Wednesday, 16 April 2014

That sinking feeling...

This is the sermon I preached at last night's Tuesday of Holy Week Eucharist. The readings were Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and John 12:20-36.
There is an oft-told story of a clergyman who decided to go on a sailing trip. After a few days on the high seas he ran into trouble – a massive storm swirled about him, and before he knew it his ship was struck by a huge wave, and he lost consciousness. He awoke to find he was floating on a small piece of wreckage, adrift in the ocean, utterly alone & helpless. 
    “Lord, I have dedicated my life to your service,” he prayed.  
    “Please save me!”
Just then, a sailing boat, about the same size as his had been, came into view.
    “Climb up!” cried the lady on board.
    “No, it's ok,” said the clergyman, “the Lord will save me!”
An hour later, a large ship appeared alongside him.
    “I'll throw you a rope and pull you up” called the captain.
    “No thanks,” came the reply, “the Lord will save me!”
Two hours later, now suffering from severe exhaustion, the sound of rotors caught the clergyman's attention. A helicopter hovered overhead, and the pilot hailed him.
    “Don't worry, I'll send down the winch.”
    “No, it's fine, the Lord will save me!”
Finally, the clergyman could hold on no longer, slipped beneath the waves and was drowned. Standing at the pearly gates, he was furious.
    “I gave you all I had in that life, why didn't you save me!” he fumed.
    “What do you mean?” replied God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you want!!”

Ok, so it's a bad joke. But sometimes, if we're honest, we can feel a bit like our hapless clergyman. If God wanted to be heard, why can't he just speak to me directly – really get my attention, instead of making me guess at the ordinary being symbolic. However, in our gospel reading, God does just that – and we see a similar and equally human response to that of the clergyman - they turn the exceptional into the mundane.

Jesus has just made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem; the crowd who saw him raise Lazarus from the dead are following Him, and the Pharisees even remark “the whole world has gone after Him!” – confirmed when Greeks turn up to see Him. Then He begins to talk about how He is to die – hard to grasp things that don’t fit in with the people’s ideas of the coming messiah, or even a great rebel leader.

Finally He gives glory to His Father and, suddenly, the voice of God rings out, affirming Jesus and His mission. Imagine this for a moment – a voice from heaven, declaring the words of this man to be true. They all turned up to see a miracle, and now one has occurred…
BUT it isn’t the miracle they wanted, a spectacular feat they can gasp at – so they pretend it didn’t happen. “Its just thunder!”

Do we ever find ourselves dismissing events that don’t fit our own agenda? Do we miss the miraculous occurrences, those out-of-the-blue moments as we don’t like what we hear, or are too preoccupied with what we think should be happening? Do we close our eyes to the possibility God is speaking to us?

We can run the risk of doing the same with the story of Jesus' passion – we know the narrative so well we can almost skip through it, let the pain and the blood and the nails pass us by as we anticipate the joy, the celebration, the chocolate of Easter day. The miraculous happens right before our eyes – the Christ is crucified, the dead man rises – yet we miss it in the rush. And as Paul tells the church in Corinth, and continues to tell us today, this truly is the key to the whole story. Paul was an expert Jew; his persecution of the church was motivated by his Pharisaic conviction that, by definition, a Messiah who suffered death must be an impostor; something not just confirmed by his being found guilty by the authorities but, seen through Deuteronomy 21:23, confirmed by God - “anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.”

But Paul’s conversion experience revolutionised his religious convictions. His descriptions of life in Christ radically reinterprets the tradition of the sacrificial death of Christ by reversing the very conviction we just mentioned, speaking of Jesus' death not as God’s curse but the redemptive centre of God’s judgement and love for a lost world.

The phrase “…but we proclaim Christ crucified…” from 1 Corinthians 1:23 should possibly be translated either “a Christ crucified” or “a crucified Christ,” as to translate simply “Christ crucified” seems to lose some of the force of the point Paul is making. To put his words in their original context, if “wisdom” conjured up ideas of achievement, success, and the path to honour and esteem in the 1st century traditions, the cross of Christ would be seen as it’s polar opposite. To renounce all power of your own and to place your trust in the action of 'an Other' is contrary to all that the “Greeks” or gentiles understood about the path to success, making it foolish indeed. Similarly, if “signs” are understood to mean a reversal of Jewish political fortunes a humiliated Messiah would certainly be a huge stumbling block.

So Paul is addressing both Jews and gentiles on the equal footing of them both being self-styled ‘critics.’ However, to those Jews and Greeks who have been called, he says, the cross of Christ is the thing which conveys God’s strength and wisdom. Paul reminds them that God’s foolish wisdom has been demonstrated in their own experience, as they have embraced the gospel solely on the basis of God’s call, not due to their own intellect, power or status. In fact, Christ has become for them their “wisdom from God” and, underpinned with a quote from Jeremiah 9:22-23, their boast may now only be in the Lord.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are absolutely basic to Paul’s faith. His whole letter to the Corinthians is written as a means of helping them to understand the ‘foolish wisdom’ of the cross. Failure to grasp this absurd gospel, this story of a crucified criminal, appears to lay at the heart of the problems in Corinth, where Paul’s converts had not begun to see that good news based on a cross carried certain implications about their own lifestyle. You see, to keep your social standing in Corinthian society you had to participate fully in the main communication methods of the day, which involved sacrificial meals. Therefore, to be seen as an “atheist” or “impious,” by rejecting meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, could lead to rejection and loss of standing.

One reason the Corinthian church didn't receive the social exclusion experienced by its sister church in Thessalonica was possibly because the leading converts deliberately “played down” the offensiveness of their faith. But their failings gave Paul the opportunity to expand on the tradition he had left with them, and proclaim that those who accept this “shameful” gospel, and who are willing to identify themselves with Christ’s crucifixion and dishonour will receive, not earthly reward, but the promise of “strength that works through weakness and the joy that transforms pain.” Sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ is all part of Paul’s understanding of Jesus solidarity with humanity. Although the members of the Corinthian church continue to share in the weakness of Adam in this life, Paul maintains that, on the last day, they will exchange the likeness of Adam for the likeness of Christ.

But this is not just a historical document – Paul's words, inspired by his knowledge of God's kingdom, speak just as much to us today. How easy is it in our ever-so clever post modern society to keep quiet about our foolish faith, under the onslaught of the 'wisdom' of the age, the continuous stream of self-help, self-reliance, insular me-ness that we are told is the only way to get ahead.

How much safer, simpler, more sensible, to blend into the crowd like a chameleon instead of challenging the norms of our society. And I'm not really talking about those issues the media claim we as Christians are only interested in – fighting about what women & homosexuals can or can't do – but what Christians should be interested in – things like giving a voice to those trapped in poverty, those marginalised by virtue of where they were born, those kept downtrodden to maximise the profits of those who already have more than they could ever need. This is part of the call in the passage from Isaiah, the messianic figure being “a light to the nations, that [God's] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

And the people who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading were drawn to His light – indeed, he declares Himself to be the light after the voice has spoken, and in John 8:12 He declares He is “the light of the world.” Yet they were put off by His message, even the miraculous affirmation, as it didn’t fit.

You see, when we experience the light, we are also challenged to show that light to others. To show this sacrificial, life-changing, world altering love to all we meet, even to those who we don't know! Yet too often we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ when we need to let God’s presence shine out from us! We can dismiss the everyday miracles instead of seeking God’s word through them. Those small acts, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that can add up to a big difference. Of course, if we let the light shine out, we need to be willing to back it up by listening to God’s word for those around us – allowing the prompting of the Spirit to illuminate the lives of others.

And that's the challenge for us tonight, this week, this year – are we willing to put ourselves in the position of the three others in the story of the clergyman – the sailor, the ship's captain & the helicopter pilot – and go where the Holy Spirit leads us to save those adrift in this world. The church isn't a rest home for saints – it's a lifeboat for sinners. Our job is to get people into the lifeboat, and then let the light of Jesus guide us all safely home. Yes, this path is costly - it needs work, and time spent in prayer and reading the scriptures, to have a hope of getting anywhere – but compared to the price Jesus paid to give us the chance, I think we can cope. And that is perhaps the greatest of the everyday miracles – we have the gift, the ability, to spend time with the architect of our faith, God's own Son Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for each of us in here tonight, and for every single person out there too. We can talk with Him, read with Him, allow Him to help us. Such simple things, so easy to take for granted, yet truly miraculous and life changing. God does want to speak to us – and wants to speak through us. We just have to watch, listen, and follow the light.

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