SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, MAY 22nd 2011
(FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER)
Readings: Acts 7. 55-60
Ps 31.1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2.2-10
The story of the network of early Christian communities was not all one glorious narrative of victories and of harmonious co-existence, despite the attempts of Luke, which I discussed a fortnight ago, to harmonize all in the service of his story. If (as most scholars say!) John’s was the last of the more-or-less eye-witness accounts of Jesus to be related it is also the most the most obviously theologized. It is a document carefully shaped to meet the needs of the author and his perceived needs for his faith community. That much is true of each of the documents of the New Testament: we need to be honest about this if we are going to extrapolate genuine meaning from these documents today.
This does not mean we all need to be at theological college. It does however mean that those who have responsibility to preach and teach in the faith community must be well trained and must be prepared to be intellectually honest. The kind of gnosticism I have referred to elsewhere, practiced by scoundrels like Harold Camping, preying on the vulnerable, is best avoided by application of a modicum of intelligent understanding. Unfortunately this is no trivial issue: peddlers of false expectation sometimes have on their hands the blood of those whose lives are shattered.
The hallmark of John’s telling of the Jesus-story is that he wrote for a community in which the rule of love was the rule of life. Basing his Jesus story on the original eyewitness John’s experience of Jesus, both incarnate and risen, seen and experienced as the embodiment of divine love, the author (John or someone who knew him) founded and nurtured a faith-community built on principles of re-embodying, re-enacting that love.
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love”, some of us sang, occasionally and with unfounded optimism, in the 1960s and ’70s. But that unfounded optimism was exactly the problem faced by John’s community, too: as time went on the quality of love began to founder and dissipate, and the gloriously optimistic community degenerated into an all-too human narrative of power plays and the strife and jealousy I also spoke of in recent weeks. We see something similar in Paul’s bitter experience, as we watch in particular the Corinthian community stray from his idealized pathways.
Rules such as “love one another” or today’s “do not let your hearts be troubled” are, if we are to be honest, easier said than done. It is not some sign of epic spiritual failure if we fall short of their demands. Most of will experience a failure to love from time to time – I am reminded of the mother who once told us of placing her baby just a little more firmly than usual on the change table after being woken for the umpteenth time in one single night (this controlled but human response to the seemingly endless broken nights is a long way removed from tragic statistics of domestic and infant violence that so mar New Zealand’s contemporary society). Similarly, who does not worry from time to time as bills come in or the teenage children or grandchildren play up?
These sayings of Jesus are not mere guidelines, but they are (as Paul recognized) perfections to which we must strive yet by which we will always fall short. If we recognize that inevitability we need not be ashamed at our humanness. At the same time, as we hear Jesus’ command not to worry, held in tension with our knowledge of our humanness, we need not strain for the false optimism satirized by Bobby McFerrin in the late ’80s: “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.
In his telling of the Jesus story John emphasized what we might call the grace of abiding – the Greek word mene appears no fewer than 40 times in John’s gospel-account, albeit not always with full theological weight. The sign that a believer was abiding in Christ – I have tended to prefer the later phrase “practicing the presence of Christ” – was the quality of his or her ability to fulfill the demands of Jesus. Demands to love, demands not to worry – there are not many of them, in John’s gospel-account, but they are not to be taken lightly. They are in the end, though, the result of, not the prerequisite to, exposure to faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who draws all people to himself, not the brutal examiner who ensures that a certain percentage haplessly fail. So often in our proclamation of the gospel we make it appear that the latter is the priority.
We do this not least when we turn to the passages that were in their original context intended to be passages of invitation. Too often we turn the words of Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” into words not of invitation but of condemnation. Too often these become words that proclaim not the theological miracle that a way of access to the Creator has been gained in Christ, but a condemnatory claim that those who do not appear to us to be on that way will stand eternally condemned – like those of us who missed the so-called rapture of last evening in the thoughts of a small minded preacher-man from California. This saying of Jesus was designed to invite and not to terrify: for those who do not join us on the journey we pray nevertheless the grace and love of Christ in God’s time, that for them, too, may await the experience of seeing, as Paul put it, the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.
For us, then may this be a passage not of exclusion but of joy-filled inclusion, as we rejoice in the encounter with the one who leads us on the way.