A reflection on Mary Jesus’ mother in the light of Covid 19’s decimation of our nursing homes.


Recently I was asked by a Christian friend to explain the significance of Mary the mother of Jesus for a Christian today. Protestants are often confused by some of the views and devotional practices of Roman Catholics in relation to Mary.

The brief notes below were my reply to his questions. Ironically this was written during stage 4 lock down in Melbourne due to the Corona virus pandemic. The infections and deaths in Victoria were very high in retirement homes, and because women tend to live longer than men these homes have a very high percentage of elderly woman. Tragically as a result there was a large number of deaths among elderly women. Many of these women were someone’s mother who died without the comfort and presence of their loved ones. This caused me to reflect on our present culture’s treatment of the elderly.

In 2017 The Sydney theater company presented “The Testament of Mary” a dramatic and contraversial monologue in which the Irish actress Alison Whyte presented a powerful imaginary interpretation of Mary breaking her silence after 2,000 years to reveal her story and pain. Written by the Irish author Colm Toibin, brought up as a Catholic he is no longer a believer but says he remembers as a boy each night’s Rosary that ended with the words he still cherishes;  “Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy…..to Thee we send up our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears…..Show us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus…” (The Australian, Review 7/1/17) This is a personal insight into how powerful is the Catholic devotion to Mary. This is one of the issues I will address.

These thoughts have been arranged in the following way. First, all the Biblical references to Mary are listed, these should be read before you proceed to my reflections.


Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7. (The OT prophecy of the Messiah and his birth.)

Math 1:16-25 (The birth of Jesus)

Math2:1-23 (The visit of the Maji and the flight into Egypt.)

Lk 1:26-56 (The birth of Jesus foretold)

Lk 2:1-20 (The birth of Jesus)

Lk 2:21-40 (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple)

Lk 2:41-52 (Jesus at the Temple when he is 12yrs)

Jn 2:1-5. (At the wedding in Cana.)

Mk 3:20-35 (The family question his mental state!)

Jn 19:25-27 (At the cross)

Acts 1:14 (In the upper room at Jerusalem with the other disciples after the ascension)

Note also: 1Tim 2:5-6. 2 Cor 5:16-19.

Some general introductory comments

  1. It is sometimes said that, theologically, Roman Catholics have over claimed and Protestants underclaimed the significance of Mary. This is probably an overhang of the Reformation and the reaction to the excesses of Mariolatry of the period.
  2. Given that many human fathers have been remote or distant and over-authoritarian and, in some cases, violent and abusive it is understandable that for some people a mother figure would be easier to pray to as a mediator with God.
  3. This is partly the explanation for the “Roman Catholic overclaim”. This grew up in the popular piety of the medieval Church but was not formally proclaimed till the 19th C in 1854. Remember also that Papal infallibility in doctrinal claims was not proclaimed formally till around the same time – 1870! Mary’s assumption into heaven without passing through death wasn’t officially proclaimed till the 1950’s. The claim that she is Co-Redeemer is also late. The more radical Vatican Council of 1962-65 backed away a bit from these claims and softened some of the wordings as they reached out to Protestants. The later Polish Pope JohnPaul II began a more recent conservative trend back to the past. Mary is a strong focus of Polish Catholic piety. The phrase “mother of the Church” could be accepted by some Protestants depending how it is defined but it is not a Biblical term. A saying that is sometimes used by Catholic theologians is “Death through Eve life through Mary,” once again like the previous phrase it depends exactly what you mean!

If we base our knowledge, doctrine, and practices on Scripture rather than tradition what can we learn from Mary and take into our following of Jesus, our convictions, and our practices of prayer and worship?

  1. The Gospel accounts clearly show that Mary was the obedient, humble servant of God, through whom God became incarnate, a human person and Messiah for our salvation and reconciliation with God. She is an example of “the servant mother” who gives birth to the “servant King” who ushers in the Kingdom of God. That obedience was in the face of many difficult tests and challenges for a young woman.

While promised, she was not yet married to Joseph and would be concerned about the shame an unmarried pregnancy would bring on her. (Later in the Gospels in an intense encounter with Jewish teachers [John 8:41] we see their attitude to Jesus expressed in a way that could imply they knew his past and the rumour of him being born out of wedlock and so illegitimate, a label they used to discredit him.)

Mary gave birth in difficult and rough circumstances. We have romanced the stable and the manger on Christmas cards and in nativity plays but it would have been unhygienic, rough, risky, and cold.

Later she was taken on a long and difficult journey to Egypt when Jesus was still an infant becoming a refugee to escape Herod’s attempt to kill the child. She would also have to live with the knowledge of all the other children killed by Herod’s pogrom in Nazareth to try and eliminate Jesus. Herod was part Jewish and knew the Messianic prophecies of a coming King, a feared new rival to his position and power.

To cope with all these challenges at a young age she must have been a special person of strong character and faith. Her response to her cousin Elizabeth’s encouragement, who was to give birth to John the Baptist, is in Luke 1:46-55, ‘Marys Song’, or as we know it in Anglican Prayer Book “The Magnificat.” It reveals her strong and well taught Jewish faith and knowledge of what the promised Messiah will inaugurate. There was a common belief among Jewish woman that the son born to any young Jewish woman could be the Messiah this arose from the promise in Isaiah 7:14.

In her song of praise, Mary affirms the radical agenda of the Messiah (Compare Luke 1:51-53, to Luke 4:14-21 Jesus’ announcement at the beginning of his public ministry). Marys song is a worthy inclusion in our regular worship, both public and private.

When Jesus is presented to the Lord in the Temple by Joseph and Mary as a baby, as the law required the first born son to be so dedicated, the faithful old worshiper Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2: 28- 38) reinforce for Mary (and Joseph) what she has been told by the angel, her cousin Elizabeth, and the visitors to the stable at Jesus’ birth. But note verses in Lk 2: 33-35 and the hint of the grief Mary will experience in the future, something she could not imagine at this stage of her life.

This experience in the Temple at his presentation reinforced the knowledge that their son was special and the longed-for Messiah. This would be staggering knowledge for these two-ordinary people. As we know from the reactions later of the disciples it took a long time for them to understand the true and full universal significance of the Messiah and his Kingdom and to displace their temporal, limited and national political expectations.(See Acts 1:6)

2. Mary’s essential role in the physical birth of Jesus raises the great significance of the incarnation – God taking on human flesh.

In the incarnation God declares the following:

  • His great love for us expressed in the costliest way as it takes him to the cross to bear our sins and redeem us from the just judgement of God’s law, that which we could not do for ourselves. (Roman 3: 19-26)
  • His identification with us in all our fragile humanness.
  • It is a declaration of the infinite value and dignity and sacredness of every human person. Whoever they are, whatever they have done, whatever they have achieved or failed to achieve, whatever worldly status may or may not have been conferred on them, each must be treated with the greatest care, respect, justice and equality. This is the basis of all human rights and responsibilities.
  • (We must always remember that rights, and responsibility for them are reciprocal. We cannot demand them from others without also granting them to those who disagree with us and to those we demand them from. This is particularly relevant in any discourse over rights, it must be respectful. This is a particularly sensitive issue in our present context. See footnote *)
  • We are created in the image of God and redeemed and recreated in and by the image of God in Christ. (2 Cor.5:16-19
  • 3. Marys role in the incarnation shows Gods affirmation of the ordinary person, consider the following:
  1. Mary was from an ordinary small village and working-class family, probably poor.
  2. Her fiancé was a tradesman, a carpenter. (Remember most of Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.)
  3. She lived in a small rural village.
  4. She was a Jew, at that time an occupied oppressed people ruled by Rome.
  5. As an unmarried girl her pregnancy put her in a position where she could be rejected or at least treated with disrespect or shamed in her village.

This affirmation of Mary as Gods choice for this special role, given her place and status in her culture at the time , speaks strongly to our attitudes and who we affirm or reject.

4.Mary and our own mothers:

  1. We should be grateful to God for the sacrifices our own mothers made for us and share that with them.
  2. If they are still alive we should pray for them regularly.
  3. We should accept responsibilty for their care and quality of life in their declining years.
    (The present pandemic has revealed, to our shame, the great weakness in our national policies and funding of aged care. This is, in spite of the fact that until the recent pandemic we have never been so prosperous as a nation. It has also highlighted the trend to the marginalising of the aged in special aged care homes rather than in the more natural community of cross generational families. Special hospice care will be necessary in serious ill health and advanced dementia cases but should be the exception. The Federal policy of financial support for aged persons in their own home or the home of their children should be encouraged and increased.)                                                                                                                                                                                      5.Mary in our worship, public and private and implications for children who have left home.

(a) The Scriptures do not give support to the idea of praying to or through Mary, nor do they support the idea that she is our co-redeemer or that with Jesus she sits at the right hand (or left) of God. 1Tim 2:5-6 makes this very clear.

(b) But in our teaching and preaching and corporate worship we should give a significant place to her example of faith, obedience to God, and self- sacrifice. The idea of an annual special day of remembrance and honouring of Mary is quite appropriate. This could be incorporated into Mother’s Day celebrations in the West.

(c) The regular use of the Magnificat (Marys Song) sung or read regularly in worship and private prayers is a very legitimate and an appropriate tradition, as in Anglican worship.

(d) We could make much more of Marys role in our Christmas celebrations, by emphasising her courage, strength, and self-sacrifice.

(e) In our personal devotions as we reflect on the fact that although she had such extraordinary experiences and revelations from God, she was not without her moments of doubt, confusion, and anxiety about her son, just like us.  Mark 3:20-35 and John 19: 25-27 reveal that, and Johns record of Jesus committing his mother into His friends care while He hung on the cross is a very moving example to us.

(f) Mary also had to cope with the fact that as Jesus’ public ministry advanced his love had to be shared with others (Mark 3: 33-35). This is a common experience of mothers as their sons and daughters leave home, marry, their circle of friends enlarges, and their work and their families take more and more of their time.  Children need to reflect on this and not forget or neglect their mothers.

Peter Corney (August 2020)


*Footnote: In his Massy lectures “The Rights Revolution” the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff makes the very important point that Rights are reciprocal and when this understanding is present it gives Rights the capacity to create community but if absent to fracture it. He also says that Rights talk must not monopolise our discussion of the common good and exclude the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, civility, respect, and love. The Canadian experience is worth reflecting on as they have pushed the Rights agenda harder than most Western democracies. (See my review of M. Ignatieff’s book of The Massy lectures on my blog at <petercorney.com> )



The Hands of Jesus – 6 Studies for Small Groups

The Hands of Jesus - 6 Studies for Small Groups

I’m very pleased to make available for free download a series of small group studies centred around the theme “The Hands of Jesus and our hands”. Accompanying the Study Booklet are six sermons, useful for preachers who wish to use the theme for a preaching series while their congregation uses the studies in small groups. The content is licensed like the rest of this website under the generous Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Click here to download “The Hands of Jesus – 6 Studies for Small Groups” (2MB PDF)

Click here to download the accompanying 6 sermon series focused around the theme. (2MB PDF)

Below is an excerpt from the Small Group Study Guide:

1. Hands of compassion  –  Matthew 8:1-17
2. Servant hands – John 13: 1-17
3. Hands that broke bread – John 21:1-14
4. Healing hands – Mark 7: 31-37
5. Hands of blessing – Mark 10;13-16, Matthew 18:1-9
6. Wounded hands – John 20:19-29

How to use these studies:
They can be used as small group study material and or combined with a sermon series; there are six accompanying sermons available for free download at http://petercorney.com. They could also be used for individual personal reflections. The Bible text is from the NIV translation.

The structure of each study:

  1. The theme
  2. An introductory question or exercise to get people thinking on the theme
  3. The core material of the study and Bible passages.
  4. Questions and exercises for group discussion
  5. A “take–away” task
  6. A thought for the week.

As we read the life of Jesus in the Gospels and his interactions with people one of the things that is not immediately obvious is the way he uses his hands, but when you focus on it, it is striking and suggestive. Often when he heals the sick he touches them. Although Jesus doesn’t need to touch in order to heal he often does. With his hands he washes dirty feet, he breaks and serves bread, and he cooks fish and hands it around to his disciples. He takes children into his arms and places his hands on them in blessing, and on the cross his hands are cruelly pierced. In our imagination we can also easily see Jesus warmly embracing his friends, clasping a shoulder or hand in affection or encouragement, waving a greeting or a farewell, emphasizing a point as he teaches, holding out his open hands in prayer to his Father. They are hands that are used to hard work, they are tradesman’s hands. Jesus the divine son of God is also fully human and so like us he used his hands to communicate, to express himself, to convey feelings; empathy, encouragement, support, love, friendship.

Because we use them constantly it is easy to forget how important and significant our hands are, only when we injure a finger or our hand and can not use them do we realize how much we rely on them. But they are not only critically useful to us in all our everyday tasks they are also part of our “language”, our means of expression. Our hands are used to convey a great range of messages and emotions. They are used for greetings and farewells, to express friendship, affection and love, to show praise and anger. We point in accusation, we shake a fist in anger, and we clap in appreciation and congratulation.

As disciples of Jesus we are called to follow him, he is our teacher, guide and model for the way we should live. In one of his conversations with the disciples after his resurrection and shortly before he was to leave them in body he said “As the Father has sent me so I send you”. We are now to be Jesus’ hands in the world! In these six studies we are going to focus on the way Jesus used his hands and what they tell us about the way we should live and act as his disciples.

The London Riots and the Future of Western Culture

Ealing riots - the aftermath by captainsticky

I was considering putting an article together commenting on the London riots until I came upon the outstanding piece by the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks. It should be read by every Western politician, community leader, educator, pastor, and parent, and anyone who professes to believe in the importance of preserving a civil society. I encourage you to read “Reversing the decay of London undone” and pass it on.

A Christmas message

By Peter Corney

Christmas*tree By Sweet*Shot

At the heart of Christmas is generosity and celebration. We are celebrating the lavish, extravagant generosity of God towards us in Christ. God has given us the most extraordinary, most precious gift one could imagine. The son of God steps into human history and takes on human flesh. He identifies with us in our joy and pain so that he might bear the judgment justice demands for all our inhumanity to one another, our violence, our exploitation and our petty betrayals. He does this so that the gift of grace and forgiveness can be made available freely to us by God.   That is why we give gifts to each other at Christmas. That is why we party, feast and celebrate.

The other reason we celebrate and feast together at Christmas is that Christ’s first coming reminds us that he will come again to complete his saving actions and fully consummate the Kingdom of God.  He will renew and restore this broken world, banishing death, entropy and decay and will usher in the new heavens and the new earth. (Rom 8:18-24) Interestingly that event is symbolized in scripture by the image of a great banquet,the Messianic banquet.

Jesus returned again and again to this image in his parables and stories, sometimes as a wedding feast, sometimes as a dinner party, sometimes as a great banquet.(Luke 14:7-24) The Lord’s Supper is also associated with the Messianic banquet. Jesus said; I will not eat this meal again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. (Luke 22:16) In his famous story of the prodigal son, when the lost son returns the father is so overjoyed he throws a great banquet and kills the fattened calf, a great extravagance in those times. In the book of Revelation the Messianic banquet is described as the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev 19:9)

Jesus was not doing something unusual in the use of this banquet image; it was one the OT prophets had used. The Lord almighty will prepare a table of rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines…He will swallow up death forever, the sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces….(Isaiah 25: 6-8). It also appears in the well known Psalm 23 which we think of as the shepherd’s psalm. Now while the psalm begins with the image of sheep in the fields, at verse five it moves indoors and changes the metaphor to a banquet table, you spread a table before me…….my cup shall be full. The anointing, you have anointed my head with oil is part of the welcoming formality, along with the kiss of peace and water to wash one’s feet, that was the polite introduction for every honored guest to your house and table in the middle east of the first century. And then the promise of life in the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

So when we gather around our Christmas tables loaded with special food and drink and decorations, this is what we are celebrating, this is what we are anticipating. All the work of preparation, all the food, all the gifts carefully chosen and wrapped, all our family and friends gathered together, all this is to remember, celebrate and give thanks for the future hope made possible by the entry of the Son of God into human history to restore and renew this broken world. We are celebrating what this rich image stands for – the joy of the kingdom of God, the abundance of the renewed creation, the unity of all people in Christ and our unfiltered fellowship with God. We can think of our Christmas celebrations as a parable of the future, even the tensions around the family table! Because we know that one day they will all be healed and we will all be in perfect unity and peace.

Now in my view that is really worth celebrating lavishly and enthusiastically!

What I find most difficult about the Christmas season is how some Christians become negative and critical. I’m so stressed,  its so busy, there’s so much to do, sending all those cards, getting all the food ready, buying all those presents, all that expense…(This is partly driven by their reaction to the culture’s rampant consumerism and the Christmas credit card binge. They also feel that the true meaning of Christmas gets lost among the reindeers and snow flakes.)  The problem is their negativity doesn’t help. It just reinforces the view of people outside the church that we are a judgmental bunch of miserable spoil sports who don’t know how to celebrate.

I often think we sound like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He comes home from the fields to find a party going on for his black sheep younger brother who has suddenly turned up. They thought he was dead. He is angry that a lavish party is being thrown by his father for this irresponsible waster who has blown his inheritance in wild living. The father pleads with him to come in to the feast and celebrate with them. This my son was lost but is found. But the older brother refuses to go in. This is a parable of the gospel and Gods relentless love for us and his desire for us to come home no matter what we have done. The banquet is an expression of God’s joy when any one comes home. It is also an image of what awaits us in the Kingdom of God. Don’t lets be ‘elder brothers.’

In fact one of the ways we could recapture the true meaning of Christmas for our culture would be for us to return to the full throttle way Christians originally celebrated our greatest festival. Part of our problem as western Christians is that we live our lives every week at a celebratory level and so when a real festival comes along the celebration is a bit ho hum. We need to scale back our normal living, live more simply, less extravagantly, spend less, eat and drink less and get ready to pull the stops out for the big Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter Day. A practical suggestion is that in the month before Christmas we deliberately live more simply and frugally, like many Christians do before Easter. What we save we could then spend on our celebrations and give away in generous gifts to others.

Christmas is the time to celebrate at full throttle the saving power of the Gospel made possible by Jesus’ coming.

Peter Corney       December 2010

Tragedy in Haiti – Why does suffering and evil exist in a world created by a good God?

Peacekeeping - MINUSTAH
Haiti Earthquake - United Nations Development Programme's photostream

by Peter Corney

The recent tragic events in Haiti (13/1/10) raise this question acutely for us once again, but the question is always with us because we all experience suffering in some form or other in our lives and the lives of those we love.

There are no simple or glib answers to this question, but if one is to live in hope and not despair it is essential to think it through. The following is an attempt to provide a Christian framework from within which to consider the question.

1. We need to observe that suffering has different causes:

(a) It can be the result of human decisions and actions that are selfish, exploitive, cruel, unjust or evil. E.g.: Economic exploitation, war and other forms of armed conflict, pollution that leads to disease, individual life style decisions that lead to alcoholism or drug addiction, heart disease or diabetes, etc. Human actions can also compound the effect of natural forces like flooding or seasonal cycles of cyclones when people are forced for economic or political reasons to live in flood prone areas like parts of Bangladesh or Burma. Climate change is another example of this. The tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti is compounded by the political corruption, instability, poverty and lack of infrastructure in that sad country.

(b) As a result of the natural physical order; Storms, earthquakes, volcanic activity, etc. The creation is dynamic; it is continually evolving and changing. We humans are part of the natural physical order and our suffering sometimes occurs when we interact with it. While it is largely predictable it is not static. Often we take risks in our interaction with the creation, e.g.: building in flood prone or volcanic areas.

(c) Diseases, genetic distortions etc., that seem to be part of the ‘natural order’. We will return to these later.

2. The religious answers to the reality of suffering are many but two of the most significant are Christianity and Eastern Mysticism (EM), but they are very different.

(a) In EM the basic answer given is ‘detachment’ or disengagement. Suffering is caused by our desire for things; money, health, love, power, recognition, possessions, etc.

When we don’t have them or they are taken away we suffer. The answer is to get rid of our desires, detach, and disengage from the world. This is attempted through mental and physical exercises like Yoga. The ultimate detachment is where self consciousness is absorbed into the so called ‘cosmic consciousness’ and disappears in a kind of self annihilation. The other idea in EM that affects the attitude to suffering is that the material world with its particularity and differences is really an illusion and so not important. So the East’s answer is disengagement!

(b) Christianity on the other hand is the complete opposite to this; it is about engagement with suffering, in particular Christ’s engagement with suffering. It is based on the following seven ideas. It is essential to the Christian understanding of and response to suffering to understand these key ideas.

The seven key ideas:

The first four concern the way we understand God’s relationship to the physical order. We understand that:

1.  God created the world and set in place certain physical laws like gravity.

2.  God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way; which means that even though he has the power to interrupt or intervene, generally he follows and upholds his own physical laws in a consistent and reliable way. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but generally not . Later we will discuss an example of his intervention.

3.  Because God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way the world is both a marvelous and consistent place. The seasons come and go the sun rises and sets, etc. This means scientific and medical research is possible. But it is also a dangerous and risky place for humans particularly as they pit themselves from time to time against the powers of nature. Mountains are exhilarating to climb but gravity is a danger! The sea and sailing can be a wonderful experience but storms are dangerous!

4.  God created us as ‘embodied’ people; which means we can experience pleasure and pain, love and grief, rest and exhaustion. As embodied people in a world of powerful nature this carries with it certain implications. We also need to recognize that pain has an important protective role.

(The last three key ideas concern God’s relationship to the people he has created and certain ‘moral and spiritual laws.)

5.  When God created us he set in place certain moral and spiritual laws (like his physical laws); e.g. Knowledge of and freedom of choice between right and wrong; the power to affect the creation for good or ill; relational choice – to relate to God or not, to relate to others rightly or wrongly, etc.  Now God interacts with us like the rest of his creation in a self limiting way; which means according to his moral and spiritual laws. So he allows us the freedom to choose wrongly or selfishly as well as rightly and that may cause suffering for ourselves and others. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but not normally. His aim is to call forth from us a free  response not coerce us.

6.   The sixth key idea is what Christians call ‘the fall’. The Christian faith holds that God’s original creation has been disturbed by humanitiies challenge to God’s authority. The story, described in mythic and theological language in chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis, explains what happened and the results. Our rejection and assumption to ourselves of God’s authority disturbs our relationship with him, with one another and with the creation. The natural intimate relationship with God is replaced with estrangement, fear and guilt. The man and the woman’s relationship is also disturbed. Mans responsibility for the creation remains but is changed, thorns and weeds grow with his tilling of the soil, the work is now hard. Finally in chapter 4 we see violence and death enter with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God pronounces judgment on Cain, he will be alienated from the soil, from other men and from God, cursed to restlessly wander the earth never finding his true home. It is such a  prophetic picture of the alienation experienced by contemporary people,   environmentally, relationally and spiritually, and expressed in much art and literature. (See the article on the website “Is the 20th C’s  scream of alienation still echoing in the 21stC?”)

This is why many things are not the way they were meant to be and so produce suffering and disease. The created order is ‘fallen’, out of joint, the world is broken.  The rest of the Biblical story is essentially God’s response to this and his rescue mission.

7.   The intervention! I said earlier that God does sometimes intervene and takes the self imposed limits off himself. Generally it is difficult for us to know when he does this, but the big intervention and the one we can be sure of, because he said it was, is the ‘incarnation’. (John 1:1- 18) God stepped into our history in the person of his son Jesus Christ, took on human flesh, identified with us and suffered for us and with us. Here we see the great difference with EM. God engages with us, enters into our brokenness and suffering. Christianity is about  incarnation not excarnation, it is about attachment not detachment, engagement not disengagement with the real world. God is with us in our pain.

But he not only identifies with us in our suffering, he confronts its major cause – our wrong and selfish choices. In his death on the cross he takes on our evil and guilt. God absorbs the power and effects of evil and death and suffering and it judgment in himself and then rises to new and eternal life.

So by his death and resurrection he banishes death and decay and suffering. His resurrection releases Gods renewing and recreating power to renew the whole creation. When a person ceases rejecting Gods authority over their life and submits to it and trusts in Christ they are reconciled with God through Christ’s actions. They receive    the Holy Spirit of God and God’s life enters their life. This   is like a down payment on their future transformed life in Gods’ renewed creation. Christians do not believe in annihilation at death nor do they believe we will exist in some disembodied consciousness but in real renewed bodies in the new heavens and the new earth where all pain and suffering will be wiped away. (Romans 8: 18-25)

Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order but a restoration of the fallen natural order. God did not create a world with disease and death in it. Jesus’ miracles were signs of the future complete restoration that is  to come (1)

This understanding leads Christians to be in the forefront of caring for those who suffer. They created the first NGO’s for aid and development, the first hospitals and orphanages, etc. Like Jesus they are driven by love for the broken world and a desire to be signs of the vision of the future God has in store.

The alternative to this is stark. Richard Holloway expresses it with disturbing clarity in these words:

The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends by believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness. (2)

References: (1) Tim Keller ‘ The Prodigal God’ p112, Hodder, 2008.

(2) Richard Holloway ‘ Paradoxes of the Christian Faith and Life’ p29, Mowbray, 1984

What do these three things have in common: the preaching of the cross, holiness of life and social justice?

By Peter Corney

Our Father in heaven holy is your name. (Mathew 6:9)

A passion for the preaching of the Cross, a desire for a holy life and the pursuit of social justice has a common source. The spring from which these three are refreshed and renewed in the church is an acute awareness of the holiness and love of God.

These three vital elements of the Church’s life and mission are notably weak in the contemporary Western church, and the reason is clear, it is because our sensitivity to and awareness of the holy love of God is dull. We are like the man in Plato’s story who was chained in a cave so that all he could see of the brilliant world outside were passing shadows on the rear wall. Occasionally he was aware of a bird flying past or clouds passing over and the indirect light of the sun or moon. The experience of the reality of the world beyond his cave, the beauty, colors, and vastness were all inaccessible to him because he could not get to the entrance of his cave. His imagination, his understanding and his sensibilities were dulled, stunted and distorted by the limitation of his vision.

Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name: worship the Lord in the splendour (beauty) of his holiness (Psalm 29:1-2)

It is only when we break our chains and go to the entrance of our cave and once again gaze out upon the biblical vision of the holiness and love of God that we will recover a true understanding of and passion for these three vital elements of our life and mission.

Let me explain.

1. The preaching of the cross and the priority of grace.

Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12;29)

We need to re-establish in our minds and hearts that God in his blazing purity can not co – exist with evil (Habakkuk1:13, Psalm 5:4-6); that our God is a consuming fire of holy righteousness. We need to understand afresh that fallen humanity is unholy and we are unable to approach Him because of our impurity, our selfishness, greed and violence, and our persistent inhumanity to others. When we re-establish this understanding, then will we see the preaching of the Cross return with urgency to the centre of the churches message. That is because a true vision of God in his holiness will drive us to see that the only point at which we, in our unholiness, can meet Him and live, is in judgment and grace, and the place where judgment and grace intersect is in Christ and the Cross. This is the heart of holy love (1John 4:10). This is where God’s glory, which is his holiness and love, is revealed (John12:23-33, 13:31-32). The only entry point for us to the most holy place, the presence of God, is at the Cross (Hebrews 9:12- 14, 10:19-22).

If we reject God’s holy love in Christ and his Cross then we meet God only in judgment and for unholy people it is “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. (Hebrews 10:31). We have to feel the force of the question that earlier generations asked themselves with awe and trembling: ‘How can a Holy God co-exist with an unholy and impure people?’

When Isaiah experienced the overwhelming vision of God in all his holy glory in the temple he cried out: Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty. (Isaiah 6: 1- 5)

When we re-assert the holiness of God, by contrast, we feel and see with greater clarity the “heart of darkness” that infects us all. The pervasive monstrosity of evil, its immense destructiveness, and the absolute necessity for its judgment is pressed in upon us again, breaking through our carefully constructed distractions and diversions.

Should we be tempted to think this approach is all too negative and unnecessary, then a brief reflection on the horrors we have inflicted upon each other in the recent past will correct that temptation, e.g; the genocides of: the Jewish holocaust, Armenia, Kurdistan, the Ukraine, the Balkans, Ruanda, Kampuchea, the Sudan, the list goes on with a terrible monotony. We cannot escape the call for accountability, no one is innocent!

The Spanish artist Antonio Saura has a painting of the crucifixion that captures not just its physical brutality but something of the terrible significance of what the Cross means and represents when God in Christ bears the cost of accountability for human sin and evil. (1) The picture is very large and confronting, painted in stark black and white. The body of Christ is distorted to the point of destruction. The face has become a hideous grimace. The picture has a feeling of malevolence. The figure has become almost robotic, as if it’s become something of what it bears – a weapon of destruction, a killing machine. Here, in a way that language struggles to express, is graphically depicted the concentration of human sin and evil, violence and cruelty, and there is Jesus, carrying, bearing, becoming that for us and absorbing its judgment. It is only this radical primal message of the cross that can heal the wounds of evil in the hearts of us all.

As the call for accountability for all our inhumanity to one another rises up to God so also another cry goes up, the desperate cry for forgiveness and redemption. We hear that cry over and over again in contemporary literature and film. (2) We also hear it in the pain of those who have become aware of how their selfishness has fractured or destroyed a relationship. Anyone who has had the responsibility to sit with and council those confronting the folly of their addictions or their selfish and cruel decisions that have hurt others irreparably, or their betrayal and abandonment of those to whom they once promised faithfulness for life, will also have heard the desperate cry for redemption. Only the radical meaning of the Cross can meet this desperate longing for the removal of guilt and the need to be forgiven. ‘Can I be loved in my unloveliness?’ ‘How will I face the moment of accountability?’ ‘Is it possible to be forgiven?’ This is the cry for grace and there is only one place where it can be found – the Cross.

We are tempted to feel today that the very primal nature of the Cross is alien and alienating to contemporary people. That death, blood, vicarious suffering, substitutionary sacrifice, atonement and redemptive suffering are all concepts that either repel or puzzle them. At this point we may have been most subtly seduced by modernity.

Ironically the most widely sold and read novels of our time are Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and close behind them C S Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, both now made into blockbuster films seen by millions of viewers. These stories are full of primal myths and symbols of sacrifice. Their popularity may well represent the hunger of a generation starved of spiritual realities and old wisdom by the closed box of scientific rationalism, the emptiness of secular humanism, materialism and the failure of the church to faithfully proclaim its transcendent message.

The temptation to reduce the radical meaning of the Cross is ever present in the contemporary church, to turn away from the biblical ideas of God’s uncompromising holiness and his provision of atonement in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. As I write this a new debate is raging about these very matters as many Christian teachers turn away from historic orthodoxy’s teaching on the Cross.(3) There is also an unconscionable and wide spread practice in our churches where the original symbols are retained but their classical first order meaning is denied or changed. This may be our greatest act of theological treason, when we preserve the appearance of the biblical concepts in our worship, in the language we employ, the symbols we use, the celebration of Communion and the words of our songs, but empty them of their biblical meaning. No wonder so many of our people are spiritually undernourished and our churches dying. This process leaves us with signs without substance, the wrapper without the content. It is this process that hollows out our message till there is no substance or power left. We hold the form of religion but deny its power. (4)

P.T. Forsyth, an important English theologian of the early twentieth century, wrote: “Christianity is concerned with God’s holiness before all else, which issues to man as love, acts upon sin as grace, and exercises grace through judgment. The idea of God’s holiness is inseparable from the idea of judgment as the mode by which grace goes into action. And by judgment is meant….the acceptance by Christ of God’s judgment on man’s behalf and its conversion in him to our blessing by faith.”(5)

In re-asserting the preaching of the Cross, we need to take care not to create a false dichotomy and pit God’s holiness and love against each other. God’s love is not an alternative to his holiness, or his holiness an alternative to his love: they are expressions of each other. The atoning death of Christ on the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s holy love. When we recapture our awareness of that blazing holy love we will return to the preaching of the Cross

2. Holiness of life and the distinctive Christian lifestyle.

Just as he who has called you is holy so be holy in all you do: for it is written, ‘Be holy for I am holy’. (1Peter 1:15-16)

As we re-establish in our minds the biblical vision of the holiness of God, we will find ourselves re examining our life style. We will realize how far we have drifted with the current of our society and how far back we have to row.

We live in a self-indulgent excessive society preoccupied with comfort, pleasure, leisure, possessions and security. We live in a society dominated by a popular entertainment media that is saturated with the portrayal of violence, conflict and promiscuous sexuality. The advertising that fills our lives is centered on the creation of discontent to drive our consumerism – this mobile phone is better than your old one. It uses covetousness, greed, self indulgence – why deny yourself? – and the false promise of creating an identity through possessions – succesfull people drive a … as its driving motivations. Living in the midst of all this is deeply corrosive to Christian values. To live a distinctively Christian lifestyle is a constant challenge and requires deliberate and conscious choice.

The constant underlying pressure of consumerism makes us self focused, we expect to be served rather than to serve. It feeds the drive for instant self gratification rather than self discipline and delayed gratification. One of the implications is that the development of character is affected and the end result is often character that is stunted and deeply flawed, producing self obsessed and narcissistic people.(6) To pursue the call to be like the suffering servant Jesus in such a culture requires real commitment and sacrifice.

The foundational idea of holiness in scripture is to be set apart and consecrated for a specific purpose. God has called us, reconciled us to his holy self in Christ so we will be consecrated to serve his purposes in the world. We are called to be a sign that points people to God and his kingdom. Our lives are to express the character and purposes of God and the values of his kingdom. Peter expresses it in this way in his letter:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…..I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. (1Peter 2:9-12)

When we set apart a utensil for some special task such as a baking dish, we do not use it to mix paint in and we make sure we keep it clean! In the same way we must set ourselves aside for God. (2Tim 2:20 – 21) Paul goes on in the same passage to say that we are to run away from evil and pursue goodness. The original word he uses suggests the idea of a hunter pursuing their prey. We are to hunt down goodness! (2Tim 2:22)

In another arresting image Paul says that our lives are to shine like stars in a dark night sky as we hold out the word of life to the culture in which we are set. (Phil 2:14-16)

Our personal lives, our family life and our Christian communities are to reflect God’s holy love. We are set apart to serve God and his world, but to do that we need to maintain our Christian distinctiveness. There is always of course a fine line between distinctiveness and disengagement from the culture, between being a strong community with a clear identity and a ghetto.

In reasserting the call to a holy life that reflects the Holy God we serve we need to take care that we do not repeat the past mistakes of legalism, exclusivism and disengagement from the culture. Our prayer should be:

O Lord, grant us:
A holiness without legalism,
Discipline with celebration,
An unworldliness that is life affirming,
A simplicity of life that is aesthetically aware,
A frugality that is not mean,
A distinctiveness that is hospitable,
A clarity of belief that is gracious.

3. Social justice

The Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.(Isaiah 5:16)

There is a very close link in scripture between God’s holiness, righteousness and justice and the ethical demands he makes on his people, especially in their communal relations. In Leviticus 19:1-37 and 1Peter 1:15-2:1 the command “Be holy for I am holy” is followed by ethical and moral directions particularly focused on community relations.

The moral source of social ethics and social justice is in God’s holiness. It is located in the heart of God who hates injustice, who defends the poor and exploited who loves goodness and truthfulness and is repelled by all immorality and hubris. (Psalm 146:7-9, Proverbs 6:16)

These are the things you are to do: speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this declares the LORD.

(Zechariah 8:16-1)

Biblical faith is essentially relational, it is about our relationship with God and our neighbor. We are commanded to love God and our neighbor. (Mark 12:29-31. Deut. 6:4. Lev.19:8) The way we are to relate to our neighbor is determined by the character of God, with whom we are in relationship, the God who is holy love, who is righteous and just.

To achieve social justice in a society requires, enough people who have a sense of responsibility to others and personal accountability. Personal accountability declines when we subtly move sin from being an offence against God’s holiness to “personal failure” or “a mistake” or merely the result of social and environmental forces.

Personal motivation to strive for justice and goodness increases when we reassert the holiness of God.

We live in a culture that increasingly sees legislation as the way to generate public morality. But as P.T Forsyth wisely said, “Public liberty rests on inward freedom and the cross alone gives moral freedom.” (7) Gratitude for God’s grace to us in Christ is a far better and stronger motivation for public morality than the coercion of the law. The person moved by grace does that which is good when no one is looking! Without inner freedom we are driven by all sorts of selfish and dark agendas.

When we have glimpsed the vision of God’s holy purity, absolute goodness, truthfulness and justice, when we realize afresh his implacable opposition to injustice and all moral corruption (Habakkuk 1:13, Zechariah 8:16-17, Isaiah 1:10-17, 30:12.), we will be driven to two actions; to our knees in repentance and to our feet in justice for the world. (Micha 6:8)

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

It is this vision that we must reclaim if we are to see a renewal of these three key elements of our mission.

Peter Corney.


  1. “Crucifixion” by Antonio Saura, 1959 Valencian Institute of Modern Art.
  2. “Atonement”, first a book by by Ian Mc Ewan (2001,Jonathan Cape),then a filmin 2007. “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Saving Private Ryan”, The Terminator series, etc.
  3. “Pierced For Our Transgressions” by S. Jeffrey, M. Ovey and A. Sach. (IVP 2007.) See part two p.205f . See also “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Ed. Mark Baker. (Baker Academic 2006)
  4. 2 Tim. 3: 5
  5. P.T Forsyth “The Cruciality of the Cross”, (Paternoster 1997) P.8.
  6. See the very popular 2008 Australian novel by Christos Tsiolkas “The Slap” for a disturbing picture of contemporary Australian self obsession and narcicism. (Allen and Unwin 2008)
  7. P.T Forsyth IBID p.25

Biblical quotations are from the NIV Inclusive language version, 1996.