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Friday, 15 May 2015

Setting the captive free

(17thy May) 2015

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26      
          Psalm 1
          1 John 5:9-13
          John 17:6-19
Some years ago I was privileged to interview a well-respected Rabbi about his faith. As we approached the end of the conversation I asked him about Jewish attitudes to evangelism. While speaking for himself, he echoed the voice of not-quite-all Judaism: why would we evangelise? Who would wish to carry on their shoulders the burdens of our faith and our relationship to God? A few weeks ago I was reminded of that response when I was reading the British Chief Rabbi’s response to a similar question:  “Their [Israelites’] vocation represents not a privilege but a responsibility”,[1] and “If we live well, becoming a blessing to others, we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence.”[2] Do we “live well, becoming a blessing to others”?
So Rabbi Raymond Apple described faith as a burden. Who would wish to carry this burden? I suspect Christianity has much to learn from this attitude. I doubt if it has ever been a temptation propagated from this traditionally liberal pulpit to door-knock like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses in the name of Cathedral Christian outreach; I am prepared to a point to concur with that avoidance. My observation of much door knocking and many door knockers is that, while it may produce some bottoms on seats (and certainly the Mormons and JWs often feature well in growth statistics)  there is often a vast credibility gap between the subject of the missionaries, some form of salvation, and the integrity of the institutions sending them out. On the other hand there have been many occasions on which our institution, too, has lacked integrity, and it is no mistake that, when a few moments ago we gathered on our knees to seek God’s forgiveness in rites of general confession, we were “we”, not “I” (though there is a place for both).
If we take seriously the glimpse of eternity that we have in the words we sing and the prayers we pray then there is a vast burden of responsibility on our shoulders. The other day the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered some weighty challenges:
The Kingdom is elusive and invisible. The proofs and promises will be disbelieved by many. The victory offers no conclusive culmination, only a beginning; while being a witness invites danger, leading to sacrifice and suffering, if not death.
The power that comes [in Pentecost] is to be given away not hung onto; Jesus was no Mugabe clinging to power. There would be no public glory or acclaim, merely hard work and sacrifice, like most of those who serve the church round the world today.
Lest Justin Welby’s words be seen as hyperbole it is worth remembering that at this time 100 million Christians are being threatened or persecuted for their faith, not allowed to build churches, buy Bibles or obtain jobs.[3] Others, as the February martyrdom of 21 Copts in Libya reminds us, are being executed for their belief. There has never been a time that has not been what millennialists and apocalpticists like to call “great persecution,” what Jesus called “the time of trial.” Nor despite the cosiness of a New Zealand context, is there guarantee that we too could not face persecution for our faith.
There is no doubt that what we once easily believed is now eagerly mocked. Often we have deserved it, with our self-satisfied grasp of what Rabbi Sacks calls “desecrations” of God’s name. We have used the name of God in vain when we have turned a blind eye to sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical and fiscal abuse in our churches and our homes. We have used the name of God in vain when we have turned a blind eye to the suffering of individuals and groups and species and contexts around us. Rabbi Sacks suggests “As a radio converts waves into sound so a holy life translates God’s word into deed.”[4] I suggest we become static when we fail to do so, or at best the sibilant sound of a poorly tuned radio when we do so lackadaisically. To change metaphor, we fail to become the spark of light that our pre-dawn Easter service challenged us to be. “Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son” says John. He is potentially referring to us.
So we are burdened-yet-blessed by the vision of eternity that is in our language of liturgy, word and song.  We are mockable, yes: there is endless derision directed at us in the infinite columns of ether-print, directed at us because we cling to an Invisible Friend . Sometimes it is overwhelming. None of it is pretty, little is repeatable. Even so wonderful a figure as Pope Francis is, in the ether-columns, all but drowned out by the hatred of Christianity.  Our glimpse of eternity, seen primarily in the Resurrection, and secondarily in the subsequent 2000 years of rumouring resurrection in word and deed, is a burden. It is a burden frankly I often feel I could do without. Yet, and I quote Justin Welby again,
What could be more important than the message Jesus’ followers are left to proclaim? What can be more essential to that message than the gift of power from God; power to liberate not dominate, to bring life not law, freedom not fear?”[5]
We are called to be sparks of compassionate, death-defying hope and justice and liberation, practicing individually and as a congregation acts that demonstrate that derision is not the final word in the world.
One of Michelangelo’s great gifts to the world was a series of captive sculptures. “The Awakening Slave”, “The Young Slave”, “The Bearded Slave” and “The Atlas (or Bound)” were never finished, but they show Michelangelo’s vision appearing from unyielding stone. It is sometimes claimed Michelangelo left them trapped to remind us of humanity’s struggle for fulfilment, liberation, completion. Our own individual lives will be completed in our surrender to God in our dying, but before that we are like Michelangelo’s captives, emerging from the stone.  We are challenged to be living hints of the credibility and integrity of Jesus, hints that in Jesus, and with the help of God’s Spirit in our lifelong surrender to Jesus, the eternal love and compassion and justice of God can be fore-tasted, and can even break out of the stone of our being. That’s what Rabbi Sacks means: “we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence.” In a week we will celebrate Pentecost, that great Feast of the coming of God’s Spirit. That coming makes transformation possible,  releases the possibilities of Jesus in space and time so that we too can experience and witness to him and to his resurrection.  Let us pray this week that we may be transformed by the often burdensome yet liberating Spirit of God.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 66.
[2] Ibid., 67.
[4] Sacks, Fractured World, 67.
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