SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (1st June) 2014
SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (1st June) 2014
Readings: Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:4-11
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:4-11
I rarely watch television and even more rarely watch “got talent” shows (at least not since C’mon showed on New Zealand television screens) but I once happened to be in a room when the infamous Simon Cowell (I’ve learned his name since) asked a fresh faced and eager contestant to turn around and show Simon the back of his shirt. With a sneer cold enough to sink the Titanic Cowell then expressed surprise that he could not see a broken line painted down the middle of the contestant’s back, as the poor boy was so middle of the road. It was nasty and unnecessary, and while I am no fan of the “everybody is a wonderful winner” attitude of some class room etiquette, this seemed to this non-viewer to be like an act of wanton psychological vandalism, and if it is no more than a part of the acceptable discourse of twenty-first century entertainment then I have some serious questions to ask about western values.
Be that as it may, though, when it comes to biblical and theological interpretation I should have a broken line painted firmly down the back of my shirt. There is a school of thought that sees every syllable of biblical record as dictated by God, and another that starts from the assumption that if the bible or bible characters are recorded as saying something then they clearly didn’t. I stand firmly in the via media (as every Anglican should!), the middle way between these two fundamentalisms. I believe primarily that we have very good, if interpreted, records of the sayings and actions of Jesus. Even if the author of John was not in the inner-recesses of the mind of Jesus as the latter prayed privately, he was close enough to be able to recreate the likely scenarios and patterns of Jesus’ thoughts and prayers. What he tells of the thoughts and prayers and actions of Jesus must have resonated with the experience of the earliest Christians and one-remove witnesses of Jesus in order to be come so trusted and revered that his words became canonised as scripture. This is no fabrication.
It is a deep journey into the prayer life of the one we know to be Son (whatever that means: perhaps “incarnate-emanation”?) of God. In it Jesus prays three fundamental elements, though our liturgical slice provides only two. He prays for the glorification of the Son. He prays for the safe-keeping of his witnesses. And outside our liturgical slice he prays for the unity of his on-going followers. I should add that I do not believe that in his mind’s eye Jesus had some sort of clairvoyant foresight into the bear-pit behaviour of Anglicans at for example a General Synod or an Electoral Synod in Aotearoa nearly 2,000 years after the prayer was whispered: the prayer is a genuine insight into the disruption that disunity causes to what Paul would call the body of Christ, the marring or authenticity that comes from our ability to cooperate through all our differences of personality and priority.
But, if the one who I have called “emanation” (the word is inadequate, but so is “Son”) of God remains by and large unanswered, what hope have we, and what integrity is there to our witness to the resurrected Christ who is our founder and raison d’être? So often our personal prayers, for ourselves, for those we love, for those around us, and our bigger-picture prayers for God’s tortured and fallen world seem unanswered. Indeed let us not play around with the let-off word “seem”: our prayers are unanswered.
And I guess I can’t answer the un-answer. I pray as I’m sure you do for family, for friends, for the strangers who share this planet with me. I pray for Syria and watch the thousands die. I find my prayers dry up as I read of the rape and murder of Malaysian and Indian and Pakistani teenage girls all in the last few days. I find my prayers dry up, though I try to stutter them still, as I see the growing gap between the richest and the poorest on the earth, and as I watch the wanton ignorance that is the response of the world’s most powerful people to the ecological collapse that will devour the lives of the world’s most vulnerable (and more). I stutter prayers, and even when I do see invasions of what I might consider the miraculous I know only too well that they are exceptions to the rule and are in any case, perfectly explicable to the sceptical by references to causes other than divine intervention.
Jesus prayed in the garden for the glorification of his name. Actually his name today is more often a swearword that a glorified acknowledgement of his relationship to the Creator, but I’m not sure that is what is at stake. We might though acknowledge that even two millennia later there are lives transformed, healed, and emboldened by the acknowledgement of the “lordship” claims of the one that the first witnesses believed to have conquered death. Yesterday was the 80th Anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, one of public theology’s and Christianity’s finest hours as the German Confessing Church stood up to Hitler. It did not stop Hitler, and our declarations when eventually we make them may not change the world, but it spoke of the integrity of a group of men and women who dared to confess Jesus as Lord and simultaneously address the world’s deep injustices: “As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.” They were brave words that cast a gauntlet at Hitler’s feet, and reflected the belief of the confessing Christians that God was greater than evil. “Lord”, said Jesus, “Glorify my name.” While many so-called believers continue to mar the name of Jesus, witnesses such as these will ensure that name still has credibility at least in circles where eyes and ears are not stopped.
“Father … protect them in your name.” While the source of the Fourth Gospel was probably one of few eye-witnesses of Jesus to live to an old age, many countless who have served Jesus then or since, have died prematurely. Professing Christ is hardly a protection – and if our prayer-book and its allusions to Paul’s writings are to be believed then it is the opposite, an invitation or calling to suffer. “Father … protect them in your name” is not it seems, a magical formula to make sure bad things don’t happen. It is, I suspect, a prayer that no matter what befalls us, we will in the pain of suffering, of trial, continue to stutter the words of belief: Jesus is Lord. Bad things will not have the final word. Over and again, against the claims of Hitler to Lordship, the Confessing Christians of Germany dared to pray to a greater Lord. Many of them died, as did many early Christians and Christians in between, and Christians today, yet the prayer “Father … protect them in your name” remains mysteriously valid. It is linked not to protection from suffering or death, but protection from the loss of faith, the loss of way, the loss of place in the heart of the God who will transcend death.
The prayer for unity is not included in our readings, and I shall leave it until it is. Suffice it to say at this stage that a unity of believers does not gloss over differences in doctrine and practice. It wrestles to stay in love-relationship despite them. The unity that is the spirit of ecumenism and the œcumene or in Māori kotahitanga symbolised in the carving above my head [see picture], is a sign that even after two thousand years our Lord’s prayer still resonates around the universes of God, and we are still within the embrace of divine, unifying, as yet not wholly known love.
The futures of God and of our relationship to the purposes of God remain a “not-yet.” I see signs around the international church, even in Western Christianity, that we are beginning to rediscover our core purposes, the mission that begins deep in the heart of the prayers of Jesus. I am beginning to see signs of a future Church thrown back not into sillinesses and trivialisations of faith, but into witness that is consistent with those first witnesses who dared to believe that the prayers of Jesus were meaningful even when all around them often seemed lost. As we can be reminded each time we see the paschal candle, our time is embraced within the alpha and the omega of God, and our future will be the future that is embraced by God. May the Christ of the Cross be glorified in our small lives, individual and corporate as the Spirit of God (whose coming we celebrate next week) keep us complete, steady, strong, firm in the faith of the risen Christ.