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Friday, 7 February 2014

If we so choose.


SERMON PREACHED
AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST,
WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
(9th February) 2014

 Readings:      Isaiah 59.1-9a
                       Psalm 112.1-9
                       1 Corinthians 2.1-12
                       Matthew 5.13-20

It is something of a commonplace in some circles to attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus, the founder of Christianity (though some have acerbically applied that sobriquet to Paul) and Paul, the re-designer and destroyer of the pure unsullied message of Jesus. We need to be very careful in driving that wedge anywhere, because to do so sidesteps the complex question of the hand of God on human history – a minefield it is true, but a necessary minefield to navigate if God is to be God in our lives.

I defend Paul against any implications that he was in any way the destroyer of the simple pure and unsullied Jesus message. Certainly there were Jesus-sayings floating around in the ether before and after Paul struggled – for good reason – to set down a more or less consistent applied theology in his short series of letters. The suggestion that somehow setting quill to papyrus and structured order into the random circulation of Jesus’ thoughts is somehow counter-gospel, this suggestion is faithful neither to history nor theology nor common sense. Papyri – written documents – were no new thing, and attempting to schematize the sayings of Jesus into theologised collections was hardly a new pattern, as the oral history of the Hebrew people had been set to papyri for centuries.  There is no wedge between Paul and Jesus – or between the gospel writers and Jesus, or between Paul and the gospel writers: these are instruments of the Spirit of God as a new relationship between God and humanity was emerging from the womb of Mary.

Unlike Jesus, though, Paul was writing after the events of Jesus’ life death and resurrection – and yes of course the gospel writers were writing after Paul, adding another dimension to the wedges that are not there. It seems to this interpreter highly plausible that Matthew was in fact writing up the Jesus story in such a way as to correct some excesses that were being birthed by devotees of Paul: Matthew’s “not one jot, not one tittle of the Law shall pass away” interpretation of Jesus to me sounds to be very much like a correction of Paul’s seemingly somewhat nonchalant attitude to Torah. That idea too needs development elsewhere, not here and has been explored by better minds than mine. Still: Matthew was writing a generation after Paul, and was very nervous at the excesses of some of Paul’s students.

Nevertheless, what Paul saw clearly, and what Jesus-sayings only occasionally touch on because his life, at time of speaking, was not complete, is the meaning of Jesus’ entire life and death and resurrection. Paul, though I am convinced he knew the body of Jesus sayings and teachings, does not dwell on them and rarely quotes Jesus. He does this for two reasons: in the first place they are a part of the agreed territory that he shares with his audiences and rarely need revisiting, and secondly because he sees that Jesus is no mere moral teacher or life-coach, but is the revealing of the saving heart of God. As I have said and will say, Jesus as a moral teacher is okay, but no more riveting than many other historical moral teachers. Jesus as what we variously call “Christ” and “master” and “Son” and “Lord” and other Christological titles is a wholly different dimension, demanding (as we saw last week) a crisis of decision. And at the heart of the crisis of decision is the question “what is a nice God like you doing dying in a place like this?” – the place being, of course the Cross of Jerusalem.

We will return far more to that question in Lent, but for now it is worth leaving it hanging in the air, not unlike our own magnificent sanctuary cross. The beginning of the answer to that question is in the revising of a belief in God that has God merely clinging on by divine fingernails, clinging on “out there”, out at the cold outer fringes of the universe. The clinging on God is impotent, unable to connect with human suffering, impotent because remote and disconnected from the human journey. The God of the Cross is not: the God of the Cross is embarrassingly invasive, in here, driving to the heart of your experience and mine, driving to our deepest darknesses and there, even there, shining Christ-light – if we let that happen.

If we let God do that. If we do not then God remains removed, out there, standing at the door and knocking. While the famous saying “behold I stand at the door and knock” from the book of Revelation is often used as a tool and image of conversion it is that and so much more. This God may stand at the door of my life and seek entrance, but does not do so only once. Does God have accesses to the dark places of my life that even I fear to enter? Does God enter my attitudes to spouse and family, to refugees and money, to driving a car and caring for the environment, to sexuality and benevolence and kindness and gentleness and all those things that Paul would call the fruits of the Spirit? The spectacular fall of pastors and priests in sexual scandals is one clear sign that this is not always the case, but there are a myriad other ways in which we can turn the God of the Cross into a plaything, and cut God out of the deepest recesses of human existence, if we so choose.

If we so choose. Generally we do: I do the things I do not wish to do, writes Paul, in description of the human state. When we choose to shut God out, then we cease to be the salt and the light that Jesus challenges us to be. Here is where there can be no divide between Paul and Jesus. For Paul sees clearly that, in order to live up to the demands of the Jesus sayings, we need to encounter the empowerment of the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit comes to us only as we invite her, only as again and again we call out to experience the penetration of our lives by the light of Christ, the resurrection light of Christ, the been there, done that and changed Good Friday into Easter light of Christ. This is the Christ of the Cross in whom God draws near and by whom our lives are turned from death to life, whether we live or whether we die. This is the Christ by whom by the grace of God we can be salt and light.

TLBWY

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