SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, JUNE 12th 2011
(DAY OF PENTECOST)
Readings: Numbers 11.16-30
(For the psalm: James K. Baxter, "Song to the Holy Spirit")
1 Corinthians 12.3-13
In the wind-down – or is it perhaps the final crescendo? – of John’s gospel-telling the Risen Christ carries out a number of actions and conversations that are of no small significance to the mission and self-understanding of the people of God. In these verses, chapters 20 and 21, we are given example after example of the ways we might embrace the Good News of resurrection and act upon it in our own world, how it might alter our beliefs and actions in the world in which we as John’s audience are called to exist and do mission. These scenes and verses are effectively the flick pass from the half-back of faith, and it is up to us to decide how to use the ball we are fed.
In simple actions Jesus, and John his faithful recorder and interpreter, tell us much. The greeting of peace that Jesus shared – suddenly and miraculously entering the room where the disciples were huddled in fear and uncertainty – is no casual greeting. It is, of course, the greeting we in turn share in the liturgies of our faith when we exchange the peace, and, as I have said in the context of that rite it is not mere greeting but an enactment of the birth of God’s eternity. It is liturgically, as I have said before, not ‘hello, how’s the mokopuna [grandchildren]?’, but ‘may God’s eternity be foreknown now and experienced eternally in your life’. It is scripturally not a casual ‘hi, guys, I’m back’ from Jesus, but: ‘may eternity begin now, in your life, drawing you into the future that is inescapably imprinted with the “yes” of God the Creator’. It is of course an echo of that first creative hongi* of God bestowed on Adam in the Garden. God the Father’s hongi of Adam was the birthing, the out-breathing of creation, the bestowing of wairua or life-force. God the Son’s hongi of the frightened disciples is bestowal, out-breathing of the energies of eternity, the new creation, drawing us forward into its dynamic for-ever-ness.
The breath of God is never stale, never static. Adam without wairua [spirit/breath] is no more than meaningless sinew, bone and corpuscle. The disciples without the new-yet-eternal wairua-experience are mere frightened automatons, broken and defeated. The peace Jesus bestows is that which Paul elsewhere calls ‘peace … beyond comprehension.’ Perhaps you have, as I have, experienced something life it from time to time: I have spoken before of the overwhelming peace I once experienced on a beach on the Awhitu Peninsular, or the overwhelming peace I have sometimes experienced from time to time in the Australian outback. There have been, too, moments of overpowering peace in liturgy, not least when I have sometimes been transported Godwards here at Christ Church by the mana of Richard Gillard’s Lord’s Prayer setting, or for example the powerful peace I once experienced at a Taizé service conducted by Brother Ghislain in Alice Springs (or again at Ghislain’s leadership of liturgy on a beach in Perth), or as I heard a cantor’s voice rise up into the dome of St. Paul’s in London a decade ago.
Those moments, though, while they are a gift of God, are no more than dross if they do not lead us to practice not only the peace that is the absence of strife, but the peace that is the presence of justice and of hope. Peace of the kind breathed by Christ in the disciples’ locked room is never merely experiential and static, but compelling, leading us to action that proclaims God’s Reign in the world in which we are called to minister, in which you and I alike are called to be priests and prophets.
Priests and prophets? The Old Testament mantle of those roles, indeed the entire priestly and prophetic role of the ancient people of God, called to be a sign to the nations around them and us, descends on the disciples and their successors in the locked room, as Jesus breathes on them. They could of course remain in the locked room, but that is not a gospel action: the gospel is an imperative, catapulting us outwards to proclaim resurrection hope and gospel justice. As Jesus gives his hongi to the disciples he offers peace, he offers nurture, and he offers the energies of God, for the Wairua Tapu [Holy Spirit] is never static or self-centred.
Yet the final words of this scene are enigmatic: what are these words of forgiveness doing here? They were often taken in the mediaeval church to be as if words spoken to the priests – the presbyter-priests or ordained priests – about their power to absolve or withhold absolution in sacramental and pastoral ministry. They became obscenely a message of power imbalance, always a distortion of the gospel of the powerlessness of the Cross. It unfortunately was a destructive distortion – except insofar as we are all priests, participating in the ἱεράτευμα (priesthood) of Christ, with the power to forgive and absolve, or to withhold forgiveness and absolution. We cannot proclaim the eternal Reign and justice of God if we practice unforgiveness – the kingdom parable of the unforgiving servant makes that abundantly and unambiguously clear. We can harbour resentments, or we can get on with bearing Christ and proclaiming him and his cycles of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are called to be proclaiming and enacting those cycles to a world that prefers unforgiveness and revenge, or at best disinterest and amnesia. Presbyter-priests should by their liturgical actions remind us all that the power of hope is in our hands: it is up to us to decide whether we’ll stay in a locked room, frightened and trapped in myopia, or whether we’ll allow ourselves to break out as agents of God’s Pentecostal Reign.
*The hongi is the traditional touching of noses in Maori greeting, by which the two participants effectively breathe one another's life force.