SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 10 / THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(9th JUNE) 2013
Readings: 1 Kings 17. 8-24
“The hope of the resurrection” say Baptist scholar Alan Culpepper, “is not grounded in the fact that the widow’s son came back to life but in the fact that the one who had the compassion to bring back the widow’s son has himself triumphed over death”
[You may as well know from the start of what may be a happy relationship that my favourite biblical word is the Greek verb splagnidzomai (you cannot use it in Scrabble). I love in part because I was once told, when I explained that it translated as "moved to the bowels", that such language was not permitted in church. I fear the good people of Christ Church, Wanganui must be a little more prudish than God or the apostles! I love it more though because it drives right to the heart of the differentness, if I may torture a word (I often do) of the God of the Cross. This is not the unmoved mover, but the God whose very bowels move at the plight of creation. We will find more of the significance of the moving bowels of God shortly.]
It is probably apocryphal, a sort of rural myth, but the story goes that some thirty years ago a group of Pentecostal Christians, emboldened by this passage or one of the similar resuscitation passages in the New Testament, stormed the critical care ward of Alice Springs hospital, demanding that the bewildered staff let them raise one of their friends from his or her life-supported death bed, because God had commanded them to do so. Unfortunately the security and nursing staff of the hospital were less persuaded of the significance or even existence of God in this critical moment, and the bewildered Christians were forcibly removed from the premises.
It is easy to be cynical about such a moment, and to mock the Christians for their misguided mission. Certainly they cost the wider Christian community a fair bit of credibility that day, but on the other hand there is a sense I can only admire their courage and their determination to overcome reality in the name of their beliefs. They were misguided, yet there was something impressive about their foolhardiness, and I can only hope that if the incident ever in fact occurred they were able to find Godward lessons in it, rather than find their faith stretched beyond breaking point at the thwarting of their expectation. I hope, too that the nursing and security staff weren’t turned away from the possibilities of the gospel of Jesus Christ by this gauche moment of Christian witness, albeit witness gone wrong.
But I do think they got it wrong, if the event ever took place. I admit I am something of a sceptic about almost all healings and even more so about alleged resuscitations, though I do allow some room for the surprising and unstoppable actions of God. On the whole, though, I suspect God is not at our beck and call for spectacular sideshows, even in the name of “witness”, and that in any case even raising the dead would have little evangelistic impact on those who do not want to believe.
More important than failed spectacles in hospital wards is what Luke is telling us about the ministry of Jesus himself. Last week we saw a healing by what is called fiat, a command issued that is immediately fulfilled, obeyed even by the forces of nature and the spiritual world. This week it is rarked up (if I may use what I believe is a kiwi verb) to a new level, as a mere healing is trumped by a resuscitation. This of course is not a resuscitation of the CPR type – yet nor is it resurrection, as we shall see. Like the raised Lazarus, this resuscitated man will one day face death again. Perhaps like some who I know he will face his own death with greater calm than might otherwise have been the case, or perhaps like Kerry Packer he will come back from over the brink happily sneering "there's nothing there, folks." The fact is we know nothing about him: his name, his mother’s name, his emotional responses to life and death: all are lost to us because all are unimportant to us. This is not a story about a nameless young man and his mother, but a story of the revelation of the heart of God.
For the heart of God - or indeed the gut or the bowels of God - here enter into that most visceral form of human grief, the grief of a parent who has out-lived her or his child. I write “her” or “his”, but in this narrative it has to be a "her", because the grief of a mother is not only the grief of lost love, but the grief of total doom. A woman had no hope in widowhood beyond the support of her son and his family: with her son dead she too is effectively dead, and all hope has left her world. Luke is taking himself into dangerous realms – realms far more risky than those entered by the Alice Springs alleged ward-stormers – because he was writing in a world in which the hallmark of a decent god was feelinglessness, unmoveability, immutability. Yet he is writing of a God who feels, who feels even into the deepest entrails of divine being. This is so wrong if the idea of the early Christians was to appeal to, to be relevant to, the populace in which they lived out their faith.
Not insignificantly this is also the moment that Luke, in his Jesus-story, refers to Jesus as “Lord” (v. 13): previously characters in the gospel have called him “Lord”, but Luke himself has held the title back. It is a significant moment: God-in-Christ becomes “Lord” for us and to us when he enters into our deepest moments of vulnerability and hopelessness, and there breathes resurrection light. As the bowels of God move with our suffering, so resurrection-light breaks into the most ghastly bowel-moving, visceral experiences of being human.
He does not allow us to stay there. He enters our pain, but there he commissions us to be his hands and feet, entering into the pain of those around us. The hallmark of the earliest Christians, and their strongest evangelistic weapon (as it were), was the quality of their love for the vulnerable, and especially, as it happens, for those most vulnerable of all, first century widows. Communities were gobsmacked: see how they love, they said of the Christians. Would they say it of you or of me? I suspect most of us fall short. I do.
This was not entirely a new thing. The Old Testament people of God drew strength from stories such as that of Elijah and Elisha, the first from 1 Kings that was our Hebrew Scripture reading this morning the second Elisha story from 2 Kings. There are many differences, but as Luke deliberately echoes the 1 and 2 Kings stories we are expected at the very lest to make two connections outlined in the dissimilarities, his deviations from the Hebrew texts. In the first place we might simply say that, if it is good enough for our cousins-in-faith to take hope and strength from the stories of Elijah and Elisha, then it is surely good enough for us. They even risked ritual uncleanliness by touching the dead - can there be greater compassion that theirs? Jesus in fact doesn't touch the body - though we know from other stories that he is not afraid of uncleanliness. No: Luke though wants us to take another step. This is an event like that of Elisha and Elijah, but oh so much more, for here the man is healed not by actions and rites of prostrations on the body, but by the simple command, the fiat of the God whose word or command and action are one and the same – and we are commissioned to know that this God is revealed in Jesus the Christ.
Where does this leave us? Not in the end, I think, storming the critical care units of our hospital, but knowing and acting out in our lives the realization that even death is transformed by the healing, hurting, healing light of Christ – your death and my death and the death of those we love. I firmly believe that if we denude our faith of this critical and inexplicable dimension then we are wasting divine time and human. “The hope of the resurrection” say Baptist scholar Alan Culpepper, “is not grounded in the fact that the widow’s son came back to life but in the fact that the one who had the compassion to bring back the widow’s son has himself triumphed over death” (Culpepper: "Luke". NIB IX, 159). We are called to live not denying death but celebrating the conquest of all deaths, all tragedies, by the glorious resurrection of the one who commanded the widow’s son to rise.