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s127e12  Sunday 15  15/7/2012

'we have redemption through his blood'   Ephesians 1.7

I usually preach on the gospel for the day, but I think I'll give the beheading of John the Baptist a miss this time.   The gospel leaves us in no doubt that Herod was really at the mercy of others, somewhat religious in his own way, and a victim of his own weakness.   It is too easy to point the finger of derision at him, and likewise to all unchurched, as if the difficulties of this world stem from ignorant unbelievers.   If this were Jesus' message he would have been made high priest, not killed by the orthodox and the devout.  

There are many parts of the Bible and the New Testament which are distinctly un-edifying.   For instance, I have great difficulty with the story of Sampson which we are reading in our morning prayer at the moment.   He seems a thoroughly spoilt brat with no more moral compunction than a Mafia godfather.   The reason for the inclusion of this story in the Bible is mystifying to me.   The comment that 'his father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord' (Judges 14.4) seems to justify bullying in the name of the Lord.   I can only conclude that for the ancient people whose lives and livelihoods were so much more at the mercy of the forces of nature, the constant reassurance that God's providence behind all that happens was necessary for their sanity.   However I refuse to believe that the holocaust was part of God's mysterious plan, nor the present continuing poverty, illness and premature death of millions in third world countries through the forbidding of effective contraception.   Why on earth would someone claim that the State shouldn't intervene to stop this abuse of religious power?   There is nothing 'mystical' about raw power and systemic arrogance.   Religious freedom?   Hitler could well have used this excuse and he was a rank amateur in comparison!  

We live in a world where we have choices to make rather than rules to follow.   This is a function of a God who loves rather than a demon that demands our compliance.   We are surely to learn from the bullying in the Bible rather than simply replicating it.

For all bullying is about one who is selfish and arrogant, who blinds themselves to the legitimate existence of another and through force gets the other to accommodate the bully rather than changing to accommodate the other.

And this is the essence of having been redeemed by the blood of Jesus.   Jesus was killed by the orthodox and the devout, who selfishly and arrogantly kept God to themselves, blind to the legitimate existence of the poor and who believed that everyone had to become devout and orthodox like themselves to be acceptable to God.   We are redeemed from sanctified selfishness, from bullying in the name of God.   This is what salvation is all about.

As we read St Paul, we need to realise the power of his words: 'With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.'   (Ephesians 1.8b-10)   This gathering up, this unity, implies an absence of bullying, selfishness, arrogance, blindness and inertia.   It implies a God who gathers all things into a communion of equals.

It is only this that makes St Paul's panegyric of God and the readers actually believable.   If we are not saved from bullying and sanctified selfishness, why would anyone praise God?   If God exists to initiate, continue and condone bullying and sanctified selfishness, then this ‘god’ needs to be despised rather than followed, and any congregation that followed such a demon shunned rather than commended.   If we are not saved from the ritualised bloodshed in both the Old Testament and the New, then we have nothing to offer the world, whatever we believe to be the inherency of the words therein.

This congregation in Ephesus had been blessed with the knowledge of the mystery of God's will.   In reality it is hidden only to those who refuse to see, those who want to continue to bully others.   This congregation was commended for not only knowing the will of God, but acting appropriately in response to that knowledge by being a congregation of equals, where bullying and sanctified selfishness was absent.   They were a blessing in themselves and they were a blessing to the community in which they were incarnated, because they acknowledged that their equality extended to those outside the congregation as well as those inside.   Others were treated equally as 'every human being has infinite worth and a unique value as a child of God'.   Both of these directions are vital.

St Paul’s words: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’ must be put with his later words: ‘for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.’  (1 Corinthians 15:19,22)   If our exercise of our Christian vocation is only about me and my eternal salvation, I am most to be pitied, because the gospel has nothing to do with my personal salvation.   It is only when we and all people are saved from sanctified selfishness, both ours and others, that we can expect any commendation from God, for it will only be then that the world will be a more merciful place.

Most often we want to make the church a welcoming and friendly place and hope that by doing this that others might be attracted into our fellowship.   But it is only when we acknowledge 'every human being has infinite worth and a unique value as a child of God' that others will want to join as equals.

The other personal thing I have come to realise is that it is important for me to be critical of the Church for it enables others to voice their own perceptions, criticisms and fears within the church context.   If the church is not a place where we can actually express ourselves then the church ceases to be a place of growth.   I continue to prepare sermons, even when I am not actually preaching to a ‘real’ congregation but only my ‘virtual’ one, because expressing myself has enabled me to grow in my faith.   When we are busy shutting out the voices of ordinary people – scientists marvelling that they’ve found evidence of the Higgs Boson, couples rejoicing in their intimacy, surfers in their connection to the waves, trampers in the grandeur of the mountains, gardeners in the contentment of the soil, bakers kneading dough - we consider our children are to be ‘seen and not heard’ – we are abusing them.   When we are saying that the only way to experience God is through the risen Christ after a personal experience of our own sinfulness and forgiven-ness, then we are being selfish, arrogant, blind and inert.   We are not considering others to be of 'infinite worth and of unique value as a child of God'.

Recently in a group, I was moved to comment that the second of the ten commandments is 'You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.   You shall not bow down to them or worship them ..'  (Exodus 20.4,5)   This commandment has often been thought of as applying to paintings and sculptures of the Almighty and has lead Judaism and Christianity to be religions of words rather than art.   But this neglects the fact that one can easily paint a picture of God with words.   Ezekiel (chapter 1) has a damned good try!    I contend that the church has made her creeds into word pictures of God, essentially breaking the second of the commandments and alienating others who 'see' God differently to us.   The second of the commandments is about the provisionality of every picture of God, including those of the conservative evangelical.  

If 'we have redemption through his blood' implies only that we are freed from our sins, this is essentially selfish, sanctified selfishness in the name of God.   If we don't get it right for all our scriptural and theological expertise, why would we criticise real people?   Surely 'we have redemption through his blood' means that we are freed to love and respect others who call God by a different name, see God in different terms, worship God in different places and styles to us.

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