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s103e03 Palm Sunday 13/4/03 Lockleys

"he emptied himself" Philippians 2.6

I was reflecting recently that as long as one proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God, one could then just about do anything. People from long and venerable traditions have just about advocated anything - from condemning anyone who is in any way different - to advocating environmental consciousness! (I shall resist the temptation to use the sentence which first came to my mind: from gay-bashing to tree hugging!) I have a good deal of sympathy with our Anglican tradition where we spend our time meekly kneeling on our knees, hoping the world and all it's difficulties will pass us by :-) I am reminded of Psalm 149 which says: "Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a two edged sword in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and chastisement upon the peoples!" (verses 6,7) How exceedingly convenient this is! Recently one of the television channels had a collage of scenes from the war, and one picture was of the Pope, head in his hands, deep in prayer &endash; but more likely despairing how this war came to be and how could such suffering be averted. Why would anyone want to be a Pope or a Prime Minister!

There seems to be a fundamental discontinuity between the Cross and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and a clear and unmistakable ethical path. If there is no clear and unmistakable ethical path, it seems to me that the Cross and resurrection was and is all a bit of a waste of time!

But in our lessons it is quite plain that whatever Jesus was doing, the religious authorities were highly affronted. They could not dismiss Jesus as someone who was deranged, deluded or mistaken. Whatever he did, they could not ignore it. Jesus gave them no option. We can be in no doubt but that his actions were so affronting he had to be killed. The Cross was no mistake, a piece of "friendly fire", which everyone instantly and sincerely regretted.

The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah ends with the challenges: "Who will contend with me? Who are my adversaries? Who will declare me guilty?".

The epistle reading centres around the Cross, perpetrated by the religious authorities, people who knew precisely what they were doing - or at least they thought they did!

And the passion reading makes it quite clear that it was the religious rather than the civil authorities who instigated Jesus' death. Pilate is pictured as merely bowing to their wishes.

And if we do not notice the paradigm that the religious authorities are less accepting of difference than the civil authorities - we miss an important point. I was speaking to a colleague recently about a priest who, after a long and fruitful ministry, left the Church embittered. I have no doubt that it had nothing to do with how people were or were not proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but how people treated others, that caused this embitterment.

In his very helpful book "Ethics and the New Testament" J. L. Houlden concludes "Even if the diversity of New Testament teaching is pulped into a plausible uniformity ... , and the context in which the teaching was formulated is ignored, circumstances often make its straightforward following well-nigh impossible ... or pose new questions on which the New Testament offers no direct guidance."  (p115)   In fact he does say "In search for an answer to our question, the reason for the hostility to Jesus is one of the most important avenues open to us ... We take it that Jesus was opposed and executed for his teaching on questions related to  ... religious belief."   He even goes as far as to ask: "Our question then is: what is that teaching likely to have been?"  (p109,110)

Now the very fact that one can do really anything - just so long as one proclaims "Jesus is Lord" seems to suggest to me that there is a good deal of denial going on. From the human point of view, the discontinuity between the Cross and resurrection and a clear ethical agenda is entirely intentional. My suspicious mind tells me that people want to push their own barrows rather than doing what the Lord wants. Indeed my experience is that people often not only want to push their own barrow, but they want other people to help push it too. It becomes a competition to get everyone else to do what *they* want.

I was reflecting recently that from God's point of view (with heartfelt apologies to Bishop John Spong who rightly tells us we should cease to think of God as a person "up there") - the church and our Synods must sometimes appear to God a bit like the Gadarene demoniac, all these different voices competing for dominance &endash; a terror to themselves and likewise to those around. One needs to be very confident of the love of Jesus to retain one's sanity in such a situation! If this is how people perceive the Church then it hardly commends itself to the general populace. People might as well do the variety of things they want without any reference to God at all &endash; effectively it doesn't make an awful lot of difference.

So proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" actually isn't the Christian message, and indeed, why we should we believe the perpetrators of his death that they would have given us the real reason they did what they did? - they are much more likely to have given an excuse. I mean that is what I do when I do something stupid or wrong.

And Jesus wasn't killed for proclaiming a new ethic like "love one another" - though this is obviously closer to the mark. One doesn't kill someone for saying something like this. One writes such people off as naive and idealistic and gets on with doing what one wants, when one wants.

I have no doubt that Jesus was killed because he said that God didn't differentiate between tax collectors and sinners and the religious elite. The whole hierarchical system of good and bad people, saints and sinners, compliant and recalcitrant people, was in fact entirely meaningless in God's eyes! Jesus effectively said that the whole religious agenda and framework built up over the centuries was meaningless to God. Everything they thought was important - indeed vital for the salvation of all - in fact meant nothing to God. Jesus proclaimed by word and deed that God accepted others as readily as God accepted them. Their positions of power and authority over others were simply swept away - and that was why Jesus was so dangerous and had to be eliminated. Jesus was killed because he emptied himself and in doing so deflated the self important pretensions of the hierarchy.

So the real reason Jesus was killed immediately gives us a clear ethical agenda to follow - we are to accept others and ourselves as equally precious in God's eyes. Jesus had an agenda, but not about how we relate to him or to God, but how we accept other people. And let me say that this is a parish where this acceptance is particularly evident.

But let me finish by putting it around the other way. This Holy Week let us rejoice that God accepts us as readily as God accepts Pope John Paul the second, Mother Theresa, even the Blessed Virgin Mary - let us rejoice and live in the light and joy towards all others that this knowledge brings. Amen.




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