The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s028a05 Lockleys Fifth Sunday of Easter Anzac Day 24/4/2005
"they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him." Acts 7.58
We need to be clear just who "they" were. "They" were the High Priest and the Council after hearing Stephen expound of the history of Israel from Abraham to Solomon (Acts 7.1-50). The people who did this therefore were entirely convinced that they were acting in the name of their God by stoning Stephen. This point is reinforced by the statement that they "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul". Saul was the one who continued this misplaced persecution in the name of God. They murdered someone who used scripture in a manner that didn't suit them. And how often have we been ready to dismiss the exegesis of scripture of someone else when it doesn't suit us. Of course the words of scripture is just one example of a multitude of criterion one could use to dismiss someone else as irrelevant when it doesn't suit us.
We can get awfully confused as to what these passages of scripture mean for us, particularly at a time when we rightly remember the sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand service personnel in the wars. And I must say that I suggest that those who have served our country in assisting the victims of the tsunami and earthquakes in Indonesia deserve some sort of medal.
We see Stephen martyred for his faith and the command to accept unjust suffering in the name of the Lord by Peter. We may conclude that whatever we do or don't do, we will always be criticized, and we just have to put up with it.
Indeed some may legitimately claim to accept the authority of the state no matter what, leads to such disasters as the Gallipoli debacle, which forms such a definitive place in the psyche of Australians and our larrikinism, that we celebrate at this time. We know all too well that blunders that can originate from on high. (For those who are unaware of the campaign, the legend focuses on the bravery of the soldiers and on how the Australian and New Zealand troops successfully extricated themselves from a total massacre (http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/anzac/evacuation.htm Winston Churchill, who advocated this campaign, resigned as a result.)
Let us be quite clear, when Jesus says: "I will do whatever you ask in my name" we will obviously be doing things that Jesus himself would do. We will be doing things like accepting the contributions others make to God, having communion with a wide variety of people, so wide that others are astonished, and forgiving others. If we lift people to their feet, allowing them to stand before the Almighty and continue to use their brains and intellect, then again, we are likely to do what God would have us do. There is little point in persecuting others in the name of Christ, and keeping others in their place. We cannot ask God or Christ to help us do things that God would not want to happen. We might ask God all we like for help to rob a bank, but no matter how sincere our prayer or the use to which we might make with the proceeds, God cannot help us. It is a waste of time asking.
My reference to the Anzacs leads me to say that there is a point in trying to stop someone else persecuting others. So it was appropriate that the world opposed Hitler in his persecution and subjugation of the Jews, gypsies, gays and the disabled. There is a place for opposing the wicked, though surely war should always be a last resort, because no side gets off scot-free. It is the innocent who usually do the most suffering.
So we cannot use the words of St Peter about "accepting the authority of every human institution" to mean that we turn a blind eye to oppressive regimes. Indeed those who oppose the war in Iraq most strenuously are the ones who often it seems least respect authority.
This message has particular relevance to us as Australians. The European settlement of this country began when those who were of the (very respectable) aristocracy in Britain decided that (often petty) criminals (legitimately trying to provide for themselves and their families) should learn the importance of the commandment "thou shalt not steal" somewhere else.
We have no need to act against anyone who thinks differently from ourselves, but we are called to oppose those who oppress others.
We have to honour everyone, except those who would belittle others.
Indeed how can we honour someone who, in the name of Christ belittles other people, females, gay people, and, you know young people who are (by definition) just so disrespectful?!? I was interested to hear someone who got quite upset that our local "Messenger" paper described some offenders as "students" when the article gave their ages as well over 20. "Honour everyone" applies not just to young people, to honour their elders; it applies just as much to the older generation, to honour young people. It applies to Anglo Catholics who should honour Evangelicals and Charismatics, and to Evangelicals and Charismatics likewise. If this were not true, then the words of scripture are only for 'other' people, and this really is fairly unlikely.
Honouring someone encourages them, lifts them up and allows them to grow. We might think that being dismissive, particularly towards those who are poor, young, or otherwise defenceless, might not be physically dragging them outside and stoning them, but it might feel like that to them.
Again, the message of these readings is not especially clear. We have to use our God-given brains to work out what we ought to do in a particular situation. If we are in the armed forces we might have little choice but to obey the orders given to us and hope that good will somehow come out of it. Those who are pacifists might do well to remember this. Not everyone is in the situation where they can choose a course of action.
As I have been reflecting, there is both a personal and a religious component to our faith. Jesus certainly came to reform the religion of the ancient people of God. It was this desire, rather than any personal moral message, for which he was killed. Yet often the specifics of our faith, the doctrines we teach, serve only to distance ourselves from others, when our faith ought to bring us into fellowship with others.
Our faith is not personal either, in the sense of "Jesus is a friend of mine, praise him" for Jesus is everyone's friend. It was precisely for this indiscriminate friendship that he was killed.
But again we take our faith personally, in that we try to do the right thing, and of course I'm not suggesting we shouldn't continue to try, but I have no doubt that those who killed Jesus and Stephen, did precisely the same as us. Even when we include our acknowledgement of the forgiveness of God, we are still living by the same paradigm.
It is only the fact that Jesus accepted others that his faith differed from those who killed him, and therefore this should be the primary and obvious mark of being a Christian. We have no cause to dismiss others in the name of Christ,
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