SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 32 (10th November) 2013
(Oh ... with apologies for the last invisible post!)
Readings: Haggai 1.15b – 2.9
Psalm 145.1-5, 17-21
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17
If you were to read through the Gospel accounts for the first time you would very soon get the impression that there is a bunch of bad guys called the Pharisees. They are often depicted as the opponents of Jesus, and some may have been (there are bad eggs in many baskets), but we need to be a little careful in our reading of scripture. Historical scholarship today would emphasize that at the time of Jesus his own theological and missiological position was not too far removed from the Pharisees, and it is highly probably that the antagonism between the Pharisees and Jesus depicted by the four evangelists reflects a different situation, some decades later, by which time circumstances had driven a bitter wedge between Christians and their Jewish cousins in faith.
This matters today not only because of a tragic fifteen hundred year history of more on than off oppression of Jews by Christians, but because in our world it is far more important to look for cohesion than enmity between warring faith-parties, and to condemn our cousins in faith on the basis of some reasonably volatile and even jaundiced first century writing – however understandable that jaundice may have been when Matthew Luke, Mark and John were writing – is to perpetrate evils far from the heart and purposes of God.
The Sadducees however were a corrupt religious cult, a group of powerful and influential figures, with friends in high places. Their chief effect was to exploit the vulnerable in the service of feathering their own nest. Religious leadership of many forms, not least those perpetrating evil in the name of Jesus, are not above such practice today, as we see in the sensationalist religions and cults whose leaders demand tithes from economically vulnerable followers, pointing to their personal wealth as a sign of the efficacy of faith and prayer, but those who have used their positions of power in the church to serve their own search for personal and especially sexual gratification. The notorious Roman Catholic “Bishop of Bling,” Bishop Tebartz-van Elst who resided in notorious wealth in the diocese of Limburg has at least been brought to heel by Pope Francis, but there are many charlatans in more free-wheeling so-called Christian churches who continue to perpetrate their exploitation unopposed.
These many “users of the Lord’s name in vain” are able carry out their exploitations by deadening – cauterizing – the voice of conscience within their being, a process made far easier when any theology of afterlife or judgement is excised from the story of faith and of human relationship to God. The Sadducees had a vested interest in denying resurrection, for resurrection is a doctrine that, while it has sometimes been abused, on the whole inspires the oppressed to stand up to oppressors and exploiters, or, at the very worst, to find at least a narrative of hope in the midst of their lives of potential despair.
If I am an Afro-American slave in the nineteenth century I may not overcome my masters with a Marxist revolution – yet – but I may find hope in the midst of despair so that I can battle on in providing my children with love and warmth and the touch of God. While the narratives of a Te Kooti or a Ratana may not be orthodox in a Christian sense, there is no doubt that they succeeded, alongside orthodox Christian teachings, to bring narratives of hope to oppressed peoples. The Sadducees denied hope – as many contemporary Christians risk doing – and rejoiced in the outcomes of exploiting others.
Consequently there is no suggestion that they are entering in dialogue when they come to Jesus with their loaded question. This is not an open engagement with Jesus in theological korero, as a genuine seeker or dialogue partner might bring, but a conversation of entrapment. The gospel writers portray Jesus as again and again rising above entrapment – but as engaging genuinely and often playfully with those who willingly listen. The Sadducees do not.
The tradition of so-called Levirate marriage was in itself not to be automatically condemned. It is highly doubtful that Jesus approved wholeheartedly in the practice, reflecting as it did the notion of women as property, but there is no doubt also that, like Paul’s infamous but often de-contextualised “wives obey”, it provided at least some channel of hope in a society in which women were valued only for their ability to provide an heir for men. A woman was protected by the doctrine – still extant in some cultures today – and, while no one would advise such a practice today, it is probable that many otherwise disposable female lives were saved by it.
Jesus does not engage with the practice itself, but with the hypocrisy of the exploitative religious leadership who are raising the question only in order to ensure that his narrative of resurrection hope, judgement and justice is silenced. I hint elsewhere that we as a Christian community today should think very carefully before we denude our narratives of their internal words of resurrection hope and divine judgement: that is what Paul referred to when he warned the Corinthians against stripping the gospel of its hope of resurrection, and the words resound no less truly today.
There is much in this tiny scene that we could explore, but ultimately I want us to dwell with that one denuding dimension of faithlessness: if we strip our faith of the dimension of God’s compassionate judgement, and of the “eschatological” or “after-time” dimension of that judgement, then we not only trivialize all that the early Christians stood for, lived and often suffered and sometimes died for, but we shift our own existence outside the scope of God’s loving, searching, caring and eternal gaze.
If we do not stand and live our lives in the light of that miraculous, death-transcending light of the first Easter morn – and its inseparable promise of judgement – then our own potential to perpetrate evil – (or at least to perpetrate Not Very Good as most of us will have only small dimensions to our lives) – is left to have the final word. Jesus is unremitting in his response: that which dwells beyond our sight is more than we can imagine in its goodness, a pie in the sky beyond human comprehension. It is also, however, a magnet drawing us on to see God face to face. In preparation for that encounter, we, unlike the Sadducees, should be practising and proclaiming resurrection hope, not exploitation and despair.
May the magnetism of God’s eternity draw us and those we love and pray for on towards God’s judgement and to mysteries and reconciliations and loves beyond comprehension.