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

s164g10 Easter 6  9/4/2010

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’  John 14.27

I have usually had one of my confirmation classes where I spend some time thinking about the Holy Spirit.   I usually begin by asking if the Holy Spirit can help us rob a bank, and generally the answer is no.   The candidates are happy to agree that logically God can’t help us to rob a bank.   Then I muse that we hardly need the Holy Spirit’s help if we intend to do nothing.   I can do nothing all by myself without any divine or human aid.   Of course if I’m manic that’s a different matter and I will return to this later.   Logically the only thing that God can help us with, is when we want to do something that God would want.   Generally this is when we are going to help someone, someone else, or ourselves when it is not at the expense of someone else.   So we can reasonably ask for help from God when we are studying for our own self education.  

So the broad parameters of where we might reasonably expect God’s help have been drawn.   However in this complicated world, and human beings are especially complex, perhaps some further exploration is helpful.

God cannot help us rob a bank - even if the bank is owned by or services an enemy.   So it doesn’t matter who the other person is, we cannot expect God to help us at the expense of anyone else, no matter who they are, or aren’t.   So if we patronise ‘christian’ establishments alone, can we expect God to approve of this when we are effectively marginalising other retailers we consider to be not ‘christian’?

It needs to be said that God cannot approve of any form of terrorism.   And ipso facto any teaching that God would condemn anyone to eternal damnation is untenable.   If we can’t do it, God can’t do it - and vice versa!

Only recently I heard a ‘christian’ speaker suggest that the only proper way to read the Bible is to take John 3.16 and 1 John 5.12 to mean that God condemns people other than ‘christians’ (and only those ‘christians’ who read their bible in the proscribed manner) to hell.   Well, I think that speaker’s god and mine are rather different.

The conception that we are ‘christian’ and therefore everything we do is acceptable to the Lord makes a mockery of the scriptural witness that it was precisely the people of God (in both the Old and New Covenants) who found it hardest to know the Lord’s will.   Our election as ‘christians’ does not give us license to treat others with less respect.   Yet how often do we consider ourselves as practising ‘christians’, practising ‘Anglicans’, even practising members of this congregation - better than others?   My ‘christian’ speaker to whom I referred above certainly considers himself (and those who read their bibles properly) as better than others.   Interestingly, he is the pastor of a very successful church.  Is not this fact a sign of God’s blessing?   Is this not a sign that this doctrine is of God?

One has to return to basic principles.   God cannot help us where our doctrines or actions are at the expense of anyone else.   The only possible outcome for the opposite of this is conflict, where God is called on to support both sides’ claim to justice.   And ever so subtly we are immersing ourselves in a teaching which is essentially for the benefit of myself and those who think like me, worship like me, and / or live life like me.   And expressed in this way, it becomes clear that it is really all about me, and through force of character or whatever, me not needing God’s help at all.  The mere fact that he has a large congregation is in itself an attraction to adherents.  It means that money will be plentiful, everything will be successful, people will get on the ‘winning’ side.   After all who wants to join a struggling congregation?

So, for what do we need help from God and for what can we reasonably expect it?   I believe the scriptural witness is clear.   The words of Jesus are: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers ..’   Blessed are those who break down walls between people, walls caused by creed, class, affluence, race, colour, culture, gender or with whom people choose to be intimate.   For me it is precisely when we do this that we actually need God’s help because generally we are doing this alone.   It most often expresses itself not in political action, but in one to one relationships as we seek to affirm another person.   It doesn’t happen with trumpets and great fanfares, but quietly in our day to day interactions.   And we need God’s help, because often we are fighting against some other people’s interpretation of the Bible, tradition or upbringing.

I promised I would return to the question of mania.   It is my experience that a person who is manic is completely unaware of the hurt they are causing other people.   Depression turns the hurt inward, mania affects others as well.   ‘Normal’ mental illness usually hurts only the person themselves and a few around them, of course usually those closest to the person themselves.   Even those with religious delusions affect few others.   But it is the ‘orthodox’ religious delusions that affect millions.  Those who marginalise women, more than 50% of the population, alienate gay persons perhaps another 10% of the population, condemn ‘non-christians’ to eternal damnation - another 69% of the population of 6.8 billion people.  I.e. God condemns 5.8 billion people to eternal damnation - even without considering which of these ‘christians’ read their bibles correctly, which would increase this number considerably!   Just who is likely to be on the winning side now?   Just who is the one lost lamb and who are the 99 who haven’t strayed?   And I suspect the lost lamb needs to be carried on the shoulders of the shepherd to stop it kicking and screaming, not wanting to be returned to the fold with the rest of us!   The religious are horrified to see terrorism such as that inflicted on the thousands on September the 11th with no appreciation of the terrorism they perpetrate on the millions of women, gay persons, and people other than ‘christians’ (of their own sort) using precisely the same criterion, if a different book!

We can listen to these words and take from them encouragement to reach out to others, even if we think scripture, tradition, or sometimes common sense might hold us back.

And I reflect that the religious have ever resorted to scriptural and / or traditional justifications to marginalise and alienate others.   And again it doesn’t matter if the marginalisation and alienation is in this world or the next, the reality is that material for such marginalisation and alienation will always be present in the sacred texts and tradition.   Jesus himself said: ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.   Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ - because they realised that coming to Jesus meant coming into relationship with the outcasts - the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.  (John 5.39,40)   It is our relationship with these, the outcasts - the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, that we will find life.   One needs scriptural and or traditional justifications when marginalising and alienating others, because then those who do so are blameless - they can blame God!

And if our ‘christianity’ is actually justification of our marginalising and alienating others in the name of ‘god’, then I applaud atheists and agnostics who repudiate such a ‘god’.  

The question may be asked: ‘Does the Anglican Church proscribe a particular way of reading the scriptures which might be termed ‘proper’’ - and indeed it does.   In the 20th of the 39 Articles it saith: ‘And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’    So simply taking two passages of scripture and re-interpreting the rest of holy writ in the light of these is contrary to the Anglican formularies.  

To take the former of the passages, the speaker interprets John 3.16 as if it says: ‘God so hates the rest of the world - all 5.8 billion of them - that he condemns all who do not believe in Jesus in MY way (not necessarily Jesus’ way) to eternal damnation’ - which is NOT what Jesus said at all.

And when he quotes: ‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life’ - he blithely assumes he has the Son as an exclusive possession denied to others, which is a remarkably similar desire those who had who had Jesus killed - because they wanted him as their sole possession and had him killed because he associated with people other than them as well.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’  says Jesus - reach out to all despite all the nay sayers, and especially the ones who quote scripture - my scripture! :-)

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