougher. They were the occupation forces. It would be natural if you carried out the task as minimally as possible, pretending their pack was too heavy and dropping it on the ground, finding all sorts of ways to do what you were ordered in a passive-aggressive manner.

The result of your minimal obedience?  The old bitter tensions between occupiers and occupied would just carry on, maybe made worse by this understandable reluctance. Jesus sees it as an opportunity for pre-emptive forgiveness. Why not carry it gladly, with good grace, and offer to carry it a second mile?  How that would surprise the soldier. To be seen as a fellow-human instead of just a hated Roman.

Or another scenario Jesus paints, ‘If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other to be slapped too.’ (Matthew 5:39). Someone slapping your face is a special kind of violence. It implies not only aggression, but also a rebuke, a put-down. The slapper has put himself or herself above the person they are slapping, turning them into a child or a non-person.

It’s natural either to retaliate or to freeze. In response, you want either to be violent or to run far away. Jesus suggests another way, a creative way of pre-emptive forgiveness. Imagine the power of saying, ‘Hit my other cheek as well.’ You’re not accepting the slap; you’re creating a space for the other person to think again and maybe to apologise. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but there is a guarantee that if you retaliate, the violence will continue. If you freeze, the slapper has licence to go on being violent to you.

The whole story of Jesus on the Cross is about turning back the powers of violence on themselves: not fighting back like Resistance fighters against the Romans, and not ignoring the wrongs done to him. This way of pre-emptive forgiveness wins the day on the Cross.

This is what writers like the South African theologian Walter Wink call The Third Way: not fighting back and escalating the violence, and not freezing or running away, leaving an injustice unanswered. This ‘Third Way’ is operable to us Christians even though at first glance it may sound difficult. It is open to us, because as Lucy has said over the past two sermons: we are blessed, we are salt and light. God’s power and Spirit is already flowing through us. When we find a way to pre-emptively forgive, it is God’s Holy Spirit acting through us.

Our task is to use our imagination to enact this pre-emptive forgiveness. Each situation demands a different – and creative – response.

I invite you to see Jesus reaching out to you – his presence with us in bread and wine – and pre-emptively forgiving us. By his generosity to us, we are strengthened to pass that forgiveness on when people cross us. By his generosity to us, we are empowered to love.



Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014,
Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.
Also available from Amazon in Kindle format.


Chapter 1: The Cross and Wisdom

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin says that St Paul criticised the Corinthian church for living according to the wisdom of the surrounding society. Does our contemporary church adapt itself too easily to contemporary society?

2. ‘A crucified, shamed and humiliated man is in fact the wisdom and the revelation of the God who made the universe.’ (p. 25) If this is so, what does the cross reveal about God?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find a crucifix or picture of Jesus on the cross that speaks to you in some way of God’s wisdom. The cover picture of Looking Through the Cross may be suitable. Sit before it in silence without analysing it or using words to pray. Simply be conscious of God’s presence with you.


Chapter 2: The Cross and Evil

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you name evidence for the ‘deep wound in creation that needs healing’? (p. 42) Where can you see such a wound today?

2. Does it make sense for Jesus to be a representative of all humanity? How can that be?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Find the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ by John Newton (Together in Song 129) or Graham Kendrick’s ‘Servant King’ (Together in Song 256) or Thomas Troeger’s extraordinary ‘A Spendthrift Lover’ (TiS 676). Take the words to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed and read them through several times as a way of thanking God for the cross overcoming evil.


Chapter 3: The Cross and Power

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Tomlin describes Albert Schweitzer’s choice to work among the poor of Africa as an exercise of power for the sake of other people. Name other examples of this kind of power. Why is it power to make a choice that the world sees as the way of weakness?

2. ‘When we are loved we are able to change. When we are unloved, we dig in our heels and refuse to budge.’ (p.78) Think of a time when you were empowered because you knew you were loved.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Learn the ‘Jesus Prayer’ by heart: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Use is to pray for those whom you love by substituting the name of each of these people for the word me. So, to pray for my wife, I pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Name, a sinner.’



Chapter 4: The Cross and Identity

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. In what tangible ways has your Christian faith given you a new identity? Tell the story of the different you that now lives in Christ.

2. How do you feel the pull of your old identity? What keeps pulling you back from full life in Christ?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

When Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope, he chose the name Francis for this next stage of his ministry. What name would you choose for yourself to signify who you are now in Christ? Have fun trying on some different names!


Chapter 5: The Cross and Suffering

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Can you make sense of the idea that God in Jesus undergoes suffering but God the Father does not? How does this idea help us live with ongoing suffering?

2. When we ‘take up our crosses’ and understand the cross of Christ in a ‘deep, personal heartfelt way’, Tomlin says our hearts are softer. Has he made the right connection? Does choosing suffering increase our empathy?


Activity & Prayer Cues:

Pray in silence before the picture of the cross or crucifixion that you used for Chapter 1. Which suffering people in the world today call to you for a response? What is a costly and meaningful response that you can make to alleviate that suffering?


Chapter 6: The Cross and Ambition

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. ‘Imagine for a moment a culture where everyone’s main aim was to seek the good of their neighbour, where the only social competitiveness was to find ways to bless the person next door.’ (p. 142) What is stopping us?

2. What strategies should we adopt to learn from modern servants (‘cleaners, gardeners and dinner ladies’ p. 145)? Be ambitious to use the strategies you identify.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Make a list of serving activities that you don’t normally do that you could undertake today. For example, I could collect cups and plates and load the dish-washer after morning tea at church. Aim to do them. Tick each one off as you do it. Destroy the list at the end of the day. Repeat the exercise next week.


Chapter 7: The Cross and Failure

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Is there a sense in which the crucifixion was a failure? Is the crucifixion a phenomenon that looked at from one side is a failure and from another side is a triumph – the means of our coming close to God?

2. Reflect on what you have learned from failure. If you are in a group, consider what aspects of these learnings you can share with the group.

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Read John 21:15-19 several times slowly, aloud if you can. Be conscious of your breathing. Put yourself in Peter’s position, remembering that he has returned to Galilee a failure. As Jesus asks the question ‘Do you love me?’ identify what Peter may have felt. Do you feel a transition?


Chapter 8: The Cross and Reconciliation

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. What walls dividing people in the Australian community should the Christian community be working to break down?

2. What programs or processes does your local church have in place to help people grow in moral maturity?


Activity & Prayer Cues:

What three specific actions can we take to make our faith community more of a ‘mother’, a nursery of Christian action and reconciliation (pp. 189-190)?


Chapter 9: The Cross and Life

Questions for Individual Reflection & Group Discussion:

1. Thinking of the death of your grandparent or parent or other loved one some years ago, what signs of new life do you discern in their dying?

2. Do you agree with C.S. Lewis that we are outside the real world (p. 213)? What does he mean by this image? What does he mean by saying that we shall get in?

Activity & Prayer Cues:

Using a simple medium (crayons or coloured pencils), draw seeds being buried, germinating, growing and bearing fruit. As you draw, meditate on the power of new life, the continuities and the discontinuities between seed and flowering plant, the imbalance between the old and the new life.


Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement

Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.