SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
2nd Sunday in Lent
(February 21st) 2016
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
It is a brave, or perhaps narcissistic person, who sets themselves up as an example to imitate. Yet Paul, in writing to his beloved Philippians, does just that. Was he a narcissist? Probably not, or his arrogance would not have generated the love that ultimately ensured his correspondence was handed on and has lasted two thousand years. Was he a fool? He suggests that elsewhere, and is not afraid of the title. But perhaps even more than that he sees himself to be increasingly, as his life of struggle goes on, a person saturated with, taken over by who he knew to be the risen Christ.
He knows that presence within himself through the strengthening he has received in daily life, in witnessing and working in often hostile contexts to proclaim the one who met him on the Damascus Road. In that conversion experience he began to receive a lifelong transformation of his being, his selfhood, his essence. He has known the presence of Christ in struggle, toil, tragedy, in fellowship and study and worship. As he writes what was probably his last long letter, writing in the shadow of at least the possibility of execution, he does not doubt the Christ who has seized and is transforming him.
He writes his last known longer letter to the Philippians, a people he has grown to love dearly. They have stood with him and supported him in journeys of trial and of horror. Unlike the Corinthians and the Galatians, these Philippians have grasped and lived by the gospel they and Paul share, and he draws strength from the knowledge that the risen Christ is continuing to work within them, transform them, and build them up for whatever lay ahead of them.
But he had left them long since. While Philippi and its Christ-bearing community had been a place of sanity and refuge for him, he had not felt called by God to rest on in his comfortable place (Semantic shift, the shift in the meaning of words, has ensured that the words “comfort” and “comfortable” have made a massive migration of meaning since the days of Book of Common Prayer). Like Andrew, James and John, accompanied by the this-time-stern Jesus, Paul had to come down from the sociological mountain top and return to the places of danger. He did so, as the other apostles had, and all except John paid for the decision with their lives. Perhaps in another way John did too.
That of course is as it should be. The crucified God of the Cross asks nothing less of us. We can gloss over this, but each day some of our sisters and brothers around the world risk their lives for this crazy inexplicable faith we share. The roll call of recent martyrs that some of us heard in the Ash Wednesday liturgies reminds us that, while there may be comfort in the Christ we serve, that comfort is not comfortable in the lamentable contemporary sense of the word. The comfort of Christ and Christ’s Comforter-Spirit is not an arm-chair of complacency, but a vocation that is comfortable in the ancient sense of the word, drawing strength alongside and into us as we face whatever dangers pass our way.
Jesus and his closest followers come down from the mountain. We must. A recurrent theme of Jesus’ teachings is that of avoiding the temptation to hold on to or look back to past days of glory. Lot’s wife, traditionally, was turned to a pillar of salt as she hankered after the safety and security she had left behind, but Jesus’ warning are only slightly less dramatic: shortly after this passage in Luke’s narrative Jesus will un-ambivalently warn his followers “No one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Whatever the Mount of Transfiguration experience was, and the language is too surreal for us really to fathom it, there was no staying there. However cosy Paul’s experience of the Philippian Christ-community may have been, there was no staying there. However majestic and safe the glory days of Christendom and of Anglicanism’s part in Christendom may have been, there was no staying there. However majestic the glory days in which churches and cathedrals were constructed throughout the world and throughout the centuries, however majestic those days, there was no staying there, and the Spirit of God chose to drive Christ-bearers into different times and places.
For us then, as a people of God, there is no complacent security on the mountain top of past experience. We as a people of God are being driven out of contented rest on the laurels of former days. Fiscal, sociological, geological and meteorological forces, to name just some, are the tools of a God who is driving us down from the safe places of a Mount of Transfiguration, with its tabernacles of cosiness, the glories of a past, down to a future warmed by God’s footprints but indecipherable to us. Just as God allowed Cyrus, the brutal civic leader, to be a tool of reformation of Isaiah’s complacent people Israel, so God is today handing a New Covenant people over into the ramifications of our own self-satisfaction. The horrible and hopefully not to be realised image of a Donald Trump presidency is a warning of what we may birth, of what even now in Yeats’ words may God forbid be slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
This, though, is a global north, a former western world matter, not merely a US matter. There are many more Donald Trumps around the corporations and clubs and churches of the world. Such beasts may be born if we don’t rediscover the core business of Christians humbling ourselves, of Christians worshipping with humility, of proclaiming and doing justice in our local community and our global community. Such beasts may be born if we don’t rediscover the core business of Christians permitting the hurting and unclean and unpretty to sleep on the couches of our hospitality, of welcoming God’s hurting hungry people into our midst with every fibre of our individual and corporate being, our planning, our strategizing.
It is a brave, or perhaps narcissistic person, who sets themselves up as an example to imitate. Paul did, because he was so broken, so opened to the Spirit of Jesus, that as he put it elsewhere, it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived within him. As a people of God we are commissioned, as we say each week, to re-member – that is to knit together, to member together again in our midst – the radical, compassionate, welcoming actions of Jesus the Christ. We are called to recreate – in reality to permit God’s Spirit to recreate – in our worship and actions the irresistible welcome and embrace of the God who wrapped a pig-stinking prodigal in divine arms. We are called to be touched, our hearts strangely warmed, our attitudes changed by that God, and then to continue that embracing mission in the streets outside. We are called in Lent to say sorry to God where we have failed to hear that invitation, to receive God’s mercy, and then practice that inviting mercy with our every fibre in church and community.
By the grace of God may we be conspicuous by so doing.