SERMON PREACHED at St ANDREW’S, MAHENO
and St LUKE’S, OAMARU
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT (7th March) 2021
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel strides into his public ministry with confrontation on his agenda. There’s a time, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, centuries earlier, to confront, and a time to refrain from confronting. Or he could have, for there's a time for every purpose under heaven. Jesus, if we look at him from a purely human and historical point of view, was painfully aware that the great integrity of his forebears’ faith, his ancestors’ faith, was near-destroyed. Jewish and other scholars of first century Palestinian history will remind us that the gospel writers’ view of late-Second Temple Judaism was somewhat jaundiced, and we should accept that. We might remember something before we point the finger too readily at great peril: our history and our present as a Jesus community is not a bed of roses, either. But let’s for now take the writings at face value. Jesus, the Jew, was sickened by the corruption of his ancestral faith.
We might consider, as believers in the Risen Christ, that deeper dimension that John points to. The man Jesus is also the Word, the Son, the supreme revelation of God who is indeed is God. Jesus is Lord, a title reserved, some would say, to Caesar, and Christians would say reserved to one greater even than Caesar. He speaks with double meaning of the destruction of the Temple – an event in the future when he spoke but in the past when John recorded his words. He speaks of so many things, but above all of the destruction of desiccated religion. He speaks if at this stage a little obscurely of his own resurrection, and asks his hearers, and John’s, and therefore us, to immerse ourselves not in desiccated religion but in the living waters of faith. Faith in his resurrection and the life he brings. He speaks too, of change, of venturing into the unknown.
We too can become desiccated. We as individuals can reach that point where we are no more than going through the motions of s living faith. He speaks too to our institution: when the church as a body becomes no more than what poet RS Thomas refers to a dead spider in an empty chalice. Or when we become, as some very visible branches of a false faith have become, parasites, drawing the life forces from the most vulnerable members of society. We can become the Temple that must be torn down both as individuals and as corporate body. Our task is to turn again and again to the Source of Living Water who will lead us from that risk.
How? Certainly not by popping up skeletal and now ineffective remains of past practice. Jesus, mind you, was not jettisoning the past. He was jettisoning the derelict past. As a people of faith we are called to separate the dry dust from the living water – the scientists among you might note that this is not the most complex task. What in our backstory breathes resurrection hope? What breathes light and love and Easter joy? We will disagree over details, and will sometimes have to learn that few things are universally beneficial. Praise choruses to me might sound like wailing Tomcats, while traditional hymnody might sound to you like a dying swan. There's a time to negotiate, too, and it begins with listening.
Paul offers us a navigation beacon, as he writes to the wayward Corinthians (several years before John wrote). I came preaching Christ, I resolved to know only the essentials of the life, death, teaching and resurrection of Jesus. The rest, he says elsewhere, is dross – and he uses a naughty word we don’t use in churches. Where is the living, risen Christ in this activity, this meeting, this investment? Will this action of mine bring others closer to the experience of the risen Lord? Will this action tear down or build up? And if it builds up will it build up vibrant, Body Temple of Jesus or merely a return to a crumbling, echoing and empty edifice?
The same is true of my personal experience, too. Are the tasks I am undertaking uplifting, nurturing my soul, making of me living Christ-bearer, or are my attitudes and actions leaving me alone with that spider in RS Thomas dusty chalice? Do I pray, read scripture, rejoice at the handiwork of God that I see in nature and in humanity around me? Do I become the dusty edifice that must be destroyed or the dwelling place of Christ that brings life to others? Only we can answer that of ourselves, though God’s Spirit may prompt us, and others around us may drop hints.
Jesus tired of that which was dry, dusty, desiccated in the faith of his ancestors. He tires today of that which is dry, dusty, desiccated in the institution we cling to. Our task is to open ourselves up to fresh breathings of God’s Spirit – always with the litmus test “is this wind that blows through a thousand paddocks” the renewing, up-lifting breath of God or the searing blast of desert air or corrosive salt air? Does the wind that blows through a thousand paddocks whisper resurrection hope or ongoing, fetid despair? The choice, Jesus tells us, is ours.