Sermon for Sunday August 12th – 11 after Pentecost – SERMON RECORDING
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
John 6:35, 41-51
‘Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’
“All this stuff about Loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you, is not only an offence against reason, it is also morally reprehensible. It is immoral. True morality calls us for us to defend ourselves against our enemies, and kill them if necessary”
These are the words of Christopher Hitchens, an English writer and commentator and also a leading light amongst the so called new atheists, famous for his last published work, ‘God is not great’. A man of some learning, and unlike one or two others of the new atheists, say the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a man who has a pretty thorough grasp of theology and what Christianity is really about. Of course one might add that Hitchens died not so very long ago and make some joke about him getting a bit of a shock, but that is really just a silly game.
Because, what Hitchens reminds us of, is that very often, if you want to discover the truth about something, find a well educated and informed opponent of it. Someone who in a sense has staked their all on it being wrong, because such a person may take you far closer to the truth of the matter often than some of the movements most ardent advocates. Hitchens like the philosopher Nietzsche despised Christianity, because at the level of human rationality, he saw what it was about, the to him debasing and humiliating notion, that a human could only be fully human in complete surrender to God, to become the servant of one whose ways are mysterious to us, whose actions often seem capricious and who seems at once to completely affirm the dignity of the human whilst systematically undermining it by calling for our absolute devotion.
Of course like all the new atheists, his understanding of Christianity isn’t perfect, he does in effect set up a straw man and then blow it away, but his understanding of Christian faith is a lot closer to the truth than the understanding of many many Christians, especially in the west. Hitchens’ Straw man of Christian faith was a lot more substantial than many Christian’s version of faith.
The theme of our service today is ‘Unreasonable faith’ – because that is precisely what we as Christians have and HItchens saw that. Yet for many, certainly outside the church and indeed a good few inside, there is a ‘Reasonable Christian faith’ – the sort of Christian faith that is all about the values of polite society justified should you need it, in the person of Jesus the wandering sage – who talks about those highest of human aspirations ‘Love’ Peace, Kindness etc. The Jesus says ‘you know how you want peace, I want the same thing too, being kind to one another is a good idea, so I’m glad you agree with me on that. A Christian faith that ulitmately has no need for Christ, so full of its own proud Reason is it.
This Jesus of this ‘faith’ is utterly Reasonable, he fits beautifully into our world and makes us feel good about our noble aspirations for life, he doesn’t in any sense disturb us. He is the fulfillment of all that is best in us – but he is a Fake. He is a ‘Jesus’ created by the world to keep him in his place, to stop him stirring things up. He is a ‘Jesus’ conformed to the World. And he bears absolutely no relation to the Jesus of the Gospels
Imagine for a moment that you are out in town, say in the Octagon and you meet someone who has set up a little soap box, perhaps in front of the cathedral (can we imagine that?) and is loudly, but not too loudly, declaiming. ‘Love is the answer!’, ‘Murder, adultery, lying and stealing are Bad things!’ Be at Peace with one another, Love one another.’ Well I guess you will probably think him slightly eccentric, but you’ll be glad he is confirming your sense of what is good and right and wrong and I guess almost everyone else will think the same thing. All of that fits within our Reasonable understanding of the World. Christian faith we will think is the most utterly reasonable thing, and for the life of the world we can’t understand why churches are full to overflowing.
Yet, reasonably then, what is the point of going to church to hear what we already believe to be true, to confirm you in your view of the world – we may as well go play golf, and of course Jesus would be very happy, because you would be happy and that is all that this Reasonable Jesus cares about, he doesn’t demand our worship – he just wants us to try to be good and kind . . . the Fake Jesus, that is.
But the Fake Jesus, does not exist. If we can drag ourselves away those fondly imagined strolls round a golf course, or tramps up a hill, or wherever we were with the Fake Jesus, and back to the Octagon, the scene has changed, all of a sudden someone is saying “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The vast majority of people would be Disturbed by such a person – we’d be calling for the Emergency Psychiatric service. “What do you mean – you’ve come down from heaven? You’re flesh and blood like us – hey don’t I recognise you – weren’t we at school together Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Are you Nuts?? Fetch back that Jesus who told us to be good! We liked him! [Actually the real Jesus Never told anyone to be good – indeed he said only God is Good]
No one is Good – try that for a comforting thought, or something to make Christianity credible to someone in the modern era. No, We have to face up to it. Jesus is the most utterly unreasonable and disturbing presence the world has ever known. Not because he is a teacher of timeless ethical truths, such a person disturbs nothing. No he is Utterly unreasonable and Utterly disturbing because he is the one who came down from heaven – the Incarnation of the One who created the world, breaking into the world to put into effect through his own death and resurrection the recreation of the World. He comes to announce the disturbance to end all disturbances – the end of the world as we know it – to pronounce it to be under God’s Judgement and to declare the New Creation, made present in him, there and then, Here and Now.
In the three years of Jesus’ ministry, nothing less is happening than God’s New Creation, walking the Earth in flesh and blood and everything is being forced either to conform to that which is amongst them, or to reject it. There is no middle ground – we either Crown him as King, and submit to him, or we Crucify him. This indeed is the very choice that is put to us all by Pontius Pilate – ‘Here is Your King’ And Jesus continues to force this issue on us. “Whoever believes Has eternal Life” The real Jesus is Alive and Disturbing us now. The Fake Jesus? – well “Resurrection?? Come on! No he was a good person, just like me, but he is long dead and the world has moved on’ . The Fake Jesus is long dead and the world goes on. Whereas the Truth of the gospel is that the World came to a grinding halt when Jesus rose from the dead – the World was pronounced dead – he has moved on, down through the years and so comes over and over and over to disturb us, to say our lives and the life of this world is under the final judgement of God and that God’s New Creation is present in Him – to call us – to Force us to choose.
We don’t like the idea of being forced to choose, but as I said last week, this is not a religious game. This is Life and Death. David Chose the path of Death as we heard, ‘the sword shall never depart from your house’ And so all hell breaks loose and Absalom his beloved son is murdered.
When we meet with the Risen Jesus, he disturbs us. We are Forced to choose – to choose to put our life into his hands for whatever he wants to do with it. When Jesus says ‘Follow me’ – he doesn’t say ‘Please’. It’s not a request, it’s a command. He confronts us with the terrifying truth that this Christian Life is not about us, it’s about Him. So we try to reject it. We nail this Life to a cross, kill our enemy, kill the one who is disturbing our comfortable lives and then , don’t you know it He is raised from the dead! There is no escaping God’s new Creation made visible in our Risen Lord and all people everywhere are forced to choose, either to conform to God’s Future, or to perish with the World that is already pronounced dead.
And here is the rub, that all those who choose to conform to that Life, find themselves in exactly the same position, rejected by the old order that is passing away, we find the world trying to do exactly that which it did to Jesus, to do to us, to try and keep us in our place, playing the game by the rules the World sets for us.
And when authentic faith comes along – when the Spirit of Christ is alive and active in his people, then the World stops looking on the church as a kind if slightly dotty maiden aunt who can be consigned to a rest home before she expires, and starts to realise that it has a fight on its hands. Think for a moment – if you asked someone you knew who wasn’t christian if nailing Jesus to the cross was reasonable, I guess they’d probably say – ‘Oh, folk were so barbaric then – it was a terrible thing to do’ But Christian faith says that the death and resurrection of Jesus was The Most Reasonable Event in History. Christian faith takes what is in the understanding of the world a dreadful immoral act, and makes it the lynchpin of all of History. So much for Morality. If we think that it is very unreasonable to kill someone for what we call Christian faith, then it is clear we don’t understand our faith at all. This is why I say it is worth listening to Christopher Hitchens critique of Christianity. In a real sense he got it and it appalled him. ‘Hate you enemies, kill them if necessary’. As far as the World is cocerned that is the Reasonable thing to do
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Tell us some nice moral platitudes Jesus, tell us not to murder or lie or steal, tell us not to murder or commit adultery as Moses did, don’t bother us with this bread of heaven nonsense 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Look you son of a carpenter, don’t come around claiming you are from heaven, we know you – we know where you fit, get back in your box kid. ANd they nailed him to a Cross, and put him in a tomb and rolled the stone across and said, well that’s seen to him! Let’s get back on with our lives.
The other night William Willimon talked about a play where a man, Mr Smith, commits suicide – he wants more than anything for his life to end. So he shoots himself. The scene goes blank. But then the lights come up. The man is sprawled on the floor and behind him is a figure behind a desk with a large filing cabinet. Mr Smith, to his horror finds he is not dead – ‘Gabriel’, says the figure behind the desk, ‘bring me the file on Mr Smith. Mr Smith if you’d like to take a seat, we have all the time in the world’ There is No escape from the One who lives for ever, the Real Jesus.
The fake Jesus of Reasonable faith, we can and should put in a box and forget about. If that is our Jesus, then the sooner we abandon him the better. For, the Real Jesus they put in a tomb – the scene went black – and then there he was again, Utterly unreasonably Alive for Ever – saying then, saying now “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And so as his Unreasonable people, we Choose Not to play golf or go for a stroll – but to come to this Strange building, engage in practices that make no sense in a world which thinks it is its own life, which thinks it will go on and on – and to Receive Eternal Life afresh in Word and Sacrament. To be conformed to Him.