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Sunday 30 October 2011

The White-Robed Martyrs

Texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12

On this All Saints Day, I should like to turn to the Book of Revelation, which purports to be a vision given to a fellow named John, who happened to be in prison for the sake of Christ on the Greek island of Patmos.  The vision he is given takes place largely in heaven, and concerns things which ‘must soon take place’.  An angel instructs him to write down what he sees and make the contents available to each of seven churches in the region of Asia Minor

The Revelation to John is a fascinating read on many different levels.  First, it is written almost entirely in a poetic-symbolic language which scholars call ‘apocalyptic’.  Apocalyptic means, literally, an unveiling of the truth, which is kind’ve ironic, because most readers find the symbols of Revelation quite mysterious and impenetrable.  The book becomes much more readable if you happen to have (a) a vivid imagination of the kind that is able to appreciate fantasy or science-fiction novels; and (b) a fair-to-middling appreciation of Jewish literature and theology.  If you have neither, then I’m afraid you will continue to struggle!  The book is also fascinating because of the insight it gives into the self-understanding of Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.  Most scholars date the book as having been written sometime in the final decade of the 1st century, when the early persecution of Christians by the Roman state was just beginning to become more pronounced.  In many ways, the Book of Revelation was written to assure a persecuted community of Christians that God remains faithful to his people, and to encourage that community to also remain faithful to God, even in the face of strong opposition.  Not surprisingly, the Book of Revelation became a firm favourite of various persecuted churches down through history, while it has been hardly read at all by churches that felt or feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with their political environment.

Armenian martyrs 1916
What I should like to do on this All Saints Day is ask a particular question of the Book of Revelation, and see what answers it might yield:  who are the saints and what is their vocation? For the sake of time I shall have to be mercilessly brief and to the point.  The answers I give may therefore succeed only in raising yet more questions in your minds and hearts, which I shall not be able to address right now.  If this is the case, then please do feel free to chase me afterwards.  As you are probably aware, I thrive on being chased about such things!

So, ‘Who are the saints, and what is their vocation or purpose in life?’  Well, according to the passage we read a moment a go, the saints are a great crowd of ordinary Christian people who are marked by the following characteristics:

  1. they are drawn from every language, tribe and ethnicity
  2. they stand before the throne of God and of Christ, ‘the Lamb’, praising God day and night
  3. they wear robes of white, and hold palm branches in their hands
  4. they are people who have survived something called ‘the great ordeal’
  5. their robes have been, rather strangely, washed white in the blood of the Lamb
  6. they are sheltered and protected from pain and evil by God
  7. the Lamb, again rather strangely, is their shepherd; he leads them toward something called the ‘springs of the water of life’.
 What does all this mean?  Well, it’s not that difficult to work out if you bother to read the rest of the book.  The saints are those who trust Jesus Christ with their lives, absolutely—so absolutely that they are willing to choose even death over the prospect of serving authorities that would usurp Christ’s rule, especially the authority of the state.  This become clear once you begin unpacking some of those mysterious apocalyptic symbols.  The ‘great ordeal’, for example, is an extended time of persecution in which Christians are tempted to abandon their faith for the sake of more cosy relations with a morally questionable state.  In Revelation, the Roman state is called ‘the Great Babylon’ and its emperor ‘the Beast’.  The beast’s demand that every citizen worship the beast and do everything that it says is an apocalyptic way of talking about the tendency of the state to undermine the absolute rule of Christ in the lives of his followers.  There can be no doubt that the early Christians would have had a much easier time if they had chosen to put their beliefs aside at certain points, in order to obey the law of the land.  But the Book of Revelation will allow no such compromise.  The saints are those who will NOT compromise.  The saints are those who a therefore willing to choose persecution, prison, and even death, over capitulation to the state and its values.

Some of you may be asking, ‘What was so wrong with the Roman state?  In what ways did it threaten Christian beliefs and values?’  The answer is at once stark and subtle.  Starkly, the Roman emperor demanded the absolute allegiance (even the worship) of his citizens.  He demanded that every citizen of the empire bow before his image, as the embodiment of absolute authority in heaven and on earth.  What this actually meant in daily life was much more subtle.  Worshipping the empire meant accepting and enacting its ethics.  It meant accepting that slaves, women and children were the property of men, and could therefore be treated or mis-treated according to men’s whims and fancies.  It meant accepting that those who were richer than yourself deserved your fawning obeisance, while those poorer than yourself were to be regarded as a resource to be exploited.  It meant accepting the superiority of Roman blood, such that the Roman state had a right to invade, subjugate and enslave the peoples of other lands and nations.  It meant accepting your fate in life, and never questioning your station or fortune. 

You can now see, I am sure, why Christians got themselves into trouble with the Romans.  The early Christians preached a classless society, a society in which it one’s social and ethnic markers were of no relevance whatsoever.  In Christ, they believed, all the social distinctions which make men and women somehow ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than one another, has been done away with.  In baptism, they believed, the human person was immersed in Christ’s death and resurrection, putting to death their social and economic significance in favour of a new identity which came as a pure gift from God.  That is why the Book of Revelation imagines the saints in robes of white:  white is the colour of baptism; white is removing of every colour, all that one may or may not have achieved in life, in order to accept the pure gift of God’s acceptance and love.  It is also why Revelation insists that not even the threat of death should dissuade the Christian from their baptismal vow to obey only Christ.  For if, in baptism, the Christian had already died to the authority of the world, why would being killed, physically, make any difference at all?  If, in the end, it was only God’s acceptance that ultimately mattered, what could the evils of state-sanctioned torture possibly steal away? 

In the end, the Book of Revelation does not see even the threat of violence and death as a power that is able to overcome the power of God.  For its vision of the saints is one in which their refuge in God’s care has been won for them by the violent death of their own Lord at the hands of the Roman state.  Note well.  The blood that makes them clean is not the blood of their own martyrdom, but that of their Lord Jesus, the one imaged as a slaughtered lamb.  The saints persevere not because there is anything special or heroic about them, but simply because they place their faith and trust in Christ, who alone has overcome sin, evil, and death.  They believe that he can carry them in his wake, as it were, all the way to the banqueting room of heaven.

Let me conclude with a few remarks about the relevance of this vision of the saints for our own time, our own sainthood, if you like. 

Since the upheavals of the Reformation, the Western church has settled into a fairly cosy relationship with the state.  In our own time, most of us have grown up assuming that the aims of our state authorities and the aims of the church were more or less compatible.  We therefore assumed that there was nothing particularly odd about being a good citizen as well as a good Christian.  I suspect it is time, however, to wake up from these assumptions, for everywhere in the Western world, the state is departing from even the thin veneer of Christianity.  In Germany there is no longer any doubt about this, of course, because there the state went on a mid-twentieth-century rampage, which left the church in tatters because it believed, even well into the second world war, that Hitler was a Christian—even when he was hanging Swastikas in the churches and putting its more errant clergy in prison.  In allied countries, however, many of us still believe that the state is more or less Christian, if only because some of our political leaders claim to be churchgoers.

I put it to you, however, that the time of multi-lateral co-operation between church and state is coming to an end in the West.  When the Australian state refuses to engage seriously with Aboriginal people over the tragic consequences of our colonisation; when it fails to care for people living in poverty; when it locks people away for years at a time without there being any kind of trial; when it proposes legislation in which anyone who expresses opposition to state policy may be imprisoned without charge or even shot dead; when it refuses to honour its obligations to asylums seekers under international law; then the alliance between church and state has well and truly come to an end.  In the present circumstances, it may well be time for the Western churches to take out the Book of Revelation, to dust it off, and to begin a serious study.  For here is a book that may teach us a great deal about how to be a saint when the state is showing every sign of becoming a dangerous beast.  I recommend its vision of sainthood to you this morning.  Not as a curious historic relic, but at a model for our own life and times.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Sharing in God's Gift

Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46 

Ministry is not, of course, for so-called ‘ministers’ alone.  We are all called to share in Christ’s ministry by the commissioning we received at our baptism, albeit in different ways.  In recognition of the fact that the particular shape of that ministerial offering can change from time to time, it is a good idea for congregations to annually call upon its members to prayerfully consider how they might contribute to the ministry of the church in the year to come.  There are two main ways to contribute:  (1) by serving on a group that carries out Christ’s ministry—either locally, or in the wider community; or (2) by providing the church with the financial support it needs to carry out this ministry.  One hopes, of course, that every member will contribute in both these ways!  Still, I recognise that the circumstances of life sometimes make it impossible to do as much as you would like to do.  Ill-health or poverty, in particular, have an impact on what one may contribute.  I  know that, the church knows that, and God knows that.  So please don’t hear anything that follows as some kind of law that you have to obey in order to obtain the favour of God.  If you are sick or short of money, you have burdens that are difficult to carry.  In those circumstances it is the rest of us who are called to help carry those burdens.  For the church is, most of all, a community in which the concerns and difficulties of the one become the concerns and difficulties of the many.

As many of you will know, the proper resourcing of the church’s ministry is guided by the ancient Jewish concept of stewardship.  Stewardship, in a nutshell, is a use of resources which understands that those resources do not belong to oneself alone, but are given by another for a particular purpose.  Stewardship is sharing in another’s resources in a way that honours the spirit in which they are given.  You can see the stewardship principle at work in the story we heard just now from Matthew’s gospel.  Here Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who invests heavily to set up a working vineyard.  He then invites some people to run the vineyard on his behalf.  Together they form a covenant in which both parties will reap the fruit that the vineyard produces because both parties have contributed to the resourcing of the vineyard.  The managers agree to act as stewards for the landowner, to run the place so that it will produce a bountiful harvest in which both parties can share together.  For Jesus and for Matthew, the parable is a picture of the relationship God has formed with his people.  God is like a landowner who has entered freely into a covenant with human beings, a covenant that will bear abundant fruit for us all so long as the land is managed wisely, according to the landowner’s intentions that is.

By analogy, the Christian tradition has always gone on to say this:  that nothing that you own and no skill or talent that you possess belongs to yourself alone.  It belongs to God as well.  God is the co-owner of what you have because God is both its creator and enabler. What you have was given you according to a particular covenant or agreement:  that you take what you are given and use it only to bear the fruit of faith, hope and love in the world.  So, while we are free to be as creative as we like with what we are given, in the end our gifts will only bear truly good fruit if they are managed according to the Maker’s instructions.  If they are not, or if we get greedy and deny the Maker his share in what we produce, then things will eventually go bad for us.  According to our parable, the Maker will one day call us to account for what we have done with his gifts.  Why?  Because the nature of the gift is this:  it can never be possessed and hoarded for one’s own benefit alone.  Like the manna God gave in the desert, if you take more than your fair share, the gift will go off and disappear.  Gifts are given so that they will remain gifts, freely given over and over again, so that the whole community can benefit and not just those who are strongest or brightest.

In turning to the writings of Paul, we find that all the gifts and talents we are given can be summed up in a single word:  Christ.  For Paul, Christ is the gift that reveals what all God’s gifts are ultimately for—our transformation from people who feel we must compete with one another into people who accept ourselves and one another.  Let’s look at the psycho-theology of this for a moment.  In the passage we read from Philippians, Paul contrast his former life with that he now lives, albeit incompletely, with Christ.  His former life was lived according to ‘the flesh’, which means that he built his sense of being worthwhile in the world upon the social and cultural expectations of his time.  As a Jew of Palestine in the first century, there was a particular way to get ahead, to become a winner.  First, one had to have been born a Jew.  A non-Jew didn’t have a chance.  Second, one needed to join the Pharisees, a political and religious party that wielded great influence and power on the basis of its claim to truly understand what was right and wrong.  Third, one needed to be zealous in making life difficult for anyone who didn’t share one’s views of what was right and wrong.  In Paul’s case, this meant persecuting the earliest Christians. 

At the time when Paul writes this letter he has, however, become a Christian.  Now he considers all those pursuits, all those ways of establishing one’s worthiness in the world, to be nothing more than ‘rubbish’ (in the Greek it is more like ‘excrement’).  Why?  Because at some point he came to realise that no matter how hard he worked on the matter, he would never establish, completely and unassailably, that he was a good and acceptable fellow in the eyes of his fellow-Jews.  There would always be someone whom he both respected and envied who could look at him as an inferior, a person who was not yet what they were.  There would always be—if I may translate into a more contemporary idiom—more fashionable, more wealthy, more laudable people about, who could make him look and feel unworthy by comparison.  For that is what this phrase ‘the flesh’ means for Paul: a social and cultural system of written and unwritten laws which is designed to make us all failures. 

Now what the gift of Christ did for Paul is what it can do for all of us as well:  release us from our bondage to any social and cultural assessment of our worthiness or unworthiness.  How?  By declaring that God loves and accepts us just as we are.  By untethering our sense of worthiness or unworthiness from what other people may or may not think.  By measuring our ‘rightness’ not according to the winds of social, or even religious, fashion but according to the love and forgiveness of God made manifest in the gift Christ made of his very life.  Paul promises that if we are prepared to die with Christ to the basic principles of this world—its pecking order, it fascination with wealth and status, its tendency to make us all unworthy—then we can also be raised with Christ into a world in which everything is a gift, and therefore no-one can claim to have worked their way to the top via some kind of meritocracy. 

The prize Paul strains towards is therefore a rather funny kind of prize.  It is not the prize that our society and culture values—the prize of houses and cars and superannuated luxury.  It is the prize of being freed from the compulsion to own and possess everything we see.  It is the prize of knowing that everything one has is a gift, and can therefore be given again.  It is the prize of detachment from the values and material acquisitiveness of one’s society, because Christ has already given us the only thing that it truly valuable:  God’s love and forgiveness. 

In this perspective, perhaps you can see that the responsibility to consider, prayerfully, how you will serve Christ’s ministry on an annual basis has little to do with any law or expectation.  On the contrary, I would encourage you to see your reflection on such matters as an opportunity to give tangible form to nothing other than God’s amazing grace.  Freely you have received from Christ all that you need and more.  You are free now to give what you have received, without in any way losing anything that is truly valuable.  For in Christian perspective, it is the giving itself that is also our freedom.  If we cannot give what we have away, we are still in chains.  It is not we who possess the thing, whatever it is, but the thing that possesses us.  By giving we are released from this possession.   And we receive into ourselves the gift of Christ’s very self, a self that is the pure gift of God’s acceptance—never measurable according to the scales of our world, never quantifiable according to our usual measure of success of substantiality.  And yet . . .  is there anything more real and valuable in all the world?  I think not.