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s139e03 Lockleys 5/10/03 Sunday 27

"Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters" Heb 2.11

So often when we think of reticence about matters religious we think of reticence about acknowledging God in our lives &endash; reticence to come to Church. For the author of the letter to the Hebrews the remarkable thing about Jesus is that he, as "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being" is not ashamed to be associated with all people &endash; to call them brothers and sisters.

Over the time I was on holidays, I was reflecting how so often religion has been personalised. Our faith is about avoiding doing wrong things. Most serious in the list of things we ought not to do wrong is "of course" not committing adultery. It is the one thing that is one of the ten commandments and the one thing about which Jesus seems to have focussed. However we need to be careful for it is the (male) Pharisees who raise the question of divorce, not Jesus, and so his answer might indeed be coloured by just who is posing the question, and why it is being posed. The scripture tells us that it was to "test" Jesus, a very sinister expression if ever there was one.

We think that religion is about what we do and most often about what we do wrong. In the hurley burley of existence, I as much as anyone else, get frustrated, angry, anxious or whatever, and I say or do things which later I bitterly regret. It is all very personal.

Again, I don't think that I'm any different from anyone else, but I don't need to be reminded how often I have done the wrong thing, or how often I could have done something much better &endash; so I don't think anyone else much does either.

But since the likelihood that I will actually manage to stop ever doing the wrong thing and consistently do the better thing is very remote, at least we've got the Church and the forgiveness of Jesus. Even if the relationship with someone else can't be fixed we can continue to muddle along, sort of.

And I wonder if this is what Jesus and his death and resurrection is all about - calming our consciences and anxieties so we don't give up in despair and / or lash out at others? It might be nice, though if our faith wavers and our consciences continue to prick us, (mine certainly continues to do so) we are left with going to confession or some other way of trying to ease the pain.

How personal has this religion become! We are left on our knees perpetually &endash; and this is hardly good news. You might remember how often I jokingly say about not being good all the time - lest you do me out of a job :-).

I want to suggest that for all this sounding very religious, and Jesus death and resurrection is indeed a better guarantee of forgiveness, no one would have killed Jesus if he was simply offering a better guarantee of forgiveness. And I reflect that forgiveness is not something Jesus often offered other people. Perhaps "Father, forgive them" - indeed spoken on the Cross - is the exception that proves the rule.

Actually, of course, there is no guarantee of forgiveness. I am always amused at the TV advertisement of the man saying to the wife that the property agents they chose can "almost guarantee a perfect tenant" for their house. :-)

Jesus was killed by the religious authorities and so the dynamics were not about personal morality or personal failure at all. So it is rather more likely that Jesus was killed because he said that God really wasn't all that interested in any system of perpetual personal reassurance - which kept the masses "in line".

What God is interested in is being in relationship with all people and so cutting out all the arbitrary divisions between people. It doesn't matter if the arbitrary division is between saint and sinner, lay or ordained, christian and non christian, man or woman, people of different races, colours, cultures or even faith or atheist.

We have to choose &endash; indeed I have to choose as much as anyone else. I find it enormously easier to be compliant and to accept when I should question.

It is the same in marriage. When does one accept another person unconditionally and when does one say enough is enough? Do we think even God has an answer to this? Do we think that there is an easy answer? I could not counsel women who are abused to go back to their husbands for all I might commend fidelity. It is not good that anyone should be alone, so I have no difficulty with remarriage. Jesus wasn't killed because he answered the question about divorce incorrectly &endash; indeed he probably answered them in a manner that they would have entirely, if reluctantly, agreed with.

Is our faith about rewarding the compliant and the credulous? Does God like these sorts of people more than others? Of course the answer is no!

Jesus is not ashamed to call the uncompliant and the incredulous "brothers and sisters" &endash; and it was the fact that Jesus said that God was also like this that had him killed.

It is my thesis that Jesus came to bring peace to the world rather than just calming the consciences of those who pray to God through him. If this is true then our faith must be about removing distinctions between people, all people. We cannot expect peace in the world if we continue to think that we are in any way "better" more "faithful" or more "true" than others.

Fr. Dan Madigan SJ (Eureka Street Sept 2003 p27) states: "The way some tell it, we (Christians) stopped our centuries-old battle (against Islam) only to take on communism. Now that communism is no longer a threat, it's back to the mutual bloodletting. If one considers the history of warfare as a whole, the conflicts between Muslims and Christians pale into insignificance against the much bloodier conflicts waged between groups professing the same religion." Again we see the propensity of religion (historically Christianity just as much as any other) to differentiate between people &endash; who is in and who isn't in &endash; and the conflicts result. Jesus didn't come to create another arbitrary division surely! If God sent Jesus to do this, to create just another arbitrary division, then in my (not very humble opinion), that god is a demon not worth loving or worshipping.

Every time I have a baptism I use the second part of our gospel reading for today, and I always say that this passage demonstrates how religion, personified in the very disciples of Jesus, wanted to regulate just who could and who could not approach the divine. This is not my faith. My faith is in one who welcomes me and you and all people.

"Your sin remains" (John 9.41) &endash; not because God hasn't forgiven but because God will leave everyone where they choose to be and calls others who want to be somewhere different.

If God through Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother then he is not ashamed to call anyone else his brother and sister. If Jesus has forgiven my sin, then Jesus has forgiven the sin of the whole world. If God accepts me personally, then God accepts other people equally as personally. And we are called to live in the light of this truth.

So in this sense the only sin worth worrying about is that which promotes divisions between people, and this can be ascribed to "Christianity" as a corporate entity (as much as to other religions and faiths also.) Christianity is as likely to realise the breadth of God's embrace as it is to deny or neglect that breadth as any other religion or faith.

Forgiveness is not guaranteed - indeed it can be summarily withdrawn if we are unforgiving towards others &endash; and the parable of the good Samaritan should tell us that we can't even or especially use denominational boundaries to limit the extent of who we should forgive. Atheists can be more accepting and forgiving of others than Christians.

I was reading the Synod charge of Archbishop Aspinall and he alerted me to the fact that we cannot demand that the victims of child abuse forgive those church members who have abused them &endash; or they will not be forgiven their sins. God will not be hoodwinked!

When we think of Jesus calling others brothers and sisters, I immediately thought of Jesus acknowledging that all people are part of the family of God. But "calling" means more than that to us. We are called to do things, to exercise a ministry. Everyone is called to exercise a ministry, and therefore every ministry people undertake for the good of others is inspired by God. So worship, even if seemingly different to our own ways of worship is equally inspired by God.

The choice is put before us all, me as much as anyone else. It is easy to stand up here and say these things, but getting the courage up to leave an abusive spouse, or to question "the faith once delivered to the saints" where that actually means more sectarian conflict, is not easy - but it is life giving.

The other interesting reflection I had recently is that for all the distastefulness of sexual abuse of young children, child molesters are essentially cowards. They are only in it for the gratification they can receive. All real relationships &endash; that is mutual relationships where the parties listen to one another - are infinitely harder. Real relationships require courage &endash; there are no easy answers &endash; and Jesus is never ashamed to be associated with courageous people who seek real relationships, even if they have failed on occasions.

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