March 24, 2016 | Phil McCarthy ND
It’s easy these days to duped into a sense of panic as we observe what is happening in this country and in the world around us. The world is not majoring on hospitality right now! The sight on our TV screens of American Republican political candidates is deeply troubling as they spew hatred, actively foster racism and violence, glorify war and even war crimes, seek to exploit people’s fear of minorities into votes for political office, and firmly divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ camps.
We are experiencing rampant capitalism as worship of the dollar and corporate profits is obliterating any sense of social justice or social responsibility. Witness the CEO of Nestle arguing that people have no right of access to water, or the giant agricultural company Monsanto attempting to prevent poor farmers from growing and using patented seed, or the oil companies actively campaigning against effective climate change responses.
Here in New Zealand, we’ve heard the cry of anguish of the Children’s Commissioner as a real opportunity to do something about poor housing standards for poor children goes sliding past.
Writing in Tui Motu magazine recently, Presbyterian minister Peter Matheson commented on these worrying NZ trends. Noting that the powers-that-be of the corporate and political worlds are truly formidable, he went on to say (1):
“Behind the callow ‘humanism” which largely has replaced a religious commitment can lurk a ruthless inhumanity. There is scant sympathy for the refugee, the fostered child, the lowly paid and the weak. Into the vacuum of values has rushed a totalitarianism of the market, impatient of dissent and with a growing throttle-hold on education, health and welfare”…
“The dominant culture we are up against in Aotearoa today has both ideological and structural dimensions. It propagates a vision of social life that is predominantly hedonistic and individualistic”.
There is a right and a wrong way to respond to this I think.
To return briefly to the American presidential campaign, Trump has apparently promised that under a Trump presidency “Christianity will have power again” – stick with me and I will give you influence, power and prestige. But this is of course is NOT the voice of Jesus; it’s the voice of the tempter in the Desert. What we DO need to do, in response to the hate-filled rhetoric or the marginalisation of faith, is to seek to anchor ourselves in the Gospel. By that, I don’t mean – as some seem to – the process of converting people to Christianity. Rather, to commit to develop the ability to ‘recognise Jesus’. To search the life and teaching of Jesus; the ‘Gospel in the Gospels’.
I attended a Catholic primary school in the mid 60s. Our teacher at that time, a Marist Brother, was in the habit of rewarding good pupils with a weekend off homework. But we still had to do something! (Almost) every week, I was one of the good guys and that meant I had to learn by heart a few verses from that Sunday’s gospel. Every weekend for two years. Never the prophets, never Genesis, Exodus or Deuteronomy. Not even Paul or Revelation. Always Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. I sometimes scandalise people when I say my faith is not rooted in the Bible. Rather, my faith is rooted in Jesus. What’s the difference? It seems to me some ‘Biblical’ faith perspectives in effect see Jesus as just one among many biblical voices. Other biblical voices contest and compete with Jesus, and some kind of trade-off seems to go on. But my faith says to me that it is Jesus who is the primary and the ultimate revelation of God. If there seems to be conflict between something Moses, or Joshua, or Leviticus, or even Paul has said, and the priorities, life and teaching of Jesus, for me there is no contest. As someone once said “It’s not so much that Jesus is like God, as that God is like Jesus”.
The first step, for me, in recognising Jesus, is recognising that his voice and life are supreme. That if we want to know what God is like, if we want to know how to respond to our hedonistic, individualistic, violent world we go, primarily, to the Gospels – which should tower for us above the Old Testament and even the rest of the New.
Before we continue, I need to own something. I am not a Penal Subtitutionist; I don’t believe in angry god that requires a blood sacrifice before he is prepared to love us. I couldn’t preach this sermon if I did. As I keep saying, I believe God is like Jesus. So, reflecting on the Jesus of the Gospels, what do we see?
First, the Jesus I see in the Gospels almost always welcoming and inclusive. Prostitutes, tax collectors (or rather tax thieves), Roman soldiers, fishermen, broken women and blind men, lepers, Samaritans… Jesus was afraid to be seen with no-one, to reject the hospitality or the love of no-one.
He told stories about banquets filled with the lost and marginalised, with those excluded simply too busy or too important to accept the invitation. He asked his followers ‘what’s so special about loving only your own friends and family? – even tax collectors do that.
The only people who felt the sharp edge of his tongue were the religious leaders who ensnared and excluded people on the basis of religious rules. And political leaders who failed to recognise the call of the prophets to care for the little, the lost and the broken.
Thus, Pope Francis is expressing Gospel values when he said “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”. Closely related to this notion of inclusion is God’s mercy through Christ. Jesus ministered to the sick and those plagued by evil spirits. He is moved by compassion when he meets the leper and the blind men, for those who are sheep without a shepherd. He weeps at the tomb of his fiend Lazarus. The merciful father of the prodigal son has become a Christian icon.
In his book ‘Mercy’ that has so strongly influenced Pope Francis, Cardinal Walter Kasper says the following:
“Unlike the Old Testament, Jesus proclaims God’s mercy for all in an ultimate way. He opens up access to God not for a few righteous people but for all. There is room for all in God’s kingdom. No-one is excluded. God has finally taken back his wrath and given full scope to his love and mercy…. Mercy is the most perfect realisation of Justice.”
Secondly, Jesus preached and exemplified forgiveness. How many times? 70×7 he said. He presented to us a God of infinite love and grace and forgiveness. No longer an angry god needing blood sacrifices but one with his arms unconditionally open wide, again like the father of the Prodigal son, or the shepherd who left the 99 and went looking for the one. We are to leave our gifts at the altar and reconcile with our brother or sister before returning to church. One of Jesus last words on the cross was a prayer for forgiveness for his killers “for they know not what they do.”
As pastor Brian Zahnd has said:
(12) “The cross is the act of radical forgiveness that gives sin, violence and retribution a place to die in the body of Jesus.”
So, thirdly, Jesus lived and practiced non-violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers”; “don’t use violence to resist evil” he said. If a thief steals our shirt, we’re to give him our coat as well. If we are struck, we are to turn the other cheek. The Gethsemane soldier’s ear went back on his head. Supremely, at the cross, Jesus absorbs and forgives our sin. Brian Zahnd again:
(13) “At the cross, Jesus forgives. Why? Because God is like that. In the defining moment of the cross, Jesus defines what God is really like. God is love, co-suffering, all-forgiving, sin-absorbing, never-ending love. God is not like Caiaphas sacrificing a scapegoat. God is not like Pilate enacting justice by violence. God is like Jesus, absorbing and forgiving sin.
(14) Fourthly, Jesus is humble; he rejects arrogance and big-noting. He washes the feet of his disciples. James and John are quickly put in their place when they seek seats next to the King. If we want to be first, we’re told we’ll be last. It’s those who take the back seats at the wedding feast that are invited to the front.
Fifth, Jesus insisted we care for the poor. In today’s reading, Jesus prioritises service of those in need, of the marginalised. I was struck that the author of the Lenten guide refers to this passage (p40) as a ‘parable’. This stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t usually seen it like that. But on reflection it’s clear that Jesus is not laying down a teaching about final judgement. The evangelicals among us would reject the suggestion in the story that one wins God’s favour solely by ‘works’ – even works of mercy. The progressives would reject any attempt to justify the existence of hell in the use by Jesus of a common motif of the time. So what is Jesus teaching?
Jesus, as always, is speaking to our hearts. Are they rigid, closed, materialistic, ‘judgemental’? Is there room in our hearts, our lives, our homes, for the lives and needs of others? Do we look for opportunities to serve, to welcome, heal and restore? Or have we allowed fear of the ‘other’ to turn our homes into fortresses and to circle our hearts with a ring of barbed wire?
Can we recognise Jesus in the ex-prisoner struggling to conform to the expectations of a society that has in many ways failed him – in his wounding, illiteracy or exclusion; in the gay teen who simply cannot cope with one more rejection; in the devoutly Muslim refugee who has arrived on our doorstep or our television screens with nothing; in the drug addict and the homeless we walk past in conflicted confusion?
Sixth, Jesus challenges us to get our priorities right. He asks us to seek the Kingdom rather than material wealth. He asks us to look at the lives of sparrows, fed by His heavenly father; not to worry about what we’ll eat and drink, not to store treasure on earth. Why? Because if that is where our heart is, it is not with the Kingdom, with the excluded, the marginalised, the imprisoned, the homeless and the hungry.
Rachel challenged us last week to make room for the voices and lives of others. To see hospitality as finding time to include. Hospitality begins with that stance. If the Gospel is about anything, it is about inclusion. A refusal to adopt ‘us and them’ attitudes. Jesus challenges to open our hearts to the other, whether black or white, progressive or fundamentalist, gay or straight, Muslim or atheist, the refugee and the homeless. Not to convert, but to love and serve.
Can I suggest that the heart pre-conditions for a ‘generous hospitality’ are precisely the qualities of Jesus we have just been talking about:
- A welcoming inclusiveness
- A non-violent disposition
- Care for the poor, the overlooked, the ignored
- And we can sum that all up with a focus on ‘Kingdom priorities”
- As Paul said in our Philippians reading, our call is to share in the sufferings of Jesus, becoming like him in his death.
As I’ve said in the Update, it’s not that we should serve to burn-out, nor that there should not be times and places in our homes for refuge and prayer.
Nor that there isn’t room for vinyl collections, time with partners, a relaxing drink, for family or afternoons in the sun. It’s true also for many of us that our batteries need longer on the charger than they used to! But when those things become less a source of refreshment for service, when they become rights that must be defended against the demands of the Gospel, when we are no longer capable of recognising the humanity, dignity and needs of others, that is when the words of Jesus confront and challenge us to change.
This is a challenging message. It’s much easier to preach it than to do it. But when there are so many false “Jesus’s” in our world, when people who claim to follow him see hatred, division, fear, exclusion, violence and ridicule as legitimate responses, we need at least to get our head straight about what he did, who he is, and what he wants. To do that we need to wallow in the Gospels.