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Thursday, 17 September 2015

Luther, Prejean, and a dead Syrian ascetic

(September 20th) 2015
Jeremiah 11:18-20
James 3:13-4:3
Mark 9:30-37
Theme: - Who is Wise?
Firstly forgive me if I begin with a little back-story, a mihimihi. Although a pretty-much kiwi, growing up from the age of seven until I graduated from university in New Zealand, I have spent much of my ministry in Australia. We’ll skip that bit though – I after all never supported anyone except the All Blacks in a nation where most people wouldn’t know Richie McCaw from Billy Bunter – and simply say what a privilege and miracle it is to pulpit swap with Richard. We come from such vastly different backgrounds that we are almost living testimony to that remarkable Pauline vision of the many members of one body.

I’m a sort of unregenerate retro-hippie, who at least until and possibly after I came to Christ believed that life consisted of chemical enhancement and Led Zeppelin (yeah, maybe that all changed a bit after I came to faith!); although Richard was a copper long after the times I faced off against the police in rabble rousing left-wing protests I suspect we would not necessarily have had a beer together in those days! My ideal church would have so much incense that the route to the exits would need to be lit by floor lighting and the sanctuary party would wear every item of obscure clothing known to humankind, I am theologically conservative and socially liberal, and I believe Richard is pretty much the opposite, and, well, pretty much so on and so on.

I say that because our theme is one of wisdom – who is wise? – and I am for ever convinced of the weird truth of that great observation of God in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” and of that other insight of St Paul, when he writes “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Human wisdom tends to seek monochrome friendships, obsequious co-operation, and sycophantic cloning. The wisdom of God seeks diverse contrasts, myriad world views and back-stories, and with all that diversity begins to breathe into existence a community of Christ.

Of which more in a minute.
It was Martin Luther who, mid-way through his reforming career (if it can be called that), described the letter ascribed to James as “a right strawy epistle.” By that he meant it didn’t altogether fit his view of the way the Bible should be written or his opinion of what the Bible should say. He hadn’t believed that earlier in his career, but as his emphasis on what came to be known as “justification by faith alone” became greater and greater the text that didn’t suit him became an embarrassment. I have some – not much but some – admiration for Luther’s thought, although that is more to do with the centrality of the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus in his thought than with the place of faith. I think, though, that Luther got James badly wrong. He got it wrong because, although it might be very nice to be filled with joy at the thought that one is in some way “saved,” such a view of oneself is all but deluded if the encounter with Jesus that the word “saved” denotes is not expressed in acts of justice and compassion in the world into which God has called us. I might add that I think Roman Catholicism gets this profoundly right, at least in theory.
I think sadly of the self-congratulatory religious Right in the USA, and its clones around the world: their happy experience of life as “the saved,” while translating into conviction maintaining the rights of the unborn, does not extend to the right to life of citizens of other nations, and they therefore contentedly support indiscriminate military action as a solution to perceived international injustice. I think of those whose happy experiences of salvation are not expressed in compassion for others beyond their shores, peoples whose livelihoods and even lives are jeopardized by rising sea-levels. I think of those whose sanctimonious faith leaves them with little or no compassion towards others who may be unjustly convicted, like Richard Glossip.
Glossip’s execution in Oklahoma was delayed once more this past week; his prosecution was based on what appears to be a reasonably shaky or at least ambivalent accusation that makes the NZ Police case against Arthur Alan Thomas look rock solid (it wasn’t). Unless we are ourselves God we should maintain at least some degree of possible fallibility in our knowledge, and leave the right to life and death in the hands of God. Glossip’s supporters incidentally include both Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean and her alter-ego Susan Sarandon, who played her in Dean Man Walking. We should never forget that there are myriad and disproportionately non-Caucasian inmates amongst the ranks of death-row prisoners in the USA, as there are Māori in New Zealand’s gaols, and it may just be that violent crime is a matter of justice not only for victims but for all who are entrapped in webs of injustice and unequal life-opportunity
As one Facebook meme acerbically puts it, “Deliver us, O Lord, from those who say they are pro-life, but in the next breath discuss obliterating entire countries”(as others have said, eloquently) Jeremiah after all asks God to take revenge, a far remove from asking the followers of God to take it upon their own shoulders.
The author of the epistle we call James got this. He got that we are a community that should, having encountered the Risen Christ, be conspicuous by our acts of love and justice. We are also of course called to be conspicuous by our belief in a God and a faith and a relationship that spreads beyond the boundaries of mere human mortality and mere human understanding. We should be conspicuous because we are a resurrection people, with the implications of that strange belief reaching into every dimension of our life. James got that wisdom is not only, or perhaps not ever intellectual knowledge or spiritual exhibitionism, but must be expressed in conspicuous action, even when sometimes we get it wrong, for it is better to err on the side of compassion than of judgement, hatred and revenge.
St Isaac the Syrian (or Isaac of Nineveh) put it profoundly in a seventh century prayer: “Conquer evil people by your gentle kindness, and make zealous people wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind. Love all people, but keep distant from all people.” It’s not a bad directive.
This is probably why Mark provides the strange scene of the followers of Jesus acting like pigs in a trough.  The biblical writers did not need to tell the history of the followers of Jesus warts and all, but they did so: they knew who they were without the infiltration of the Spirit of Christ. They could afford to tell these stories in those early days of Christianity, because the love of Christians for one another and for those in need was so conspicuous that they began to dismantle the brutal dog-eat-dog ethos of the Roman Empire.
They did not pen self-righteous bumper stickers of the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” variety, but set about demonstrating in every facet of their lives that their encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, encountered in worship, fellowship and scriptural study, was an encounter with the eternities of God, by which their lives and the lives of all members of the Body of Christ were transformed. In the ancient church “wisdom” was more often than not seen not in the intellect but in the behaviour of the faithful. The challenge to us is to rediscover that, with all our different back-stories and whakapapa, so that we are the compassion and justice and eternity proclaiming Body of Christ.
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