s047g99 Somerton Park Sunday 14 4/7/99

" ... no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Matthew 11:27.

This is one of those classic texts, words of Jesus himself, that seems to proclaim the exclusive claims of Christianity above every other religion, faith and creed. It is so very easy to assume, on the basis of these words that we "know" the Father because Jesus himself has shown us. We can go on to assume that no one else knows the Father, because Jesus hasn't shown them. This fact is "obvious", because they do not acknowledge Jesus in the same terms as we do ourselves. It seems all very cut and dried, black and white.

However it doesn't take much to see that such a black and white interpretation is not only unlikely - it is not just counter productive - actually it is fatal.

In the context, Jesus contrasted Chorazin and Bethsaida with Tyre and Sidon; and Capernaum with Sodom.

We might have thought that Jesus might well have contrasted Jerusalem with Tyre and Sidon - because it was, we are apt to think, the religious Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem and the "movers and shakers" in society who had Jesus crucified. It is just so easy to blame the politicians and the hierarchy for our woes. It comes as quite a shock to realise that the people criticised here are 130 kms north of Jerusalem "as the crow flies". They are not likely to be towns where the temple authorities or the court officials made their homes. They are ordinary people like you and me who are being criticised. It is a bit like saying that if Jesus frequented Kings Cross rather than Somerton Park, the people in Kings Cross would have responded and been saved. (Kings Cross is the "red light" district in Sydney - and I only use this example because while we have our "red light" districts, there not quite so famous :-)

Again, we are apt to forget that the first attempt on the life of Jesus was not the successful one in Jerusalem by the political and religious authorities, but an unsuccessful one in Jesus' own home town of Nazareth - and by people who knew his family - members of the local synagogue - the very same one in which he would have spent his whole life worshipping. (Luke 4.28-30). There is hardly likely to have been any of the political or religious establishment there either. Indeed it is probably precisely because of his rejection in his home town of Nazareth, that Jesus' ministry centres around Bethsaida and Capernaum, 40 kms further north.

Sodom has, of course, come down to us as a byword for all sorts of depravity. I was interested to hear pointed out recently at the Provincial Conference workshop on sexuality, that the Old Testament opinion as to why Sodom was destroyed by God were in fact quite different from what we presume. Perhaps the clearest one is Ezekiel 16.49: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Not a Freudian slip in sight :-)

So it was the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum who, at least didn't try to kill him, and where his main ministry centred, that Jesus was here criticising. Ordinary lay people they were.

We can of course be rather depressed by this. In the past we were taught that we became a Christian, and as long as we were certain of our own faith, we would be "saved". Jesus seems to turn everything upside down and make us question the certainty of our own salvation, just when we thought we were OK. But this cannot be Jesus' purpose either.

Jesus tells us that his "yoke is easy", his "burden is light". Wading our way through the psychological dilemma of being confident of our salvation or despairing of it, sounds like a pretty hard yoke to me - and something quite beyond the normal comprehension of infants, I would have thought.

We start, as all disciples start, with the recognition that we have been accepted. The invitation in verse 17 of our reading is addressed to one and to all. "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn." There is an interesting difference between light and sound, from a purely scientific point of view. Sound doesn't travel in straight lines quite like light does. Sound goes around corners very easily, whereas light shines only where it is directed. So the invitation comes through music, because sound travels around corners. Focussing on Jesus as the light admits the possibility that the light may not reach some nooks and crannies, simply because other things might get in the way, or that the light was not pointed in the right direction. That is not the case with the invitation through music, which gets around obstacles very easily. As I write this, I have given myself cause to reevaluate my general agnosticism about Church bells.

The purpose of John the Baptist coming was again in invitation, but "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'", so the Son of Man comes, again in invitation "eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Mat 11:17-19) The invitation is not to "repent", to "change" or become something one isn't - but simply to join in with others. Both John and Jesus were sent, quite different in their spiritualities, that everyone, of whatever moral persuasion, might hear the invitation.

So the paradigm has changed. No longer is it that we have to somehow earn enough moral, spiritual or ethical "brownie points" to get into heaven. Heaven is open to one and to all, saint and sinner. The table is spread, the band is playing - do we want to join in, or do we want to stand outside, complaining that the doors are open too wide? At the Mothers' Union day of reflection a week or so ago, the comment was made how often in the Bible the kingdom of God is pictured as a feast - and I reflect how pervasive are the smells of good cooking. A couple of weeks ago Catherine made some "potato and leek" soup, and I was astonished how I could smell the leeks in the house for a couple of days afterwards - the result of what I had assumed was a quite bland vegetable.

Ah! Some might say - what about Jesus saying about the gate being narrow? Indeed Jesus does, but again we need to look at the words in context. The passage is Matthew 7. 12-15, where he says: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." Sadly it seems so many do take the way of climbing over others - it does seem easy and logical - and has existed long before Darwin coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest". Are we to imitate the animal kingdom or transcend it? The "narrow gate" is taking the initiative and valuing others, for surely that is what we would have others do to us. Valuing others for their own sake is about as opposite as you can get to being a ravening wolf, I would have thought.

Do we "get on" in Christianity over others - like Buddhists, Hindu's or the ancient people of God, the Jews.

As "Christians" we surely know that Jesus has made it easy for us. In the Cross and resurrection, we have been forgiven - though again - only as we forgive others. Every barrier, real or imagined, that could have barred us from entering the kingdom is done away with - and if that is true for us it is true for everyone else. These are the deeds of power done in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum of which Jesus speaks. Had they been done in Tyre and Sidon or in Sodom of old they would have accepted the invitation to join in the dance and the feast. Somehow the residents of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were content enough to have Jesus do some miraculous things, but as for joining in with others, that was another question.

Again at an occasion I attended, I was reminded again of how frequently I hear John 14.6 used as if Jesus stands between us and God keeping people away from God - the heavenly "bouncer". I actually think I hear this verse used, in my view, in quite the opposite way to which it was intended, more than I hear the classical summary of the ministry of Jesus - John 3.16: "For God so loved the world .."

I am very grateful to a member of the clergy, very much a kindred spirit to me, who recently said that they felt rather alone in this proclamation of the gospel, and I would say the same - it often feels like that to me too. And yet as I have thought about those words, that promise of Jesus: "When two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" came to me, but in the opposite way to which they were intended. It is my suspicion that these are often taken as words of comfort by a church seemingly in decline. "Well at least we've got Jesus which they don't have!" Or: "At least we've got right on our side". Or: "With Jesus we will prevail over the heathens around about us". It's "them and us" again. How sad when again in the context it is all about working to break down barriers: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one ... For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" (Matthew 18:15, 20-21).

My experience is that when two or three are gathered - particularly if they are Anglicans - they are most likely to be gossiping about someone else :-)

It takes only one person to love, and that surely is all that we are bidden to do. It doesn't take a theological degree or a funny collar ... It is us who are sent as individuals to love others. It is a temptation, certainly for me, if for no one else, to set myself up as a leader to gather a group around myself to beat an opposition group into submission.

We as individuals and rather alone, know Jesus in that aloneness and rather unfashionable desire of trying to love, rather than win or be boss over others. It is much more up to us whether we want to join in the dance, that ever it was the case of whether we or anyone else "measured up" or not.

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