The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s001e04 Lockleys Advent 1 28/11/2004
'put on the Lord Jesus Christ' Romans 13.14
I was interested to listen to an evangelical sermon recently. It was encouraging the listeners to become more Christ-like. This involved specifically forgiving other people who had harmed them. All fairly standard and straightforward, you might think; except that the congregation was made up of refugees from the Sudan, and the preacher was Australian.
I could well imagine that some in the congregation would find it extraordinarily difficult to forgive those who had raped, murdered and dispossessed they and their loved ones, back in Africa. I could well imagine some in the congregation, as they listened to this well-meaning preacher, believing that they were beyond redemption because they could not forgive as they were being told to do.
As I listened to the sermon, my mind went back to those words from Jesus in Matthew: 'If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled' [Matt 5.23,24]. I wish that Jesus had said 'something legitimate'. None of us are meant to spend our lives placating our siblings - that isn't what being a Christian is all about.
And the saying about forgiveness, seventy seven times. I'm sure that Jesus doesn't mean for us to forgive even before any forgiveness is sought.
How easy it is for preachers to pontificate to a congregation as to how they should live their lives, when the gospel is actually how people are accepted!
The gospel is about Jesus breaking down religious divisions. So the preacher correctly spoke about being in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek; no Sudanese or Australian. I would want to agree and say even further, that in Christ there is no Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or agnostic. I'm not sure that this preacher has felt these words call him to forgive religious differences.
It is a religious dictum; that people should forget about their offering to God and be reconciled, not a personal dictum. God is less interested in the quality of our or anyone else's offering to heaven; for quality read orthodoxy; God is far more interested in how we get on with others. And we neatly get around this if we discriminate on religious grounds. So we need to forgive others that they do not call on God using the same name as we do. We are called to forgive others when they worship in a different manner to ourselves. We are called to ponder how much religious infighting has lead many to be atheists or agnostics. If we are called to forgive seven times seventy, does not God do likewise; to others as well as ourselves; even those who have no faith?
So what is this putting on of the Lord Christ Jesus? It must surely mean that we too are noted for the diversity of people with whom we associate. If this is what we are meant to do, then I will wholeheartedly agree.
Of course it is a good thing to not let ourselves wallow in an unforgiving nature. But you don't need me to tell you this. Wars are not caused by the unforgiving, but by manipulative and power hungry people, who will use whatever for their own desires.
The good news is God does not stand between us and others; the good news is that God brings diverse people together. Good news for others, for us too, as well as for the well-being of all society.
Again I recall many years ago being told that as Christians we are saved through our personal relationship with Jesus, not through education. And in one sense I agree with this; for our personal relationship with Jesus inevitably brings us into relationships with all sorts of other people. If it doesn't, then I'm not sure if your Jesus and mine are the same!
It is precisely this multitude of relationships that bring us salvation, and is likely to foster peace also. But in the process of coming into relationship with others, we will indeed learn as well. It is true that we can study the Bible and other manuals, and not realize the possibility of relationships either.
If salvation is simply personal, that I continue on eternally, I am not sure that this is worth having; if it is at the cost of the world continuing to be wracked by war. If salvation actually means something about all of humanity, that humanity is able to live in peace, then I would gladly sacrifice my own personal relationship with God to bring this about. I'm sure that each and every one of you would too. I am not suggesting that I'm any better than anyone else here.
It is not the first time that this has happened to me; to hear a sermon which the preacher would think that I as a "liberal" would entirely disagree, when in fact I would want the preacher to listen to his or her own words and take them even more radically.
So while I might personally baulk at the phrase "put on the Lord Jesus" it is because it is so often assumed that this means separation from others, a spiritual one-upmanship, or one-up-person-ship :-). Correctly understood, putting on Jesus surely must mean something which has the possibility to transform our society into that utopia that Isaiah is given to proclaim. When "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9) (We will read these words in next Sunday's first reading.) Is this not what we all want? Is not this worth working for? Is not this what God promises? All we have to do is to stop working against it, when our own personal interests might be threatened and in particular, our (supposed) religious superiority.
When we look at Christianity in this way, we begin to see that the things that we do naturally are the things that are important to God. We do not have to be cajoled to accept those from different faith traditions amongst us. Indeed as we have contact with the variety of cultures from which Australia has been made up, we really appreciate the different contributions others make to our society.
People from other faith traditions are not likely to break the law, and similarly, we have nothing to fear from the vast majority of the socially aware atheists and agnostics among our community.
The people we do have to fear are those who do not treat others kindly. Those who make up bikie gangs and peddle drugs are useful people to avoid. But similarly we might care to avoid those who would put us down religiously. People who are not quite sure that WE measure up to God's standards, unless ..
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