The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

Kia Ora from New Zealand :-)

s158g10 Palm Sunday 28/3/2010

'let him save himself!' Luke 23.35

Often 'christianity' is defined as something to save us from some sort of future misery or save us for some sort of future blessedness. 'Pie in the sky when you die.' This is not a new conception of course. I suspect that much of the religion of Jesus' day focussed around the same things.

In our gospel reading for today, three times Jesus is invited to save himself - the leaders scoffed at him in the words of my text. The soldiers also mocked him, saying 'save yourself!' One of the criminals hanged with him was even more pragmatic: 'Save yourself and us!' Each of these is a more immediate salvation, 'let us see you get out of this one, Houdini!' The crucifixion becomes a spectacle - would God act decisively now? And would we be here to witness it? I remember going to car racing when I was a boy, and it was always more exciting if there was a crash.

And 'christianity' can become a bit like this too, a 'get out of gaol free' card when misfortune strikes, it's about saving ourselves. Prayer is often all about being cured; in the extreme, without the aid of doctors and nurses.

But Jesus makes no move to extricate himself from the situation, no move to save himself.

Listen again to the words of Jesus. To the women he says: 'weep for yourselves and for your children'. He says to those who were hammering in the nails, 'Father, forgive them'. To one of the criminals he assures him: 'Today, you will be with me in paradise'. Jesus concern was for the immediate needs of those around him.

I need to point out that Jesus forgives those who were crucifying him, the ignorant Roman soldiers. He did not forgive those who knew precisely what they were doing when they handed him over to Pilate. One has only to look at Jesus' words in Matthew 23 to see how 'forgiving' he was towards them. So when we are called to follow Jesus, we are NOT called to forgive others when they knowingly persecute others. Jesus forgives the soldiers who were only doing what they were ordered to do. Jesus indeed even says to Pilate that those who handed him over to him bore the more guilt (John 19.11). Jesus pardoned the irreligious but didn't forgive the religious.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote in the 'Washington Post' (Friday, March 12, 2010) recently about homophobia: 'That this pandering to intolerance is being done by politicians looking for scapegoats for their failures is not surprising. But it is a great wrong. An even larger offence is that it is being done in the name of God. Show me where Christ said "Love thy fellow man, except for the gay ones." Gay people, too, are made in my God's image. I would never worship a homophobic God.'

Jesus is ever concerned about others. The people Jesus dismisses are those who only think about themselves. And this is particularly true of those of us who are 'professionally religious' whose lives and livelihood are bound inextricably to the continuing existence of the Church. Somehow we think that our own immortality is indistinguishable from that of the eternal church, world without end, Amen. We dress up our concern for our own 'rightness' as if we are concerned about God's continuing existence. I recall still the Warden of the theological college where I trained, once commenting that he had been invited to join a society for 'the defence of the Catholic faith'. His comment was that if the Catholic faith needed defending by himself it really wasn't worth defending!

It is often thought that the Church soon became anti-Semitic, and I would suggest both that this was so and that it is a misreading of the words of Jesus. When I say: 'Jesus pardoned the irreligious but didn't forgive the religious' it is important to realise that the 'religious' include ourselves, it includes myself, when I have preached and conducted myself as if 'others' have to come to church and become like me. This is ever so subtle, but persecution, none the less.

It is interesting, as I prepare this sermon that the importance of my words: 'Jesus pardoned the irreligious but didn't forgive the religious' strikes me. We have this theology that we are forgiven because we come to church and ask for forgiveness. I mean that's what church is all about getting forgiveness for our sins. But Jesus here turns this all inside out. It is the irreligious who need no forgiveness and it is the professionally religious who persecute others who believe that because they persecute in the name of God, they need no forgiveness, and hence cannot be forgiven.

And perhaps this is the real meaning of the words of Jesus, when he says: 'everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven' (Luke 12.10) for Jesus immediately goes on to talk about: 'When they bring you before the synagogues, .. do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves ..'

How often do we have a perception of the 'real' street evangelist proclaiming to passers-by that they are sinners who need to repent? They have got it precisely the wrong way around!

I was interested to read a news article on the Internet recently where: 'Members of a Tai Chi class .. have been banned from the use of a church hall because their martial art was .. deemed to be unchristian. .. According to vicar of All Saints' Church Hall in Totley, Sheffield, the Rev David Rhodes, 'Our understanding is that the basis of Tai Chi is an Eastern religion and from the church's point of view that isn't something that we want to be involved in.'' It actually was a group of elderly people doing gentle exercises. What heresy it would be to suggest that it was the Vicar and ministry team who were the sinners in need of forgiveness rather than the Tai Chi devotees! yet this is the basis of Jesus' whole ministry and why he was handed over to the Romans to be killed.

St Paul also shows a blithe disregard for his own salvation, when he says: '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.' (Romans 9.3) St Paul, like Jesus, exists not to save himself, but exists for others.

If our church attendance is about saving ourselves and being forgiven, then we need to realize that it is the irreligious that need no forgiveness, because they are not persecuting others in the name of some 'god' or other. Jesus is not on about forgiving us our 'sins, negligences and ignorances' as if our personal and eternal peace of mind is uppermost in God's concern, Jesus is on about us not dismissing others as irrelevant in the name of God.

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