The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s133e06 St Barnabas Orange East Sunday 21 27/8/2006
'an ambassador in chains' Ephesians 6.20
Obviously in the circles in which Paul mixed there was no such thing as diplomatic immunity :-)!
I have been reflecting recently how both the Jewish and Christian faiths are no recipes for success!
For the ancient people of God, the prophets and the psalmist try to plumb the reasons for the overthrow first of the northern ten tribes and later of the southern two tribes including the holy city of Jerusalem. But it is not just on the corporate level that this applies. The book of Job tries to plumb the reasons for the failure of God to bless the personal holiness and charity of Job with success. As I thought about this it came to me that the northern ten tribes represent synagogue worship based on the words of the Torah whereas the southern two tribes represent temple worship based on sacrifices. Neither is a recipe for success. So when we find in the Anglican Church the evangelical / biblical based spirituality pitted against the sacerdotal / ritual based spirituality -- we can assume that neither of these are any recipe for success either.
When we turn to the New Testament the 'high point' is the crucifixion of Jesus -- the ultimate failure even of the Son of God whose piety, holiness and sinlessness is unquestioned -- and so similarly these are no guarantee of success. The greatest of the apostles, Paul (if he is indeed the author of the letter to the Ephesians), has to admit that he himself is an ambassador in chains. One of his classic statements is: 'We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.' Romans 8.28 However this didn't hold true for Jesus himself!
I suppose that by 'success' I mean the passing of some sort of test or criterion to 'get into heaven'. In the past it seemed as if there were lots of written and unwritten criteria for admission. One had to be white, Anglo-Celtic, straight, male, educated, regular in Church, apologetic, gullible, a tither, the list really is endless and various people adopted one or more of these, generally the ones that they had managed to live up to -- and condemned others. I was reflecting how difficult a language English is to learn -- and I was pondering how the literate want it to remain so, so that one can easily tell the illiterate from themselves. While I can cope with the language of the Book of Common Prayer (of 1662) and the King James Version of the Bible (of 1611), I suspect that these keep the illiterate masses in their place. There is an ecclesiastical as well as a literary snobbery that is not 'of God'. I marvelled at my Sudanese friends who spoke Dinka, Arabic, Swahili and English fluently. They are far more literate than I, even though they are unsure of their English.
So if God isn't interested in any of this, suddenly 'success' becomes irrelevant; which is startling to those who think that they are 'beyond the pale' and a dangerous heresy for those who think that their place is assured and others' isn't. It is these 'successful' people who have constructed this elaborate system -- those who are 'in' and those who are 'out' -- and are ill disposed to anyone who crosses that line. One begins to see why these 'successful' people hated this Jesus, who associated with 'others' and not just with them. They were precisely the ones who supposedly loved God so much. They were known for their devotion. But they hated Jesus enough to have him killed -- so that they could keep their carefully constructed elaborate system intact -- in the name of their god.
St Paul is an ambassador in chains. While the chains might seem to constrain him, he can still give this message to others -- that they are as much a part of the 'others' as anyone else. Indeed the chains testify that 'freedom' is not a prerequisite. Jesus was killed for associating with others, therefore 'others' always have been and are included, not dismissed as irrelevant or of little importance. Acceptance of the 'other' is right at the heart of the reason for the Cross and therefore of our faith. The resurrection is our guarantee that God continues to include 'others'.
This leads me to ask -- what then is salvation? Are we 'saved' as if we have passed this or that test; or are we saved from having to pass any tests -- that we are accepted as we are? I know what I believe!
And as I say frequently enough -- this has corporate possibilities as well as personal possibilities. If our religion is about accepting others as they are, then there is the possibility for world peace. If it is not, then the prospects for world peace are miniscule indeed. But sadly of course, it is precisely the people who have the most fervent faith, Christian as much as any other, who are the ones who actually are most dismissive of others.
So St Paul quotes Isaiah saying: "'I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.' But of Israel he says, 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.'" (Romans 10.20-21) The criticism remains the same if we, as 'Christians', have taken over the identical attitudes of the ancient people of God.
At the recent Australian Health and Welfare Chaplains' Conference, the Venerable Lozang Thubten spoke of the Buddhist concept of Bodhichitta -- which is universal compassion. She explained this as to 'delay one's own enlightenment so that others might be liberated.' This is to eschew 'success' rather than strive for it. And I thought how similar this is to that statement of St Paul: 'For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites ..' Romans 9.3-4
So when Jesus says that we must take up our cross, perhaps it is the same thing as St Paul and his chains. Perhaps they mean that we actively participate in this ceasing to worry about our own salvation, our own success, and that we concentrate on associating with others as Jesus did. It may seem as if this will achieve precious little in practice -- just associating with others -- yet as we do this we will at least be at peace with others, and even if this is not earth shattering, we will be doing as our Lord did, we will be doing what caused him to be killed, and we will be doing what he asked us to do. These seem pretty good reasons to me :-)!
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