Romans 9: 1-5
Paul has great grief for his people – his divided people Israel. He stands on one side of a widening division in Israel. A division between Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah who also ended up being called Christians, and, on the other side of the great divide, those Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (scholars sometimes call this Rabbinic Judaism).
Paul’s grief is great because the Messiah came to Israel at the end of a long history of divine engagement… of prophets, of promise. He can’t leave that behind. Nor can he, in good faith, leave it to those who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. It is his history too. He must interpret it in the light of the Messiah. For Paul the Messiah (v 5) is ‘over all’. Jesus is the game-breaker. Jesus changes the world to a new world.
So he finds himself in the middle of a divided people, divided Judaism… Paul, like all Christians, is a Jew… he accepts the heritage of Jewish faith. We too, like Paul, are Jews! Jews for whom Jesus is the Messiah.
What a time to be reading this! With a tragic war between the modern Nation State of Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, we too cannot avoid the terrible messiness of this inheritance. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Gaza. There are Christian-Jews (just like us) in Israel… there are Rabbinic Jews as well… I could go on. But I simply want to highlight the grief that comes from taking seriously the way of God’s Messiah whose mission was to break down the walls of division.
It’s also an interesting time for us in Coastal Unity to read of Paul’s grief. We too are a divided community. We are divided on how we should use our money and what our priorities as a community are. These are not trivial questions. We are divided in our thinking and our voting. But we are still together in worship. We are not divided bodily. Maybe the only reason we are still together for worship is that we believe that Jesus the Messiah is the one who has the authority to sort out our divisions and bind us together into a common life and common cause. I hope so.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus withdrew… he went to a deserted place. Prayer requires from us a certain kind of space… of freedom from the push and pull of human interaction. Jesus needed to be in the presence of the loving Father and to screen out some of the other presences.
When the crowd finally arrives at this ‘deserted place’ he is renewed in his compassion for the needs of the people. He is full of the Spirit. He heals.
But it is still a deserted place of vulnerability. There are no local stores or infrastructure. The disciples suggest sending the people away to the villages for food. Jesus chooses another way. He challenges the disciples: ‘You give them something to eat’. He challenges the disciples to give when they have next to nothing. ‘But we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish’. It’s a bit of a joke really. 5-10,000 people and just 5 loaves and two fish.
Jesus runs with the joke… again he calls for their willingness to give. “Bring them here to me”. Even though your resources are ludicrously inadequate are you prepared to bring them anyway. “Bring them here to me”.
The joke of course is on their fears. Because when they bring the bread…, and Jesus turns in prayer to his Father and blesses it, giving it, in turn, to his Father…, when the bread is broken and given away… it turns out there is enough after all.
It’s hard not to read gospel stories like this with an eye for the symbolism they use. They were written with that in mind. Twice Matthew uses the word ‘broken’. The loaves are ‘broken’ in the giving and the pieces that remain (12 baskets full – a symbolic number if ever there was one) are also described as broken.
There is a pattern here that needs to be noticed. The broken Messiah provides enough for all. The broken pieces that result from the broken body fill 12 baskets (12 like the tribes of Israel, like the people of God). The new people of God are broken like their Messiah… and given for the need of the world.
Genesis 32: 22-31
Jacob is on a journey back to be reconciled with his brother Esau. He is scared witless. He sends ahead all sorts of gifts… a kind of buffer between him and Esau, signs of his guilt. But before he meets his brother again, he has a bad night on the banks of the river. He gets into a fight with a man… or is it God? At first it just says it’s a man. And then we are told he has struggled with God. Jacob is winning the fight it seems or maybe its just that Jacob won’t give up. In the course of the fight the man (or God?) strikes him on the hip-socket and does him damage. But Jacob it seems pins the man (or is it God?) down and says “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. At which point the man gives him a new name; Israel – the struggler. And Jacob concludes ‘I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”. It seems it was God after all… but there is something comical then about the whole scenario. God, in the form of a man, has been ‘play fighting’ (presumably) with Jacob. God is willing to allow Jacob to persevere in his battle without annihilating Jacob. God loves this struggler and struggles with him. It is as if God knows that Jacob will learn from this struggle. Some people only learn by struggling. But it ends with a reminder. God breaks Jacob’s hip… and he limps off into the sunrise (v31 The Sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip).
He is a broken man. And in his brokenness he has a future. He goes off to meet his long lost and alien brother Esau.
If it ain’t broke… perhaps it’ll never be fixed.
Three tales of brokenness. Three tales of hope. Are you struggling with God? Are you broken? Are we as a people struggling with God? Are we broken?
Do we need to be broken if we are to be true to the Messiah for the sake of the world? Do we need to give our meagre resources, our loaves and fishes into the hands of Jesus to bless and give away if there is ever to be enough?
Important Cultural Background: Mustard was a WEED in first century Palestine. So straight after telling us that we should not be trying to separate the weeds from the wheat… Jesus (in Matthew’s gospel in the very next parable) announces that the kingdom of heaven begins with a weed…(important context)
God knows how we can’t be relied on to sort good from evil, to clear out the weeds. Look how we treated God’s own Son as ‘evil’! For us he was a weed. And we did what humans do. Root out weeds. Jesus became a mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”
It was in the suffering of God’s Son that the kingdom began … a weed became a tree of hospitality for all the birds of the air. The kingdom begins when God, and all who are caught up in God’s mission, become victims of the world – willing victims (not victims against their will) – those who fall into the ground and die. Jesus didn’t die of pneumonia. Jesus didn’t die of old age. He died because he upset the social order. He was ‘a spanner in the works’. In the garden he was a weed. We tried to eliminate that weed – or rather ‘the works’ tried to… the machinery of Rome and the machinery of religion, the basic machinery of the mob, tried to eliminate the weed. But the mustard seed took root anyway. We call that the resurrection.
Let’s turn our attention now to our epistle reading. Paul in Romans writes (v 18) of ‘the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed’. He talks about the groaning of creation like a mother in childbirth (last week). And he ends with that famous passage we read so often at funerals… about how ‘nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (the mustard seed of the new creation).
I think we need to take a fresh look at that passage we read so often in funerals…
Who is Paul writing to? Christians… Christians in Rome… yes but what is their situation?…
Suffering people… they don’t even know how to pray (v26 we do not know how to pray as we ought – ‘The Source’ translation reminds us that this is not about style. It translates it ‘we don’t know how to pray so that our praying corresponds to the need). Let’s face it, if we don’t know how to separate wheat from weeds, how can we know how to pray? How to pray is often a mystery.
In a more everyday sense, I notice that sometimes I find people nervous about praying out loud… they tell me they don’t know how to pray. Jesus says to us (whether in suffering, or just feeling inadequate) “The Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words” (v 26). Prayer is not our burden to carry. Prayer is a space where the Spirit carries us. It is normal not to know what to pray. That’s why prayer begins with silence.
Then Paul says to his fellow sufferers. ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’. Not, notice, that all things are good (if only we understood them better). Rather in the ultimate working out of all things… (‘things working together’) goodness will come.
God has a plan! Again not a detailed blueprint for every detail of your life… forget about that. That’s a recipe for neuroses. Paul is clear, the plan from the beginning is for us to be (v29) ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. The pre-planning, the designing, on God’s part (we used to call it predestination) is that we become like Jesus.
And what will it look like when all things work together? Paul suggests that Jesus will be the ‘firstborn within a large family’. And there will be family resemblance. There will be a family/community that looks like Jesus.
In what way will we look like Jesus? Long hair perhaps? Paul gives us some pretty clear indications what this will look like.
These suffering Christians are not suffering in any old way. They may be dying of old age or dying of pneumonia or whatever… but that’s not the kind of suffering Paul is talking about here. Paul lists the things that threaten the Christians in Rome ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the sword’ (v 35). He even quotes a verse to describe the situation of the Christians. ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’…
That’s heavy stuff! And yet its also a familiar phrase reminiscent of this one: “as a sheep before its slaughterer is dumb”. The Christians are suffering because that is their destiny. It’s their destiny and God’s plan that they will become like Jesus… abandoning their safety for the sake of the world’s need, giving themselves into the jaws of the system… becoming like him in his suffering… a spanner in the works of the world.
There’s no doubt that Paul connects the dots… whether we take it literally or metaphorically ‘being killed all day long’ is the shape of a life like Jesus. Suffering is not an accident of following Jesus… it is a consequence. It is our family resemblance to the Son of God.
There is no safe and secure Christian life, this side of the eschaton (final resolution). And here I want to make an important connection. There is no safe and secure church life… no safe and secure Coastal Unity. What there is, is a life that looks like Jesus and his kingdom.
So this passage we read at funerals… its not about survival (none of us gets out of this life alive)… its not about security, or a good comfortable life, as individuals or as a church.
Paul says, ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’. In hardship, in distress, in persecution, etc … in ‘being killed all day long’ after the pattern of Jesus… we are more than conquerors (conquerors of what?… conquerors over the dominion of death… as it dominates the world).
As Jesus said again and again… its only as we are prepared to die… (for this kingdom) that we will really be living for it.
This applies to us as individuals and to us as a parish.
’For [we are]… convinced that [in all of this] neither death nor life , nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love (what love? the love that conforms us, the love of our mustard seed… the love) of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Matthew 13: 24-30 Romans 8: 12-25
When the Bible first came to NZ it became a kind of treasure, a sacred object (as we have just heard). People travelled for miles to get a copy. Stories were also told, not just about the Bible as a kind of taonga but about the effect of this book. With the book came a rumour, a rumour of a new world, a new possibility, a new kind of God. Rather than a world groaning under the constant neverending process of revenge killing, of warfare, and utu (not unlike what we see in the Gaza and Israel right at the moment), there are rumours that God is creating a new world of forgiveness and reconciliation. Things need not be how they are.
The bible is not just a kind of sacred object… it’s the bearer of news of a new future.
Today’s parable tells of the world as a field/as a mixed bag of wheat and weeds, of good and evil. And the servants come in (lets call them the cowboys) and they want to eliminate the weeds. They want to clear the world of ‘bad guys’ (those are the ones who wear ‘black hats’ – so you know which ones to shoot). But Jesus says NO.
Evil is on its way out. Don’t panic. Keep calm and carry on, even if there are weeds in the garden. Even if there are dirty dishes in the kitchen. Don’t panic.
The problem is closeness. The good and the bad are just too close together. It’s a fragile ecosystem – pull up the one and you destroy the other. It’s like their intertwined even at the roots.
Paul takes this closeness even further. What he hopes for in Romans 8 is ‘the redemption of our bodies’. God and evil go right through the middle of each human heart. They are interwoven through the sinews and synapses of our bodies.
Hope for the redemption of our bodies, these complicated bodies, says Paul gives rise to groaning. Not a groan of resignation, or acceptance of a bad situation, or of cynicism or despair… Not merely a groaning of pain. But a groaning also of hope for something new. Hope is dangerous.
Paul calls it a groaning of ‘labour pains’ – pains of birth, the screaming of a mother whose body feels like it is being split in two, is nevertheless a scream of hope… and not despair.
For Paul as for the writer of John’s gospel, Jesus is ‘Saviour of the world’ – the world you work in, and raise your children in and watching movies in and find happiness in… that world. If we are waiting for anything it’s the salvation of that world. That’s the big picture of the gospel. The world will be saved. And that world includes our human bodies and life together.
So for Paul it’s not just about good people and bad people, its about a change that happens to the world, in time. Its a mixed world of wheat and weeds, but things are changing. The old world, the world we are born into – Paul calls it “the flesh” is under the dominion of death and all our anxieties bound up with that – this world is passing away. And the new world, the world that interrupts this world is what set’s us free. He calls it the world of the Spirit. It’s breaking in. I am reminded of a line of Malcolm Gordon’s song – “I am waiting …for heaven to break in”
You know what it’s like waiting at a bus stop… a watched pot never boils. The speed of time is variable thing. The quality of waiting depends enormously on what you are doing.
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die (the life of the old world pays its own wages – death); but if you live by the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”
You can put your body in the old world or in the new world… Our bodies are on the line here for redemption. Our bodies and the world being saved are bound up together. Paul effectively says that you can’t separate the human world from the non-human creation. They’ve been joined at the hip.
At first it seems tragic. What have we done to this earth? But for Paul it is also hopeful.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself will be set free of its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of children of God.
See that… the wellbeing of the non-human creation is connected (in God’s purposes) to the freedom of human beings (and vice versa).
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Even if the old world seems to be on the point of collapsing. Perhaps especially if it looks like disaster, Paul has faith in the risen Christ to create something new. He calls this groaning creation ‘birth pains’.
When the Bible came to NZ it didn’t just bring rumours of a new world. It also came with the baggage of an empire – the British Empire, which morphed into the globalised modern neo-liberal hypercapitalist empire we live in today.
My friend Andrew Shepherd did a lecture this week for the Centre for Theology and public issues… and he began with a series of images of the future as it is hitting us even now. Dramatic images of flooding and drought and hurricane damage (products of global warming). Vivid images of creation groaning. In that context he cited: Jacques Atalli from 1991
“By 2050, 8 billion people will populate the earth. More than two-thirds will live in the poorest countries. Seeking to escape their desperate fate, millions will attempt to leave behind their misery to seek a decent life elsewhere. But neither the Pacific nor the European spheres will accept the majority of poor nomads. They will close their borders to immigrants. Quotas will be erected and restrictions imposed. (Renewed) social norms will ostracize foreigners. Like the fortified cities of the Middle Ages, the centres of privilege will construct barriers of all kinds, trying to protect their wealth.”
Jacques Attali, Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (1991)
The truth is Jacques Attali wasn’t far off with his prediction. The high tech future for the 2 billion is also fast becoming the massive mega-slum future for 6 billion. The empire looks on the point of collapse. Perhaps we live in the kind of world St Benedict did, when he established his monasteries at the End of the Roman Empire?
You have to wonder. How we can share in Paul’s confidence when he concludes “For in hope we are saved…” Where did Benedict and Paul got their hope from? Certainly from a very different story about our place in the world. Not a story of limitless expansion and growth and the idea of a world centred around human beings and what they and their market forces want to make of it. They certainly had a very different story about our situation in God’s world (not ours). But perhaps even more importantly…. they saw the “redemption of bodies” in the communities in which they lived. They saw signs of hope. Hope comes when a different life is lived together… a different economy on the ground in our local relationships, local affection, in touch with the earth. Embodied hope. They saw signs of God’s redemption of bodies. So they waited… and in waiting put their bodies on the line.
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
I love this metaphor for Jesus interaction with his society, or, as he puts it with ‘this generation’. They don’t want any surprises! They want the apocalypse now and they want it according to plan. The kingdom of God will be a matter of the messiah playing according to their rules. They play the flute and Jesus dances to their tune.
Jesus then does a rant – a rant against cities that failed to repent – Chorazin and Bethsaida. My first reaction is one of astonishment. Jesus expected cities to repent!? We expect individuals to repent but not cities. Jesus seems to expect both. It reminds me of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats when ‘all the nations of the earth are gathered’. It is about the judgment on nations not individuals. It is about how nations treated the weakest among them (the hungry, those in prison).
Have you ever wondered how Jesus expected Chorazin and Bethsaida to repent? … Do you imagine Jesus as some kind of Billy Graham with altar calls? Or perhaps you imagine him doing submissions to the city council on behalf of the kingdom of God, to make sure it’s in the ‘long term plan’.
Actually both of these ideas are very modern ways of thinking. Jesus preached a kingdom not an individualised gospel… but he also didn’t preach a bureaucratic kingdom. It’s very hard with modern minds to rethink some of these things.
The reality is cities and nations are not just buildings, for all their distortion, they are forms of human community. We don’t just live in cities. Cities live in us. To coin a cliche: You might be able to take the person out of Dunedin, but its another matter to take Dunedin out of the person.
At this point I want to segway into the text from Romans. I think this is what Paul is hinting at when he tells of his struggles. He was part of the ‘generation’ that Jesus is complaining about. The generation who plays the flute, but finds that Jesus does not dance to their tune.
Paul has been formed from childhood by a flute tune that clashes with Jesus one. And Jesus has interrupted this pattern, this city within him. And now he sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law of God. He delights in this law, he says. He wants to be a follower of Jesus who loved God with all this being and his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself. But this is not automatic. If there is anything that is automatic it is the city that still lives in him, in his habits and his pattern and his behaviour.
Do you relate to this?…
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. …For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Sometimes I get the impression that people think that doing the right thing is just a matter of knowing what it is and wanting to do it. And that those who struggle like Paul did, as somehow mentally unbalanced. But what if this is normal life for a Christian… someone who has a city inside them and yet whose life has been interrupted by Jesus.
How many of our actions are not what we really want to do?
I don’t want to eat that much?
I don’t want to watch so much television?
I don’t want to buy products that are traded unjustly to the detriment of people in poverty in china or cambodia.
I don’t want to use so much carbon or drive my car so often
I don’t want to drink too much alcohol
I don’t want to be prejudiced against certain types of people
After this amazingly modern description of psychological struggle he is caught up in, Paul concludes with these words. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let’s just sit with that phrase for a moment. Is it just a familiar phrase that has drained of meaning for our lives? Or is it a truth that resonates deep within us?
Just when you think it’s a lost cause, Paul gives us these words to reflect on. It is God, through Jesus Christ who will rescue us from ‘this body of death’, from all the habits of mind that bind us, the addictions, all the social situations of injustice that seem to give us no other options for our life… in short: The city that possesses us will not win the victory! There is a much greater reality for Paul… which, for a while he loses sight of as he describes his struggle.
It’s easy to lose sight of this fact isn’t it? God, through Jesus, is rescuing us from this ‘body of death’.
Let’s go back to Jesus, ranting against the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. For Jesus things take a positive turn at the end of the reading. He says:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
Infants… the little and powerless of the world. In contrast to the establishment, the city planners of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the truth about God has come to earth among the little ones who gather around Jesus. To them he says:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
To the workers on the borderlands of the establishment: I will give you rest. Not rest in contrast to work, but rest in the midst of work. Restful work.
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say Come to me all you that are weary and I will take your burden off you and release you from your yokes. He doesn’t say, you tired people who have worked all your life can now take a break from the kingdom of God and do something for yourself. He says, the kingdom of God is work that is restful. It is Sabbath work. It’s an incredible lightness of being. Take my yoke upon you.
Thanks be to God, who, in Jesus Christ, brings us to let go of the city that controls our hearts and replaces that city with the joy and vision and work of the kingdom of God.
Welcome to another difficult passage of scripture: the story of the binding of Isaac.
Let’s begin by asking: How did Jesus think about this passage? There’s section in John’s gospel which sheds some light on this. It comes at a time when Jesus’ life is increasingly in danger. At one point in Chapter 8 he replies to the Judean crowd “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.” And then in verse 39 and 40 we read:
“They answered him ‘Abraham is our Father.’ Jesus said to them ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.”
So what did Abraham do? Lots of things… took his family to a strange land, had children in his old age… sure… but what did he do in relation to killing? Brian Zahnd (the book I referred to last Sunday) says the answer is plain and simple. Abraham put down the knife.
What Jesus sees in the story of the binding of Isaac, was not so much a man who was prepared to kill his son, what Jesus sees, above all else, is a man who didn’t sacrifice his son, the man who put down the knife.
Context is so important for our Genesis reading. In the world out of which the story of Abraham arose, sacrifice of children was normal. We can hardly imagine such a world. And (more than any other reason) that’s because we live after Jesus. For us after Jesus, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply horrible… child abuse, perhaps even divine child abuse. And yet in the economy of the Ancient Near East god’s and humans did business in human life and human blood. Children were currency in the business of propitiating (or pacifying) the gods. It was just part of the necessity of staying alive. In that context there is nothing at all strange about this mysterious God calling for a child sacrifice. That’s what gods did. In that context, sacrificing your child is not strange. What is strange is not sacrificing your child. What is strange, new, and decisive for the world after Abraham is this story of the end of sacrifice. The slogan from this story is not ‘God demands sacrifice’ it is ‘God provides’ – that’s the name they give the place on Mt Moriah – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice.
And as a result what you see in Israel is a radical break with the whole tradition of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Not an instant end to religion and the rituals of sacrifice. Israel developed a different kind, a unique kind of religion from anything else in the Ancient Near East. They still had a temple, at least until Jesus time when he challenged it and then the Romans knocked it down, and they still had sacrifices of sorts, albeit not human sacrifice. But the important difference that is not always noticed is this: the sacrifices of Israel are no longer directed towards God. In the sacrifices in Israel’s temple the priest represents God and the sacrifices represent what God provides for the cleansing and healing of the world. God doesn’t have to be appeased, or propitiated in order not to punish. There is no exchange going on whereby sacrifice is a kind of payment proportionate to how bad you had behaved. (for those interested Darrin Belousek’s book has an excellent chapter with full detail on this issue).
In Israel it begins to be all about ‘God provides’. It moves from exchange with the gods… to a celebration of God’s giving (grace). God provides what is necessary for the restoration of life. Restorative justice… rather than retributive.
And in continuity with that Jesus reads the story of Abraham and Isaac with its key moment in the point God provided and the potential sacrifice of Isaac was halted. At that point God was defined for Israel, not as the God to be propitiated, not as the God who demanded blood, but as the God who provides.
What that means for us, I think, is that that one of the first things we need to learn as Christians is to be people who can receive gifts…. who can receive the gift of life. God provides.
Jesus sends his disciples out to be prophets of the kingdom. To declare the news that God’s government of the world is arriving. And to go from house to house. The provider is coming ready or not. And one of the things Jesus focuses and spends some time emphasising is that the ambassadors of this provider need to be people who can receive hospitality – not merely those who give it. Imagine for a moment if our task after leaving this service were to go around the local community knocking on doors asking for hospitality?… It would be bad enough if it was just our fellow parishioners wouldn’t it?
Is Jesus naive… sending them out like this with such optimism. Well, hardly, he tells them at the beginning of his speech that they will be hated. He tells them they are going into conflict. And yet knowing that he invites them to prepare also for hospitality. To be ready also to receive from others.
It’s kind of a nice flip-side to last Sunday’s sermon. In spite of the fact that what Jesus teaches is so deeply challenging to the way the world works that it will bring division even within families (“not peace but a sword”), nevertheless Jesus is still confident that some will open their doors. They are being sent out in the power of the spirit… and they will discover that the Spirit is not their possession, the Spirit will also go ahead of them.
So they are going up nervously to doorsteps knowing from Jesus that they could face anything from a ‘sword’ on the other side of the door, to a warm meal and a bed for the night. That’s the kind of vulnerability he called them to.
Let me share for a moment about Lunch at Sidey. (for those of you from other parishes… this is a project in our parish that is giving me a lot of joy at the moment – free lunch on Thursdays at 11.30am every week).
When you start up something like a free lunch… it’s very easy to think in terms of providers and clients (to use the current terminology)… its almost automatic, people ask whether you have done your ‘market research’. But very quickly you discover that everyone who comes along to lunch is a provider. There are no customers. Each person provides hospitality for everyone else… I find myself learning from people’s life experience, accepting their welcome, discovering friendship.
When Brenda, and Jan and Trina, and Mary and I got started on this we didn’t do our market research. We simply saw an opportunity to express the kingdom of God. As it turned out God provided and continues to provide. But one of the things God is providing is hospitality for all of us. We are the beneficiaries.
In learning what it means to be “missional church”, we are learning to be receivers. And as people trained from childhood in self-sufficiency. It is not always an easy lesson.
Thanks be to God.
This passage is a difficult one! And two different kinds of difficulty have been the focus of my attention as I have meditated on this text this week. The first kind of difficulty has to do with whether Jesus is consistent as a teacher. Is he contradicting himself here. And the second has to do with the practical difficulty of actually taking Jesus seriously.
Let’s look at the apparent contradiction first. Verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That seems pretty clear. But the question is, how can he say that after he has said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” and then again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ but I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” and then “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How can the world’s most radical peacemaker, say he did not come to bring peace but a sword?
As always with these kinds of things the context clarifies what might be meant here. In today’s story Jesus is sending his disciples out to the villages of Israel and he says ‘You will be hated by all because of my name’. That’s the clue! He knows that his gospel of the kingdom challenges the very foundations of the world. It’s not just unfashionable for some. What Jesus is on about is a threat to everyone. But he sends them into this world anyway, safe in the knowledge (and this may sound crazy to us) that the haters can only kill the body and God who has the power over our ultimate destiny is in fact the gracious Father counts the hairs of our head and notices even the death of a sparrow (and values each of us profoundly). In other words, the one who really matters, says Jesus, is with you when all the world is against you.
But the point is, the immediate reception of the peacemakers, whom Jesus calls ‘children of God’ will not be a peaceful one. It’s not a peaceful life he is offering them, even if they carry his message of peace. This paradox, the catches their attention… It’s because he was known as a preacher of peace that his statement about not bringing them peace makes everyone sit up and listen. In the immediate future the life of his peacemakers will be anything but peaceful.
For Jesus the conflict between his disciples and the world is not just an accident of circumstance. Jesus says that he comes to reveal what is hidden since the foundation of the world. In other words, this world that will hate his disciples is founded on something so pervasive that they are oblivious to it. It’s like fish, who can’t see the water. And when Jesus reveals it and introduces a different world he is not going to be welcome. He’s just going to seem irrelevant at first, or even dangerous, to those in power. Even today after 2000 years of this idea of loving enemies and the development of notions like ‘human rights’ we still know in our hearts that there is something profoundly destabilising, politically destabilising about the call to ‘love our enemies’. Nations are built on the need to hate enemies. So there is a deep paradox. Because of this hatred at the root of society… the makers of peace will not, at least initially, bring peace.
But let’s take it down to the family level as Jesus does with his would be disciples.
Jesus talks about conflict that even divides families because of him. Look at Jesus own relationship to his family. John 7:5 says ‘not even his brother’s believed in him’. What does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus brother’s couldn’t believe that he was the second person of the trinity? Not at all. The question of whether Jesus was divine in some way arose after the resurrection, when the brother’s began to see things in a whole new light. What his brother’s couldn’t accept or believe in was his politics. They could accept that he was the kind of Messiah he claimed to be. A Messiah who loved his enemies i.e. enemies of Israel could only be a contradiction.
Brian Zahnd (whose book I have been reading this week – and recommend highly, its called ‘A Farewell to Mars’) says we have the same problem today. We can believe in Jesus ‘theologically, spiritually, sentimentally … but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don’t really believe he was a competent political theologian.’
In John 7:7 when Jesus realised that even his brother’s didn’t believe he could be the Messiah without a sword Jesus says to his brothers “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it, that its works are evil.”
That’s a really interesting statement…
Brian Zahnd comments on this that its hard to imagine that Jesus brothers didn’t testify in some way about the evils of the world. They were pious Jews. James was know in the early church as ‘James the just’. But Jesus was the one who had the analysis that got him killed. Jesus was the one who testified not primarily about what might be called the symptomatic sins of the world – prostitution, tax-collection and so on – those kinds of morally and socially unacceptable social symptoms… we might say. Jesus had a focus at a completely different level. He went to the root of the problem.
Which leads us to the deeper difficulty of this passage. The deeper difficulty is not a theoretical one, its a practical one. Do we really want to follow? Are we prepared to take him serious. Publically! Todays reading is all about Jesus disciples going public. Not simply to take seriously the idea that he is the Son of God. But to take seriously the fact that his politics are God’s politics and therefore ours also. If we just believe in him in our private lives, we won’t get into any trouble. There will be no razor blade dividing our families. To put it less dramatically than Jesus does, the profound tensions Jesus talks about will not threaten our closest relationships. We will simply live relatively comfortably in the same world everyone else lives in. But if we take Jesus seriously enough to seek to embody the kingdom (as our church mission statement puts it) well, we can’t say Jesus didn’t warn us.
As I stand up here with these observations. It crosses my mind that one common response is to be grateful that we live in a world where Christians are not persecuted. The problem with this observation is that I fear we also live in a world where Christians have made an art of not taking Jesus’ politics seriously, a world in which the majority of those who claim to believe in Jesus seem to be oblivious to the fact that the incarnate Son of God is also the most significant political theologian the world has ever seen.
And then as I stand up here with these observations I am also aware the some of our congregation do indeed know the consequences of taking Jesus seriously. They have sought to ‘embody the kingdom’ and have felt that razor blade cut deeply into what they thought were close relationships. Blessed are you peacemakers. You are children of God.
Psalm 8, Matthew 28:16-20
What does it mean to be human? … That is the topic of todays sermon. In the Psalm we see it in the words of the old translation ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’
But notice how different it is if you put the question that way! It is not an abstract question about human nature, which I might imagine some philosophy of human life. It is the question of one who wonders at the mystery of the universe itself… And in that wonder addresses God as the source of all that is… This is not some ancient farmer calling on a local deity to protect him. This is someone who begins to consider God as creator of all. And in that context calls out to God in delight and wonder… wonder at the greatness of God and an intense awareness of the smallness of human life. Why does the creator of the universe have the slightest interest in human life?
And when the question is put that way… suddenly the question of what it means to be human becomes a question of responsibility. Humanity is responsible. Responsible to God the creator of all. Responsible for all that is less complex, less powerful than it. To ask the question that way, is to find ourselves at the intersection between God and the created world… conscious… but conscious in a very specific way… conscious of responsibility.
But notice the poet here is even more specific about God’s interest in humanity. God is interested in humanity as a location of danger in the scheme of things. Humanity is endangered by violence. The enemy and the avenger threaten God’s creation. God seeks to provide for creation in the light of this danger So in verse 2 we read
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark (a defence, a strong place) because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger
It’s hard not to see an anticipation of the Christian gospel in this Psalm. God speaks here, from the mouths of the weakest of humanity. God chooses, not the warrior, but the little ones (babes and infants). It’s not clear in this brief and mysterious sentence, how the voice of the babes and infant silence the enemy and the avenger. But it is clear that the psalmist in his enthusiasm for the greatness of God is not worried about the usual so-called ‘realistic’ solutions to military and political problems.
And yet, having said that, the last thing the psalmist is doing is avoiding responsibility. To be human in the presence of God the creator is to be accountable to God for the welfare of the creation in which we live. The psalm calls it ‘dominion’ and if you listened to any of Selwyn Yeoman’s sermon’s over the last few years you’ll know that that doesn’t mean domination of the world. It doesn’t mean doing what we want with other creatures. It means care or stewardship, in the name of God who delights in all of creation – the language, the way the psalmist summarises the description of the created world is very similar to Genesis 1.
It’s an anticipation of the Gospel… Human beings matter so much in God’s purposes that God became flesh among the little folk of Israel… gathered a group of little ones to train in the Way of peace and reconciliation. To put it another way… human beings mattered so much to God that God took responsibility for their responsibility (which doesn’t mean that they no longer had responsibility… but that God enabled that responsibility after it had been disabled and bound up in sin). This is the mystery of the Gospel… God became human that we might be human also and thus participate in the life of God.
We live as shadows of our true humanity… And so Jesus lived a fully human life, gathered the least of the world around him as disciples and called them to ‘make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (according to our Gospel reading for today)
‘Making Disciples’: What does that mean?
I guess many of us grew up with a kind of idea about what it means for Christians to make disciples… this business that Jesus left in the hands of his disciples… We used to call it the Great Commission, often meaning that the mission of the church was to get people to join something… perhaps it was to join the number of the ‘saved’ through making some kind of decision… for others perhaps it was getting people to join the church, perhaps because it was thought to be a great way of improving society… or for whatever reason… My point is though, that Jesus doesn’t talk about joining something. Jesus talks about a process of learning and following. A disciple is a learner or a follower. The mission of the church is that the whole world (‘all nations’) learn the way of Jesus Christ.
And what we learn is the way of Jesus… because the name, Jesus, is now part of the name of God. God has moved into the human world. God is, in this complex way, moving out towards creation, towards humanity as a human person, that humanity might, with our own proper responsibility, move more fully into the life of God… and so all creation will flourish as it is intended to (as the writer of Psalm 8 imagined).
“teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you”…We are people under authority. The first thing about Christians is that they are followers of Jesus. If Jesus says to abandon the sword, we abandon the sword. If Jesus says to give our wealth to the poor, we give it to the poor. If Jesus says we are to love our enemies, we love them. We mightn’t know exactly how to do that in all situations, but we take that ‘how question’ with utmost seriousness.
“and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”
And in doing so we are not alone. We live with Jesus … and in the wake of Jesus… We live in the age between the ages.
And while doing so we call God, Trinity – Father, Son, Spirit. And we do so because Jesus is also God’s name. Jesus is not just ‘a human being’ the divine human being, God coming towards us, gathering us in the Spirit.