Sunday, 19 May 2019

New commandment, new creation

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, 19 May 2019. Texts: John 13:31-35, Revelation 21:1-6.

Image: Trinity Toledo Episcopal Church
We’ve heard two passages this morning about things that are new. We have a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation, and a new commandment in the gospel of John. For me, spring often feels like a time of new growth, of new life. And we are still in the season of Easter, and the readings are still on the theme of new life after death. In my view these two different things that are new are very closely linked. So we’ll talk first about the new heaven and new earth, and move on to the new commandment.

First thing to be said about the passage from Revelation, as ever with any reading of that strange book, is that nothing in it should be taken as prediction or at face value. It belongs to the category of apocalyptic literature and like all such work, it’s mostly a deep social commentary upon the world of its time, full of symbolism and strange imagery. It’s a book that’s often seen as rather threatening in mainstream churches, but I spent a month a couple of year ago reading my way through the book before the start of Advent and blogging about it, chapter by chapter, and I ended up with a strong respect for Revelation. 

So what’s this about? It’s not so much about the end-times as about the nature of the kingdom of God. It’s about bringing together heaven and earth into one, and building it on earth. Because although most translations talk about a new heaven and earth, there’s apparently a good case in the Greek for the word ‘new’ to be understood not so much as ‘brand new’ but as ‘renewed’, as recreated. Some special places in the world are sometimes described as thin places, a phrase I first heard to describe the island of Iona. In these places the gap between heaven and earth is said to be less than elsewhere. Well in this new Jerusalem, there is no gap at all between heaven and earth. God has come to live with his people here and now. And I do believe that the author of Revelation means this as a model for the present time, not just for the future, just as Jesus said ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’.

If God is present among us in this new Jerusalem, then all the bad things of the world will be at an end. Because the other thing about Revelation is that it was written at a time of great persecution, and written to people who knew all about death and mourning and pain. This is why the words are of such comfort, and why they’re often read today at funerals and have been set to beautiful music. My favourite setting is by Karl Jenkins, in his mass for peace in times of war, The Armed Man. As an idea it’s also the basis of CS Lewis’ vision of the eternal future in his final book in the Narnia series, where after the end of the world of Narnia he talks of the ‘real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here’. The new earth is the same as the current earth, only more real and better than the current earth.

But if it’s true that this is an image of the kingdom of God now rather than just in the future, if it fits with the words of the Lord’s Prayer that “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”, then how is this to happen? Well, I think for that we need to look to our other text for today. And as a link I want to share with you a hymn from the Iona Community, written by John Bell, which reads:
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
Beginning with you and starting today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
My promise is true, for I am Christ the way.
So let’s turn to the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples. It’s the same word for new in the Greek as the new heaven & new earth, so there’s a clear link there, along with the same sense of renewal. It’s a strange thing to call new in some ways, the idea of loving one another. If we just see that in terms of love within the group of believers, just as love for fellow Christians, then that’s not new at all. The idea of loving one’s neighbour is in the book of Deuteronomy, and it was described by Jesus as summing up the whole of the law, along with loving God. But when asked who he meant by neighbour, he offered the amazing parable of the Good Samaritan, full of images of outsiders and crossing of boundaries. And throughout his ministry he warns that simply loving those who love us is insufficient, and that we must love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, even seventy-seven times. So already in the gospels we see Jesus presenting love for others as being something expansive and costly.

Yet in this passage we see a still more costly love being presented as a model. Context is always important in understanding scripture, and although the lectionary presents this as the gospel reading four Sundays after Easter, it occurs in the narrative at the Last Supper. Shortly before this passage, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, giving them his model of leadership and love through sacrifice – what is sometimes called servant leadership; and he explicitly says that the disciples should wash each other’s feet. Then we have Jesus’ prediction that one of the disciples will betray him, and he makes it clear through his actions that he’s talking about Judas Iscariot, who leaves the room. There’s a quality like a film script to all this, and the passage we heard begins with the words “when we had gone out”, meaning Judas on his way to betray Jesus. And immediately after the passage we heard, the camera turns to Peter, who is usual impetuous way says he’ll lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus says that in fact he’ll deny even knowing Jesus before the next morning.

I say all this because it all goes to show what Jesus means when he says “that you love one another as I have loved you”. This is the love Jesus has shown to his disciples. It’s one of sacrifice, one of putting them first before himself, one of encouragement and care. It’s an self-denying love, not expecting something back and not holding anything back. Now that kind of love is hard. When others hate you, love them. When others call you names, love them. When others deny that you can be a Christian because you don’t conform to their narrow pattern of Christianity, love them. Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking these people, but he does say a lot about loving them. And the context matters because he’s saying it midway between betrayal by one disciple and being cut off by another disciple.

Indeed the context matters so much that we named the entire day after this saying. Because in Latin, ‘new commandment’ is ‘mandatum novum’, and from that word mandatum, we get our name Maundy Thursday for the day before Jesus died, the day that he washed feet, the day that he gave this commandment. The new commandment is the most important thing that happened on that day. In essence, it’s Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.

Jesus also links this commandment to this rather complex saying about the son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Now that word glorified, and glory more generally, is not really one that we see used in modern English outside of a church context. It’s around in lots of church language, plenty of times in the Bible and in hymns and prayers, but hardly ever outside of the church. The word in Greek, doxa, also means thought or appearance, but came to be used as a Greek version of a Hebrew word kavod, which refers to the presence of God but also to a sense of honour or respect. So perhaps we might say that God has been given honour by Jesus’ actions, that by the way Jesus behaves and lives, God’s presence has been felt and greater honour has been given to God. Some of this will come in the manner of Jesus’ death, but the sense of glorification must been seen first of all through the life of Jesus, and through the way he has been interacting with others in the self-giving love we have already seen.

This self-giving love from Jesus, in both his life and his death, fit alongside a Jewish idea of commandment always being linked to covenant relationships. The Ten Commandments were given at Sinai after a covenant was reached between Moses and God. And these covenants required a guarantee, often to do with sacrifice and blood – and the twin forms of self-giving love from Jesus form precisely this kind of guarantee. So we see love and sacrifice linked in the backdrop and support for this new commandment.

Now that’s a whole lot of theology. It’s quite dense stuff. But if we want to be part of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth, we have to start by loving one another, in the self-giving way that Jesus demonstrated, the kind of love I described earlier in the lives of Jean Valjean and Rachel Held Evans. And I believe strongly that this kind of love is intended as the precursor of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth. There’s no way that it can be confined to love between Christians, or within a particular church or denomination. It must stretch to love for the whole world. Yet love within churches and within the Christian family is surely the start. Jesus says that the world will see that we’re his disciples through our love for each other.

It’s therefore not just a tragedy but a direct disobedience of the one we call Lord and Messiah that the church has proved really really awful at loving each other over the centuries of Christianity. Heresy trials, schisms, excommunication of Christian by Christian, the inquisition, the crusades. The list goes on and on, century after century. It goes on today, to our shame. There are those who profess to follow Christ who refuse to call another their brother or sister because that person is gay, or because they believe something different about the nature of God, or because they have different politics. It’s a disgrace. If Jesus should have taught us anything, it’s to love those around us. The theologian Tom Wright puts it like this:
As we read verse 35 we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are’.” (John for Everyone Part 2, p.56)
But let’s return to the positive. Jesus presents us with a mighty challenge, to love one another according to his self-giving example. But he promises such a rich outcome from this love, that who would not want to follow it? Jesus calls us to love as he has loved, and this new commandment will lead us to the model of the new heaven and the new earth, and love will come over all the earth, and God will come to make his home among mortals, and death and mourning will be no more. Amen.


Sunday, 17 March 2019

The fox and the hen – a sermon about the journey to resurrection

Sermon given at Creaton United Reformed Church, 17 March 2019. Text: Luke 13:31-35. See also earlier address about Abram and covenant.

We’re all about the animals in this passage. St Patrick is said to have chased the snakes out of Ireland (he didn't), but here we have a fox and a hen appearing. They make a nice contrast, and we’ll come back to them later.

Image: Endless Road by Margret Hofheinz-Doring,
via Vanderbilt University
So Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The gospel of Luke has a lot to say about journeys, and especially the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. We first hear about him ‘setting his face to Jerusalem’ in chapter 9, and the account of Palm Sunday is in chapter 19. In other words it takes 10 chapters, out of a book with 24 chapters, for him to reach Jerusalem after he starts on his way there. And he’s still got a long way to go, here in chapter 13. There’s an admirable sense of determination here. Jesus is absolutely sure he’s got to be there, to accomplish his task. And yet also lots of things happen on the journey. Much of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and his miracles, his encounters with crowds and with individuals, happens on the road to Jerusalem. He’s on the journey, but part of that journey is what he does on the way.

Why Jerusalem? Why does it matter so much? That might sound a strange question, but why was his work not happening in Galilee? Or further afield, in one of the Roman garrison towns such as Caesarea Philippi, or even in Rome itself? That might sound an odd question, but the answer sheds important light on Jesus and his mission. He was going to Jerusalem because he was a Jew, and because to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was the most important place in the world. It was the place where God and humanity communicated. It was the place of worldly power and authority, but it mattered much more as being the place of spiritual authority. Everything that mattered happened in Jerusalem. It’s not literally true when Jesus says that all the prophets were killed in Jerusalem – Jeremiah died in Egypt and Ezekiel died in the land of the Chaldeans, to name two, but it expresses the truth that Jerusalem was absolutely central to Jewish life.

We do well to remember this, in our fevered atmosphere of us-and-them, of Leavers and Remainers, of Jews and Muslims, of Protestant and Catholic. There’s no us-and-them between Jesus and the Jews, and when we find Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus that doesn’t reflect some kind of separation, and should never ever have been a justification for the church’s poisonous brand of antisemitism that has marred our faith for centuries and killed so many. The Jews are not the enemy here. Likewise, the gospels are full of invective against Pharisees, but that’s mostly because Jesus was so close to the ideas of the Pharisees so it was one of those wars of small differences, like the Judean People’s Front against the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. There were differences of emphasis, but Jesus is forever hanging out with Pharisees, often arguing with them, but eating and spending time with them. And importantly we see Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod’s out to get him. So the Pharisees aren’t the enemy either.

So who is the enemy? That would be Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruler of Galilee under the Romans, killer of John the Baptist and eventually of Jesus. Herod Antipas ruled for 41 years, and while he wasn’t the worst of the Romans’ client kings, like all rulers of the day he was dedicated to power, violence, hierarchy and exclusion. And by contrast, Jesus was dedicated to the opposite of these – to living with the outcasts and marginalised, to preaching hope to the downtrodden, to proclaiming the kingdom where power would be turned on its head. He had a job to do, he said – to cast out demons and perform cures. He knew Herod was the opposite of this worldview, had the opposite mission to him in the world.

And thus the fox reference. In the Greek world, foxes were cunning and quite impressive – think of Aesop’s fables. But in the Jewish world, they were a destructive pest, and their cunning was one of evil rather than something to be impressed by. They got in the way, and they were horrible. But they also weren’t the worst of enemies that could be found in the animal kingdom. It’s not like Jesus called Herod after the kinds of animals that threatened people and sheep in Israel – say a lion, or a wild beast, or even an eagle like the Roman one. So there’s a double insult here – Jesus is being quite dismissive of Herod, at the same time as he’s saying he’s untrustworthy. He’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s also not up to much. I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter analogies here – the cunning and nasty bit sounds a bit like Jesus is saying Herod should be in Slytherin, except it would be a version of Slytherin that was simultaneously nasty and a bit rubbish.

Jesus, of course, has a nice farmyard contrast to the fox. He wants to nurture the people of Jerusalem like a hen protects its chicks under its wings. I love this image, because it’s so loving and caring. It reminds me of the Celtic blessing that ends ‘until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand’. God will hold us all in the palm of God’s hand, and will care for us under her wings. It’s also a feminine image that stands in contrast to all those God-the-father images. Many of us know perfectly well that God has no gender, yet the scriptures are saturated with masculine imagery, and sometimes they’re not good enough to capture the full nature of God. If we can only think of God as a father, and our father was abusive or controlling or absent, how can we love God? If we only have images such as Lord God of Hosts, at the front of armies, how can we react if our lives have been blighted by war? God goes beyond gender, but our images don’t. At best we might have a sense of the holy spirit as female, but even that gets resisted by some people. And yes, Jesus as a human being was male, but a man who can’t embrace feminine imagery for themselves is emotionally impoverished. So I really like this image of Jesus the mother hen.
Image: Circle of Hope
But of course Jesus notes that ultimately he was expecting to be rejected by people in Jerusalem. Because he’s realistic about what he’s facing. He knows that whether or not people saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, as of course happened on Palm Sunday, his ideas are too radical to be accepted. He knows that what he preaches, the way he lives, goes against the ideas that the powerful in his world will accept.

Jesus knows that when he finally gets to Jerusalem, he’ll face struggle and death. And he’s willing to embrace it, but I don’t think that’s the point of his journey. Because in this reading we hear twice about Jesus finishing his work on the third day. Not the day of the cross, but of the empty tomb. Not the crucifixion, but the resurrection.

And here’s the good news about this passage. We heard in the first reading that God formed a covenant which, if broken, required the death of God. Well we know that covenant was broken many times. We know that relationships between humanity and God broke down, and have broken down. But they broke down precisely because of the violence and oppression which Herod Antipas and the Roman Empire stood for. And they weren’t going to be cured by a continuation of the same thing again.

So for Jesus to die wasn’t enough. That wouldn’t solve anything. The cross by itself, that instrument of torture and Roman power, solved nothing. But what came next was the third day. The day when God took the power of violence and turned it on its head, when the nurturing God remade not just the covenant with Abraham but every covenant, and every idea of every covenant. On Easter Sunday, God changed the rules themselves. He brought up the powerless, and sent the rich away empty.

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem wasn’t to go and get himself killed. He went with a much more important mission – to change the nature of the world, to set aside the power of empire and to bring forward the new reign of God on earth.

So as we prepare in the coming month to journey towards Easter, we must remember that when we stand for equality and justice, and stand against authority and power, we are on the side of Jesus. When we approach defeat by the powers of the world, we are in the same position as Jesus. And we can be assured that, like Jesus found, love and hope will prevail even in the deepest darkness. Amen.

Covenant in the dazzling darkness: Abram, qarrtsiluni and hope in despair

Opening address given at Creaton United Reformed Church, 17 March 2019. Text: Genesis 15:1-18. See also sermon about Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, which followed later in the service.

Image: Total eclipse, by Jim Friedrich
Two shorter addresses on two passages today, as they’re linked but too important to treat together.

What promises does God make to God’s people, in the depth of darkness and despair? The psalm says that “when evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, they shall stumble and fall”. What really happens then? We have hope from the psalm, but is that the experience that most people actually have? Because there are people in real despair, in real darkness. People in Christchurch whose whole world was ripped apart on Friday by a far-right terrorist. People who are living on the street, only kept going by alcohol or drugs that are also killing them. People who are watching the ones they love slowly fade and die. People who don’t know where the next meal is coming from. That kind of despair.

So to Abram, in a weird kind of despair. If you have a spare half-hour, I do recommend reading the whole story of Abram-who-becomes-Abraham, which occupies chapters 12 to 25 of the book of Genesis. He was quite a peculiar character with all sorts of peculiar events in his life, not all of them especially commendable. Genesis as a whole is a semi-mythical account of the backstory to why the Israelites were the people of God stranded in slavery in Egypt. It’s a mistake to take it too literally. And Abram is at the start of it all, representing the creation of the people of Israel through one individual, showing God’s covenant with Israel in one person. And this is a story about covenant.

Abram begins the story basically whining. He’s rich, he has plenty of power, and in the previous chapter he has just defeated his enemies in battle and been blessed by the local high priest. Yet he’s annoyed because he’s been promised an heir, a child to take up his mantle, and he doesn’t have one. That sounds trivial compared to the kind of darkness I’ve mentioned, but for Abram it’s a real issue. It’s about his future, about whether everything he stands for will come to an end after his death. If you know about the life of Henry VIII, he was desperate for a male heir because his kingdom was invested in the individual, and the Tudor monarchy was very precarious. So it is with Abram, and as I’ve said he’s not just an individual but a symbol of the people of Israel. His lack of heir means a lack of continuation of the whole people of Israel. The whole story wouldn’t get off the ground. So for Abram it’s real darkness.

And God makes a covenant with him in the darkness. And the weird story about heifers and goats and pigeons is important. Because in the later years of the Jewish people, when this text was written down, that was how you solemnised a covenant. Trigger warning for animal lovers and vegetarians: this bit’s not very nice. You take an animal, or several animals, and cut them in half, then you separate them, leave a good-size gap between them. Then the two parties who are making some kind of agreement with each other walk down the middle between the halves of the animals. And that seals the bargain. Because symbolically it’s saying “if we don’t keep our side of the bargain, may we be cut in two like the animals”. Sometimes this kind of covenanting was done with individuals, but much more often with groups. It was a collective undertaking.

So here we see God coming to Abram in what’s described as a deep and terrifying darkness. And in that dark time, that dark place, Abram sees a symbol of God, fire and smoke, passing between the two halves of the animals. God has come to Abram in the dark. God has stood alongside Abram in the dark.

I read recently that the Inuit people of the Arctic regions have an amazing word for this experience, “qarrtsiluni”. It means “sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.” Groups sit together in the darkness, and out of that darkness comes… insight. Sometimes, in the hunting communities of the Inuit, it’s song or storytelling. And to Abram, it’s life, and it’s hope for the future. It’s the promise of God, that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

And from that experience Abram, and through him the whole people of Israel, had strength to continue. Because God had been with him in his darkness. An Anglican priest called Rachel Mann calls this dazzling darkness, and writes that “this is the God we cannot use for our purposes and devices, for deep darkness consumes us and denies us the means to chart our way. We are liberated from our own convinced power of control and talent and mastery.”

And it leaves us with the love and power of God. Because God has made a covenant with Abram, and God has guaranteed it with his own life. So that when the covenant becomes stretched and broken, the only thing that will repair it is the death of God himself. The faithfulness of Abram and the faithfulness of God lead us towards the cross. It takes us on the journey of Lent that will end in Good Friday. But the cross is not the end, and that’s where we come to in the second passage later. For now, let’s rest with Abram, accompanied and blessed by God in covenant relationship, sitting in that dazzling darkness.