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Saturday, 18 June 2016

A powerless god?


SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
and at All Souls’, Morven
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (27th June) 2004




Readings:  

2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20
Gal. 5.1, 13-25
Luke 9.51-62



If we were, as Luke intended, reading his Jesus-story at a sitting, end-to-end, we would when we came to today’s passage notice a sudden shift in direction. A handful of verses before, Jesus with Peter, James and John have been together with the “re-visioned” Moses and Elijah, on the Mount of Transfiguration. In the interim, in Luke’s hands a timeless few verses, Jesus has exorcised a demon-possessed boy, foretold his own suffering and death, and reminded the disciples that the greatest to which they must aspire is the greatness of a powerless child: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
Now Luke indicates to his audience that there is to be a shift in direction. The disciples have not understood the Transfiguration. The disciples have not understood that the way to God is not through greatness but through powerlessness. The disciples have sought to restrict the works of God, complaining when they find an outsider casting out demons in the name of Jesus. The disciples have not, as Jesus pointedly puts it, allowed “these words to sink into [their] ears.” And so Jesus resolutely sets his face towards Jerusalem, for there is now no other way.
This is not a geographical description of the journey that Jesus now takes. In fact his course meanders around many places that would not establish a resolute course from Samaria, where our story has him, to Jerusalem. But Luke likes to use “journeying” as a metaphor, not so much a picture of human life as we tend in our era to use it, (though that too) but as a metaphor for the travel of the gospel. In Luke’s first volume it is critical, as well as historical, that the central events of salvation history take place in and from Jerusalem. In his second volume, as he seeks to demonstrate God’s control over all of history, he wants to demonstrate that events are centred on the centre of the known political world, Rome. Just as Jesus sets his face resolutely for Jerusalem, so Paul is later to be unstoppable in his journey to Rome.
So Luke adds to his Markan material a number of narrative moments that depict the journey of Jesus towards Jerusalem, towards the fulcrum of salvation history. Deliberately he makes echoes of the other great Jewish story of salvation, the stories of Deuteronomy, as the people of Israel journey towards the salvation offered to them by God.
When Luke notes Jesus’ determination, his “setting of face” for Jerusalem, he is deliberately echoing a passage in Isaiah. In Isaiah 50.7 the central character of Isaiah’s poetry, known as the “suffering Servant”, sets his face like a flint to his tormenters. Early Christians saw, as Jesus himself almost certainly saw, echoes of the suffering Servant in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is called to suffer. The followers of Jesus are, as Paul notes in particular in writing to the Thessalonians, “called to suffer.”  He sets his face like a flint towards Jerusalem, and there can be little ambivalence about all that lies ahead of him there. This is the way of the Cross.
As such it is not the way of either power or ego. That power is not to be a part of Christian proclamation is clear from the start: the Cross in Luke’s hands is not a symbol not of Roman power but of God’s choice of powerlessness. Nor can it be a way of power games – such as the religious power game that entrapped Jews and Samaritans. As we know from the impossibly titled Parable of the Good Samaritan, there was no love between Jews and Samaritans; bitter doctrinal and historical differences surrounded them. There was no surprise in the Samaritans’ refusal to receive travellers heading towards Jerusalem. They were basically duty bound by the tenets of their faith to refuse hospitality to anyone who showed Jewish readiness to worship at the Temple. The hatred was intense, as we note elsewhere, in John’s gospel account, as Jesus engages in a conversation of cut and thrust with a Samaritan woman.
Significantly Samaria was soon to be a fertile ground for Christian evangelism, so that Luke notes carefully in his outline of the apostles’ task: “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Samaria plays a major role in the spread of Christianity. And this could not have been the case had the very human but un-Christlike wishes of James and John been fulfilled: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Such is not the way of the Cross, even if it is te way of the OT – and especially our first reading. Such is not way of Cross. Such is not way of cross-bearers/X-bearers. Revenge is a cycle that only breeds hatred and repetition of past hatreds. Only the words of reconciliation and forgiveness break the cycles and breathe the possibilities of God into situations of hatred.
Nor, as our final verses make clear, are security blankets, the comfort-hugging of the foxes in their lairs, nor procrastination of the father-burier (however understandable), nor idolizing the past by the backward looking ploughman: these are not the Way of the Cross. For the treasuring of past hurts, or the selection of comfort zones, or the down-prioritizing of the gospel, or the fossilization of ancient memories, these are all hindrances to the urgent task of Cross proclamation and resolute obedience to the will of the Father. From now on, Luke wants us to be sure; there can be no wavering on the Jerusalem journey. As the weeks go on we will hear much of the challenge of that journey.


TLBWY
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