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God is not Just: Christ is Risen! (sermon)

April 1, 2013

Picture1The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God is Not Good! Today I want to preach a sermon entitled God is not Just!

Traditionally, in the west, what we mean by “justice” is ‘getting what you deserve’. It’s pay back. The symbol of justice in the graeco-roman world (and it is still deeply ingrained in our consciousness also) is the symbol of the scales. Justice balances life up. If you do wrong you get punished in some way. If you take something from others, they take it back from you.

Now as a Christian I believe there is a different and deeper sense of what justice is. But in this traditional sense…God is unjust. The resurrection is, first of all, a declaration of forgiveness. And forgiveness is not just.

Three gospels tell resurrection stories. They are chaotic stories. If you put the stories from the gospels together they don’t match up really. They do have curious details which seem incidental and common threads across all four gospels, but you can’t fit them all together without the most odd mental gymnastics. (have a go, try and put all three stories side by side and try to work out what happened when) What we have are chaotic memories … and importantly they have not been forced to fit

Today’s text is from John’s gospel. Apart from Jesus it’s Mary Magdalene who is the main character. She features in two separate scenes in John – the early morning one and a later one with both angels and a gardener.

In between Mary’s two scenes, the two leading disciples have a cameo appearance, stooping (like everyone does – that’s one of the common threads in their memories, they all had to stoop to enter the tomb) as they enter the tomb, seeing the mysterious graveclothes… and believing something. John says they didn’t understand the resurrection, but they believed… perhaps they believed that the body had been taken as Mary told them earlier.

Then Mary appears on the scene again, following Peter back to the tomb. She is still clinging to the stolen body theory … in her confusion…she asks the gardener where his body has been taken.

And there is this beautiful moment when the apparent gardener says “Mary!” And she knows that it is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say… Can’t you see it’s me, Jesus. Jesus is not talking about himself. He addresses her by name. Mary is lost, she had stood and watched him die, as all the world cast him out, to hell with you Jesus. And now this is Mary’s hell too. And Jesus says ‘Mary’. I think we all know the experience of seeing someone again for a while… when they see us first and call out our name.

At that moment Mary is the very first to see the risen Lord. But the beauty of this moment lies in the fact that the experience of the risen Christ is a very personal experience… It is first of all a matter of relationship. Mary is embraced as her name is spoken.

If we go back to Palm Sunday for a moment. We know that Jesus rejected the possibility of bringing in a revolution as a warrior on a horse. We know that he chose a donkey, non-violence, and ultimately death. We know that he chose a path which united both religious and the political people against him in a mob, a path that exposed the inner workings of human nature… even if only in retrospect. In other words we know a lot about how the Jesus revolution happened, the things he didn’t do… and the things he did do, that didn’t look like a very effective revolution.

And today we begin to see how that revolution does happen. We see the first small steps of the new creation. And it begins with a word, or rather a name ‘Mary’. Violence continues to be replaced by the persuasive power of personal address. This time from beyond the grave.

Jesus embraces Mary. Mary embraces him back. Jesus says don’t cling to me… Jesus is on his way. He is beginning to ascend to the mystery of Abba. His availability is changing. We are at a point of transition. The whole world is waiting to be moved. Mary will play a part in that. Mary is given a task, as witness. Mary must go to Jesus’ brothers and tell them that he is ascending to Abba. Abba has vindicated Jesus. God is like Jesus… pass it on.

Then we jump over to Luke-Acts. To the story of how the resurrection is passed on. So we read Peter’s sermon to the gentiles in Cornelius’s house (Acts 10:36).

“You know the message he [that is God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ”

God is preaching peace to his people (Israel) or better ‘declaring peace’ – it’s the opposite of declaring war… God is declaring peace on Israel by Jesus. God is not offering lectures on the nature of peace. God is present in Jesus in a kind of peace invasion (if ever there was a mixed metaphor). And now it starts again with ‘Mary’

At this point I think we should pause for a minute and consider why God might need to declare peace on the world. I suspect for many of us there is a big ‘so what’ here. It sounds much too overdramatic… why would God need to declare peace on us. Surely as my friend Richard Dawson suggested recently in the ODT, all we need is, like Paul Holmes, a dose of honesty at the end. It’s not like we are at war with God.

The old hymn goes ‘were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ And many of us grew us imagining ourselves watching the crucifixion with our moral failings. And with our little dose of honesty, laying our sins (or allowing our sins to be laid) on Jesus. In other words we were there to observe a mysterious judicial transaction, the outcome of which is that God doesn’t have to punish me.

Another friend of mine, Michael Hardin says this is all wrong:

We must come to the cross as a Judas, a Peter, or one of the disciples who fled and abandoned Jesus. We must see ourselves as complicit in his death as persecutors, as those unwilling to take his side when unjustly accused, tortured and executed. We must see ourselves as those who, had we been there, would have participated in his lynching. The proof of this lies in the fact that we still engage in the same behaviours: gossip, rumor-mongering, accusation. We silently turn a blind eye to injustice when we see it happening. We rationalise that injustice as none of our business.

When we come to the cross as persecutors, we can then, and only then hear the words pronounced, “Father, forgive them”. Only as Jesus’ persecutors can we be reckoned as forgiven persecutors. The proof lies in that Jesus is present in all of those with whom we come in contact that are poor, broken, hungry, thirsty or imprisoned (Matt 25). How we treat these “least of these, my siblings” is evidence of how we would have treated Jesus that day on Calvary.

So Michael is saying that it is in a very particular way that God forgives us. God declares peace on a war we often don’t even recognise as a war. He declares peace on our persecuting practices.

Not that we are consciously persecuting anyone half the time – certainly not what appear in any way to ressemble a violent mob. Like many who were part of the crucifixion we are simply part of a system of passing the buck and avoiding responsibility. Scott Stephens writing in the ABC online says:

Jesus is not portrayed as the victim of either excessive brutality or an overly malign conspiracy. Rather, he is passed from Judas to the Sanhedrin, and then to Pilate, and then to Herod, and then back to Pilate, and then to the mob – each of whom defers responsibility for Jesus’s execution to the next.

John Milbank comments

Even in his death, Jesus was still being handed back and forth, as if no one actually killed him, but he died from neglect

Perhaps this polite mob of civil society, washing hands of responsibility yet still crucifying victims is a better representation of the reality of our rather boring looking war on God

To go back to Michael Hardin’s point. It’s only if we were there in something like this way, that Jesus word from the cross makes sense. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”?

The beauty is though, that this is not just the word from the cross. This is also the word of the resurrection. Jesus is still, (beginning with Mary), declaring peace… still offering forgiveness, still restoring relationships with his embrace. And we are part of that.

The end of Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 is interesting. Peter says:

… that he [Jesus] is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead…that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name

So God’s peace attack on the whole world, we are told is not by doing justice. God is not just. Instead God raises up a judge whose judgement is instead to offer forgiveness,… forgiveness that opens up a new relationship and a whole new way of life.

Christ is risen! Death and all our death-dealing is conquered.. and on the way out. Thanks be to God.

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One Comment leave one →
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