The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s108e06 Fifth Sunday of Easter
"those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars" 1 John 4.20
St John doesn't 'pussy-foot' here. He doesn't mince his words. He is neither the theologian in the ivory tower, nor the bare footed, long haired hippie, proclaiming free love. St John is well aware that people come to church, synagogue and temple to pray to God to destroy their brothers and sisters. The psalms are full of such petitions.
I was taken aback the other day to read the words of the risen Jesus to the bewildered disciples on the road to Emmaus: "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!" (Luke 24.25) remembering that Jesus himself spoke strongly against anyone calling another a "fool" (Matthew 5.24). Even Jesus had difficulty keeping all of his own commandments, as did St Paul (1 Corinthians 15.36)!
How many of us really secretly hate those who don't come to Church. We envy those who sleep in on Sunday mornings and of course think that they are not doing their bit by giving to the church and the community as regularly as we do. We happily consign them to hell -- they will get their just deserts and we mentally rub our hands in glee at the prospect!
I was interested to read in John Macquarrie's book his description of the "classical view of atonement .. clearly expressed in the New Testament .. a battle against the demons that afflict the life of (people)" quoting passages in Colossians 1 and 2. He then critiques AulÚn's rehabilitation of the classical view taking the reader into the realms of idolatry, which he concludes with the statement "It is surely not over pessimistic to see this state of affairs as specially characteristic of the technological era, when indeed new gods have come in of late." (p287,8)
For me this is to fail to see that the primary conflict Jesus had -- was with those who most ostensibly loved God the most. It was the most devout who were scandalized by who Jesus was and what he said and did -- mixing with those who were not as devout as them -- scandalized enough to have him killed. To fail to see this is to far too quickly find a modern analogy in technology -- something that is agnostic to the divine -- is also to fail to critique modern church life when we essentially hate those who do not believe like we do, or support us.
John Macquarrie here recognizes that this is a turning point in his whole treatise when he begins his next section (#49 The Atonement and its Application p290) with the words: "There is a sense in which one could say that the remainder of this book will be devoted to answering the questions raised at the end of the preceding chapter .." -- questions based on the perception of a battle against demons and idolatry -- primarily found outside the community of the faithful. I suspect that his pessimism is well founded. He has no "good news" for those outside the community of the faithful, which surely is the foundation of our faith.
Someone said to me once, or perhaps I read it somewhere -- I've forgotten -- but doing the same thing in the same way over and over again, and expecting that this next time the result will be different and finally what I want -- is actually a sign of mental illness. And this made me think of the Church. We too do things again and again, in the same old ways and we still get the same negative responses .. Is it possible that the Church is mentally ill? Certainly mental illness and erroneous belief are inextricably intertwined. To return to the opposition Jesus faced. Were those who ostensibly loved God so much, actually those afflicted by demons, those who made an idol of their religion?
I have often had cause to think in recent times how I was brought up in the era when "children were to be seen and not heard" and realized how much that this is a form of abuse. I rejoice that young people these days are encouraged to be confident, to stand before others and make their contribution.
But then I reflect on the church of which I am a member that so often reveres the ways of the past and pooh-hoos anything modern. I am reminded of those words of Jude "In the last time there will be scoffers .." (18) and scoffers essentially deny the possibility that God could be working through anyone but them ..
I exist in a world surrounded by technology in both of the two hospitals where I visit. It is salutary to think that 50 years ago most of the people I visit would in fact be dead. People have "stents" put in their arteries; double, triple, quadrupal bypasses (I've lost count ;-); dialysis; chemo- and radiotherapy; replacement knees and hips; not to mention the range of drugs available for those with mental illnesses. I think of how my refugee friends from southern Sudan are grateful for the simple food on their tables, clean water, simple drugs for common illnesses, freedom from fear ..
I have just ordered a new laptop that will be 24 times faster than a desktop computer I bought in 1995 and have 80 times the storage capacity.
Ian Warden writing in the last edition of my favourite magazine "Eureka Street" explains his conversion from 55 years of loving real books to someone who is getting "as much pleasure from the screen as from the page" as he explores the power of the ubiquitous "Google" search engine. (May-June 2006 p42) Significantly when I went to use Google to get the specifications of my first computer, an Apple 11c I bought in 1983 to compare it with the one I am buying; that machine is so out of date there is no reference to it at all on the Internet. In my last parish one of our older parishioners (OBE -- over bl..dy eighty :-) was given a used Apple by one of her family to type out her letters, She gave her typing on floppy to her children who sent them off as e-mail to her relatives overseas. Here was someone embracing modern technology with both hands.
The shear volume of information and opinion available on the internet is astonishing, and I have commented before that the recent upsurge in terrorism is partly the result of religious groups finding their hold on people slipping away as this communications revolution liberates many, otherwise isolated, people. The Reformation (which at least some people in the church think was a "good thing") entirely depended on the technological revolution that preceded it -- the invention of printing. So the liberation that the internet and technology bring will be similarly profound, and it will not be without cost and opposition.
Health and communication are both things that lift people to their feet and to use their brains, and as such they are good things and they are of God. My text for today invites us to love our brothers and sisters -- to lift others to their feet by allowing others to use their brains to make choices which may well be different from our own -- not to put them down as non-Christians or non-Anglicans when they faithfully follow God in paths strangely quite different from our own.
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