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Tuesday 20 March 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.