The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r140.htm
s140e03 Lockleys 12/10/03 Sunday 28
"The word of God is living and active" Hebrews 4.12
Over recent weeks I have been thinking how amazing Jesus was. It is not that I had previously doubted this, but the more and more I look at who Jesus was and what he said, the more I stand in awe of him. I am now over 50 years old, and a lifetime in the Church. And the more I read the gospels the more I find is contained in them. Someone has recently described my sermon writing as "prolific" - and yet it still is fresh and new to me.
One of my pet hates is the word "repent". For me it has all the connotations of the self assured Church putting the outsider down, as if we've got it all right, and everyone else are wicked sinners who are going to hell unless they change and become like us.
And then my mind went to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and Jesus reinterpreting repentance as "rejoice with me". Instead of a command to become religious, rejoice because someone else has been found. And I see, for the first time, that the words "Repent" on the lips of Jesus is aimed against the religious authorities who were put out that Jesus was associating with others. Instead of rejoicing that other people were included, they were affronted that they would have to share eternal life with "the likes of them". How often did Jesus say "the last will be first and the first last"?
So "repent" is not a word directed towards those who don't come to church to tell them to turn to God, but directed to those who count themselves as religious - for them to return to the prodigal God - who welcomes everyone.
The gospel finds its mark, and people welcome it or not.
And the prodigal God is no human invention and can be no human invention. God is either like this or God isn't. There is a truth about the prodigalness of God which is ever present, active, even confronting and it can be evaded or avoided by all sorts of religious exercises, but is the truth nevertheless.
And it doesn't matter which church-person-ship it is to which one aspires. If you take the Bible as normative (and there are of course few who don't) - then the reason Jesus was killed becomes obvious through the word. One has to avoid this truth - to push it aside. The sort of fundamentalist who rejects the divine in others who are different, is avoiding the words of scripture, not being faithful to them. I have little doubt that the scriptures of other faiths can be as easily misused in this way as the Christian scriptures can be.
If one is a sacramental person, then the sacraments of baptism and holy communion are all about making the Cross effective in the lives of individuals, to enable us to live for others. So again, if we are part of a sacramental group which denies the divine in others who are different, we are abusing the reason for the sacraments themselves. None of us kneel at the altar rail by ourselves, it is always with others, and inevitably they are different to us.
If one is a charismatic person, then the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles so that the apostles could speak the language of those who were different. So again, if we are part of a charismatic group that denies the divine in others who are different, we are failing to appreciate the reason that the Holy Spirit is given.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and the trilogy is significant. No one comes to the Father but by Jesus, but that is because God is prodigal and welcomes all. It is an important trilogy, because unless one walks in the way of the prodigal God - for others - life will never be ours. There is no good me getting up in this pulpit and proclaiming the truth. Unless I too walk in this way, life will not be mine.
Human religion (and I of course include some interpretations of Christianity in this) always has the effect of reducing the wideness of God's mercy and creating a hierarchy. It is always a violation of the prodigalness of God. Just because the bell shaped curve called the 'normal distribution' is so frequently found in nature, doesn't make it divine.
We so often think of our faith as something which we have to deny ourselves things. Human relationships, worldly possessions. No doubt the rich young man and Peter thought so too. The rich young man wanted to do something else, Peter speaking for himself and the other disciples points out what they have given up. How were they to be rewarded - made to look special over and above others? The disciples reward? To be counted with others, a hundred times more people than from whom they thought they had to avoid - indeed probably wanted to avoid!
I have no doubt whatsoever that had the rich young man been asked to give his wealth to Jesus, he would have done so immediately and gladly. It was the fact that he was asked to give of his wealth to others that so shocked him, and led him to depart sadly. Others were not important in his eyes. But one should not be too dismissive of this young man, for it is Mark alone who notes that Jesus looked at him and loved him. It is also Mark alone who recalls that other person who left Jesus in a hurry, running away naked when Jesus was arrested. And it is Mark who apparently did not accompany Paul just when Paul thought he ought. (Acts 15.38) I have my suspicions that these are all one and the same person, this Mark needed time to think things through. This is part of what love does - it gives the other time to think things through.
I rejoiced recently when one of my evangelical colleagues gave a paper at the clergy conference on his PhD thesis on the servant hood of Christ. He has a real difficulty with hierarchy in the Church. At the end of this lecture he made the comment about the more liberal among us deleting references to Jesus as Lord in liturgy. I was taken aback. His whole thesis is how we must be servants of others as Jesus was servant. The desire to remove references to Jesus as Lord is to try to do precisely what he (as well as me) think is so vital.
And my comments about prophecy the other week led me to think how the nation of Israel was to be different from other nations. Their political agenda was to revolve around the care of the orphan and widow, the weak and the despised, because that is who God cares for. Apostasy, usually typified by the derogatory term adultery, was turning towards power and influence rather than caring for the poor. The prophet Hosea was to love a prostitute, for this is what God does, loves the seemingly unlovable.
At the moment there is a good deal of discussion about the unity of the Anglican church. It is easy, and I suspect popular, to be united against other people and other ideologies. It was only last Sunday when I had a discussion about how in the recent past, people were berated from this pulpit about the evils of divorce, when good and faithful people in the congregation were cringing because they had gone through a marriage break up. I made a comment about spiritual abuse of parishioners, yet as I thought about it, I reflected - what unity! The "unity" was at the expense of the legitimate feelings of the very people there in church. I suspect that God was telling the priests concerned something, but they were not listening!
It is unfashionable to see the good in others, and the Church has often spent it's time preferring to tell others how to live their lives. Seeing the good in others doesn't get the press, yet I think that this is what we are called to do.
But it is not up to us, for the word of God is alive and active. The issues we face are issues that God will have us deal with. We too will be confronted with the prodigalness of God's mercy, or we will be delighted by the prodigalness of God's mercy. It remains a choice for us all, but I have no doubt that in rejecting others, if we choose so to do, we will also be rejecting life for ourselves.
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