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Sunday, April 26, 2015

'I lay down my life' - ANZAC 2015

Texts:  1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

How sweet and honourable it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.

So wrote the Roman poet Horace in his Third Ode.  And if you visit the chapel at the Royal Sandhurst Military Academy at Berkshire in the UK, you will find the first line of Horace’s poem inscribed on the wall there, in the original Latin: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This concise epithet has been trotted out to justify the deployment of every soldier in every major conflict involving European nations since Horace became the apologist of Roman imperialism in the first century BCE. It is an epithet that was deployed liberally in both the recruitment and conscription of soldiers for Britain in the Great War of 1914-18. It is an epithet that makes it very clear what a soldier’s life is ultimately about: the service of the nation and its interests, even unto death.

As a Christian, I am obviously deeply uncomfortable with any view of the world that elevates allegiance to the nation above allegiance to Christ.  In the ancient Roman empire, whose ideology Horace helped to both form and express, many thousands of Christians were martyred precisely because they refused to so worship the Roman state. The ancient Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ has its origin in precisely this repudiation. If Jesus is ‘Lord’, if it is Jesus and his kingdom of peace to whom we owe our very lives, then there is no other power in heaven or on earth to whom we can legitimately bend the knee in service.  Especially if such service involves a repudiation of the fundamental Christian conviction: that the God who loves and forgives every sinner calls such sinners to love and forgive one another, even and especially those whom the state may designate our enemies.

The writings of John are very clear on this point.  If we have any claim to the Spirit of Christ, if we are to claim that Christ genuinely abides with us, then our behaviour must be consistent with what we know of Christ’s own way.  Because Christ our shepherd laid down his life for us – we who are least deserving, we who are spiritually impoverished – so we are called to lay down our lives in loving service. Not for emperor, state or tribe, but for everyone who, like ourselves, lives in poverty – whether a poverty of spirit or a poverty of material wellbeing.  For what ultimately motivates the follower of Christ is not the will to power and the maintenance of power – the will at the heart of every form of tribal nationalism – but the emptying out of any such power in the name of loving the last and the least.  And let’s face it – the last and the least for every single one of us is not our friends – those with whom we have most in common – but our ‘enemies’, those whom we regard as furthest away from our preferred way of life and of living, those who draw out of us our most self-righteous rage.

The idea – endlessly invoked in the two world wars - that a Christian can fight for ‘God, king and country’ must therefore be subjected to the most careful theological suspicion.  Fighting for God is, for Christians, simply a contradiction in terms: at best, the Christian is called to fight, with Christ himself, against any tendency to judge or condemn our fellow human beings rather than to love them.  And while Christians are certainly not republicans, nor can we serve the kings and chieftans of any tribe, nation or state. For the very notion of the tribe, the nation and the state contradicts the vision of a universal commonwealth of peace with justice, which Jesus proclaimed to us under the name of the ‘reign’ or ‘kingdom’ of God.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, laid down his life for that vision. He sacrificed himself for the sins of the nations so that they would never have need, again, to take up arms against one another. How quickly ‘Christian’ Europe forgot Christ’s legacy! How quickly the pride of nations reasserted itself! Forgetting Jesus’ sacrifice -  in the first and second world wars, certainly, but also in the many other wars that followed them – nations have instead chosen to sacrifice their young people on the blood-red altars of national pride.

I’d like to conclude today’s sermon with a poem written by Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of the poets of the First World War.  An English soldier, he served in France and was ultimately killed on the front line in November 1918, just one week before the armistice that ended the war.  His reflections remain for us a permanent reminder of war’s absurdity.  I read it now as an act of grief and of mourning for all who have been sacrificed on the altar of state.


Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

I am myself


Texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36-48 

When, in Luke’s version of the story, the risen Jesus first appears to his closest friends and companions, they are not entirely convinced that he is Jesus, the man they had known and loved. At first they think he is a ghost, some kind of other-worldly apparition who has come to harm them. They start to believe only after Jesus has said, ‘Look, I am not a ghost, I am myself’ and invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and his feet. A few moments later he eats some fish in the presence, again to show that he is himself, ‘in the flesh’ as it were. This story, and the one before it about the encounter on the road to Emmaus, have always intrigued me. Not because of their apparently miraculous elements (I have never really struggled with the idea that the God who created the universe can also alter its rules) but because they model for us that rather paradoxical process by which Christian selves become yet more themselves by dying to themselves. So, that is what I should like to talk about this morning: becoming who you are by letting go of who you are in order to become a new self that is like the risen Christ.

According to Luke’s story, Jesus was not always himself. Which is not to say that he was not recognisable as himself. His name was Jesus, he was a son to his mother and a brother to his siblings. He grew up in Nazareth and learned a trade, which he then used to support his family. Everyone who knew him over a period of years could have identified him as himself, even if they had not seen him for some time. Even after his baptism by John in the Jordan, even after Jesus left his home town in pursuit of a new and dangerous vocation, Jesus was recognisably Jesus. And yet. And yet Jesus had not yet become entirely himself. Even at the point of his death on the cross, Jesus was not yet what God had promised he would be. He was not yet the risen one, who could shake off the power of sin, evil and death. He was not yet the new kind of human being that the disciples encounter in our story: a flesh and blood person who could nevertheless appear and disappear as though he were no longer subject to the limitations of time and space. For much of Luke’s story, then, Jesus is not yet himself in the sense of having become who God had destined him to be.

Crucially, in the story, Jesus is only able to become truly himself by letting go of a whole heap of cherished dreams about his future, some originating in his own imagination, and some in the imagination of others. His mother, being a Jewish mother, probably hoped that Jesus would become a successful merchant or, even better, perhaps a lawyer or rabbi. She, and he, had to let go off such dreams. His friends and companions hoped that Jesus would become a political leader, a leader who could oust the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel. They, and he, had to let go of that plan. And from the story of the garden of Gethsemane, we can surmise that Jesus himself would really have preferred to live rather than to die, to retire quietly to some regional small business perhaps, rather than to suffer the wrath of the Jewish Council. Yet, in the end, he makes a crucial decision which makes all the difference. ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ he says. He says that to God, his Father. And by that decision he lets go of his own hopes and dreams in favour of his Father’s hopes and dreams, which ultimately enables God to complete the process of his becoming. By this death, Jesus becomes the Christ, the one anointed by God to bring a new kind of life in the world, a life so new that most of us still have trouble coming to terms with what it all means.

But that is how it is for all of us, as well. We shall never be truly ourselves until we are able to let go of ourselves—the usual hopes and dreams planted in us by family, friends, and culture—grasping, instead, the self that God wills and promises for us, the self that is Christ. The Christ-self, as the First Letter of John tells us, is ‘righteous’. Not ‘righteous’ in the sense of a self-interested hiding away from the rest of the world or a sitting in judgement upon it. No, the Christ-self is righteous in the sense that Jesus was ‘righteous’—an engaged embodiment of the mercy of God, a tough kind of love that is centred on other people and refuses to simply abandon them to the powers of death, despair or banality. According to John, we shall never be entirely ourselves until we are like the risen Christ, the new human being, the revelation of what God intends for humanity in general. ‘When he appears,’ says John’ we shall be like him’. This is God’s promise, but like all God’s promises, it is not a promise that can be fulfilled apart from the choices we make. God created us for freedom. To become who we are, we must choose the path that Christ would choose.

Ego eimi autos . . . I am myself. That is what the risen Christ said to his disciples. And we shall only be able to say that ourselves if we are prepared to do what Jesus did, to take our baptism into his death seriously as a very real dying and a rising. We shall be ourselves when, by faith, we have allowed Christ to take away the fear of what others may think, and the desire to conform to all that is conventional or common-sense. We shall be ourselves when we are prepared to risk both security and sense for the sake of a gospel of outrageous love. We shall be ourselves when we stop believing that there is nothing we can do to transform this crazy world of economic and scientific rationalism. We shall be ourselves when prayer has become a more familiar habit that watching TV or surfing the internet. We shall be ourselves when we are able to attend to the needs of others (‘needs’, note that, not ‘wants’), even if that means putting aside what we think we might need for ourselves. We shall be ourselves when we are able to surrender ourselves to Christ and say ‘not my will, but yours’. Now, I am very aware of not yet being myself. And you, I know, are aware of it too. But in faith I believe that Christ will complete the work that he began when I was baptised. He will do it for you to. If only you, and I, will surrender. If only you, and I, will let go.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley.