Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)
You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Did you catch that? You do not believe because you do not belong. People believe because they belong to the community. A highly strange claim to modern ears. We pride ourselves in believing for ourselves independently of others. Jesus knows that we are not really rational people in this sense. Not only are we influence by those around us from birth but we must trust others for most of the things we believe. Not everything… just most things… the background assumptions we take for granted. We just have to. Whether we like it or not, we think in community. We might say, certain kinds of communities make certain beliefs plausible.
Jesus says, the community (that makes believing possible) is one that hears the voice of Jesus and follows and receives eternal life. What does that mean ‘receives eternal life’? I know I have said this before, but at risk of harping on about something… Jesus is not talking about going to heaven here. For him ‘eternal life’ is literally the life of the age to come, which starts here and now. Those who receive eternal life are those who are given to participate in the life of the age to come. That’s the community in which we can believe. Jesus’ sheep are those given to participate in the life of God. The point is this: Before people will believe they need a community that hears and follows. Notice not simply a community that believes (recites the creed or whatever)… but one that lives (the Jesus life).
Let’s turn now to the other two readings for the day. Firstly from the book of Revelation. John offers some dramatic images to encourage communities living under the pressure of the Roman empire. He looks into the heavenly realms as it were, into the future, and he sees a vision of a community gathered ‘who have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb’. These are the white robes of witnesses/martyrs who too have shared in their own way in the sufferings of Jesus. They have, he says, been through the ‘great ordeal’ (older translations called it the great tribulation). I wonder what that means?
Does your life feel like a ‘great ordeal’ sometimes. In the 23rd Psalm the sheep go ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ – a great ordeal.
So in the 23rd Psalm, we have this great contrast between this deathly valley, this great ordeal (that the shepherd takes us through) and the life that the Shepherd provides. There is the ‘shadow of death’ and there are those amazing images of peace – lying ‘down in green pastures’, being lead ‘beside still waters’, and ‘in right paths’.
There’s a word that comes to mind as I am preparing for the shift to Wellington. The word is ‘mortgage’. It basically means ‘death pledge’ (mort gage from the French) pledge overshadowed by death, a contract that holds us in death’s grip. It began with young French noblemen whose fathers didn’t give them enough money took out loans on the basis that they could repay with their inheritance on the death of their father. In the end ordinary French folk took out loans which dominated their lives in the ‘hope of owning a house’… In the end French peasants died hoping. What’s changed?
Modern world: we get the money (at a cost) and pledge our home as guarantee. Asset poverty is exchanged for time poverty. We get the house, but we have no time. Would you rather be asset rich or time rich? Interesting question! The elite 1% might have both, but for most of us its one or the other. In a world dominated by money, we don’t often think about it. So we even say things like ‘time is money’. But time-poverty is life-poverty. If you don’t have time to do what matters (rather than what earns money) what do you have?
So much for lying down in green pastures. So much for living beside still waters. We pledge our life/time for the asset (money, house). What we lose is often the freedom to live. Mortgages demand families with double incomes and long hours. Mortgages create treadmills of time-poverty. Parents struggle to find time for children, let along spending time with the ones Jesus spent time with, the last, the least and the lost.
As I shift to a half-time job in Wellington I ask myself questions like: How important is a home? Are you prepared to exchange your time for it?
What is a home? Does it have to be my own home, or could I share with others? These questions get to the heart of our western values… Privacy… control of our environment … separation from others, insurance for old age.
Who has time for Neighbour’s Day? Who has time to spend time at the table with their neighbours let alone their enemies (thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies), the ones Jesus calls us to love, the ones who look out from their gated houses at our gated houses and worry about whether we are making too much noise or blocking their view.
‘The great ordeal’ and the life of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd ‘makes us lie down in green pasture’… slows us down, stops us, gives us rest, gives us time to enjoy the basics of life, meaningful existence) security of the age to come…. a voice we know and can follow… goodness and mercy, abundance and feasting and celebration, a table to share.
I think this contrast captures the struggle of the Christian life in the 21st century NZ. It’s a struggle that is structured into the system we live in – it just goes with capitalism. The life of the good shepherd clashes with life in the shadow of death on the treadmill of mortgage.
For those of us who are retired or who grew up in an earlier time, it might sound like a little over the top to use the language of the book of Revelation and call it ‘a great ordeal’ (v 14). Past generations have had their own kinds of ordeals.
If it is a ‘great ordeal’ its not a great ordeal because we groan at the trouble we need to go through till we own our own house and live in the final paradise called retirement… No, for the book of Revelation, its an ordeal because of a very different hope from ‘retirement with their own home’. This is the great ordeal faced by the community that listens to the voice of the shepherd above the noise of the traffic and the advertising and together seeks to find a different life… according to the way of Jesus. It’s an ordeal in that context.
John talks of those who ‘wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb’. Cleanness in the grime of the 21st century calls for a community effort, a community venture in eternal life. Making the space to be, and to follow, together.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Jesus says to the Jewish leaders (John 10:26)
You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Jesus sheep get this new life (eternal life) from him but they get it together and they practice it together and they learn to believe together, together they go through the valley of the shadow of death and together they become the witnesses John describes in the book of revelation.
Peter’s story begins and ends with the words of Jesus “Follow me”. It all started when Peter abandoned the fishing industry to learn the kingdom of God from Jesus. As it turned out Peter, often regarded as the founding leader of the early church, was not good at following Jesus. Peter was good at fishing, but a failure at following Jesus.
But it’s one of the defining characteristics of Christians, or it should be, that they are happy about being wrong. We fail regularly but it doesn’t phase us. Winston Churchill once said: Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Or as Samuel Wells put it: It is better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail. If you live by grace, you can live with your own failures.
If there was a story that gathered together all of Peter’s failures in one place it has to be today’s story. Peter jumps into the water. Do you remember the last time Peter jumped out of a boat? And I imagine he has flashbacks to the time he tried to walk on water and couldn’t focus on Jesus so started to sink. Peter finds himself in front of a fire with burning coals being fed by Jesus. Do you remember the last time Peter was beside burning coals? I imagine he has flashback to the burning coals just a few days ago when Jesus was on trial and as he was warming his hands by the fire he denied Jesus three times.
And then Jesus gives Peter a grilling. Three times he asks him whether he loved him (echoing the three times Peter denied him). It’s like everything about today’s scene is rubbing it in for Peter. And to make matters worse it gets in the bible… it’s a hundred times worse than it being posted on facebook. Peter, the most famous failure in the world.
In the previous section of John’s gospel from last Sunday Peter was with the disciples in an upper room. With them he received the Spirit. With them he was commissioned to forgive sins.
Todays section begins like the morning after. Everybody wakes up and blinks in the morning light, stumbles out of bed and thinks, ‘Well, Jesus has risen, so what do we do now?’ Like Homer Simpson, Peter has no idea, but that never stopped him opening his mouth and coming up with a suggestion.
“I’m going fishing”. … “We’re coming too” they all chorus. Fishing is what Peter does well. Fishing is the thing Peter did before he became a failure. Fishing is ‘business as usual’ when you are not following Jesus.
If you were to wake up one morning and think, “I can’t believe I believed all that stuff about Jesus raised from death, and the kingdom of God coming to earth and all the rest. I think I’ll stop all the nonsense and just be a good person. Why do I need to follow Jesus to do that? Clearly I don’t. It seems like a bad dream.” Have you ever felt a little like that? Have you ever doubted your faith in Jesus? That’s the easy question. Most of us have.
Here’s the question: What difference would it make to you if you did? If you became an atheist? Or even if you continued to think there is a God but you weren’t a Christian, you didn’t follow Jesus any more? Or to put it another way, if you suddenly decided to only follow Jesus when it suited your values (like he was an admirable character from the distant past, but that’s all)? What would change?
For Peter it was simple… you just go fishing… but what would it be for you.
What difference does Jesus make to your life?
Welcome to Peter’s world – the patron saint of those who fail.
Fishing is going back to the old world. It’s not that fishing is somehow a bad thing. It’s just not the thing that matters above all else. Here fishing represents Peter’s failure to catch on to the resurrection. It is his going back rather than forward. And so Jesus comes and appears to them again.
And they are not just fishing, they are fishing on the left hand side of the boat. Why did they fish on the left hand side? [there’s no right or wrong answer here]
And a stranger tells them to do it differently. They have no idea why. All they know is they are not catching any fish. This is the thing Peter is supposed to be good at. This is his profession. But its not a profession of faith. It’s a profession of competence. And he is failing again. This time not just at following Jesus but at what he is supposed to be good at. So at the behest of a complete stranger he switches to the other side of the boat. And the rest is history. The scarcity of the night is replaced by the abundance of the new morning.
Q: When have you listened to strangers? What does it take to listen to a stranger?
They recognise it is Jesus. He is on the beach and has cooked them breakfast. He doesn’t need their fish. He already has fish and has cooked it on those burning coals.
And so they sit down. Face to Face. Jesus and Peter. A very direct question: Peter do you love me more than these? More than what? For centuries Christians have speculated about what Jesus might be referring to… more than his friends… more than the fish. My guess is Jesus is referring to all the things around him that have to do with fishing… In other words… do you love me more than the thing that’s getting in the road of you truly following me.
Here’s another hard question: Is there something that’s stopping you from following Jesus? Let’s stop and just think about that for a moment…
I don’t know if something came to mind for you when I asked that question… but in the end of the day that thing is not the problem … fishing is not the problem … the thing that you think is the problem is not the problem… the thing that matters is love.
Jesus is asking us about love. Do you love me more than these. Jesus is asking about where our heart is…You become what you love. Not what you think you should be or do but for various reasons never get a round to it. The main question for our life concerns our love. Jesus asks us ‘do you love me?’ Not ‘do you think you should love me?’ but ‘Do you love me?’ There’s no ‘should’ in it. Just a fact… true or false. What is the value by which you evaluate all values? What is at the centre of your heart? Who defines its direction?
Peter, biggest failure in a community of failures, do you love me?
Isaiah 43: 16-21 Luke 19:28-40
“Do not”, says Isaiah, “remember the former things, or consider the things of old”.
That’s quite a strong call. It’s a bit like telling someone who’s hungry not to think about food.
Isaiah continues the divine voice
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert… to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
‘Declare my praise’. We often think of praise as if it were a private conversation between us and God. We praise God. God sits in heaven and says ‘praise me… that’s nice, now praise me more’. It makes God seem a pretty sad figure. But notice ‘declare’. This is a public declaration. There is a third party. Not just us and God.
We are the people who have caught a glimpse of the beauty of God. And we declare it. We are the bearers of that glimpse… for the sake of the world… not to boost God’s ego.
Jesus is riding a donkey for the first time in his career. It’s not clear he knows how. They put him on the donkey. They surround him. They do what they do for people who matter. They celebrate him… they line the road… they take their coats and lay them in the dirt of the road for him and his donkey to ride over. They declare his praise. The have caught a glimpse of the beauty of God in his life. They are not silent about it.
The religious establishment (the third party in this case) are not happy. ‘Tell your disciples to stop’.
Jesus replies. ‘I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
That’s a fascinating phrase… ‘If they were silent, even the stones would shout out.’ There is something inevitable here. There is the momentum of God behind this revolution. The beauty of God has been seen and is alive. And if these people don’t bear witness to what they have seen God will ensure that there is still witness. ‘Even the rocks will shout’ [‘keep the story alive’]. God will ensure it. God will not be limited by the religious inhibitions of a few anally retentive pharisees.
It is God’s mission, long before it is ours.
Last Sunday I read out an announcement from Session about Mary’s resignation. For those who weren’t here last week and for whom this is news I will read it again.
Session has received with regret the resignation of Mary Somerville from the position of Child, Youth and Family Coordinator. Mary will finish work at the end of April. At this time, with her husband John and daughter Jill, she will be resigning her membership in Coastal Unity Parish. We will be acknowledging all the work she has done and saying goodbye at a farewell. You will all have the opportunity to talk with Mary if you wish over the next month and a bit [when she returns from holiday].
We have had a week to reflect on this. We will pray for Mary and John and Jill (and Dan who will be leaving the parish with them) soon. I want to hold that thought for a moment now, and take some time in today’s sermon to reflect about my own journey over the last 13 years at Coastal Unity Parish.
I came here at the end of eight years in my first parish in the country. There I think I learnt the ropes… but still wasn’t completely comfortable in my own shoes and in the role. At that point the beliefs and hopes that had shaped my call to ministry were changing shape. I had always had the sense that Jesus was incredible and that he mattered more than anything else… To put it another way, I went into ministry with the thought that it wasn’t so important that we believed in God and that that belief might help us in some way… but that it was much more important that God believed in us (cliche maybe but worth reflection).
As I shifted from Darfield to Dunedin that inkling of truth was beginning to come alive for me in new ways that I hadn’t thought of before. When you spend your life reading the bible and preaching and talking to people its sometimes hard to know when these deep convictions begin and end. But somewhere along the way that sense of the enormous impact of Jesus began to become richer and take on new flesh in my thinking and preaching.
In Jesus we see God believing in us. Because of him, the human race… need not be a race… but can be a community of mutual giving. Because of him, the violence which structures our societies, in terms of whom we exclude (our common enemies) and whom we scapegoat, can be subverted and broken down… that our deepest fears can be unravelled and a new way of being human is possible.
And as I began to reflect on environmental issues it became clearer to me that creation itself might flourish if the human community can be set free from the struggle for scarce resources to share [key word] the abundant resources of the grace of our creator
This impossible possibility… that is associated with the Jesus revolution… an earthquake in the very nature of what it is to be human… began to take shape for me. My thinking became more political, it became more about the church (those are not opposite things, after all the christian community is a kind of body politic).
This change in being human is something that happens when the Spirit of Jesus comes to a group of people and then people enter into the Spirit of Jesus and start to practice together a different way of being human, embodying the kingdom of God, and so in their life they learn to ‘declare’ to the world the praise of God… before the rocks start to shout out.
I started to believe in the possibility of a people so captured by the beauty of God (in Jesus Christ) that they looked like that beauty and others also caught glimpses.
The bible does funny things to your mind!
I started to see how a community that is caught up in the beauty of the humanity of God is a community that lives, like Jesus, with the least, the last and the lost of this world. And in this way the praise of God is declared.
Selwyn and Ken and Mary and I (with Session) spent a lot of time talking about this vision of a community as an ‘embodiment of the kingdom of God’. Tom and Cat who were with us for a while really understood this vision. And then as some of these ideas were coming to fruition Tom and Cat and then Ken and Selwyn moved on in close succession. I found myself with Mary and others carrying on this vision, sharing regular meals with local people in Sidey Hall…. building gardens and connecting with the community in ways I hadn’t done so before. In many ways this period has been a highlight of my ministry so far.
You might have noticed that recently I have been wearing this around my neck [show plain black wooden cross]. For those at the back, with poor eyesight… it’s a symbol of an intersection, a meeting of two roads. In fact its a crash site. The site of a collision between human culture and God’s life. The cross. And it sums up everything I am learning. That those who seek to follow Jesus towards this intersection… and there is no other way to follow him… must also seek to share their lives in some way with the last, the least and the lost, as he did. And in doing so they risk the same collision as he experienced.
I’m not someone who usually feels comfortable in minister’s costume… but over the last year this little bit of ‘bling’ has started to feel right, somehow, as we have started to move outward together in the way of Jesus. Not always easy. There has been considerable resistance from some quarters. And Mary has born the brunt of it more than I have. I understand her decision to leave and I support her in it even though it will be a great loss to us and to the youth.
I had been praying about my own future for some months when Mary resigned a few weeks ago. Both Jan and I started to wonder whether our time had come also, whether we had made our contribution and it was time for someone else to take up the task. So when Mary resigned. I had a look on the great interweb in the sky and the first thing I saw was a congregation who wanted a half-time Community Minister (not necessarily ordained – someone to connect a congregation in mission with the last, the least and the lost in their area. When I saw the job description my heart leapt. It felt like the kind of work I had been prepared for over the last few years at Coastal Unity. So I expressed an interest and was interviewed along with a few others. To cut the long story short. We were offered the position and both Jan and I clearly felt the call of God in it. We have accepted and we will be leaving Coastal Unity at the beginning of June.
At this point in time there is a process involving Presbytery which has to be completed before I can tell you the exact location of our destination. But I am sure that will be public in a very short time.
There is a lot of excitement… There is also a lot of grief in this. Many of you have been enormously kind to us, opening your hearts to us. And you will always be in our hearts.
And I am going to ask you in a minute to pray for us, to pray for Mary and the family, and to pray for Session, who will be left with an enormous challenge over the months ahead. They will need all the support you can give.
Today’s text is challenging. It calls us to live and declare the praise of God. If these are silent, the stone will shout out. We are the people called to declare God’s praise to the community here. To live the Jesus life here beginning with those in greatest need. To be with them, not just providing help from our own comfortable distance.
And yet there is not just challenge, there is also consolation. None of us is indispensable. God will raise witness from others, from the rocks if need be. Our mission, in fact our continued existence as a parish, as a community of faith is simply a product of God’s mission. God, who is able to do much more than we can think or imagine will provide.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11-31
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin (from a human point of view), so that in him we might become the justice of God.
From now on, therefore, [because the love of Christ for all urges us on] we regard no one from a human point of view
Let’s talk about this phrase ‘from a human point of view’. Your point of view is not just about what you see because of who you are… but what you see because of how you are… It makes all the difference in the world how we pay attention to things. How we pay attention to things is decisive for what comes come into being for us… If you are my friend I pay attention to you in a very different way from if you were my employer, or my patient, or the suspect in a crime drama. You might be the same person… but the world I see will be very different. Imagine a mountain… to a prospector that mountain can be a source of wealth, to a navigator that same mountain is a landmark, to a painter it is a many textured form, to someone else it may be the dwelling place of the Gods. [examples courtesy of ‘The Master and his Emmisary by Iain McGilchrist] Different ways of paying attention… It all depends on your point of view.
Paul says: we once knew Christ from a human point of view.
Simple question: When did Paul’s friends stop seeing Jesus from a human point of view? Answer: Resurrection. When God raised him from death and he met with them to forgive them for killing him.
Everything changed. Not just their view of Jesus but their view of God. Now Jesus has come to define their whole life. They live their lives ‘in Christ’ says Paul. He has become the air they breathe. And so they have a new point of view, a new way of paying attention to things.
They see Christ from the point of view that God gives them. They see God from the point of view that Christ gives them.
They are still human… but they no longer see things from a human point of view. This is possible… we all know from everyday experience that it is possible to see something from someone else’s point of view. That’s the point of every conversation you ever have. To playfully enter into another person’s world and see things from their point of view for a while. That’s how we learn.
Paul is stretching that whole experience. Not only is it possible to see something from another person’s point of view but it is possible to see something from God’s point of view.
So if anyone is in Christ, look, a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
What is the distinguishing thing about God’s point of view? … not like being up in the sky in a super computer able to see everything that happens in all time and space… No!
In a word, it is HOPE … creation is new, not just because it looks different from a new point of view, but because God, who reconciled us to himself, is reconciling the world to himself.
What is God reconciling to himself? … Not some people who believe and might go to heaven, no God is reconciling THE WORLD, not even just the human world.
The alternative… seeing things from a human point of view is a world which ultimately is without hope. It’s a deep underlying, often inarticulate despair… que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, there is a time for living and a time for dying, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for everything, all is vanity, there may be a time for everything but none of it really makes any difference. The most succinct expression of this is on the wall in our office… Sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue. It’s worth thinking about. It’s the vision of a world without redemption… resignation that has lost the energy to ‘rage against the dying of the light’
Paul says, we no longer see from a human point of view. And what comes into view is that “God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
Reconciling the world: The world is being brought back into alignment, into friendship, into sync with God. And for those who see that, those caught up in this man Jesus, suddenly everything looks different. Every person, every tree, every mountain.
The life in which Paul is surrounded, the life that God lived in the world, Christ’s life, is a life already reconciled to God. He is the first non-sinner (‘knew no sin’). And yet Paul says he became sin. What does that mean?
Here’s a suggestion. God became sin, from a human point of view. God, in the life of Jesus deliberately submitted to the human point of view. He became ‘the bad guy’. He became the scapegoat. He became the shamed one. He became the cursed one.
So it all depends on the resurrection of Jesus. If… and only if… God raised Jesus from death, the human point of view is sprung open. It’s more than just an idea, this human point of view, that we can take or leave, it’s a power, it’s like a rabbit trap that has held us captive, it loses it’s domination over our lives. Hope. Springs. Historical.
In him, says Paul, we can become ‘the justice of God’. Think about that for a minute. What is justice?
Some of you will remember Tom Noakes Duncan – he has just passed his PhD with highest honours and has a new job as a lecturer in ‘Restorative Justice’ in Wellington. A paper he has recently published has the title ‘The emergence of restorative justice as an ecclesial practice’. What that means in ordinary language is that God’s justice (not punishment but justice that restores relationships) has emerged as a practice in the church (not just in the courts)
Paul says, we the community of Jesus might become the justice of God… because God has taken the journey into our world… we as a people/community can take the journey into God’s world and God’s justice.
Let’s finish today by jumping into the story of the Prodigal Son (our other reading). And let’s think about the story in terms of this question: When did the prodigal son change from seeing his world from a human point of view, to seeing it from God’s point of view (i.e. from his Father’s point of view)
Imagine the Son on his way home. What are the words which describe his mind-set here? Regret, failure, shame… he is on his way home to reconcile his Father to himself. He has a plan. I will offer my father my labour in exchange for a place to live. I will do a deal.
He may not be entirely hopeless. He has some hope that a deal can be done. But this is not that hopeful either. This is hope from a human point of view, not hope that God is reconciling the world to himself, but hope that God does deals and if he gets his act together, he may be able to appease the wrath of God and so save his skin. In short he hopes the opposite of Paul’s gospel. He hopes that he can reconcile God to the world.
So he is plodding up the road deep in thought. And his Father is looking out from a long way off… like he’s been on the look out ever since the Son gave him the one-finger salute and headed off to the far country. And the father does the unspeakable thing for a first century Jewish father, he lifts his garments and he runs. He runs down the road to his Son. And the Son begins his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; and I am no longer worthy to be called your son” and before he can make his deal, before he can ask to be treated like a hired hand the Father who has embraced him and kissed him, now interrupts him. There is no deal. The Father never needed to be reconciled to the Son. The Son has been reconciled to the Father.
“Quick” [he interrupts], ‘bring out a robe, the best one, put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’
These are God’s words to you…
Can you hear old St Paul dancing in the background here, ‘Look!…, “the justice of God”
Look! a new creation! Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Hope springs… into life.
Philippians 3:17- 4:1
Luke 13: 31-35
I must be on my way… says Jesus. It’s interesting to remind ourselves of the direction Jesus has been taking in Luke so far this year
He is baptised and immediately goes into the wilderness and for 40 days he deals with three temptations to his career. Will he be sidelined into the provision of material needs (bread alone)? Will he be sidelined into the political arena (kingdoms of the world)? Will he be sidelined into show business (jump off the temple)? Good things, potentially, you might say, but ultimately distractions. Jesus will not be distracted from the main thing. So he goes on and announces the main thing in Nazareth: a vision of God and a calling of God for the most vulnerable and weakest in the world. As a result he is nearly killed by the folk he grew up with. That must have been traumatic! They drag him to a cliff top and are about to throw him off. And suddenly, we read, ‘he passed through the midst of them and went on his way’
And so begins his ministry … he goes on his way to heal lives, he goes on his way to liberate people from the demons that hold them captive and take over their lives, he goes on his way with good news for the outcasts and lives in companionship with the outcasts … and his main enemies, it seems are the most religious people.
And then today’s readings catches our attention. Some of these very same religious leaders, some Pharisees seem, surprisingly, to be on Jesus’ side. They come to him and say
“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus is not impressed by their apparent good intentions:
“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, (that same phrase again) because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
We don’t know why they are warning Jesus. We don’t know whether they are secretly in cahoots with Herod. But we do know that Jesus is not that worried. He’s going to die anyway in Jerusalem. The episode in Nazareth has made that clear.
But that phrase is important … I must be on my way. His way is not going to be determined by Herod. He will go to Jerusalem but in control of his own timetable. He’s not anxious about Herod the Fox. He has kingdom of God on his mind.
The question for us is Will we follow? He is on his way. His way is unique. He follows his Abba (in the spirit of ‘star trek’) where no one has gone before. He gathers folk in a way that no one has gathered them before. He is unafraid of death in a way that no one has been unafraid before. Will we follow?
Herod the Fox and his friends will catch up with Jesus at Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the centre of the nation. It is also where the nation meets Rome. Jerusalem gathers people for a stoning. Jerusalem is the place to gather around the enemy and get rid of him. It is the centre of power. It is the centre of violence. As a capital city represent the way a nation gathers together. Jesus has a place in mind to meet with Herod and his tribe.
Jesus too, in a completely different way, seeks to gather his people together.
In contrast to Herod the Fox he likens himself to a Hen gathering her chicks under the protection of her wings. It’s a great contrast. The fox and the hen… who has no protection… just open wings for the people of God. Its the most feminine imagery we have of Jesus. Very appropriate for this Women’s Institute day. There he is in Jerusalem with his arms wide open, like a hen with wings ready to enclose the chicks. That’s his deep desire. But the tragedy is that the people are not willing to be gathered.
What does all this mean for us?
Paul writing to the Philippians has slightly different language but I think he is talking about the same thing. Where the gospels talk about disciples (mathetes) who follow thus unique way, Paul talks about imitators (mimetes). Imitators are people of the cross of Jesus – they have the mind of Jesus, they let go of power over others and humble themselves like he did even to death on a cross. In verse 17 Paul invites the Philippians
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me (or better ‘be born anew in imitating with me’), and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
“Their God is the belly”. That’s a very evocative phrase for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. Where the imitators of Christ gather with Paul, there are also enemies of the cross gathering differently. It is ultimately a destructive way of gathering. It is not sustainable.
What I see as a thread in our readings today are three ways of gathering people together – three kinds of unity.
1. Jesus gathers people like a mother hen with her chicks. His is a mode and a journey of humility and vulnerability. He lives with the poor for the sake of Abba who has good news for the poor and he gathers them into his vulnerable communion.
2. Herod and Jerusalem gather people around a common enemy. They stone the prophets. They create a community by doing so. We find our unity because we all hate Donald Trump, or because we all hate Sadam Hussein or because we all hate John Key. It doesn’t matter who… it’s a mode of gathering people.
3. The enemies of the cross that Paul talks about find their unity because their god is the belly. Their common commitment to consumption unites them. They form a society based on an ever greater commitment to consuming more and more. There’s a technical term that theoreticians of the new capitalist economies use to describe the ideal citizen of our society. That citizen who keeps the show going is called a ‘self-interest maximiser’. Implicit in this is the idea that the welfare of all depends on it. The essence of capitalism as a religion which gathers people is this ‘our god is our belly’.
Maybe that’s why at Lent it increasingly makes sense to symbolise our friendship with the cross by giving up some kind of addictive form of consumption. It’s not puritanical self-punishment… perhaps… perhaps its a symbolic gesture, a reminder – a reminder of how God gathers us, and how differently he gathers us from the way our society gathers us, week in week out.
It’s hard, as a tourist, to do anything other than consume mass-produced bite-sized chunks of a place and move on. You simply don’t have time for anything else. It’s hard to reflect on where you are when you have to book the next bus or negotiate the next map. So it was an enormous privilege to spend a chunk of time with good friends and to see aspects of Melbourne and Victoria at a leisurely pace, made even more leisurely by a well spread bout of shared vomiting. For us the time with friends was at least as important as seeing the place. But in the process we caught a few glimpses.
The harshness of Australia is relative. We survived 42 degree days. But in places like The Grampians it simply teems with wildlife. New Zealand is quiet and still in comparison. The dawn-chorus of kookaburra and cockatoo was greater than the sum of its parts and from that dawn moment we never stopped seeing strange birds, wallabees, kangaroos, emus (not to mention the large spider who woke us one morning).
The city of Melbourne is a glorious melting pot of multi-ethic eating possibilities, art venues, architecture and great busking. The contrast between the rural and urban worlds couldn’t be greater. The architecture felt like a grand promissory note – an altar to the power of technology and industry to conquer the wilderness. There was something hugely energetic and creative in the interpenetration of cultures. Even at 9.30pm in the evening on the beach at sunset we were surrounded by Indians, West African and Asian bathers and felt like a white minority.
The Shrine of Remembrance is an extraordinary war memorial. It is built like an ancient Roman temple, complete with statues of the gods of war on the front facade and an ‘eternal flame’ burning. The stone altar in the darkened centre is inscribed ‘greater love has no man’ and lies beneath a ‘pyramidal’ structure ascending like a ladder to the light above. The language of ‘sacrifice’, ‘sacred’ and ‘eternal’ make it clear that this is nothing less that a religious institution. My friend was asked to remove his hat. It looks as if the city knows itself to be founded on war and on this ‘holy’ ground it worships its divine sons.
At Gariwerd Cultural Centre we ‘dream-walked’ our way through what may have been 40,000 years of human comings and goings. The main signs remaining were some faint red paint markings in sheltered places in the hills – it was hard to comprehend a place with that much history and so little to show. We saw a map of the 250-800 clans/nations of aboriginal peoples in Australia at the arrival of European colonization in 1788. Exact numbers are hard to substantiate. No one was that interested at the time. The local people were treated like animals and were 97% exterminated in the name of civilisation. I remember a picture of a man who lived outside of town with his dog in a shack after his mother and father had been murdered in front of him as a child. He had become a friendly curiousity. My Australian friend commented that there is a wound in the Australian psyche which shapes everything. And much of what happens now has a lot to do with that wound and its avoidance.
So I left Australia wondering about the relationship between that wound and the bustling multicultural richness and creativity of the promissory note that is Melbourne. What role does the shrine play in the life of the city and how it remembers those who died (and killed) for this project? How would our city look to a curious visitor?
Luke 2: 41-52
If you are a theologian on facebook at the moment you probably know the story of Larycia Hawkins. Larycia was stood down from her position as Professor of Political Science at the large Christian University in the US called Wheaton College. The thing the College was concerned about was her statement that she wanted to stand in solidarity with Muslims throughout the world… and one of her stated reasons was that Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God’.
And it’s this idea that Wheaton College has a problem with: Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
It has spawned a mass of theological commentary all over the internet, some arguing that we do not worship the same God, others that we do. The problem with this political controversy is that there is actually a very complex philosophical question hidden under a simple claim. But right now, it’s dynamite!
Let’s just pause over this issue for a moment. Professor Michael Rea argues that there is one belief that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have in common: they all believe that there is exactly one God. In other words if you understand the idea of God at all you understand that there cannot be more than one (by definition we might say). God our creator is the single source of all else that is.
So it really makes no sense to say that someone believes in another God. To a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim… the idea of another God is just nonsense. So what is going on here if someone says that Muslims don’t believe in the same God as us? Perhaps what they mean is that they are using the word God in some different way to refer to some thing like a human being only more powerful (something there could be more than one of) the wind or a rock, or another human being, or something , or an idea like love or truth. To do this is simply to misunderstand the meaning of the word “God”. Now, I think its possible that many Muslims might think this is in fact what Christians do and also many Christians might think this is what Muslims do. But it’s quite an extreme position to reach… and a lot more would need to be said to justify it.
If that’s not what’s going on, if we are, in fact, using this word God in basically the same way… then there is really only one other alternative – that Muslims do believe in the same God, but they understand God differently. Maybe very differently, to the point of producing a very different religion or set of practices. Much like medieval Catholics and modern Pentecostals might be said to believe in the same God, just understanding God differently. And most Christians down the ages would agree that Abraham believed in the same God as they do… we just understand that God differently.
So there are really only two alternatives… misunderstanding of the word ‘God’ or the same God understood differently.
I raise all that because today’s reading highlights an aspect of Christianity which might demonstrate these alternatives. Today’s reading highlights arguably the central aspect of Christianity which for a Muslim must seem crazy…
Today’s lesson is the follow-on to Christmas… it’s really the further implication of the incarnation. God became flesh. The single source of all that is, became flesh and lived among us. And to add insult to injury (from a Muslim and Jewish perspective). God in the flesh began to ‘grow up.’
Jesus, the 12 year old, gets left behind. Did he lose track of the time? Did his parents neglect him? They were travelling in convoy with a whole wider whanau and so it wasn’t till after a day’s travel that they realise that there’s no Jesus in the group. So they go back and look for him. Wracking their brains… What would Jesus do? Where would he be likely to go? It’s bad enough losing your wallet or your keys… but your child! Finally they find him… after three days!… In the temple, asking questions of the teachers of the law. He is curious. He wants to learn. He is totally absorbed in this desire. He says to his parents: “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”
I suspect for some of you here, that sounds a bit rude coming from a child… In the old days it might have been called ‘talking back’. Parents declared what was authoritatively the case and children simply listened and obeyed. Pretty much a one-way stream of authority. This is how many have understood what it means to honour your parents. And many of you will be saying… ‘And it’s gone too much the other way now’. Jesus is clearly challenging his parents. Does he get away with this ‘bad behaviour’ because he is the Son of God? I am reminded of this well known cartoon. [show ‘Jesus at bath time’]
Perhaps, to truly honour your parents means to honour them with a very good question. Perhaps the one-way-traffic of authority is not the best model of what ‘good behaviour’ is. What kind of culture treats a question as an insult or a threat? Jesus question is: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Did you not know that the knowledge of God my Father and the will of God is the most important thing for my life?
For our purposes today I don’t think it matters whether this is good behaviour… we are past the Christmas season. We can forget all the stupid cliches about who is naughty and who is nice. What is important here is the humanity (human nature) of the Son of God. That the Son of God is human, that God, the source of all, becomes flesh. And here we have stories of him needing to learn, submitting to the knowledge of his elders, growing in the knowledge of God, the one whom he would come to call Abba in a way that no one before him ever had. And in doing so he broke the rules about God and perhaps he broke the rules about childhood behaviour too… in order to follow this call upon his life.
To be the Son of God doesn’t mean you know everything … like you are sitting above the earth looking down … no it means you have a brain like everyone else, but one which is formed in a way that no brain before has ever been formed. In one sense completely like you and I. In another sense completely different. Jesus is, according to Christianity, a revolution in the making.
Already there is a form of civil disobedience going on in his young life (challenging his parents). He goes home to Nazareth and Luke tells us he was obedient to his parents. But here we have a glimpse of the fact that his obedience to his parents is limited by his obedience to the way of his Father. His ‘father’s house’ will be his home, even when he is living with Joseph and Mary. Render unto God what is God’s, and to Joseph and Mary what is theirs.
Everything changes with Jesus… politically and theologically Jesus is a threat. For Islam (and Judaism) he represents a threat to how the whole relationship between God and the world is to be understood. As the incarnate Son of God he embodies the dance of divine love in the world. It is not separate. The love of God moves in and grows up. It heals the world from within. Grace and Truth are not just ideas… they become flesh as God (the one creator of all) becomes flesh.
For us… to worship the same God as Muslims and Jews… is to pay close attention to this life and its growing up in history.
To worship the same God is also to worship very differently.