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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Hell is for Christians Only

SERMON PREACHED AT St. FRANCIS, BATCHELOR
SUNDAY, JULY 24th 2011
(PENTECOST 6 / ORDINARY SUNDAY 17)

FIRST SERMON AT St. FRANCIS, BATCHELOR
OF THE REV’D DR MICHAEL GODFREY

Readings: Genesis 29.15-28
Ps 105.1-11
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.44-58

I may as well let you into the deep dark secrets of your new priest’s life right from our first encounter! It’s around 14 years now since Anne and I bumped into each other in a Canberra car park. I was living and working in Adelaide at the time, while Anne was studying for her Masters in theology in Brisbane. As a result of our encounter in Canberra we began a long-distance and potentially slow-growing relationship – I can tell you that the distance from Adelaide to Brisbane is 3020 kms (not so great a distance to Territorians, but nevertheless a reasonable test of the flames of passion!). In an exchange of letters Anne suggested she might consider marriage in seven years – it was, I emphasize, Anne rather than her then still-alive father, who made the suggestion. My response is possibly not quite repeatable in a liturgical setting, but was a reasonably emphatic indication that I was not Jacob! We married a little under two years later.

I tell you the story not just out of nostalgia. Apart from anything else it reminds us how vastly different the culture is in which we practice our faith to that in which Jacob carried out his own struggle to be obedient to God. Anne was not property, to be bought from her father by seven years of sweat (much less fourteen years). We live and read our texts of faith in a world that has changed since the events they narrate, and we need to be cognizant of those changes every time we seek to interpret them and apply them in our lives. This leaves us balancing precariously on an interpretive knife-edge, and surely serves as a warning that it is only in fear and trembling that we dare to imply that one interpretation, or even one moral code, applies to all people for all time. Reading of the scriptures of our faith is a delicate negotiation and a delicate surrender of ourselves to the Spirit of God.

The cultural sensitivity with which we are called to approach our faith is a minefield. We can read the history of missions in Australia – not just the Territory by any means – or Africa or the Pacific, to name just three regions, to know that many mistakes have been made. We need to know, too, that many wonderful deeds have been done throughout history by those who were bearers of the gospel. There is a tendency in a post-Christendom world to hold the missionaries to account only for their mistakes, not to praise and rejoice with them for their great works of faith. Nevertheless, the tale of Jacob and Leah, and of Jacob and Rachel, is a cautionary one. Much has changed: what in the tale remains the same?

Ultimately our Genesis story is a tale of patience, fidelity and trust. It is the tale of Jacob’s trust both in God and in his own God-given dreams and longings. It is worthwhile to note that the cultural emphasis of Laban is not condemned. His pronouncement ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn’ is not condemned, even when it is, to all intents and purposes, an act of betrayal. Jacob, the one-time cheat, is growing into a remarkable man. We might well learn about the need to respect the cultures and societies and sub-cultures and even perhaps ‘sub-societies’ into which we are called, and with which we are called to rub shoulders, before we speak words of condemnation that come too easily to our lips.

Though much of our language of the Spirit, what we call pneumatological language, is variously based on Luke’s and John’s gospel-accounts, it is important that we don’t allow ourselves to lose sight of Paul’s experience of the Spirit. The Spirit is to Paul the one who makes known and available to us the work of Christ, and who empowers us to proclaim the events of Christ to the world around us, who empowers us to participate in and benefit from the saving work of God in Christ, past and present. If we extrapolate from Paul’s new covenantal understanding of the Spirit back into the life of Jacob, then we might say that it is the Spirit who empowers Jacob to hold to his dreams against difficult if not impossible odds of pedantry and betrayal. In some churches the Spirit is transformed into a form of entertainment, turning human experience into silliness and triviality. To speak of the Spirit in such a way is to blaspheme: the task, as it were, of the Spirit, is to point to the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is this that Paul is referring to when he refers to the intercessions of the Spirit, helping us in our weakness. The Spirit may heal, the Spirit may intervene even miraculously in human lives where that intervention serves the purposes of the gospel, but the Spirit who ‘intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ is no entertaining plaything.

The Spirit will, however, strengthen us in our human weakness – strengthen us not in any superhuman, superpower form, but in the sense of holding us true to our abilities in the service of the gospel – holding us, as Jacob was held, true to the dreams of God. And where Jesus preaches so-called ‘kingdom-parables’ on the need to retain focus on the values of the reign of God, to retain focus on the priorities of the gospel, it is to the Spirit of God, or, in Trinitarian terms, the Spirit of Jesus that we turn in all our fallibility.

Fallibility will be, naturally, our hallmark. Over and again New Testament writers make it clear that perfection is beyond us – though another task, as it were, of the Spirit is to sandpaper away the rough edges of our fallibility, transforming us into the likeness of the one we serve. Fallibility and hypocrisy are of course vastly different animals. We begin and continue an authentic journey in the Spirit of Christ precisely when we acknowledge our weakness and our need for Christ, helping us to escape our volitions to sin and failure. We venture into hypocrisy when we begin to play games with God, transforming the Spirit into entertainment, or God into a plaything to serve our own self-aggrandizement and need for power or exaltation. At that moment we remove Jesus from the driver’s seat and find ourselves fingered by the warnings of hell fire and damnation, of gnashing teeth, and of the wonderful pithy insight I borrowed last week, from biblical commentator Marcus Barth, that ‘hell is for Christians only’.

For we who are Christ-bearers, then, there are severe yet welcoming warnings in the kingdom parables of Jesus: is he our focus and priority? Fortunately, when most of us in moments of honesty are forced to admit this may not be the case, there is the good news of grace, of the whispered ‘sorry’ that we offer to God, and the invasion of the praying Spirit who invades our life once more.

TLBWY
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