The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s022o06 St Barnabas Orange East Good Friday 14/4/2006
"Gedeliah .. swore to them .. saying "Do not be afraid to serve the Caldeans. Stay in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall go well with you." Jer 40.9
This is a very odd place to start a sermon for Good Friday, but I read these words some weeks ago and I suddenly made the connection that these words have with the New Testament acceptance of slavery. Servitude for the nation of Israel was most often the time when God blessed them. Things went "belly-up" for them when they had got settled in the promised land.
So when Israel was in Egypt, God blessed them. Of course this very blessing meant that they became numerous and the Egyptians began to fear them.
Gedeliah, in my text for today, speaking in words that the prophet Jeremiah would thoroughly approve, tells the people who had just been conquered by the king of Babylon, when some had been taken into exile and some of the poorest left in the land -- that God would bless them while they were in exile and in servitude, and so it was. But the message that he brought did not do him any good personally -- he was murdered soon after.
So the lesson for the ancient people of God is that for all their religious devotion -- if they wanted to be self sufficient, independent and distinct from others -- then this was not when God blessed them. They were blessed and they were a blessing to others when they were in the very midst of others -- when they were not in charge.
The life story of the good person, Job, also tells us that for all our religious undertakings and our good deeds to others -- these also are no guarantee that nothing ill will ever happen to us -- that we can be self sufficient, independent and distinct from others.
Often Christians look to those lovely words of St Paul: "God works everything for good for those who love him" as some sort of personal reassurance that provided that they come to church each week -- no ill will befall them -- and quietly forget that the prime example of where this didn't happen was in the life of Jesus. The Cross of Jesus was the most ignominious and painful of deaths, and Jesus could hardly have thought that it was much good for him personally.
So if we portray Christianity, or indeed the following of any faith as a way where no ill will ever befall to us -- that material prosperity, health and self-sufficiency will be ours -- then I am not at all sure that the Biblical witness supports this in the case of either Judaism or Christianity.
Why on earth then would I commend anyone to become a Christian?
As I visit the various wards in the hospitals to which I am appointed, more often than not I find I am blessed by the conversations I have. There are times when I would prefer to sit in a quiet space and do a sermon, just as I am doing at this moment. But in the wards, I am going into unfamiliar territory, meeting people, some of whom I have met before, some of whom I remember their names, some will be in a different ward or a different bed, some will have returned from elsewhere, some will hope that I will remember the personal story that they told me a week ago. Some will be too sick to talk, some will be scared that I am trying to convert them, some will bear much resentment towards the Church -- and often, I hasten to add, for very good reasons. In amidst all the possibility that I will make a complete hash of everything, most people are also forgiving and accepting of my limitations. I am definitely not in charge of the course of the conversations. Yet so often I feel blessed.
It is not a guarantee that I myself will not become ill and I am certainly not self-sufficient. I certainly am not looking for material wealth or status over others.
It is in my commonality with other people that this feeling of blessedness comes. I know that this feeling of blessedness is shared by people every where -- of all religions and of none. People who have taken the advise of Gedeliah who said: "Do not be afraid to serve .. it shall go well with you."
But how does all this relate to the event that we commemorate today, the death of Jesus on that Cross? What does our commonality with other people have to do with our atonement with God?
If you look at the reasons those who had Jesus killed gave for their actions, it is recorded in the Bible that they did what they did because of a charge of blasphemy -- that Jesus claimed God was his father in a special and unique way. I would put to you however that it is no disrespect to the words of scripture when I suggest that this was an excuse. This wasn't the real reason they had Jesus' killed. The real reason that they had Jesus killed was because he continued to associate with "tax collectors and sinners", and not just "them".
Last Tuesday week ago I read that parable about the wedding feast that will be as familiar to you as it is to me. It was where those initially invited had better things to do. And if you or I were invited to a party and didn't want to go, we too make excuses -- that we have a prior engagement or whatever. But the excuses these people give are excuses -- they do not give the real reason they don't want to attend. The real reason that they don't want to attend is that the host has the habit of inviting others there, others with whom they did not want to be associated. They separate themselves off from the commonality of all people in the eyes of God.
So our atonement with God has got nothing to do with how well or ill we are; how self sufficient, independent and distinct from others we are, but how each and every one of us shares the commonality of being human, that no-one is self sufficient, and everyone is dependent on one another.
In the events of today, Jesus was at the mercy of others; yet we often use our Christian faith to avoid being at the mercy of others. We want to be in control, we want to be the "givers" in a situation. We find it uncomfortable to be in a place where others are looking after us and where we are the recipients of the help of others. One of our chief fears for our old age is that we will not be able to do for ourselves and we will have to accept the help of others. But is perhaps precisely here that we could, if we were but to perceive, when we are the most blessed.
So if we sing "Lift high the Cross" loudly as if this is going to save us from ill ever befalling us, and that we are always going to be in control, self sufficient, independent and distinct from others, then I think we haven't got the message of Good Friday, and the blessings we expect that we can claim as Christians will turn out to be a sham.
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