Sermon for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
October 25th 2015
Status Quo and the Christian Imagination
And I must begin with an apology to any denim clad disciples of 70s British Rock music . . . but it’s not That Status Quo . . . 🙂
Nothing more threatens the existence of the word as we know it, that we have become so accustomed to, than the gospel of Jesus Christ
These last few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the Christendom subversion of Christian Faith and Life. That distortion made Christian faith publicly acceptable, respectable even – Although Jesus reminds us ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you . . .’. But a respectable religion is of course no threat to the Status Quo. Certainly nothing to get crucified over. We adopted a form of Civic religion which pretty much legitimised the world as we know it. No one need get crucified anymore – just follow the rules . . .
So ‘The Kingdom of God’ from being something which one knew by faith, supposedly became a visible earthly rule and thus legitimised the way of the world – ‘the Rich man at his castle and the poor man at his gate, for did not God make them high and lowly and order their estate . . .’ For the marginal in this world, there was of course the comforting idea of heaven when you die, but the idea that Jesus called us into a radically new form of existence, which would often find its adherents in radical conflict with the Status Quo?? This largely disappeared from view
And this disappearance led to what we might call a Constantinian imagination, in which Christian Life became reduced to Spiritual messages to comfort people in the midst of lives which were irrevocably fixed. The World was and always will be happy for people to dispense such advice, especially if you can turn a profit doing so . . .‘The little book of Calm’ anybody?? . . . just don’t let people begin to imagine that there might be something else, like the Reign of God which calls for you to a radically different life in the midst of those around you – calling the lives of others into question purely by doing so.
Oh, by all means See God in Creation, if it pleases you, understand your existence in terms of Love, but please make sure you pay your taxes on time and are back at your desk on Monday . . . and whatever you do, don’t announce the Reign of God in the world, now, and here!! Don’t go talking about a New Life in following Jesus, with staggering possibilities, blind people being healed, the dead raised, finding life in giving up your life!!! No, its a spiritual message . . . Sell your possessions and give to the poor??? – if people start to go after that, why, the world economic order might collapse . . . so say the jailers of imagination, even sadly in our midst . . . Church reduced literally to a ‘chaplaincy of the imprisoned’ – not a dangerous jailbreak . . .
The Constantinian imagination is one which imprisons, one which is full of fear, at root afraid of Jesus Christ, for the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God in and through Jesus has radically set us free. That it is True – the Reign of God is present in Christ, in the power of The Holy Spirit – all bets about the nature of our lives are Officially off . . . The door is Open . . . With God, All things ARE possible . . .
In England – I acted as a mentor for a Christian drug rehabilitation centre. Holgate House was and is quite a remarkable place. Sat in a hollow by the River Ribble in Northern England – it was a place where people came and many were set free. At a surface level from their drug addiction, but deeper down, from their spiritual enslavement, without which the addiction would never be cured.
Underlying all addiction there is spiritual enslavement – its just that some addictions, some forms of slavery such as drugs, threaten the Status Quo, – others addictions, for example buying your identity through shopping, or ‘making a life for yourself’ by working every hour of the day, addiction to the self pity and bitterness, these are socially acceptable – indeed the Constantinian imagined church may well encourage you to shop for your True Identity – find fulfilment in your work whatever it is . . . or send someone round to you to say, there there, you poor thing . . . but NOT to announce, ‘The Jail doors are broken – you are free to go’ You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave (sorry – back to 70s Rock 🙂 )
But Holgate house was and is about annoujncing the doors are broken and you can be free by confronting the Truth. When I first visited there I went home and told Sarah, I’ve just seen the Kingdom of God. What I encountered was a group of people who in their desperate plight reached out to God in Christ and engaged one another in living in the Light of truthfulness. There was no wallowing in self pity allowed, for no healing could be found there. They confessed their sins one to another, they held one another accountable for their actions in community, and 75% of them did not revert to their former life, a statistic which always draws incredulity from those who know the field well.
Of the 25% – well on the whole they didn’t engage, preferring the prison of the self to the Light of authentic Life, for which one had to stand accountable. Of those 25% a large number had become so accustomed to life in prison, that they truly understood how threatening the thought of true freedom was – but perhaps more tragic were the wealthier members of the community who imagined themselves to be free, yet who couldn’t see they were enslaved. They couldn’t in a sense believe they were there – they didn’t own their behaviour – ‘this sort of thing doesn’t happen to someone like me’. HArder for a Rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven . . .
By and large they found themselves in Holgate house with people from a much lower socio economic background – not the sort of people with whom they associated. The idea of sharing their lives, of laying them open, of confessing their weaknesses, of being held to account by THESE people . . . But in truth, they were no different to those who had become institutionalised by life in prison. No different to those outside, enslaved in a thousand different ways. Denying the darkness of their lives, they were strangers to the Light which was offered. As Jesus said, ‘If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness’
This living in the darkness was fundamentally a failure of Christian imagination – a failure to See who Christ is, and to Know the Gospel of Jesus, who sets us free to follow Him in Joy. As revealed in the healing of Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is the opposite of the Rich Young man we heard of a couple of weeks to go. We might say that he has nothing to lose in following Jesus and everything to gain . . . but of course that is not true. Both are enslaved – It is true of each and every one of us that to follow Jesus we have to give up all we have. If the Rich man was like the wealthy drug addicts, Bartimaeus was like my drug addict friends who had been a long time in prison. Begging was not a great life – but it was a way of getting a living. There were enough devout Jews who gave alms to the poor. Life in some regards was better for beggars then – for our contemporaries who live on the streets there is no social pressure to help. In Jesus time giving money to the poor was socially ‘the right thing to do’. So in asking to See, Bartimaeus was relinquishing his worldly security every bit as much as those disciples who had left their nets.
There was a Status Quo to Bartimaeus’ existence – a form of comfortable existence . . . but as with my drug addict friends, it was no life at all . . . So Bartimaeus is looking for Life, to be set free . . . whatever the cost . . .
Yet his story is about more than an individual freedom – it goes far far further than that. In many ways it is a story of finding true freedom in giving up the idea of individual freedom – for it cannot be found without others. And it is not safe! It is a way of existence that calls into questions perhaps everything that we have been trained to take for granted regarding the nature of our lives – about their stories. It is an existence which is not about worldly security – it is an existence which is disinterested in money, or career, or earthly citizenship. It is an existence which reveals the Truth of Mr Beaver’s words about Aslan – he is not Safe, but He is Good. If you are looking for a safe and secure existence then the world offers many varieties, all of them deadly and completely at odds with the Gospel. To follow Christ means that we must eschew the safe. Most dangerously, Daring to Know and be Known. It is Life together in the community of Christ, the community of the New Creation present in Jesus. Our fundamental problem is that our dreams of a better life are far too small, our imaginations shriveled, hiding from one another, hiding in the shadows.
Few, very few can imagine, and thereby desire anything more desirable than a good life on the worlds terms followed by what we call ‘heaven’. After all That is the story we have been sold since birth . . . But only God is Good . . .The Rich young ruler went back to his cell grieving, the wealthier clients of Holgate house returned to their illusory drug addled existence . . . and yes, many beggars continued to sit in the dust. How many beggars did Jesus come close to? Yet few took the Risk of crying out to Jesus, My teacher, let me see again. In the end, they did not believe they could be free, or worse, having seen what true freedom in Christ meant, it was too Bright for them – they preferred the darkness. And in the illusory Constantinian imagined world we have created, the Risk of faith seems too much for us. It’s not a story we can control – Many do not believe . . .
But Bartimaeus does, and the people want him silenced, as in the end they seek to silence Jesus, so they will seek to silence all those who seek him in Truth. ‘Don’t tell us about another Kingdom! Don’t live in a way that calls our lives into Question! – In effect, be religious by all means, better be Spiritual, but don’t be the Church of Jesus Christ’ “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet . . . We might imagine that the crowds tell him to be quiet because he is making a noise, disturbing the peace, and indeed he is. As Jesus said, ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace but a sword . . .’ Bartimaeus is heralding The King – the One who is destined for the fall and the rise of many – and so threatening ‘the way things are’. What the Scriptures call, The World.
It’s an imagining we engage with and unconsciously absorb every moment we spend watching the Television, or reading the Newspaper – it is a World from which any announcement of the Kingdom of God, of the Rule of Jesus Christ is utterly absent. Of course the Constatinian Imagination teaches us that ‘its woven in their somewhere, you just have to look’, but without any explicit mention of Obedience to Jesus Christ, it is but another of the world’s lies, perniciously dressed up in supposedly Christian garb. For when Jesus turns up on the scene, Kings do not sleep, everyone is disturbed – when Jesus comes on the scene, the world has but one answer
Bartimaeus MUST be shut up because if Jesus is the King, then All earthly authority is radically called into question, and thus the very foundations of the lives we have built for ourselves on those authorities, those stories, those Imaginings. For those who were there this meant the Roman Empire. Rule #1 for a quiet life – a comfortable life – a safe life – don’t call the powers that be into question – keep busy, keep your nose clean, pray even, but DON”T go announcing that the World’s true King has stepped onto the scene. From Herod, to Pilate, to Nero, to Domitian, on and on the announcement of the Reign of God in Jesus Christ is Dangerous – and we have lived for many many years without realising that. Aslan is Not Safe – Life with Jesus is usually Not comfortable, not least because of the company we keep. The Christian Imagination is profoundly dangerous . . . it endangers everything . . . for the Son of Man must be crucified, and if He must be crucified, then so must all that follow him, and ultimately the very fabric of our lives in the world must go to the Cross. If the way of life is to follow Jesus, then Everything must Go
Life has many difficulties which are common to all – funnily enough . . . the world’s promises of a safe and comfortable existence turn out to be lies . . . but LIfe with Jesus has many more perils than that . . . Yet it is Joy!! It is True Happiness!! It is The Good!!! – it is worth everything, and it is more than worth crying out about . . . but it requires a renewed imagination and a desire for freedom which transcends any and all fears, even of death . . . For it calls into question that which we have come to call ‘life’
Funnily enough as I sat down to write this sermon, a friend posted a personal dream of hers. Rather cheekily, and with half my mind on what I was about to write, I asked, ‘So what is the first step? Or is it Just a dream??’ As we all know, the harshness of the World wake us from dreams – but what of the Kingdom of God, What of the Rule of Christ, what if That is The Reality. My friends at Holgate house, many of them Knew that there was another Life – Life in Christ – they did the dangerous work of imagining that Life,which kept them on track – but they would never have done it without one another, and mutually shaking one another awake – constantly calling one another to account – refusing to live with Sin in their life and confessing one to another – Crying out above the crowd which tried to silence them – ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’. Part of the Constantinian imagination in effect marginalised the Church refusing to allow it to be what it was and Is – a people with a Different Existence – a Different Life – a New People – literally a New Race as the New testament called them – a people whose Life was that of the Crucified and Risen Jesus. A people who had refused the deceitful cup of the world, who had drunk from the Cup of Christ – who had thrown of the cloak of beggars, who had adopted the mantle of True Sonship in following their King.
What might it mean for us to live as such a people? That is where the hard work of dangerous Christian Imagining is done . . . or perhaps we just turn over and go back to our dreams?
The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.