SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 23 (12th October) 2014
ORDINARY SUNDAY 23 (12th October) 2014
Readings: Isaiah 25:1-9
One of the great divides running through the witness of Christianity, almost as bitter if less militarized that the Shi’ite-Sunni divide in Islam, is the divide between the public-political faith practitioners and the personal-piety faith practitioners. This difference is often enshrined in denominational allegiances, and within denominations in the cleavage that sometimes exists between liberal and conservative, though the labels founder on individual realities. They provide a useful starting point, though: show me your personal salvation and I’ll show you my political-social activism, or vice versa.
And, while I haven’t yet asked a question, the answer were I to ask the obvious one, is both-and, of course. Personal piety without commitment to public justice is obscene. Political activism not anchored in personal piety is thistledown, planted on the wind, as Denis Glover and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes each might remind us. Not either/or, but both/and, though I should add that there is a form of personal piety that is so seamlessly and unquestioningly anchored in right-wing politics, particularly in the USA, that an observer might begin to wonder where the party politics ends and the faith begins. I make no secret of my belief that right-wing or capitalist dismissal of climate change is neither more nor less obscene than a left-leaning form of politics that separates cavalier sexuality from responsibility, and which reduces an unborn infant to the level of medical inconvenience.
So, while I find no scriptural reference (and however slippery interpretation always is, scripture will and must always be the yardstick of debate) to “personal” salvation and a “personal” saviour, neither do I find a scriptural imprimatur of the nation state’s right to ignore the plight of the individual in a mantra of the greatest good for the greatest number. Last time I checked Jesus revealed the heart of neither a Communist nor a Fascist God but the heart of the vulnerable, hurting but hurt-transcending God of the Cross. “My Jesus, my Saviour” of the popular hymn is also Jesus, Saviour of the World of the ancient canticle.
What do we do then with a collection of tenuously linked readings like those we have? The God of Isaiah’s prophesy will wipe away tears from the eyes of God’s people, but this is a very collective, nationalistic God and it is the collective nationalistic guilt and the collective, nationalistic tears that are being addressed. The God of Philippians’ prickly author seems interested in the focus of the individual believer’s eyes, a sort of “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” message, but elsewhere Paul indicates that he does not have an individualistic but what is called a “dyadic” view of the encounter between a believer and God, in which whole communities or at least households may together, not individually, turn to receive the grace-touch of the Saviour. Jesus seems to be threatening the dismissal of a wayward chap to eternal hellfire, but the context, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a tragi-comic tale about behaviour that even the most reprehensible first century reprobate would not countenance, suggesting therefore that this is more than just a tale about naughty individuals who do not surrender to an altar-call of personalised salvation.
So I suggest always, despite the non-existential, non-personal flavour of the world in which the scriptures groaned to birth, despite the suggestion that salvation in the biblical stories is not ever some sort of individualistic ticket to eternity, that we nevertheless take each of these references and realize that, while we can’t change the world, we can nevertheless change ourselves (with the help of God), and while we can’t persuade the world of the veracity of the claims our faith makes for Jesus or for God, we can nevertheless allow our lives to be continually changed so that at least the rumour of God and God’s values are kept alive. In that way, as global security blankets fray and disintegrate as they have for every civilization, nevertheless the life-transforming love of the God we encounter in worship and fellowship can shine through our attitudes of compassion and justice and love despite the noisiness and fallibility of our normal human self-serving volitions. I suggest that we don’t threaten to throw other people into hellfire, in other words, but deal with that within ourselves which rejects the love-touch of God, the healing invitation of God, that we amputate that within our lives which drowns out the justice-song of God, that we amputate that within us which is anti-Christ and turned to darkness rather than divine and eternal light. It is after all, as Jesus says elsewhere, better to enter eternity maimed that to spend eternity, whatever that might mean, wailing and gnashing our teeth.
As we do that, and always only ever with the help of God, we may just become better guests in the eternal banquet hall of God.