SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
(and last before Lent)
(February 7th) 2016
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The entire relationship of God’s love for both the Hebrew and Christian chosen people is a story of unexpected and unmerited encounter between God and ordinary and sometimes plain awful human beings. Jewish theologian Jonathan Sacks over again reminds his readers that the Hebrew – we must extrapolate for the Christian – people of God were and are not a particularly spectacular or important or deserving people: far from it! They and we are simply a touched people – and I use that phrase with total awareness of the nuances of the word “touched.” They have however been burdened with the commission to, as Sacks puts it, “brings heaven down to earth” (To Heal, 37). As a people privileged to be in relationship with the Creator, as a people touched by a celestial vision, they and we are called to be conduits of a story that is not merely local and immediate but universal and eternal. Those who have been touched by God must radiate compassion and justice and above all love, so that their faith becomes, not, as Marx thought, the opiate of the people, but endless energised protest against meaninglessness and emptiness and injustice, exploitation and oppression and extinction. When the people of God become that – and occasionally they do, the catch in the net in the deep water can be immeasurable indeed.
The challenge for us is to believe and grow into, with our hearts, what we profess with our minds and lips. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was painfully aware that the people of God were playing games with their new religion, strutting around in the Corinthian community with claims and attitudes of self-importance, self-obsession, and religiously sanctified arrogance. Like the phylactery-wearing hypocrites Jesus warned about in the marketplaces of the Holy Land, the Corinthians were wearing neon signs, drawing attention to themselves, reciting the mantra “aren’t we good.” Aren’t we good at public speaking, aren’t we good at sexual freedom, aren’t we good at staging magnificent love feasts in which the powerful rejoice in the finest food and the vulnerable are left at the bottom of the heap, picking at the leftover scraps of faith. Some were even pronouncing their allegiances to founding figures as a badge of honour: “I’m particularly good because Apollos brought me to faith … ah, but I am better for Peter converted me …”. Some even claimed Paul as their talisman, their banner, and he was not amused. I’m particularly good because I do this in the church, and don’t I do it well, and isn’t it good that all that we do is so polished and refined.
Paul was apoplectic with rage. Our somewhat lame translations of his correspondence often neuter the powerfully un-Anglican language that flowed from him. Just go castrate yourselves, he told another group of opponents in Galatia. What makes you strut around parading your superiority, your polish, your expertise, your social standing, he asked again and again. And again and again he reminded his Corinthians that he by contrast was pretty darned unremarkable: a lousy orator, an unattractive figure, a former bully and head-kicker, perhaps literally, who only became an effective follower of Christ when he surrendered all pretence of polish, skill, importance or honour. Only when he recognized the degree to which he was a failure, desperately in need of the touch of the risen Christ Jesus, did he or could he become a vehicle of meaning, of love, of righteousness, the channel of peace that his spiritual doppelganger St Francis would pray to become centuries later.
Psychologists might not like it, but there is an immeasurable degree to which we must learn that same lesson. Was I brilliant as a teacher, lawyer, architect, priest for decades, brilliant in administration or oratory or pastoral conversation or art or intellectual insight, at music or dance or hospitality or creativity? Have I given away my riches to this cause or project, given away my time to this programme or foundation? It is as dross – the word Paul uses is not repeatable in church – unless it is utterly surrendered to and indeed sourced by the Spirit of God. It is as dross unless our single focus is that of proclaiming with every pore of our being and every action of our doing the resurrection of the Jesus by whom our lives are given purpose, transformed, redeemed, even “saved.” Paul wanted no adulation or paycheque or sycophantic followers, but only to know that he was a conduit of the Good News of the Christ who conquered death.
Of course none of us will ever achieve this saturation of focus. We all, as Paul reminded that other group of recalcitrants in Galatia, fall short. What he does ask is that we remember that we fall short, that we remember our inadequacies, that we remember that, without the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ we are mere flotsam and jetsam in an empty universe. Yet at the same time we are challenged to recall and make known again and again to ourselves and to those with whom we rub shoulders in the body of Christ, to make known the warmth and energy of the embrace of the Christ who meets us in worship and fellowship, who touches and transforms and exalts and redeems us. We are challenged by Paul to remember the warmth that we experienced, as John Newton puts it, the “hour I first believed”, the warmth that elsewhere Paul describes as a “holy kiss,” or the warmth of “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” We are challenged to ensure that the hot breath of the risen Lord still circulates in our lungs of faith. If we have lost that energy of faith or lost that compassion of care then we are challenged with the Corinthians to repent, to turn back to God, to be renewed in the transformation of our minds.
We are challenged to be grasped again in what we believe. If our experience of the love-touch of the risen Lord has dwindled, as poet R.S Thomas put it, to no more than a spider scuttling in a dry chalice, then we need to seek the revivification that only comes from the risen Christ. If in our fierce intellect we have rationalised the central event of the resurrection of Jesus, the event that transformed the fire-breathing Paul, If in our fierce intellect or rationalism we have made of resurrection no more than empty words and symbols, then we need to seek the revivification that only comes from the risen Christ. If we are no longer awestruck, electrified by that news, compelled by that encounter to go out and rumour that news of resurrection, then we are, as Paul goes on to put it, no more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If we do not demonstrate by our Christ-infused love for one another, for those around us, and those beyond us, but instead count the mean butt ends of our candles, administer the last dry sip of wine to a gaggle of expectant recipients, or worry more about the state of our buildings than the hunger of hearts that may enter them, then we are, as Paul goes on to put it, no more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, and we must all, as Lent reminds us, turn back again to the energising Christ of the first Easter.
If we get that right, encounter the risen Christ, be embraced by the risen Christ, embrace the risen Christ in one another, warts and all, then we may just find our net is cast in unexpected depths, and that it draws in an uncountable plenitude of the goodness of God.
May God help us to turn and turn again, as T. S. Eliot put it, this coming Lenten season, so that we can in this and each of our places, public and private, know the place anew, as if for the first time, and be seized once more by the joy of the risen Lord.