Last Things – and more Last Things

At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II

A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!



Breath on a Feather

A hymn for Epiphany

You Lord of grace, you’re breath on a feather,
You inspire us to care, adore;
Your breath helps us to praise you together,
Our song, just our song, can make us more.

You Lord of grace, you’re barbs of a feather,
Strengthen our spirits with love’s surprise;
Your longing heart helps us to tether
Ourselves to you, with you improvise.

You Lord of grace, you’re shaft of a feather,
You hold us tall whatever the storm;
You teach us to hold your standards to treasure,
And upright in virtue our lives may transform.

You Lord of grace, you are the whole vane,
You let us fly to love’s true height;
We feel your guidance your will ascertain
And our obedience makes you shine bright.


  • Ted Witham 2017
  • 9999 St Clement, O Waly Waly.


Courtesy Wikipedia

Parts of a feather:

  1. Vane
  2. Rachis
  3. Barb
  4. Afterfeather
  5. Hollow shaft, calamus



Gift in love: Saint Francis

Our joy in fervent prayer and stately dances,
In full-sung hymns and full-heart confession,
in earnest emotional expression,
all diverse ways to celebrate St Francis.

Liturgical wealth but poverty deep,
In all, radical Godward dependence,
Tangled in matter we find transcendence;
The sole way integrity to keep.

More in story than godly abstraction:
The Pope gives the Order’s permission,
The lepers’ care and pairs for mission,
In mutual prize and always loving action.

Thank God for blessings and seeing all in joy,
Our gifting for love we hurry to employ.



Sermon: Ask, search, knock

Luke 11:9-10

I wrote this poem a few years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching that our desire to love, when taken far enough, eventually leads us to see the world in ‘I-thou’ terms. 

– Ted Witham

I asked for a Mercedes, coupé 220, of course.
Received a mirror, 360, signed, with love, Yours.
Reflected… the shiny image that was my deep desire;
to climb up the world’s path, a higher flyer.

I searched for love in writing reviews,
Expecting my readers to walk in my shoes;
I searched for love, making Church work my life,
but found love closer in children and wife.

I knocked on the door of God, Father, King,
Insight opened: metaphor turns God to ‘thing’;
I opening saw God as all my ‘Thou’,
me to be present in the Eternal Now.

Asking, searching, knocking, all stones stepped
to draw near to the One so wind-swept,
Spirit-blown, tempest-tendered,
The ‘Thou’ who all my love has ended.


The mystery of love

Now love is primarily a sharing: letting oneself be hurt by someone else’s distress, putting oneself at their side, living with, suffering with, begging with. She naturalises herself as one of the poor: this is where love works. And this process of sharing liberates the power of love to change the world; by her astonishingly fruitful activity, she contributes to changing the world. This is the very mystery of Mercy.

  • Paul Milcent on Saint Jeanne Jugan, founder and first Sister of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

St Jeanne Jugan

Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son

Mark 5:21-43 – Gospel for Sunday 28 June 2015 (Pentecost 5)

Preached at St George’s, Dunsborough

These stories are partly about two women’s ability to have children. The girl is twelve years old. On her next birthday she would have been old enough to marry and bring a baby into the world. As modern Western people we recoil from this whole business of treating a girl as a commodity to be sold. Bride price, dowry, physical attributes, and then the sheer hard work of bearing babies and keeping house – and keeping to the house – for the rest of their lives. To us, the customs of those times were as repugnant as the Taliban’s are now.

But her age is mentioned for that reason. Jesus restores her to her life prospects as wife and mother.

The older woman has had a bleed for 18 years. It doesn’t specify what sort of bleed, and that leads most scholars to suggest that it was related to her womb, not a stomach ulcer. With the medical care of those days, there is no way she could have children. There is no way she could be a wife under the Jewish Holiness code. Her life as a wife and mother was on hold at the least, probably finished, dead.

Jesus restores both women to life; and that includes to restore the possibility of their cultural role as wives and mothers. Whatever we think would have been best for them, being wife and mother was what they would have known and wanted, and certainly better than being dead!

But as Mark tells us the story, he insists on two words which take the restoring of these women far beyond those cultural expectations. The two words:

  • life
  • daughter

The woman has spent everything she had on cures. ‘Everything she had’: the Greek work is ‘bios’ which we know in English words like ‘biology’. She had spent her whole ‘bios’, her whole ‘life’, her whole ‘living’ on doctors and cures. At one level, it just means, she had spent all she had chasing a cure. But if you’ve ever had a complex medical problem, you know it’s not just the monetary cost. We are so blessed in Australia with Medicare, cost is not usually the problem. But we can find ourselves with so many appointments and treatments, visits to the pharmacist and physio as well as to the GP and specialists, not to mention waiting on the phone to make those appointment, that our whole life starts to revolve around our medical issues. Our life is in danger of becoming our medical impairments. There are times when we could easily spend our whole life on chasing a cure. It’s not good. That’s where this woman was.

Jesus healed her. Jesus gave her her life back.

Jairus’s daughter was dead. The professional mourners were already in place, and laughing at Jesus for thinking he could achieve anything. Her life was gone. There was nothing left but her pious burial. Jesus raised her from the dead. He gave her her life back.

Of course, both of these resuscitations are prefiguring the resurrection. And they are also mirrors to us. If we reach out to Jesus, just touch the hem of his robe, just taste his power in the Eucharist, then he may give us our life back. That’s what Jesus wants to do. There is no person, no thing, so far from God, who cannot be restored, who cannot receive their life back.

What that will mean will vary from person to person, just as it was different for the woman with the bleed and Jairus’s daughter, so it will be for you. But Mark is telling us the Good News that Jesus considers every person – even women in his society – should be able to live her life to the full, and that she can do that if she allows Jesus to restore life to her. Or him.

That’s more than the cultural script of being a wife and mother. That’s a gift of life that is wide open to all good possibilities.

The second word that Mark uses is ‘daughter’. Each of the women healed in these stories is called a daughter, because each is unconditionally loved. Jesus calls the woman he heals by the name of ‘Daughter’: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (Mark 5:34). And then immediately follows the rest of the other story. ‘While he was still speaking there came from the house some who said, “Your daughter is dead”.” (5:35) Whose daughter? It is ambiguous, because she is both Jairus’s much loved ‘little daughter’, and a daughter to Jesus too.

I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter. I remember the day in 1983 when she was born. I remember a lot more of her childhood than she might like me to. I am so proud of her now as a young mother of three, working at an interesting job part-time. She is a lovely and accomplished young woman. Everyone knows that. But only Rae and I can call her ‘Daughter’. We have the privilege of loving her especially. The love that I have for Clare, and the love that I know is returned, is a real joy.

Jesus emphasises with the women in these stories that the Father loves each daughter just like, and even more, than a human father loves his daughter. Daughters, you are loved, you are loved by God, with a love that gives you your life and goes on giving you your life back. Sons, you are loved, you are loved, too, by the Father, but sometimes, even in this 21st Century after Jesus, the daughters need to be told more intensely, more Intentionally, that God’s love is for them in this way of deep joy.

But for all of us, daughters and sons, can we in reality imagine what Jesus is offering to us?

  • the fulfilment of our lives up to our expectations so that we can do what God wants us to do in this world, as the two women were given the opportunity to be wives and mothers;
  • secondly, to get our lives back richer than we can imagine and better than we can imagine: this is Christ’s gift to us. As we open ourselves to Christ, so we are being transformed into new people, leaving the old one behind, becoming the person God intended us to be from the beginning, and discovering more and more joy in that. This is why for me being fed with the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is so important, as it feeds us on that journey of transformation.
  • and thirdly, knowing ourselves deeply loved as God’s children. God has loved us from the beginning and will love us eternally.

This is good news. It takes time to seep into us. It can be hard to hear this good news. God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to show us what God is like. And this is what God is like. This is what God delights in doing for people.

Sin is when we refuse to let this love, the love of Christ penetrate more and more deeply into our hearts and lives, when we refuse to connect to Christ. Christ for his part continues to offer us our lives back, renewed and better than before.

Out of our poverty, we become rich, as Paul said in this morning’s epistle (2 Cor. 8:9) – and what wealth it is. What Good News it is! And what good news we become for others as this transformation takes place.

If you think I am being too idealistic, I plead with you to go back to the reading and see again what the gift is that Jesus gives to the woman and to Jairus’ daughter, and then to resolve to go about your lives knowing that it is true. God loves you through and through for eternity. Let him change you into his glory bit by bit.