I found this today in a “Common Prayer” office that I use. It’s a poem by Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
A famous anabaptist slogan reads
“A Modest Proposal for Peace:
Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill one another”
Let me make another ‘Modest Proposal’. It could be called a Modest Proposal for Unity. It could equally be called a Modest Proposal for Sustainability. Or again it could be called a Modest Proposal for Community. Or it could well be called a Modest Proposal for Localisation, or for Local Mission. I have opted for “A Modest Proposal for Sustainable Community.” Like the anabaptist proposal this title connects with something that is seen to be desirable in the wider society. Similarly it calls on Christian to lead the way in a manner entirely consistent with the Christian gospel. The beauty of modest proposals is they do not claim to solve all the world’s problems they simply claim to be a small but significant step in the right direction. So without further ado, here it is.
A Modest Proposal for Sustainable Community:
Let the Christians of the world agree
that they will only worship in congregations
within walking distance of their homes.
Or, if they can’t walk there, that they will worship
in the congregation nearest their own home,
regardless of its style or tradition.
Sound easy? My suspicion is that this modest proposal will desperately need to be held together with the former anabaptist one, otherwise the Christians of the world will fight each other to death over the details.
Imagine for a moment, the frenzy that surrounded Jesus ministry. He is a rock star. Mark tells us:
Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat
It’s so chaotic around Jesus that his family can’t get into his house… so they take up a stand outside the house and send messages to him inside.
Even Jesus’ own family and friends are trying to restrain Jesus. He seems to be crazy. Verse 21 says
And having heard, his people came to take him, for they were saying that he was insane.
They are worried about the stir that he is creating with his preaching and his ‘news’ about God and God’s reign, and his power to heal and to break and change normal social relations. They fear it takes a crazy person to say and do these things. So they want to stop him… for his own well-being of course.
If his friends think he’s insane, his enemies have a more sinister take on it. The scribes are calling him demonic. He’s in cahoots with Satan. He’s a big demon with the authority to cast out smaller demons.
In response Jesus tells a parable (or better a riddle). “How can Satan cast out Satan?”
Some say that this is simply a rhetorical question. Obviously the answer is NO. So Jesus can’t be satanic (end of story).
Others say that this is too simple a reading. Jesus has a much more interesting understanding of evil. Satan is the Accuser. The satanic world is based in ‘casting out’. That’s how unity is maintained. So Jesus is asking a serious question in this riddle, not merely a rhetorical question. It really is a riddle. This is how the satanic works: You find someone to accuse, to blame for things and cast them out. So Satan does cast out Satan? But Jesus point is not that it doesn’t happen. Jesus point is that it is unstable, it won’t last – you can’t built a future on it. He says ‘A house divided against itself will not stand’. If our unity is based on the people we blame and cast out it will collapse. Jesus doesn’t play Satan’s game cause he knows it won’t last.
There’s a lovely irony in this context. The sadducees are trying to do precisely that… cast Jesus out. They accuse him of being a demon… they demonise him.
Jesus vision of the good news of the kingdom is the vision of a coming world where people love one another and even learn to love their enemies rather than cast them out… it’s a vision that includes the lepers and the crazy people that other people cast out. Jesus is trying to open up their imaginations and hopes to a new way of relating to God and one another. He comes with news of a new world coming. Luke records that Jesus at the beginning of his ministry telling his disciples “I was watching Satan falling like lightning” – a powerful image of the end of the world as he knew it.
But rather than being an accuser. Jesus sees himself as doing battle with the accuser, the Satan. He tries another metaphor, another parable. It’s not about casting out at all.
No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first trying up the strong man.
This one is tricky too. But perhaps Jesus sees himself as challenging the economy of his world. He’s the thief who breaks in. He’s disabling the ‘strong man’ – the powers that be. Binding the power of the Satan to control the way the world operates. Rather than playing Satan at his own game and casting him out, he sees his mission in terms of tying Satan’s hand – possibly something quite different.
Fascinating metaphors! Can you see how his family thought he was crazy. His vision of the kingdom of God is just too different. It is going to get him into trouble. You can’t just change the whole way the world works. You have to be realistic.
Last week I was writing a submission on behalf of the Presbyterian Church on the Government’s Carbon Emission Target. And the more I thought about the impact of our ‘carbon addicted culture’, our ‘growth-addicted culture’ on the Pacific Islands and on vulnerable places like Bangladesh, the more I thought about the destruction we are dealing to future generations the more I felt we had to have the courage to set an ambitious target for reducing our carbon emissions.
But as I was researching this work I came across a podcast from The Guardian in which they presented three alternatives – (1) the first is the do nothing alternative – just accept a world in which climate change gets out of control (I don’t know how you imagine that will be… but my image is of a world with 20% of the human world living in massive protected mega-cities of high-technology surrounded by enormous slums for the remaining 80%) (2) the light green response – live with the system that we have, the economic system, but modify it, constrain the markets… and hope that the system will correct itself (3) the deep green response – (these are the really “crazy” people, you know the ones the media calls ‘greenies’, the one’s who are completely out of touch with the real world) was one that interested me. Someone called Tim Jackson commented that the basis of our current system is the idea that prosperity means economic growth, growth in GDP and consuming more – consuming more in a finite world. Jackson says but that’s not what prosperity really is. Prosperity is about living well. Once we have the basic material conditions of shelter and food in place (as we have in the west since about the post-war period) real prosperity is much more about our social conditions, our sense of family, our community and the hopes we have for that. Rather than furthering our real prosperity the current system of economic growth based on consumerism is actually undermining our real prosperity. In other words the system that we think is making us prosperous, is actually destroying our real prosperity – the quality of our community together.
That’s the “crazy” green response. The kind that calls for a revolution in the system rather than simply tinkering or relying on salvation by new technology.
And as I thought about the ‘deep green’ views of Tim Jackson it struck me that he sounded awfully like Jesus
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be added to you.”
“Take care and be on your guard against all forms of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.”
Jesus came with news of a world without covetousness. For those who live as ‘the body of Christ’ real prosperity not measured by GDP! How radical is that?! Funnily enough, even the Guardian economist who was part of this big project to address climate change. Concluded that the deep green position was a step too far. We’ve gone down this economic model too far to go back he said. Even for the Guardian, people like Tim Jackson and Jesus are crazy!
And I ask myself… are the followers of Jesus, those who carry his good news… are they always going to be a bit crazy? Is it our destiny to be the crazy people?
The first sermon ever preached after the resurrection is arguably the words of the women in Luke’s gospel to the other disciples, telling them that Jesus had risen just as he told them. Do you remember the response? “But these words seem to them like an idle tale.” Now I think Luke is protecting his listeners with a kind of euphemism. The word translated ‘idle’ (leros in Gk) is the word we get delirious from. In the eyes of the other disciples the women are clearly crazy. They have lost the plot.
Do we also need to be people who have lost the plot?
The movie Nuns on the Run is a story of two small-time crooks (Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle) trying to escape both police and the triads. They hide in a convent disguised as nuns. Eric Idle finds himself scheduled to teach the Religious Education class. He’s horrified. Robbie Coltrane, a lapsed Catholic, tries to reassure him by telling him how easy it will be. ‘What’s your first lesson on?’ he asks. ‘The Trinity!’ Robbie’s face falls. “The Trinity! Now that’s a bugger” (H/T to Lawrence Moore for this story)
Do you get that sinking feeling when you hear the word Trinity. Perhaps you have a sneaking suspicion that the Trinity is really an ‘in-house’ conundrum to keep theologians in a job… a kind of serious sounding nonsense where everyone pretends they know what they are talking about but they don’t.
The truth of the matter couldn’t be more different… “God so loved the world…” That’s the trinity…
God comes out of nowhere… and rather than remaining in some kind of splendid isolation and hiddenness for us to sit around on late night philosophy sessions imaging how God might be… God comes out… of God’s closet.
God so loved the world… not God loved the world so much (that is true, but not an accurate translation) but God loved the world in this way. God sent the Son. God sent the Spirit. The Spirit, says Jesus to Nicodemus, comes out of nowhere, so that humanity can be born again, rebooted from above, start again, be set free.
God loved the world in this intimately self-involving way … in the way we call Trinity
God is deeply relational.
God… The Trinity… is not a theory about how three people can be one thing… God is this movement of love. And because that’s how God is experienced that’s how we talk about God. Trinity is not just about who God is (certainly not in the abstract) but about what God does and what God is like.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has given up on God and believing in God, maybe they even hate God… and often I’m tempted to say… something like a friend of mine once said, “I’m not at all sure that I believe in the God you’ve stopped believing in.”
One of the things that puzzles me is people who say they believe that God is love but are not sure about the Trinity. If they don’t believe in the Trinity why on earth do they believe that God is love? What does that mean?
We are here to worship God… worship the Trinity. In today’s reading Jesus says “Whoever believes in him [the Son] will not perish”. The Greek word for believe is not about intellectually drawing some conclusion… it’s about entrusting and investing yourself in him, its about worshipping him, as one does God… for God has come to us in Jesus. Whoever worships him… will not perish… but live in the life of God (eternal life). Those who worship/believe in Jesus understand at least the need of this name Trinity.
Funnily enough there are some people who believe, in spite of this, that God’s hands are tied. The other night I was watching the Student Alpha video with Mary and 8 or 9 of our young adults, and the speaker on the video was saying that when Jesus was on the cross there was a barrier between God and Jesus… our sin… which stopped the Father relating to Jesus, and if Jesus hadn’t somehow taken our sin-barrier, then our sin would be a barrier between God and us that God couldn’t get through.
According to this story, Jesus is somehow punished by being shut out from God (so we don’t have to be shut out from God). Sin, the speaker seemed to be saying, was the kind of barrier that ‘tied God’s hands’.
Todays reading says the opposite. It says that not only can God interact with our sinful world in all its sinfulness, but in fact sin was no boundary to God’s love. God loved the world in this way: God gave his Son into intimate contact with the broken world (the Greek word for this is cosmos) and he threatened this broken world so much with this enormous love of God that the broken world broke him, he chose to become the victim of this broken world… and so to hang alongside all the other victims of this broken world.
Jesus is God hanging out with sinners – both in his life and on the cross. It is not true that sin separates us or Jesus from God. It may alienate us from God it may create some work for God, it may stop us relating to God, but it is not a barrier that prevents God being with us.
Although Jesus wondered at his darkest moment, his Father did not abandon him on the cross. As the Son of the Father, he endured the cross with his Father and in the end abandoned himself into the arms of his Father (who proved that he hadn’t abandoned him by raising him from death).
There are a couple of ways people imagine that God might be contained behind barriers. One is the idea that God is so different from the world that God simply can’t be active in the world. All God can do, apparently, is kick it off at the beginning and leave it to be, and wait for souls to return when they die.
Another way in which some people have imagined that God is cut off from the world has to do with moral purity. A holy God cannot touch anything unholy. And when God does touch something unholy – boom. Like the story of the guy who touched the ark of the covenant.
In our OT reading today, there is something like this thought going through Isaiah’s head.
‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the king the Lord of hosts’.
Isaiah assumes that God’s holiness and his uncleanness cannot mix and so God must eliminate him… that impurity is a threat to purity… so the pure God must destroy the impure person…. And Isaiah is shaking in his boots waiting to be zapped when quite the opposite happens. Isaiah is cleansed and not destroyed. A glowing coal, signifying God’s holiness, comes down and touches his lips. And he is transformed and given a new vocation to be a voice for God in a world of unclean lips. Contrary to the way we usually think… the unclean is infected by cleanness (not the other way round) Which is what happens all the time in Jesus ministry … touching unclean people. Love it turns out is the greater power.
Lawrence Moore uses the word ‘transgressive’. The Trinity is the Christians way of remembering that God is ‘transgressive’. God transgresses all the boundaries that we might put up… God’s love is a passionate driving force. God the creator, who is already intimately related to the world, closer to it than it is to itself, sends the Son and sends the Spirit and together in the love that is God’s life they dance through all the barriers that we might put up. Disorienting and reorienting people to learn new dance steps and enter into a new dance of life.
When we say God is Father, Son and Spirit (Trinity) we are not using obscure jargon, we are talking, albeit stumblingly, of a God who is so dynamic and personal that all the destructive barriers that we in our fears might use to control the world and make it ours are no barriers to God. We are talking of the experience of love that enters into the deepest intimacy of our lives. God who is passionately determined to be with the world and for the world, to be with you and me and for you and me.
The story of the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit ends (or at least can end) with the words of Isaiah on our lips ‘here am I send me’.
Have you ever felt like the world you live in is a kind of enormous system… and you are powerless and helpless to change anything… and the best you can really do is survive, make do?… Have you ever felt angry at the system?
If you have, I think you understand the word ‘empire’ and what it means to live in an empire. It may not be the Roman Empire or the British Empire… In the Old Testament the name that meant “empire” was Babylon. We might have other names for it today.
I want to explore today the way in which “empire” lies in the background of our Pentecost texts…
At Anzac I often hear discussion about what would have happened if some empire had taken over NZ – the German or the Japanese. Of course if it did happen it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened to New Zealand. We imagine the trauma that it would create to have your whole way of life taken over by another culture.
But as I was reflecting on the Valley of Dry Bones I was reminded of the background to Ezekiel. His country had not merely been invaded by a foreign power, many of his people slaughtered. The bulk of the population had been captured and been transported thousands of miles away to Babylon. They were not merely occupied. They were exiled… exiled to a place where there was no realistic hope of return.
The shame was total… it was an experience like death itself. The people were at a point where they could see no future. They were no longer a people. And in this context Ezekiel has this vision in which God calls him to declare a word of hope to the dead bones… “You will live again” is basically the word. And then Ezekiel is asked to call upon the breath (breath = spirit in Hebrew) of God to breathe life into Israel again. Dead people can’t raise themselves..
So the people of Israel are given a promise of life and then the power of God’s Spirit. God breathes them to life even though they are surrounded by a great immovable system of empire. Ezekiel’s vision has them come alive again from nothing… Standing again as a people whose very existence depends on nothing but a word of hope and the breath of God.
God says you can live in the shadow Babylon. You don’t need infrastructure. At the very least at the most fundamental level… all you really need is the breath or Spirit of God and the assurance of God’s word of hope.
Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel? The name Babel is a thinly veiled codeword for the empire Babylon. It’s one of those ancient myth-type stories in Genesis. In that story the people say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Let’s secure our power…. And God looks down we are told and seeing this attempt to develop a single system of power with a single language decides that something needs to be done about what we might call empire. So God scatters them and creates many languages and cultures. God sets them free from this unified and controlling system of power represented by Babylon. It’s a myth which critiques empire (as well as telling us how languages began).
Why did I tell you the story of the Tower of Babel? Because some people have said that what happens in the Pentecost story when the breath of God is described as a mighty wind and people of many languages are gathered together again is a kind of reversal of the story of the tower of Babel. But that’s not really what happens. What happens at Pentecost is not the end of many languages and the re-establishment of a Christian empire. No, no… It’s a celebration of the diversity of languages. Suddenly, by a miraculous sign of the breath of God… people of many different languages don’t lose their languages and start speaking one common language. No, they understand each other each in their own language. No longer do they have to speak Greek to communicate in the empire. They are freed in this moment from the language of the empire to communicate in each other’s languages. The story is about diversity of culture – not as a problem to be overcome… for it need not be a barrier between us, but as the environment in which we learn to communicate. The languages, the cultures, are a divine gift, just as it is in the ancient story of Babel – freedom in spite of the power of empire. Cultural diversity is God given.
So if the story of the Dry Bones is all about the Spirit empowering the people to be themselves, to have the hope and courage to live God’s difference in spite of the system in which they live. Pentecost is about God’s difference is expressed in cultural diversity in spite of the system: Cultural Diversity versus Empire.
Now I don’t know of anything quite like Pentecost in the history of the church since Pentecost. There may have been special occasions like Pentecost. But by and large when Christians get together from different cultures and language groups the business of understanding one another is much slower and challenging.
But it seems to me that Pentecost is a sign that this process of understanding people of other languages and culture is at the heart of what the Spirit does – breath of God does. … It’s no coincidence that the virtues that are needed to submit to another culture and learn another language are not unlike what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. If you’ve ever had to, or chosen to live in another culture and learn another language those are the qualities you will have needed.
Rev Tokerau Joseph from First Church spoke at the recent meeting of Presbytery. And there he issued a called to become what we believe we are: a cross-cultural church. We believe (in theory anyway) that the gospel of Jesus breaks down barriers between cultures. And yet look at the churches in New Zealand. Most of them are homogeneous – all more or less the same culture. We gather with those like us. Here in Caversham, we have a predominantly European congregation and an hour later there is a Samoan congregation in the same building.
The empire would simply solve this problem the easy way – actually the violent way. The way of empire is when the dominant culture controls the relationship and the smaller group just has to fit in. The spirit of Pentecost would call us (better, empower us) to submit to other cultures, to take a slower path to understanding, but one which celebrates the culture and language of the other person.
In New Zealand I think we can be grateful for the Treaty of Waitangi. Because it creates a space for the slow path to communication and understanding. In a way it reflects the justice of God. There’s no guarantee that the Treaty will not be abused in the process. But the Treaty calls on those who believe, not in the power of empire and mono-culture, but in the power of God’s Spirit; it calls on those who are empowered by God’s spirit for a life of patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control as Maori and Pakeha journey together in community in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Apparently the old-fashioned sermon had three points – like God. So let me add a third to finish. First one – the Spirit empower a community to live in spite of the system. Second one – the Spirit creates communication between diverse cultures in spite of the monocultural system. Third point comes from the lectionary reading from John’s gospel which we didn’t read and I’ll just touch on it. John 16 Jesus is promising his disciples that when he is gone, God will send the Spirit and in verse 8 he says
And when the Spirit of truth comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”
Prove the empire wrong… prove the system wrong… In a nutshell the Spirit speaks truth to power… and will do so because the empire will see another way living and moving in its midst. People who are no longer dry bones, but people who live and communicate differently – a different kind of righteousness. This is good news!
Come Holy Spirit, blow through us your people!
Our story begins with Acts 1. Judas has died. This creates an issue. They needed another apostle. Why? Probably, I suspect, because (strange as it may seem) they felt that the number 12 was important. 12 Tribes of Israel… 12 disciples. Twelve represented the people of God. It was symbolic.
Whatever the reason they picked two potential replacements… and then threw dice (cast lots) to find a replacement. Matthias got the job … and that’s the last we hear of the man.
But what is the deeper issue here? What do the apostles represent? What’s their role? Verse 21 says ‘one of these must become a witness (martyra – from which we get martyr) with us to his resurrection.’
But let’s think a little deeper again… Why is ‘witness’ such an important idea for Christianity?
Witness is about history… A witness is someone who makes a public declaration about something that has happened. If faith were a matter of private spirituality… a set of principles which each person could learn… or a relationship to God that each could explore in the privacy of their own life… we would not need ‘witnesses’. But at the centre of our faith is the memory that something earth-shattering has happened in history. So witness matters.
The apostles were ‘witnesses’ to the resurrection. We are witnesses now. The Bible is a kind of witness. As the apostles were beginning to die out later in the first century they began to gather together their memories and their writings and produced what we call the New Testament. They didn’t throw dice… but they did make a selection. Something has happened that must be remembered and known.
Two issues for Christians at the time: (i) How do we preserve the witness of the first Christians and the Apostles (i.e the NT)? and (ii) How do we read and interpret the Scriptures we already have – the Hebrew bible (what we call the OT)?
This second issue had been one they had been struggling with since the earliest days of the church… long before they gathered together the New Testament. In fact you can see their answer to the problem of reading the Old Testament if you look closely at the writings of the New Testament.
We looked at something like this a fortnight ago when I was preaching about the Eunuch… for a Eunuch reading the OT is not easy. Deuteronomy says God excludes him from the community of faith and Isaiah says God welcomes him. And I commented at the time that the scripture itself is a kind of struggle… it documents, or bears witness to Israel’s struggle to make some sense of God. For Christians this becomes the question… is God really like Jesus? (this week I’ve been listening to a guy called Brad Jersak who’s talking about his book ‘A More Christlike God’ – should be a fantastic resource if you’re thinking about these things, or I could send you a link to his interview). Is God really like Jesus? Because at some points in the OT God is portrayed as commanding things that Jesus forbids … like genocide, like slavery, wiping out children, plundering the women in organised rape… and the passage in Hosea about God commanding people to cut babies out of their mother’s wombs (check it out if you don’t believe me).
Of course this is not “the God of the OT”. This is just one strand. We also have Psalm 103 in which the psalmist is persuaded that God is ‘gracious, compassionate, abounding in lovingkindness … hasn’t treated us according to our sins’
It matters profoundly for our faith and our politics whether God is like Jesus.
Some Christians will tell you that God wrote the Bible. That each verse is kind of equally true… a flat bible. It might be how they read the Bible, but that’s not how the first Christians read the OT. And you can see this if you look at the NT. They didn’t just read the scriptures, they searched the scriptures to find things that pointed to Jesus (remember Philip with the Eunuch). But the writers are quite explicit about this at the beginning of John’s gospel and at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews…. Listen to this as instruction as to how to read the OT:
The law (Torah – most sacred scripture) indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
See how Jesus functions for them to purify the images of God they might get from their own scriptures! Listen to the writer to the Hebrews
God spoke to our ancestors, in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being….
If you think about it the contrasts in these two scriptures are incredible!
What sort of search of the OT do you do if you want to know what God is like? … you do a search which looks for witnesses… before the event (before Christ) witnesses to a God who is exactly like Jesus, whose character is exactly reflected in Jesus life and words.
And today’s Epistle reading weighs into exactly this debate… It begins
If we receive human testimony(witness – martyria), the testimony (witness) of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.
So there’s at least 3 dimensions of Christian thinking to this idea of ‘witness’ … the OT is a witness to Jesus from the past, there’s the NT witness of the first Christians, and there’s God’s own witness to Jesus (resurrection and gift of the Spirit) and finally (the fourth dimension if you like) our life is a matter of being witnesses ourselves. We are the bible that other people read!
John’s epistle goes on:
Those who trust themselves to the Son of God have the testimony (witness) in their hearts … And this is the testimony: God gave us the life of the age to come, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life… I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have the life of the age to come.
How do we witness? We witness with our whole lives… because the life of Jesus has got to the very heart of our thinking and emotions. We have what John calls ‘the life of the age to come’ and so both what we do and what we say is a public statement about the historical event which shattered the history of the world and which is, even now, the life of the age to come.
I want to finish this morning with Jesus prayer from our Gospel reading…
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
I want to call this section of the prayer: Jesus ‘witness protection plan’. Did you notice what Jesus prayed for his disciples? Not protection from flooding. Not protection from war. Not protection from cancer. Protection from the evil one. He wants them to be protected from the force of evil in the world. He wants them to be ‘sanctified’. Made holy, made different. ‘Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth’. He wants their life and witness to be more and more like the word that God has spoken. So if we are to learn to pray from Jesus prayers… as we do every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, let’s not pray for protection from illness or disaster. Let’s take Jesus’ witness protection plan seriously. Let’s focus on ultimately what matters – that the difference that Jesus makes in the world will be seen in us. Let’s pray that our witness will be protected.
Please forgive me if I try and say something about all three texts today… Each is important and reinforce each other. But you might need to concentrate. Fasten your seatbelts!
The Vine and the Branches… How could we summarise that reading. Let me attempt a short summary: If you don’t live your life in the life of Jesus (I would say the cross shaped life of Jesus) you die. If your life is not given its fruitfulness by the life of Jesus it will wither and dry up. You either live in God or you don’t live. John’s gospel is a bold and sharp as that.
It doesn’t say how we might do that… (it may be that there are many atheists in the world who live their lives in the cross shaped life of Jesus and who don’t think of themselves as disciples…there might be many piously religious people who talk about Jesus but whose lives bear no resemblance to Jesus). The passage doesn’t deal with that. but it does make it very clear that God has given us a life and a source of fruitful existence on this planet… the life of Jesus.
John’s Epistle extends this point. The life of God that makes us fruitful people is nothing less than the love of God… seen in our world.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: [says John] God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning (or in contemporary language, the transforming) sacrifice for our sins.
We don’t have access any other way to this life but through the active love of God towards us. Love starts with God’s active love for us.
No one has ever seen God (Abba, sender of Jesus); if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…. Love has been perfected among us in this: [in what?]… because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment
Here is the message of the tradition of John (gospel and epistle)… The love of God is visible, active, alive among us… and because of Jesus, ‘the true vine’, the same love takes its shape in our life (as he is so are we in the world). And importantly it does so without reference to fear or punishment. If we think we are a Christian because we otherwise we will be punished by God… then we are not really Christian (we are just looking out for our own skin). John says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.”
That’s kind of a big message! A message that takes a lifetime to soak in. But we also have a story… a story about how that message was soaking in as the church was born. The conversion of a Eunuch.
Who is this man? The Eunuch? He is a leading public figure of a foreign nation – in a chariot… no doubt with full courtege and bodyguard. The treasurer of Ethiopia… (modern Sudan)… He must be important because he has a bible… a scroll… long before the days of paperback bibles. It was very hard for a gentile to get such a scroll… perhaps it was a gift he received at a public visit.
But perhaps most interestingly, this man is one who embodies in himself the struggle of Israel! What do I mean? There are two significant references in the Scriptures to Eunuchs. The first is Deuteronomy 23:1 (Eunuchs are explicitly excluded from the faith of Israel). The second is in Isaiah 56:3-5 (Eunuchs are accepted by God’s boundless loving-kindness). If he was a would-be-worshipper-of-the-God-of-Israel… and a Eunuch then he would have known of these passages. So no wonder he responds to Philip… with ‘how can I’ understand what I am reading?’ The Scriptures themselves don’t agree. They are themselves a living argument about the nature of God and God’s people. The Eunuch has stepped into a fight. For the Eunuch this argument is not theoretical, it’s not a theoretical debate about a contradiction in the bible. It’s personal. Is he in or is he out? Is there a place in the people of God for a man of questionable masculinity? A man whose sexuality doesn’t fit the normal pattern? It matters for the Eunuch. He’s in a tricky situation here.
Although the Eunuch probably knew about clash between his situation as a Eunuch and Jewish faith, it wasn’t those passages he was reading in his chariot that day. He was reading an extraordinary passage in the Hebrew scriptures – the point where the prophet Isaiah is waxing lyrical about a figure he calls ‘The Servant of the Lord’. The Servant is one who suffers unjustly – who is the people’s scapegoat, who is brutally punished (sacrificed) by the people as though he were to blame for their iniquities. This brutalised victim, this ‘righteous Servant’, Isaiah says … is the one through whom God brings redemption and hope to God’s people.
The Eunuch reads this from Isaiah 53:7-8
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And yet Isaiah suggest that although those who kill this man cannot imagine him having any future generation, any offspring. God, who allows this to happen and is at work in all of it, will ensure (in some sense) offspring for him. Isaiah says, “through him, the will of the Lord will prosper” (v10). … It is, in my view, the most extraordinary part of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Eunuch asks “Is the prophet speaking about himself or another”? It’s a great question. Philip doesn’t answer directly. What he does do is use the passage to tell him the good news about Jesus.
It doesn’t matter (for these purposes) … what the prophet intended… what matters is how the passage is fulfilled… what matters in the end is how it bears witness to God… It may not be an empty text (able to mean anything at all)… but its not full either. It’s a text waiting to be filled up (fulfilled) as a vehicle of God’s word… It is incomplete… perhaps profoundly ambiguous in what ultimately matters… So we read, “starting with this scripture, [Philip]… proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”.
What strikes me about the Servant of Isaiah as an image of Jesus. Is the silence. He had preached the kingdom all his life. And now it was being rejected. The Servant Jesus responds to rejection in silence. Like a sheep led to the slaughter is silent. He has demonstrated the kingdom, he has announced it. But he will not force it on anyone. The end does not justify such means. He is silent. When other alternatives are exhausted he submits.
The silence does not last forever (thank God)… In the very next verse Philip, a representative of the Risen Christ, opens his mouth and begins to speak good news about Jesus. The Servant is silent. Philip can speak.
To return to the Eunuch’s dilemma as a would be Jew… Does the God of Israel come on the side of Deuteronomy or Isaiah in this particular debate? Is the Eunuch in or out? The first thing to see, as Philip explains the scripture to the Eunuch, is that God comes out on the side of Jesus – the Servant. The message of Isaiah and of the whole of the scriptures – as a living argument of many books – is only complete if you understand the good news about Jesus.
But that’s a good thing! Because it means for the Eunuch, in fact, that God comes out on the side of Isaiah (and not Deuteronomy). How do we know? Because it is clear to both Philip and the Eunuch that there is nothing preventing him being baptised. The Eunuch is a full participant in the people of God… according to Isaiah, interpreted in the light of Jesus of Nazareth.
Perfect love casts out fear… Neither Philip nor the Eunuch are afraid to cross the boundaries and to go ahead with a baptism. The scripture makes new sense. The vine has new branches.