SERMON PREACHED AT THE
CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, FRED’S PASS (NT)
SUNDAY, MAY 6th 2012
(FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER)
1 John 4.7-21
Over the past years – prior to my coming to Fred’s Pass so you’re not expected to remember! – I have often referred to John, the author of the Fourth Gospel and the letters 1, 2 and 3 John, as the Nimbinite of the New Testament authors. This perhaps needs some explanation – and less I offend anyone here as I have once elsewhere, I see ‘Nimbinite’ not as an insult but as one of my highest compliments.
But perhaps some explanations. Nimbin itself needs no explanation in some quarters, but as it is over 3000 kilometres from here and the Territory was not always closely aligned to the hippie movements of the sixties, it nestles in the Border ranges of northern New South Wales, and is the unofficial hippie capital of the country. And, while it might be arrogant to describe myself as the world’s most frustrated hippie I certainly am a frustrated hippie, a would-be mungbean-munchin' calico-wearin' tree-huggin' child of the Age of Aquarius.
Unfortunately – some might say fortunately – I was born a decade too late and a world too far away to have slithered in the mud of Woodstock, 1969. I was nine at the time Jimi Hendrix was playing "Star Spangled Banner" with his teeth, and was falling in love with Judith Durham, not Janis Joplin. By the time I fell in love with Janis Joplin she was long dead.
Rightly or wrongly the Age of Aquarius idealists saw themselves to be breaking out of the constrictions of the 1950s. Liberated no doubt by the contraceptive pill and naïve about the risks of STDs, liberated also by the illicit chemicals that were sweeping the world in digestible and inhalable forms, a generation was discovering new dreams of utopian love, new harmonies with nature and one another. By 1969, though, the utopic 1967 Summer of love was crumbling: four months after the mud and slush of Woodstock the Hells Angels had killed Meredith Hunter at The Altamont concert in California – the day the hippie idealism died in an orgy of alcohol and amphetamine-fuelled violence (it was, incidentally, December 6th, coincidentally and ironically St Nicholas’ day and the day, many years later, of my ordination to the priesthood). That day in 1969 has been described as ‘a lot of really naïve people running headfirst into atavistic tribalism and violence.’
The ideal of hippiedom was one I deeply admire. It was a utopic ideal of free love (I don’t necessarily mean sex!), shared goods, and escaping the treadmill of consumerism. It went belly-up for a whole lot of reasons, all to do with human nature, human economics, the impacts of chemical enhancement – human nature. Theologians would argue that the already had slipped ahead of the not yet – that, just like Marx’s perfect state after the Revolution, human fallenness was going to get in the way, exploitation would re-emerge, and it would end in tears. The Soviet Union was never utopia. Nor was the Age of Aquarius.
Nor was the community of love that John sort to build in the name of Jesus. A hopeless idealist, he wanted the Jesus community to be conspicuous by its love. To some extent it was – but only in the more structured and disciplined communities to which, I suspect, John eventually returns in his old age. Infiltrators overthrew his authority as an eyewitness of Jesus, love dissolved into bitching, and a dream died. It would be centuries before Christian communities of the type John longed for would be re-born, and they would be in a very different shape, with strict rules, penned at first by the great Saint Benedict, removed, too, from the complexities of dual-sex relations (though perhaps they had their own complexities). It was not what John pictured at all.
John’s community turned to custard, but the earliest Christians soon saw how important John’s idealism was. To love one another is to be Christ to one another. The hippies’ dreams of egalitarianism confused aspects of love: throughout the fourth gospel John records words of Jesus that make it abundantly clear that love is not a romantic, much less an erotic, warm fuzzy, but that hard disciplined work of ‘remaining in Christ’.
Again and again Jesus uses that hard and demanding word, abide: Paul picks up something similar when he likens the Christian journey to the athlete’s race: perservere that you may attain the crown. And at the heart of Christian love is not merely Christ the self-sacrificing example (there’s plenty of others who lay down their life in love) but Christ who is made available to us in the Spirit, who never leaves, never forsakes, for as long as we continue the hard work of abiding, the branch inseparably united to the vine. As another allegedly drug-fuelled hippie idealist once wrote ‘Christ, you know it ain’t easy’. He meant the phrase as a curse; I prefer to baptise the line as a prayer.