SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
ORDINARY SUNDAY 32
(November 8th) 2015
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Today we enter into that question Jesus put to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Who is this that gazes across the Temple of Jerusalem and observes what are in economic terms the last gasps of a dying woman? Who is this who does nothing to alleviate her suffering but goes on to predict the not yet apparent destruction of corrupt religion, religion for which she gave her last economic breath? Who is this man Jesus? Why take notice of him at all, much less turn him into our Invisible Friend, or speak of him on Remembrance Day?
There are many ways to address this christological question, as many as there are bottoms on the clouds of eternity. Circumstances change, eras change: the breathing, thinking space of every observer of Jesus differs according to their life story. There are though some broad-picture categories that have been major keys to interpreting Jesus. Is he a role model to follow? The rather unpleasant, toxic nineteenth century atheist James Thompson offered a caustic (and sexist) critique of the presentation of Jesus as mere role model:
This poor sexless Jew, with a noble feminine heart, and a magnificent though uncultivated and crazy brain, did no work to earn his bread; evaded all social and political responsibilities, took no wife and contemned his own family; lived a vagabond, fed and housed by charity … and died with the lamentable cry of womanish desperation, perhaps the most significant confession in history of a life of supreme self-illusion laid bare to itself at the point of death. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The extent to which Thompson got things wrong is common but excruciating, not least the significance of that powerful cry of dereliction from the Cross, but we might leave that for a moment. I suggest that there are moments in the legends surrounding Krishna or Gautama Buddha that I find more uplifting than some of the moments in the life of Jesus.
As it happens I would say the same of Jesus as a teacher. There are of course wonderful moments. For those of us who know the story the question “who is my neighbour” is powerfully answered in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the image of the shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find the hundredth, while perhaps not good agricultural policy in the modern world, was in first century Palestine a deeply illuminating image of God’s determined compassion. But there are moments in the teachings of, say, Confucius or Karl Marx that I find every bit as illuminating as the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Many interpretations find in Jesus the social and religious revolutionary, the Che Guevara of first century Palestine. Certainly Judas wanted him to be that, and much liberation theology has emphasized that many of Jesus’ teachings, not least this story of the widow’s mite (when it is given its proper ending about the destruction of the Temple) do point to revolutionary ideals. But there was no revolution, and while some remarkable followers of Jesus (Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu come to mind) have contributed to powerful reform, most revolutions have merely replaced one form of tyranny with another, and The Emperor Louis is merely replaced by The President Robespierre, or apartheid’s oppression replaced with Zuma’s corruption, and the peasants still starve.
As the early Christians gathered and told stories they were most deeply moved by another aspect of the life and teachings and death of Jesus. They were most deeply moved by their overwhelming sense of the resurrection of Jesus and their overwhelming sense of the presence of Jesus as they gathered. The suggestion that they were just silly and misguided naïfs is unconvincing: some were prepared to die in defence of their right to proclaim the revolutionary resurrection of Jesus, and many then and now did so.
There was a “been there done that” dimension to the Jesus they encountered in their faith journey. No matter what they underwent, they were strengthened by the experience of the Risen Lord journeying with them, journeying even into death and resurrection with them. It is this that the author of Hebrews is emphasizing as she depicts the journey of High Priest Christ through the brutality of human suffering and death and on to what she calls “heaven itself.”
Her congregation had grown bored, nonchalant, laissez faire about the Jesus thing. The Hebrews preacher was prepared to put one more bomb under the unidentified Hebrews’ collective backside, and the fact that we read her sermon still, 2000 years later, suggests that at least some got the message.
But does her message of a “been there, done that High Priest” have anything to say today? Today, as Israeli forces shoot dead a 72-year-old Palestinian woman; today as refugees continue to struggle and die in one of humanity’s greatest ever mass-migrations, the most significant since the two Great Wars we also acknowledge this day; today as we hear of the fightback of bacteria in hospital wards; today when "Innocent until Proven Muslim" is becoming an increasingly vitriolic attitude and we are threatening to lose our ability to feel compassion; today when in the face of ecological crisis we must wonder what world we are bequeathing our mokopuna?
But also, as we observe the Remembrance that we must not forget, does her message of a “been there, done that High Priest” have anything to say, as we recall when troops and civilians died in their millions, 38 million dead or injured in World War One, 60 million dead and countless injured in World War Two? Did the meaning of Jesus die as war broke out? Does the meaning of Jesus die each time calamity breaks out, globally or personally?
Jesus does once and for all die to meaning if all we have is nice teacher Jesus, good example Jesus, or social revolutionary Jesus. But this is not who the early Christians discovered as they gathered in secret to worship, nor who the chaplains conveyed as they hunkered down in the trenches and hospitals and killing fields of not just two World Wars but of almost every war for two millennia.
In the lead up to World War One the churches had recreated Jesus in their own image: nationalistic Jesus, nice Jesus, Jesus slavishly obedient to public demand. But that Jesus died without resurrection in the wars, and slowly we are learning to rediscover the life- and death-transforming Jesus, the been there done that Jesus who beckons to the suffering and dying of all armies, all civilians, all conscientious objectors, all who face incurable disease and even those who face the incurable diseases we have inflicted on mother Earth. Because what the author of Hebrews had discovered was “been there, done that” Jesus, the Jesus of the agonised Cross, the Jesus who took the experience of God from trenches to mountain top, the Jesus who offered resurrection wherever people reached out to receive him.
Shortly we will reach out to receive that Jesus in communion. The earliest Christians did so too; they did so because they knew the Great High Priest who journeys into every human hell hole to bring peace, the Great High Priest who inexplicably invites us through the curtain of death to the far country, “whose ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.” They did so because Jesus transforms death into eternal life.
Shortly we will reach out to receive that Jesus in communion.
The Lord be with you