The Other Real World (sermon)
Ephesians 1: 3-14, Mark 6: 14-29
A severed head on a plate… is one of those images that never quite disappears once you have seen it or imagined it.
At one level it’s just a story about people just like us. A girl who does erotic dancing – she’s only a girl but perhaps this is her moment of power. A powerful guy who gets so carried away he makes promises he regrets. A guy who, in spite of his power, is completely controlled by what his mates, reclining at table, think of him. In order to maintain his reputation as a strong man ends up killing someone he respects. A bitter mother and wife who is so fragile she can’t abide being criticised, so in her anger she demands vengeance.
This is very contemporary… and yet the context is ancient, for the bitter and defensive woman and the weak man combine to murder the prophet who makes them feel uncomfortable. In this ancient context the severed head becomes for me a symbol of Rome a world where life is cheap, where brutal use of force is not an embarrassment but a status symbol. Great people killed their enemies and were respected for it. … Roman Governors in Judaea used to teach the local populace a lesson by crucifying people along the side of the road like telephone poles, for passers-by to see and be afraid. They called it the Peace of Rome – it meant peace by brutal conquest and genocide. Such strength was a virtue among the powerful. It summed up the religion of Rome. This was the world in which Christianity emerged as an unsettling and revolutionary force.
In my week off work I watched a movie called The Ides of March. It tells the story of a campaign for the American Presidency and how it all comes unstuck. We begin with an idealistic candidate who is running for support in Iowa, a crucial state. At first we see him representing all the great ideals that everyone wants to believe in… and indeed refusing to compromise to get support. However it soon becomes clear that the candidate has a dark side to his life, what’s more his team is faced with enormous pressure to compromise in order to gain power. In the end his high ideals both hide the truth, and must hide it if he is to get the vote and so his team is drawn into the evil vortex of power at any cost … There is no head on a plate. But violence still lies just below the surface and is closely linked to idealism. People lie and do evil for what they believe are good purposes. Just as they always have.
What compromises are we prepared to make to get things done we think are important? What fears and pressures shape our decisions …to get things done?
The severed head on a plate is a gruesome story. In the second half of what I want to say, I want to let the writer to the Ephesians respond to that story. And the key to his response is hidden in the phrase ‘before the foundation of the world’ (pro kataboleis kosmou). The word cosmou, from cosmos, could equally well be translated ‘the system’. It is used elsewhere to refer to the human world, particularly in its destructive elements. It’s also a word loaded with philosophical background. For Greek philosophers who used it a lot (most notably a guy called Hyppolytus), this word cosmos extended well beyond the human world because for them the conflicts of the human world reflected the conflictual nature of the whole universe. The universe was made of conflicting forces – heat and cold, light and dark. War made the world go round.
Ephesians says No. There is another more basic reality. The writer talks of ‘before the foundation of the cosmos’. And the word for foundation too hints at this, because it literally means a ‘throwing down’ and it could equally well be translated the ‘disruption’. So this cosmos, the world as we know it, is not God’s creation, it is a disruption – the disruption that is the cosmos as we know it.
So the author is saying, before empires defeated empires, before the skulduggery of electioneering when heads rolled or were served up on a plate, before people were valued for their struggle to get to the top of the ladder, before civilisation…we were intended for a different world.
And in verse 5 he says we were adopted into that world through the coming of Jesus. In him, we became like children given a new start, a new family, a whole new set of possibilities.
So when heads roll, and politicians spin, and family members run for cover rather than talk things through, and someone says to you. Get used to it. It’s just the way the world is. Welcome to the real world… they are doing you a disservice. Sure this world exists. Sure we live in it… in some sense of the word ‘in’. Certainly we can’t avoid this so-called ‘real world’.
But this so-called ‘real world’ which we are tempted to cynically resign ourselves to, is not God’s good creation… and more importantly this world has been interrupted. This apparently unshakeable, unchangeable world is an imposter. It’s not the real, real world.
God has broken into this violent world and ‘adopted us’ into a new family. The family we are adopted into by the coming of Jesus is the one we were created for before the foundation of the world… It is the one that will survive the collapse of the world as we know it. It’s the one to be resurrected.
How is the kosmos interrupted? Verse 7 goes on to say. Jesus ‘redeems’ (popular theme in movies… redemption) us. Which literally means to ‘buy back’. He buys us back from this kosmos, like slaves set free, out of this mess. How does he do that? According to verse 7 by forgiveness.
Let’s pause for a minute to think about how that works… the so-called real world operates according to a certain notion of justice… an eye for an eye, a head for a head. If the world is to be in order people have to get what they deserve. We call it “justice being done”. This is the law of retribution. In the ancient Greek philosophical system and in the Roman culture of of the first century it was represented by the symbol of the balances – tit for tat, a mathematical equalisation which assumes that conflict is the normal situation.
The good news is, says Ephesians, we are set free from this cosmos by a new kind of justice, the justice of forgiveness… and it’s not the kind of justice that has to punish Jesus rather than us… that’s still retribution (that’s the opposite of Paul’s gospel). The word used here for it is ‘grace’ (charis or gift). God interrupts our justice-system by lavishing grace on us.
And this is the mystery (v9), the mystery of the REAL real world… revealed and set forth in the life of Jesus… the mystery which is God’s plan to ‘gather up all things’
Justice is no longer about heads on plates (retribution). It’s about reconciliation and restoration which means being (because of Jesus our adopting parent) prepared to be vulnerable for the sake of healing. To suffer pain rather than give back in kind. To pay forward rather than pay back. To for-give (with all the risk that involves) rather than ‘give for’.
And we can live in this world… we have been adopted into this world, we have been given the resources to live in it, we have the Spirit of God’s grace. We can trust ourselves to this new world which will be gathered together in the end. The body of Christ can be an example of this new world.