Friday, April 22, 2016

Easter 5C - Radical Inclusion

When you travel overseas it is often necessary to take special precautions about the food and water that you consume because they might make you sick.  A friend’s recent trip to Sri Lanka created a constant anxiety for her about the water – but also about how well the food might have been cooked.

In our medicalised view of the world we have accepted as true the idea that what goes into you can indeed do you a great deal of harm.

This is not unlike the world in which Jesus lived where they had a religious tradition we call a “purity code”.  According to the rules associated with this if you ate certain things you would be ritually unclean.  If you touched certain things you would become ritually unclean.  And if you associated with certain kinds of people you would be regarded as ritually unclean.

And if you were ritually unclean it meant that you could not fulfill your religious obligations at temple or synagogue.  Depending on the gravity of the transgression the uncleanness would last a certain number of days – a day, a week, a month or even longer.  Generally a form of ritual washing completed the period of days and sometimes a sacrifice was required.

It is in this context that we have to begin to understand the story that was read from Acts 11.  On one level it is a story of the Holy Spirit of God trying to break through the thick skulls of the Apostles that the Gospel was a message for all humanity, not just the Jews – but as history bears out, Peter was not the great apostle to the Gentiles.  That commission was given to Paul.  Peter was the leader of the apostolic mission to the Jews.

But in using the metaphor of unclean foods to get this message across the voice in the vision says to Peter “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.”  It is these words that struck me most as I read through the selected texts for today.  So what are we to make of it as God’s word to us for today?

On another level I think this story could also be an attempt by the Holy Spirit of God to get through the thick skulls of the Apostles that this new Way of Jesus means an end to the Purity Code that had for so long controlled so many aspects of their daily lives.

This should not have been a new idea to the Apostles if they had been listening to the stories of Jesus as we have them recorded in the Gospels.  Jesus frequently challenged the purity code:-
  • He ate with tax collectors and sinners (code for Gentiles).
  • He did not mind the company of women – noting the haemorrhaging woman who was clearly “unclean” according to the code.
  • He had no qualms reaching out to touch lepers.
  • He touched the coffin of the dead son of the widow of Nain.

So, here in this story, Peter is being reminded again that the Way of Jesus establishes a new way to God that is not about purity – “If God says something is clean, then don’t go on saying it is unclean.” - it is about Inclusion.  Everyone is welcome!

So the question I then have to ask myself is do we still have remnants of a purity code in the church today and if so, what does it look like?

One example of it that I see in some places is a clear reluctance to mix with certain kinds of people.  This might be because their theology is perceived to be in error; or it might be because they live morally questionable lifestyles; or it might even be nothing more than that they are obviously much poorer than us.  In some of my ecumenical work I have come across good people who refused to join in the work of a committee because there were Catholics on it.  It was almost as if being close to them might contaminate their own reputation as Christian people.

In an earlier time in many churches people who smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol were regarded as something like social pariahs – people not to be associated with if you wanted to be really Christian.  And you might add to that women who wore makeup or had their ears pierced and etc. etc. etc.

But I think there are some more subtle ways in which we use attitudes and gesture to try and keep our little part of the Community of Christ rather bland and homogenous.  People who are not like us are subtly excluded from circles.  People who hold different political or theological views than our group are also shut out – very subtly.

Jesus is calling us into a very different kind of community than those that humans generally try to create in which we are all alike.  He does this by challenging us to recognise the mark of God in every other human being – we call this “the image of God” – and then to love that person who is bearing the mark of God.

This kind of radical inclusion stands in contrast to what we see in most of society and that is why John reminds of the words of Jesus that we have been given a new commandment (I actually think it is really an old one restated) to love one another.  When we do this, he says, people will really know that you are his disciples. 

This should mark us apart from the rest of society.  We should be a place that is welcoming and inclusive.  It makes me really sad to see the enormous amount of material on social media in which Christian people are excluding themselves from people whose sexuality or morality is troublesome to them.  Or people who want to reject others because of their theology or some other aspect of difference.

It is only when we welcome others and sit down at meals with them that we can ever begin to share our journey of faith with them as Jesus did and has called us to do.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Easter 3C - Your mission, if you choose to accept it ...

Last Sunday, as we gave our consideration to the story that is often said to be about Doubting Thomas, I was struck by the words of Jesus to his friends.  These were John’s equivalent of the Great Commission we read in Matthew 28 – but here Jesus is concerned with just one thing – Forgiveness.

John, of course, has a singular thread running through his gospel –

The God is love and those who love are in God and he is in them. 

This is the new commandment – Love one another. 

So it is not surprising nor out of place for him to see that what Jesus is commanding us all to be engaged in as his disciples – forgiveness.  This is our singular task.

Strangely enough I think many Christians find this one of the hardest things in their journey of faith.  If they have been hurt by someone, especially someone in the church, they so often find it darned hard to make up with them by offering forgiveness.  I know I have struggled with that.

A story has emerged from the US in the aftermath of the shootings in Paris some little while ago.

Somewhere or another there must be some similar teaching on the Qu’oran, but there certainly is that teaching in the Bible.

In the stories that John tells us, immediately after he tells us in Jesus’ voice that our mission is to be forgiving people, there are two really vivid things for us to understand.

One of the many layers of meaning in that resurrection appearance of Jesus on the beach is the idea that his disciples are to cast out wide nets and gather in all who are there.  This is a call to be an inclusive place – where all are welcome no matter their background.  That was revolutionary thinking for his Jewish Disciples who had live in exclusive isolation from other races.

But I am more interested in the second story.

Before his execution, Jesus had warned Peter that he was going to do something unthinkable – and it was so unthinkable that Peter simply said that he would never do that.

But he did!

As I look at this scenario I feel for both Jesus and for Peter. 

If Jesus was anything like you and me, and in many ways I think he was, he would have been heart-broken by the way his disciples all seemed to flake off into the shadows during the period leading up to his execution.  And Peter’s betrayal would have hurt all the more because he had warned Peter.

But think about how Peter might have felt, too.  I know that sometimes when people do something bad to others they don’t feel any remorse because they have worked out a way of thinking that has justified the horrible thing they have done.  But Peter must have felt shattered.  We call that shame.  We have failed.  We have let down someone we really do care about.  It crushes us.  We just want to hide away.

It is not surprising that Peter decided to go off fishing.  He had to do something to take his mind of his shame.  But Jesus follows him.

Here is a great teaching moment for Jesus.  He has given his disciples this commission about forgiveness, now he can show them how it is done.

“Peter, do you love me more than these others do?”

Wow.  What a question.  It goes right to it.

Do you think Peter was able to look Jesus in the face that first time he said “Yes Lord.  You know that I love you.”?  Whether he did or not we don’t know, but Jesus said to him “Take care of my lambs”. 

And this happened three times.

Anything that happens three times is something we have to take notice of.  This is the same kind of forgiveness there was in Jesus parable of the Prodigal Son/Father.  It was a forgiveness that did not have in it retribution.  There was no probation after a failure.  Here Peter is welcomed back into the community of the Disciples.

This single thing could transform the world.

This single thing could transform the church.

This single thing could transform you.

I said this was a hard thing – and it is.  But when we remember how God has forgiven us so much, how could we ever withhold forgiveness from a fellow brother or sister.

God has forgiven us everything.  There is nothing terrible or bad that we have done that God is holding out on the forgiveness for.  It is in that forgiveness that we accept our righteousness before God – not something of our own efforts, not something that we deserved, but something by God’s grace that we have received.

And it is in that righteousness that we are restored as his children and can stand before him here every Sunday to receive these holy things.  Nothing we do can keep us away from God’s love and forgiveness – as Peter found on that day on the beach.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

EASTER 2 C - Ministers of Reconciliation

I have picked up Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for a re-read.

The story, as some of you will know, centres on the collision of the lives of two very different families in a rambling old house somewhere in the Subiaco/Claremont area.  There was inveterate gambler Sam Pickles who is penniless and will never work properly again because of an injury inherits an old house which he can’t sell for twenty years; and there was Lester Lamb and clan whose rental of half the house provided Sam and Dolly with an income.

It’s a long and complex story and I suspect many of you have read it, but I discovered last Sunday that there was a very important interpretive clue right at the beginning of the novel.  I had previously read the novel for the story, and when I watched the TV series again I was wanting the story to be reawakened for me, which it was.

You know how writers often put a little quote at the beginning of the book – or even at the beginning of every chapter – well, Tim Winton has given us such a thing right at the beginning of Cloudstreet, and I assure you it is a very important clue as to what are the important bits of the story.  He gives us just two lines of one of those old evangelical songs from the 19th century:

Shall we gather at the river
Where bright angel-feet have trod…

The story includes frequent episodes described in metaphysical imagery – of a house that is a living breathing thing caught up in the sadness of its own history, of lights, and gatherings, and water, of a pig that speaks in tongues and of a mystical blackfella who keeps calling people “home”.  All these things interwoven with the story only make sense in the light of these two lines.

In all three years of our Lectionary this reading from John’s Gospel is prescribed for the Sunday after Easter, so our church Fathers consider it to be a very important story for us to take notice of, and indeed, John felt this was an important story and he wants us to notice some things about it, too.  The challenging question is “What are we supposed to notice?”

How can we decide this?

Well I want to suggest that a few lines right at the beginning of John’s Gospel might get us there:

In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God

When we think about the things John wants us to take notice of in the Gospel stories he tells us, in the way he tells them, much of it will only make sense in the light of these three lines – which many think were lines in a song or poem.

They speak of Jesus’ unique relationship with the God and his intimate involvement in the creation of all things.

In this text we have before us the thing that stands out almost blindingly obvious when you use these three lines as a filter is the way that Jesus greeted them. 

“Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
23If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Did you notice it?

Well, you might not have.  Let me help.

John stands apart from Luke in his understanding of the nature and meaning of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke, it is all about signs and wonders and the undoing of that great Babylonian myth of “The Tower of Babel” by which the Hebrew people understood the emergence of diverse languages.

For John, the coming of the Holy Spirit is intimately involved with images of Creation – here the new creation.  When God created all things he created the man out of the “dust of the ground” and then “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”  This action was repeated again when God created the woman.  Interestingly it is not part of the story of the creation of all the other living, breathing animals that were created as helpers for the man.

So, for John, who has been thinking about these things for a very long time before he wrote them down, the use of this breathing imagery in the story of Jesus passing on the Holy Spirit is his way of recognizing Jesus’ intimate role in re-creating us.

Jesus breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit.”  This is a direct echo of the Creation story in Genesis 2.  So this is really important – have I got your attention now?

So, having imparted the Holy Spirit to them, affirming that they are New Creations (as St Paul would describe it), what is the very next thing he tells them?

“If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now the church has made a lot out of these words over the years as it tried to ensure its place as controller of all things mystical.  In the end they simply created exactly what these words were challenging. 

In Jesus’ day the Temple was the only place you could go to have your sins forgiven – you would make the required offering or sacrifice and the sins would be forgiven.  When early Christians said things like this they were daring to stand independent of the Temple system – they did not have to go to Temple.  That was radical.  That was treasonable in those days.

Jesus is saying we all have within our power those things we thought were in the gift and power of the church alone – the power to forgive sins and withhold forgiveness. 

But I want to pick up something in particular in these words of Commission by Jesus.  After declaring that they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives them a very singular mission – to forgive people.  We can talk about the withholding of forgiveness in another place.  Here I just want is to think about the significance of this primary task.

During the week a man was talking to me about his recent experience with a man he had been in trouble with for a long time.  It wasn’t really bad trouble – they just kept irritating each other.  This meant they were frequently resentful of each other and there certainly was no trust between them.

The man told me he knew he had to try and do something to make things better, but he didn’t really know what to do.  Anyway he arranged to meet with this man to try and talk about things.  They talked and talked.  He listened more than he talked, I think.  He said to me that after about two hours of this he felt the Holy Spirit tell him something very important.

He looked the man straight in the eye and said to him “I’m sorry.  I think in all these things I have hurt you and I am sorry that I did that to you.”  Then he put his hand out in reconciliation.  The other man hesitated as the significance of this was sinking in and then he took his hand and pulled him into a long and warm embrace.  Both men wept as they found forgiveness in this moment.

I think there is something very powerful in the wisdom of Jesus in giving his disciples this one task – to forgive one another.  I truly believe that that wisdom exists in all the other religious traditions of the world, and it would be a wonderful world if we all got it – but that is another story.

The important story is that we have all been called into this great mission of reconciliation – by this simple gift of the Holy Spirit.  Imagine a world in which there was no need for revenge, where people were not holding on to old hurts that made their lives hell.

The bit of the imagery that I love is the BREATH.  Without breath, what are we?  We are dead.  It is BREATH that give us life and keeps us alive.

So, for Christ’s sake, I ask you to take a very deep breath.  Get ready …

Receive the Holy Spirit. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, Let the Spirit fill you with every breath, flow in your blood stream, and saturate your attitudes, your thoughts, your words and your deeds!  And give you Peace.