SERMON PREACHED AT THE ORMOND CHAPEL(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (25th May) 2014
Readings: Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-22
1 Peter 3:13-22
To read Luke’s history of the expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire, his history of the early impact of the post-Pentecost Holy Spirit, is to read a type of history that does not resonate well with our post-Enlightenment, categorizing, quantifying, classifying brains. Since the Enlightenment we have wanted all facts, all matter, all experience to be neatly ordered in ever-decreasing categories, so that in the end A.A. Milne’s beetle is not a mere resident of an infamously porous matchbox, not merely “a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,” but Animalia > Anthropoda > Insecta > Coleoptera > Belidae > Rhinotia > Hemistictus, before finally becoming the famous Alexander Beetle of the famous poem:
It was Alexander Beetle I’m as certain as can be,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
“I’m very very sorry that I tried to run away.
Among the expressions of this need to classify were the great orderings of the animal and plant kingdoms, together with the great Dewey Decimal System, the great thesaurus writings of post-Enlightenment Europe, even the great concordances of the bible. Many of the designers of such systems went mad in their brave attempt to make categorization of the world their life’s work. Strong, the concordance writer, did not go mad, but pulled together a team of hundreds to help him in his work. The earlier Cruden sadly did undergo many stints in mental asylums (is this the moment to point out that he missed out Buz the brother of Huz in Gen 22:21?), having spent his spare time attempting to preserve the King’s English and eradicate graffiti with a sponge. Roget, author of the famous Thesaurus that bears his name did not go mad, and indeed used the categorizations of words as an antidote to the depression with which he struggled throughout his adult life. Dewey, of the decimal system, did not technically go mad, but was highly antisocial, and dangerously eccentric. They were however masters of category and classification.
It was probably most poignantly revealed to me during my recent sojourn in the Northern Territory, how western and often paternalistic such a view can be. Its worst expressions are to be found in the attempt to classify humans as numbers, so that for example representatives of indigenous communities are categorized according to series of groups of descending size, so that ultimately a skull in a Global North museum becomes no longer the remains of a cherished human being but a code and sub code and goodness knows what other forms of sub-classification in a small drawer in an air-conditioned museum basement.
It was my privilege three years ago to take part in a combined Anglican and Traditional Indigenous burial ceremony in which remains from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington were returned to their ancestral home and their spirits released to freedom and peace. A clinical classification system that erodes values of freedom and peace can ultimately so dehumanise its subjects that their bones are mere exhibits. The most horrendous classification system of all was that of Hitler and his accomplices as Jewish and other minority peoples were reduced to tagging as a number and their lives callously snuffed out in the gas ovens of Nazi Europe.
Luke knew none of this. For Luke the glorious sweeping work of the Holy Spirit was described with flamboyant and symbolic numbers: thousands became believers that day. I used to find myself depressed, and suspect some Christian professionals still do, as they compared the numbers of converts at Luke’s scenes with the impacts generated by our ministries. To the best of my knowledge no person has come to faith through my ministry, and while I lament that, I leave it altogether in the hands of God. But it is important not to throw out the symbolic baby in the quantifiable bathwater of Luke’s story. There is no doubt that the enthusiasm and vigour and determination and indeed sheer brave certainty of the earliest Christians had enormous impact in the spiritual vacuum of the late Caesarean Roman Empire, and that the spread of Christianity was nothing short of miraculous.
For us though it is the baby in the Lukan bathwater that matters. Luke would not have used the vastly symbolic depictions of the work of the Spirit in making Jesus known to members and observers of the Jesus Community had his symbols not resonated with the experience of his audiences. They knew the power of Christ’s risen and death-transcending, death-conquering presence in their midst. Observers of the Jesus Community saw him in the behaviour and attitudes of the believers. The challenge of course is whether the same can be said of us.
Are we testifying to a powerful, transcendent Christ in our midst, or are we focussed on a struggling and frankly collapsing institution and collapsing wider society? It is not easy in a post-Enlightenment world to believe in a thoroughly pre-Enlightenment, un-quantifiable, un-classifiable event. It is not easy to believe in the impact of the God of Jesus Christ in lives in, around and through and since that event. As an Easter people in a post-Enlightenment world we slide into attempts to classify and categorize and minimize that which the early Christian writers knew to be greater than the human imagination. We reduce Alexander Beetle to a mere concept.
We shrink or marginalize our churches either by attempting to rationalise away the magnificence of the experience of those who are saturated in God, or by demanding that God behave in the ways we dictate (be we fundamentalist readers of the minutiae of scriptural events or liberal categorizers and classifiers of the same events). We must acknowledge all lives saturated in the experience of the spiritual in and beyond Christian understanding, for I would not limit the resurrection Spirit of God to Western experiences, though privately I would name Christ as the True Spirit of all authentic life.
So, finally, when Peter speaks of Christ “in heaven” we can get bogged down in arguments that trivialize his point by either defining an “up there” place or by paternalistically sneering the concept away altogether. Instead the scriptures invite us to recognize that he was speaking of the powerful experience of the first – and subsequent – Christians, the experience that the risen Christ is close, is drawing us inexorably forward in to the eternities of God’s death-conquering love. I suspect we can find the unquantifiable but almost tangible energies of the risen Christ only as we turn again and again to God seeking forgiveness, restoration and renewal in the irrational faith of Christ.