Skip to content

A Sermon for Parihaka (All Saints Day at Wadestown Presbyterian)

November 4, 2017


1 Peter 2: 19-25

For what renown is there if, when you sin and are thrashed, you endure it? But, if you instead endure when doing good and suffering, this is a grace before God. For to this you were called, because on your behalf the Anointed suffered also, leaving behind a model so that you should follow his steps: “Who committed no sin; neither was guile found in his mouth”; who, when reviled, did not revile in return; who, in suffering, did not issue threats;  who delivered himself to him who judges justly; who himself, in his body, bore our sins upon the tree, so that, having died to sin, we might live for justice – “by whose scarring you were healed.” For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have turned back to the shepherd and overseer of your souls. [David Bentley Hart’s Translation]

 

I have chosen today these text of non-retaliation (texts of non-violent resistance) because of Parihaka. I think of Parihaka as New Zealand’s great Jesus moment. I don’t think, as a church in Aotearoa we can let this day pass without stopping for a moment and reflecting.

For the first 300 or so years of Christianity, the church believed that following Jesus involved rejecting the sword, refusing military service, committing themselves to communities of peace which were really unsettling to the sensibilities and the order of the empire around them. They honoured people who in the ancient world were not considered to be people. Slaves become brothers of Roman citizens and the poor and insignificant, those with no rights whatsoever were treated with a dignity never before seen in the ancient world. But the key point is that they rejected the sword.

And they did so not merely because the Roman Empire and its military were bound up with idolatry and Emperor worship. If you look at their reasoning it has everything to do with simply a determination to take the explicit teaching of Jesus seriously, to love their enemies and not return evil for evil and so on. It had everything to do with following his example even to die and the hands of the violent powers. They didn’t feel like they needed to take control of history (like Jesus at his temptation). They trusted that their small witness would be vindicated by God. For them, Jesus was Lord of the World and not Caesar. So they lived accordingly.

And then an Emperor become a Christian. . . Before that happened you risked your life being a Christian. After that you risked your life if you didn’t become a Christian. After that Christians started serving in the military. They were invested in the empire – invested in securing this new Empire that they thought God must be using. They looked at history… they thought they knew where it was going. So they decided that this must be God’s purpose and they had better get with it. History equals progress . . . they thought.

For fifteen hundred years the heritage of this decision profoundly shaped the Christian church. There were remarkable exceptions like the Anabaptist part of the reformation. But for the most part over these 1500 years, Christians had formed a kind of alliance with the violence of the powers that ruled the world.

What moves me about Parihaka is that 1500 years after Constantine became Christian, when the representatives of British Empire (the most recent Empire to have been adopted by Christianity) marched up to the gates of Parihaka,… it was a Maori chief who was the one quoting Jesus to his people. It was Te Whiti of Rongomai who said (in 1879):

Go put your hands to the plow. Look not back. If any come with guns, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you, be not discouraged. Another will take up the good work. Te Whiti o Rongomai, Parihaka, 1879

Te Whiti of Rongomai got it! When the Christians of Europe had long forgotten it.

Te Whiti had seen a lot of killing in his life. As a child, his father and many of his people were slaughtered in Ngāmotu by raiding warriors from Waikato. He grew up with his people drinking deeply from his Maori tikanga destined to be a leader and a wise man in Te Ao Maori. As a 10-year-old he went to live in a mission house in Waimea and learnt the Bible and became a Christian. The Rev Riemenschneider (a Lutheran minister) taught him the gospel of peace. And yet when push came to shove the representative of the church was unwilling to stay and stand in solidarity with the vulnerable Maori. The Colonial land-grab was in full swing. And in opposition a new Maori spiritual way (mixing Maori and Christian ideas) called Pai Marire was popular. They talked the language of peace but unfortunately, in practice, Pai Marire and the Hauhau movement were known for their violence. Te Whiti heard the talk and joined the movement for a while. But in contrast to them, he took the commitment to peace much more seriously.

So in the 1870s he and his fellow chief Tohu Kākahi called their people to abandon their weapons and build a village of peace.

Ka kuhuna te patu, e kore, e kore rawa e kitea. Put away your weapons, they will never be seen. People came all around the North Island to listen to Te Whiti’s oratory. Often there were several thousand at the experimental village of Parihaka to hear Te Whiti speak.

He said things like….

“What I said and wished to convey was that the two races should live side by side in peace, the Maori to learn the white man’s wisdom, yet be the dominant ruler. Even as our fathers thought and expected, the white man to live among us—not we to be subservient to his immoderate greed.”

And the government got increasingly uncomfortable this Maori upstart who criticised the greed of the Pākeha and their thirst for more land. He taught his people peace, not merely as a strategy but as the way of God. He taught them to resist, but to resist without violence.

And so as we all know, on Nov 5th 1981 the police force of the British Empire responded by marching in, ignoring the hospitality offered them, reading the riot act to Te Whiti and Tohu, arresting them and their men, taking them away to build the streets of Dunedin or to be imprisoned in Christchurch. They burnt down most of the village. They raped the women. They occupied Parihaka and spend several weeks slaughtering the livestock.

November 5th, 1881. The celebration of Guy Fawkes the terrorist was also the day of Te Whiti the prophet of peace.

What does St Paul mean when he writes to the Corinthians: “For though we walk about in flesh, we do not go into battle according to the flesh – for the weapons of our campaign are not fleshly…”?

Last weekend I went for a Marae stay for two nights with my Maori class. On the Saturday we went out to Titahi Bay and were taught how to use a Maori club (a patu). We started with karakia, as we always do, and then we mimed the hand to hand warfare of a Maori warrior. Our teacher reminded us that these were not cutting weapons. His motto was bash, break, bruise. It was a kind of macabre liturgy which required us to imagine beating the skull of an opponent to a pulp.

Te Whiti was a radical not just in relation to the so-called Christianity of the British Empire. He was a radical in his own world.

According to Paul the battle of our life is not fleshly… and you expect him to continue to say that it’s a spiritual… and otherworldly… but he doesn’t he says that our unorthodox weapons are ‘powerful’ – powerful to overthrow fortresses – we who are overthrowing argumentations, and every high rampart reared against the knowledge of God.

It changes this world. Paul thinks that the love of Jesus undermines the mental infrastructure of every empire and of every philosophy and of every lifestyle designed to hide us from the knowledge of God.

Love your enemies… pray for those who persecute you… in doing so you set them free.

The Letter of Peter says: Follow the model… Jesus who bore the blows of our sin on his body, who did not retaliate and revile those who reviled him. Leave the old weapons (flesh). Die to sin, live to Justice.

The Christian believes that there is a much more patient and powerful response to all that the world can throw at us… more powerful than every fleshly weapon, from the visceral patu through to the nuclear bomb or the smart bomb dropped from a drone.

That’s a pretty hard belief to commit yourself to, isn’t it? It’s not merely a judgment of practical effectiveness, though. If we commit ourselves to it, we do it in faith and hope that God is at work also, that God will redeem.

A few weeks ago I joined a group of people to protest a Weapons Conference for arms industry companies to show their wares and do business. Companies like Lockheed Martin who make nuclear weapons and others who make killer drones

I thought quite a bit before I joined the protest. It’s one thing to follow Jesus in his vulnerable path and quite another thing to call the rulers and corporations of the world to follow suit. In the end, I decided to do it (and to wear my minister’s collar – dress-up season for me) not because I expected the corporations to suddenly bow before the authority of Jesus, but because it presented an opportunity to bear witness. That was all… witness to another world. A world that God would bring about even if we couldn’t.

In the end of the day being a Christian is a simple thing. A Christian is a follower of Jesus . . . but in the properly serious sense. Anyone can see Jesus had great attributes and teaching and admire that. A Christian is a person whose life is committed in some absolute sense to the way of Jesus. For a Christian following Jesus and loving or following God the Creator amount to the same thing. It’s a God thing. It’s about following Jesus along the path that he followed his Father. It takes the whole of Jesus life as having its own peculiar logic to the bitter (or glorious) end.

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. (1 John 2:6)

Jesus had a way about him. And Parihaka Day, in particular, shines a light on the way of Jesus. It shows how the way of Jesus might translate itself from one side of the globe to another, to an enormously different cultural world… albeit one with interesting parallels to Jesus own world (empires and vulnerable oppressed people). Parihaka captures in our own near history a glimpse of the logic of God. The logic or (as John’s gospel puts it) the logos of God becoming flesh.

And just as Jesus inspired Te Whiti so both Jesus and Te Whiti were an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi and these three, in turn, inspired Martin Luther King  Jr.

In this way we too, although we may be Protestants 500 years after Luther, we too need the saints on all saints day. Those who like Paul can say to us: Imitate me as I imitate Christ.

 

Advertisements

Justification: Going Beyond the Protestant Gospel (to something more ancient)

October 15, 2017

 (Text: Romans 5)

This morning (as part of our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) it falls to me to say something about the word ‘justification.’

To begin with, I want to ask you to turn to your neighbor and share quickly what first springs to mind when you hear or see that word. What does it mean to you? There are no right answers.

[pause]

The word ‘justification’ is a ‘slogan word’ for Martin Luther. It’s the heart of the gospel. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s Luther’s good news – the thing to pass on to your neighbor. Those who are a bit older might remember when Christians used to ask ‘are you saved?’ That curious turn of phrase really comes from ‘justification’ and the story of Martin Luther.

So I want to look at this protestant Gospel. Partly, because some people don’t think there is any other gospel.

A few weeks ago I was at a Sally Army conference about ‘just action’. And I was struck by two very different presentations of the gospel. The first one was by a Salvation Army officer. He took a long rope… maybe 20 metres long and passed it out into the audience. At one end of the rope was a small section of painted rope. And then he said that the painted bit represented this life now, before you die. And the long bit represented eternity. It’s a powerful metaphor. The speaker protested that justice in this short life mattered… (the conference was all about justice) but there was a much more important, greater justice to do with the afterlife – BUT it was an afterlife with two possible options, one good and one … not so good. There was an ominous subtext.

The other presentation was by a well-known Baptist minister and now CEO of World Vision in Australia. And he started off by defining the gospel as ‘a new humanity.’ And the good news is: “God is creating a new humanity.” A humanity in which people love their neighbours and their enemies and share the resources of this world with those neighbours.

I was struck by how different those two gospels were.

The long rope, in particular, reminded me of the story of Martin Luther . . . in a way the rope was like a noose around Luther’s neck. But first some context.

Christianity had changed enormously between the time of the NT and the time of Luther. The very first Christianity was a way, a new way of living. The first followers of Jesus were disciples learning “the way,” people of ‘the Way’ – a way of living together, Paul talked of it as a ‘body’, a community. It was a new kind of community existence.

And it was different. The two most obvious differences for the first three hundred years were that, (1) like Jesus, they refused the sword and so refused to join the military and also (2), like Jesus, they cared for the poor and the most vulnerable… something that was a mystery, but an attractive mystery to the onlooking Greco-Roman world. About 300 years after Christ’s death a Roman emperor became a Christian and the situation changed dramatically. Before that, you risked your life to be a Christian now you risked your life not being one. The church became much more centralized and formed a close relationship with the powers of the state and empire. Christians became soldiers. So by the time Luther came along, the Roman Empire had fallen but the church in Rome was a kind of state itself. The Pope had his own army and fought wars and administered the gates of heaven, selling off quick passes to heaven (indulgences). The institution that called itself the church was quite unlike the church of the New Testament.

And Luther saw that. Luther was horrified by Rome and by the way it treated the poor in his own country. There was also a lot going on personally for Luther. His Gospel, his protestant Gospel, was the combination of these two things: his personal battle with God (the rope around his neck – fears about the afterlife) and his anger about the state of the church.

Luther was a young son of the rising middle classes, at the end of the Middle Ages. His Dad wanted him to be a lawyer. He had a very demanding and critical Father who sent him off to Erfurt to train as a lawyer. Erfurt was both a very religious town and a great drinking town for young men. At the time a large percentage of the population of Europe died of the plague (black death) including three of Luther’s close friends. Life was precarious. Luther was an able student, a lover of wine, women, and song, but he was also a very serious young man. One day out riding a tree nearby was struck by lightning and he had a fearful religious experience. He was desperately afraid of God and of hell, so he made a kind of bargain with God and went into the monastery, a very strict monastery which sought to separate itself from the world and live a rigorously disciplined life of prayer and fasting. He quickly found that his heavenly Father even more impossible to satisfy than his birth-Father. Luther gave it 110% and those around him worried for his mental well-being. It nearly killed him. He ended up hating God and raging against himself.

As he looked back on this struggle he interpreted it as a desperate search to find a merciful God.

Everything changed when he was sent to Heidelberg to study the New Testament. In particular, he was blown away by the notion of gift (or grace) in Paul. So much so that he did a kind of about-turn. Where once he thought to be righteous and go to heaven you needed to do righteous things. Now he thought nothing you could do would make you righteous in God’s eyes. It was no longer about ‘active righteousness’, but instead about (what he called) ‘passive righteousness.’ To receive the gift of grace you had to be totally passive for the gift to be a true gift. The gift was like a legal declaration. God declared you righteous even if you weren’t… provided . . . you had ‘faith’ (passive, receptive faith). To be ‘saved’ (that word) was to be declared righteous . . . ‘simul justus et peccator’ (both righteous and a sinner at the same time). Justification. You hadn’t been saved from sin, from what was wrong with your life. You were still a sinner. But you were saved from God (God’s judgment). For Luther dealing with sin was completely another matter. He insisted on separating the two. That long rope was too heavy a weight. You needed to be saved from God before you could be saved from sin.

To be fair Luther thought that being declared ‘righteous’ (even when you weren’t) would actually make you a new person. It would open you up, from a fearful concern for yourself (turned in upon yourself, incurvatus in se) to a life turned outwards in love. But this opening up to a new way of life was a different matter from your salvation. He made a very clear distinction between the passivity of being ‘saved’ by faith from the activity of the church (the church that so disturbed him in his time). Being saved was fundamentally a private matter – sharply distinct from any church life, political life or action in the world. Protestant religion is born.

So suddenly Luther is going to heaven, church or no church, you might say. The rope around his neck falls off. Perhaps!…

You see, my problem is, I’m not so sure. I can imagine the relief of being saved from God’s punishment. But had he really discovered a God he could love? Was it a God of love, this God who saved him from God?

The reason I am not convinced is because of my own story. As a kid, I grew up in Twizel and we had visiting missionaries in our house. And these missionaries used to bring their charts of world history. As a kid, I thought it was history. The history of the future. They told of the Rapture when all the true Christians would disappear and of a time of great trouble on the earth and it all ended with little stick figures being thrown into a burning fire forever and some people happy in heaven. For a seven or eight-year-old it was terrifying. I vividly remember an elderly couple with friendly smiles on their faces sitting me down by our fireplace and asking me if I knew what would happen if Christ returned and my parents disappeared. Would I go with them or would I be left to fend for myself in wars and trouble? I got saved many a night. Just to make sure that I truly had faith. That I had sincerely given my life to Jesus or done one of the various things that counted towards getting on the good side of that long bit of rope. You see the practical problem… sincerely trusting is never entirely passive… you can never be sure…  the rope is too long. But there’s a deeper reason. It’s hard to really love a God you are afraid of. I never really loved Jesus back then. I needed Jesus to protect me from God. It was good cop, bad cop. And I was in prison. Whether it was Luther’s theology or Calvin’s in the background, I’m still not entirely sure. But it didn’t help.

John Calvin developed Luther’s ideas into more of a legal system. As Calvin saw it God must punish sin if God was to be just. The way you make God both just and loving is you say that God declares us righteous because he punishes an innocent man instead. The punishment gets transferred to Jesus the God-man. So the flip side of declaring us righteous God declares Jesus un-righteous. He punishes Jesus (who represents us) so he doesn’t have to punish us. If you are struggling to see how this is just, you won’t be the first. But it’s how the Protestant theory is supposed to work.

I have come to question two ideas behind this theory

  1. God’s justice sets the parameters in which God’s love must work.
  2. God’s justice is retributive. To be just God must pay back in kind. Punishment is essential to justice. Forgiveness, a way forward without punishing, is in fact unjust.

My real conversion didn’t happen when I was a kid. Similar to Luther, it happened when I studied the New Testament and had to preach from it. Let me just point to a key piece in the puzzle. It’s this: God’s justice is NOT retributive in the Bible. God doesn’t have to punish. God can heal the world without punishing! That may seem obvious to you. But it wasn’t obvious to the Reformers. But the person who saw this most clearly was, surprise, surprise… Jesus himself

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (retribution). Whereas I tell you not to oppose the wicked man by force… You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and shall hate your enemy.’ Whereas I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in doing this you may become sons of your Father in the heavens, for he makes his sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust…”

 

Did you hear Jesus theory of justice . . . not punishing, is how you learn to act like your Father in Heaven…

When Jesus hung on the cross and cried out “Father forgive them.” He was not trying to persuade his Father to act out of character. He was praying according to the character of his Father. He was asking his father to give his enemies the kind of love that they did not deserve. . .

My own conversion happened over a long period of time. Because once you have learned to read the New Testament through lenses from Martin Luther and John Calvin it takes a long time to see it differently. I have had to unlearn this kind of Protestantism. But it’s not all wrong.

Luther is right… the good news is all about a gift. But it’s not necessarily the kind of gift that Luther imagined. It’s not the gift that saves us from God. It’s more the gift that saves us from ourselves and from the fears that bind us, from the violent trap the world is caught in. As Luther knew we can be turned outwards towards others… not because Jesus hides us or protects us from God’s justice, but because God is like Jesus. Not the good cop hiding the bad cop. No, God. Is. Like. Jesus! (the image of the invisible God) That’s the gospel. And the result is that we too can be like Jesus and like God. Not just declared to be like God. Justification in Paul’s writings is not about God declaring us just (when we actually aren’t). It’s about God making us just (conforming us to Christ’s life… his death and resurrection). The good news is that God has promised that we will be set free to be part of a new humanity (Rom 5). The good news is that, by God’s Spirit, it is happening even now. We don’t need to be saved from God. We desperately need to be saved from ourselves… from the old humanity so trapped in violence and greed and fear.

So the good news, the thing we get up in the morning for, is two-fold. (1) God is like Jesus, and (2) This same God is creating a new humanity.

So if we are going to move beyond the Protestant gospel (to something more ancient) where does this leave the church? Luther’s other problem. The church is not the sum total of people going to heaven rather than hell. It’s not even the same as the institutions that call themselves ‘church’ (whether Roman Catholic Church or Island Bay Presbyterian). The church that matters, I contend has got something to do with this new humanity. Humanity reshaped in the image of Jesus of Nazareth. The church (ekklesia, gathering) is the space and place where this new humanity is glimpsed, where people are learning to love their neighbors and their enemies . . . refusing violence and warfare (like standing up against the weapons conference this week), where people are living with the most vulnerable (the poor), sharing our lives with those who for all sorts of reasons haven’t done so well in our competitive economy and world.  It’s a sign of what is to come. When we see those signs we can begin to believe the gospel. Without those signs, we really struggle to believe the gospel.

Going beyond the Protestant gospel . . . The rope can be cut loose because don’t need to be afraid of God. We need to let Jesus define God for us, so we can truly love God and be changed.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Denial and the Fear of Death

October 15, 2017

Rereading Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death (Cascade: 2014) I am reminded of why there is so often confusion around the classic Christian idea (Hebrews 2:14-14) that we are ‘enslaved by fear of death.’ I find that when I express the opinion that the fundamental human problem is the fear of death many people simply disagree, usually by politely telling me that they are not afraid of death (and presumably therefore are not enslaved by such fear and therefore presumably unaffected by the victory of the risen Christ over death and its sting, sin).

For Beck, if I understand him correctly, the account of our situation goes like this. Our fear of death is not the kind of basic fear that an animal shows in the face of physical danger. Rather it is another kind of fear. It is the neurotic fear which shapes our identity and behavior even when we are not conscious of the object of our fear (death). Beck (drawing on Ernst Becker) says that the human animal is in a relatively unique situation of having an awareness of the inevitability of death and having a survival instinct that wants to avoid it. The response to the tension created by a threat we know we can’t avoid are cultural systems (he calls them ‘hero systems’) in which we seek to give ourselves significance beyond our own death. There is an immense array of ways we bestow on ourselves a kind of heroism. Self-esteem is not a private psychic achievement. It is the product of our service of cultural hero-systems in which we ‘make a difference’, ‘distinguish ourselves’, and feel important or significant. Rooted in awareness of the inevitability of our death these systems allow us to sub-consciously deny what we also know to be inevitable.

In my most recent foray into this area I posted a citation from John Chrysostom:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying . . .[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed ‘man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life.’ [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him ‘who counteth not even his life dear,’ says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?

  • John Chrysostom, Homily IV of Homilies on Hebrews

 

A friend responded on fb to the effect that it makes no sense to fear death because it is inevitable. From the perspective of Beck (and Becker and possibly the writer to the Hebrews) this is precisely the point. Our peculiarly human form of death-fear is based precisely on its inevitability. It is culturally mediated denial. It makes no sense, but that is why it exists in the way it does.

This reflection on denial reminded me of a lecture I attended today. It was by historian Richard Evans who was reflecting on the Lipstadt/Irving ‘holocaust denial’ trial (2000) and the movie Denial (2016). The main point that struck me arising out of the lecture was the judgement on Evan’s part that Irving the holocaust denier both sincerely believed that the holocaust did not happen (in the way it had been portrayed by historians) and simultaneous deliberately distorted the facts to fit with his beliefs. He denied the Holocaust, but was he also in denial about his own duplicity? Clearly his manipulation of facts consistently served his political ends. This was at the heart of the legal opposition to his case. But did his ideological devotion to his cause simply blind him to fact so that he only saw what he wanted to see? Or was he duplicitous at all levels? Or was it a bit of both?

 

The questions sink deep. Does our human situation vis a vis death create a blindness in us? Are there any real alternatives to radical nihilism on the one hand and belief in Christ’s victory over death (resurrection) on the other?

What do Mass Incarceration and Climate Change have in common?

June 29, 2017

Both Mass Incarceration and Climate Change are defining issues of our time. The more I think about them the more I realize they are symptomatic of our capitalist culture/practice/system. Capitalism structures our desire in such a way that produces these problems. In order to address them you need to address the whole system. There are some things that can be done to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and mass incarceration but the problems are still symptomatic and such actions don’t address the deeper processes. It would be wrong to conclude that we shouldn’t do these small steps in order to be able to address the whole system. Neither should we despair of addressing the whole system. We need our Naomi Kleins but we also need local small scale action. It’s a both/and not an either/or. Both are hard in different ways. We need an alternative vision. The system marginalises all talk of “capitalism” as a problem. It immediately labels such talk idealistic and thus shuts it down. Possibly the best way to avoid being completely shut down is to address capitalism subversively rather than directly. Or perhaps we have to realise that there are some contexts where direct address is possible and some where it is counterproductive. Perhaps some kinds of direct approaches are wrong and others are right. Some kinds of direct address can be a form of impatience. Violence is a kind of impatience and impatience can be violent. However, patience is paradoxical. It is inextricable from the kind of impatience that is always pushing for justice. At least for the Christian the drive for change is one that has to take account of the interpersonal context and freedom and desires of others. In that sense it must be patient in its urgency. The end does not justify the means for the patient activist.

Risen Naked: an answer to Noah (sermon for Easter 2)

April 23, 2017

John 20: 19-31

 

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)

 

Thing 1

 

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.

 

Thing 2

 

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.

 

Thing 3

 

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

  1. Noah vs Shalom: The justice of God = restorative justice
  2. ‘I will be with you always’ = ‘The poor you will always have with you’

Propitiation as Protest: A reflection for Drone Assassination Awareness Week

February 27, 2017

busYesterday 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.

  1. US drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians in 7 Muslim majority countries and the killing continues
  2. 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.shrine

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.

 

 

 

Daily Poems

December 22, 2016
tags:

The phrases from Morning Prayer today prompted a couple of short poems that I thought I might share with you all.

 

Bread

The bread that you give is your own body

Day by day, skin and muscle, time and salt

Abandoned often

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

 

 

Walking nevertheless

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