Sermon for Sunday July 1st
5th after Pentecost
2 Sam 1:1,17-27
2 Cor 8:7-15
“But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared”
The Story is told of a man who was taken to visit Heaven and Hell. Being taken into Hell he was astonished to discover it full of tables, groaning with the most sumptuous of food, and yet everyone looked emaciated and miserable beyond description. Turning to his guide he expressed his astonishment. Why are they so sad when there is So much wonderful food to be had? “Ah” – his guide smiled sadly – “it is because in order to eat the food they must use these” -and he pointed to a table covered in chopsticks 10 feet long”
Of course this could be a metaphor for the Hell of the modern world where the poor have the life of the rich constantly thrust in their faces through the media, and yet it is utterly out of reach . . . but that is not the point of the story – for that I will leave You Also, Tantalised – and waiting for the second part 🙂
Our theme this morning is ‘Gospel Astonishment’ and you may be thinking that our focus must be these two miraculous healings, from the Gospel. I mean, a woman healed of chronic bleeding and a little girl raised from the dead – how astonishing is that? Surely such happenings must have meant that they all believed in Jesus – except of course they didn’t. As Jesus puts it at the end of the story of the Rich man and Lazarus “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The point of all of Jesus’ miracles is not that they are miraculous, but that they point to the Rule of God – the Kingdom of God, which Jesus embodies “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” The question we should be asking about the miracles is what do they teach us about the Rule of God. Astonishment is not a proper response to the miracles themselves. Jesus is not a magician, rather he is the one who reveals the Kingdom of God. This is why he is Crucified, for the Kingdom of God is a Scandal to us – we cannot bear it
Well like the story about heaven and hell, I’ll come back to the gospel as well, but in our search for Gospel astonishment I want to turn to the epistle and Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. The situation of the letter is that there is tremendous need in the Jerusalem church, such that Paul in his first letter has asked the Corinthians this – “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come.” These folk have no savings – their lives are pretty hand to mouth – but he is asking All of them to put aside Everything above their basic needs for the sake of their brethren in Jerusalem. But it is clear that they are not at all keen on the idea, because this is now Paul’s Second letter and Paul is having to use the example of the Macedonian church effectively to shame them into action “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us”
The church in Macedonia gave beyond what they could reasonably manage -they were suffering “a severe ordeal of affliction” – yet they gave “even beyond their means” And that this was a manifestation of “The Grace of God that had been granted to them” By Grace these Poor Macedonians had been allowed to share in the Life of God – the Kingdom of God has been made plain among them – Poor people giving up the scraps they have and more, going without for the sake of others – Paul sees this as the Grace of God. And it is Astonishing, no? What would make poor folk give up even some of the essentials of life for the sake of others – they begged Paul for the privilege – you can imagine him saying – no you have given enough, you have so little – but they Give themselves to first God and then to their brethren. They are embodying the Life of God. Here is the Gospel – the Life of God in abundance flowing out into the world. This is beyond belief in a way that the miracles of Jesus are not, for they reveal radically converted human hearts, hearts which now are consumed by the Life and the Love of God – that have become vessels for God. They have given themselves to God. Salvation has come to their house
Gospel astonishment – yet not all would concur. For many the gospel has become distorted into, as the writer Dallas Willard puts it – ‘a gospel of Sin management’. Sin management works like this. “We are sinners, Christ died for our sins, if we believe in him we are included in his saving work on the Cross. We will not face the penalty of sin – heaven – and undeservingly will receive the life of Heaven.” And for some, indeed for many that is the gospel – that is their idea of Grace. But that personal gospel has for many many years cause more than a few to ask the question, is that really it? Is all God interested is interested in doing is taking sinners to heaven?? Is there really no ethical dimension to the Christian life. To hear some speak of Grace and the Gospel one might think not. The Gospel it seems places no demand upon us – Free Grace, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, Cheap Grace – Salvation without any demand for a new life. Repentance – a verb full of meaning about changing direction – evacuated of all meaning except changing your views, your beliefs. A Christianity which has nothing at all to do with how we live. Baptisms which do not result in any change of course, Baptisms which don’t require anyone to let go of my own story of what my life will be about. Baptisms which are like those weddings where couples have lived together for years before getting married, and they wake up on their wedding morning to that sense that nothing has changed, except perhaps they have a few more pots and pans in the kitchen. Baptisms which require no renunciation of the world and no costly following of Christ in the Life of the Kingdom. There is just ‘getting saved’ to use the jargon, and pie in the sky when I die.
This view of the gospel falls into the trap of ignoring the whole story of Scripture – which is the Story of Salvation. The early Christians understood that the Old Testament foreshadowing of the work of the Cross was the Exodus – God saving the children of Israel. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world – the Passover Lamb, whose blood was shed to cover the Israelites as the angel of death took all the first born of the Egyptians, and then God Saved his people taking them through the Red Sea – as the early church understood it – the waters of Baptism, into the promised land?? Well no – not straightaway – first they had to re-order their lives, to learn obedience to this strange God who had rescued them. Yes they had been Saved, but they had to learn what it meant – to be Saved to live a New Life. Crossing the Red Sea, their old life of Slavery was put behind them and they were now free to learn and live a New Life which was to reveal the Life of the God who had saved them, to become Light as He is Light. In Egypt, enslaved as they were they could not be a light to the Nations, But God saved them from slavery that they were then set free to live the Saved Life.
For too many, faith is Salvation without the saved life – faith emptied of all ethical requirement or content.
Yet what is the command of Christ, “to love one another as I have loved you”, if it is not a call to a way of life which is imitative of his life? How is it that St John can say “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”, if we are not to give to all who are in need? The Macedonian Christians See their brother and sister in need and they reveal that they truly are saved for the Life of God – the Salvation Life is revealed in them. In their Life they look like God their Father who pours himself out on the world in costly love – “who for our sake became poor that we might become Rich” – that we might become Children of the Living God – imitating our heavenly Father in his life giving generosity. That is astonishing.
But that gospel astonishment has another edge, one that we should all hear. For many saw the miracles of Christ and yet there hearts were hard, they did not repent – their lives at root did not change. And Jesus declares to them ‘When I was hungry you did not feed me, when I was thirsty you did not give me something to drink . . . etc’ and they saw ‘when did we we see you hungry and thirsty etc etc.’ The miracles of Jesus are about opening blind eyes, eyes blind to the need around them. To be Saved is to be set free from sin, set free to Love because our hearts no longer blind us to those around us in need “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister* in need and yet refuses help?” Plainly St John puts it – they are not children of God – they are not saved. And so the Kingdom is a matter of Dramatic reversals – those who think they are saved discover they are not, and those without hope in this world discover they are sons and daughters of God. Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God – But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward.
And that reversal is played out in our Gospel – a tale of two daughters. One is the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue – the daughter of wealth and privilege. The other, well we don’t know who she is, she is to be found in the nameless mass. For twelve years she has been as good as dead – her flow of blood making her unclean and cutting her off and now all the physicians have taken every last penny from her. She is destitute. She has nothing – except faith in Jesus. Unlike Jairus she has not the status to ask anything of Jesus. She cannot ask him – all she can do is risk touching this male rabbi. And the one who is rich becomes poor – “power went forth from him”. This is the only time this happens in the gospels – someone is healed without Jesus being asked. Life flows from the one who has everything to the one who has nothing – he becomes poor for her sake. This is the natural order of things, as water flows down hill so Life flows from those that have it to those that do not. The one who was excluded and as good as dead is now restored “Daughter” Jesus says ‘you are not a nobody, you are a daughter of God’ – but as in so many ways we as humans have the power to interrupt the flow, indeed to reverse it.
The announcement of the Kingdom is the Year of Jubilee – the year of restoration – where people are set free from their sinful need to acquire and to hold back life for others for themselves – set free in order to be restored to their full humanity as children of the Living God, who pours himself out, that there may be no poor amongst his children.
This reversal does not sound good news for the rich, but only because being rich amongst the poor is not in itself good news. Is there a gospel for the rich? Well the answer is yes, but it is miraculous. The poor church in Macedonia is overflowing in generosity, the wealthier church in Corinth has to be shamed and cajoled – we do not know how that story ends. As for the child of wealth and privilege, she dies. The woman had had no life for twelve years – the girl had had twelve years of good life. At the point the girl dies it seems it is a closed system – her twelve years of life being given to the woman who had nothing. All there is is the great reversal and no good news for the rich, BUT, Astonishingly, the system is not closed – and in that there is hope even for the rich. It is not a closed system – God is the source of all life – he is more than ready to pour out the abundance of his life where there is faith – where there is trust in him. Where there is trust in him, Faith then we move from a story about scarcity where life must be fought over and hoarded, to one where Life is always available. The woman with the flow believed – Jesus now exhorts Jairus – become like that woman, Jesus said to him “Do not fear, only believe.” Enter into an imagination of the Generosity of God. And the girl is raised to life. There is hope for the rich, astonishingly, but only because of the nature of God. It is purely by Grace and through faith that this comes about. The fruit of faith is that Life can flow, “that there may be a fair balance” – both the woman and the girl now have life. Both have been saved.
The Corinthians are called to reveal the Saved life – to show their faith by their works – to reveal that they are not blind to their brethren and that they trust in God to supply all their needs – Paul asks them to show that they are truly Saved, that they are not blind – that there might be restoration, that Life may flow – he says “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” That is what the Kingdom is like . . . Because, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister* in need and yet refuses help?” As on Earth, as in heaven
Our visitor to Hell, having been traumatised by the sight of all those people starving in front of so much excess and their 10 foot long chopsticks, is then transported to heaven. And he is amazed because it looks exactly the same – a great table, laden with the choicest food, but all the people look so full and content and joyous. ‘I suppose the chopsticks here are a lot shorter’ he grins as he looks to his guide. ‘Oh no, that would not be fair – the chopsticks are ten feet long here too’, he says pointing to where they are kept. The man looks puzzled. But they are so full and happy? ‘Of course they are – they know the joy of feeding one another’
May we know that joy too – may we know the joy of living the Saved life – the Astonishing Gospel life – and seeing it may the world see the truth about the God whom we worship