SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY (10th February) 2013
Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
It can be (and has been) said that there is a fundamental selfishness that dwells at the heart of Christianity. This selfishness is sometimes said not to dwell for example, at the heart of Buddhism, in which the human soul journeys on to the discovery of its own unimportance and ultimate non-existence. Nor does it stand at the heart of the best forms of atheism: by this I do not mean the atheist-chic posturing of those determined to slaughter faith as a minor social inconvenience, a calling to account of those who do not want to be held accountable. I mean those for whom the dreams of a benevolent God have died, and who soldier on doing their best in a universe that has no friends. These are brave souls, and dwell I believe at their best very close to the God I believe in and they don’t. I think always of the late Fred Hollows, though if you Google “altruistic atheists” you will find delightful tales of those who wish, for whatever reason, aim to execute God but continue at varying degrees of personal cost to emulate the very best of human goodness in a universe without God. I admire them, and know that often they will do far more good in this world than I will – Fred Hollows certainly did.
I think too of figures such as the Jewish Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, for whom the possibility of a God all but died with Wiesel’s friends and family in the gas chambers of the execution camps. It was Wiesel who narrated the terrifying scene of the execution of a child on the gallows: as the child hanged slowly dying a voice cried out “‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows...’” For a Jew there is no execution of God Incarnate, as there is for Christianity, and the search for meaning to the word “God” has led Wiesel to spend a lifetime placing God on trial for his desertion or even persecution of the Chosen people. For a Christian, at least one taking seriously the presence of divinity on the Cross of Golgotha, it is possible to say that even God has entered into meaninglessness ... and yet risen again into meaning.
In reality it is probably true to say that Wiesel struggled through immeasurable pain to find in the end a God beyond human questioning, a God who may even need human absolution for the obscenities of creation, fall and suffering. The credibility of Wiesel’s struggle is unparalleled, and his tenacity in holding to at least some belief in the continued possibility of God despite the horrors that he witnessed is tribute to the indefatigable determination of the sparks of hope in a human heart. For many, though, all hope died in the concentration camps – and I do not only mean for those who died. For many who lived, all hope died, and who can blame the owners of those hearts?
Do I digress? I began by speaking of the selfishness that is often seen to dwell at the centre of Christian faith. So much Christianity is lived at the “I am saved and therefore I will go to heaven” level of belief. Perhaps almost all Christianity is lived at that level – except by those theologians who have for whatever reason done away with the hope of resurrection either of Jesus or of we lesser human beings. Though I did that, too, for a while, but only in an ivory tower: now I cannot believe in a gospel that finishes with my death or the death of someone who I love. When I stand at the grave of a child I want to know that God’s ability is bigger than death’s ability. A God whose love is severed by death is not much of a God, and I would join the atheists if that were all Jesus offered.
But if my adherence to faith is no more than an insurance certificate for my own post-death existence, perhaps a dose of religious anaesthesia to overcome my own fears of suffering or death or non-existence, then my faith is fairly pathetic. Pathos is okay, to a point: we’re all trapped in vulnerability and angst. But do we stay there, out four score years and ten? When I was a child I thought as a child, says St Paul, not long before our passage. But later in 1 Corinthians 15, in a poetic tour de force to which this passage is a prelude, while Paul dwells on some sort of personal resurrection, his greater concern is far more. It is about accepting the call, accepted by Isaiah, accepted last week by Jeremiah, accepted by Simon Peter and the other disciples, accepted by Paul, and presumably at some stage by you and by me, but accepting that call as an invitation not to live for self, but to live for others. It was that dimension that was absent in the lives of the Corinthians. It is that dimension that is often missing in my own life, and perhaps in yours. That is why we say “sorry” to God again and again, and plead the grace of improvement in our small lives.
Enough, for now: we journey towards Lent, the big forty-day-sorry-saying. Perhaps it’s merely a practice for that moment Paul wrote of last week, when we see God no longer through a darkened glass but face to face. Certainly, whatever our experience of “call” – not a word I like because of its implications of voices in the night, but one I shall have to use nevertheless – despite maybe our experience of “nudge”, we are enmeshed with the doubters and the triers and the honest struggling rejecters in a journey towards the eternities of God. What that means I do not know, but I know it means I am called to do my best to live my life – with altruistic atheists and Buddhists and all the other seekers after meaning and truth and goodness – not for self but for others. To that journey we are called and on that journey we will struggle and from that journey we will enter into the magnificence of God’s future – a future not just ours but for all God’s creation