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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Your Pain will turn to Joy: racism and the Trinity

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5; John 16.12-23 

Today is the beginning of what is called ‘Reconciliation Week’ here in Australia.  The week is used, in various ways and by various groups, to promote reconciliation and peace between Indigenous Australians and those who came here more latterly from across the sea. This year there is a focus on the continuing scourge of racism, in the form of a call for its eradication from both every day society and from the constitution of Australia. For who can doubt that racism is still very much amongst us?  The exchange between a football fan and dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes at the Sydney/Collingwood game on Friday night - when Mr Goodes was branded an ‘Ape’ - is a powerful reminder of that fact.  It is also a fact that our national constitution still pretends that Aboriginal people do not exist.  It is a thoroughly racist document in that it fails to recognise that Australia was not an ‘empty land’ when the Europeans came; that it had been inhabited and cultivated by another people for at least 60 thousands years; that it was taken from that people by force, and without lawfully recognised treaty, and that the effects of this taking are still amongst us in the form of huge levels of social, psychological and spiritual trauma amongst Indigenous people.  As you know, I am an Indigenous Tasmanian, so I know about the effects of colonisation ‘up close and personal’, as they say.  The way I look at everything – the landscape, society, the church, political and theological ideas – is profoundly influenced by that experience of loss and trauma. But I shall return to this later.

Today is also, for the Christian community, the feast of the Holy Trinity.  It is a day when we reflect explicitly on themes that are regrettably (for liberal Protestants such as ourselves) much more implicit during the rest of the year: namely the nature and mission of God as a Trinitarian communion of three persona, the ‘Father’, the ‘Son’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’.  The lections for today seek to encourage such reflection.  The reading from Proverbs speaks of ‘Wisdom’ as if she were a person, a person who cannot be simply separated from God as yet another of God’s myriad creations.  Wisdom is here spoken of as the very ‘first’ of God’s possessions, appointed ‘from eternity’, begotten of God rather than created out of nothing.  Wisdom is furthermore both a witness and co-worker with God in the act of creating the universe, a master craftswoman at Yahweh’s side.  It is clear that many early Christian theologians understood this passage, and its sister passages in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, as Jewish presentiments concerning Jesus Christ.  We are all familiar with the opening poem at the beginning of John’s gospel: 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was the same as God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people . . .  The true light, which enlightens everything, was coming into the world.  (1.1-9).
Like Wisdom, the Word exists in the beginning with God and shares in the divine action of creating.  The Word, like Wisdom, may be understood as some kind of emanation from God.  In other words, the Word is born of God, not made by God out of non-divine material.  And finally, like Wisdom, the Word is imagined as a divine light which enlightens the world.  Much recent scholarship concludes that Lady Wisdom is the model out of which John created the divine Logos which became, in short order, the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son.  The Son shares in the deity of the Father, but cannot be absolutely identified with the Father, certainly not without remainder.

Look at John’s careful treatment of the relationship between the Father and the Son in our gospel lection for today.  ‘All that belongs to the Father is mine’, says Jesus. He also says ‘My Father will give you anything you ask for in my name.’  Names are important in New Testament imagination.  Names represent a person who is not present.  They are the same as the person themselves, yet they are different from that person also, because they can stand for, or represent, that person in their absence.  So when Jesus says ‘The Father will give you anything you ask for in my name’, what he is really saying is this: ‘I am the exact representation and presence of my Father.  If you cannot see the Father physically, yet, in looking upon me and listening to my voice you can see and hear the Father, for everything I am, I received from my Father, and everything the Father is has been given to me. So ask in my name.  To do so is ask of my Father what I has already been given you in me’.  According to John, then, Jesus of Nazareth is the same as the pre-existent Word of God who was begotten of God the Father before the creation of the world and shares in his Father’s deity and power; in Jesus we therefore see and hear all that we can, as human beings, see and hear of God.  Jesus is the Father’s face and arms and voice for the material world of flesh and blood in which we live and move and have our human being.

What of the Holy Spirit, then?  Well, according to John once more, the Spirit clearly shares in the divine being of the Father and the Son.  Jesus says that the Spirit will come once he, the flesh-and-blood Christ, has passed from this world.  The Spirit will guide the disciples into the truth of God, a truth the Spirit will repeat and echo into our hearts exactly as it is spoken in the life of God, in the divine conversation between the Father and the Son.  The Spirit possesses everything that the Father and the Son possess.  The Spirit shares in the divine being of the Father and the Son, but also in the relationship of non-identity they share with each other.  Some theologians have speculated that the Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, the very intangibility of their love and regard for each other, the substance of their conversation and their care.  That may well be true, for the Spirit is indeed less ‘solid’ than the Father and the Son in terms of character and identity.  The Spirit is a tad more wild and mysterious in her workings, like a wind that comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere.  And yet, what she brings us from her divine companions is something very valuable indeed: truth, hope and joy.  She is the midwife of these things, John tells us, the one who assures us that they are real and that they will one day belong to us, even as we weep and grieve and labour in this valley of tears we call our world.

The reading from Romans makes a similar point.  It makes the claim that all who believe in Jesus Christ and have received the justification that comes from him as a free gift of grace, have also received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is nothing other than the vessel in which the love and mercy of God arrive.  This gift, says the Apostle, gives us hope when life is difficult.  She helps us to rejoice when there is little to rejoice about.  She helps us to persevere and to be disciplined in the face of difficult circumstances.  For the promise is there for all who believe, that our pain will turn to joy and that our weeping will one day turn into laughter.

Now, it is unfortunately true that around our church today there will be a great many sermons that skip over the feast of the Trinity and over trinitarian theology, because so many of our preachers simply do not have the knowledge or the will to know what to do with it.  Many, unfortunately, see the doctrine of the Trinity as something of an irrelevance, an ancient curiosity that really has nothing to say to our contemporary world or faith.  Nothing, of course, is further from the truth.  What such preachers fail to appreciate it that the doctrine of the Trinity, like all doctrine, is a story.  A story of God, and God’s dealings with the world of human beings that unleashes the power to transform our despair into joy, our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and feeling.  The doctrine of the Trinity is shorthand, in other words, for everything the Christian faith has to offer by way of truth, faith, hope and love.  It is the grammar out of which we may start to comprehend our world, our society and our church as the arena of God’s action for forgiveness, justice and peace.

‘Why is racism wrong?’ for example.  Have you ever asked yourself that question?  What story, what grammar do we depend upon to render the denigration of another person (on the basis of nothing more than their skin-colour or ethnic origin) as fundamentally wrong, false, evil, immoral?  Well. For Christians, it is the doctrine of the Trinity!  The Father gives the Son into the world of flesh and blood in order to show us how to live, to reveal to us what is right and what is wrong, what makes for life and what makes for death.  In the face of the Son we learn that God does this out of an infinite love for 'the world', for us all (cf. John 3.16). God longs for our life, not our death, for our flourishing, not our diminishing.  In the face of Christ we learn that God is no bully, but is nevertheless prepared to come amongst us in the vulnerable form of the Son, to remonstrate and plead with us, that we might choose the way to life.  God does this even to the point of being misunderstood or, conversely, understood very well, but ultimately rejected. Even to the point of death, death on a cross.  Not that death can kill God’s love, for in the power of the Spirit the Son is raised to life as a sign of hope that all who follow in Christ’s way will themselves be raised, will themselves transcend death’s dominion when the racists and the death-squads come to exact their terrible revenge. 

So, racism is wrong because God is a communion of love since all eternity, and wants to include everyone, without remainder – whatever their skin colour or ethnic origin – at the table of mercy and hospitality shared forever by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Racism is wrong because God is willing to put everything on the line in Jesus Christ - and, through the Spirit, also within the very human and therefore fragile history of the church - in order to make that message resonate loud and clear within the arena of our inhumanity toward one another.  Racism is wrong, finally, because it will not have the last word. The last word is love, the love shared between the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, a love that is always going out of itself in creative and hospitable action.  In the gift of Christ we who believe are empowered to rejoice in the final victory of that love even as the evil of racism continues to permeate our world.  For the Spirit is a deposit, a guarantee of that which is to come: a sign in our midst of that final peace-making, the shalom of God, when all who are reconciled to God are also reconciled to one another.  In the work of Christ and the giving of his Spirit, every sin is both forgiven and forgotten and the idea that someone might be used and abused because of their race has become absolutely laughable. Racism is wrong, in summary, because God is a trinity, a threefold relation of divine equals who go out toward one another and toward the cosmos in love and mercy.  In this story and this grammar is the indispensable plumbline of care and regard and justice . . . for the church, for human society, and for the whole of creation.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

You Are My Witnesses

Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53

The passage from Acts 1 we have read just now seems to make four basic points about our lives as Christians:
  1. that we are called to be witnesses to Jesus and his kingdom
  2. that we receive the power to become his witnesses by waiting, together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, for an empowering that comes through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit
  3. that we are called to be witnesses not only in the comfortable, familiar places where we live most of our lives, but also in uncomfortable, unfamiliar places – like that of another nation or ethnic group
  4. that we are not alone in all of this because while Jesus might have gone from us in the flesh, he is still very with us ‘in the Spirit’.  The work we do as witnesses is therefore his own work as well.
This morning I have time to say something about only the first of these points.  The others will have to wait for another time.

I want to challenge you to take this calling very seriously.  Being a witness means being willing to testify, in both word and deed, to the difference that knowing Christ makes in your life.  Since I joined the Uniting Church in 1995, I have observed that Uniting Church people are very good at witnessing to Christ with their deeds.  And that is to be applauded! But many Uniting Church people seem very poor at witnessing to Christ with their words.  How many of us actually talk with our friends or our families about Christ?  How many of us invite our friends and family along to worship, or to a bible exploration, or to a lecture or workshop in which the Christian faith is being discussed? Not many, I suspect. And why is that so?  Well, let me guess at a few of the most common excuses we make to ourselves.  (1) ‘I don’t know what to say’; (2) ‘I find evangelism distasteful – I’m worried that my friends will be offended’; (3) ‘I don’t believe that it is our words that make a difference to people, it is the quality of the lives we live’.  Let’s take a look at each of these excuses, one by one, and see how they look under the pressure of a bit of scrutiny.

What of the first excuse, ‘But I don’t know what to say’.  It is certainly true that many Christians do not know what say by way of bearing witness to friends and families.  So I won’t deny the truth of the excuse.  It is an excuse, nonetheless.  For if we don’t know what to say, then surely there is a reason for that:  either that we do not know our faith very well, or we are not confident in that faith.  In either case, the solution is certainly not to remain unknowledgeable, or to remain unconfident.  It is certainly not to remain an infant in matters of faith, a little baby Christian who can say nothing of Christ to anyone.  It is to seek the kind of help that will enable us to become more mature, more grown-up in the faith, so that we know who we are in Christ and can speak confidently of what we know, believe and feel.  Such help is ready at hand – in the personal counsel of the more mature members of one’s own church, in spiritual directors and mentors from other churches, in courses, seminars and bible-study groups, and in books, videos and websites by the bucket-load.  The resources are everywhere about.  So what are you waiting for?  Take the initiative.  Go our there and get yourself some decent spiritual food.  Grow up in the faith, and start to bear fruit!

What of the second common excuse for not bearing witness to Christ:  ‘I find evangelism distasteful – I’m worried that my friends will be offended’.  Again, I actually believe the people who say this.  I don’t think they are telling a lie.  They do, indeed, worry that bearing witness to Christ will endanger their friendships.  There are two things to be said in response.  The first is that our allegiance to Christ and his commandments will indeed endanger our friendships sometimes.  That is because, as Christians, we are called to listen to Christ first and others second.  If there is a disagreement between what Christ asks of us and what our friends or family ask of us, we must of course do what Christ asks, even if that means offending our friends of family.  That is what it means to follow Christ as our only Lord.  Of course, having said that, we should also remember that amongst the commands that Christ has given us are these:  ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ (Mt. 22.39); and, ‘so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone’ (Rom 12.18).  What that means in the context of bearing witness is pretty clear, is it not?  That in speaking about Christ to our friends and family, we should do so in a way that is as gentle and respectful as possible.  ‘Speak the truth in love’ say the Letter to the Ephesians (4.15).  That is how we are to bear witness to Christ.  If our witness, a speech that shares Christ with our friends and family, is not couched in a respectful tone and in the context of respectful relationships, then we are not being Christian when we speak.  Word and deed fail to match up.  Yet, we are called to speak.  Even at the risk of being rejected - even as Christ spoke, and was rejected.

And so we come to the third common excuse: ‘I don’t believe that it is our words that make a difference to people, it is the quality of the lives we live.’  What makes this an excuse is the first part of the sentence, the ‘I don’t believe that it is the words that make a difference to people’.  I’m quite o.k. with the second bit, the bit about the quality of our lives, because I certainly agree that the character and quality of our lives bear witness to Christ in very powerful ways.  But that is no excuse for not talking about Christ with our friends and neighbours.  There are several reasons for this apart from the obvious fact that the New Testament understands ‘bearing witness’ as a unity of word and deed.

The most important of these is that speech is the mode by which we make sense of what we do; or, to put it another way, words and speech are the means by which we interpret what we do to ourselves and to each other.  There is a fundamental problem, you see, with assuming that people will always see our behaviour as a manifestation of Christ or the kingdom; or even with assuming that they will interpret our actions as manifestations of a desire for love or justice.  For most people know longer know anything of Christ or the kingdom.  They do not know that Christ, justice, peace and love all belong to a mutually interpretive field of meaning.  Therefore, it is rarely clear to others that what we do, we do in the name of Christ, in imitation of his love.  What we see as an act of faith in God, others may see as a gamble with chance.  What we see as diaconal service, others may see as an unhealthy ‘need to be needed’.  What we see as an act of redistributive justice, others may see as ‘rewarding the lazy’ out of a sense of unhealthy guilt.  See what I mean?  The meaning of what we do cannot enter the public realm, the public realm of a discourse that we share with other people, unless we are able to articulate an horizon of meaning for what we do, first for ourselves, but then for others.  In this sense, the witness to others can perhaps be characterized as a public act of worship.  For it is in worship (as ritual, or 'embodied story) that we articulate the meaning of our Christian lives most profoundly and holistically.  But when the worship of the community comes to a close, the Spirit drives us out into the world to share both who we are, and what we are becoming, with everyone else - in speech as well as in action. Worship is again the model.  In worship we do things, but we also say what we do, we bring its meaning to speech.

SO . . .  there is, is fact, no excuse (if we are Christians) for failing to share our faith with the world in speech as well as in action.  Of course there will be hesitancy. Of course there will be a little fear and trembling.  Indeed, I’d be a little worried if there wasn’t!  But speak we must.  Not, first of all, because we are commanded by Jesus to do so.  No, even before the command there ought to be (surely!) some sense in us that the good news of God’s love is so good that we would be selfish indeed not to share it with our friends and neighbours.  Besides, God has promised that (a) we are not given this task as isolated individuals, but as a community, and (b) we are given this task in the power of the Spirit, who will help and encourage us to say and do what Jesus has called us to say and do.  So, if you are not sharing your faith with others, I encourage you to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask the question:  ‘am I a Christian or not?’  I hope you will answer ‘yes’ and I hope you will join with your brothers and sisters to share our common faith with the world in which we live.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

My peace I give you

Acts 16.9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5; John 14.23-29

From time to time we hear about the ‘possible resumption’ of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Peace talks are only necessary, of course, when there is no peace, when the parties in question have been at war.  Tragically, in the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis, the sides are not evenly matched and therefore the Israelis are most unlikely to take any such talks seriously.  It has always struck me as rather tragic that a negotiated peace only becomes worthy of anyone’s attention when no one entity proves strong enough to beat its rivals into submission.  For peace, as our world more commonly understands it, is what you get when one of the playground bullies gets strong enough to impose his or her will on all the other kids.  It is what the ancients called the ‘peace of Rome’, the peace that arrives not by conversation and the search for common ground, but by the capacity to cower those ‘others’ one perceives as the ‘enemy’ into submission.  This is what is happening in the Palestinian territories today.  Palestinian homes are being demolished to make way for new Jewish settlements. If, in grief and anger, a Palestinian protests the loss of his or her home, if she or he dares to throw a rock at a tank or a soldier, it is more than likely that charges of terrorism will follow, and then imprisonment.

Thus, when in John’s gospel Jesus bequeaths the gift of peace to his church, he does not do according to the pattern of domination we have been describing.  The peace of Jesus is certainly not the peace of Rome.  Notice, in John’s text, that the language of obedience is drawn into a grammar of love and communal sharing rather than a grammar of violent consequences.  He asks the disciples to obey his teaching not because they will be severely punished if they don’t, but because of their love for Jesus.  Remember that love, in the Gospel of John, is primarily defined by the sacrificial relations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus does the difficult things his Father asks of him because he loves the Father.  The Fathers asks what he does out of love for the Son and for the whole world.  And Jesus asks his disciples to love one another after the model of his own love for them, the love that is willing to surrender all pretensions at despotic power in service of the other and in crucifixion.  So too, the Spirit is given to the disciples, in order that the Father and the Son may continue to guide and companion them into a genuinely peaceful future, a future that is already operational in this other-oriented love shared by the Father and the Son.   The Spirit is not given to bludgeon the disciples into that future.  The Spirit is given to gently teach the disciples the steps of love already being danced by the Father and the Son.

The Revelation of John provides the church with a wonderful vision of what God’s peace would look like.  Here the peace of God is like a city with a permanently open gate, where there is light both day and night, the light which comes from the living Christ, who is also (paradoxically) the lamb that was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  Through the city runs a river of life, a river whose source is that same lamb.  The river sustains the twelvefold fruitfulness of a tree of life so large that it is able to grow on both banks of the river at once.  Its twelvefold nature suggests that the tree of life is the people of God, founded on twelve tribes and twelve apostles, fed by the Lamb and producing, what?, ‘leaves which are for the healing of the nations’.  For all nations, it seems, are present in this city.  It is not a city for the strongest tribe, but for every tribe that looks to the Lamb for its light and sustenance.  It is a city in which the former enmity of tribes and nations has been put aside for the sake of God’s peace, the peace of the lamb that was slain.

Note that phrase please.  It is deeply significant.  For both John’s gospel and the Revelation to John, the way to peace is certainly not by the sword of despotic bullies.  Peace, rather, is the gift of a Lamb who is slain, a mighty warrior who is willing to lay down his great power for the sake of another kind of power, the power of love and of clear vision.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever cleaves to him in trust will not perish, but inherit eternal life, life in all its fullness.  This is the paradox of the gospel of peace.  Life and Peace arrive in the world not because the bully has scared everyone into submission, but because the sacrificial love of God in Christ takes root in people’s hearts.  Having been so deeply loved, our fear is taken away and we are enabled to love each other as well, even our enemies, so absorbing their violence into ourselves that their violence, and ours, dies with us as we also die with Christ in baptism.  What is then raised from death, in the life lived in imitation of Christ’s love, is the possibility of a negotiated peace: a peace born of caring conversation, other-centred love, and the refusal to do violence to others as they would do violence to us.

The peace of Christ is not, therefore, a magical solution to an intractable cycle of violence.  It is, rather, a political and ethical practise that is given us from the very heart of our Trinitarian God.  Insofar as we take this practise to our hearts, John tells us, we shall also take to our hearts the very Spirit of God, in whom we are loved by the Father and the Son, even unto the end of the ages.  In that sense, the church that practices these things is capable of becoming a sign of the peace which has not yet arrived in our world – God knows! – and yet, we are promised, is on its way according to the very concrete vision and practice that Christ has shown us.

This sermon was first preached in the chapel of the Uniting Church Centre for Theology and Ministry in May, 2010.