s150g00 Somerton Park 17/12/2000 Advent 3
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Luke 3:8
We have a remarkable picture of people coming to John the Baptist in our gospel portion for today. It seems that crowds of people flocked to him, despite what seems a fairly uncompromising message. John had a reputation not to mince his words, addressing some as "You brood of vipers!" And it leads me to ponder why this popularity? Were people so very different in those days? I hardly think so. Our modern technical revolution has greatly facilitated the communication of the gospel, yet we rarely see any response like this.
It is often said that modern humanity is still searching desperately for some meaning to life, and I believe it is true that people will still travel great distances. People travel to the wilderness to find something of the meaning of life as well as to the monuments to the pinnacles of Christianity throughout the world. I myself am contemplating going to Jerusalem next year (if it is still there :-) as well as visiting England and perhaps elsewhere.
And I conclude that people, then as now, are looking for grace, and if it seems that modern humanity is not looking for grace, then perhaps they have in fact given up because there has been something in our proclamation which has already told them that grace will not be found here in Church. I suspect that many have given up looking for grace from the Church, and no sadder indictment on us could be found.
We have three groups of people who came to John. We firstly have crowds of people who could claim ancestry from Abraham. These were the ancient people of God. Yet it is clear that John's reply dismisses ancestry completely, for so often ancestry is at the expense of someone else. So right here at the beginning of the gospel account, even John the Baptist says that God does not have favourites. God loves the person who is not a Jew as much as one who is. God loves the person who is not a Christian as much as one who is.
The people who come claiming some special relationship with God are bidden to share what they have with others. "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." (Luke 3:11). The fruits worthy of repentance are precisely this, that God loves others besides themselves and bids them love others besides loving God.
Tax collectors too come to the Baptist . Their occupation made claiming any special heritage useless. They were seen as traitors. But the tax collectors were ready to make what changes in their lives as are demanded. They are welcomed, it seems far more warmly than the socially acceptable and racially pure. Even their occupation, hated as it was, symbolising the power of the foreign occupying force, is accepted. They need do nothing except to "Collect no more than the amount prescribed ..."
And the soldiers. My commentary says that: "Since Jews were exempt from service in the Roman legions, (the soldiers) may have been troops of Herod Antipas." In the context the soldiers are as likely to be Roman, another hated symbol of the occupying power, and yet, again no great burden is placed on them, other than to do one's job impartially and to be content with one's wages. In both of these cases, the tax collectors and the soldiers are bidden to consider those with whom they come in contact and treat them fairly. Again the basic statement God loves others besides themselves.
The Jewish nation existed "to be a light to the Gentiles" - that God loves others besides them. We as Christians exist to show God loves others besides us. Jew and Christian are bidden to love others besides loving God.
I was pondering the phrase "Christian initiation" before I began this sermon, and I was reflecting that the word "christian" only appears three times in the Bible, and perhaps only once on the lips of christians (1 Pet 4.16). But of course the word initiation does not appear in the Bible at all - not even the King James Version - authorised or not :-)
You see the difficulty I have with "Christian initiation" is that if we initiate people into a religion, so that we or they are granted eternal salvation, inevitably this is at the expense of someone else. It doesn't matter if it is a religion based on racial grounds. Being a child of Abraham axiomatically excludes those who aren't. Nor does it matter if it is a religion based on doctrinal grounds. Being a person who has assented to some statements about God (i.e. the creeds) axiomatically excludes those who don't. Again it doesn't matter if it is done on moral grounds. Being a person who has managed to live life, married to a single person of the opposite gender, and having 2.2 children in a loving and caring environment, axiomatically excludes those who haven't been able to achieve this. God loves others besides ourselves.
You see, so often our definition of religion, is something at the expense of others. Indeed I suspect the very word "define" implies setting limits. John the Baptist, in this sense is the true forerunner of the Messiah, because he bids us open ourselves to others.
And if our faith has by definition no boundaries, it follows that baptism into our faith immediately draws us into a relationship, not primarily with God, for God loves us, baptised or not. No - baptism brings us into a relationship with all of humanity, baptised or not. If we are baptised that we might gain eternal life for ourselves, we might as well not be. If we are baptised because we recognise God's love for everyone, including ourselves, then we are getting on the right track.
Now again, when I say that Christianity brings us into relationship with others, I do not mean that we've all got to be intimate friends one with another. There are obviously people with whom my friendship is more congenial, and I expect everyone will be the same. But no longer can we say God only works through Anglicans, Christians, or people of faith. I have for a long time stated what is I suppose obvious to some, my vision for us at St Philip's, is that here is a place where all those for whom Jesus died are treated with courtesy and respect. And this means everyone, the shy and reserved, the gifted and the extravert. Each of us brings something into this community and fellowship, for God works through us and everyone else besides.
Being baptised immediately brings us into a relationship with other people, particularly those on the fringes of society, those for whom the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had and has a special concern - the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien. If we focus on God in baptism bringing us into a special relationship with God, then that will axiomatically imply that others, who through no fault of their own, or through the fault of ungracious evangelism, have rejected or failed to respond to this gracious offer. But the people who failed to respond to Jesus were not those who denied God's existence or steadfast love, but the religious people who denied that God loved anyone else, other than they and their cronies ...
We are not faithful as we continue to proclaim an uncompromising message, whatever it is. It is not up to the recipients of the message of evangelism to diligently search for the good news in our proclamation, then be condemned to eternal damnation if they fail to find it and respond in the manner in which we consider to be appropriate !!!
I suspect that there are some around who consider that we should continue with the uncompromising message - that is what will "save" the Church. No sex before marriage would be a good start !!! Some will even suggest that this is what people actually want. Indeed some may want to live their lives, denying personal responsibility for their own emotions and actions, by invoking God's "commandments".
It is of course Sunday School stuff that repentance is fundamental to the Christian life and that it means turning to God. Surely the Baptist's proclamation, which foreshadows Jesus' own words, for example not every one who says to me Lord Lord... Matt 7:21-23, Lk 6.46) should alert us of two things.
The first is that repentance, per se, is not the important thing, it is the fruits of repentance that are important.
And the second is that repentance, which certainly means to turn, really doesn't say to where we are to turn. We assume it means to God, when I rather think this whole passage is about turning to our neighbour, to think of others besides ourselves, because God loves others as well as ourselves.
It is such classic Sunday School stuff that it comes equally as startling to me as it may to you, for me to say these things.
It reminds us again that the primary proclamation of the gospel is not turning away from sin, but turning toward our neighbours.
And this perception links repentance and faith far more closely, for our faith is in God's love for our neighbour as well as for ourselves, and we seek to emulate that love wherever possible. If God doesn't love those who are not Jews, those who are not Christians, those who are not of our particular race or ethnicity, or follow a "Christian" lifestyle, then it really is immaterial to God how we treat them, even if they we were to kill them. Clearly this is not the case, and we are called to accept them for the gifts they bring into our lives.
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