SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN, and
ST PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
ALL SAINTS’ (November 4th) 2018
(translated from November 1st)
- Wisdom 3: 1-9
- Psalm 24
- Revelation 21: 1-6a
- John 11: 32-44
It was a pivotal moments that I will not forget. The gospel was read in the small chapel, and the proportionately small congregation sat down to hear my colleague, presiding priest for the day, break open the scriptures.
He began with a tale about Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on his door, and how we all knew that their reduction of the roll call for the Reign of God to 144,000 was fatuous. We nodded in agreement. We nodded too as he made a few more points about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have never been a huge fan of their theology, and though I wasn’t sure it was the time or the place the points were well made.
We were still nodding in happy agreement when said priest went on to affirm that of course we all knew that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was nonsense. I nodded happily. Then I realised what he had said. No, he maintained. It was obvious, he maintained, that if all followers of Jesus were in some way to rise from the dead there would not be room for them, so clearly this was nonsense.
How do you withdraw a nod? I sat with my most vacuous look for the next few minutes as he explained that we were all far more intelligent than those silly Christians who believed that boloney. I suspect I was still sitting with my jaw on the floor when he concluded, and we moved into a time of prayer and thanksgiving.
Prayer and thanksgiving for what and for why and to whom I wondered.
Perhaps there was a time when I would have agreed. I recall a brief window in my theological journey when I jettisoned all metaphysical dimensions to our faith. Our faith was a political program, liberate the oppressed, and that was it. The phase lasted a few weeks and died. It died because why bother? It died because what had seized my life some years earlier was not some political manifesto, though they are important, but an experience that, in the ilk of St Paul, I would call an encounter with the risen Christ. My life was not transformed by Karl Marx or Rachel Carson or I dunno, Robert Muldoon or Ronald Reagan or someone from the other side of politics.
Call it subjective fantasy if you like, and certainly the complexities of psychology come into it, but my coming to faith was not some sort of make-believe. It was powerfully experiential. Not everyone has the privilege that I have of a risen Christ invading my self-satisfied if crumbling time-before-faith. But I’m not sure that the magnificence of the God we encounter can be reduced to some sort of infantile loopiness, nor that contemporary Sadducees should steal the hope most human beings feel in the face of that greatest of oppressions, Death.
As I worked with Indigenous people in Australia and later with Māori here I became increasingly convinced that the narrow rationalism of western culture could be a real hurdle as we attempt to understand the radiance of the breadth and depth of God and God’s dealing with creation and humanity. We know so little! So often I hear a rationalist cry that my faith is a load of nonsense, that of course we know it’s nonsense, that it is irrational.
Increasingly I am unconvinced. So often I hear Christian practitioners themselves who, like the presiding priest with whom I began, feel the need to reduce the gospel to the measurements of their own mind. Fr David was telling me the other day of a golf professional who, when asked the width of a golf course, would answer “six inches,” that being the distance between the players’ ears. Wisdom, that.
There is a different wisdom-dynamic at work in the dimensions of faith. In faith the possibilities of God are beyond the distance from left ear to right ear travelling away from the skull. In faith the possibilities of God are as far as the east is from the west, as far as the journey to the boundaries of an expanding universe and beyond and back in a circuit to the place where the thoughts began. In faith the possibilities of God are infinite.
Yet they become localised in the life of the man of Nazareth, localised still more in the tiny symbols of bread and wine and the tiny words of scripture, and there begin to transform human lives. They become like the beat of a butterfly’s wing, infinitesimally small, yet they can reverberate through life and death and all eternity. They become the spark of hope that inspires men and women to sacrifice their lives in the service of a crucified God.
I think for example of the 20 Coptic martyrs of Libya who in 2015 refused under threat of death to deny their Christ, our Christ. So powerful was their witness to the unseen God, in the face of imminent execution, that a 21st captive, Ghanaian Matthew Ayariga, declared “their God is my God,” and while it is uncertain whether he was a follower of Jesus beforehand, he elected in that moment to be executed with the Libyan Christians. One does not have the sense that he or they died for a fairy tale or for a piece of romantic nonsense that should be dismantled by those with more powerful minds. One has the sense that he died for a living, death-transcending Messiah of God who in death and in resurrection was revealed as Lord. They are numbered this day amongst the saints and martyrs who gather with us and all Christians as we pray.
Faced with a bevy of pseudo-followers of Christ, a group who had chosen to dismantle the message of resurrection because it was too hard to believe, Paul the Apostle angrily, or perhaps sadly pronounced “they are more to be pitied than all people.”
As the people of God – or a branch thereof – in the Wakatipu, while it is unlikely that we will be called upon to be martyred for our faith, we are called to so open ourselves up to the mysteries, the beyond rational mysteries of resurrection faith, that we cannot imagine life or death without him beside us and within us in our living and our dying. The saints who we celebrate this day are those who by the initiative of God have transformed rationality to faith. To be honest there are good, bad and ugly amongst them, as there probably is amongst any group of Christ followers and even within each of us as individuals. The process for recognizing and naming saints becomes a little bit silly at times.
Biblical doctrine suggests that all who are in Christ Jesus are the saints, made holy by his belief, his self-sacrifice, his faith. The idea is captured well by William Bright in his great and heartfelt hymn:
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him;
look not on our misusings of your grace,
our prayer so languid and our faith so dim;
for, set between our sins and their reward,
we see the cross of Christ, your Son, our Lord.
The saints continue to gather around us as we pray, make eucharist, and serve in God’s world. Their lives continue to serve to remind us of the power of a life transformed by faith, hope, love beyond rationality. The response to such miraculous lives is not to dismantle faith and its mysteries, but to allow our arrogance to be dismantled by God’s Spirit. May God help us so to do.
NB. This will be my last regular sermon for a while as I conclude my interim ministry in the Wakatipu faith communities. This week I enter a new role as Diocesan Ministry Educator in the Diocese of Dunedin.
My thanks to those amongst whom I have ministered in the Wakatipu, and before that the whanau at Te Pou Herenga Waka o te Whakapono; to my referees, to my friends, and family, who have have continued to support me through interesting times past, and to the Bishop and panel from this diocese who have entrusted this role to me.