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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Oh the deep deep hard work

SERMON PREACHED
AT THE
CHURCH OF St FRANCIS,
BATCHELOR (NT)

SUNDAY, ARIL 15th 2012
(SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER)

Readings:  
              Acts 4.32-37
              Psalm 133
              1 John 1.1 – 2.2
              John 20.19-31

If you journey through the New Testament – even in translation as most of us must – you will almost certainly become aware of the differing writing styles of the various authors. Mark, always in a hurry, Luke measured and carefully crafted, Matthew somewhere between the two but perhaps with a somewhat more uncompromising tone than Luke. Paul and others were writing a different kind of literature – Paul was writing largely instructive (didactive and exhortative) letters of encouragement, correction or admonition. The author of Hebrews was writing a sermon, the author of the Book of Revelation was writing, quite simply, an apocalypse. In today’s readings we find John – not the author of Revelation – writing in two different styles. In 1, 2 and 3 John he is, like Paul if more succinctly, applying corrective surgery by writing letters. In the Fourth Gospel he is writing an extended, theologised, visionary account of the events of Jesus’ public ministry.

John is a masterful writer, and probably top of the class of the New Testament authors. His Greek – though I am no expert judge – is beautiful, his imagery controlled and majestic. His is the understanding of the second person of the Trinity that is most magisterial – though Paul, writing some years earlier, sometimes equals or even surpasses it – the eternal Son, striding though history, incarnating divine command and surrendering to vulnerable, even victimised human life and death. And throughout this magnificent telling of the Jesus story – which nearly didn’t make it into the Christian canon – he uses powerful literary techniques, including  a series of contrasts, to illustrate his story. Light and dark, reception (or believing) and rejection, perishing and living, to name some. Love is a major theme of John, and the sign that a person has heard and received the gospel, has passed from dark to light, is the quality of their love.

Love unfortunately can be a slippery ideal, and to be honest John was an idealist. While I wouldn’t draw too direct a comparison, John’s idealism was far closer to that of the Nimbinites of the 1970s than to the more structured Jesus communities of Matthew and Luke. By the end of John’s ministry as we see it in the New Testament he is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his Jesus community, as they fail to demonstrate the qualities of love that he believed were the only true sign of belonging to the risen Lord and his new Creation. Some scholars believe that John eventually gave up on his ideals, and defected from his own Nimbin community to the mainline faith communities founded by figures like James and Paul, where in his closing years he came to be respected and his writings preserved.

Perhaps there’s a sense, then, in which the Fourth Gospel and the letters of John are the idealised Jesus story – perhaps that’s why they nearly didn’t make it into the canon. But John’s is a profound insight not only into the ideals of love-life to which Jesus calls us – but for which we always, always need the help of his Spirit – but into the depths of the heart and mind of Jesus. It is John who gives us, as it were, the inner-recesses of Jesus’ mind. It is John above all writers who gives us the tenderness of the Incarnate Lord – handing, for example, his mother into the care of the beloved disciple (who was probably the author or the author’s source).

It is John, too, that sees the resurrection of Jesus and his breathing on the disciples as the beginning of a new Creation. We must never lose sight of this, his equivalent of the more popular upper-room event narrated by Luke. We are called to be the sign, the ‘earnest’ or first fruits, as Paul calls it, of God’s eternity. We are an impoverished sign, as the slow Nimbin-like disintegration of John’s community suggests – but we are the sign God has relied on. We need to learn from John: is our love and service for our neighbour such an example that they might long to reach out and receive our risen Lord?

The story – if the scholars are anywhere near right, and I suspect they are – of John’s Jesus-community is a reminder to us all. It fell apart, like the ideals of hippiedom, of Nimbin, of the Summer of Love, because it failed to do the hard work of faith. It failed to recognize that love is not a buzz, but a demanding commitment to work out and overcome differences. It failed to recognize that love needs reinforcement by disciplined prayer, disciplined worship, disciplined immersion in the scriptures of faith. It failed to remember that a life of faith in Jesus keeps going even when the warm fuzzies and good feelings have gone. John’s community danced and pranced in its enjoyment of the light and new life available in Christ, but forgot the deep, deep cost of Jesus’ redemption, forgot the deep, deep cost of the new life Jesus can breathe into us.

John challenges us not to forget, but to continue, against all odds but in the strength of the one he calls the Paraclete, the Comforter or Advocate, to be bearers of light in an otherwise dark world. He challenges us to spend our time proclaiming in word and action the peace that is not mere Nimbin cruisyness and catatonia, but the radical, hard work of love, justice, reconciliation, justice, the ingredients of God’s eternity, birthed in the work of the Cross.

TLBWY
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