SERMON PREACHED AT CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD,
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
SUNDAY, JULY 17th 2011
(PENTECOST 5 / ORDINARY SUNDAY 16)
FIRST SERMON AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
OF THE REV’D DR MICHAEL GODFREY
Readings: Genesis 28.10-19a
Ps 139 1-11, 23-24
There was in the university days of my first exposure to Christianity, and perhaps there still is, an evangelistic line that goes something like: ‘if you died tonight where would you spend eternity?’ Although it is loosely based on some of the Jesus sayings, such as the parable of the barn in Luke 12, it not only misses the point of that parable in particular, but more importantly misses the point that Jesus never, except in the face of religious hypocrisy and greed, threatened hell to or for his audience. Of the eleven times the New Testament records Jesus referring to hell – always a translation of γε΄εννα (gehenna), a reference to the city dump – all are in the context not of the failure to believe but of the double standards of those whose hypocrisy prohibits the tentative and vulnerable beliefs of others.
Such a form of evangelism contrasts darkly with the openness and compassion of Jesus, who, despite referring to himself occasionally (and only in John’s gospel-account) as judge, spends his life not threatening hell but proclaiming God’s inviting love. Indeed one wonderful commentator, Marcus Barth (son of the great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth) once proclaimed, provocatively, that ‘hell is for Christians only’. I will cite him often.
I have no adequate or even trite answer to misguided would-be evangelists who ask me where I would go if I died on any given day, but I suspect that by and large Jesus doesn’t bother with one either. I would rather approach the misguided question in terms of the compassionate and inviting love of the Creator God than with petulant threats of some form of eternal punishment, a doctrine that, although predominant in the history of Christianity, is by and large irrelevant to and absent in the biblical texts that should shape our faith. The language of judgment and of hell in the New Testament is directed at those who burden others around them with weights of fear and oppression, not at those who for whatever reason choose to believe something different to what you or I believe. Hell is for Christians only.
I refer to the New Testament, of course. In the Hebrew Scriptures language of afterlife at all is at best shadowy and unformed, and, as a late development, is often utterly absent. It’s fairly safe to say the Hebrews only developed a refined sense of judgement and of heaven and hell after their exposure to Persian religion, Zoroastrianism in particular, during the Babylonian exile five or six hundred years before Christ. But the language of blessing, central to our Genesis reading, was and remains critical not only to the Hebrew people but to us, their cousins-in-faith: we serve the same God. The Hebrew people were, in the actions of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, called into special relationship with the one creator God. They were in this relationship called to be a distinctive people – the Covenant (and certain operations experienced by their men-folk) was one way of expressing or signifying that relationship. It was not however, as so much Christian preaching implies, a relationship that was designed to leave non-Jews, non-Hebrews, burning in an eternal hell. And, despite occasional outbursts to the contrary, outbursts made always in times of persecution, nor was or is the New Covenant relationship with the Creator God, the new relationship made possible in Christ, supposed to leave those outside the Christ-community burning in some eternal hell, eternally weeping and gnashing teeth while a saved elite sip their celestial nectar and watch on in blesséd joy.
The people of God, old and new, are called to be blessing. This is the meaning of the words spoken to Jacob: all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. By this relationship to the Creator, the people of God, Old and New, are called to be a sign, and by being that sign are blessing to the communities around them. It is with this relationship to God in mind that Jesus calls us to be seed amongst wheat, or elsewhere calls us to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. It is this that is at the basis of Jesus’ response to the ten lepers (another passage I will often cite), healing ten but rejoicing in the thanks of the one who returns to say thank you. We are called, if you like, not to ‘save’ the world, despite what our Dean and Administrator said the other night (not to contradict him, either), but to stand in the world as a reminder that it is saved, as a reminder that Good Friday in all its injustice and sorrow is not the final word on human existence.
Paul, as he sets about the most dispassionate and reasoned of his letters, Romans, is acknowledging this as he writes of ‘creation longing for the revealing of the children of God’. Despite the tragic mishandling of this passage in some hands, this is not about some part of creation finding itself to be eternally separated from divine love, watching as the children of God are in some way whisked away to a blessed eternity while non-believers are left behind. Rather this is about the Good News that all creation, all people, even the nine lepers, are caught up into the unthwartable and eternal purposes of God. To this end we are called to be a people of praise, turning again and again, despite our inadequacy, to the God who invades our lives and makes us whole. We are called by our familiarity with the God we worship and love in Christ, the God who we can approach as ‘Abba’ (beloved parent), to proclaim glory. We are called by our practice of the presence of God, our liturgy especially, but our lives too, to proclaim God’s glory, the news that God’s is the final word to creation, and that that word is not the ‘no’ of mortality and injustice but the ‘yes’ of eternity.
It is this that is your task and mine, the task to which we are called together and in which we are all commissioned by our baptism.