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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Vocation of Preachers

John 12. 20-33; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31

In 1819 John Keats, the English poet, sat transfixed before an ancient vase he happened upon in an Italian museum.  It was an urn from ancient Athens, the principle city of Greece, and it featured the carved figures of women and men dancing to some kind of ritual in a forest glade.   Something about these figurines captured the poet’s attention and, more than that, took him away into a rapt meditation upon the capacity of art to convey spiritual truths.  What Keats found most moving was the way in which the artist had captured a moment of truth—the truth of a particular human joy and longing—in the stillness of such beautiful forms.  He wondered at the way in which such truth could be frozen in stone, and therefore rendered communicable even to people who would view the urn thousands of years later.  The poem he wrote to commemorate the occasion closes with the famous aphorism,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.—That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In saying this, Keats revealed his admiration for a particularly Greek way of seeing the world.  Many of the ancient Greeks believed that the deepest truth about things was revealed to human beings through their eyes, particularly in beautiful and bright forms, and even more particularly in the beautiful and bright forms of the human body.  I’m sure that many of you will have seen pictures of those strong and erect young men carved in white marble, often standing at the entrance of public buildings or temples, often naked, and often with some kind of weapon in their hands.  Or of slender women draped in bejewelled finery with garlands in their hair.  Usually in a state of semi-undress.  Understand that such figures represented far more than an ideal for human beauty.  They also represented a Greek understanding of God.  For them, God was exactly like one of these statues:  strong beyond all strength, glorious and bright with the brightness of the sun, beautiful such as to inspire a longing to be joined with God, but also distant and impervious to any kind pain or suffering. 

Now, in the passage we read from John’s Gospel this afternooon, who asks to see Jesus?  Some Greeks.  Some Greeks ask to see Jesus.   And because they are Greeks, they are perhaps hoping to see a particular kind of Jesus, a Jesus who is like one of their Athenian statues of the human form divine:  a strong and noble Jesus, a Jesus whose form is beautiful in that classical Greek sense, a Jesus who shines with divine light and ignites their desire for him, a Jesus who is clearly more than human, who somehow sails above the ordinariness of human pain and regret and grief in some kind of cool, divine inscrutability. 

Now, in case you believe I might be imputing motives to these fellows that don’t exist, consider the following.  That John’s whole Gospel might be characterised as a sermon to the Greeks, and particularly to Greek-speaking intellectuals.  More than the other gospels, John talks about Jesus in a language which Greek-speaking intellectuals would understand and appreciate.  He samples, for instance, their idea of the logos—a differentiated idea or a form that is already there in mind of the God before the universe begins—to explain how Jesus could be considered divine.  “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”  The Gospel also seems to address that peculiarly Greek obsession with light and seeing and form as the appropriate way to find out about divine things.  Only in John’s gospel do you have Jesus proclaiming that he is the light of the world.  Only in John’s gospel do you find passages where Jesus exhorts his listeners to become “children of the light,” children who gaze at the glorious brightness of God and are drawn to that light like moths to a flame.  Now, all of this is very, very Greek, right down to the word which John uses for ‘seeing’ in this passage.  It is eidein,  from which we get the English words “idea” and “idol”.   The Greeks, in wanting to “see” Jesus, are therefore looking for a form, an “idol,” if you like, in which their divine “idea” might be both seen and admired. 

But wait.  Doesn’t this imply that John is basically on board with all this Greek stuff, that he is something of a pagan philosopher, seeking to transform Jesus into some kind of semi-divine hero like Ulysses or Hercules, therefore priming his image for popular consumption in a world dominated by Greek thinking?  Well . . . Yes and No.  Yes, he wanted to talk about Jesus in a way that people other than his own tribe, the Jews, would understand and appreciate.  As one must always do, if one is a preacher.  But no, he didn’t buy into a pagan version of God in the process.  Indeed, the passage we are reading contains one of the most damning critiques of pagan versions of the divine you will find in all of literature!  Note, if you will, Jesus’ response to what the Greeks ask.  I quote.
The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . .  Now my soul is troubled, but what should I say? “Father save me from this hour?”  No, it is for this hour that I have come.  Father, glorify your name! . . .  Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
What we find here is a specifically Christian warping or transfiguration of the Greek idea of divine beauty so admired by Keats.   For John argues that the human form of God is not strong and beautiful, in that classical sense we described earlier.  Nor is it impervious to the ravages of ordinary human life—the passing of time, the reality of evil, or of human suffering.  On the contrary, according to John, the human form of God is the crucified Jesus.  A suffering man, hanging from the most vile instrument of torture of the ancient world.  A man vulnerable to being troubled in soul.  A man, like seed planted in the ground at winter-time, who is as erasable as anyone else by death.  In describing Jesus like this, John effects nothing less than a transvaluation of all that the Greek intellectuals of his time would have considered both rational and beautiful.  Beauty, he declares, no longer has anything to do with the classical forms of the Olympic body or the Olympian gods, objects of religio-erotic desire that they were.  For the real beauty of God, says John, is manifest in a love for what is generally understood as the least desirable of all: the weak one, the ugly one, the criminal one, the suffering one.  And, if I may be permitted to bring St. Paul into the conversation as well, the reason of God—God’s logos— is manifest in those whom the world considers fools.  What we learn from these two great apostles, then, is that God actually loves the unlovable, and desires the undesirable.  Such love, we are taught, is also very powerful.  So powerful that it is able to create fruit for God from dead seeds, to raise these little ones, these ‘nothings’ (as Paul would have it) from despair to hope, from darkness into light, from misery into blessedness.  Of course the power we speak of now is also a transvaluation of the dominant discourse of power.  It is the paradoxical power of the powerless and the broken.  It is the pouring out of God’s very life, on the cross of Christ, that those who were dead may live.

Perhaps you are wondering what all this might mean for our valedictorians, and about the ministry they are called to exercise?  Well, allow me to suggest that thinking of the Greek intellectual has not, in fact, withered away.  It is everywhere present in the Western account of reality, perhaps especially so in the bright light of Australia.  It visits us in every commercial which represents happiness and the good life in terms of the beautiful forms of sculptured bodies that reflect our bright sunlight, impervious, it seems, to age or poverty or distress.  It visits us in New Age notions of God as some kind of universal being which is everywhere present, especially in nature, and yet (like nature) is blind and deaf and dumb to our specifically human anxieties.  It is with us in that form Christianity which exalts the idea that we can have a direct and ‘pure’ relationship with Jesus that somehow bypasses the messy materiality of church and tradition, in both their fidelity and their infidelity.  Finally, it visits us in our cultural obsession with seeing as the preeminent way of knowing what is true.   If we see its form, even if “it” is only on the TV or on the web, we believe it.  If we don’t see it, then we don’t believe it.   These are the realities we live with as members of Western civilization, and they are not so very different from the assumed realities of John’s “Greeks”.  The colonial powers might have changed.  But their message has not!

In this context, in this civilization in which the church itself is also, so often, a very willing participant, ministers of the gospel are called to do what the apostles did, in their different ways.   To so immerse ourselves in the story of the crucified and risen Christ, that the most dominant sight and sense and values of our civilization are displaced, cast aside, even put to death.  Like Paul and John, we are called to a prayerful passivity before the crucified, a passivity that, with time and by the Spirit, comes to so scarify and refigure our sight and sense and values that we are no longer the slaves of what our world would consider either reasonable or beautiful.   In the grace of God, this habitual contemplation of the crucified will eventually empower us to let go of the way we see with our eyes—which, of course, is to see according to our cultural conditioning—in favour of a seeing that comes by faith in a God who gives life to the dead and wisdom to fools.  With that different kind of vision, in the ‘dark light’ that spills out from the cross, we are called, first, to deconstruct and unmask the gods of our age.  To say our ‘no’ to their oppressive power.  To announce that the judgement of God has arrived to expose their lies.  But then we are called to declare the promise of God toward everything these gods have wrecked and wasted: nothing less than the conversion, the transfiguration, the resurrection of the broken soul after the image of God’s son.  To declare, in other words, the good news that God loves the fool, the weakling, the sinner.  To declare that God, in Christ, will raise the sinner up to life and dignity and the inheritance of children, first in Christ’s church, and finally in the joyful paradise of the redeemed. 

I know of no better poetic summation of the vocation of Christ and of his messengers that this one, from Leonard Cohen, who happens to b a Jew.  It takes the form of a prayer:

If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for. If it be your will.

If it be your will that a voice be true
From this broken hill I will sing to you
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring
If it be your will to let me sing

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will to make us well

And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here, in their rags of light
In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
And end this night. If it be your will.
If it be your will.

In this prayer of surrender, valedictorians, is your calling as pastors and teachers of Christ’s church.  To such praying as this you are, or will be, ordained.  May God give you power to contemplate and really accept the truth of God’s amazing love, and then freely to share its inexhaustible riches with all God’s children.

This homily was preached at the Valedictory service for the Uniting Church Theological College, Melbourne, in 2009.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Light for dark times

Texts:  2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

Have you ever noticed how the gospel of Mark has no resurrection appearances?  Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, Mark doesn't deliver his readers a post-resurrection Jesus who appears to his disciples and gives them final instructions.  Instead, what you find there in chapter 16 is a group of the women turning up at the empty tomb where they discover, not a risen Jesus, but a nameless young bloke in an alb who tells them Jesus is risen.  So he's the one who gives them the instructions in this gospel, he, an intermediary or witness.  He tells the women to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.  And how do the women respond to the news?  Well, let me quote verse 8 of chapter 16, the last verse in Mark:

They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Now this is not exactly victorious, happy-ending stuff.  This is not a glorious ascension into heaven and a blessing of the faithful, like in Luke.  It's not a beachside scene where Peter is given the job of forming the church, like in John.  There's not even a dignified farewell and instructions for the ongoing mission, as in Matthew.  No, Mark has a distinctly unhappy and unresolved ending.  An ending where the risen Christ seems strangely absent, and the first witnesses of the resurrection are left fearful and bewildered.

Now, while the dreamer in me is forever drawn to the clear and incisive vision of John’s gospel, it is Mark's gospel that resonates most powerfully with my lived experience of being a disciple of Christ.  Why?  Because it doesn't deliver Jesus to me on a platter, all dolled up and unambiguously victorious in the face of life's complexity and difficulty.  No, in Mark's gospel, the glory of Jesus is a hidden glory, hidden beneath the stifling weight of the oh-so-human politics, religion and psychological trauma of Mark’s time.  Mark’s community was composed, you see, of a smallish bunch of Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 AD.  They were a refugee community who felt like the whole world was falling down around them, and that the plans of God for Israel were pretty much over.  In the midst of their despair and poverty, the glorious presence of the risen Christ was really not particularly obvious.  Which is not to say that the risen Christ was not present for Mark and his community.  It’s just to say that Mark and his community had to work towards a theology of Christ’s presence that made sense in their unique and particular circumstances.

That's where this incredible story of the transfiguration comes in.  When Jesus is still alive, and still preaching and teaching in Galilee, Mark tells us that he took his best mates Peter, James and John—the inner circle of the disciples—up onto a mountain to be by themselves.  You can understand, I'm sure, the motivation here.  As Mark tells the story, Jesus has been tearing around Galilee for months, preaching and healing.  The crowds follow him everywhere.  Crucially, Jesus had already negotiated a number of run-ins with the ruling figures in Jerusalem, the scribes and the Sadducees.  He had offended their sense of religious propriety, and they had made it clear that if he continued upon the course he had set himself, he would end up in serious trouble.  Indeed, Mark tells us that immediately prior to this mountain trip, Jesus had told his disciples that they were all headed for Jerusalem, where he would be arrested and crucified.   After all that, I think you can see why Jesus would be wanting to get away from it all!  Also, if I were Jesus, I reckon I'd be having some doubts about my resolve.  I'd be wondering if I had the wherewithal to follow through on what I believed I had to do.  And I'd be wanting some space, and the companionship of some good friends, to help me come to terms with all of that.

So there they are, camped up in the mountains like so many before them.  Like Moses on Mount Horeb, who had run away from his enemies in Egypt.  Like Elijah on the run from political assassins.   And like these two great figures before him, Jesus has an encounter with God there that strengthened his resolve to fulfil the mission which God had given him.  Mark tells us that the long-gone Moses and Elijah came to talk with him.  Not metaphysically, you understand, but mystically. Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah in a moment of concentrated prayer, in the manner that we, also, may converse with the great scholars and mentors of the faith:  we may meet them, that is, in the God who binds us all together across space and time; we may hear their voice; we may attend to the way in which they have become icons of God’s way and will; we may watch for their faithful decisions, and learn a thing or two about the call of God within our own place and time. 

What Jesus learned, in prayer, for his own pilgrimage is communicated by what Mark then tells us through the device of a cloud and voice, a device well-known and understood by his Jewish community.  Just as Yahweh, a voice in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, had confirmed the identity and destiny of the people of Israel as they crossed the red sea and then journeyed toward the land of promise, now the cloud of God and the voice of God confirm and encourage Jesus in his messianic identity as the suffering son of God.  Indeed, in doing so, they repeat the message Jesus had already received at his baptism, a story already told by Mark at the very beginning of his gospel.  We conclude, therefore, that Jesus here receives a reminder and an encouragement from his Father.  To finish what he has begun.  To walk the way of the wilderness to his own land of promise, even as his ancestors have done.

Yet it is not only Jesus who receives encouragement and guidance.  Those who are listening to this story as preaching, the members of Mark’s community, are present in the story as the figures of the disciples, Peter, James and John.  Think, for a moment, about how the story unfolds from their point of view.  In following Jesus up the mountain, it has been made clear that they, too, are apprehensive about what the future may hold.  On the one hand, they are excited about the ministry of Jesus, his preaching and his healing.  They are filled with hope for what God may do with them and for their suffering people.  Yet they have also become quite disoriented by Jesus’ more recent talk about how the messiah must suffering and die.  What does it all mean?  Is God with them or not?  How could the death of Jesus accomplish anything useful at all?  Will God also abandon Jesus, in whose face they have discerned the very image of God on earth?  So, these are the questions that swim around their heads and hearts as Peter, James and John camp with Jesus on the mountaintop.  At that very moment, Mark tells us, Jesus was transfigured before them.  His clothes became shining white, whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them, white as the glorious presence that had appeared to Israel, to Moses and to Elijah.  Only this time the glory emanated from Jesus himself.  The divine shekinah shines out through the suddenly translucent body of Jesus their friend.

What did Mark want his community to hear in this story?  And what would the Spirit want us to hear?  To return to where I began, this morning, I want you to note that the transfiguration is the closest Mark comes to telling a resurrection appearance story.  Only, unlike the resurrection stories that appear in the other gospels, this one (which precedes them all diachronically) is placed right in the middle of Jesus' ministry in Galilee, well before the crucifixion ever occurs.  It is a very, very brief revelation of divine glory, and of the resurrection life promised by God.  It is a foretaste, if you like, of the end of the drama in which we are all, as Christians, enrolled.  It assures us, as it assured Mark’s community, that God may indeed be found with Jesus, and that Jesus will see us through, even in the middle or midst of our pilgrimage, even when we are most knee-deep in the mire of our difficulties. 

Yet, and this is important, the story of the transfiguration does not deliver, for all that, the kind of certainties that many contemporary forms of faith would seek to deliver.  Certainties about being saved from poverty, illness or addiction, or from the real-politics that makes for war, genocide and the flight of refugees.  Note, in the story, that the revelation received does not transform the disciples into warriors of faith who can suddenly say, finally and definitively, who God is or what God is up to in the world.  They see and hear God, certainly.  They see God flash out at them in brilliant glory; yet it is the very brilliance of the revelation that guarantees that they will grasp very little of God’s detail, as it were.  They hear God’s voice from the cloud, certainly, but every Jew knows that clouds hide as least as much as they reveal.  The whole thing is over in a moment, leaving very important impressions, memories, hopes indeed. Yet, in the end, the disciples are given nothing other than these, nothing more substantial by which they might command or control the forces arraigned against them.  It is salutary to note that when Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain once more, the work of healing and preaching continues, and it is just as hard and thankless as before.

What is Mark telling us?  He is telling us this.  That the life of discipleship is not usually about the experience of triumph and victory and power; it is about God’s revaluation of these values, such that experiences of defeat, weakness and tribulation are nevertheless charged, in faith, with a persevering dynamism of divine care and love.  Neither is discipleship about having a clear and unambiguous relationship with God that arms us with power to finally transcend the forces arraigned against us, whether from within or without; it is about the hope that Christ will accomplish what we could never, in a million years, accomplish for ourselves.  What Mark tells his community through this story, therefore, is what he would also tell us this morning: that the life of discipleship is about getting on with life not triumphantly, but faithfully, through the often very hard yakka of caring and preaching in a world which the gods of our age have rendered blind and deaf and dumb.  And being sustained in that by the impressions, traces and hopes given us in the transfiguration, that is, by a capacity to see the divine Spirit quietly and constantly at work where others see only toil and trouble.

The story of the transfiguration is, in Nicholas Lash's memorable phrase, an 'Easter in ordinary'.  It tells us that even the most difficult and dark places of the earth are nevertheless alive with the presence and activity of God.  With the eyes of faith, which are given the Church precisely in the revelatory story of Christ’s transfiguration, it is possible to see that God does not abandon us in our ignorance, in our mediocrity, or even in our poverty.  God is present here.  God is working there.  God is making the resurrection happen by even the smallest increments of loving invitation and of hope.  Even the smallest. 

Now I don't know about you, but for me this message of Mark's is very good news.  Because I don't find the Christian life to be particularly victorious.  And I've never met a God who wants to rescue me, magically, from every difficulty.  But Mark tells me that an authentic discipleship is about being prepared to follow Jesus to the cross, and find there that even the very worst that human beings can do to each other is not strong enough to overpower the love of God for this crazy old world.  Mark tells me that the liberating power of the risen Christ is available at any time, and in any place.  Not as apparently miraculous fireworks or the arrival of the marines.  But as the power to persevere in faith, hope and love because these, and only these, have the power not only to outlast evil, but to so absorb its power that it is no longer evil.  That is a sermon for another day.  But for now, know that this I hold in faith: when evil and death have withered away, faith, hope and love will still be there.

So here's a practical suggestion right at the end.  A suggestion for how you might find that that presence of Christ if it seems to not be there.  Get on with being a disciple.  Read the gospel of Mark.  Notice what Jesus does in his ministry in Galilee.  And do the same.  Repeat it otherwise in your own place and time.  Remember what the young bloke said at the tomb?  'He is not here, he is risen . . .  go and find him in Galilee'.  Which mean 'go and find him in the midst of being his disciple and sharing in his ministry, and the ordinary will be transfigured before you'. 

I’d like to close with a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in a reflection on exactly these themes, says this:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:        
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.  

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

As Hopkins says:  Christ shines out in everyone and everything that is Christ-like in the world.  He worships his father through everything that the just do to worship him, which is to say, in everything that that seeks to repeat his words and his works for our own times and places.  In this is our hope and our glory.  Not in creating a justice and a peace from our own imaginations, but in the imaginative reception of what Christ would render unto his Father through a heart of faith—perhaps even your heart, perhaps even mine.

Garry J Deverell
Feast of the Transfiguration

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Matthew's baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17

Every culture and people have their foundational stories, stories which are able to tell us who we are, where we belong, and what our purpose in life might be.  For Christians, one of those foundational stories in that of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river.  It is foundational because it is a story not only about who God is, but it is also about who we are as people who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  If we listen carefully, it is a story that can also provide invaluable guidance about where we belong in the world, and what we are to do with our lives.  It certainly did that for the early Christian communities.  So . . . listen carefully!

The first thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus came from all the way from Galilee to be baptised by John in the Jordan.  That’s quite a long way and, if you happen to be a young man seeking your fortune in the big wide world, in entirely the wrong direction!  For John was baptising people not in the middle of the city, where people gathered to work and do their business, but in the desert wilderness—way, way off the beaten track.  For John was preaching a baptism of repentance, calling people to reflect upon their lives and ask the question “Is what I’m doing with my life really enriching, satisfying, what I am put on this earth to do?  Or am I just doing it because everyone else is, or because I am afraid of something, or for some other reason I don’t quite understand?”  In John’s eyes, the Jewish people, particularly the most wealthy and successful, had forgotten about the call of their God to live lives characterised by justice, compassion and prayer.  And so he beckoned them out into the wilderness, to a place where the normal trappings of life were no longer there to support and ensnare.  He beckoned them to a place rich with meaning in Jewish faith, a place which marks the passage of a people who had been slaves in Egypt to their freedom in the land of promise.  “Be baptised in the Jordan,” he told them.  “Like the people who crossed this river in ancient times, you cross this river also.  Repent!  Put off your life of slavery to economic and social demands.  Wash away your sins and rise from the waters to pursue the life of freedom that God will give you!”

So, when Jesus comes to John it is not by accident.  It’s not that he was wandering in the desert one day, like some tourist in modern-day Palestine, and happened across a bizarre ceremony that would be kinda fun to have a go at.  No, Jesus comes to John with a deeply held belief and purpose:  that God had called him to leave behind all that was expected of him by his community, that is, to be the head of his household and chief provider for his mother, his brothers, and his sisters.  Jesus believed that God had called him to claim an entirely different identity and mission, a vocation that could only, perhaps, be finally discovered and embraced through this watery ritual of death and rebirth.

For that is what baptism meant for the Jews of the first century.  The word “baptism” literally means “to be immersed in water”, and the ceremony first came to prominence in the century before Christ as a way for Gentiles, non-Jews that is, to embrace the Jewish faith and community.  After a long period of preparation in which the candidates learned both the wisdom of the Jews in law and prophets and the ethical demands of the Jewish life, they would be taken to a body of water and washed thoroughly—yes, even immersed in that body of water.  Thus the name:  “baptism”.  The symbol is not perhaps so obvious to us these days, especially to those of us who have witnessed hundreds of infant christenings over the years.  Stripped naked and immersed in water, the candidates were killing off their former way of life by a symbolic drowning.  They were also washing away their sins so that God might lead them in a new, and very different, way of life.  What John does, then, is take an established Jewish ritual for the initiation of Gentiles into Judaism and applies it to lapsed or lost Jews, Jews who had forgotten what it meant to trust and obey the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

One should understand that, in the ancient world, water was not so benign as we regard it today—flowing purely and freely from our taps as it does.  In the ancient world, water very often symbolised chaos and evil.  In water, people lost their lives.  On the waves of the sea, many ancient people drowned.  With the flooding of the rivers, they lost their harvests.  In the ancient world, people knew that water was both necessary to life but also the bringer of death.  “Fear death by water” said the Buddha in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland.  What that meant for Eliot, as it means for us, is that the waters of baptism should not be regarded as tame, given only to feed and sustain life as we know it.  The waters of baptism are dangerous:  they are designed to take our lives away.  Without doing so, they cannot give us a new life.  There is a terrific byzantine icon of Jesus baptism in which you can see, under his feet, the terrifying figure of Leviathan, an ancient symbol of water’s power to kill and destroy.  In order to be baptised, Jesus had to be willing to submit himself to the power of Leviathan.  For that is the only way to overcome Leviathan’s power.  Perhaps we moderns only get in touch with something of that ancient sensibility when a tsunami comes along.

So, all of these meanings hover in air and stir in the water as Jesus comes to be baptised by John.  That is why John at first refuses to baptise Jesus, according to Matthew.  For Matthew’s community, you see, which knew these meanings very well indeed, Jesus is not a person who needed to be baptised.  He is not a sinner who had lost his way and therefore needed to be cleansed and renewed in the water.  “That may be true,” says Matthew in reply, “but baptism symbolises other things as well:  not just the putting away of a life of sin but, more positively, the embrace of an identity and vocation from God.  This is why Jesus asks John to baptise him—in order to symbolise and fulfil all that God rightly asks of him.”  

And so Jesus is baptised.  Note the tense and the mood of that verb.  Jesus does not baptise himself.  Baptism is not something that he, or anyone else, can do for themselves.  It is something that another gives or bestows upon us.  The primary agent in baptism is God.  It is God who baptises, it is God who gives us the grace and the power to put aside the life of sin and embrace the life of faith.  It is God who acts in baptism, even though he does so through the agency of his servant.  For Jesus that servant was John.  For us, it is the church.  What this means, of course, is that salvation is not something we can accomplish for ourselves.  In the Christian view of the world it is simply not possible, by virtue of one’s own ingenuity and power, to be liberated.  In Christian understanding, even the will to be liberated is a gift from God.  Therefore, it is only by virtue of God’s love and grace that we can ever be saved.  

Yet, for all that, a well-informed human will and intention must be present, as it was for Jesus.  Without such will, there is no sacrament.  That is why the church can never baptise a person for whom there is neither faith in God, nor the will to follow God’s way.  What does that mean for infant baptism?  Simply this:  that we must stop baptising children where the primary caregivers have little-to-no informed intention of living a genuinely Christian life, immersed in the church and loyal to the promises made.  The word sacrament means, in fact, “promise”.  In the sacrament of baptism, we hear the love and promises of God.  But we also enact our own promises, promises to turn away from evil and embrace the life of Christ not only in word, but in deed also.  If we or our primary caregivers can neither understand nor make those promises, then the church has no business in baptising us.  To do so would be to mock the promises of God!

But what does God promise us in baptism?  Here we can learn from the baptism of Jesus once more.  As he emerges from the waters of death, Matthew tells us that Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon his ‘like a dove.’  This event is rich with resonance from Jewish history and theology.  It first recalls the messianic passage we read from Isaiah, where the servant of the Lord is given the Spirit in order to perform a particular task and mission in the world:  to accomplish justice for the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to be a light for the nations, and to release the captives from prison.  In his baptism, Jesus therefore learns his task in the world:  to be God’s light and hope, and the promise of justice, for all who suffer.  This image of the Spirit descending like a dove reinforces that identity.  In the story of Noah, the dove comes as the waters of the flood recede, a sign that God’s new world is beginning to emerge.  So it is for Jesus, and for all who are baptised.  The Spirit is a sign or guarantee that there is life after disaster and death, that no matter how much we lose in baptism we shall be given, by that same action, blessings and riches beyond measure.  The dove:  a sign of God’s love after the deluge is over.

And then there is the voice from heaven:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Here Jesus finds out who he is.  It is likely that Jesus suspected something for much of his life, but now all his imaginings and intimations come together.  For here God owns Jesus as his son and messiah, the one by whom salvation will come not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.  Remember that the most crucial component of this identity, in Christian understanding, is that of suffering.  Christ will not be the Son of God, and will not bring salvation to the world, unless he suffers and dies.  This understanding is confirmed, in Matthew’s narrative, by Jesus use of the ‘sign of Jonah’ in chapter 12.  There some teachers come to Jesus and ask him for a sign that he is indeed the messiah sent by God.  Jesus replies that no sign will be given them except the sign of the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a sea monster, deep in the ocean.  “So shall it be for the Son of Man,” says Jesus, “who shall spend three days buried in the heart of the earth”.  Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus baptism anoints him to be the messiah, certainly, but a peculiar kind of messiah: a messiah who must suffer and die in order to accomplish his work.  The imagery of baptism is unmistakable.  Here baptism becomes a figure for his death and his resurrection:  buried in the water, risen to life on the third day.

Now, I said at the beginning that this story of Jesus baptism is not only about God and Jesus, but also about all who ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  We’ve seen something of that as we’ve gone along.  But let me now conclude by making some things explicit which have perhaps been hidden in the detail up until now.  The baptism of Jesus became, in early Christian theology, the paradigm or model for what it meant to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.  ‘Belief’ you see, is neither intellectual assent on its own, nor a group of habitual bodily practices on their own.  Belief is ‘faith’, a decisive unity of intellectual and bodily action which has its object and inspiration within the thought and action of another, an ‘other’ in whom one’s very self is taken apart and re-constructed.  Christians are made into Christians by becoming immersed in the symbolic world of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is figured in baptism, and precisely by that immersion, are transformed into people whose seek to imitate Christ is every way.  What we therefore learn from Jesus’ baptism is what it ‘belief in Jesus Christ’ actually looks like in a particular life:

  1. a leaving of the well-worn expectations and loyalties of our society in favour of a life of faith dedicated to God;
  2. a dying to sin, and the lostness of our culture, in order to rise to a new life, a life of grace and peace given us by God; in this we participate in Christ’s saving death and resurrection—‘the sign of Jonah’;
  3. the conferral and gift of a new identity.  In our baptism, God owns us as his sons and his daughters.  Jesus was the first, in other words, of many siblings.  The whole company of these siblings is called ‘the church’.
  4. a commissioning for mission, for now we are anointed with the Spirit so that we can share with Jesus his vocation as messiah.  In the baptismal liturgy we declare God’s promise that we are now, as a baptised people, the body of Christ, in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells.  All of us, whether we are ‘ordained’ or not, are therefore called to be lights for the nations and to work for the freedom of everyone from whatever it is that keeps them in chains.

The story of the baptism is therefore foundational for the identity and vocation not only of Jesus, but of ourselves as well.  As many as are baptised into Christ have died with Christ.  By participating in the baptism of his death and resurrection we, each of us, are given a new, messianic, mission and vocation.  As Christ gave himself for the sake of the world, so now we—as his body, the church—are called to join with him in loving the world, for the glory of God.  That is what it means, therefore, to ‘believe in Jesus Christ’.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mid-life confessions

At forty-seven years old I am no longer young. The 'warrior phase' is well and truly behind me. The future stretches out far more bleakly (or should it be 'really'?) before me.

For several years now, a great many changes of mind and heart have been insinuating their way into my imagination. Perhaps I should come clean and confess that I no longer see or hear or feel as I once did about a great many things. Some of you who knew me best when I was a twenty-something or thirty-something may be surprised at what you read here. Others, the wisest amongst you, will have seen what was coming from a very long way off.

When I was young, I dreamed of writing a revolutionary book of theology or philosophy that would fundamentally change its reader's hearts and minds. Now I know that I will never write such a book. Or, if I were by some miracle to produce such a tome, I know it would sink like a stone into obscurity because the practice of reading such books is almost gone.

When I was young, I dreamed that youthful enthusiasm and imagination would fundamentally change the political landscape so that a new era of peace with justice could emerge. Now I know that the powers of greed and entropy are far more entrenched than I could have imagined. I also know that the vast majority of young people have been recruited by those very powers, whether they are aware of the fact or not.

When I was young, I thought that the world was my oyster and that I would die a prosperous and comfortable man. The key to my future, I surmised, was education. Education would lift me from the poverty in which I had grown up, and release me into a prosperous future in which I could do whatever I wanted to do and be whatever I wanted to be (to paraphrase the Master's Apprentices). Now I can see that I unconsciously pursued the kind of education that would render me rich in words and ideas and values but poor in things.

When I was young, I imagined that I would remain healthily capable, competent and energetic well into my seventies. Now I know that growing older means coming to terms with the fading of one's powers. Now I know that ill-health can shatter one's dreams and bring them to naught.

When I was young I imagined that serving Christ was a glorious thing, a praiseworthy thing, a making of oneself into a powerful centre of moral authority that would draw whole communities into its thrall. Now I understand that following Christ is about being despised, rejected and rendered anonymous. It is about becoming an object of scorn for both monster and moralist alike. It is about losing oneself entirely.

All of which is to say that, for me, the world is not at all as I imagined it would be when I was young. I am no longer the 'promising young leader' that some described two decades ago. I am a person whose hopes and dreams lie in ruins under a towering rubble of self-deception, ill health, and Christian realism.

For all that, and most likely because of all that, I find myself able to give thanks. I give thanks for my wife Lil, for the way she has stuck by me with tenacious love over 25 years.  I give thanks for my daughters Erin and Gretel, who continue to be the light of my life. I give thanks for my mum and dad, who walked this way before me. I give thanks for the treasures of Christian faith - baptism, bible, prayer and eucharist - which continue to sustain and comfort me. I give thanks for friends who love me loyally even when I am being a dick. I give thanks that I have a roof over my head and that I can still string two words together. Two words may now be all that Christ requires.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I should be glad of another death

Texts:  Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72. 1-7; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2. 1-12
 . . .  were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
from T.S. Eliot, ‘The journey of the Magi’ (1927)
I have seen something.  Something which is difficult to recall with accuracy, and almost impossible to speak about.  Something wonderful, and terrifying, and intoxicating, and utterly strange.  What I have seen, I saw not with my eyes, nor even with my soul (whatever that is).  It was, rather, a feeling that I had, myself, been seen by another.  Seen transparently and utterly, as under a field of ultra-violet light, so that nothing of who I am or will become now remains hidden.  Seen in such a way as to transform my entire sense of who is the observer and who the observed.  So that the whole manner of my observation¬, whether of self or society, has been irrevocably changed.  What I see now is no longer what I saw before, even though I’m looking out on the same scenes, the same people.  It’s as if my seeing is charged, now, with the consciousness of that other, so that my seeing is always already what this other sees as well.  It was not so before I saw.

When the Magi set out on their journey, it was because they, too, saw something.  But what they saw is also difficult to name.  When Matthew says that it was a star that they saw, the star clearly evokes a peculiar and particular fact:  the birth of a king for the Jews.  The star rises in the east, a permanent sign and symbol for the rising of new hopes and expectations for the downtrodden people of Judea, hopes that are coming to birth in the babe of Bethlehem.  That is what Matthew, I think, intends to say about the meaning of the star.  And yet there is a logic in his story which works against all that.  For it is not the babe’s own people who see the star, or recognise it’s significance.  It is not Herod, the king of the Jews, or his counselors who journey to pay homage to the newly born Messiah.  Rather, it is Magi from the East who accomplish all this.  Gentiles.  Natives of a foreign land.  Infidels.  So what did they see?  What did they see that could possibly move them to become interested in the significance of a minor principality, a tiny outpost of the great Roman Empire?  What moved them to leave where they were, to say goodbye to all that was solid and familiar, to put aside responsibilities and livelihoods?  What moved them to put relationships on hold, to put plans on hold, to change direction altogether and journey into a difficult and dangerous land?  What could they possibly have seen to make things so?

Perhaps they saw what I have seen.  Perhaps they saw something that is difficult to name.  Perhaps they were grasped by an experience of having, themselves, been seen by some other.  An Other whose irrefutable presence imbues one’s own seeing with a vision ‘far more deeply interfused’, so that the ordinary shines with beatific glory, and former gods, former objects of desire, are rendered as lifeless and void as plastic.  Perhaps they saw, therefore, that the baby of Bethlehem was both far more and far less that a Messianic pretender for a provincial people.  Perhaps they saw here something of rather more cosmic significance, the arrival of something the world had never seen before, and yet had yearned for since its first creature drew breath.  Perhaps they saw in the child the possibility of that which seemed so very impossible.  Perhaps they were surprised by . . .  by JOY.

When one considers the state of things, it is indeed difficult, I think, to believe that joy is possible.  Most of the world’s people live in poverty.  And they live in poverty because of the excessive greed of the rest of the world, the greed of those of us who belong to the so-called ‘developed economies’.  Because the economic elites require endless consumer choice at the lowest possible price, the poor are condemned to short lives of hard labour and ill health.  And this is not simply a 1st World/ 3rd World phenomenon either.  Even within the 1st World economies, there are those who must work themselves to death so that the elites may continue to enjoy their consumer freedom.  That is why we have sweat-shops.  That is why the large franchises employ ‘casual’ work forces (=low wages, few rights).  That is why we have a huge ‘informal’ work force which receives almost nothing in return for its economic contribution.  

And here is the most joyless bit of all.  Whether you are rich or poor, a hard worker or a hard drinker, whether you’re the CEO of Telstra or a technician who’s just been made ‘redundant’, our joy is being stolen away by advertising.  Because advertising wants to sell us something, something we don’t really need.  And when we get that something, whether by the divine right of the rich or by sheer hard work and ingenuity, we know straight away that we didn’t really need it at all.  Because we still feel empty.  Beneath the shiny happy exterior we put on for our friends, beneath the happy-go-lucky persona of the working-classes or the cool and confident aire of the middle-to-rich, we are still empty.  The pages of New Idea and Cosmopolitan are full of people who still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

In T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary poem, he imagines himself to be one of the Magi turning up at the birth of Jesus.  The journey has been hard, and long, in a thoroughly twentieth-century way.  Its been too hot and too cold, and the transport has not been at all comfortable.  Not like home.  Their porters and servants were only interested in booze and women, and each town seemed either too expensive or too hostile or too alien.  And, of course, the stumbling attempt to walk against the grain of all that is consumable and fashionable seemed, for much of the time, to be nothing but sheer foolishness.  But when they arrived, when they actually found that which came to find, they were utterly and completely unprepared.  For while they were witnesses to a birth, a birth much like all the other births they have ever seen, this was a birth which induced a kind of death in all touched by its power.  So much so, that when the Magi returned to their own lands and their own lives, they found that their old obsessions, their old desires and plans have disappeared.  That the people and pastimes they had once admired seemed now to possess no more substance than that of shadows, clutching at worthless gods.

When people of faith see something, or rather, when they become aware of a gracious presence whose vision suffuses and possesses their own, the world is utterly changed.  Black and white suddenly appears colourful.  The hopeless situation becomes pregnant with possibility.  The brick wall which impedes all progress becomes an opportunity to learn rock-climbing.  Not, I must stress, in psychologically disturbed ways, which seek to deny and sublimate the very real pain and darkness of life.  No.  The new way of seeing is about depth and complexity.  And about double-vision.  While acknowledging the painful realities, the changed vision I’ve been describing does not allow those realities to become totalized, to take over the world and rule there without rival.  The vision granted by faith is about discerning, even in the midst of the very worst that life can dish out, the real but hidden properties of light, hope, love, joy.  Seeing those things which are ordinarily hidden, naming them, and so bringing them into the light.

According to Eliot, the Magi suffered a death in order to become mystics, mystics who could see that the birth of a provincial messiah was also the possibility of their own rebirth in the cosmic plan of God.  So too, I would encourage all gathered here this morning to continue on that same journey.  The journey where despair and darkness is refused its ultimate power.  Where the advertisers are exposed as charlatans.  Where the all-pervasive wrongs of the world are no longer allowed to be all-pervasive.  Where the seemingly pointless birth of a provincial king in the ancient world of Rome is no longer regarded as pointless.  Where love and joy and peace are discerned and named and allowed to flourish.  And that which seemed impossible becomes a possibility once more.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the Feast of the Epiphany 2003.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

'The words I have spoken are spirit and life': the poetics of faith

Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ What is the Apostle talking about when he utters these enigmatic words?

In part, the Apostle is seeking to make a crucial distinction between what we can see, touch, hear and taste, and what we can’t. There are things in this universe, he wants to say, which we cannot sense in any ordinary way, and yet they are real¬ - as real as this lectern, or that book, or you and I. Let me elaborate a little.  Let’s pursue the example of that book. In one sense, it is just a book. It is made of paper, of pulped wood and chemicals. Perhaps there is a little leather. Certainly, there is a lot of ink, ink which is distributed liberally on the page to create words. A book, just a book. And yet it is not just a book, is it? For there, in those pages, resides the trace and the effect of a story and an event that is far bigger and more cataclysmic in their import than any mere book could be.  The trace and effect of that God who has made our world from nothing and passed through it in cloud and fire and a people liberated from slavery; the trace and effect of Holy Wisdom becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, full of grace and truth; the trace and effect of life bursting forth from the tombs in which we would enclose it; the trace and effect of transformation, salvation, the liberation of the world from its bondage to death and decay. The trace and effect of things far larger and more deeply complexly interwoven than mere pulp and paper, vellum and ink could ever mean on their own. What we see and touch and taste is a book. But what we feel, especially when it is read aloud, is the shaking of the earth and the remaking of the cosmos.

So when the Apostle talks about rulers, authorities, dark powers of evil who dwell in heavenly realms, he is asking us to look beyond the surface of what things might mean and listen, instead, for the resonance and timbre of a great opera that has been unfolding since before the universe was made, a cosmic drama concerning good and evil, making and unmaking, faith in the God of life and the appetite of humankind for mayhem and destruction.  Here the Apostle wants to teach us what literature scholars call a ‘hermeneutic’, a strategy for rightly reading the times and places in which we live.

Take, for example, some of the events that dominate the news. ISIL kills many thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, most of them Muslims.  The Abbot government turns back another boat of desperate asylum seekers. A young Aboriginal woman dies in police custody. The disability pension is reclassified so that thousands of recipients lose their benefits.  A pop star goes into rehab for drug abuse. What are these events all about? What do they really mean? Some - usually journalists - might read them as examples of the ongoing struggle between the weak and the strong, the ones who will form the future and those who will not.  Such readings assume, all too pragmatically, that history is written by the strong, and that it is the strong who always win.  But if we read those same events in the light of that opera an Apostle might sing, they are about faith and disbelief, flesh and spirit, light and darkness. They are about the struggle of the people of God with forces that can never be reduced to mere flesh and blood, to bodies that are either weak or strong. They are about the struggle with an ancient and cosmic evil that would seek to enlist anything and anyone to its cause, and without caring whether those enlisted understand what is at stake or not.  By reading things this way, those of us who have heard the gospel come to understand that the events that dominate our televisions or, indeed, our own lives, have a cosmic significance. They are important not simply because these events apparently determine whether we can expect a comfortable future or not. They matter because they are traces and effects of God’s eternal desire to wrest life from death, light from darkness, faith from doubt.

Let me put all this another way. The world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s TV show from the late 90s and early Noughties is our world. Despite the claims of the eternally prosaic and unimaginative, we do indeed live in a world populated by creatures that want to suck our blood and remove our brains and hearts. We do indeed live in a world in which the scarcity of wisdom figures and wise mentors to show us the way forces most of us to simply do our best with the limited resources we have, effectively making it up as we go along.  We also live in the world of Harry Potter, JK Rowling’s series of novels. A world in which a dark lord would seek to re-establish the rule of ‘might is right’ and there is only a small band of courageous and principled neophytes to stand against him, this time, albeit, with the help of plentiful apostle figures.  We are indeed in the midst of a battle. Not a battle against mere flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities that are so pan-dimensional that they can barely be named at all.  The Jewish and Christian traditions name such powers variously as the devil, the Evil one, the demonic, the Father of Lies, Satan, Beelzebub. But these are names which can never entirely capture or domesticate what is really at work: evil, entropy, destruction, all that would make for death and meaninglessness and nothingness.

How does one battle such a slippery enemy? What resources can the people of God draw upon? Well, the writer to the Ephesians is no more prosaic in prescribing an antidote for evil than he is in naming evil itself.  Invoking the metaphor of a warrior, the Apostle encourages the people of God to don the full armour of God, including a ‘belt of truth’, a ‘breastplate of justice’, and ‘sandals of peace’, as well as ‘shield of faith’, a ‘helmet of salvation’ and ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. Of course, we should never take these images literally, that is, prosaically. We should never make the mistake of thinking that the Christian is a soldier who fights the enemy as the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ fought Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.  If we make that mistake then we have missed the point of the struggle in the same way that many mistake the point of ‘jihad’ in the Qur’an.  Christians and Muslims alike do not battle flesh and blood, strong or weak bodies, we battle evil in all its guises - whether those guises be hunger, addiction and self-loathing or systemic injustice, the culture of economic rationalism or the totalising power of the rich.  And the weapons we use are not weapons that kill, they are weapons that bring life: weapons that are really elements of a vision, a grand story, about the desire of God to transform the world into a place where truth, justice and healing are realities for everyone and everything.

Another way to talk about all this is suggested by the passage we read from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus completes his long sermon about bread and wine with the words ‘The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’.  Like the writer of Ephesians, John is here seeking to distinguish between literal or prosaic readings of the world, and those inspired by the more poetic renderings of faith.  As we have been learning in the last few weeks as we have together pondered the meaning of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, it is a merely ‘fleshly’ reading that concludes that Jesus wants only to feed the ordinarily hungry and the ordinarily thirsty.  On the contrary, what John has been helping us to understand is that Jesus himself is the ‘bread’ and the ‘wine’ that we need. He is the heavenly bread and wine which God has sent to satiate that longing in us for a form of life that truly at peace with both God and ourselves, a form of life the gospel calls, simply, ‘eternal’ life.  This is ‘spiritual’ reading of the events the gospel describes, a rendering of the feeding by the sea of Tiberius that in very real ways gave birth in the church to our celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the ‘spiritual’ poetics of John, which he contrasts with more ‘fleshly’ readings, we have come to see that the bread and wine we share at the Supper is far more than bread and wine.  Together, the bread and wine are the Word make flesh, Jesus himself, who by our eating and drinking takes up residence not only in our bodies, but also in our minds and hearts.  By eating and drinking in this manner, with the eyes of faith wide open, John teaches us to learn a new way of reading the world and to take this poetics to ourselves as the only language that is able to give us life.  ‘Learn of Jesus in prayer’, says John. ‘Approach the table in prayer and see there the word of God made flesh in Jesus, who is able to inhabit your life by faith and give you hope and a future, despite what the cynics, the politicians and the journalists might say. Learn of Jesus in the operatic ritual of the Eucharist and learn to give thanks for God’s victory over all that would make for death, for darkness, for injustice or despair.’

So, if you got lost in all of that, don’t worry. Here comes the summary. How do we recognise evil? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we discern the difference between right and wrong? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we fight the darts cast our way by the evil one? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts? How do we take Christ’s wisdom into our hearts? By prayer, by the reading of the Scriptures in a spirit of prayer, and by participation in the supper that celebrates his mysteries.

I close with a prayer by Leonard Cohen, a Jew who knows the poetics of the Christian faith better than many Christians that I know. Here he throws himself upon the mercy of God, as we all must if we are to find our way through the sufferings of this life to the life of resurrection that Christ promises.
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I've forgotten I don't know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
This homily was first preached at Monash Uniting Church in August 2015.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The blessed martyrs

Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
In the story we heard this morning from Mark’s gospel, we learn that John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed because he spoke up against the law of a powerful family in the name of the law of God.  Herod, the Roman-appointed governor of Galilee, had ‘married’ Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, even though she was still married to Philip.  The priests and rabbis apparently tolerated this situation because they were afraid of Herod’s power.  But John did not.  Presumably he believed that officials who sat in the place of David in Israel had a special responsibility to set an example for others.  In the prophetic tradition to which John belonged, the king was also the pastor or shepherd of the people.  It was therefore intolerable that any heir of David should publicly bless and normalise any behaviour that trampled the love of both God and neighbour underfoot.  John clearly made these observations in the public arena and, having suffered imprisonment for some time, was finally executed for his trouble.
Although Stephen is properly regarded as the first Christian martyr, John the Baptist can be regarded as the prototype of Christian martyrs in that (1) his essential calling was to be a witness to the coming of the Christ, God’s anointed king; (2) he lived that calling out by loudly proclaiming the difference between the values of the messianic kingdom and the values of the socio-political reality in which he lived; and (3) he was executed for his trouble.  This is what Christian martyrs have done ever since, have they not?  Think of the famous martyrs of the ancient world, whose essential crime was a refusal to put aside the Lordship of the Christ for the sake of keeping things nice with the Empire.  Think of modern martyrs like Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonheoffer, who did not consider themselves free to tolerate the oppressive power of Military juntas or Nazi Führers because of their Christian responsibility to love God and neighbour before even their own safety and survival.  Think of the less famous martyrs of the Philippines or of West Papua, humble pastors and church leaders who dared to confront the murderous greed of their governments in the name of God’s love for the poor.  These many lost their lives not because they were careless or suicidal, but because they felt compelled to bear witness to the faith, hope and universal love that had been revealed to them in Jesus Christ.
It is perhaps difficult for we distracted occupants of the world’s ‘most liveable city’ to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of the martyrs.  For the martyrs believe in God’s blessing so powerfully that they are willing to entrust themselves to that blessing even to the point of death.  They believe, with the writer to the Ephesians, that they are destined to received all that God has promised in Jesus, a share in that great company whose sins and failures are forgiven, a share in the inheritance that the gospels describe as the kingdom of God.  We, on the other hand, are so regularly unsure of God’s blessing that our faith stumbles at the first hurdle.  How can God be God, we ask ourselves, when so many of God’s people live as though God didn’t really matter?  How can God be God when the world is so full of pain and evil?
With thoughts like these we display our lack of genuinely Christian faith.  For we are not called to believe in the church or its self-made righteousness.  We are called to believe in the righteousness of God in Christ, and in his infinite mercy towards all who place their trust in him.  Nor are we called to believe in the evils of the world, as though they had some kind of substance of their own.  We are called to believe in the God who, in Christ, has disarmed the powers and led them captive in his train.  In Christ the powers are revealed for what they are:  hollow nothings which have no more substance than the fear and awe of those who are taken in by their lies. In that light, we are then called to be part of the antidote of God would apply towards everything that is evil, a people of compassion who love our neighbours genuinely, offering care and shelter in the midst of whatever has befallen them.
So let us examine our lives and our faith in the light of the martyrs, their lives and their deaths.  For the martyrs are simply what we are all of us called to be:  ordinary people who trust themselves, absolutely, to an extraordinary God.  Make no mistake, the martyrs do not possess anything that you and I have not already received in baptism.  They have no super-human strength to withstand the darts of the evil one.  The martyrs are tempted in every way, like us, and their biographies are often littered with many failures along the way.  Yet the martyrs, like all the baptised, experience the call to cling not to their own works of righteousness, but to God, and to proclaim this mercy from God before the cruelty of powerful men.  For them, a time came to answer that call even to the point of endangering their lives.  In such a situation, every baptised Christian is forced to choose who they really believe in.  Do I believe in myself, and in the fears and anxieties that flood my body?  Or do I believe in the God of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen that my fears and anxieties, and even my death, may not have the final word?
We are fast coming to a time when even Australian Christians – who, for generations, have taken their freedom for granted  - may also be asked these kinds of questions.  With a government like ours – which so clearly despises God’s little ones who suffer because of persecution, poverty or illness - anything is possible.  The questions are certainly asked as we approach that time when our fragile bodies are no longer able to go on, and death suddenly becomes a reality we can no longer avoid.  But the questions are also asked in the midst of our lives, at the noonday of our powers.  I hear God asking these questions of me, every time I become obsessed with my own survival or success, every time I am tempted to worship at the idols of public opinion or economic aggrandisement, every time I am tempted to spurn the needs of another in order to sure up my own future.  When God comes to ask such questions of your own life, how will you respond?  Will you respond with the faith declared at your baptism, a faith in the love and mercy of God beyond even death?  Or will you cling, ever more tenaciously, to the shadows and illusions of the propagandists who dominate our meda?  That is the question for this day and this moment.  Think on the witness of the martyrs.  How will you respond?