The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s172e07 Epiphany 5 4/2/2007
'Christ died .. and .. was raised' 1 Cor 15.3,4
If one looks at the gospel accounts, they each focus on the events of the last week of Jesus life, culminating in his death. His subsequent resurrection is reported far less consistently among the authors, though clearly each is influenced by his own awareness of the risen Christ.
Matthew and Luke include lots of Jesus' nativity stories, his parables and public teaching - so 11 and 12% are about Jesus' final week. St Mark's gospel has hardly any of Jesus' teaching material and nothing about his birth so the final week of Jesus' life represents 37% in his total. St John includes much private teaching of his disciples at the Last Supper so his approaches 43%. The solemn declaration John makes about the truth of his account comes after the death of Jesus and before the resurrection appearances. (John 19.35)
So St Paul is here reflecting the evangelists' perception of the important things. It is however St Paul who puts on that death and resurrection something about our sins and their forgiveness.
In last Sunday's sermon I spoke about the attempt on Jesus' life by the very people he had grown up with, people who had worshipped alongside him each and every Sabbath, people who had heard the same sermons that he had, people who could name the other members of his family because he told them that the scriptures suggested that God blessed others as well as them.
I said that this was the real reason for his eventual crucifixion the real reason as opposed to the excuses given by those who condemned him to death.
I will quote Matthew because the parallel passages in Mark and Luke are very similar: so chapter 26: 63-66 tells us that: "Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death.""
John, as he so often is, is different and the confrontation comes very much earlier the healing of the crippled person at the Sheep Gate: in chapter 5: 16-18: "Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working." For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God." Later they demand of Pilate, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." John 19.7
Clearly according to Matthew, Mark and Luke the claim to be Son of God was wrestled out of Jesus at his trial. In John, Jesus claims this because of opposition to his healing on the sabbath. In Matthew 12.8 he says 'the son of man is lord of the sabbath'. So he invoked personal authority to allow other people to be blessed on the sabbath.
So I contend that the primary message of Jesus was not that he claimed to be the Son of God, but that God blessed others, including of course the cripple of 38 years, cured on the sabbath. Jesus was killed not because he claimed to someone special but because he said that God blessed others. In today's situation Jesus would say that God blesses Moslems as much as Christians.
But of course, if we think that the primary message of Jesus is his unique relationship with God, we actually justify those who killed him on the grounds of blasphemy and one actually does nothing to encourage people to love one another. It can as easily become an excuse to not love someone else and to set up our own set of rules to enable us to not act charitably toward someone else.
Now the other way of avoiding blessing others is to consider that one's religious life is all about God forgiving us our sins, so much so that we really never actually consider the fate of others at all. In the scale of things I have to ask what God is more likely to be concerned about: 1: my social faux-pas that I seem to commit on a regular basis, or 2: how I relate intimately or to whom, or 3: a belief about half the world's population that they are subordinate to the other half and are marginalized thereby if not actually by myself but by others? For me the answer is 3 and many other beliefs like it - that marginalise or alienate others.
But it is a travesty of interpretation of St Paul to think that he is on about Jesus dying on the Cross so that we can calm our troubled consciences. St Paul's letter to the Romans is all about how the gentiles are included along with the ancient people of God in the kingdom. The forgiveness of sin is indeed an important stage in this inclusion and synthesis, but if forgiveness does not lead to inclusion of others and atonement with them, then we haven't got the message.
Our gospel story for today is all about the miraculous catch of fish and Jesus saying to those who caught them: 'From now on you will be catching people'. Jesus doesn't bother to pronounce any words of absolution over Peter kneeling at his feet and nor does he do what Peter assumed any 'properly' religious person would do when confronted by such a person as he was go away from him. No, Jesus accepts Peter as he was, warts and all, along with his companions and tells them that they would be gathering others along the way. The 'proper' religion of Jesus day was about discrimination and exclusion. Jesus came to bring acceptance and inclusion for all.
And again, like his other miracles, neither he nor his disciples took any of the fish they had caught to eat themselves they were left for others to share. We are told 'they left everything'. This miracle leaves a blessing for those around, for those on the sidelines whose presence is hardly hinted at in the scriptures, for those who didn't necessarily become disciples ..
Recently I met a lovely lady in hospital who described herself as an agnostic. We had a number of very cordial conversations about this and that. She was a person who held very strong views about politics the 'children over-board' case for instance which was used by our present government to bring in extra defences against 'illegal' immigrants who arrive by sea on our northern shores. She was very definite on which of our former prime ministers she approved of and they were approved of because of their social inclusion. And I thought, here was someone doing as Jesus taught, forgetting about worshipping God and getting on doing what God wants.
When I was young we used a form of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 which had the singing of the "Agnus Dei" just before receiving the Holy Communion: 'O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.' Then immediately after receiving the Holy Communion we sang the "Gloria in Excelsis" which includes 'Son of the Father, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.'
At this sacred act of Holy Communion we were reminded three times before and three times after, that God has taken away the sins of the world so we are not just at one with our fellow communicants (though sometimes this might be a very good start :-) but at one with the whole of humanity. What a different world this might be if we actually then went out into the world acting as if this were the case that others are included, they are not recalcitrant sinners or unbelievers. Instead we have continued to marginalize women, alienated gay people and excluded all who did not live up to our expectations in the name of this god we have made up ourselves.
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