So we enter the gospel in the middle of a big debate. This is the inquisition section of Mark’s gospel. The religious leaders have been asking Jesus tricky questions for a while now. They have been asking him about taxes. They have been asking him about the resurrection. Now a scribe comes in with the big one: What is the greatest commandment? It is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian question: what is the heart of the gospel? When all is said and done what is at the core of your faith? … that kind of thing.
This reminds me of an interesting contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Because they are quite different questions (the greatest commandment and the core of the gospel). When a Jew looks back at the ancient writings that we call ‘the Old Testament’ he or she thinks of them as ‘The Law’ (and calls them ‘The Law’) . It’s all about commandments. The stories fit around the commands. When a Christian looks back at these same writings. He or she sees firstly the story. It’s the story of the covenant love of God. So we call it the Old Covenant or Old Testament. The commands fit within the story rather than the other way round.
So when Judaism split in two later in the first century between those Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah and those Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus, the Christians (the ones who did believe in Jesus) gathered together their writings as New Testament. And the other Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus gathered writings together as Mishnah – the writings of the rabbis about how to order their lives.
So here’s the point. Both groups look back at the same books from their past. They each have a right to those books as their common past. But both have different ways of looking at the same books. For Jews the Commands or the Law is at the centre and the story fits around it – so they call them ‘the Law’. For Christians the story and the covenant is at the centre – so the call them the ‘Old Testament/Covenant’ (or at least that’s what Robert Jenson argues)
So what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers the question. And he answers it in a way that is completely acceptable to the Scribe. He gives a standard Jewish answer. Love God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love your neighbour. Both are there as individual commandments in their own right. You can look up Deuteronomy and read about loving God and Leviticus has a commands love of neighbour as the alternative to vengeance (that’s an important context) [“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev 19:18]
They exist as individual commandments. Jesus puts them together in one commandment. And that one command is not just the greatest command. It is also a summary of all the 10 commandments. Its a summary of this vision of a life with two dimensions which can never be separated. Love God (verticle) and love your neighbour (horizontal).
Jesus says together these make up the single ‘greatest command’ and yet within the greatest commandment there are two parts. Love for God comes first. And neighbour love follows.
The greatest commandment turns out to be a big call, a kind of perfection. We could very easily dismiss it… as beyond us… impossible even, and move on. That’s one response. It’s just depressingly aspirational.
Another response: We might also be concerned about the emphasis on first loving God. If you love God too much you’ll end up with not enough love for your neighbour. Like the suicide bomber who loves God so much that he kills his neighbour. … But Jesus says love is not a finite quantity like water. If you use too much of it you run out. For Jesus it works the other way. The more you love God, the more you love your neighbour. We are changed. We lose any exclusiveness that might be associated with our love of our self. We lose any selfishness about our love for our self … and we love our neighbour with the same love that we have for our self. Love of God encompasses and shapes everything else we do. It has everything to do with the nature and reality of the God we love.
That’s nice, you might say … in theory… So the conversation ends in agreement. They all agree. All you need is love. Great! All religions are the same. They all believe in love (in some sense)… we’re happily ever after.
But Jesus has the last word. He saw that the scribe had answered thoughtfully, and he says to him. “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. Close… but no cigar. What did he get wrong?
He is thoughtful. Jesus and he both agree on the commandments. But the commandments are not enough. The kingdom of God does not come to us as a commandment. We do not enter the kingdom of God by commandments. If you have lived all your life trying to follow the principles and commandments that your parents and the church has taught you, with all the best intentions in the world, it is quite possible that Jesus will look at you and say ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. Close … but no cigar.
To put it another way. You cannot love God because God commands you to love God. Even the greatest commandment is not enough. You will love God because: God. is. lovely! It is because all the loveliness of God, the kingdom of God comes to you that you will enter the kingdom of God. And if that is not your experience, you will probably not love God, even if you try to love God.
Jesus comes bringing the kingdom, announcing the kingdom, demonstrating all the loveliness of God’s life… and the man standing in front of him… doesn’t enter the kingdom. Because ultimately it’s not about commands, it’s about something that happens to us. God’s story… the Old Testament… is still happening as New Testament. The two tablets of the law – total love for God (vertical) and love for neighbour (horizontal) are being lived out in the shape of a cross, a cross shaped life of the loveliness of God. God is loving us. God is drawing us in. ….
In the end its not a matter of commands or principles or ideas (common to all religions). It’s a matter of receiving that story and that life and participating in that life and being changed.
The gospel is not a command. It is something that happens to you. It’s the thing that causes you to love God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself.
It’s when I survey the wondrous cross… the cross-shaped life of Jesus and of his Abba … that love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Let’s sing that hymn together…
Today I want to tell you about a guy who became a follower of Jesus. That’s what really moves me about this story. Not so much that he regained his sight. Everybody has their own abilities and disabilities. There are different ways to live. Bartimaeus moved from the blind world to the seeing world… you might say… its certainly a very contemporary way of thinking about it…. But the thing that’s really exciting here is not that he left his blind world, but that he left all kinds of possible-Jericho-worlds in order to take to the road. In order to live again as a follower of Jesus. That… is very cool.
Let’s look more closely at the story. It’s a famous location… Jericho. The last time someone shouted in Jericho the walls fell down. They entered the town and were on their way out the other side when they met Bartimaeus. And he starts shouting. He starts shouting until someone notices him.
He has heard the news. People around are saying that “Jesus of Nazareth” is coming through. He knows that Nazareth is the kind of place you don’t want to come from. So instead he calls out “Son of David, have mercy on me. Son of David, have mercy on me”. David is a name associated with destiny and hope. It kinda means ‘Messiah’. Bartimaeus is raising the stakes here.
It’s not clear whether people are annoyed because he is making too much noise, or because of the name he is using…. Stirring up trouble with talk of ‘Son of David’ can be dangerous when people from Nazareth and passing by.
Names are interesting in this story. Mark reminds us that Bartimaeus literally means Son of Timaeus. Timaeus is ambiguous. It might come from a word that means ‘the honoured one’ or it could come from a word that means ‘the impure one’. So he is either son of fame… or he’s son of shame.
Bartimaeus is a beggar. The response of the gathered crowd and the disciples is to shut him up to ‘sternly order him’ to be quiet. At least at this point in the story he is a Son of Shame.
This week I was listening to a radio programme about the homeless and beggars in Auckland. There are increasing numbers of folk sleeping rough in NZ and the radio man was interviewing a guy who had mastered the art of begging. He had a history of family tragedy and mental health problems and now he couldn’t work and was falling through gaps in the social welfare. I’m not sure whether he was sleeping rough at the time and was about to get accommodation or had accommodation and was struggling with Auckland rent (sometimes its hard to get details when your listening to the radio in the car). Whatever the case he was very conscious that all it needed was a series of unfortunate incidents and a lack of social-capital and any of us could be on the street too. He had developed a technique that worked for him. He wrote a sign, which he would rewrite each month explaining his situation. He stood silently. Didn’t shake a cup. Didn’t call out. Just waited for people to come to him. He was quite deliberate about the marketing of his way of living.
I wonder what it feels like in our world, to beg on the street. I think there are still sons and daughters of shame out there. One comment that the beggar on the radio made was that they like to call it ‘busking’ rather than ‘begging’.
Bartimaeus was a stroppy beggar. The more they told him to shut up the louder he shouted. The walls of Jericho didn’t literally fall down. But Jesus heard the guy who needed a ‘Son of David’.
So he tells the people who are shutting him down to call him up instead. He calls his disciples to pay attention to the voice of the Son of Shame.
Remember these disciples include James and John, the two in our last Sunday reading, one preacher (Kim Fabricius) likes to call them “Dumb and Dumber”. These are the ones who want to be at Jesus left-hand and right-hand. They want to steal a march on positions of power come the revolution. They get all the other disciples annoyed. Because, just like Dumb and Dumber, the rest of the disciples also have an eye for power.
Little quiz aside about Mark’s Gospel: Who does Jesus end up having on his left-hand and right-hand in his moment of glory? Two thieves.
Of course Dumb and Dumber, like the rest of the disciples, have no idea that the way to the kingdom is through suffering and death… even though Jesus tells them this repeatedly. Jesus tells them they must be the servant of all. They want to be the bosses of all.
Notice Bartimaeus’s response this call up: He throws off his cloak – the key tool of his trade, the cloak he puts out in front of himself everyday for folks to throw coins or food in, the protection from the cold at night. He abandons his protection. He abandons his livelihood to go to the Son of David.
Notice Jesus question. He asks him the same question he asked Dumb and Dumber when they wanted their favour at his left and right hand. He asks him ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ Bartimaeus’s response is immediate and simple. ‘I want to see, again.’ It’s a simple response which contrasts sharply with Dumb and Dumber’s request. He wants his life back again. He wants to participate with everyone else. He doesn’t want power over others, but then neither does he want to sit on the sidelines. He wants to contribute. And of course, for Mark’s gospel and John’s gospel, blindness and sight are metaphors for spiritual realities. At the same time Bartimaeus is saying ‘I want to see, spiritually… I want to see the truth about myself and God’s coming kingdom.’
How badly do you want to see?
Do you feel that in our society you are left on the sidelines?
Are you prepared to throw off you coat, your security and break out of your routine?
Notice that Bartimaeus doesn’t abandon his place on the sidelines to become a productive member of the same society that had sidelined him. He doesn’t run off to get a job and buy an apartment and settle down. His first response, his really inspiring moment… is really a continuation of his bold move to throw off his cloak… his response is to find a place in the new movement of those who are following Jesus. He is more interested in the kingdom of God and the destiny associated with this strange ‘Son of David’ than he is in settling down.
He regains his physical sight… and it serves his spiritual sight. His life has a direction. He hits the road with Jesus.
The good news is you don’t have to settle down… and neither do you have to sit passively and powerlessly on the sidelines without hope and feeling like shouting all the time.
Do you ever feel like shouting?
Do you want to see… enough to participate in the kingdom of God?
Have you prayed for sight? Now is a good time. Now is a good time to lose some old habits and join in the living witness, the embodiment of the kingdom in this community. This is today’s invitation.
Mark 10:17-31 Hebrews 4:12-16
“The Word of God is living and active… sharper than a two-edge sword”. How seriously do we take the speech of God, this Word that’s alive, that judges our innermost being? How seriously do we take the fact that when we go to church, the main thing at the very centre of what we do is listen to the bible? (it’s not the same question… the Bible and the Word… but its related) It’s actually a particularly Presbyterian thing… to take scripture seriously… its our tradition.
For some, the Bible is like a kind of supermarket where we go down the aisle and find the things we want, that suit our purposes (oh, I like that verse, I don’t like that one, I’ll ignore that one). Maybe all of us do that some of the time. But its not really good enough is it? What if the Word of God is living and active, not some passive supermarket shelf?
What if, rather than reading the bible in church we find ourselves ‘read by the bible’. Our hope when we gather for worship (can you feel the fragility, the openness, the vulnerability of that word “worship”?)… our hope is that the speech of God, God’s word will read us. We are not here to judge God, we are here to be judged by God.
Does that sound like fundamentalism to you? The thing is, in the letter to the Hebrews the Word of God is not a book but a person, Jesus, who knows our weaknesses and brings God’s mercy to us. This is how Hebrews begins
‘Long ago God spoke through our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets [the Hebrew Bible] but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being and sustains all things by his powerful word.’
Jesus the living and active Word which cuts our world down to the bone and shows us the tough truth about ourselves and our world. Jesus is the judge who knows our weakness, who sympathizes with us, who acts in mercy and so gives us the courage to boldly approach the throne of grace.
Learning to ‘be read’ by the bible means learning to see Jesus in it.
Today’s gospel reading is a great test of this whole business… because it is basically ‘Jesus on money’... Jesus who knows our weaknesses addresses the question of money. Money’s not a simple matter (it’s not just the physical stuff in our pockets, we hardly carry any of that around any more anyway). But its also difficult to talk about. It’s a sensitive topic best avoided in polite company.
Knowing our weaknesses – (turning back to our gospel reading) It tells us that a rich man came to Jesus seeking the life of the kingdom (eternal life). “What can I do to inherit eternal life”. Some background might be helpful here (H/T Ched Myers). In Jesus time wealth was not so much about ‘money in the bank’ as it was about land. And how did people usually get land? (answer = inherit it). So here is a wealthy landowner with all the sense of entitlement that comes with his class asking: “How can I INHERIT the life of the age to come?’ So land is passed on by inheritance but land is also accumulated as the poor subsistence farmers come upon hard times, get into debt, take out loans from the landowners to survive and when they fail in repayments, lose their lands. So the more things are different, the more they remain the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is the economic system of wealth which Jesus is addressing.
“Jesus looked at him (it says) and loved him”…. the kindest thing Jesus could say to this man, it turns out though, was the last thing he wanted to hear. “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor”.
We know its the last thing he wanted to hear, partly because of his reaction… but probably more likely because of our own reaction. Like Jesus we know his weakness, because it is our weakness also. This is the last thing we would want to hear from Jesus. None of us thinks Jesus would say this to us. Every interpreter I have ever heard has emphasised that this saying is specifically for this man. This is what Jesus would say to Donald Trump, not to us… We desperately hope…
And yet context is everything. Jesus has some general things to say about money – that go beyond his word to this particular man. Jesus has a theology of money, a view of how money relates to the kingdom of God. Money fights against the kingdom of God. Money makes the kingdom of God harder to participate him. These are Jesus words. ‘How hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ This is perplexing for the disciples. And if it is perplexing for them, how much more for us, whose world is so much more deeply shaped by money than their world? It makes the kingdom of God seem so otherworldly. How can God’s kingdom be about a struggle with money?
At this point we are tempted to say that money is just a thing… a coin, a number… it does nothing. The issues here is our attitude to it and we can choose to do what we want with it.
That would be the encouraging. We could go away feeling optimistic about our ability to do good in the world. But I don’t think the two-edged sword lets us get away with such an easy response.
For Jesus there is a difference between the rich person and the poor person. Money exerts a pressure, it is a culture, a system, a power. It takes our time and attention… ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. To be rich, according to Jesus puts you at a disadvantage in relation to the kingdom of God.
And also the last thing Jesus is saying is that it is straightforwardly within our capacity to turn our attitude around and do the right thing with money. In fact Jesus is pushing in the opposite direction… For us it is impossible. Thanks goodness it is possible for God.
God alone can set us free from our wealth to share in God’s kingdom.
So today I am hoping we can talk together about this topic… but of course its a very difficult topic to talk about. It’s hard to talk about it without feeling at some level the challenge of Jesus words and without getting defensive. If you look at the text, Peter does that straight after Jesus’ teaching. He says: “We have left everything and followed you…” (as if to say why are you telling us this? … we’ve donated to the church and to charities for years…). And Jesus says, sure… there will be kingdom benefits for all of that stuff, but, be aware the kingdom might not be as you think ‘many who are first will be last and last will be first’.
It would be very easy to start to talk about our own situation in a way which reflects our envy of those who have more… or which tries to claim a moral high ground by emphasising our poverty and so on.
I am a wealthy person. In relation to the average New Zealand income, Jan and I are rich. The stipend contributes to making it hard for me to enter the kingdom of God.
But in relation to global income levels all of us are wealthy people, although in terms of NZ lifestyles some of us may clearly be poor.
Whatever our situation… and without making comparisons… my prayer is that we can think together about this, because, at some level we are in this together….
· What does money do to us? What is the way it shapes our lives?
· What is it about the kingdom of God that is different from a world dominated by money?
· What are the resources that our faith gives us to deal with money and its impact?
It has been a season of warnings. Warnings are acts of kindness. Today we have another warning.
Jesus has had people coming with their desperate needs, some are hungry and thirsty, some are not themselves (possessed) and they come to him for healing. And they also came to people who were not part of the close group of disciples. And Jesus had such a reputation that these people were also healing others in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems they believed in the power of that name. He was the one to be associated with. And the inner circle of disciples didn’t like that. But Jesus says, whatever you do, don’t put a stumbling block in front of ‘these little ones who believe in me’. Whatever you do you need to be ready to help the ‘little ones’ who come in desperation and in need.
Or perhaps he meant those who reach out to the needy especially in Christ’s name should be encouraged, not discouraged. Whatever you do don’t discourage the ministry of newcomers, of beginners. Some people talk about the importance of being a ‘permission-giving’ church. A church that is not so much about controlling everything and making sure only what we, the leaders, approve of happens, as it is about encouraging people to get involved in the mission of Jesus and make their own mistakes along the way.
If that’s what its about Jesus has some serious warning for those who hinder the ministry of others… If you do it you’d be better dead, better if a millstone was tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea – quite a gruesome image really.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with that gruesome image, he gets gruesomer. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off”. In the context he is still talking about things that undermine the ministry of the kingdom of God… things need to be eliminated at all costs. Things that stop the community of Christ focus on its true calling and mission…: Get rid of them! And if you don’t act quickly, if you don’t cut the hand off early on, or gouge out your eye… or whatever… you’ll go to hell.
That’s what Jesus says… simple as that… except of course what we mean by hell might be quite different from what Jesus does.
Perhaps I should have warned you… today is my sermon on hell. The door is that way.
Let me throw some Bible verses at you that you may not have thought about, to start us thinking about hell. Before we come back to this text and look at it again, hopefully with fresh eyes.
Romans 5:18-19 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
How many people does Paul believe will go to heaven?
Romans 11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
How many people is God wanting to be merciful to?
1 Corinthians 15:22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
Who will be made alive in Christ?
1 Corinthians 15:28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
What is the final state of creation?
1 Timothy 2:3-4This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What does God want?
1 Timothy 4:10For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.
Who is God the saviour of?
1 Corinthians 3:15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
How are we who build in the kingdom of God to be saved?
Let’s hold onto that thought that we will be saved ‘through fire’ for a moment.
It’s not actually a good idea to take bible texts like I just have… out of context… to prove a point. I haven’t looked at all the bible verses I haven’t at all attempted to look at the whole story, at the big picture and give a theology of hell. I’ll try and do a little bit of that in a minute. But it’s important to know that this view of “salvation for all” is actually is controversial stuff. In spite of in spite of what the apostle Paul believed, or at least hoped for, a lot of people still believe differently. They imagine, like St Augustine did, that in the end the world will be divided between two cities sealed against one another, heaven and hell. There have been many down the centuries, especially in Western Christianity who have grimly held onto the belief that hell is a place where God will continue to inflict conscious torture on the large mass of humanity forever. On the other hand there are fewer but still many, including famous Church Father’s like Gregory of Nyssa from the early few centuries of the church whose vision of the future is one of a movement of all creation into the glorious life of God. Not two cities but one. But for now let’s go back to our gospel reading.
In verse 45 Jesus says
“it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire”
Literally what he says is ‘it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna’. Gehenna is the name of the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was constantly burning. The translators know that Jesus is not simply talking about people being thrown into that particular rubbish dump. They know that the dump has become a metaphor/symbol for something else, so they use a different word. The word is hell. But what does it mean? What is Gehenna (the dump) a metaphor for? Is Jesus warning them about eternal conscious torment after they die? Or is he talking about something else?
I think the most important clue is quite simple. In other places in the bible ‘fire’ (like the fire of the Gehenna rubbish dump) is a metaphor for purification, transformation, healing even. It is surely possible that Jesus is warning his disciples about the pain and difficulty of healing and purification that will result if we fail to take good care of the least among us. Our welfare hinges on how we treat the least.
Perhaps the bad thing (fire) is actually, in the end, a good thing… In the end it is redemption because it changes us. These are tough and scarey warnings… but if we a right about this, and if Paul is right about God’s commitment to redeeming the whole world… we need to ask ourselves one more question
So does Jesus actually believe in hell?… as we have come to think of it in the west? Does Jesus think like Augustine of two cities sealed off from one another, where some live in eternal torment and some eternal bliss?
Now let’s took at the next verse (Mk 9:49)
For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good
Everyone! Not some in hell and some not. Everyone will need some of the salty fire, or fiery salt… He’s mixing up his metaphors now. I guess he is warning his disciples because some actions require more fire than others. But in the end of the day, Jesus says ‘salt is good’. Just like the fire is good. Salt brings out the flavour, the goodness of the meat. Salt preserves the meat. Salt cleanses. From time immemorial they have put salt on wounds. It’s an antibacterial agent. It brings healing. There’s a sting in the healing. But in the end the salty fire is not hell – as we have learnt to imagine it.
Notice that the rubbish dump, Gehenna, is said to be unquenchable. What does that mean? I think it means that God’s desire to heal and transform his people is unquenchable. God will not give up on each of us or on this community until all people are saved and all creation is at one with God – whether that be in this life or the next.
Let’s look at the next for a minute then. I want to finish by turning you to the end of the Bible the last two chapters of revelation have fire too …. In the end, says John, God is calling and gathering all peoples.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:
“See the home of God is among mortals. He will live with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”
Then as the vision goes on it talks about a lake of fire…
The cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.
That’s a mysterious phrase – second death – maybe in the light of the purifying fire, it reminds us of what Paul talks about in Romans… the dying with Christ of the old self and the new life that follows. Maybe the lake of fire is a kind of baptismal death? Maybe?
But listen to the final image of the heavenly city with its gates open and a welcome call to those outside who are free to enter:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood
It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. The Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” And let everyone who hears say “Come”. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Rev 22:13-17
At the very end then… the vision is one not of two separated cities – heaven and hell. It is the vision of one city of God, gates open and an invitation to sinners of all kinds to come, to wash, perhaps even to be washed in the fire. It is a vision of movement and welcome, and finally (if Paul has understood this correctly) of complete redemption, where God is all and in all.
I have been reworking my previous blog post and apocalyptic confession for our parish newsletter. Here is the update fyi.
Have you ever been looking for something in a dark room, maybe the light switch, when someone turns on the light? That’s what the Greek word ‘apocalypse’ means – unveiling.
We forget the root sense of the word because it has become so associated with a violent end to the world as we know it. There is a good reason for this. In the bible the ‘unveiling’ of God is at the same time a moment of judgement in which the violence of the world is also ‘unveiled’ for what it is. That’s what the last book of the New Testament, with its crazy imagery, is all about. In the Greek it is called ‘The Apocalypse’ (Revelation). Jesus thought like this too. For him the ‘apocalypse’ of God would be like ‘a thief in the night’. Whether it comes at a micro level to an individual or a local community or at a macro level to the global community, when the light goes on in the factory of blindness everything changes
The New Testament is clear about this change. Prior to the resurrection, in spite of all Jesus’ teaching and example, his own disciples were still in the dark.
A few weeks ago I read This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein. It made me wonder whether the planetary crisis we are facing because of global warming is going to be another occasion of the light being turned on. Klein argues that our global economic culture (also called ‘neoliberal economics’) is about to crash into the limits of the ecology of our planet. The sense of occasion here is heightened by the fact that the TPPA is a key tool in the global enforcement of neoliberal economics. Moreover, as we speak the refugee crisis and the wars which create it are putting significant pressure on wealthier western economies.
It strikes me that this is not so much another apocalypse (from the one which prompted the writing of the New Testament) as the same apocalypse in a new way. Will our recently globalised modernity have the light of the Christian Gospel turned on in a new way?
What Naomi Klein and others (like Jesus back in the day) are making very clear is that only radical cultural and economic change will do. We must become ‘members of one another’. As Pope Frances is saying, the Christian hope is becoming a global necessity. We must become communicant members of the earth’s ecosystem. Suddenly the lights are turning on and we cannot help but see the implications of our own parish’s vision statement – to be an ‘embodiment of the kingdom’ and of Christ who calls us together. We cannot help but see the ungodly destruction of the cultural trajectory we have been following.
A few weeks ago I was asked by a Diocesan Climate Change group in the Anglican Church to contribute some thoughts for a paper to go to their Bishops’ meeting. In my response I felt it was time to confess our faith in God again, in a way that is specific to this time and kairos moment. I wrote something along these lines
We believe in God the Father/Mother: The earth is the Lord’s. We are part of it for its nurture. It is not our possession, just as we ourselves are not our own possession.
We believe in God the Son: Jesus Christ is the meaning of God’s creating act. He is the logos of love out of which and towards which creation is moving. Raised in new materiality he leads us in the renewal of the earth. Participating in him we can be set free to give ourselves to others and to our immediate created environment in hope.
We believe in God the Holy Spirit: In Her the life of God is shared. Neoliberal capitalism, even if (perchance) it succeeds in improving the situation of some in poverty, nevertheless forms human beings in a way that is contrary to the Christian gospel, making the maximisation of self-interest a virtue and a habit. In the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ it should be rejected as a theological and practical heresy, a dangerous principality and power, and a sin against the Spirit of God.
Such a confession could (and perhaps should) go on. However, this is the core of it and it calls us to timely action. This changes everything!
Bruce Hamill (Rev)
The apocalypse of Jesus the Christ, in all its singularity, comes again and again. Whether it comes at a micro level to an individual or a local community or at a macro level to the global community, it comes, nevertheless, like a thief in the night.
It comes as the unexpected newness to which the status quo is blind. A light goes on in the factory of blindness.
The question we are asking is whether the planetary climate crisis will occasion such an apocalypse for our globalised modernity. Will the physical limits of this planet act as a sign and a vehicle for the Christian gospel?
Whether it does or it doesn’t, the news is now unavoidable. Our global economic culture is about to crash into the limits of our planetary ecology. Only radical cultural and economic change will do. We must become ‘members of one another’ and communicant members of the earth’s ecosystem. The ancient truth of the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is that precisely this is central to what it means to embody Christ and his mission. Veni Spiritus Sanctus!
Here in this context we can make our confession in the triune God
Father: The earth is God’s. We are part of it for its nurture. It is not our possession, just as we ourselves are not our own possession.
Son: Jesus Christ is the meaning of God’s creating act. He is the logos of love out of which and towards which creation is moving. Raised in new materiality he leads us in the renewal of the earth. Participating in him we can be set free to give ourselves to others and to our immediate created environment in hope.
Spirit: Neo-liberal capitalism, even if (perchance) it succeeds in improving the situation of some in poverty, nevertheless forms human beings in a way that is antithetical to the Christian gospel making the maximization of self-interest a virtue and a habit. In the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ it should be rejected as a theological and practical heresy, a dangerous principality and power, and a sin against the Spirit of God.
Confession without action is dead. Therefore in this context and time we commit ourselves to the following action and policy:
A total moratorium on fossil fuel exploration (by governments)
Divestment from the fossil fuel industry (by all of us)
Investment in clean energy and infrastructure (by all of us)
Emission targets which aim seriously at zero-carbon future and which respect the 2 degree guardrail (by governments).
Abandonment of all corporate and international globalisation projects like TPPA (by governments)
A renewal of localisation and sustainable local projects (by all of us)
a commitment to reduced levels of consumption ( by all of us)
Today we continue our journey of exploring what it means to ‘chew on’ the bread of life. Those who eat the bread of life, who consume Jesus… are those who live into the life of the age to come (eternal life). Again Ephesians, our Epistle reading, has something to say to this great theme in the Gospel of John.
“Awake O sleeper, arise from the dead…”
It’s the kind of thing we should programme into our alarm clocks in the morning.
The writer says, “Be careful how you live”… be wise… wake up… don’t sleep through your life. For, says Ephesians, “the days are evil”. Not irredeemably evil. Redemption is what its all about. The days are surrounded by God’s redemption. The Christians at Ephesus are called to be a part of God’s redemption. That’s why they wake up in the morning. But the days are evil.
“Make the most of the time”… says the Epistle. And we say “What time?”. The tyranny of time is the mantra of so many people these days. We have no time. We work longer hours than ever before for less income and both parents have to work to survive. And the children have to do so many things in order to have a chance at succeeding in the rat race of competition.
I watched a powerful movie at the Film Festival this week. It was called ‘The Measure of a Man’ in English. The original French title is ‘Le Loi du Marche’ (The Law of the Market). It is a finely tuned observation of the life of a man, Thierry, a good man who loses his job and is struggling to keep his life together. His son is disabled and needs extensive care. But the home is a happy place. However, with the loss of his job the world beyond starts to grind him down. The job agency sends him off on a course. But the course qualification is useless to get a job on the new machines because he has had no experience. Eventually he ends up working in security at a supermarket (hence the title ‘the law of the market’). In that role he is witness to those caught shoplifting in various ways, on the cameras in the roof.
There is the elderly gentleman who has no family and is caught with two small items of frozen meat in his pockets and cannot afford to pay for them. He has no one to help out so they call in the police. Then there is the staff member who is spotted not scanning something through. Then there is the staff member who rather than binning the discount coupons pocket’s them. She tries to hide it, in her understated desperation, and loses her job. Next scene we learn that she has committed suicide somewhere at the supermarket. The boss gathers the staff and does a big speech to insist that there are more troubles in her life and they ought not feel guilty about it. Her son had drug issues, there is trouble at home and so on. The supermarket bears no responsibility. In fact no one is responsible. The boss speaks a greater truth than he knows. The system itself has destroyed her and everyone else. It is a system without humanity or mercy. We understand its necessity. The stealing and lies are wrong. And yet the whole world (the market in the wider sense) is what is ultimately destroying them.
It is a film with an incredible attention to detail, both financial and emotional, but one which uses the detail to let us see the bigger picture. The law of the market casts a bright light on the saying in Ephesians ‘The Days are Evil’.
When the days are evil, time itself can be a tyrant. It is hard to make good use of the time because the world around us wants to control our time… God’s time. We feel like there is a shortage of time. Time has become a commodity. “Time is money” we say. Good use of the time, becomes a use of time which secures our financial bottom line.
On the other hand we might take the view that we have all the time in the world… avoiding all thought that our time is coming to an end we might end up postponing indefinitely all significant calls upon our time, moving from one distraction to another because there is no main thing from which to be distracted. There are just distractions.
Either way we forget the single thing that matters
The writer says, even though the days are evil … be wise and ‘understand what the will of the Lord is’. Not whether or not you should buy the red or the green dress or whether you should park further out of town and walk or pay for a car park… Ephesians has already told us something about what the will of the Lord is… Eph 1:10 says that the will of God is to gather everything together in Christ. The reality of Jesus is going to gather all the chaos of the world together and reorder it and make peace. That’s the will of God. Eph 3:10 says that we as church are placed as witnesses to all the spiritual powers of the world, which are often caught up in deception and evil. This witness too is the will of the Lord. The will of the Lord is that big picture, that beautiful reality that visits our detail with great hope. When we just want to survive, the writer calls us to wake up to what God is doing and be a part of it. So even the detail can be beautiful. Perhaps especially the detail.
‘Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery’… or another translation has it, ‘that leads to desperation’. At each step along the path that Thierry took in the movie, there must have been the enormous temptation to obliterate himself, to drink his sorrows away, to drink himself into the ground, to silence the pain and go to sleep.
But the call of Ephesians is to wake up, not to escape down the path of despair.
The alternative to getting drunk is not self-control. It is being under the influence… of the Spirit. Do not get drunk … BUT be filled by the Spirit.
And do it with music! And do it together!
‘singing to one another (not just to God but to one another) in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.’
I think we underestimate the power of music to be used by the Spirit of God to lift our spirits. Do you ever do that… ‘make melody to the Lord in your hearts’? Do you have those moments when you are singing inside? But it’s interesting the writer knows that music is not just ‘to the Lord’ it is also a way that we talk to one another (‘singing to one another’) about what matters. It is often said that many people learn most of their theology, their understanding of God from the songs they sing. This can be a worry! as well as an encouragement. We are not just brains on sticks. We are emotional bodily creatures who move to music, both emotionally as well as physically. Sometimes its hard not to tap your feet… even if you’re a presbyterian!
To sing together is to participate in beauty together. To be lifted up… by the Spirit. To sing together is like getting drunk. Both are ways in which we might not be completely in rational control. We are moved…. in singing as in prayer.
Unlike getting drunk it can move us away from despair rather than towards it.
“Giving thanks at all times for everyone/everything.” Both ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ are possible translations here. It’s a powerful thought to give thanks for everyone. Even those who annoy us. Those who talk too much. Those who get the car park ahead of us. Those who buy the same red dress as we bought.
Our reading says, effectively: Get over it! In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.