The Lost Sheep

The Lost Sheep

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

“Rejoice with me because I have found my sheep that was lost.” — Luke 15:6

This parable is one of three that occur together in the first half of Luke’s 15th chapter. In my New Testament each has a heading, “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin” and “The Lost Son,” respectively. The last one is also known as “The Prodigal Son.” The common element in these three parables is ” the alarm of loss and the joy of finding again,” and the fact that the alarm and joy belong to the principle protagonist, the shepherd, the housewife and the father, not to the sheep, the coin or the prodigal son. So the bedrock assumption of the teller of these parables is the urgent concern of the principal protagonists, and not the feelings of the secondary players. Much as we would like to dwell on the feeling of being lost as we experience it, we are invited rather to think about the joy of finding again, that is the shepherd’s joy not the sheep’s fear.

Parables, as we have agreed in our Bible class discussions, are riddles not allegories, so as easy as it is to say that the shepherd is God and the sheep is I, we must resist that comfortable (allegorical) interpretation, or at least postpone it until we have earned it. Let us imagine we are solving a riddle rather than interpreting an allegory and proceed accordingly.

A man with 100 -1 sheep cannot rest before he has restored the number to 100; the woman with 10 -1 coins is compelled to search until they are ten again; the man who had 2-1 sons cannot find joy until the missing one returns and they are two again. What is it, the meaning of this riddle?

Clearly the numbers are important; each riddle puts them first, “There was a man who had 100 sheep (vs. 4),” a “woman who had ten coins (vs. 8),” “a man who had two sons (vs. 11).” Is this a clue? Yes it is! The riddle invites us to think about sets that are broken: the set of 100 is now 99, the set of 10 is nine and the set of 2 is 1. In each case there is something missing and the hole it leaves cries out to be filled.

We note also that the hole grows larger with the telling: one-hundredth, one tenth and one half respectively is missing. Is this idea of escalating proportions important? Or is not important to the point of the numbers something else? We don’t know.

Two of our riddles appear to moralize. The editor of the gospel of Luke gives the first one a context of sinners and thus the moral meaning, “Do not neglect sinners because they are part of the whole and the hole in the whole made by their absence must be filled, because the set must be fully restored. The father of the lost son makes it clear that what matters most to him is that the family is complete once again. While these two have a strong element of love and compassion, the woman and the necklace is about another human drive, to restore symmetry and harmony. (The 10 coins were presumably strung together on a necklace of the kind one can see on Mid-Eastern women to this day. She perhaps also had a possessive reason since these strings of coins, if they were gold, were accepted ways of storing wealth. We are getting warm I think.

It now occurs to me that the Hebrew word “shalom” which is still the accepted greeting in Hebrew, cognate with the Arabic “salaam,” means “wholeness” before it comes to mean “peace.” This discloses that peace in our tradition means communal wholeness, and when I greet you with “shalom” I am saying, “I recognize you as part of the whole to which we both belong, and so there should be no rivalry between us. The Hebrew for “righteousness” (tzedakah) is another word for the state of “shalom,” that is, having been reintegrated after having been expelled. The “righteous” person is one who is in good standing with the community. The duty of the judge is to find ways to bring someone who, because of his deeds, has expelled himself from the community, back in.

The Apostle Paul calls the work of God in Christ the “justification of sinners,” which means the restoring of those cast out, to standing in the community. For this reason he can say that those who believe in Christ and thus allow him to rectify (justify) their good standing in the human community, beyond the distinctions of religion, class and gender, are all one in their common humanity. Thus the healing of the violence-wracked world goes through the expelled and then reintegrated scapegoat – the social outcasts, the scoundrel sons, the smelly goats and the politely unacceptable. These are the ones God’s kingdom desires most. (Bear in mind that there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing and that Our Lord did say that the crooks and whores go into the Kingdom before the fastidious moralists and the lords of religious institutions).

Note that the reintegration takes place before the outcasts are worthy of being welcomed back. Repentance is the decision to return, like the lost son, in order to be changed and restored by membership in the group. One does not change so as to reenter the group; one reenters the group in order to change. This is the very meaning of grace- the acceptance of the unacceptable. If it were otherwise it would not be grace but justice, not a gift but just desserts.

I must stop here because the more I excavate the meaning of these parables the deeper I dig the well of understanding and the more I am obliged to go on and on. Let’s answer the riddles’ question, “What is it?” Are these parable/riddles telling us that God cares more for the one lost item than for the many that do not go astray? Perhaps, but we should have to think a lot more to understand that point. Let’s just settle for the simple meaning we have established: the whole is more than the sum of its part, but without the full sum of its parts it is nothing. The one expelled and absent item is worth more than the whole because without it the whole cannot be a whole. That is, if we think we can make a perfect community by simply driving out the undesirables, we are fatally wrong.

I bet you have not thought of those parables in quite this way before. This is my final last sermon here. It sums up what I have tried to do in the 39 years I have been here: to preach sermons that make you think, and think not about many interesting things but about the few important things, and especially the reflections that arise from the one question asked simply by our presence in this world, namely, “Is there GRACE and WHERE SHALL WE FIND IT?” I have answered, “Yes!” to the first and “Jesus Christ” to the second, consistently and unceasingly. If you take nothing else from today’s sermon take that “Yes” and call on that “Name.”

I read yesterday that Lee Kwan Yew the formidable founder of modern Singapore and one of the truly great personages of our time, now aged 87 and fading, spends time each evening talking to his virtually comatose wife and then prepares for bed by meditating. He uses a mantra for meditation given him by a friend. It is “Maranatha.” Lee Kwan Yew is not a Christian but he likes the sound of the mantra. He thinks it means “Jesus come to me!” and is content.

It is, in fact, Aramaic and its strict meaning is “OUR LORD, COME!” It is not a prayer for Christ’s personal presence to me, but for his second coming to restore and reintegrate the wholeness of the world, beyond accusations, rivalries, the distinctions made by violence and the expulsions made by envy.

I hope I have always preached the Christ who heals the whole world, and left my own little self nonchalantly to His mercy…but…”Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy).

Amen.

Rich in the Things of God

Rich in the Things of God

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

“Thus it is with everyone who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” — Luke 12:21

Jesus knows where we really live emotionally and that is why the record of his teaching has so much about money in it. Today we have one of the memorable items on this topic, the story of the successful man who built ever bigger barns to store his wealth, and then, just as he relaxed with a sigh of contentment, heard the Grim Reaper’s knock at his paneled door and had to go off leaving all this loot, the record of his whole life, to others. The story rightly calls him a fool.

His foolishness was to become rich in the wrong things and poor in the right things. He confused his priorities and in the crisis had nothing worthwhile to offer, only massive storehouses of wasted time. ” And God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you must hand over your life. Who is going to get all this stuff you have stashed away?’ Thus it is with everyone who lays up treasure for himself and it not rich towards God.” (12: 20-21).

What is it to be rich before God? It is simply to have found the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44-46). Our Epistle lesson makes this point powerfully and gives it content: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Think of heavenly not earthly things, for you have already died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you too shall appear in glory with him (Colossians 3: 1-4).”

To be in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ is to be rich towards God and to enjoy the fullness of life of which the epistle speaks. This life we now live hidden with Christ in God – it is our hidden life – and it will become evident when we meet him again, either upon his return to earth or on our advent in heaven.

So this is the central and simple message to us today: you live life on two levels, one public and superficial the other private and profound, and the profound life is hidden with Christ in God and will become evident when we see him again. Let us look more closely at these two options.

At the public level we live for the approval of our fellow human beings. Nothing is more satisfying than having people admire you, and tell you that they do. I know this satisfaction well from two recent testimonial dinners where my friends told me they loved me and thanked me for the good I had done them. Let me assure you: in this world there are very few satisfactions to compare with that. After all, what we live and strive for is precisely this praise of our peers, which, when we get it is balm for our souls, (if we are able to recognize and accept it).

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with life on this superficial level, but in fact it often goes badly wrong and succumbs to the “will to power” in the form of greed. Jesus speaks much of money because he knows the power of greed. Greed makes the quest for appreciation irrational. We pile up wealth and achievement as if they could coerce the admiration of others and secure our life against death. Greed can become a disease. In 1849 here in California they spoke of “gold fever,” and some of us saw and even experienced its modern outbreak in the tech bubble of the late 90’s. Greed is like an addiction, causing one to behave recklessly, and filling the horizon of ones attention and concern. In its grip we can sacrifice relationships and narrow our attention to one overwhelming obsession. Greed coarsens the personality, paralyses morality and makes one capable of great cruelty.

Let me give you a current example. As we speak corporations are making good profits and sitting on unprecedented piles of cash. Much of this profit comes because they have reduced their labor forces dramatically. As a result more and more active people are sidelined and idled in unemployment. Common decency would require that businesses that could afford it, hire people, but greed dictates that the corporations hoard cash and continue to cut jobs, regardless of the humanity of the workers. They are serving the shareholders rather than the workers, but mostly they are serving themselves, as they give their executives obscenely excessive rewards. This spirit of greed is destroying the lives of millions of our fellow Americans and the fabric of our politics, as people become more and more angry and lash out and lash back.

The tragedy in this drama of winners and losers is in the fact there are no winners. All are losers. Those who sit with their barns full and build ever bigger ones are the ever bigger losers, as they will discover, and those who sit watching their lives diminish are losers too, as more and more of them succumb to the strident politics of fear.

It is not my part as a preacher of the Gospel to propose political solutions or give economic advice. My task is far, far more important. I must tell all who will listen the only really good news there is, that long after all this ugliness is past you will have to face emptiness, unless you have found the pearl of great price, and, here it is, that there is such a pearl to find, Jesus Christ, who is God for us and eternal life, he is the pearl.
You remember Cardinal Wolsey’s remark as he mounted Henry’s scaffold: “If I had served my God half as well as I have served my king, He would not have left me now bereft.” What do you think the man in our story said when he heard that knock at his paneled door? Could it have been something like this: “I wish I had not spent so much of the time of my life and the substance of my soul collecting baggage and building barns”? I think so. So thank God we have been told the truth and can avoid such terminal regret. This Gospel about Jesus is the gateway to our immortality, hidden for now in God, but soon to be revealed.

This may be the last time I preach to you here (Whether it is, depends on the real estate market). For almost 40 years, from the spring of 1974 until now, I have preached this Gospel in these parts. This Gospel has been my life, and I shall continue to preach it until I pass away. It is the only truth I really know, the only thing I have to say, and the joy of my life. Thanks for hearing me and thus making it possible for me to live this life. All things in this world pass away and that is why our lesson is so appropriate today: Seek the things that are above where Christ is at God’s right hand; be rich in the things of God, that is, dwell in the love of Jesus always. It is the only thing that lasts forever, and does not pass away.

Amen.

One Necessary Thing

One Necessary Thing

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

“There is only one necessary thing; and Mary has chosen that better part and it shall never be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:42

I have discovered that as I grow older I have to focus my energy more and more precisely because its supply is less and less plentiful. The old description of the expert as one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing, comes to mind here, but it is not a precise parallel. The quest I have in mind narrows to a point not of nothing but of something so solidly “there” that it gives meaning to everything we can envisage and grounds our life and our world in satisfaction. Every life is, after all, a quest for its own significance and a search for survival of death. Significance and survival thus describe the contents of the one necessary thing, but relationship describes it structure. It is a relationship that gives us meaning and immortality, and my good news for you today is the same as I have brought you every Sunday I have been privileged to preach to you, that Jesus Christ wishes to be in a relationship with you so that he might make you meaningful and immortal. The relationship with Jesus is the one thing necessary and in our story Mary chose it and Jesus assures her that is shall never be taken away from her.

What did Mary do to show that she had made this momentous decision? No much! She merely sat with Jesus, and enjoyed his company. She chose simply to be with him, and Jesus called that the better choice, and the one necessary thing that will never be taken away. The letter to the Colossians calls it, “…Christ in you the hope of glory…” (1:27), and so it is.

So what shall we say of Martha? I have heard many sermons that defend Martha and say that Jesus was too hard on her. This was usually the point of view of housewives in the congregation who understood the effort it took to feed guests. Here are two sisters and a brother, Lazarus, living together. Jesus and his entourage come to visit so there are at least 13 visitors, one a celebrity, and her sister Mary leaves her alone to do all the frantic work it takes to succor so many guests. We understand her anxiety and we also understand her sense of the unfairness of it all. Mary simply does what Martha would like to do but cannot, because of her sense of responsibility. “It is unfair and the Lord should recognize that and ask Mary to go and help her sister,” says Martha.

There is an unattractive whining in Martha’s tone, but also a refreshing directness. She addresses Jesus directly, upbraiding him for allowing this breech of obligation by not telling Mary to help her. Instead of saying to her, “Mary it is not fair to leave all the chores of entertaining to your sister. Go and help her,” he says nothing, and when Martha comes to point this out and complain, he answers her infuriatingly, “You are worrying about little things, while Mary has chosen the one big thing, so leave her alone.”

The narrative background is the impending death of Jesus. These are not normal circumstances in which normal expectations are still in place. Martha who is right to expect help does not understand what time it is. Mary knows that this is the last time she will enjoy the company of the earthly Jesus. After this it will be the spiritual company, promised in the “which shall never be taken away from her.”

The point to focus on is this promise that what Mary has chosen will never be taken from her, which implies that what Martha has chosen, good and necessary though it is, will in due course be taken from her. What are these two things, one to be taken and one to abide with us forever? Well clearly, the former is the active life Martha chose and the latter the contemplative life Mary chose. In the tradition of the church this meant that a monastic life of contemplation was superior to a life of worldly activity. Since that traditional meaning of the two symbols is passé let us try to find another meaning for the symbols, taking Martha first and then Mary.

There is a time in life when one should be busy with many things, when early on one is still seeking the good and the true, busy to good purpose not busy to distraction. Then one narrows the horizon by choice as well as by necessity and if one has been wise and disciplined that narrowing takes place as a more and more intense focus on the really important things, until it alights on the one necessary thing, namely, the truth.

Mary surely has hard work in her history but now goes straight to the truth, without struggle, and having found it stays with it inseparably. The Martha type continues to postpone gratification because of the obligations she has to fulfill, Mary enjoys the one necessary thing, and the company of Jesus, Martha continues to attend to the many necessary things.

Does this mean that there are two distinct types of faith experience, one immediate and compelling one gradual and demanding? William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, wrote in his early classic, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” that there are two types of religious folk, “the once born” and “the twice born.” Do these types illuminate the two types we have in our story? Possibly: the Mary type is the twice born and the Martha type the once born. Mary goes straight to Jesus as if by some illumination and stays there as if no longer a part of this world. Martha goes to the kitchen and stays there working hard to make things go in this world. Both believe in Jesus.

What shall we say? Surely we can say both types are valid and praiseworthy? Surely we can telescope one into the other and acknowledge that Mary and Martha are aspects of one faith experience, its active and contemplative side, work and prayer. Indeed the Benedictine order has as its motto Orare et laborare, “To pray and to work.”

There are these two ways to be a Christian, equally praiseworthy, but one will pass away and the other will never be taken away. Let the one stand for the type of piety that is always in the business of trying to change the world and the other the type that seeks first, fellowship with the living Christ, the pearl of great price. This is wisdom: the laser point of life is Jesus Christ himself. If you wish to live in the world successfully, get in touch with his power, have a relationship with him. The world passes away; Jesus abides forever, and with him so shall we.

Amen.

“And Who is My Neighbor?”

“And Who is My Neighbor?”

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?” — Luke 10:29

Our readings set by the church’s common lectionary have for some time now been from the Gospel of Luke. By now we are completely convinced that this really is the Gospel for the Gentiles. Today we have come to the best known of Jesus’ many stories on the theme of the universally human, the theme of compassion for our fellow humans just because they are human, compassion crossing the boundaries fixed by religion, ethnic difference, class distinction and gender identity or preference. It is this story we usually call the “Good Samaritan” and it occurs only in this one of the four gospels.

We know it well, but let me point out some features that you might have missed or forgotten. In any case we need to hear the story often, if only because we need to see this exemplary scene again and again so that we might imitate its intention and become compassionate people ourselves.

Here are some points to notice: the one who asks the question is a Jewish lawyer and the religious law is its source. That law draws a circle around the Jewish people to ensure their identity as the chosen, cherished and holy people, the apple of God’s eye. We have the precise provenance of the question in the immediately previous passage. Jesus has just quoted the law book Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” One could interpret the passage in Leviticus in which this saying occurs restrictively or expansively. The lawyer interprets it restrictively, – that the neighbor in view is exclusively ones fellow Jewish neighbor and not non-Jews (Gentiles). Jesus on the contrary interprets it inclusively, the neighbor in view is every, single other human being. (Let me insert the caveat here that this contrast is polemical and so appears sharper than it would be in a more irenic and reflective rhetoric. The Jewish position on the insider/outsider problematic is more nuanced than it appears in this polemical and hortatory presentation. Let us concentrate not on the negative- Judaism is exclusive- but follow the positive point that compassion knows no boundaries, nor should it.

Even (especially) our enemies warrant compassion, and not so as to make them our friends but simply to affirm their humanity, which is after all the image of God our common Father, as clearly imprinted on them as on us. So let us not commit the farcical mistake of doing what the story prohibits as we recommend it for our and their spiritual benefit, that is act like the priest and Levite by implying that our religion is better than theirs because it is inclusive while theirs is exclusive.

The issue is not that one religion is better than another but rather that all religion, precisely by its nature as religion, makes genuine compassion impossible, because compassion is boundless and religion is the business of fixing boundaries and setting limits. “What profit do you have if you love only your friends? You should love your enemies!” says Jesus (Matthew 5:44). The section in the Sermon on the Mount from which this comes quotes the very text we are considering, Leviticus 19:18. Indeed, Matthew 5:44 might be read as a summary of the point of the Good Samaritan story. Jesus in Matthew defines compassion precisely as the love beyond boundaries, the love of enemies.

The Samaritans were the most bitter of the Jews’ enemies, more so even than the Romans, because the Samaritans were so very much like the Jews. They were enemy brothers, and we know by experience that sibling rivalry can be more hellish even than a woman scorned. It is not by chance that Cain and Abel are the first protagonists in the Bible’s story of our passing historical parade. The Samaritan leapt over the highest hurdle in his culture when he went to the assistance of a Jew. He did not do it grudgingly or fearfully – the robbers might still be there- but boldly and generously. He nursed the wounded man all night in his own bed at the inn and when he left he gave the inn-keeper money, the equivalent of two days of a laborer’s wages, to get the man what was needed, and promised on his return that way to reimburse him further if necessary. This Samaritan did not only love his enemy, he went the second mile, he blessed one who by implication cursed him and did good to one who, by implication, had done him and his people harm. That, as those allusions to the Sermon on the Mount confirm, is what Jesus calls love or compassion. It is defined necessarily, but of course not sufficiently, by the trespassing of normal boundaries in a world of cultural differences and ethnic distinctions.

The priest and the Levite symbolize the very opposite of compassion, the priority of separateness before solidarity, and the impasse of religion. They show that religion makes compassion impossible. How? The text is very emphatic on this matter. Twice Luke uses the verb for passing at a distance (antiparelthen), “They saw him and passed him at a distance.” By contrast the Samaritan “saw him and was moved with compassion (esplanchnisthe) and ran towards him (proselthen).” Compassion moved him towards the stricken man, while religion moved the priest and Levite away from him.

Luke also uses this word for “being moved with compassion” to describe Jesus’ reaction to the widow of Nain weeping at her son’s bier. He says to her “don’t cry” and her raises her son life again (7:13). And he uses it to describe the reaction of the father when he saw his prodigal son returned. He crossed the boundary of injured paternal honor, of moral expectation (that the son would be punished) and fell upon him weeping and whooping, because his lost son had come home (15:20).

Notice also the contrast between the “anti” and “pro” prefixes in the verbs describing the different reactions. The religious figures are anti-, the heretic is pro-, they go on the opposite side of the road, they are the opposition, he approaches the wounded man, he is the support.

Nothing could be clearer as a condemnation of religion, but there is one more emphatic indicator that Luke had precisely this criticism in mind. He says of the victim that he was “half dead” (hemithane). Why include such a detail? Because in that state the priest and Levite could not determine from a distance whether he was dead or alive, and their rules of ritual purity said that touching a corpse would pollute them and temporarily disqualify them from doing their religious duties. So they kept their distance judging ritual purity to be more important than human life.

I will not here belabor the obvious similarity between these religious figures and the Catholic hierarchy that considers the reputation of the church to be more important than the serious abuse of children – religious rectitude before human well-being, power before truth, institution before individual.

Let me end with a brief summary. The main point is the same as the previous two or three passages we have been given to consider – there is a common humanity in the same divine image and compassion for all must defy boundaries to do the right thing. Compassion is that “right thing,” so let us allow ourselves to be moved by the human needs that meet us on our road down to Jericho, (or Los Angeles), and let us go to meet them not shy away from them, and above all let us go on learning from Jesus in his stories and sayings, which are interpreted to us by the Spirit within, who also empowers us to imitate Jesus and do good.

Come Holy Spirit, Come Lord Jesus!

Amen.

Demons of Distinctiveness

Demons of Distinctiveness

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

“‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” — Luke 8:39

This week the Lectionary again links Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, and Luke the Gospel for the Gentiles, and their message of our common humanity reaches a climax. Paul writes the iconic declaration, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). Luke tells the story of a mentally ill homeless man who had been expelled from his town and lived in the environs in a cemetery. So here are: one message of inclusion, one story of exclusion, and one Jesus reconciling all, beyond the distinctions of religion, social status, gender, and neighborhood. (Living in the open in a cemetery would surely ruin ones social life).
We immediately recognize these forms of social distinction and how alive and well they are today.

Last week in Jerusalem a school for the children of orthodox Jews built a wall through itself to keep the Ashkenazi (European) Jews separate from the Sephardic (North African) Jews. Both groups are ultra orthodox but the Europeans claim that the Africans are not orthodox enough to mix with them. I know this social attitude well, from my South African childhood. The signage of distinction then read “Europeans only” and “Natives.” Racist distinction was likewise disguised as religious distinction. So Apartheid is not gone, it has merely moved its principal residence.

Last week in Kirgizstan the native Kirgiz rose up against the Uzbeks living in their midst, murdered many and drove about 100,000 out of the country into refugee camps over the border.

Within the last year or so two women were given forty lashes by their Muslim states, one for wearing Western style pants in public and one for meeting with her former boyfriend without chaperone on the eve of her wedding to return certain photographs to him.
And some years ago a number of Saudi schoolgirls fleeing a fire in their school dormitory were sent back into the burning building to get their headscarves before they could appear in public. They were all burned to death; the man on the spot who ordered this is now a minister of state.

On one of her many visits to us my late mother noticed that the homeless on the streets of Palo Alto very often displayed signs that identified them as ” unemployed vets.” She turned to me and asked with real concern why so many veterinarians were out of work. (In British circles veterans are called, rather clumsily, ex-servicemen). We have all been accosted by mentally ill, hugely obnoxious, nuisances like the one who accosted Jesus on the outskirts of Gerasa, even on the “nice” streets of Palo Alto.

These are all examples of the distinctions Paul and Luke have in mind when they claim, in statement and in story that Jesus can bring an end to these punishing differences. Jesus can cast out the demons of distinction and discrimination, but only if we allow him.

Note that The Pauline statement begins by laying down a proviso: ‘provided you have been baptized into Christ …you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It is very important to see this rocklike proviso, otherwise the declaration of a common humanity is merely a humanistic hope, such as many utopian prophets have vainly foretold. They have all, however, had their own peculiar proviso – common ownership of the means of production, pure Aryan race, strict gender equality, totally free markets, untrammeled big oil (Obama you socialist, apologize to BP for shaking them down!), environmental apocalypse or complacency.

These provisos are also called ideologies, and too much Christian theology is nowadays just such an ideology. Having given up believing in Jesus we identify his kingdom with the fruits of free markets or the benefits of female dominance or the promise of green technology or the beneficence of big business, or one of the many other ideologies that have become from time to time the fashionable idolatries of the Protestant pulpit.

But Christ Jesus alone is in fact and in truth our only proviso; he is the rock of faith and our divine other in the relationship that is life. He is neither an idea nor an ideology, he is a person, and our link to him is personal. He is the person of our Creator God made available to us for a relationship of creativity and love. He is joy and satisfaction, he is hope and love.

Let us conclude with a short meditation on the madman from the cemetery. Jesus meets him and instead of rebuffing him Jesus rebuffs the demons in him. Jesus, so to speak, embraces him and chases his tormenters. He loves the sinner and hates the sin. When the people from his village find the man, he is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to the teaching. Can you believe that they are not glad, they are afraid (vs. 35). “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Garasenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned.” (vs. 37).

Why were they afraid? Several reasons, one of which is that Jesus had disrupted the comfortable contours of their social organization. The man in the cemetery was integral to that organization: “All is well with the world, God is in his heaven, we are cozy in our kitchens, and the scapegoat is out in the cemetery. He is a big reason why we feel so cozy because in order to be an “in” there has to be someone who is “out.” The stuff of cultural identity is a pattern of distinctions and differences, and the most important distinction is the one between the “in” and the “out.”

The man in the cemetery was no longer mentally ill and was returning to the village to be a walking, talking witness to the possibility that outcasts can be re-accepted, scapegoats can return and violent hostility can become friendship again. This transformation does not happen easily or in the natural course of things. We need Jesus to do this for us. This in fact is what only Jesus can do for us,… if we let him.

What is the chance that we will let him? Not good! In the story the potential beneficiaries of his gracious power are terrified of him and beg him to go away. They do not want their order of society altered. They love their violence, competitiveness, scapegoats and mythology.

Jesus respected their freedom to choose the dark side. He went away, … but he left behind as a witness the erstwhile demoniac, now lucid, peaceful and whole. Why did he send the poor man back into the very situation that has destroyed him before?

How long do you think it would be before he was back in the cemetery, full again of the demons that were really only the mythic forms of his fellow citizens’ hostility?

Why does Jesus send us back into the toxic environment of sacred violence? This is a difficult question for which I have no answer. Perhaps Jesus thought that his witness could change a few people. If so the madman has become a figure of Christ, one who goes into the violence to experience there the Cross that Jesus experienced.

So only the Cross can change the world if we believe in it and witness to Jesus who made it a way of salvation and healing for us who follow him.

Amen.

“God Has Visited His People.”

“God Has Visited His People.”

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7: 11-17

“When it pleased God who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace to reveal His son in me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not first consult with flesh and blood, neither did I go up to Jerusalem to consult those who were Apostles before me, but I went of into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.” — Galatians 2:15-17

We are given two passages for our instruction today, one is from the Gospel of Luke, 7:11-17 and another from Galatians 2:15-17. They have two very different contexts but bear one and the same message. What is that message? It is the one and only distinguishing facet of the moral teaching of Jesus and his real followers, that God loves all equally and is readily available to everyone, regardless of race, nation, gender, social status or style of life. The passages both tell us that in Jesus God transgresses the boundaries of tribalism, codified in custom and religion, and reaches out to embrace the outsiders, called in Hebrew the “goyim” and in English the “Gentiles.”

It is mistakenly thought that Christian faith is unique by its teaching of love alone, but this cannot be true because most if not all the religions, great and small, teach love as a cardinal virtue. What sets the faith of Jesus apart is that this love is not love of ones tribal relatives and religious confreres alone. Christian faith teaches the believer to love everyone equally and indiscriminately, as God loves. This moral teaching is, in turn, not unique by itself alone. For example, in the historical context of the New Testament, Stoic philosophy taught the love of all because of the common humanity evinced by reason (Logos) in human beings. Of course, this coincidence cannot mean that the one teaching can be reduced to the other. Jesus and Zeno have different fundamental convictions that make the moral similarity more apparent than real. I mention this only to show that it is impossible to establish uniqueness empirically, and that arguments about which religion or philosophy occupies the pinnacle of the moral high ground are foolish.

For this reason we leave all comparisons behind and try yet once more to learn the moral truth of Jesus’ message, that love’s horizon includes everyone, even our enemies. Let me show you how this message arises from our two texts.

The story of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain echoes an incident in the life of Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 17:9) in which he raises from death the son of a Gentile woman. Luke uses that story of the great prophet serving the Gentile woman in 4:26, to make the point that God cares for the Gentiles as much as for the Jews. This claim so infuriated Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes that they tried to throw him off a nearby cliff. So the “great prophet” that has arisen now that God has “visited his people” is Jesus, the greater Elijah (7:16). Like Elijah he is compassionate to a wretched widow (and widows were totally bereft without their sons to give them status and succor). Furthermore Jesus touches the bier – a detail not required by the narrative, but important to Luke’s point that the divine compassion defies religious taboos to rectify and to save (touching things to do with the dead makes one ritually unclean). This is a story of God reaching out to the Gentiles.

The Pauline passage underlines this point. “…God revealed his Son in me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal1: 15 -16). He must take God’s truth beyond the boundaries of Mosaic Israel, like Elijah, who went to the widow of Zarephtah in Sidon (Luke 4:26; 1 Kings 17). There are several words in this autobiographical account of Paul’s conversion- an account much to be preferred to the novelistic accounts in Acts (9, 22, 26) – that place it in the category of the “prophet’s call”, words like “set apart” “called” and the idea of the specific purpose, to preach to the Gentiles. In ancient Israel prophets like Elijah were set apart, called and commissioned, and so it was with Paul.

I take it as agreed now that our Bible wants us to learn the indiscriminate, unconditional nature of love, and I want now to explore whether this idea of love can have any meaning in real life.

Freud said that such love is beyond our emotional means and, furthermore, is an insult to our inner circle, who have a prior claim on our love. We can easily imagine those who love humanity and misuse their family, but can we imagine a love of family that broadens its horizon until it encompasses the world? By faith we can begin to make love grow like that, but we will have to allow that in such a broadening the nature of love changes to fit the circumstances. This constant and variable changing is unimaginable to human beings, so that unless there is divine help nothing will come of it. Here is where we are forced to leave the field of morality, love as a duty and a command, and enter the field of faith.

We cannot imagine a universal love and therefore we cannot study to practice it; but we can believe and experience the living Jesus as the divine fountainhead of boundless compassion. The Apostle testifies to the reality of the living love of God when he says that God first revealed the divine Son in him and then sent him to preach to the Gentiles.

Nicholas Christoff, the NYT “bleeding heart” correspondent, has been writing recently of Catholic nuns and priests working in thankless Africa. There is not enough money in the world to pay someone to do what they do. Theirs is an otherworldly motivation, and without their mysterious compassion and groundless generosity the world would be a starkly more wretched and cynical space. Said Paul, “…when God revealed his Son in me, I was at last able to take him to the Gentiles.” First look for that revelation of Christ in you, that otherworldly motivation, and only then risk loving the world, otherwise the thankless world will break your heart.

Now the whole world is Gentile; there are only Gentiles, despite the pathetic, rearguard violence of religious superstition parading everywhere and in all religions. The truly Christian reality of boundless love – that there are only Gentiles and each is loved equally by God – is emerging as the only enduring moral and spiritual truth we know in this vale of tears. I pray that the Christian churches may discover this legacy soon, for as institutions they seem not even to have heard of it.

Amen.

The Oneness of the Church in God

The Oneness of the Church in God

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture:Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

“… so that they may all be one, as you Father are in me and I in you; that they also might be in us; in order that the world might believe that you sent me.” — John 17:21

My sermon last sermon (May 2) provoked four written responses. Verl Clausen, a retired Lutheran pastor, said it sounded like one of Luther’s great “rants” against the Papacy and all its works. James Alison, a RC priest confirmed my estimate of the hierarchy, with the proper reservations of a member of the church it rules, and James Williams, a convert to Catholicism from the United Methodist clergy, gently hinted that we Protestants cannot claim innocence in these matters. Wolfgang Palaver, a professor of ethics in the Catholic faculty in Innsbruck, Austria sent me a learned paper on the theory of hierarchy. To all I say “Thanks” for sharing with me their wisdom and temperance.

Reading today’s lesson from John 17, I could barely keep from weeping. Jesus prays for us that we be one in God, and one in Him and in each other, so that the world might believe that He is the one whom God has sent. He prays that God will set His Glory upon us all. I read this in the light of where we Christians are today, and I ask, “How could we possibly be one now?”

I think of the natural tendency to disassociate oneself from those presently in trouble, as well as the centuries of sectarian shame we Christians share; and then there are the national, cultural, and theological factors that continue to make our faith feckless as a spiritual force, producing at the macro level not peace and tranquility but rivalry and violence. I think of the mimetic effect of violence in religious zealotry in general: when I read the words of Islamists, of Jewish settlers and of KKKristians I see that they are mimetic doubles each of the each other. The more “religious” one becomes the more violent and vainglorious one is. The “Ditchkens” (Dawkins and Hitchens) have at least decency on their side when they ridicule religions today. I abhor their carelessness in debate but welcome their honesty in general. (I share at least in part their challenging demand that the Pope should be arrested on his visit to Britain later this year and tried before the International Human Rights Tribunal, as Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain some years ago on a warrant from Spain. The judge who issued that warrant is, as we speak, removed from the bench and being tried for nebulous reasons).

“How shall we Christians be One in this time and in this plight?” Here is one possible way: we can all confess and not deny or excuse that we are ONE IN SIN. I believe that a great Reformation is possible in the unlikely event that we Protestants rise up and stand with the humiliated Catholics, – all Christians together -, in the solidarity of sin. We have all, like Peter the premier apostle, denied our Lord, and that more than three times. We are all guilty and we should all be ashamed. As the church in all its forms we have nothing to plead in mitigation, and we should not have, because by our faith all our good works fall short of merit, and justification before the divine tribunal can only be by that freely forgiving divine love known as Grace. We stand by God’s Grace or not at all. Let us show the world how much we need that Grace; let us have done with defending ourselves, and leave our defense to the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit who speaks for us, the divine “Counsel for the Defense.” We cannot defend ourselves because we have done the crime of which we stand accused; only the Paraclete can match the Prince of this World when the latter constantly and often justly accuses us.

I am speaking metaphorically here, using the imagery of the Gospel of John; nevertheless this rhetoric corresponds to reality. Any PR advisor who knows his job will tell you that the attempt to wriggle and charm and cover and cry like a crocodile makes the matter worse. One must be frank and honest, and accept the consequences of ones actions or omissions. Therefore, we Protestants, and all Christians, should share the Catholic moment of humiliation. After all,

The ways this vision of solidarity in sin can be distorted and turned to self-serving rivalry are myriad and the possibility that it might be realized is remote, but in advocating it I am speaking as a preacher not a strategist. I am articulating what I believe the Gospel wants us to do not what is the prudent way to proceed. Indeed, I don’t even know the details of how to acknowledge publicly that we Christians are all in this together, but I do know that spiritually speaking, as we love Christ so we must love our Christian brothers and sisters, especially in the hour of their need, and publically stand with them in the confession of our common helplessness before sin and shame.

Obviously, this action has nothing to do with the way the consequences of actions in this world are to be dealt with – that is, the issue of punishments civil and ecclesiastical- but it does give the world an example of humility, and of what we believe about our God; that He is a God of Grace for us all. It says that we Christians stand together and are One in Christ as we are one in sin, which is one of the clearest indications of our need of Christ.
On the individual and personal level it means that we shall grieve with rather than gloat over those gone astray, saying always, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We shall not demonize the perpetrators but we shall ask for clear and sincere repentance, and the right action to be taken.

If we can allow the Spirit to bring us to lay down our arms and stop all self-justification and defense, we can stand forth fearless before a world that has hardly a fig leaf to cover its own degradation. We shall not fear righteous judgment because we deserve it and affirm it, and we shall not fear unrighteous judgment because the Paraclete will defend and comfort us.

Amen.

Commanded to Love?

Commanded to Love?

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 2, 2010

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6; John 13: 31-35

“I give you a new commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ You must love one another exactly as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples; because there is love among you.” — John 13:34-35

A few days ago I saw yet another one of those movies about a police search for a serial killer in NYC. I watched chiefly because two heavyweight actors who are favorites of mine, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, were together playing the leading roles. One of the serial killer’s victims was a Roman Catholic priest, whom the killer shot to death in the confessional box. Later he confesses roughly as follows, “I was only a little boy when he put me on his lap and told me he loved me… He deserved to die for what he did to me.” So we are abruptly face to face with an enormous, crippling crime committed by the disciples of Jesus in the name of love, and in the showcase branch of the church, the Roman Catholic denomination.

I can hardly speak out loud the dismay I feel at the persuasive and ever growing evidence that the single largest organized body of Jesus’ followers is being shown, against it own will or willingness, to be and have been for generations a massive sexual predation of little children. It sickens me to see the craven defensiveness of these men who continue to put the interest of an institution ahead of their purported Master’s love for people young and old. Any decent person who witnessed Cardinal Levada’s oily prevarications on the PBS Newshour last week must conclude that these princes of the church and their episcopal accomplices are embarrassments to anyone who still wishes to be called a Christian, and unworthy to lead us.

In my opinion, the only approach to the beginning of a remedy for this infestation is for the whole hierarchy of the Catholic church from the rotten head to the feet of clay to resign en masse and exile themselves to the loneliest and most punitive outposts of their monastic properties, where they might repent at leisure until they face the judgment of God. If they refuse to imprison themselves in this way they should be hauled off to civil prisons under indeterminate sentence. I include the Pope and Cardinal Levada in this purview, but I know this is an impossible dream. “Who made you a judge in this case?” you ask. “I made myself,” I answer, “because Jesus is my Lord too, and furthermore I believe any decent human being would agree with me.”

At a time when violence is erupting from fissures in all the religions, when Islam is planning to nuke the world if the rest of us don’t put our women in purdah and prostrate ourselves five times a day in prayer, when Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims are murdering each other wholesale across India and Pakistan, and Buddhists have just completed a slaughter of Tamils in Sri Lanka, Christianity’s showcase institution is unveiled as a perpetrator of violence against children, not as an occasional aberration but as a systemic activity, as an institutionalized violence against its most vulnerable charges and against the poor parents who entrusted them. You may judge this view of mine to be extreme, but when this activity continues for generations over wide geographical areas and those institutionally responsible for stopping it cover it up, putting the reputation of the institution ahead of the health of those it supposedly serves, that is clearly institutionalized violence and common crime, and my position is in fact only modestly just. And more than violence and crime this institutional behavior is a travesty of faith, a mockery of hope, and a betrayal of love.

I believe that a wrong understanding of the nature of the Church and a faulty image of the nature of the ministerial office in the church are two salient causes of this institutionalized sexual violence. They are not the only causes but they are close to the heart of the cluster of causes that pushes this cart of catastrophe. I cannot address those issues here but I am willing to put my claims to debate at any time in the appropriate forum.

Let me, therefore, cut away to our text and ask what it has for us today. In the light of what I have been saying my attention falls first on the statement that love is what describes the spirit of the community of Jesus’ disciples. “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples; because there is love among you.” That is surely a definition of the church, the community where love is present.

Then I ask, “What is love?” and the text tells me that it is to imitate Jesus. Twice Jesus tells us: “You must love one another exactly as I have loved you.” In this context the Jesus to imitate is the Lord who kneels before his subjects, the teacher who washes his students’ feet (A teacher who tried that today would be thrown into prison immediately, because the civil sphere is at the other extreme from the Catholic Church in these matters. Touch a child, even in humble love, and it’s the state prison for you!). In our world students are expected to honor their teachers and subjects serve their rulers, but here in the world of our text, the world of Jesus it is different: “And so if I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example so that what I have done you should do too (vs. 14-15).”

When the Lord humbles himself before the serfs, they in turn are obliged by that example to humble themselves before each other, and thus the escalating competitiveness of rivals stops. Escalating rivalry is the essential nature of human groups clustered around a figure of power and prestige. The followers vie for greater and greater shares of the prestige of the leader. In the White House I believe the symbol of this power is called “face time” with the President, and is placarded by the proximity of your office to the Oval Office. In the corporate world it is the “corner office” that counts, and in show business the Star on the dressing room door. Not so in the world of Jesus. There, if there is a movement driven by desire it is driven downward, to your knees, to serve.

Jesus stops this escalation of rivalry not by commandment but by example; thus not only the content but also the form and the dynamics of commandment as such is changed. The “new commandment” is new in every way; no longer a sheer assertion of authority, but now the setting of an example and the communicating of a vision and an inspiration. The situation is like the good military officer who leads by doing and demonstrating. It is the heart of leadership, that elusive quality that makes us want to follow a leader and even anticipate his needs and wants before he has to ask or command.

The Pope, therefore, should lead by example and thus inspire his accomplices in this institutional crime to cease from evasion and prevarication. He should open the archives and show the world all the shameful truth. We will all then be able to forgive, and we shall, all of us forgive, because as Marilyn Albright once said of the USA, the Roman Church is an “indispensable institution,” especially in our exiguous times. The contamination of this indispensable spiritual resource has brought on us yet more dread of apocalypse than is already abroad. I myself feel something like spiritual panic and there runs through my mind that question of Jesus. “When the Son of Man comes, shall he find faith on earth (Luke 18:8)?”

This has been a sermon driven by circumstances, while trying to be true to the timeless Word of God. The commandment to love in close context has been the example of Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet, but that has been only the image of an image. In the total context the example (and of course much more than an example) of love, is Jesus on the Cross, washing the feet of the world in his own divine blood. That is what Jesus points to when he says to Peter who tries to prevent him from washing his feet, “At present you do not understand what I am doing, but after what is about to happen, you will understand (John13: 7);” and what is about to happen is the slow torture to death on a cross of this lovely man who never did anyone any harm, but only good, humbly and truly. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends (John 15: 13).” And even more telling, “…for his enemies (Romans 5: 10).”

Amen.

“Do You Love Me?”

“Do You Love Me?”

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

“Simon, son of John, do you love me…?” — John 21:15,16,17

In this coda to the Gospel of John the risen Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Can there be a more poignant question? How many times have we asked that of one another, in our uncertainty, our hope, and our need! “Do you love me? Do you really love me, ‘more than all others’?” How many affirmative answers has it taken to satisfy our need? Countless! We seem to need a “Yes very much!” response every day. Why then does Peter resent being asked a third time? Can it be that he does not understand the human need, especially after a threefold betrayal, of multiple affirmations of renewed love and loyalty? Can it be that the risen Jesus still needs his earthly friends? Still wants to reconcile with a dear friend who had let him down badly?

I have introduced this psychological note into a text that is by intention theological rather than novelistic, for two reasons: to highlight by contrast its hieratic nature, and to open the door for reflection on the nature of the ongoing relationship between God and us.
Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage sees it as a strong warrant for the unique authority of Peter and his successors in the Chair of Peter. Jesus entrusts to Peter the care of his lambs, of his flock, and of his sheep. Jesus commands: “Feed my lambs… shepherd my flock…feed my sheep.” This interpretation does justice to the theological intention of the passage, which is to cancel the three denials in which Peter’s fear trumped Peter’s faith and his cowardice cancelled his integrity. Catholicism builds on this and Matthew 16 a doctrine of the Church as an inviolable institution literally resting on the physical person of Peter and those whom Peter literally touches through a succession of men (only) who pass that touch from one to another by the “laying on of hands.” The ramifications of this succession make up the essence of the church, its hierarchy, and the hierarchy inhabits a special world of inviolable authority.

Protestant interpretation bases the nature of the church not on Peter’s literal identity as Simon son of John (he could have been George son of Harry), but on Peter’s confession of love for Jesus, on his repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, and on Jesus’ determination not to humiliate, punish or reject him, but rather to raise him up again, enable him to return to the love they once shared, and turn his head from the shameful side glance to the candid face to face. Jesus “saves Peter’s face.”

So hear my interpretation: Firstly, it is a relief beyond belief that I who have betrayed my Jesus many more times than three, hear him asking, again and again, “Do you love me?” The premise of that question stops my mouth with amazement and chokes me with gratitude: “He still loves me! He still loves me! How can that be after all the betrayals?” Our story tells us first and foremost that God saves (our face) and God reconciles with us, because God loves, incessantly and indefeasibly, not just Peter but all of us, you and even me.

Secondly then, Peter stands for every Christian. He is our representative and that means that the church is not a hierarchy of historical privilege but a community of common sinners in the process of being loved into being and truth by the living God. Put yourself in the place of Peter in this story. Don’t stand aside observing one man named Peter being endowed with a special privilege, but see yourself as Peter and hear God ask for your love, and accept from him the gift of the great confidence he has in you. Yes, a great confidence, because he entrusts to you and me the feeding of his lambs, which is the very sum and substance of his church. The church is the community where the love of Jesus for each of us feeds all of us. Not only does Jesus reconcile with his betrayer, with me, but he also shows again complete confidence in me and entrusts to me the feeding of his lambs.

Please don’t make my comparison of the Catholic and Protestant readings of our story a cause of contention. I have made the comparison for rhetorical reasons, to highlight by contrast. There is too much about Catholic theology that I do not know to license my comparison as criticism. Let me rather conclude with a brief meditation on the love of Christ, both subjectively and objectively.

Subjectively the topic is Christ’s love for us; objectively it is our love for Christ. Christ’s love for us is the overwhelming truth of our story and of our faith. He suffers humiliation, pain and death in order to save our lives, he forgives our disloyalty to a best friend, and he even cooks us breakfast. When last did you have a cooked breakfast? So the great good news is that “where sin abounds grace super -abounds,” (Romans 5), that grace always trumps shame, and since it is the Risen Jesus with whom we are having breakfast, life always trumps death. Let that divine love be the first and last word; let it be the banner over us.

Objectively, that is concerning our love for Christ, the case is not quite as uncomplicated as Christ’s love for us. We still betray him, even when we know this story and also know by experience the agony of a lover’s treachery. Is this because we do not find Christ lovely and loveable, or is it because we cannot yet do the deed of love itself well enough? I think both causes are in play: many of us cannot find Christ lovable because we cannot find him at all; our faith fails us. Many of us cannot love him enough because we love ourselves too much; in the instant we love our self rather than Christ’s self.

Clearly we cannot do much more here than mention these questions; to answer them is the work of perhaps more than one lifetime, so let us leave it there. Except for this: Recently I was reminded that St Augustine taught that moral action was guided at the deepest level not by law but by love. He said, “If you want to know what kind of a man he is, don’t ask him what he believes, find out what he loves. A man will always do what he loves, rather than what he believes.” That is a paraphrase not a quote but it gives the gist of Augustine’s wisdom. He is right, of course. That is why Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Not “Will you obey me?” or “Do you believe in me?” This truth warrants the soundness of Augustine’s well-known and immensely helpful additional moral maxim, “Love God! And do what you please.”

Those corrupters of public morals, the media of all kinds, understand this and try always to suborn our love rather than persuade our minds or command our wills. They suborn by imitation; they show desirable people and circumstances and we copy that desire and follow like lambs to the slaughter. We are enticed by the simple portrayal of false love. Or they paint pictures of horror and we imitate their mock recoil in dismay and anger. (We have too much of the latter imitation in our political discourse these days).

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks you, looking you in the eye. If you can answer like Peter did, aver three time, or as many times as your betrayals might require, that you do, or perhaps more honestly, that you want to, you will begin to wake up to the amazing grace that already enfolds you, and to step out in the freedom of action inspired by your love of God, that is, by your response to God’s love for you; and you will begin ay last really to become responsible.

Amen.

The First and Last Enemy

The First and Last Enemy

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

“For as through a man death entered the world, so through a man did the Resurrection of the dead, that is, just as in Adam all of us died so in Christ shall we all be made alive again…so the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” — 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 26

The claim of Easter is the most daring affirmation we Christians ever make, an on its truth depends the whole of the faith. The Apostle describes plainly what is at stake today, “For if Christ has not been raised we have been misrepresenting God, because we have been testifying all along that he raised Christ…Furthermore, if Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still subject to death. If our hope in Christ is for this life alone we are the most pathetic people in the world. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19 selections. My own translation).

Today we believers step up to the microphone and announce the answer to the first, last and most abiding question we can ask. Question: “Does death bring an end to everything a human being knows, loves or hopes for?” Answer: “No! Life trumps death, because our creator wills us to live as long as He shall love us, and His love like Himself never ends, so as long as God is there to love us, just so long shall you and I be there to be loved. God has shown us the factual truth of this His power over death, by raising Jesus. “Death is now swallowed up in victory! Where O Death is now your victory? Where O Death is now your sting?” (Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14, quoted by the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). “In him (Jesus) was Life and the Life was the Light of men. And the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to understand it nor quench it ” (John 1: 4-5, my translation).” So today we step up to announce what we have long known, that Life and Light trump death and darkness and that the raising of Jesus from the grave proves it. Yes, proves it, in a simple, matter-of-fact way.

If you cannot accept the simple truth of this claim you should in conscience depart from the Christian faith. Such a departure could be an honest, even honorable thing to do; too many of us have given up or never accepted this central affirmation of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the proof of God’s power and goodwill towards us, nevertheless we have hung on to fragments of the faith for devious reasons and for the most part been a burden on the Gospel, easily distorting its emphasis and turning it into moral platitudes and conventional “niceness,” and making us “pitiful,” as the Apostle says, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world.

Recently a reviewer of the posthumous short book on Augustine by the late Henry Chadwick characterizes the Christianity of Julian of Eclanum, Pelagius’ brilliant apologist and Augustine’s interlocutor on grace and freewill as follows: ” …Christ does not need to be more than an exceptionally wise and good man to offer the supreme model of grace and inspiration which is all that Julian speaks of. This is the kind of deeply un-Christian Christianity for which the Russian Church condemned Tolstoy as a heretic.” (Lucy Beckett in the Times Literary Supplement, for 04/02/2010). It is precisely this “deeply un-Christian Christianity” that I have in mind here, along with the thoughtless thinkers and immoral moralists that fill our intellectual air with particles of spiritual pollution.

Either Christ is Risen and we are ecstatic with hope and joy, swept up in excitement and relief because what we have always walked in dread of, is not real and will not happen. Or we do not believe that Christ is Risen indeed and in fact and we pitifully propose symbolic solutions to salvage a fragment of encouragement from the shipwreck of hope. Better to walk away ruefully into an honest Stoicism than tarry with a crowd of hypocrites, a “deeply unchristian Christianity.”

It is not only the un-Christian Christians who pathetically manipulate the symbols of confidence by pulling the strings of selfish fantasy, pretending to receive salvation without giving anything for it. The world apart from Christ has always done so, seeking everywhere for ersatz answers to the real question and risk free wagers on life and death. Nevertheless, they cannot avoid asking that question, however ineptly. Let me illustrate this: Recently I revisited the cult movie of 1999 called “The Matrix.” Keanu Reeves wanders perpetually puzzled in a dangerous world, where the machines have taken over and keep the humans in a sort of cyber “fish tank” made possible by a curtain of digital signs, which is the software for this cyber world. This software curtain is the “matrix” and its world is unreal. The real world is a barren post apocalyptic ruin. Nevertheless there is a group of humans who somehow have escaped the matrix and live in the real world, whose real rigors they prefer to the unreal comforts of fantasy. The Oracle has prophesied that one will come to deliver them from the machines and enable a return to reality. Keanu Reeves is he, aptly named Neo, “the new guy,” and he engages the battle, shadowed all the way by a tough woman in black vinyl. Neo is killed in a duel with a machine. As his avatar lies broken somewhere in the matrix, his real self dies in its chair in the human headquarters, Zion. The end? Not at all! We have not been paying enough attention to the babe in black vinyl. She looks lovingly at Neo’s corpse and says: “The Oracle prophesied that I would fall in love with a dead man, and I have. She kisses him on the throat and Voila! The Resurrection of Neo! Brought about by the love of a good woman. (I trust I do not need to point out the romantic lie in this version of the story).

What do we have here, in this path breaker of the emerging culture? The oldest story in the world: human being trapped in fantasy and futility waiting for a savior or liberator to lead them out into the really real; along comes the savior uncertain of his identity and task, but gaining insight with experience; defeated by the powers and principalities (of technology in this case), he is killed; the love of a good woman brings him back to life and he resumes the battle, this time confident that as long as he is loved he is invincible.

This is a “techie romance” rendering of the oldest story ever told, indeed, the only story ever told, namely the quest for life in the face of death. This story structures not only the Matrix, which has become ground zero for the windy fantasies of the “Singularity is Near” crowd, but also the Epic of Gilgamesh, the third millennium BC novel of Gilgamesh’s grief at the death of his male lover Enkidu and his quest to find him and bring him back alive.

The Easter story is this same “one an only” human story told at last not as a poem of longing, or a fiction, forming images of significance in an alternative world, but as a matter-of-fact historical account of the defeat of death. In the Easter story Neo really lives again but not by the love of a good woman but by the love of God, which is the power of new creation; Gilgamesh finds Enkidu alive and brings him home from the frozen wastes where he lost him, not by his own skill and devotion but by the pity of the divine savior, the savior who went into that hell where Gilgamesh lost his way, and brought forth all those who are imprisoned there into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

CS Lewis, the Oxbridge don who wrote pugnacious apologies for the Christian faith tells of a visit from a friend late on Christmas eve. ” Rum thing, rum thing” says the friend sipping Lewis’ sherry (English dons used to speak like that in the forties of last century), “rum thing. It seems that all the fantastic hopes and dreams of all the myths and stories and songs and sagas at last actually happened.” He was thinking of Christmas, but I shall appropriate his comment for Easter. Yes, the hope that the prophets and bards and singers of tales, the truth that the grubbers and diggers of facts and pharmaceuticals, and whatever else there is or has been in the human struggle for meaning in the face of death, have all paid off.

We now know for a fact that life trumps death, and mirabile dictu, that my little life does too, and that I shall live and not die forever. After a brief and mysterious passage He will raise me up as a new creation and I shall enjoy the Life that is the Light of men, that the darkness could neither understand nor snuff out, and has now dazzled the darkness away forever.

Amen.