N-Gram – my new discovery. As a newspaper article put it, ‘there is yet another way to spend endless hours on the internet’. Simply put, it uses Google vast index of books to show how the use of words and phrases has changed over the last 500 hundred years. It came to mind for a couple of reasons – first a book inspired by the loss of words in children’s dictionaries to do with the natural world, and their replacement with words like blog, voicemail, cut-and-paste and the like. This is troubling as it speaks of a consciousness cut off from anything outside of ourselves, but second and related to it, I was interested to know about the use of the phrase ‘autonomous individual’
What is ‘an autonomous individual’? Well according to some, it is the idealised human being. The person who is entirely in charge of their own life, and since yesterday, death. Autonomous – a law unto themselves – the Sovereign self. Well this phrase is perhaps a bit more recent than we might suppose. It hardly seems to appear at all before the C20, beginning to show sings of existence eon the 1920’s and 30’s. But in the last 35 years its use in literature has increased by 350%
To whom do you belong?? The idea that we belong to someone is perhaps not a popular one, ‘I belong to my self!’ Is the Modern cry . . .
Yet it is this question which is at the heart of Jesus’ reply to those who wish to trap him.
Jesus opponents want to destroy him, and to do so they want to get him to say something which will get him in trouble with the powers that be . . . so the question about taxes – this is no mere ‘philosophical problem’ – as usual these questions are designed to put Jesus on one side of the argument or the other – a not unfamiliar decide to us in this day and age. In some senses it is a question which asks – are you one of us, or one of them?
But here the question is one which whichever way he answers Jesus is in trouble. If he says it is lawful to pay taxes, then the pious Jewish leaders – who have accommodated themselves quite comfortably to Roman Rule, will tell their fellow Jews – he’s not one of us! And if he answers in the negative – then of course they can run off to Pilate and accuse Jesus of being a threat to the state . . . Divide and Rule! Divide the world into two camps and then you are the judge . . .
But Jesus knows what they are about – he knows their hypocrisy. He knows that in all likelihood they are ‘in bed with’ the powers that be . . . so he asks to see a coin.
Whose Image is this? And whose inscription? The inscription by the way said – ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus’ – Son of God’ . . . and the Image was of the Emperor. So the answer to both questions is ‘Caesar’s’
And then Jesus makes the move about ownership – it bears his mark – it belongs to him.
Our cat marks its territory – my books, some of them have my name in them, we mark what belongs to us . . . [cf Like the number of the beast . . . to whom do you belong?]
And this is the level of Jesus’ reply . . . We get into agonies over legitimate or illegitimate government . . .
Although this text has been used over and over to justify our allegiance to civil authority, for any Jew, this was unacceptable, hence the sting in the question. Is it lawful to pay taxes – If Cesar has said ‘this coin is mine’, then give it to him . . . What is Casar’s? That which has his mark on it . . . does the coin have his mark? Give it to him. This thing, this scrap of metal . . . give to Cesar the Things that he has put his mark on . . .
We fall into this trap – the first part occupies our thoughts . . . but Jesus’ answer is dismissive of these tortured pondering – and it is his final words as always to which our attention would be drawn? Render to God what is God’s . . .
But what is God’s? . . . well, on whom has God put his mark??
Jesus as ever shows the way. Upon the Cross he render’s to God what is God – Himself
St Paul says of Jesus ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ – the question is ‘are we?’ To whom do we belong
Years ago a friend of mine stopped me for a faith conversation – brought up a Christian in a loving and devout Christian home, she had reached an impasse in her faith. Funnily enough it was at the bottom of a flight of stairs . . . ‘I’ve realised that it is all or nothing . . .’ And that is the point. There is no division – there is nothing of any consequence that belongs to Caesar, you certainly don’t . . . Jesus’ answer is simply a question, ‘To whom do you belong?’ God, or not?
Here is the recording of the address. I’d like also to add a comment regarding the story I told regarding Archbishop Winston, later in the morning. Of how his way of Knowing, deeply embedded in his context was profoundly different to ours, where we are trained to think as if we are not part of the world and look out at it. So he tried to help us by using Power point, but his way of Knowing which we might called ‘Participatory’, or ‘Knowing by Love’ cannot be translated into bullet points.
So the most Truthful aspect of a funeral eulogy are tears and silence and to a degree poetry . . .
‘Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ Isaiah 30:21 . . .
‘Where is your life headed?’ . . . We might well say, we do not know. But perhaps a more helpful question is – ‘towards what is your life directed?’
Knowing our Direction – to what we are directed is to know where we are headed, and it makes our life far simpler, even if often it makes it far more difficult
Most folk know of the difficult way our family is following with our daughter. Some might wonder why? They might be tempted to say, it is her ‘Christian principles’ which told her the way. But no, the principles, the rules if you like are the manifestation of something far deeper, that is The Way. For our daughter, to see a beating heart is to know The Way . . .
Early Christians were often called ‘followers of The Way’, in Scripture far more often than ‘Christians’ which is used only once. The prophet says ‘Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ It is deep within the fabric of existence and lies, usually buried in the depth of the human heart, for it underlies all of reality.
As CS Lewis explains Christian faith to those who might not know it, he speaks of this deep underlying Right Ordering of things using the ancient Chinese concept of The Tao.
We as the people of St John the Evangelist, know it as The Word – or as the Greeks put it – The Logos. The deep underlying Right Order of the universe. In the beginning – when God created the heaven and Earth, there it was – In the beginning was the Logos, the Tao, The Way.
As the children of Israel gather at Mt Sinai, God reveals himself, the unseen God, by revealing The Way. The ten Commandments or as they are perhaps more helpfully known in the Jewish tradition, the Ten Words, the Tao, The Logos. The Logos who is I AM reveals himself as The Way
I am, the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
These first three commandments are summed up in the Great Command we hear every Sunday – Hear, O Israel, O people of God, The Lord your God, the LORD is One and you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength . . . Why does The Way begin in this Way?
We are commanded to Love the God whom we do not see so, not idols, or the gods of the nations – followers of The Way are never nationalists. Why Love the unseen God?
So that we learn the Direction of our The Way, The direction of our Life – or, for it is the same thing, the Direction of our Love. To Know this Logos, this tao, this Way is to Know the nature of Love and Life that is always and everywhere Towards.
Love is ecstatic – it is ‘Away from’. We love away from ourselves. Love flows towards – Love is not about acquiring or drawing to ourself. Love does not seek to possess – this is a tragic distortion of love. Loving that which we see all too often perverts love by reversing its direction – from away from like the flow of a River, from releasing and letting go, forgiving we might say, to eeking to possess and hold on to – to draw to ourself.
‘So and so ‘completes me’’ Oh, I saw that piece of furtniture and I just Had to have it . . . this is the perversion of Love.
We learn Love, The Way by loving that which we cannot see, so that we learn not to set our hearts on things that do not last, and so move away from life which is eternal. We learn not the false misdirected love which seeks to acquire – and we learn to love that which surrounds us as ourself.
Sin in Greek is hamartia – it means to miss the mark. Sin is misdirected love. It is against The Tao, against the Logos. Sin is to draw towards for our sake.
We are made to Love, but we are surrounded by many things which we seek to possess for our own sake. Rather than to direct our Love to the One thing necessary – the Love towards God which is the Way, the Way which orders and directs all Love.
Sin is misdirected love, for the moth and rust consume and thieves break I and steal. It is the Love that always ends in our loss, for it is the love of things that pass away, which is misdirected love.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the rich man, who had many possessions. He had loved everything he had seen – he had set his heart on them. This is idolatry. In the early church it was called the spirit of fornication, to Love as God that which was not God. It was disordered love. Yes it had a sexual expression, but the deeper disorder was the problem, the sexual aspect was merely the most clear expression of the disordered love, as it strikes most deeply into our humanity. It reveals that to love is to become joined to, we become one with . . . We are created to be united to God, the young man had become united to his possessions
The Goal of the Christian Life is simple – it is to become One with God and so to become Love – The Direction of The Way is Up – that is why Jesus says – ‘take no thought for the morrow . . . rather seek his kingdom and his righteousness’
This is what we call Resurrection. It is where our lives are to head. Not forward in time, but upwards towards God so that within the realm of time and Space which God has called into being the Tao, the Logos, The Way is manifested. To become expressions of the Eternal in the world of things passing away
So St Paul in his letter to the Philippians
I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In the beginning was The Logos – our Christian announcement is that the Logos, the Way has become flesh in Christ Jesus and Him Crucified. The Resurrection is the revelation of that – through dying to self, considering not the things that are passing away, but rather fixing our hearts and minds on the Eternal – God manifested in Christ (this is faith – that which we set our hearts on) – The Human is Revealed in the heart of Creation. This is the Centre of all things, the meaning of all things – it is the way through death to Life. It was for this that Christ came, to make the dead Live!! To become Love is Resurrection, it is as St John reminds us, the grounds of our hope ‘for as he is, so are we in the world’
This is to be restored to our true humanity, it is to find our life in accord with the deep pattern of the entire Creation. As I wrote in the parish magazine this month, Resurrection is written into the Creation – a true river always finds its course – And we, if we have come to know Christ have come to know The Way.
Our daughter sees a beating heart – her heart pours out – the River finds its painful course, towards the Sea – She Knows the Way . . . Those who walk in The Way, Know the Way
Spring is in the air, in a sense it always is, but usually we don’t recognise the signs, which as Jesus tells us is a human deficiency. But all around for those with eyes to see . . .
Many years ago, one of my parishes ran out of people to mow the grass in the churchyard. In that moment a young couple recently moved to the village from Canada, came to the Vicarage. They were interested in the idea of a ‘Living Churchyard’ They had the right skills to actively care for the grass around the gravestones, that it was restored to meadow, with wild flowers, diverse grasses, and butterflies etc. etc. (From the place of death, Life)
This required very little work from them, except a gentle care and the occasional uprooting of gorse. ‘For the grass and plants know themselves best how to grow, and the wildlife will find its place’. I foolishly mentioned this offer in the next parish magazine. Almost immediately a delegation of well meaning village folk were on my doorstep – telling me that they would mow the grass . . .
We find it very difficult as human beings just to let things be. T S Eliott wrote – ‘Teach us to care, and not to care, teach us to sit still’. Our attempts to ‘manage things’, to put the world, and of course ‘those people’ right, seems to infect us all from an early age. And so new life is smothered under our ‘care’. The Care which we are called to in Elliot’s poem is that of attentiveness, the work of Mary, of beholding. If you take time to learn this way of Seeing the world, you discover as my Canadian friends had, that Creation Knows its maker and its own way. And it requires far less of us, perhaps simply our wonder? Resurrection wonder.
The other night in a time of darkness, something Sarah told me came to mind. She had been listening to a podcast about a beck (a small river) on the Eastern edge of the English Lake District. Some years ago, well meaning folk had straightened its course. (There was money in such things from city politicians who knew nothing of the ways of a stream). As a result the water ran far more swiftly down its new (dead) straight course. (There are no straight lines in the Living World) As the water ripped along it took with it all the gravel and small pebbles, which up until this ‘improvement’ had been the spawning ground for fish. These fish knew the beck as their home, their source, the place from which they came, and to which they returned, their place of birth, death and resurrection.
Some local folk, rather like my Canadian friends, wondered if there was a way to restore the stream and thus its Life. So they set about the task of diverting the river to its old course, starting from the upstream end. They had done very little yet arduous spadework, when one night there was the sort of rain which those parts knows too well. A late summer deluge. Under the ‘improved’ course, this water would have rushed down the river and possibly flooded out a village further downstream, and the labourers woke expecting to see not only flooding down the valley, but also their small work washed away . . . but they hadn’t counted on Resurrection. We never do.
The small change they had made, enabled the deluge to open up the older course of the river. Slow, meandering. The River Knew its course . . . it was written into it In The Beginning. And over time, back came first the pebbles and gravel, and then the fish
As I pondered this, I had one of those Mother Julian moments. Light flooded into darkness, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well . . .’ Resurrection is written into the Creation, by the Logos of God, if we would just let it be so.
Our place as Christians in these days, perhaps more than ever before is Holy Saturday – to rest in the tomb. The old way of fixing things is over. This is the message of the Cross. We wait on new birth. Watch and Pray. Wait and Behold, the Glory of the Lord . . .
In the Church, in the World, and within ourselves . . . Resurrection is built in if we do but stop to See it
Interesting q. Not because of the answers, the q itself . . .
‘Earn a living’ – Why do we use such language?
Have you bought into the latest thinking in this area?
How do you spend your life . . .
The criminal must ‘pay their debt to society . . .’ I’ll return to debt shortly
Arguments ‘the bottom line is . . .’ I could go on almost ad infinitum. The language of Money is woven through our way of being . . . We work, to get money, to buy bread, to live . . . Money and Life woven together, which is a problem for us
Of course one might be very otherworldly about money
God will provide! Why is the church always talking about money, yet the next moment turn round and say ‘but you owe me an apology . . .’ This reveals in a sense that money is more than cash – it is . . . well some kind of Spiritual force – or Mammon
The mammon one way or another radically infects our language and thus our lives and indeed our faith . . .
And so it is with the issue of forgiveness – as anyone who knows presbyterianism will attest – we ask God to forgive us our debts . . . (but woe betide any customer of mine who doesn’t pay his bills . . .)
Which is odd, when you think about it for a couple of reasons.
Firstly because we live in a world where it is assumed that, you must pay your debts. I owe, I owe, its off to work I go . . .
Debt and the money system are a prison and an utterly unforgiving one – is that LIFE?
Secondly the language of debt in the prayer, takes it for granted that we can ‘owe’ God . And whether we use that language or not, the sense of ‘being in Gods debt or that of another overshadows our understanding of forgiveness . . .
Yet owing suggests a deficit in God . . . By our sinning he has lent us something and thus is diminished – so it is rooted in a wrong idea about God. For God is overflowing abundance – Life in all its fullness . . . yet we won’t have it
This approach in some respects has really kicked into gear since the Protestant reformation, although it was very alive in the church since the late middle ages – ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’ The Sale of indulgences, buying time off paying what you owed God – was one of the rampant abuses the reformers rightly railed against but unwittingly, as the man who kicked a demon out of his house found, it only made matters worse let the spirit of Mammon loose without retsraint – The Protestant work ethic and consumer capitalism are happy bedfellows . . . that anyone should get – Something for nothing . . . the underserving . . .
And it infected our language of faith – ‘There was no other good enough to pay the price for sin . . .’ And I as was taught regarding confession – you need to ‘keep short accounts with God . . .’
What is Peter doing in his approach to Jesus but the work of accounting.
Jesus has already told his disciples that as servants of God, their work is to seek and save the lost, to renew connection. To reconnect them to the ever flowing stream of the Life of God – To seek out the brother who sinned against you, not that your honour might be satisfied, not that they owed you, but because this is what God does – in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us
But Peter is still counting – Peter lives in the small minded world of Mammon – a world with an unforgiving bottom line – world of scarcity – there’s only so much forgiveness to go around. A world in which Life runs out . . . So you wouldn’t want to waste it.
This is a world in which secretly we don’t want to forgive, as if we will thereby lose something . . . yet Peter will begrudgingly push himself if Jesus requires it – How much do you require of me Jesus?!
He guesses that Jesus might go further than the rabbis who counselled that your forgave three times only, but ‘Jesus is better’, but ‘We know the story so the Jesus story is the same’, . . .of the same mould . . . so 7 times – after all that is perfection, but Jesus isn’t interested in ‘a better version of the world’, he has something New to say, or rather something original . . from the Origin of Creation, from the heart, from the heart of God
Jesus’ teaching is from the origin . . . from the source of the river of LIfe
And his shocking words expose the world for what it is – ruled by accounting, and limitation, harsh limitation, begrudging forgivness merely to keep the rules.
This parable of Jesus is often taught like this –
A tale of two debts. One owed by the first servant, one owed to the first servant. The debt owed by the first servant is 60,000 times greater than what he is owed. So . . . we owe God an unpayable debt . . . except that is something we have made up, assuming that the world of debt is normative.
Nowhere in scripture are we told we owe God, after all, if God is your father, does your parent lend you their life, their house, do they bill you for your sheer existence?? The language of infinite debt is the infection of the faith by those who do not know God – who understand faith in terms set by the money system – serving Mammon still – and so using the language of accounting in the world of faith
And if your brother really IS your brother . . . The words of Jesus are Shocking to our world . . . forgive 7×70 times – forgive and forgive and forgive . . . ad infinitum – If money is our picture of life, then it is limited, But if God is our picture of life, then . . . boundless forgiveness is the Reality
Note that the master has pity on the slave . . . He doesn’t see the debt, he sees the person – a person in trouble. He doesn’t see someone who has sinned against him, he sees someone who has cut themselves off from life and is in trouble . . . he loves the servant. He pities him . . . and he forgives him, he connects his Life to that of his servant . . .
But the first slave goes out and although he has not been treated according to the harsh unforgiving money system – goes and implements the harsh unforgiving money system . . . he has been given Life, but chooses limitation and death . . .
He only sees the debt . . . he doesn’t see the person. He is blinded by what is owed – by the offence, and has no pity . . .
This is not a story about the debt system – it is a story about Love, or not . . .
It is about Life – or death . . . After all, the wages of sin is death . . . the Gift of God is eternal Life
In our world Mammon – holds the power of life and death, and its doctrines infect everyday life, to the last cent . . . which is why we tend to see this parable in terms of the vast amount of money and the small amount of money, and miss the pity, the love. Why would the fellow slaves be shocked by the treatment of their fellow? Because they are servants of their master – and live a life according to love. If they lived according to money they wouldn’t be shocked – their is no sense that they know what happened between the master and servant – it is ‘of the heart’s inner room . . .
Forgiveness from the heart is a different life. Life that is a never ending stream – a river.
From the heart says Jesus – as he says in John’s gospel, out of the heart of the one who believes will flow rivers, rivers of living water. Wells run dry, but rivers . . . they are a flow of life throughout scripture.
It really is your money or your life . . .
You can serve God, and live a life of love, or live under the system of Mammon, which has a bottom line – Death . . .
‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’ 2 Cor 5:19
I wonder if you’ve ever encountered an angel? I’ve had one fleeting encounter, and my father also, just before he died, although it was only later as my mother told the story of a strange encounter on an evening walk hours before he died, that I understood this.
One of the gifts of returning to each of the Synoptic gospels on a three year rotation is that you see things you had previously missed. This year is Matthew and this week as I have sat with today’s gospel that I have realised that Matthew is the gospel of angels. There are considerably more angels in Matthew than in Mark or Luke combined. The angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream, the angels who separate the wheat from the chaff, the twelve legions of angels Jesus says he has at his disposal should he call on them.
But for our purposes today – two mentions are significant. One, which we may remember is to do with Jesus’ argument with the Sadducess over marriage in the Kingdom – for he says ‘in the Resurrection, they are neither married not given in marriage, but are like the angels’, and, a verse that has been important to me this past week as I have prayed over Hannah’s child – a verse from Matthew which comes a few verses before this week’s gospel reading and is part of its context.
Jesus has set a child in the midst of his disciples and said, ‘unless ye repent and become like one of these, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’ – and further “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you, that in heaven, their angels do always behold the face of my father in heaven”
Last week we considered the uncomfortable truth for those who think much of themselves, that God chooses the none-people to be his people . . . Put simply, it’s not about us, our talents and abilities, it is about God. Moses’s question, “who am I?” , is responded to with God’s I AM. (And we’ll consider this further this evening).
God is God of the none-people, and in most of history children have been none-people, indeed before birth they are not considered by the law of this land to be people, and in certain appalling circumstances, not after birth either.
Jesus places a none-person in front of the disciples – one whom we in the Significance and Importance of our busy meaningful lives overlook – one whom we overlook the more our lives are escapes from the vulnerability of childhood. He says, you must become like this to enter the Kingdom of my Father. Possessing nothing, and thus possessed by nothing – and those for whom it might be said, because of their vulnerability and openness, their angels always behold the face of God . . .
Last week we asked – “Who are the people of God?” This week we are confronted with a different but equally important question, “What are the people of God?” For as Jesus’ says, in the Resurrection they are like the angels . . . and Christ is Risen. We are the people of the Resurrection – as St Paul says, if anyone is in Christ, He is a New Creation, the old has gone, the new has come . . .’
Like the angels . . .
Well you may well say, “But what has that got to do with our gospel reading? After all it’s a sort of ethical injunction, isn’t it? A code of conduct for life in the church?” Well yes, but if you don’t know who and what you are, you will not understand it. Put another way, how we hear these words of Jesus are a measure of whether we have heard him at all . . .
“If your brother sins against you, go!” Jesus sends us with three levels of engagement. 1. Tell them alone, 2. Take on or two others, 3. Take it before the church . . .
“If your brother sins against you, go!” Note that this almost always works its way out the other way. Someone sins against another and if the person who is sinned against takes it badly . . . well do they go and tell the person privately? No, they go straight to Level 3 and tell Everyone!! You have no idea what this person has done to me! . . .
But here’s the question . . . Why? If another Christian signs against you, why would you go and tell them their fault . . . Why tell them their fault? Because they need to know what they’ve done wrong? Because they need to know how you are hurt? Because you have been offended? Because they are going to have to do certain things before you’ll think of trusting them again?? Because they need to say Sorry, and say it like they mean it? That they wake up to the injustice of their lives?? So that your honour, your story about the world is proved to be true? Why tell them their fault??
You see, all those reasons why the children of the world might tell them their fault, are all about them . . . My pride, my feelings, my offence, the wrong that has been done to me . . . and notice btw how much contemporary discourse is precisely of this nature . . . these are the reasons of the children of the world – but not the children of ‘my father who is in heaven’
But is this why Jesus tell us to go and point out their fault? And then if necessary to draw one or two people in? And then to take it to the church?? Why? To satisfy your honour? To deal with your hurt feelings??
Did Jesus cried out from the cross, “You have no idea what they have done to me!” ?? No, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do . . .”
You see, if we don’t know who we are and what we are as the people of God, we don’t know how and why we act . . . we do not know what we are doing . . . We have lost sight of the face of our Father in heaven, who says I AM, and it’s all about us . . . but God, but God uses the none-people because, it is all about God and God’s purposes, and God’s life which he wishes to share with all.
We talk very glibly about doing the work of God . . . but unless we know who we are and where we are, we do not know what the work of God is, the work of Jesus.
St Paul puts it the work of God like this – ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’ 2 Cor 5:19 The four verses before this weeks gospel read – ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones – don’t overlook them, pay attention – ; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Therefore! If your brother sins against you . . .
The angels of the little ones, the none people – Jesus’ people always behold the face of God, and in the resurrection, they are like the angels of God in heaven . . .
So . . . to be one of God’s people is to be like an angel . . . which means??
Angels wait on God, Like Mary – they pay attention to God in Christ, and serve His purposes. They wait on his command. That is what they live for, the people of God . . . they are messengers, connection makers
Why like an angel in the resurrection? God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself? He has woven together heaven and earth in his Son. Christ on the Cross is lifted up holding heaven and earth together . . . Like an angel he dwells in both places – he moves effortlessly between the two . . . He stands at the right hand of God, yet is with us always . . .
When your brother sins against you, Go! Commands Jesus, go into the world to do the work of your father which I have revealed to you – GO! seek and save the lost, to restore the relationship. They have sinned and so have broken the life giving bond – they are thus cut off and lost from the household of God. They have become a lost sheep, go find them! Bring them home.
We do not go to point out the fault of our brother or sister because of what they have done to us, in the same way that God in Christ does not seek us out to tell us how we have hurt him. God’s own self forgetfulness – your sins and iniquities I will remember no more – is the Life of the Church which has been entrusted with the message of reconciliation.
We are like the angels who dwell before the face of God. That is what we are – in ourselves weaving heaven and earth together, so that whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatsoever we lose on earth is loosed in heaven. It is only in knowing who we are, what we are and where we are that the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes plain to us and we become its self forgetful, God serving expressions . . . Only those who lose their life will find it . . .
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:10
What does it mean to be ‘The people of God’?
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount starts out by naming God’s people – the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty . . . that is where God starts . . . These are the Blessed for from them God will create a people for his glory
The writer Dallas Willard in his book, the Divine Conspiracy, a book about The Kingdom of God, so chokes over these words of Jesus that he has to completely rewrites them. In Willard’s picture God obviously needs competent people, skilled people, talented people. ‘If we are going to bring in the Kingdom of God! . . .’
In short people like him. So these people . . . the nothings, the non-people he . . . well he says ‘Hey when Jesus is announcing his Kingdom he says ‘it’s even for people like this!’ We competent people we are the ones charged with the business, and so doing we’ll help these non people. So Sure is he of this that he spends an entire chapter deliberately these people as losers, as non-people . . . The losers, the people no one would look to if humanly speaking they were setting out on a great endeavour, let alone ‘The great Endeavour’ . . . Humanly speaking . . . That’s the worlds story – vote in the right government and the poor will finally be looked after – This is how We will fix things . . . We the competent and powerful will help out the less blessed.
Except Jesus has named the blessed, THESE are the blessed, and there’s no ‘also’
What is perhaps a little unsettling to consider is why Willard has to do this . . . Why? Because he is working from an unexamined assumption, that he and his fellow middle class Christian friends, the Movers and shakers, the people with ‘significant’ roles and the like – are OBVIOUSLY ‘God’s people’ – The story is so pervasive we believe it – It is our job as God’s people to look after the non-people . . . But Jesus says, the non-people are God’s people. And there are no ‘alsos’ . . .
If the ‘Blessed’s of Jesus aren’t like those people Willard knows . . . and Jesus says blessed are ‘those people’ . . . what of him, what of us?? (And you might like to take a moment to reflect on how like Willard we immediately try and hold our story together . . .)
The Jesus story tips the world on its head, because it is not about human glory except as Christ and him Crucified. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, people come to Jesus saying ‘Hey Jesus, look what we’ve done, what we’ve achieved ‘in your name’’ and Jesus is less than impressed – away from me, you doers of evil. For this is not about human glory, but the glory of God.
God’s work is always a work of Creation – and he caps out the creation by Creating His Image and placing it at the Centre – so that the creation would know what the Creator was like. God creates a people Like him, He does the creation, the work is all God’s. Even Jesus says ‘I only do what I see the father doing’ and that Creation is from that which is ‘nothing’, the formless and void of the waters of the deep, he forms a people from those who were not a people. They do not make a name for themselves, there are no laudatory memorials to those people – he places his name on them
As St Paul puts it in a text that has been much on my family’s heart these past few days – God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. A child growing in her mothers womb turns our world on its head . . .
[We have a society and culture which is set up by the powerful who may or who may not do good for the weak . . . but they dominate the story. And this story is also the story which dominates the church. So Synod, reduced to just a one day zoom ‘meeting’ will debate the usual well meaning motions about ‘helping the non-people’ – top down. But ignoring our Christian Story which is that the people of God are the non-people.
You see it’s only the non-people that need God . . . the rest of us can and usually do get by very well without God. Indeed we think so much of ourselves that we say that it is our job to ‘bring in the Kingdom of God’. Faith is hard not for those who have no other hope, it is hard for those who have a thousand and one alternatives]
So God comes to the raw material of the non-people. The enslaved Hebrews
‘I will send you to Pharaoh’! If we read further on, the LORD says to Moses, I will give you words . . .
And Moses Knows he is not up to the task . . . Who am I? I am NOT . . .
I AM has sent you. And I AM brings them out and makes a people for himself, to reveal his Glory . . .
But they looked around and sought to emulate other nations. Hey we need a King! If folk are going to take US seriously . . . so they fall into the failure of the nations who do not know God. They get their king- first David, who wouldn’t lay a hand on Saul but became king by popular acclaim as the one who slew his tens of thousands . . . Then the glories of the Solomonic era, in which the liberated people were ironically enslaved to their own imperial project. Imperial projects always enslave – as anyone paying attention to their own life might notice . . . Solomon intermarried with a gusto . . . he built an amazing temple and an even more amazing palace for himself . . . and following his death as with the death of any emperor, the succession led to a bloodbath and the separation of the 12 tribes.
And one of the most pertinent facts regarding God’s people is that they are largely absent from the historical record . . . even Solomon in all his glory . . . In vain do we look for the historic record of the non people. For all their glorious past, they barely deserved a footnote in the annals of the Human story . . .
From then the story had not been good, and at the time of Jesus, God’s people are waiting for ‘the Son of David’. . . An imagined glorious past . . . how we love to live in the past and fondly remember it . . . not really a good call. The powerful amongst them are trying to hold things together. The Pharisees are not narrow minded legalists – rather they long for the return of God’s King, and understand that only when Israel perfectly keeps the law will this happen . . . but their understanding of God’s Messiah is still one built not on God’s creative acts amongst the non-people. They are looking for the movers and shakers . . . The King, The Messiah to restore ‘the good old days’
So Peter’s cry ‘this must never happen to you! Is based on that story. He has just been graced BY GOD to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the long awaited one. He didn’t figure this out for himself for this is a story about God, not about how clever Peter is . . . note by the way that the gospels do NOT exalt the disciples . . . They are very raw material . . . We note the ‘joke’ that on this rock Jesus will build his church and like Sarah we laugh! Really? Peter??? That flippy floppy nobody?? Because it’s not about Sarah or Peter, it is about God
Jesus calls the non-people . . .
Peter is allowed to see who Jesus is, and then Jesus tips Peter’s world upside down . . . he must go to Jerusalem and suffer . . . and be killed . . . and on the third day be raised. The word Suffer is passive – he becomes a non person, the target of those who have a different story, he becomes the ultimate non person by being killed . . .
So Peter when he says ‘this must never happen to you’ isn’t saying out of his deep devotion to Jesus, but because that’s not the Messiah story. The Messiah is the top down ruler who will save Israel . . . the Messiah institutes an eternal reign – He comes to make us a GREAT nation! The Messiah does not die!
But that is the way of Satan, the Prince of this world. It is designed to leave us without hope, because we think – the next government, if only we had the right ruler . . . a world of eternal despair in the human – ‘Get thee behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of Man. because we have not in mind the things of God.
It is perhaps the Great Satanic illusion which grips our hearts and minds – just get the right people at the top . . . (Which is why I have no time as a Christian for politics – its not the Jesus way, and the temptation for us is that it takes our hearts and minds off Him, and our neighbour, and through the power of the internet focusses us on false hopes . . .)
But more – if you would be my disciple, to be God’s people – you also have to give up on your story . . . Jesus takes the story back to the start – into the deep waters of death . . . it is out of that that life emerges. Our story as I said last week is Life through death, when we try and avoid that we try and solidify Our existence protecting ourselves
The disciples looked on the glory of the Temple and said, what fine stones – and Jesus destroys it. All Their hard work . . . all their self justification, all their self righteousness, because God needs raw material to form a people for himself who perfectly reflect his Glory – that is the purpose of The Image of God, to Manifest God . . . it is the vocation of the Church, the Body of Christ – but we do like our Temple building projects, those things which give us a sense of self satisfaction – of course inscribe it AMDG. – to the great er glory of God, but the glory of God is revealed in the non people
Which leaves me thinking about us, the people of St John’s
We have a long and it may well be said ‘proud’ history . . . When I came here and folk outside the parish realised who I was, they would say ‘Oh! The new Vicar of St John’s’ As I got to know some of the history I realised what they were talking about – This parish had achieved so much, but also that it had a darker side. Over the years we had let go of the small weaker churches and retreated to the high ground. During a polio epidemic in the 1930s, the Vicar sent people round the parish, not to pray for people and to share bread, but to raise funds for the church . . . The question I have is, do we cling on in hope, looking for a Messiah who fits, or are we prepared ourselves to become once more the non-people, the raw material for New Creation . . . to let go of our ‘glorious’ past??
Like Peter, and like the Pharisees we are So given to ‘clinging on’ to whatever gives us security – but God can only work with those for whom He is their security . . .
Some years ago I spoke of Two cities in Northern England – Bradford and Leeds. Bradford lived long on past glories . . . and collapsed. This seems to me to be the story of the Anglican church, at least in our Tikanga,, less so in Tikanga Maori, MUCH less so amongst our Pasifika brothers and sisters . Those who are little are by far the most vibrant and alive
We live in a time of shattered illusions. We who talk so much of ‘bubbles’ don’t realise that what COVD has shown us is that we were living in a bubble. Our technological prowess and scientific knowhow was supposed to protect Us from all of that – flee from the virus deeper into our bubbles, even more divorced form the reality of the world by burning phenomenal amounts of fossil fuels and building houses insulated against the storms they created.
To be Safe in human terms is to be separated from God. In our Scientific technical bubble we were separated from God, although he got a look in now and then, the occasional prayer, but really it was our job to ‘bring in his kingdom – We created a world – so as the creator of the world was the centre of the story – – – we became the centre of our own story – in which we, of course were going to ‘bring in the Kingdom of God’, because of course it would never occur to us that we couldn’t, after all, look at the fabulous things we humans have done!
COVID amongst other things is shaking things up – do we cling on and try and climb higher and higher up the mountain securing ourself, or do we follow Jesus into the waters of death, and allow God to raise us and reform us – do we cling on, or do we let go, let go and Let God . . .?