I’m curious to know how many of you have seen the movie Noah by Darren Aranofsky… It’s three years old now.
I really like the movie. One of the things I like is that it sees the story with fresh eyes and reminds us that it really belongs in that strange world of the first few chapters of Genesis. One obvious sign of this is the monsters that Genesis 6 calls Nephilim – the Hebrew word for giants.
Aside from that, what has struck me was a connection between the question that Aranofsky asks and this Sunday’s Easter reading.
Noah raises the question about new beginnings. Are we simply going to get what we deserve from God for destroying this planet – justice and vengeance? Is creation itself crying out for justice? It’s a question of the character of God. Is God’s justice the opposite of mercy? Or do justice and mercy come together in healing and redemption? Is God’s justice at the same time merciful?
In the movie version it’s clear that Noah and his family will survive the genocidal flood, but will they have offspring or just die out? Will they die too in order for the creator to be just?
In the film version only one of Noah’s son’s has a wife before the rains begin to fall and she is barren. Suffice to say this is not how things remain. However, Noah has had a vision from God and he is convinced God has decided for justice and this means that all of humanity will die out – including his family. If Noah is going to be on God’s side he has to be against even his own family. Creation is God’s treasure and humans are destroying it. Violence fills the earth, violence against fellow human beings against creation itself.
Noah, in the movie, is both a radical environmentalist, a defender of God’s creation, and at the same time committed to the idea that divine justice means vengeance (an eye for an eye). The only way to save creation, it seems, is to eliminate the human race. In this context Noah asks the question whether there is any place for mercy.
Discussion Question: What does justice mean for you?
For Noah there seems to be no alternative to punishment… but the movie pushes against this… It might make some sense if those outside the ark were all totally bad those inside the ark were all good, however, as in all good stories, this is not the case. Noah’s second son Ham knows that there is goodness outside the Ark, in the person of the girl he nearly took to be his wife – a girl who died in the flood. Ham is angry with Noah for excluding her from the Ark. He is tempted to channel his anger in the way of Cain and to take revenge on his Father Noah and on Noah’s God. Will the violence of God perpetuate itself in the violence of Ham? What choice will Noah the purist make? And if Ham survives the flood will the new beginning really be a new beginning? Will the way of Cain continue in the person of Ham?
This ancient story leaves us with this dilemma. Is there another way? Is genocide one of God’s tools of justice? And if it’s not, what does God do about a world filled with violence where creation is being destroyed.
This is not just an ancient story. It remains contemporary for us who have lived through two world wars and are currently involved in the destruction of species and people groups through processes of environmental degradation and incredible economic inequality – same world! Same world as Anzac Day approaches and global warming accelerates.
As I read our Easter readings from John’s gospel I wonder if, at a very personal level, this is precisely the question those disciples were asking themselves as they sat in the locked room, their hearts thumping, worrying about the Jewish authorities… but more importantly worrying about the news that they had heard from Mary Magdalene that God had raised Jesus from death.
If he was the Messiah, if he is God’s solution to a violent and violated world … albeit completely unlike any Messiah they had imagined … then the resurrection (as all Jews knew) is the time of the justice of God’s Messiah? What will the justice of God look like? They are frightened in that room! Is this the God of floods and genocide? Is this Noah’s kind of God? Of something else? What will God do? They wonder… as they sit together with no excuses and remembered the way they deserted Jesus in his hour of need.
Jesus does 3 things to those frightened disciples. (i) He greets them, (ii) he shows them his hands, feet and side (iii) and he commissions them with the breath of God (God’s Spirit)
In the darkened room a voice says ‘Shalom’. Which is actually just “Gidday” in Hebrew. It’s a little word but it’s also a big word. Shalom means peace, it’s the opposite of the violence of Noah. It means harmonious welfare of all creation. And John’s gospel wants us to know that. Jesus says it three times in this chapter. When you are sitting in a dark room frightened that God will get you this is the word you need to hear. Shalom means new beginning for them, a new beginning for the human race. With this greeting Jesus makes friends with those who deserted him and betrayed him.
The Second thing he does is show them his hands and his feet – his wounds. It’s not to prove his identity. That’s what he’s doing next time with Thomas. But this time it’s not a question of doubt, just fear. And here we see the depth of the friendship Jesus is creating. He is not saying, ‘ok so you deserted me and left me to be killed but lets forget about that now’. Jesus places the signs of what went wrong at the centre of their new relationship – he shows them his wounds. This is my body. Not just a piece of bread, but a wounded body. These wounds are the result of what they did to him. He puts it in their face. To go forward with shalom and forgiveness here means to know the truth. These wounds are signs of the destruction of creation… signs of the destruction of the most glorious creation of all – Jesus of Nazareth.
This is my body!
Which brings me to another point. The wounds are the focus of the moment… but there is more… more that I didn’t really notice till I started writing this sermon. Anyone remember what happened to Jesus clothes? (cast by lots… he was starkers on the cross… his grave clothes… explicitly mentioned as remaining in the tomb.)
John wants us to know that the guy Mary thought was the gardener was completely naked… the nude dude in the garden. Like Adam at creation. John wants us to know that this is like creation all over again. Mary ‘don’t cling to me’ he says.
So today again the risen Christ is a naked man arriving in the middle of their gathering, in his birthday glory, family jewels and all. Just imagine their eyes going every which way desperately trying to avoid direct engagement with meat and two veg.
It must have been funny but it’s not really the point is it. Nakedness is significant for more than just sexual embarrassment. In the Bible nakedness has more to do with social shame. I was naked and you clothed me. That’s what nakedness means. Being poor in NT times was not really about how much money you had. It was about social status. The naked were the ultimate poor. The naked were the very lowest rung. They weren’t even on the social ladder. They were the crazy ones outside. The non-humans like the Gadarene demoniac.
I was naked and you clothed me. I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was in prison and you visited me…
Can you think of other links between that story of the Sheep and the Goats and the Easter story?
Christ’s word from the cross – I thirst. The story with the disciples on the Emmaus Rd when their hungry guest breaks bread to feed them. Christ in prison… Christ arriving in the locked room… the room filled with fear… locked, like our lives, on the inside… and visiting them. And of course Christ is risen as the naked man. For our sake he became poor, naked, destitute, an outsider to the world… so that we through his poverty might share in God’s riches.
So rather than them clothing him, he clothes them. He breathes on them the breath of God and commissions them (this is his third act)… he gives them a place in this new creation. He clothes them with a new life. The commission is clear… Go and forgive sin. Take the justice of God and express it with the same mercy that I have shown you. The new creation, beginning with the naked new adam begins not through a flood of vengeance… not through a mercy that simply forgets what went wrong (as if there were no wounds on the hands and feet) … but through a costly work of building friendship, of reconciliation, in the full acknowledgement of what went wrong and continues to go wrong.
They need all the power that God can give them. This is their clothing. They will need the breath, the Spirit of God, because they, like Jesus, are going to find their true life with the poor and the naked… with those who are at the bottom of the system, whatever system they live in. So ironically the clothing of the new creation – given to them by a naked man – looks like nakedness in this fallen world in which we live and work and play. For it is with the poor (the naked) that we find the risen Christ and share in his life. This is what it means for us to be Christ-followers. This is what the power of God’s Spirit is for. The good news is that Jesus is alive and active and comes to us in the presence of the poor.
Two Takeaway Points from this Resurrection story
- Noah vs Shalom: The justice of God = restorative justice
- ‘I will be with you always’ = ‘The poor you will always have with you’
Yesterday I learnt that it was Drone Assasination Awareness Week, at least in Wellington. Apparently two indisputable and simple facts stand out from among all the complex and murky issues that could be debated.
- US drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians in 7 Muslim majority countries and the killing continues
- Our defence forces (GCSB) are helping the killer drone programme, by giving signals intelligence to the US.
So I got on my bike and trundled on down to the centre of the city and found a bus with a large banner on it parked on the 5 minute park directly opposite the neutral and un-signed building that houses our government spy department (GCSB). On arrival I was greeted and welcomed into a bus full of people and mattresses with a large shrine at one end – a shrine dedicated to the victims of drone murder. The group, mostly younger people, led by a long-bearded Wellington icon Adi Leason, were in the middle of prayer. I sat on one side of bus somewhat awkwardly and joined in the liturgy. Then they talk about what was ‘on top’ for each of them. Taking action for peace means addressing the many fears that you might have about parking fines and getting arrested and being abused by those who disagree with you and much more. These people were very conscious of that. They were equally conscious of the lives of those affected by high-tech machinery of murder, so they were spending a week praying and fasting. It was moving to see.
They didn’t know where the bus would end up at the end of the week, but they did have a plan to culminate the week of action and consciousness-raising. The plan was to deliver an offering of their own blood to the GCSB with the message ‘take our blood instead’. When they described this act as a ‘propitiatory offering’ my ears pricked up. For people like me raised in one of the winding back-alleys of protestant reformed theology this idea of sacrificial propitiation was familiar territory. In my childhood tradition propitiating was done to God – whether it is a matter of satisfying God’s just demand for vengeance or paying God off because of a (moral) debt it was always God who was the one being propitiated. Justice, whether in the economic or legal register, meant that a kind of exchange (“this for that”) was necessary. For those with ears like mine, this reminded me of the idea that Jesus was said to have done the deal, propitiated God and satisfied God’s retributive justice. Like human sacrifices of the ancient pagan temples, like animal sacrifices in the same world, Jesus gives his own blood so that God doesn’t take ours and the balance of the universe is maintained. Of course the people who say these things believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus does this ‘blood donation’ voluntarily and that, in an important sense, the whole thing is an act of God. But, in spite of this, the story remains that God (the Father) is the one propitiated, and does so because of a system of justice that even God is bound by. This is the world-view in which I know the word ‘propitiation’.
However, it seriously distorted. The only one whose life was saved because Jesus died in his place (i.e. by substitution) was Barabbas. The only one who demanded and took the blood of Jesus was The Man (capital T, capital M). His life was demanded by a collaboration of the Roman rulers, the Jewish leadership and the mob. He freely allowed himself to be sacrificed by politicians at all levels of the political process on the altar of political convenience and public unity. On that day Herod and Pilate became friends. The mob went home satisfied and united. The religious leaders were pleased to have eliminated another heretic. All was well with the world for a moment. Someone was propitiated but it wasn’t God. It was the ‘powers that be’.
Which brings me back to the beautiful irony hidden in the ‘take our blood instead’ protest. While using the language of western Christian atonement, they are not talking of propitiating God at all. They are seeking to propitiate the GCSB. They are mischievously likening the opaque bureaucracy of our military establishment to a pagan deity whose thirst for blood seems insatiable. And in doing so they shame this establishment into either acknowledging or denying their involvement in the hi-tech machinery of murder controlled by the U.S. military. Like Jesus own death this shaming is potentially powerful in averting further bloodshed. Their subtle and slightly idiosyncratic definition of propitiation makes this clear (‘to sacrifice something in order to stop something else being taken’). Their hope is that preventing further bloodshed might be achieved by a shaming process. The first Christians did something similar with the story of Jesus once they realised that God was on the side of the murdered victim rather than the politically powerful. The standard line was that God has raised and vindicated ‘this Jesus whom you crucified’. In this way the resurrection named and shamed the murderers while at the same time opening up a way of forgiveness and reconciliation – a new future without such scapegoating and slaughter. God raised him not just to vindicate him (in contrast to his killers) but also to transform his killers through reconciliation and healing.
The purpose of this new and symbolic protest-propitiation is not to achieve justice by paying in blood for murdered civilians – to substitute themselves for the victims, as it were. It is to change the hearts of those caught up in a murderous process so that they might see more clearly the reality and human cost of the system they support. In this way it is not unlike what Jesus was doing in his own bloody death.
The phrases from Morning Prayer today prompted a couple of short poems that I thought I might share with you all.
The bread that you give is your own body
Day by day, skin and muscle, time and salt
To the arms and wiles of strangers
With neither hesitation nor irony
Under the liminal gaze of the street
And its hustlers and beggars and shoppers
Flesh for flesh
Edible after a long and merciless day’s traffic
God will provide the lamb.
It’s my wager with every fibre of my body
stretched to breaking point on the path
up the hill. Every stone
is larger than the blue mountain ahead
Every dead body to date is my son’s
And his is stretched out as a question
towards the distant horizon
joining knife to altar to wood to fire
in a pattern than doesn’t quite settle
and yet is visible in the twilight
of our journey.
This I hold in my heart for my son:
Things are not as they appear.
We will both go back down this mountain
Before the day is done
Isaiah 2: 1-5, Romans 13: 8-14, Matthew 24: 36-44
Any of you find yourselves lying awake at night or in the early morning alert feeling any movement. Waiting for the next earthquake. Possibly the big one.
Not only do you not know when… but you really don’t know what it will be like.
We’ve had earthquake, and flooding, and Trump and now its Advent and we are waiting for something, we don’t know when or what it will really be like.
Advent just means coming. And the first Sunday of Advent is on the theme of hope. So the tradition is that on the run up to Christmas we celebrate the many ways in which Christ comes to us. Today it’s hope… something that is sometimes called Christ’s ‘second coming’ or his ‘coming again’.
There’s a lot of craziness, a lot of fantasy surrounding this idea of the ‘second coming’. So part of what I think we need to do at this time is question the craziness… to take a fresh look at these words of Jesus.
Jesus is famous for anticipating disaster. He warns his followers that the temple would be destroyed. It happened in 70ad. The future he talks of is filled with both disaster as well as hope.
But the first thing I want to say is that in spite of this he is very conscious of what he doesn’t know (v 36) “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” So if Jesus is very conscious of his ignorance, we probably should be too, don’t you think?
A lot of people want to know the future… they want to secure their lives. They don’t like lying awake at night waiting for the big one – for something they can’t control. So they are ready to believe anyone who likes to tell them a story about the future. But Jesus pushes back against that. There is a future… for sure… but how much do we really know. What can we say about our hope?
In Romans 13 Paul says “You know what time it is”… He’s not talking about 10.30 on Sunday morning. He’s asking about how they locate their lives in time, in relation to the significant moments of God’s coming to them. It’s not about numbers and dates. What matters is how our lives are located in God’s time and in God’s purposes with the world. It’s time to wake up. With the passing of time salvation has become nearer. What time it is? Wake-up time.
Here’s a question. Maybe you know what it means to have hope … but what does it mean to live in hope?
Christ has come… the world will never be the same again. Christ is coming again. We live in between. That’s the main thing we need to know about what time it is. And we don’t need to look at our watches to know it. Everything in our lives that matters, matters because Christ has come. But all that Christ came for is not complete. Wake up time is also pushing towards ‘salvation time’. That’s what hope is all about. God will act. God will complete what God has started.
Jesus stood firmly in a great tradition of hope. He was a fanboy of the great prophet Isaiah. Jesus read from Isaiah in his first sermon. We read of Isaiah’s hope as one of our readings today. … “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The destination will look something like that. We may not know what that will be like, but this is probably the vision that inspired Jesus to call his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. This is what God is working on.
Last week in Auckland our government hosted a conference of weapons manufacturers for companies like Lockheed Martin. People who make their living manufacturing and selling the technology for drones to drop bombs on crowds. Companies who trade in cluster bombs and nuclear weaponry. During the week protestors surrounded the conference and shut it down. Like Jesus protesting at the temple, they didn’t shut down the arms industry for good… but is that one of the ways that living in hope looks like.
Jesus has quite a bit to say about what the coming reign of God looks like… but the question of how the change from now till then will actually happen … how we will move from the time of Christ’s hiddenness to the time when all the world will be confronted irreversibly with his reality. From wake up time to wide awake, remains a great mystery.
One thing he is clear about… he is clear that the change is dramatic. You can see it in the kind of language Jesus uses to describe this future coming. In one passage, one we didn’t read, he uses the language of apocalyptic. For apocalyptic writers great events are described in terms of natural disasters… ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken’. This is a kind of poetry of crisis, that Jesus is drawing on in his language. These are metaphors that others have used before him. Some readers don’t appreciate that kind of poetic exaggeration that is just part of this tradition. It’s a metaphor… but what it’s about is a whole new world coming. God’s new world order of peace.
And then Jesus doesn’t stop with those metaphors, he goes on to give us two more metaphors – two parables of the transition, one about Noah and one about a thief. He says the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah… it will be like a massive crisis in human existence… life will be going on as usual, people will eat and drink and get married… and then rains and rains and rains – a clear and public disaster – the word in Greek is cataclysm. And everyone will be in danger of being swept away with the passing of life as we know it… but some will remain…(metaphor of disaster) ‘two will be out in the field and one will be swept away and one won’t be’. The Greek translation of those phrases sometimes translated ‘taken and left’ is very tricky. Perhaps the most we can say is that, whatever else is involved (remember Jesus doesn’t really know what’s going to happen) there will be a sorting out of people. A bit like the parable of those who build their house on the rock… Jesus hope for his disciples is that they might remain awake to the coming of Jesus, and to the reign of God. He hopes that they will remain strong in the chaos and disaster that will surround the appearance (coming) and not get caught up and swept away. He wants them to be ‘left behind’. (That’s how I read it). To use the words of Leonard Cohen. “Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions” … But even if they do, perhaps particularly when they do, something better is coming.
Interesting when Genesis tells the flood story, twice it says that the world was filled with violence. Here we have a world that sounds to us quote civilised: ‘eating and drinking and getting married’. We don’t usually think of these as violent. And yet perhaps it makes sense … Maybe that’s precisely the kind of world we live in. Maybe the economy of ‘eating and drinking and marrying’ sits like the cap on top of a volcano of violence and racial tension and the inequality that makes the gap between rich and poor get larger and larger. And maybe that volcano will let fly. Don’t get swept away.
Maybe the world that is doing its best to distract itself from the violence and destruction it is itself creating for other human beings and for nature will be caught completely by surprise. I think that’s the point highlighted in verse 39… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them away.
‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’
So Jesus first image is of a flood in which the faithful stay alert and hopeful, looking for what no one else can see – the coming of Christ again – the completion of Christ’s work
The second image is of a thief coming at night to a household. All is calm, all is bright, everyone is asleep. And when the householder wakes up in the morning the TV has gone. Like Santa at Christmas, only he takes the presents rather than gives them.
Jesus says to his disciples ‘stay awake, be ready’. Why? If his disciples are the householders who don’t want the thief to come that would make good sense? But they are not. They are waiting for thief. They are waiting for the Son of Man to return. For them the coming reign of God is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Those who run the household, those in power, don’t want the household invaded. Maybe this is what Jesus means when it says that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those invested in the status quo, the winners in this world are the last ones to welcome in the thief.
What does it mean to be ready for the end of the world as we know it?
Here’s what I think. I think it definitely doesn’t mean to sit around and waiting, singing songs in circles looking inwards. It means practicing together the new world now. It means to beat swords into ploughshares now. Refusing to practice war now. It means to live with the poor now, to share our lives with the poor now, to share our lives with those losing on the margins and in the streets. To wake up to the future and to live in hope means to take the enormous risk of living the life of Jesus now – the one who, for our sake became poor.
To live in hope is not simply to have hope. It is not simply to feel hope. It is to have the courage to practice the future now, at a time when the powerful will do everything to make it difficult, at a time when it looks like a sure recipe for failure.
Jesus says wake up. Out of the chaos a new world will be born. A world of peace and shalom, a world where the dead and the living, will be raised to a new possibility. Thanks be to God.
Play verse 1,2 and chorus of You want it darker (Cohen)
This song by Leonard Cohen came out on a new album this week… it goes to the dark places in human nature. But listen to the chorus. Hineni Hineni. I’m ready my Lord
Hineni is a Hebrew word that means ‘here I am’. It’s a phrase that comes up three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Where we are told God tested Abraham. Firstly God calls out ‘Abraham’ and Abraham replies ‘Hineni’. Here I am. I am present. I am available. One way of reading this story is to see that Abraham passed the test with this response. Hineni. Then, as we know Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. But God finally averts this demand. But the second time this word comes up is when Isaac begins to cotton on to the horror of what is about to happen and says ‘My Father’. Abraham replies ‘Hineni, my Son’. Here I am. Again Abraham is present and available to his Son. Abraham is caught between two demands on his presence, his availability. Finally, as the knife is raised, God speaks again. Abraham, Abraham, and Abraham replies… [you guessed it]… Here I am, Hineni.
The moment of availability, of presence. Who are we there for?
Zaccheaus, on the other hand, makes himself completely unavailable. He hides behind the thick leaves of a sycamore tree as Jesus comes by. He seeks the safety of an observer. He is hiding away like a spectator behind his TV or computer screen – unavailable
Jesus parks himself under Zaccheaus’s tree looks up and says. Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down. I’m coming to your place to stay.
Hurry up and come down… There’s urgency in Jesus voice. Don’t muck around Zacchaeus.
Come down from your tree. Come down from behind all your defences. Come down to where the others are. Come down to where Jesus is with them.
Curiously, he just does it. He has been called out. And it’s like for all his hiding and for all his unavailability… it’s like he’s been waiting to be called out. Do you know that experience? Perhaps you are afraid… and what it takes is for someone to call you out.
A moment of availability begins for Zacchaeus with a moment of humility ‘He hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
Today we have two stories about Tax Collectors… and in both stories the Tax Collectors end up demonstrating humility. They come down out of their tree. They know their need.
But why Tax Collectors? What is it about Tax Collectors that makes them of particular interest to Jesus?
Tax Collectors represent the empire. They are the agents of Rome on the ground among the people.
In a week or so the American people get to vote on the leaders of the empire in our time. Who will get to control the military forces that keep the corporations in control of our world? Will it be Hillary or will it be Donald? Who will reign over us? It will played out for us all as we watch from the safety of our TV screens and computers.
Zacchaeus is not a figurehead of the empire like Donald or Hillary. He is an agent on the ground. He is just doing his job. But boy what a job! He is the interface between the empire that rules the world and the people who want to be different. For Jews he is therefore the worst and most despised person. Often tax collectors were themselves Jews. Traitors to the calling of Israel, agents of the enemies of God and thieves to boot.
In both stories it is these Tax Collectors who are the ones who become become models of salvation. The Tax Collector in the temple becomes a model of prayer. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. The man who has so deeply connected his destiny to the pride of the Roman Empire, has been humbled. He has no excuses … Somehow he has come to see with great clarity his failure before God.
His opposite number, the deeply religious man who seeks the purity of the people of God, prays quite differently. Lord I thank you that I am not like one of them… It’s the Pharisee who needs to come down out of his tree in this story. I thank you that I am not like those people in Social Housing, I thank you that I am not like Hillary and Donald, I thank you that I am not like… [you can fill in your own group]. He sees these people. Maybe in his pious moments he even prays for them. But as he prays he has separated himself from them like Zacchaeus up his tree.
But all is not lost for Zacchaeus. In this story he becomes a model of the life of the kingdom.
Both Tax Collectors have their moment of repentance
Jesus says: Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.
Interesting… he doesn’t say I want to talk to you. In the end its ‘salvation has come to this house’. I think this is a metaphor for his whole life. Jesus is saying I don’t simply want to change your beliefs I want to come into your whole life, to stay at your house.
The result is beautiful. At the end of Jesus stay with Zacchaeus… after the whole town has been talking non-stop about Jesus foolishly staying with a sinner… Zacchaeus stands up and says.
“Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor …and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”
Household repentance. Economic repentance. Jesus has stayed at his house and his household economy is changing
There’s two aspects of this repentance. There’s wealth and there’s reconciliation.
The thing we know about Zacchaeus (apart from him being an agent for the Inland Revenue) is that he is rich. And throughout the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus, money gets bad press. Money is not neutral in the New Testament.
Last week I read an article by one of the world’s most influential living theologians. He has been hiding away on a new project doing his own translation of the NT. It’s being eagerly awaited by those who know. In the article he talked about the things that struck him afresh as he immersed himself in the New Testament was how extreme it was. In particular he comments on how the NT is opposed to the accumulation of wealth and is scathing of those who are rich. Wealth in the New Testament is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. You don’t so much have it as it has you. And the more you hold onto it the greater its power over you.
We struggle to understand this in the modern world because we like the illusion that we are rational beings most of the time… and can simply control things like this by thinking about it.
But that’s not the way the NT thinks
Zaccheaus has been exposed to great wealth. His first act of repentance is to give lots of it away. He redistributes large amounts of it to the poor. But the point is not so much that salvation comes to the world through redistribution of wealth. It is that salvation comes to Zaccheaus as he is released from the grip of his wealth. But as he is released from its grip, he also moves towards the poor. He has come down from his tree.
He can see those he has damaged as real people and not just sources of income. So the second part of his salvation is addressing the injustice he has created. Reconciliation with those he may have defrauded. He gives back four times as much.
His repentance means his household has been turned inside out. From a household bent on its own success, turned in on itself, it becomes a household turned outward towards the poor, turned outwards towards the healing of relationships and reconciliation. Because salvation is never merely an individual thing. Jesus doesn’t say ‘Today salvation has come to this tax collector’ (although that is also true). He says ‘Today salvation has come to this house’.
The moment of availability… It comes to him when Jesus calls him out, draws his hospitality out of him.
The moment of humility … Lord have mercy on me a sinner… it’s the moment of coming down out of his tree.
And finally the moment of repentance… a turning outwards towards the poor… away from religious purity (phariseeism) and away from the empire… towards those who are losing the struggle to succeed in the dog eat dog world created by the empire.
Tax Collector’s stand at the intersection of the Roman Empire and the Jewish world. In Zacchaeus’s repentance it becomes the intersection of that empire with the kingdom and reign of God.
Today I want to remind us that this is not just a private thing for you or me. As a congregation we are called to move out of any self-serving notions of success – any religious versions of capitalism. We are not here to build up this congregation. We are here to demonstrate God’s salvation… the same salvation that came to Zacchaeus’s house. Our calling is to move out to those who are not doing so well in the dog-eat-dog empire we live in.
Hineni is the first response. Here I am. Here we are.
OT: Exodus 3: 1-3 (The bush that burns but is not consumed)
Gospel: Luke 10: 1-9 (lambs amidst wolves)
Epistle: Heb 7:16 (a priest of an indestructible life)
This week one of the mayoral candidates, Justin Lester, went public announcing that that he supported a wet house in Wellington. I don’t know who Justin Lester is. I know nothing about him apart from this fact. But I am told that if you raise this kind of issue in Island Bay you get an awkward silence before someone says something like. “Nice weather isn’t it”.
But what is the Christian response to Wet Houses? As people who take the mission of Jesus seriously, can we also join the chorus of those singing from the ‘Not in my Backyard’ hymnbook.
How do you treat people with addiction issues?… It’s like the modern version of the ancient problem of what do you do with lepers.
I want to come at this sideways… so fasten your seat belts for a crash course in ancient religion
My morning readings in the Daily Office this month have come from Letter to the Hebrews.
The Letter to the Hebrews is all about the difference Jesus makes to the Jewish faith. Which is fine and interesting if you live in the ancient world and understand what priests and temples and sacrifices and sabbaths are all about. But if you don’t know what difference it makes to get a priest to sacrifice your goat, you will probably just be a bit confused by the Letter to the Hebrews.
If you talk to an anthropologist she will tell you that in practically every ancient culture we know of they do something called sacrifice. Deals are done with the gods and the hidden forces of the world. You give to the gods in order to receive something. Some anthropologists will tell you that in the earliest contexts it was human sacrifice but later on other animals and produce would be substituted as gifts to the gods.
Among the Jews something very significant changed. For them God began to be understood not as a powerful being in the world – part of the way the world works, part of the economy you might say… not even the most powerful being in this world. For them God was the source of absolutely everything. So there is nothing you can give to God at all to make God happy. Sacrifice in the old sense made no sense anymore. And so what happened in their temple was turned upside down. Rather than sacrifices being exchanges made with God, the priest, in the ritual of atonement for example, would perform a drama, in which they enacted God’s work for our world.
The priest would come out from the Holy of Holies with the name YHWH on his forehead and sprinkle blood, the symbol of life on the gathered congregation. God gives life to us rather than vice versa.
So Hebrews takes up this idea and says Jesus is the ultimate priest.
Then the writer to the Hebrews goes a step further. He says Jesus is not just any priest. Not the kind that does ‘churchy’ things in the temple. Jesus is like Melchizedek.
And everyone says… ‘who the heck is Melchizedek?’ He’s the mystery man… like Zorro. He turns up out of nowhere – the priest from nowhere. They call him a priest. They call him a king. His name means King of Righteousness. He is also called king of Salem (which means peace). And then he disappears and is never mentioned again in the Old Testament.
So for the writer of the letter to the Hebrews he becomes a symbol of Jesus life. Jesus is, we read, a priest of the ‘order of Melchizedek’… which sounds very mysterious, like some kind of Masonic rite or something.
But to cut to the chase… the thing about this Melchizedek stuff is that Jesus (like Melchizedek the outsider) does not derive his significance through religion… through the law… because his dad was a priest of something like that… but here’s the phrase that really hit me this week… ‘through the power of an indestructible life.’ (see Heb 7:16 on slide]
Like the burning bush that is not consumed.
Jesus was not a priest in the temple… (for Jews the temple was the ‘interface’ between God and the world). Jesus was a priest in the world… He took the life of God (the interface between God and the world) out onto the streets. He took it to the lepers, and the taxmen. He took it to the prostitutes and the political powerbrokers. He was a priest not through ritual… but through the power of an indestructible life. And the blood he poured out was not that of a lamb from the temple… it was his own blood. His own indestructible life.
Which raises the question? If his life is indestructible, how come it got destroyed? How come it was snuffed out on a Roman cross? That doesn’t sound very indestructible.
Of course the answer is that it was indestructible because God raised it… raised it to eternal life, to divine life.
To put it another way… his life was indestructible not because he couldn’t die but because he could die… because he could die confident in God who would raise him from death. “Into your hands I commit my spirit”.
The life that God would raise up in the end… the life of the ‘future’ … sustainable life… was the life he was living, it was flowing through him, it was in his bones. In the power of this indestructible life he opens the way for all of us to share in the same life. This is the good news!
Let’s look at what that life looks like in the life of Jesus disciples:
- Fearlessness in friendship
- Fearlessness with possessions
So we read earlier: Jesus sent his disciples out “like lambs among wolves”. That’s some metaphor for the indestructible life! …To be vulnerable… to look for the people of peace and to stay with them. When you knock at the door… if they let you in… if there’s an opening to this new way. Stay there. Eat at their table. Make your place with them.
The power of the indestructible life knows that God is already at work wherever you go. The Spirit of God will be preparing people of peace. You don’t have to be the one with all the answers you just have to be vulnerable. The Spirit of God is ahead of you.
This has been my experience getting to know people around Berhampore and the Granville flats over the last week or so. God goes ahead. God paves the way. What does this say to the issue of wet houses?
He sent them out with the same indestructible life that he had. He sent them out in vulnerability to dangerous places.
So he had to share that life with those who ‘have issues’… it was not his life to keep. It was his life to give and share.
This is the mission journey that we are on together. As a church we can never join in the Spirit of ‘Nimbyism’. To be the body of Christ is not to be a happy huddle of people who look after one another, not even simply a ‘family’. The body of Christ lives by the same indestructible life that Jesus lived… the same indestructible life that God will raise up to eternal life.
It’s not our backyard after all. The church is called to go out and play in God’s backyard.
Second example of the indestructible life of the disciples is after Jesus resurrection. Fearlessness in sharing our possessions.
You know how it goes in the Acts of the Apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need….
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions… and so on.
Quick Question in response to those verses
Q: What do you think is the difference between Communism and Christianity? [discuss in pairs]
No one claimed private ownership. Not that they lived in community that didn’t allow them to claim private property. It wasn’t a law. It was because something had happened inside them and their attitude. The key word is ‘claimed’. [on this see Jonathan Cornford]
I want to say from the outset that we are not going to be able to suddenly go back to the life of the communities of the early church. Those stories are like lights to guide us into the future. But they do guide and they do say something about what the ‘indestructible life’ of Jesus looks like… they encourage us to imagine new, although perhaps less dramatic ways of sharing our material life…fearlessness with our possessions.
The problem with passages like this and with the voice of the prophets and with Paul’s talk of ‘a new creation’ is that this gospel is so BIG. It’s like they speak ‘one octave too high’ (in the words of Abraham Heschel). We are accustomed to the way the world is. Those guys protest too much. They hope too much. Perhaps they are out of touch with reality?
And yet if the gospel is true… and if it is true merely in our heads it is not true at all… if the gospel is true it must become incarnate in our missional life, the medium is the message… and we are called to be the message. ‘As the Father sent me’… says Jesus… ‘I am sending you in the same way.’ Christians believe in reincarnation right? God became incarnate in Jesus. Jesus becomes incarnate again in us. Different, sure, but in an important sense the same too. In our indestructible life… Jesus indestructible resurrection life is moving out into God’s backyard – not our backyard, Gods.
Fearless in our friendships. Fearless with our possessions.
Recently I read the section of Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives his disciples their missionary training regime. He sends them out to the villages to find ‘people of peace’. He tells them to stay with the ‘person of peace’ (Luke 10:1-12). My purpose in this series is to update you with stories about people of peace that I encounter in my wanderings in the vicinity of Berhampore and Island Bay. The names I use are fictional.
Encounter 2: George
My wife Jan goes to the market more often than I. She also goes up to strangers and talks to them more often than I do. And she talks to them about things I tend not to. All of which means she sometimes makes friends quite quickly with diverse people. She had gotten into the habit of leaving our dog Beano tied up outside the market next to George. George is a warm, gentle and grateful soul who sits on the side of the street as people come and go to the market. He is missing a few teeth but it doesn’t ruin his wide smile. He has a sign asking for contributions for food. As it turns out George has a dog who means everything to him, but it is quite big and he doesn’t have much money to feed it. We didn’t know much about George. But we started to enjoy stopping and talking to him. A few weeks ago there was a cold snap. The rain was icy and we weren’t even sure we wanted to walk to the market. But George was there. His feet were bare as usual and his blanket had holes in it. Jan immediately said. We need to get George a new blanket. We dropped into the Sallies and bought a second hand blanket for George. He was on my mind over the next few days.
Later that week I had the chance to watch a short film that had just gone public online about the early life of a member of our congregation. Regina Tito (her real name) grew up sleeping rough on the streets of Wellington. She sometimes slept on the floors of the public toilets for safety. And now she works for Downtown City Ministries. Following Jesus takes her back to the streets to work with the homeless of Wellington. I watched Regina’s film and listened to an interview she did on National Radio about her experiences. The thing that spoke to me from both were her comments on what it was like to be sitting at street-level and watching the legs of people go by. She talked about the difficulty making eye-contact from down there. I woke up early the following morning. It was crystal clear what I had to do. I needed to sit down at street-level with George. I didn’t see George for a couple of days. There was no market. On Thursday I had a day off and was in town near the Beehive (NZ Government Buildings) doing some shopping – nowhere near the market where I usually see George – and there he was, greeting the suits. I chatted for a moment before I sat down. For a while there I forgot about the people passing by. George started talking about his life on the street, his chances of housing, his friends and rivals on the street. George had a story, a life, hopes and fears. He wasn’t just a ‘beggar’. Things were complicated. I asked him, do you know Regina Tito? Sure enough they went way back. I left with mixed feelings to continue my shopping.