Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2013
NT Colossians 1:11-20
Gospel: Luke 23:33-43 (to read later)
Today’s three readings relate to Christ the King Sunday. A before and after … and in the middle the Gospel reading has the story of the coronation or the enthronement of the king
Jeremiah gives voice to the hope of Israel for a time of justice created by God. His hope is for a king or messiah who will establish divine justice for Israel. Jeremiah tells his readers. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice…And this is the name by which he shall be called “The Lord is our Righteousness” – or ‘the Lord is our Justice’(that’s the before).
Colossians is an astonishing description – after the event – of the arrival of God’s justice or God’s kingdom. Listen to this for a dramatic account of the arrival of divine justice 1:13
“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Colossians looks back on the arrival of divine justice as a kind of Commando raid into enemy territory. A rescue mission which transfers us into a new political arena – the kingdom of the Son in which humanity is redeemed, restored, brought back to life again. It couldn’t be any more dramatic a metaphor. But Colossians does more. It lifts this whole ancient notion of a Messiah King to a deeper level. It’s easy for us to slip into silly ideas of God. To think of God as something like a Greek or pagan god – a character with the usual human traits and conflicts but with the addition of super-human powers. This makes Superman a kind of God. The God who brings justice to earth, according to Colossians, is the one in whom ‘all things in heaven and earth are created’… He is ‘before all things and in him all things hold together’. That’s probably one of the clearest definitions of God in all of Christian thought. God is not one thing in the world, even the most powerful thing in the world. God is the reason there is a world at all – and by that we mean the reason there is a universe at all, anything at all. God is the source in which all things have their life.
And Colossians says… God (in this serious sense) has lived among us to bring justice to the earth. In the life of Jesus ‘the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ v19. “And through him God was pleased to reconcile (restore) to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross”.
Something has happened between Jeremiah’s vision of justice and the letter to the Colossians that has blown Jewish and Christian imagination out of the water.
Now its time to listen to the story of the enthronement of the king and the arrival of divine justice
Read Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
What stands out in this story is how many times the word King is used in this brief section. Messiah is effectively code-word for king (Messiah = anointed one i.e. coming king). On my count, if we include a reference to “kingdom”, there are five references to king in ten verses … making this whole story a kind of commentary on kingship.
I am reminded of the title of the HBO’s TV series “Game of Thrones”. My daughters tell me “Game of Thrones” is a brutal affair, parental guidance is recommended. Today’s gospel reading is also a story of competing thrones, it is also a brutal affair, parental guidance is recommended. It is the story of God taking up his throne. Jesus is declared to be king, while being crucified among criminals
“They cast lots to divide his clothing” – He has become rubbish and property. His body is to be eaten by the birds and his clothes are rags to be fought over – it is complete shame
“Save your self” is the repeated chorus – a real king would save himself, anyone with the power to do so would save himself, ergo this man is a fraudulent king
The thing that makes a king a king, in everybody’s mind is his ability to save himself, to defend himself. To everyone this man fails the test of being a king.
It is the criminal hanging with him, though, who correctly recognises him as a king (Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom)
The readers of this gospel, those who know that he is risen… who know that God has vindicated his kingship and the justice he brings … the readers of this gospel identify themselves with the criminal “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
And so his defining temptation, his point of ultimate conflict with the world lies at the point at which he refuses to save himself and chooses instead to let himself be captured and killed and finally ‘commends his Spirit into the hands of Abba’. He does not doubt Abba. He is confident that God will vindicate him, confident that the criminal on the cross and he himself will find themselves with God when all is said and done (or perhaps more importantly – that God is with them as they hang there dying).
If a king is someone who ‘saves himself’, who uses his own power for his own ends, Jesus is not a king. His life is, from beginning to end an expression of self-giving into the will of Abba for the sake of those he knows are loved by Abba. According to the crowd’s definition, he is not a King.
He hangs on the cross as a joke on the world. The central event of Christian faith is a joke – God’s joke on the world. The world that puts the title king on his cross, does not know what they are doing. Those who think they are being ironical are in fact telling the truth. Those who think they are proving his failure to be King are in fact enthroning him as king… and as the criminal is told, Jesus is in fact on his way to his kingdom. This is his point of entry. This is his throne.
If Colossians is right then what we have here is God’s drama (God with a big G). The drama that unveils the fraudulence of all human powers of self-defense – of all human desire to ‘save ourselves’. Human kingdoms are unveiled as fraudulent. In the face of divine justice and the divine king.
I began by suggesting that our gospel reading is a ‘Game of thrones’. But this “game of thrones” throws a cat among the pigeons. This game is a game-breaker. It introduces a completely new element into the struggle for power. A king who won’t do what is expected – save himself.
And God’s justice is unveiled as a powerless determination to forgive, and if need be, to suffer in the process. It is the death of all self-defense and the beginning of ‘reconciliation’.
In this way a kingdom is born that is light in darkness – a kingdom that, in contrast to all other kingdoms will never end and will indeed triumph.
This is our faith. Thanks be to God
Luke 21: 5-19
Today’s reading is part of the teachings of Jesus which are usually described as Apocalyptic. This title however can mean all sorts of things (thanks to Hollywood, so lets try an forget hollywood images for a moment). One of the main elements of this apocalyptic way of thinking is that conflict is inevitable. Conflict between the kingdom of God (the rule of God) and the powers that rule the world. Not just governments (but yes Jesus does talk about nations and governers) but all the powers, military, economic, spiritual will come into conflict with the power of Abba God (as Jesus knew his Father).
In short, when Jesus talks apocalyptic he is saying, ‘If you follow me, expect to be in trouble.’
I want to suggest that it’s not a matter of Jesus reading his tea leaves and predicting things. It’s a matter of him deeply understanding the way in which the spiritual order that he was part of differed from everything around him. Worlds. Will. Collide.
There is a kind of trouble that comes to us randomly in our lives. And when it happens we are deeply disturbed by how unfair and inexplicable it is – maybe its cancer or whatever. And we look back at it in confusion and anger at the injustice in our lives.
But there is also trouble we look forward to (anticipate). And the trouble that Jesus is looking forward to it’s not exactly random. It’s a product of an inevitable collision of worlds. Because of the invasion of God’s kingdom, you will face disasters, you will be betrayed by those close to you, they will put some of you to death.
Then he turns it around and says.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify” (now there’s an old-fashioned word). These disasters of apocalypse are, in Jesus mind, an opportunity! An opportunity to bear good news, to testify!
Each month I visit a Spiritual Director. I tell him all about my work here in the parish, about how hard it is to pray and how hard it is to know what to do, and about all the exciting things, and all the difficult things that are going on in Coastal Unity. And he listens carefully and provides insightful observations… The last time I was with him he turned to me and his face lit up and he said something about how much there was going on and then he said something like: “And you can be a bearer of good news in the midst of all of that!”
I guess I’d been sitting there thinking in terms of problem solving. As if it was my problem to solve. And he refocused my attention completely… on being a bearer of good news.
It’s an interesting thought isn’t it… especially in difficult times… to be the bearer of good news… to have your eyes on something else.
Since then I’ve been thinking. I’ve got the easier job than you folk, really. I work in an organization in which the good news is enshrined in our vision statement. It’s on the front of every bulletin. Christ has come. The Kingdom of God has broken into the world and Christ is gathering us together to share in this newness and to be an embodiment of this kingdom of God for the sake of the world. You can read it on the front of our bulletin. God is with us. Love has invaded.
And so my job is much easier than yours. This organization called Coastal Unity (which is my workplace) believes in the good news (at least in theory). You, however, are involved every day of the week in organizations for whom this good news is completely invisible. To those around you, this good news has got to appear like a fantasy… if not craziness then at least dreamy idealistic nonsense. At your work I imagine they will tolerate you giving your time and care to customers or other staff, so long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line, right? It has to make economic sense. It makes no economic sense for a company to sacrifice itself for those in need. Business is business (not charity, we are told). So it’s not that easy to be a bearer of this unbusinesslike good news… And that’s just in the good times, when the Tsunamis are safely overseas in the Philipines.
Jesus says, if you really follow me… you’ll get into conflict with the world you live in. So what do we do when that conflict arises?
Jesus says, Don’t prepare your defense. Don’t rehearse your speech as you enter the room. Jesus knows we will immediately want to defend ourselves and justify our own life before others. Our survival instinct will kick in. We say we are not frightened of death, but the truth is when we are under threat our survival instincts are strong. Our first inclination will be to defend ourselves. Jesus says: Don’t! Try believing the good news instead.
The words you need will be given to you. And what kind of words? Jesus says not words of defence (note!) but words of wisdom – wisdom that your opponents will not be able to withstand. It’s more of an offence than a defense. It’s about testifying. The simple fact is, it’s not about YOU. It’s not about your innocence or guilt. It’s actually not about you or me at all. God is the main agent in this apocalyptic struggle that we find ourselves in. God who is invading this world, will give us the words… I can hear some of you thinking that defending yourself sounds a helluva lot easier than talking about God in public. Self-defence is, I suspect, a much more familiar habit.
But Jesus word about not preparing our defense is less about ‘lack of preparation’ and more about ‘lack of defensiveness’. Every Sunday we are preparing our minds to be bearers of good news. We spend a lifetime listening to the Word and to the Spirit, so that we may be bearers of this good news.
The thing about being a bearer of good news in difficult places is that those who think they are bearing good news discover they are actually being born along by it.
Thanks be to God
At the beginning of the musical Les Miserables, Jean Valjean the bitter young criminal is on the run from the law when a kind priest takes him in and give him food and a bed for the night. In the middle of the night Jean Valjean repays his kindness by getting up and stealing the silverware and leaving … He doesn’t get far when the local police officers capture him red-handed and bring him back to the priest to return the stolen goods. The priest tells the constable that in fact these items are actually his gift to Jean Valjean and Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. So the priest hands over the candlesticks to Valjean and sends him on his way with his blessing and tells him to do well with the silverware.
The story of Les Miserables begins in this way with a great act of love, with reckless forgiveness. It is the story of a strange kind of justice, which creates right relationships by forgiving and embracing the offender. The word for this is grace. What the priest does is grace, and it changes Valjean forever.
As you probably know Les Miserables goes on to tell the story of his lifelong struggle with a police officer called Javert. Javert represents the law and its justice. For him the law is the law, you must pay your dues at all costs, that is justice. There must be an exact accounting of every wrong deed.
So Les Miserables is all about the question what is the right way to live. What is justice? Is Javert right? or is Valjean?
To put it another way: Should we forgive those who wrong us and hurt us, by paying the cost ourselves and absorbing the pain to hold out hope of healing? OR should we insist that the wrongdoers pay the cost of their wrong doing? Do we live under the sign of the scales… or the sign of the cross
There are choices to be made and today our young people are making choices… but its not just random choices about lifestyle that are at stake today. Something much deeper is at work here. These choices have to do with the mystery of God
Todays bible reading says
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Love.”
According to this text, the choices that we make, the life we carve out, can be a sign of and a result of the connection we have with God.
Let’s pause for a moment with that word God. Some people talk about God in phrases like ‘the man upstairs’. And in a way its kind of funny, except at times it seems like that’s how they think about God too. Some kind of being in the universe with greater powers than we have. Perhaps God is the one who kick-started the big-bang and who occasionally intervenes in ways that we can’t. Essentially a person like us, only bigger or more powerful.
But that’s just nonsense… or rather it’s not what Christianity (or for that matter most major religious traditions) is all about. For Christianity, whether you believe in one (or two or three for that matter) of those ‘super-power gods’ is of no interest whatsoever. There might be higher powers under every tree for all I care. That’s not the point. The point is that to believe in God is to believe that the universe does not explain itself, is not sufficient unto itself, but depends on something else. God is why the universe exists at all. One old way of saying this is that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God is the infinite source of everything. Not a thing at all like anything else.
God is love… To believe this is not to believe that there is some ‘man upstairs’ who thinks fondly of us. It is to believe that the absolute source of everything is divine love. Why would we believe that?
Our bible reading goes on:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
The story of Les Miserables is really a parable of the Christian gospel. God, the source of all, has brought love to life in such a way that we can live in it also. The story of Jesus death and resurrection is beautifully captured in the story of a priest who gave his silverware away in an act of forgiveness that gave a man life
To be a Christian then is to know in one’s heart that the source of the universe itself, has made love livable. This is the news that is at work throughout our life, setting us free from every fear that might hold us imprisoned in ourselves and in self-protection.
This is what I believe the Spirit of God is saying in the hearts of Brett and Chris and Caitlin and Daniel.
This is the deep truth that underlies a life ‘following Jesus’. This is the truth that gathers the Christian community to learn to live in and through the forgiveness of Jesus.
Into this truth we are baptised. Chris and Daniel and Caitlin and have been baptised into this. Brett is about to be.
This is the truth that I am inviting you to open your heart to tonight.
Thanks be to God.
Luke 19: 1-10
A guy called D A Carson once began a sermon like this:
I would like to buy about three quid’s worth of gospel please. Not too much – just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted. I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust; I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture. I want ecstasy, not repentance; I want transcendence, not transformation. I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races – especially if they smell. I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected, or my giving too greatly enlarged.
I would like about three quid’s worth of gospel please.
Of course none of us is so crass as to put it that way. But most of us have felt the temptation to opt for a domesticated version of the gospel.
Zacchaeus: the story of someone who got more than three quid’s worth of gospel.
It’s interesting that there are two stories about Tax Collectors in close succession in Luke’s gospel. One came up last Sunday (but Jason didn’t preach from the lectionary). It was about a Tax Collector who prayed and a religious person who went into the Temple to improve his self-esteem.
Today’s Tax Collector, Zacchaeus, is a big wig among Tax Collectors. He’s a chief Tax Collector… It’s important to get this. Tax Collectors are despised. They have sold their soul to the devil. They work for the Roman overlords. They collect from the poor to pay the rich and line their own estate in the process.
Jesus just loves to take the hated ones and make them the stars of the stories – and in his everyday life to make them his friends.
In the first story about the two men who pray, it is the Tax Collector who is the one who knows how to pray. Rather than protecting himself, he brings all his dirty washing to God. He somehow knows what the presence of God is all about and he goes there knowing his need, his great need of help, change, mercy, salvation. He knew what it meant to pray.
And it’s like Luke has chosen to include a story of another Tax Collector in the following chapter to take us a step forward. If the first story is about the inner character of prayer. In the second story we learn what prayer looks like when it is lived out – when the rubber of prayer hits the road of everyday life.
Zacchaeus is short and he climbs a tree to see (so begins the psycho-drama of a thousand sermons and Sunday School lessons). But I think the real drama of this story begins with Jesus’ response to this. Jesus acts the fool. The crowd agrees what Jesus does is stupid. Jesus chooses to go to the home of the badly-behaved hated person. “Why would he encourage someone like that? It’ll just make Zacchaeus feel more important. Why reward bad behaviour?” Nowadays we would be worried that the media would get a hold of it. That it would send the wrong message, right? Which of us would accept a meal invitation from the local brothel or marijuana house?
Jesus doesn’t accept an invitation, he initiates friendship. “Come down Zacchaeus! I’m going to your place today.”
Justice does not come through being treated in accord with the way he has behaved (i.e. badly). Justice comes through being befriended at the meal table. The meal table is the place of true justice. It’s the place where relationships are restored rather than where people get what they deserve
It’s striking that it’s Zacchaeus’s home, but Jesus invites himself. He doesn’t wait to be invited. Jesus turns the tables on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s table suddenly becomes Jesus table. Not by an act of violence but by an invitation. Jesus effectively creates the space for hospitality, even though it isn’t his space originally. Jesus sneaks under Zacchaeus’s guard and makes a home visit. Zacchaeus’s big flash house becomes Jesus space of hospitality and friendship.
The local villagers fear that to do such a thing, to give a Tax Collector the dignity of a home visit, will only encourage him in his bad behaviour. But in fact the opposite is the case. Grace produces, not licence but repentance.
Zacchaeus doesn’t beat about the bush “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.” …That is one of the great lines of the NT.
To which Jesus replies: “Today Salvation has come to this house.” Salvation does house calls. Zacchaeus (the bad man) got it. He didn’t want ‘three quid’ of gospel for his own improvement. His was a new life.
All because Jesus chose to embrace the enemy… And Zacchaeus then ended up embracing those he had harmed.
On November the 5th we celebrate Parihaka day in NZ, or at least we should celebrate it. For some reason we tend to do Guy Fawkes instead. There’s one element of the story which always sticks in my mind. For those not completely familiar with the Parikaha story. It is the great story of NZ’s own non-violent resistance, NZ’s equivalent of Gandhi. At a time when the colonial government was busy stealing land, hand over fist, a group of Maori in the Taranaki region lead by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi had come to believe that the violence was incompatible with following Jesus. So they began a campaign of non-violent resistance. They snuck out at night and pulled out the surveyors pegs. They ploughed land ahead of the govt agents… and so on. But the bit of the story that always inspires me is that on the day the government decided to send in the troups … the children greeted them with poi dances and the women of the village baked bread for them and invited them to eat.
The enemy was invited to table, the invitation was there. This time there was no Zacchaeus moment. The people of Parihaka had chosen what ended up being the way of the cross. The village was burnt down, the women raped, many killed and men taken off into exile, imprisoned in Lytelton harbour and given hard labour building roads in Dunedin.
This is our history of Zacchaeus … with no conversion. The table was set but Zacchaeus didn’t come to the party.
In the bible the story ended well for Zacchaeus… not financially well, but well. He gave half his possessions to the poor and paid back those he had damaged with 4 times as much. … and that day salvation came to his house.
Perhaps salvation is still coming to the house of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Perhaps those who have heard the news of salvation’s arrival are choosing instead to opt for “three quids worth of gospel”.
Salvation is still coming to this house.
Thanks be to God.
My discovery of Christian Wiman came via his prose book My Bright Abyss reflecting on his battle with cancer. I knew from that book that I needed to read his poetry immediately. So I quickly ordered Every Riven Thing and waited for a hard copy to be shipped to NZ (no kindle edition!). The wait was worth it though. Clive James’s comment on the back is dramatic but not far from the truth: “The best thing to say about Wiman is not that he reminds you of previous poets; it’s that he makes you forget them.”
The hardest thing is to decide what to share on this blog to give you a taste of Wiman’s brilliance. I guess the obvious thing is to choose two of his most explicitly theological poems, one of which captures powerfully his struggle with cancer. The first sample is called “2047 Grace St” and is part 2 of a poem entitled One Time.
2. 2047 Grace St
But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing emerges,
into which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. Praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
in Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , New York, 2010), p. 29-30
This next one is the title poem of the volume. It is both a profound theological reflection and a brilliantly clever construction. Notice that each stanza begins with the same words on the first line. Only the punctuation changes.
Every Riven Thing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
in Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux , New York, 2010), p. 24-25
Luke 14: 25-33
Welcome to the most difficult passage in the New Testament? Difficult not because our first reaction is puzzlement over what Jesus is saying. Difficult because at first glance it seems very clear what Jesus is saying and it makes no sense. Not only does it make no sense but it appears to be morally reprehensible and inconsistent with everything Jesus said and did. The Jesus we follow is the Jesus who loved not just his friends and family but his enemies. The very reason we follow Jesus is because of his total love… nothing to do with hate.
Yet Jesus appears to be asking us to hate our families and give away all our possessions.
For some this will be a good excuse to walk away from this text altogether. Jesus is either mad or wrong. So we will go on with our spiritual life in the way we know best.
Which one of us actually hates their family, not because they are bad people, but because it’s a matter of Christian faith to do so?
Which one of us has given away all of our possessions to follow Jesus. A fortnight ago we read about Jesus call to give away possessions… it’s not an uncommon demand of Jesus. And that Sunday I said we could breathe a sigh of relief because Jesus didn’t say ALL our possessions. Today he does say ALL our possessions. So you can suck that sigh of relief right back in again.
I challenge you to find me one preacher who takes both those commands literally. If they do we probably haven’t heard from them because they won’t be able to afford a TV ministry let alone write a book so we know about it.
So we’re in this together. The question is not whether we are going to wiggle our way out of this text today, but how. It’s time to start our wiggling.
There is a well known rhetorical technique called hyperbole… which could be defined as “saying something more extreme than you really intend, in order to provoke a response and a new perspective in the hearer.” Hyperbole calls for wriggling.
In other words if we understand hyperbole here, we don’t dismiss what Jesus is trying to say, but understand that he didn’t mean quite what he appears to be saying on a literal first glance.
So what is Jesus point here?… I think the point comes with what follows “For which of you intending to build a Forsyth Barr Stadium, does not first sit down and estimate the cost… “ There is a cost to following Jesus! Jesus is not offering us comfort and an easy life. Jesus wants his followers to know that before they start. There is a high cost. Part of the cost is financial vulnerability and part of the cost is alienation from others, even from those we might otherwise be closely related to. In other words ‘hate’ is too strong a word… but it is Jesus shock tactic to get you questioning everything you take for granted, even life itself. If you follow Jesus it is not a part of your life, it is all your life. It’s not like you have a part for Jesus and a part for family. Following Jesus is worship. That means following Jesus is the God-dimension of our lives. And we don’t worship one hour on Sunday we worship 24/7 and that means that our commitment to the life of Jesus trumps all our relationships. Jesus is not just one person, alongside mum and dad and the kids and the brothers and sisters. Jesus must be the one who determines the shape of the whole shibang.
So Jesus is saying to his friends and to us. Now’s your chance to walk away! There were LARGE crowds following him and perhaps he was aware that crowds have a pulling power of their own which often means that people are simply drawn into the orbit of the crowd and are often blind to the direction of what is happening. You can walk away now!
What’s more for someone joining the way of Jesus might well end up in conflict with the family culture… with the social world they have lived. In fact Jesus expects that. His vision of the world of God doesn’t fit and he knows it will bring conflict. He can tell he will have to suffer. He knows that you can’t live your life with the outcasts and among the unclean and challenge the very structure of religion and public life and get off scot free. There will be a cost.
For years, I believe, perhaps for centuries, we have been seduced by a bad theory. We have been trained to think that Jesus suffered instead of us… that there is no cost for us to pay. That he was punished so we don’t have to be. That he died so we might go to heaven. That God somehow magically siphoned off all the sin from us onto Jesus and punished Jesus for it so that he didn’t need to punish us. That guilt is somehow like money, transferable. So if we can’t pay the debt Jesus will and we become magically innocent, or at least get off scot free (no offence to the scottish reformers intended here).
The truth is God didn’t punish Jesus at all on the cross… it’s a completely unbiblical idea. Humanity put Jesus on the cross. Not just random human beings, but something deep within the structure of human life and its sinful tendencies put Jesus on the cross… that scapegoating process was not just random. And Jesus chose to take on that cross…for very good reasons, for God’s reasons… but God didn’t punish Jesus.
Sin didn’t have to be punished! It could be forgiven instead. Notice what I am saying. Jesus went to the cross not to free us from God’s punishment, not to pardon us, but to forgive us (the forgiveness that was always God’s desire from the start). This is important. Forgiveness here doesn’t mean pardon in the face of some universal law of justice by punishment. Forgiveness means restoring a broken relationship. And to do that is costly to the forgiver, God – in many ways we are talking of the cost of communication in relationships.
Think about it like a relationship issue. What does it take to restore a damaged human relationship? What does it take to open up a new future, free of the violence and personal injury that has gone before?
If someone has hurt me in some way, for example, I have to choose to absorb that hurt and not to retaliate. And not only choose non-retaliation, I have to choose to put aside resentment. And in doing so I have to communicate those decisions to the other person, the offender.
Jesus chose to imitate and to demonstrate the life of Abba God in taking on the world on a cross and declaring forgiveness… what’s more in raising him from death God declared God’s forgiveness to us. What Jesus says on the cross, Abba God repeats in the resurrection. I forgive you.
Here’s the point though… Jesus never thought of his suffering as ‘instead of us’. For him being prepared to suffer and actually absorb the violence himself was part of forgiveness. It was an unavoidable part of the process. Not only was he committed to the way of forgiveness he saw his disciples as following him along that way, as being a people of forgiveness. Because he endured the cross, they too would be enabled to take up their own crosses. They too would become people who would choose non-violence, non-retaliation, suffering, in order to heal relationships. Not because a violent God had let them off the hook (punishing Jesus instead). But because they are being set free to imitate a completely non-violent God in the work of forgiveness.
We too will be involved in paying the same cost as he paid, if we are to be peacemakers and reconcilers as he is.
So the point Jesus is trying to make is… if you’re going to follow me count the cost of the life you are taking on. A person building a tower doesn’t just put two bricks together and see how it develops. She works out whether she can afford it.
Can we afford the financial vulnerability that goes with sharing our lives with the outcasts?
It’s a frightening question if we contemplate it even for a moment. And perhaps an honest answer has to be No. We actually do not have what it takes to be that vulnerable. But in counting the cost we realise that the resurrection of Jesus has a flipside too… the pouring out of God’s Spirit, the promise of the Spirit. The same Spirit that was in Jesus as he chose his cross, is available and is given to us. On our own we simply can’t afford the cost. But that is not the end of the story.
This week I was approached about whether there might be a soup kitchen in Caversham, whether there might be a space we could make for sharing life with the vulnerable and the outcasts in our midst. My first reaction is to think about all the potential pitfalls… I’m not sure if I was trying to wriggle out or count the cost.
You see it’s one thing to wriggle out of the rather dramatic hyperbole that Jesus uses to get our attention. It’s another thing again to wriggle out of what Jesus is on about and what in the end is the beginning and end of our faith.
The Film Festival movie which is searing its way most profoundly into my consciousness this month is “Hannah Arendt“. It is based on the life of the Jewish American political philosopher of the mid-twentieth century whose fame as the author of an important book on totalitarianism was suddenly eclipsed by the storm of controversy she courted when as a guest correspondent for the New Yorker she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The trial was a landmark event in 20th century history – essentially a show trial in which the fledgling state of Israel under Ben Gurion took on the evils of the Nazi regime. However, as Arendt discovered, the defendant who was supposed to be the epitome of radical evil turned out to be a plain bureaucrat whose distinguishing characteristic was his willingness to follow orders and go home to his family at night like everyone else. He was an ordinary citizen who believed in ‘doing his job’ above all else. Arendt’s principle insight was that evil, far from being powerful or radical was better described as, for the most part, banal. Moreover, it was no less evil for being banal. Eichmann was a representative of evil simply in his failure to think passionately about his life. He was not the dramatic scapegoat that the Jewish movement wanted. The other observation that got Arendt into enormous difficulty was that this phenomenon was not limited to Germans. Many Jewish leaders chose to cooperate in the transportation of their fellow Jews and this also came to light during the trial. These facts together meant that Arendt was forced into hiding and was in danger of losing her job at Harvard University. Many of her friends abandoned her and she was deluged in hate-mail.
What is striking about Arendt, though is her intensity and focus. In her passionate determination to speak the truth she is determined not to go the way of Eichmann. It all comes to a head when she is given the opportunity to defend her New Yorker article before colleagues and students at Harvard when all present were reminded that the banality of evil is not merely a Nazi phenomenon. We too are constantly at risk of sleepwalking to hell as good citizens who are too busy working or too busy being entertained to reflect passionately on the shape of their every day lives
I am reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s notion that the neo-liberal democracies we now live in locate us at the ‘end of history’. Basically he believed that the systems we now live in are the best we can hope for, the best of all possible worlds. Thus having reached the pinnacle of evolution we should stop believing that things can be different. History with its revolutions has come to rest with us. Does this sound familiar? It may sound crazy, but I fear it is more or less a common assumption of many people who get on with the job of being good citizens (i.e. consumers), effectively abandoning Christian hope for a kind of escapist spirituality.
Two other movies helped to give me some perspective on this situation. They were both about China. The first, “The Last Train Home“, was a documentary style story of a poor family who leave the children with grandparents and voyage by train with millions of others to the factories in the cities, returning annually for New Year to see their children. The second, “A Touch of Sin“, made no pretence of being documentary but interwove the stories of three or four different characters whose lives were trapped in violence and the struggle to survive in the brutality of the new order. Rather than telling us the familiar story of how Communism undermines human rights instead it told how Capitalism, in situations of great inequality, undermines human being.
We could, of course, allow extreme examples like this blind us to the banality of evil in our own worlds. Or we could continue to struggle in the hope that the coming Kingdom of God is still being born in the midst of all this sleepwalking.
[recently published in Coastal Press, newsletter for Coastal Unity Presbyterian Parish in Dunedin, New Zealand]