Transfigured by Theophany

This is the message I preached on Sunday 26th February 27th, Feast of the Transfiguration, at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church. It is modified from an earlier message.

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The transfiguration of Jesus is probably one of those stories you have heard explained to you numerous times.  At least I hope it is as it’s supposed to be taught at least once a year, most often on the last Sunday before Lent.  As a preacher on days like this I wonder what I can say to you that is fresh and new about this story, or whether I even need to try.  It’s a good story, it has obvious truth to draw out about the glory of Jesus, the faithfulness of God, and the way Jesus is confirmed as the culmination of God’s revelation to the Jews in the presence of Moses their Lawgiver and Elijah their preeminent prophet.  The scriptures, traditions, and self-revelation of God to the Chosen People are manifest and made plain in this one episode.  And even if we have heard it all before it’s still worth hearing again.

In Exodus 24:14 we read that real life continues to take place at the foot of the mountain even when the shekinah of God is at the top.  On this occasion, Moses is meeting with the LORD for specific revelation, but Aaron and Hur who had been invited part-way up were delegated to deal with the day-today squabbles in Moses’ absence.  In 24:16-18 we read that Moses spent forty days on the mountain, and that God began to speak with him only after six days had passed.  I immediately want to know whether God and Moses had any “down time” on the mountain, and what Moses did when God was not speaking with him, even though the cloud was there.  I presume that God fed and hydrated Moses, or are such things not necessary in the shekinah? Did Moses fast?  Was he fed by angels (or ravens?)  Maybe the manna was there, but these are the questions I want to ask.  When the shekinah is there, real world stuff continues regardless.

Perhaps in contrast to the simplicity of Moses’ story, in 2 Peter 1:16-18 we read of how three apostles were eye-witnesses of Christ’s majesty.  Our narrator was there in the cloud when Jesus was transfigured: he saw the cloud, he saw the figures, he saw the glorified Jesus.  He heard the Voice and what the Voice said to Jesus and what the Voice said to him.  He was there, he knows what happened, and in the light of this experience he writes we have the prophetic message more full confirmed. That the message of the apostles would be “more fully confirmed” by their being eyewitnesses to the glory of God seems obvious, I mean if you’d seen Jesus in all his heavenly glory as Peter and the sons of Zebedee had done you’d be entirely convinced that Jesus is the Christ of God, no doubt whatsoever.  But what is the prophetic message exactly.  Why is their gospel called “prophetic”?  Well the writer goes some way to explaining that, in verses 1:20-21, where he speaks of interpretation as a matter of divine revelation.  What comes as revelation comes when the Holy Spirit moves upon women and men who are open to the spirit; it’s not a purely literary or mathematical process of logic or translation.  Second Peter is a letter to insiders, written to people who were already members of the Church to encourage them to stay focussed on the truth of the apostles’ teaching.  It warns them against being swayed by the pronouncements of a new generation of smart-alecs; men who claimed insight from their wisdom, but who didn’t know what they were talking about because they weren’t present at the events they are describing and they weren’t being honest to the Spirit’s direction. “I know because I was there,” says Peter, “I am speaking of my own experience, and I am speaking about what the Holy Spirit has done through me.”  Why would you prefer the “cleverly devised myths”, as described in 1:16, when you have eyewitness accounts written by actual apostles.

And so, in Matthew 17:1-9 we read the familiar story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  We have all heard this story before since it occurs in three places in the New Testament, once in each of Matthew’s, Mark’s (9:2-10), and Luke’s (9:28-36) gospels.  Like the story of Moses this event also involves waiting six days for the first sign of glory.  Like other stories of Moses, and of Elijah who also appears in this story, this is literally “a mountaintop experience” where the fullest experience of God’s glory is restricted to a chosen few.  Indeed, Jesus even tells Peter and the two other eyewitnesses not to tell anyone what they have seen: not only do the other nine disciples not get to see Jesus transfigured, they aren’t even allowed to know that it happened at all.  Why not, we might ask.  Since 2 Peter is a claim to authority through being an eyewitness why wouldn’t Jesus want such a reliable observer to speak about what he had seen?  By way of an answer I offer a brief insight from each of the gospel accounts.

Luke:  Luke’s account is very like Matthew’s, and indeed to Mark’s, with the added unique detail that the three disciples were rather sleepy on the mountain.  In Luke 9:32-33 we read of how they awoke to see Jesus being glorified, just as Moses and Elijah were leaving.  Perhaps this is an echo of Gethsemane, (more of that later), or perhaps Jesus had taken a few mates with him to fill some of that “downtime” we spoke of earlier regarding Moses’ extended time on the mountain. If Jesus took the men as company and as carers rather than as witnesses, there was no need for them to speak of what they were supposed to have slept through anyway.  I doubt it, but since only Luke adds the sleepy detail it must carry some significance for him or he would have left it out of the story like Mark and Matthew did.  In Luke 9:36 Jesus doesn’t say anything and it is the three men who choose to keep silent about what they had seen.

Mark: In what most scholars believe to be the original form of Mark’s gospel there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus.  In Mark 16:8 the women flee in terror from the empty tomb and the story ends there.  So, the only especially glorious appearance of Jesus is found only in this story in the middle of Mark’s account and not at the end.  We read in Matthew 17:9 that the world was not to be told of the transfiguration until after Jesus’ resurrection, so we presume that that is what the original copies of Mark’s gospel did.  The fullest revelation of the glorified Christ, in other words the only human eyewitness account to what Jesus is really like, takes place in private and some months before the crucifixion.  We could spend days just trying to get our heads around the implications of that, but we don’t have days, so let’s move on.

John: There is no story of the transfiguration in John at all.  Remember I said that there’s three stories, one in each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke?  Yep, three, not four, there’s no equivalent story in John.  Peter cites this episode as a mark of his apostleship in 2 Peter 1:17, but John who was just as much an eyewitness doesn’t mention it at all.   Why not?  Well the theory, and without boasting I emphasise that this theory earned me a High Distinction in an oral exam on John’s Gospel at Adelaide College of Divinity in 2015, is that John didn’t need to have a specific story about the gloriousness of Jesus because Jesus is glorious the whole way through John’s gospel.  The gospel opens in John 1:1-18 with a declaration of “the Word” and the majestic and universal fullness of the glory of God: how could one event in the life of Jesus ever hope to surpass that?  A transfiguration is not necessary for someone so glorious and continuously gloried as Jesus.  Once again, we could spend days thinking about John’s idea of Jesus, a constantly glorious figure walking among humankind, but we don’t have days and so we won’t.

Except for this one thing.  If Jesus is as John describes, why didn’t the twelve see it?  Let me ask you, have you ever wondered why only three of the twelve were invited to accompany Jesus to the mountain top?  Have you ever wondered why anyone at all was invited?  After all Jesus often went off alone to pray so why did he take spectators this time?  I wouldn’t be surprised if transfiguration wasn’t a regular event for Jesus and that this gloriousness shone from him every time he went off alone to pray; but on this occasion Jesus invites these three men knowing that what they will see will blow their minds.  So why these three and why now?

Like me you’ve probably been told that Peter, James and John were Jesus’ favourites who composed a sort of “inner three” within the twelve.  As the closest and most trusted friends of Jesus they were his strongest allies and most devoted disciples.  Have you heard that before?  Well that might be true, I’m not here to say that it isn’t, but I want to suggest an alternative.  Some of the best known stories about these men actually involve them failing.  Peter denies Jesus three times in the pre-dawn darkness of Good Friday, and he is actually called “satan” by Jesus and told to get out of the way of the purposes of God in another story.  James and John take Jesus aside at one point and ask for the cushy places next to him when he comes in glory as ruler in Heaven, sort of his right-hand and left-hand guys.  These are the same three, and only these three, who Jesus takes further into Gethsemane on the Thursday night to be near him while he pours his desperate guts out before God.  And what happens?  Zzzzzz.

We don’t hear of these sorts of colossal failures with regard to the other nine, except perhaps for Judas but according to John Judas was a lost cause all along and doomed by prophecy to be so…but that’s another story.  And if it was a “first called” special group then why is Simon’s brother Andrew not there?  I wonder whether Peter, James and John were actually the weakest of the twelve and rather than being a sort of elite they were more like the Special Needs kids who require extra tuition to keep up with their classmates.  Perhaps these three “slow kids” were given special booster classes in practicing the presence of God to get them up to speed for when the crucifixion and the persecution came.  And look, even in the midst of such a special class Peter still puts his foot in it and offers to build shelters.

Like Peter, James and John we have seen the fullness of Jesus right in front of us, and we have still so often missed what was going on in front of us.  Like them we are witnesses to the activity of God and we have been transformed: our experience of the presence of God has changed us.  Yet like Moses and the three we have then retuned to the foot of the mountain at times and have been overwhelmed by squabbling and confusion.  In the transfigured Jesus, we see God in the fullest expression available to humankind.  In the activity of the Holy Spirit we see the same, and whether you have seen a miracle for yourself or have only heard the first-hand account of an eyewitness, giving you a second-hand insight, the story of the actual glory of the otherwise humble brickie-cum-preacher from Galilee rings true.  The one we follow, the one we speak about from personal experience, really is the God of Ages and the promised helper all in one.  God is patient while we learn who we are and who God is: but each of us has a story to tell, no matter where we’ve been sat in the classroom or upon which part of the mountain you were permitted to walk.  Give glory to God for as much as you know, that’s all that is asked.

Amen.

Advertisements

Temples and Turning Another Cheek

The text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 19th February 2017, Seventh (A) Sunday of Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Several weeks ago, I suggested that the paths Christians follow towards God are unique; and that within that difference they are potentially opposite in direction to the paths of others.  I also said that no-matter how different your path is to another’s ultimately all paths lead to Jesus if each pilgrim has had Jesus as his or her source and goal.  We each start from the place where God found us, but we all end at the place where God is, we start separated by the width of the world but we end together within the presence of God.

This week as I began reading the passages for study for today, and looking at the commentaries and different interpretations presented by the scholars I listen to, that thought returned to me.  By coincidence I have spoken with several people this week as part of my pastoral care role, I have visited several members of this parish in their homes and I have caught up with others at the Op Shop, by telephone, and for coffee on the esplanade.  I heard different perspectives on the recent history of the Uniting Church in this part of Gippsland.  These stories were not so different that they were contradictory regarding facts, but as a sociolinguist I was interested to hear the different ways of reporting and the different conclusions drawn by those who had reflected upon common events.  More than one of your previous ministers have received praise and happy memories, others of your previous ministers are, shall I say “less missed” than the others, but each showed talents and strengths in places.  I am confident that after I leave my stay here will be remembered and evaluated in several different reports by you, and that is fair enough.

What I have heard is that each minister you have had has performed valuable work, but as each had his or her own preferred way of doing things, so each of you has your own preferred way of doing things.  Ways in which things are to be done, and the setting of priorities for which things must be done first and which might be left for later, was the substance of what was volunteered in conversation.  I didn’t ask, but you told me.  I hasten to add it’s not just the conversations I have had this week which has raised these points, but it was this week when I remembered previous conversations alongside today’s set of lectionary readings.

As an example of what I’m saying, let me read a paraphrase of today’s Psalm, and once again it’s from James Taylor’s Everyday Psalms (Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake Books, 2006).  Each week I promise myself that I will not use it again but every week his emphasis seems to meet the ancient text right where God is pointing me.  So, here’s today’s lectionary reading, Psalm 119:33-40, in a poem entitled “Clear Instructions”.

(Poem read here)

I’m not going to ask you if that sounds like anyone you know, or if you think it sounds like you.  I’m also not going to ask if you think it sounds like me.  But I’m sure it sounds like someone you know, and I’m sure it also sounds the complete opposite to another person you know.  So, whether you are a t-crosser and an i-dotter, or you are an eye-crosser at such precision in activity, you will recognise that some people are like the one described by Taylor and some people are not.

Listen, and contrast, the same passage paraphrased by a different poet:

Oh God, let me know what you want done; teach me Torah then let me loose to fulfil your purposes in the way you created me to do.

My LORD I know you know everything, and I know that I do not; but only let me in on the secret and I will utilise the fullest portion of my unique talents, skills, love and opportunities to bring your plans into being.

Show me the way you want me to go, because that is the only direction I wish to choose.

Draw me to you and the things you love; attract me away from anything that might distract me, but remind me where you are and of the place from which you call.

You chose me to fill a unique plan in this world, and then you liberated and released me to run my own race toward the prize which is you.  You gave me a bearing, but not a lane.  You gave me a road, but not a railroad.  As I move about on the track you gave me, the track of an athlete but not the track of a tram, continue to call me on so that I may finish well and that in seeing me finish the world may cheer for you.

I don’t need a leash or reins LORD, I am neither a toddle, a pet dog, nor or carthorse, but sometimes I need a compass.  When I am lost only call to me and I shall return.

I love your way LORD, that your road is straight and safe, but that it is more than two feet wide.  I want to walk in your footprints, not in the ruts of the wheels of others, because it is you alone I follow.

Whichever translation you like to read, whichever poetic interpretation you prefer, (or none if you aren’t the arty type), what I hope you find clear in the Psalm is the cry of the individual for God’s help.  “May God help me focus on God alone”, might be the Psalmist’s theme.  Whether you are the columns and double-entry type, or the one who prefers to think like a hiker rather than a tram, this passage is a prayer for divine guidance along the path of faithfulness.  If I were praying this, and I have prayed words like this without ever reciting Psalm 119), I would say “My God, I promise heartful, desperate devotion to you but only if you’ll lead me closely and make the way of righteousness plain to me.  Those ‘vain things that charm me most’ are tempting, especially when I am alone or lonely, but my God please hold my gaze (and my hand), and please don’t let me go so far as to require yours or the community’s rebuke.  I want to be a man of good reputation.  My God, it matters to me what others think of me because what they think of me as a Christian reflects upon what they think of you LORD, and I do so want them to think well of you.”

This leads me to ask how God would like to be thought of.  In today’s reading from Leviticus God commands the people to be generous and considerate.  I think God wants to be thought of like that.  If the people of God, be they the Hebrews entering Canaan or the Christians going back to work on Monday in Lakes Entrance are requested by God to show generosity and consideration it is most likely that that is the image of God that God wants us to get across.  We are to present the gospel by our God-likeness, which is to say our godliness.  Not that we are godlike in our Herculean strength or Artemisian beauty, but that we are like God in our patience, compassion, perseverance.  “People need less promotion of the gospel and more free samples”, says Steve Bell in his book Muslim Grace, which is a book about telling the followers of Islam about what Jesus is really like.  When I was a teacher I used to use the phrase “less talk, more walk” when my class was in transit, I think it works the same here.  Talk about Jesus if you must, but to live as Jesus did is a better witness.

The Hebrews to whom Moses is speaking are not to take revenge nor hold grudges, and since Leviticus 19:2 specifically says to tell this to all the congregation we know that God wants this followed by all the people and not only the Levites.  Rabbinical sources well after Moses stipulated that one sixtieth (1.67%) of any harvest was be left for the poor, it is here we are reminded of last week’s message where the gospel according to your prosperity meets the gospel according to another person’s adversity.  So, that’s the bit about not reaping right to the edges.  In the same way robbery, (which is stealing by trickery and/or by force), and withholding rightfully earned wages (which amounts to the same thing in a power play), are named as wrong.  As you behave so God’s reputation is shared: do not exploit the weak but rather support and encourage them (with that 2%).  Demonstrate justice toward all, even the rich: do not show undue partiality even for the poor just because they are poor but treat all people justly.  Do not slander and do not stand idly by when someone (anyone) needs help which you can provide.  Do not hate, which is to say do not bear secret grudges nor engage in plotting.  If you have a dispute bring it out into the open.  In all things act with love, even when seeking to resolve a dispute.  This is not only the word of the LORD (thanks be to God), it is also the way of the LORD (praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).

Christ is the foundation upon which God’s temple is built, says Paul.  Traditionally the temple is the place where God dwells on Earth and it is a sacred place.  Paul says that the temple is now you, you are the place where God dwells and because you are thereby made sacred God will protect you from danger and attack.  That’s all well and good, but this week I followed the train of thought we’ve ridden this past month and I came to a new understanding.  Christ is our foundation, I’ve got that.  But I’ve always thought that that meant that belief in Christ is the foundation; like the fundamentals we heard about last week.  Believe the scriptures, trust in the cross, that’s the rock.

I think that is true, but I think there is more to it than just that.  Certainly, not less than that, in all this niceness I proclaim to you remember that we are Christians and that the cross and the empty tomb are what we are about.  But the foundation which is Christ is that we act like Jesus, which is to say act as if God’s reputation is on our shoulders.  If you are the temple of God then being a solitary house of belief and piety is not enough on its own.  Act like God, with compassion and justice and fairness; let your temple be a house of hospitality.

In today’s reading from Matthew Jesus teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, give the coat as well as the shirt, walk the second mile, and love their enemies.  Act like God, indeed act like God acted toward you before you were Christian.  Act like God acted toward you after you were saved but every time since then when you messed up through sin, stupidity, and clumsiness.  How does Jesus act throughout his life?  Like he did, oppose violent attack with non-violent resistance; to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile is not passivity or surrender but assertiveness with confidence of being vindicated by God.  Confound the aggressor, maintain your dignity, disarm the attack with courage and implied shame.  When the Romans or the Sadducees or the Herodians boast in their superiority act as if the insult you have received is a blessing – and thereby make them look foolish.  In Aussie terms we might think of a situation where the question might be asked of a big tough man “seriously mate, would you really hit a woman with glasses?  You may as well hit her again if you’re so big and tough.”  Fine, Decurion, you can order me to carry your bag for a mile, I’ll carry it for two and shame you publicly, but ever so nicely, when you try to take your stuff back and I insist upon going further.

Torah doesn’t say anywhere to hate your enemies.  “You have heard it said…” says Jesus, but it’s human wisdom that says it, and Jesus reminds the gathering crowd of what Torah says in Leviticus 19:18.  Love like God loves: love with complete love by patience and grace for everyone, no one excluded.  As the temple and ambassador of God, and follower of Jesus Christ and the way of Torah, what else could you possibly do?  But remember to do it your way, whether you are an i-dotter or an eye-crosser when it comes to rules serve God in the way God uniquely created you to.

Amen.

Paraphrase

Psalm 119:33-40
(Paraphrase)

Oh God, let me know what you want done; teach me Torah then let me loose to fulfil your purposes in the way you created me to do.
My LORD I know you know everything, and I know that I do not; but only let me in on the secret and I will utilise the fullest portion of my unique talents, skills, love and opportunities to bring your plans into being.


Show me the way you want me to go, because that is the only direction I wish to choose.


Draw me to you and the things you love; attract me away from anything that might distract me, but remind me where you are and of the place from which you call.


You chose me to fill a unique plan in this world, and then you liberated and released me to run my own race toward the prize which is you. You gave me a bearing, but not a lane. You gave me a road, but not a railroad. As I move about on the track you gave me, the track of an athlete but not the track of a tram, continue to call me on so that I may finish well and that in seeing me finish the world may cheer for you.


I don’t need a leash or reins LORD, I am neither a toddle, a pet dog, nor or carthorse, but sometimes I need a compass. When I am lost only call to me and I shall return.


I love your way LORD, that your road is straight and safe, but that it is more than two feet wide. I want to walk in your footprints, not in the ruts of the wheels of others, because it is you alone I follow.

For Better or For Worse

This is the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 12th February 2017, Epiphany 6 in Year A.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

There’s been a lot of talk about other religions in the news recently, and by recently I could say that these conversations go back decades.  We hear, especially about Islam, of people who are “radical” and others who are “moderate”. In Islam and Christianity, we hear of “fundamentalists”. Indeed, if you follow the news from Open Doors or Barnabas Fund or another agency concerned with persecuted Christians you will hear of “radical” Buddhists, Hindus, Zionists, and atheists.  My concern today is not with the radical believers of any faith, nor with the moderates.  I find both of those adjectives quite unhelpful when speaking of religious believers and I may well speak on that in months to come.  (After all, how would you like to be described as a “Moderate Christian”?  If someone called me that I’d probably bite them, which would make me a “Radical” I suppose.)

No, my concern today is the fundamentalists, but I want to use that label in a positive way.  Today I want to talk about those people who have taken the time to learn and practice the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the foundational stuff upon which can be built a mature and substantially unique faith.

Each of the texts presented to us by the Lectionary this morning has as its key theme a focus on what we might think of as the basics, the fundamentals of the faith.  In the passage from Deuteronomy Moses sets two clear choices before the Hebrew people.  Having begun speaking at Deuteronomy 1:6 Moses is still going as we pick up the narrative at Deuteronomy 30:15; where he has come to the climax of his oration.  For the great leader of God’s people and a man who has walked for forty years to reach this point this really is a life or death moment for his people, even if the threat is not immediately apparent to them.  For those of us who live in the twenty-first century and have been taught to dislike the idea of a “prosperity gospel” Moses offers an alternative in the “adversity gospel”.  Obey God and go well in the land: disregard God and perish soonishly.  Do not be lead astray, all of creation is called as witnesses to the decision you make today.  It’s your choice to make, says Moses, and it’s a free choice.  But please, for your own sake, choose life so that God will be able to fill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The key decision is not one of law or obedience, but of worship.  As newcomers to the land of Canaan will the Hebrews continue to worship their ancestral god, the One who brought them out of Egypt, or will they default to the baals and the local demigods of the defeated native peoples?  By the same token will they trust the LORD while they are exiled elsewhere, or will they worship the gods of the receiving nations and conquerors?  So, what is the fundamental teaching here?  Well it is that the People of God should worship God only, and they should rely completely upon God to deliver them next time just as God delivered them last time.

Then the Psalmist joins in.  Happy are the blameless, says the Psalmist, are those who love God and who seek God and who obey God.  In other words, how blessed you are if you have learned to trust God out of a proven relationship with God.  Happy are those who know from experience that God’s way is always better, even if it seems to lead through the valley of shadows.  Those who heed God’s advice will never be forsaken by God: God has never been in the business of mocking or abusing disciples and God does not set traps for the trusting.  The psalm opens with a word of declaration, this is not a question or a desire but a statement of fact: those whose way is blameless are happy, that’s just the way it is.

This is paragraph “Aleph” or “A” in an acrostic poem, a poem which may well have been an A-Z primer for young Jewish disciples learning Torah.   It is basic teaching, spoon-feeding, and like Moses the message is trust God and worship God, first and only.

In the same simplistic way, Paul addresses our friends the Corinthians, speaking to them as if they were just starting out in life at big school, drinking their milk at play-lunch and learning their alphabet.  Look at 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 where he says “I once spoke to you as if you were infants, and I see I still have to because in many ways you are still so immature.  So long as you continue to act like squabbily kids I’ll treat you as such”.  Ooh harsh!  But he doesn’t leave it there, he addresses the nature of their childishness, specifically their self-directed name calling, by placing each of those names and the characters they represent in an ongoing process of growth.  It is God from whom you should all take your belonging, says Paul, since I, Paul, and Apollos (to name but two) are merely facilitators of the work the Holy Spirit is doing.  Paul and Apollos were both ministers (diakonoi in Greek), and they had slightly different roles in the life of the Corinthian church.  But they were colleagues none the less, and servants of God the master gardener and God the landowner.  So, what is their message?

Trust God and worship God, first and only.  Who is Paul?  Who is Apollos?  Who even are Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph and the Sons of Korah?  All great men, but the LORD is…well the LORD is the LORD, and the LORD alone is worthy of adulation, obedience, and utterly dependant love.

Your instinct for tribalism is good, says Moses and Paul, but your focus must be upon being the people of God, and not on yourselves or your favourite preacher.  Don’t fix your eyes on Moses, or Paul: look to God.  In our tradition and generation, we might say don’t fix your eyes on John Knox, John Wesley, Brian Houston, or Damien Tann, great men of God that they are.  Look to God.  Moses says look to God.  Paul says look to God.  Wesley and Houston constantly say look to God.  And I certainly say look to God.

So, what does God say?  Some of this we have been told in scripture.  Moses is speaking on behalf of God when he says choose the way of life.  Choose the way of obedience to the precepts of God, which includes the commandments, but is so much more than that in encompassing your god-directed conscience.  Be faithful to God in the confidence that God has already been faithful to you.  Trust only in God because if you have nothing except God you have everything, but if you have everything except God you have nothing.  What Moses says, as the voice of God, is that if you have God you will never have nothing, because God is generous and God is kind.  God knows how the world works and that you need stuff.  God does not promise you a Ferrari if you tithe 12%, but God promises you will never be left destitute if you trust God.  The “prosperity gospel”, if there is one in truth, is not that God will guarantee you excessive wealth if you trust in Jesus Christ, but that God will guarantee the Spirit’s presence and wise-guidance with you in every instance of adversity, and that God will bring you out of adversity every single time.  The promise of eternal life is not Heaven after you stop breathing, but that your life will be worth living while you are breathing.  In other words, there is no living death for you: trust God and you will be brought through adversity.  Try going it alone in adversity and, as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:17-18, you will not live long in the land.  As a Christian you will still go to Heaven, but your life will have been wasted and your call will have been left unfulfilled.

Let’s turn now to Matthew and to more of that great advice for living from Jesus..  In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says “you have heard it was said to those in ancient times…but today I say to you…” and what he is doing here, apart from re-interpreting the text for personal application of its meaning is that he’s directing that meaning towards personal relationships. God’s divine law is actually about helping you to be a good bloke/sheila, and a great mate.  Don’t let your anger, or your lust, or your bravado get out of control such that you cause harm to yourself or other people.  Perhaps Jesus is saying “’be a moderate Christian”, more likely he is saying, “be a person of moderate behaviour because you are a foundational Christian”.  As I indicated last week, and I’m really coming to believe this the more I study and the more I preach on this, God would prefer you to be nice to each other than that you come to church.  God certainly would prefer that you did both, and certainly church is a place of sanctuary and not a home for the upwardly pious, but given a choice between you being an easy man or woman to befriend and who spends Sundays being nice, and you being a grumpy sook who comes to church, God’s preference is the first one.  By all means if you are a grumpy sook keep coming, we hope that the lovely people here will make you feel safe and loved so that you have less to sook and grump about.  But if you are truly, passionately, devotedly following God revealed in Jesus Christ then your life should be reflecting that in your kindness, patience, honesty, transparency, and good humour.

This is no easy gospel.  There is much more to Christian discipleship than “be excellent to each other” as Bill and Ted once said.  (Twice actually because there was a sequel.)  The fact is that you can’t actually be this nice if you don’t have Christ within you and the confident hope that comes from the salvation of God earned for you by Jesus on the cross.  A “good Christian” must be more than “a nice person”, but he or she should certainly not be less.

The fundamentals of Christianity start at Calvary, I have no doubt of that and my own feet are planted firmly on that rock.  I believe in the empty manger, the empty cross, and the empty tomb, and because of what those locations represent in the distant past, human life of Jesus who is and forever will be the Christ of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, today I have the confidence to be patient, resilient, and kind.

You have been saved.  It’s more than okay to smile, laugh, and be kind because of that.  In fact, it’s practically required of you to do so.

Amen.

A Sacramental Community for All

In practising its sacraments the Christian Church finds its deepest purposes reflected.  In the sacrament of baptism a person is brought into relational union with named persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and he or she obtains belongingness with the Church.[1]  In participating thereafter in the sacrament of communion the Christian continues in fellowship,[2] re-membering again her or his entry into and full participation within the ecclesia holy, catholic, and apostolic.[3]  What makes a congregation a church, in other words a bearer of the identifying marks of “The Church”, is found in its participants utilising opportunities to learn and teach the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipleship.    It is to the question of access to giving and receiving ministry in each of the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual domains that I wish to direct the attention of this essay.

I begin with the question of what might be a positive, inclusive Christian view of disability regarding the Church, its ministry, and its sacraments, and what is discordant about other views.  While liberationist theologies proclaim that there is no such thing as common human experience,[4] I offer that human experience itself suggests the same.  In this way to speak of “the disabled” is to offer a disservice to a broad group of people who are each unique.  Conversely the Church has, at times, considered all disabilities as either the consequence or punishment of sin, or a trial of obedience to be endured and welcomed.[5]  “The disabled” were therefore to be avoided as sinners, or venerated as living saints, but there seemed no place for them to be welcomed as sister-brothers. John Foskett, a mental health chaplain in the United Kingdom, noted that meaning can be found in suffering only through faith, scientific views of suffering cannot address the topic of meaning[6], but that is not to say that the purpose of suffering is meaning-making.  Suffering has no intrinsic purpose.  It is true that pastoral care which speaks of the hope found in Christ, even in the suffering of Christ himself, conveys love that secular forms of advice cannot,[7] but the theological meaning which can be found in mental illness does not mean that madness (to use Foskett’s own term) is a positive trait.

I once heard the story of a young woman who, while she was on her honeymoon, suffered a nerve injury which paralysed one side of her face.  She became frightened that her new husband would not want her any more.  “Perhaps”, she is said to have thought, “if we’d been married for a lifetime he would have that history of love to look back on, but with only our courtship and a few days of marriage what history do we have?”  The story ends with the young husband coming to the hospital and twisting his mouth around so that when he kissed his bride their lips would meet.  The parallels between this story and our received traditions of Jesus are evident, Jesus is the only whole person and he makes everyone feel whole.  But it is not good ministry to say to a paraplegic or a schizophrenic that “all are broken anyway” and each person in need of the Great Physician’s healing.  To say to an amputee that “yes, you are missing a limb but we are all in the same spiritual boat,” is to miss both the possibility of learning from another’s lived experience of life without that limb, and the pertinent story of self-identity of that person who already believes him- or herself whole in Christ and therefore not requiring of condescension or understanding of his or her imperfection.  Rather than speaking to people with disabilities of how “we are all disabled in some way” regarding the perfection seen in Christ Jesus, it behoves practitioners of good ministry to speak of the wholeness of the person who is the fullest possible expression of the imago dei despite a personal insufficiency of serotonin, functioning neural-pathways, or fingers.

In The Disabled God Nancy Eiesland prescribes accessibility for all to the rites and sacraments of the congregation: those who have been disenfranchised through disability have a personal responsibility to access the socio-symbolic reality of faith.  Inversely the congregation is obliged to pursue access to the socio-symbolic reality of those of its members who live with a disability.[8]  Kate Swaffer, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at age 49 speaks of “prescribed disengagement”[9] and of how she was directed by her diagnosing doctor to retire from all forms of life including her job and her tertiary studies, to put her affairs in order, and to start attending sessions at her local high dependency aged care facility in preparation for a permanent move due to her immanent senility.  Kate rejected this advice as unsuitable for a woman of her age, and proceeded to do all that she could to remain active and alert, albeit with the help of her husband and the disability support service at her university.  Eight years later Kate has completed an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, written two books about her lived experience of dementia, two further books of her poetry, and is a passionate speaker and advocate for the human rights of people with dementia.

In her essay “Enabling Participation” Ann Wansbrough writes of feeling alienated in church by prayers and messages which seem ignorant or denying of her lived experience of disability.[10]  This saddens me since, as Wansbrough has observed, the participation of all members of the congregation must matter to leaders of worship if collective worship is to be a worthwhile activity of the church.  Worship which is self-centred on the part of the worship leader,[11] or the majority, is disempowering to others and excludes their full participation in this central activity of the Church.  Wansbrough understands that the key to inclusive worship is engagement in real life between those who lead worship and the congregation;[12] I suggest that Kate Swaffer might agree with the sentiment.

Hallinan suggests that it is central that the local congregation defend its members with disabilities against the medicalisation of their spirituality[13].  My experience as a person with a mental illness was to value the medical treatment of my symptoms of depression and anxiety, but to match that with a personal desire to protect my capacity for spiritual ecstasy and my exercise of pastoral empathy from being pharmacologically dulled.  This is not quite the point that Hallahan was making (she’s more interested in the desire of some to add spiritualisation as a treatment) but her phrase rings true for me.  I am not “sick” just because I am an introverted mystic, but neither is Christian meditation and/or exorcism the whole solution to my physical lack of serotonin and my disequilibrium in gut flora.

The question might then be asked how a church can include people with disabilities as members.  A simple solution is to treat all Christians as brother-sisters and not as objects of mission.  Subjects of love yes, with consideration for their humanity (we don’t ignore their unique needs for accessibility), but never as “cripples” requiring only charity.

However, the unique experience of living with a disability must never be overlooked or assumed by the community seeking unity by inclusion.  As an example, I offer the story of one member of a congregation to which I belonged struggled with the language of the Eucharist.  She would decline the invitation to receive the elements if she heard the servers using language along the lines of “the body of Christ, broken for you” since she understood from scripture that Jesus died without any broken bones.  She confided tearfully to me one Sunday that to speak of a broken Christ was heretical to her.  Yet for others, including me in my emotional and cognitive disability, to speak of that which was whole, the living, functioning physical body of Jesus, as “broken for me” on the cross speaks of Christ’s redeeming all brokenness by adopting it.  The one who had healed the infirm and had restored sight, mobility, and even life by his touch, dies in the depth of despair of exsanguination and exhaustion.  The perichoretic Son of the Father dies alone and forsaken.  I understand that this is what the Eucharist can recall for somewhat permanently broken people.  For some the dis-abled, rendered-incapable Jesus is a necessity because he identifies with disabled people.  Because of my broken mind, I have no trouble speaking of a Jesus who dies with his bones intact, but his flesh pierced and torn and his heart broken (and ultimately impaled), even as I acknowledge my friend’s literal attention to scripture.

Stookey describes the sacraments as utilising the real stuff of the earth as a sign that all hope is not lost and redemption is possible.[14]  All that exists, and all who exist, are bound by existence to the purpose of Creation which is divine self-expression: Stookey observes that humankind was made by God to be shared with.[15]  This should involve all of humankind and include, without qualification, those members who are less able than the rest in some facet.  It is my opinion that such earthiness in our view of the sacraments speaks of universal belonging.

Hauerwas wrote that in baptism all Christians belong to each other, thereby all children belong to the congregation of parents[16] such that the burden of care is the vocation of all members, not just the biological parents.  I suggest that the same is true of the brother-sister relationship between adult believers.  In the work of the congregation to seek to include the disabled man or woman I must begin with the understanding that he is my brother, (she is my sister), my own.

At this point it is pertinent to ask how a church can best minister to people with disabilities.  I understand the Church to be a foreshadowing fellowship of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation, words borrowed from Volf.[17]  Volf went on to describe how the City of God is the people, not the place nor the infrastructure of the place.  The city is the people amongst whom God dwells: a local church is a body of neighbouring believers who practice the sacraments and are in community with other congregations.[18]  Indeed Volf has said that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them but a Christian church is there as well”,[19] and this speaks to me of inclusion of all believers by their involvement.  Since the time of the first churches the mark of the Church has been participation in baptism and Eucharist:[20] a woman or man becomes a Christian through baptism[21] and practices his or her faith through publicly accessing the Lord’s table.[22] Volf offers that ecclesiality requires communion and that any church is only a part of The Church for as long as it is ecumenical.[23]  A church which excludes any Christian (someone professing faith in Jesus Christ) from the practices of the Church is no church and has no part in the Church.[24]  To minister to any believer, including the believer with a disability, is therefore to enable and encourage him or her to practice the faith by participating in the practices of the Church.

Cahalan describes practices as bodily acts, suggesting that they must be embodied to be enacted:[25] practices are only such if they are done,[26] and to be done they must be learned.[27]  Since it is the role of the minister (clergy) to teach the practices it is pertinent that these Christian leaders ask how the practices can be modified to fit modified bodily forms.  In the same way that a teacher must consider the needs of a child who cannot fully engage in PE so the leader of the congregation must look for creative ways of engaging and ensuring participation of all worshipping disciples.  How this might be orchestrated in any given circumstance is beyond the scope of this paper, other than to say that the consideration of the person with a disability as a complete brother-sister in faith is paramount.  The person with a disability is no less a Christian for his or her diminished capacity in one area or another.

Eiesland speaks of her own experiences of stigma and practical excommunication due to her physical incapacity to participate along with the congregation.[28]  Eucharist became for her a “ritual of exclusion and degradation” where she “felt like a trespasser among the whole-bodied”.[29]  I too have lived experience of  what Eiesland describes as “the default initiation for the disabled”,[30] the laying on of hands, and the stigma and exercising of coercive shame of not being healed of a disability.[31]  Yet she writes also of the great strength she has received and been able to offer at other times through this Charismatic offering; Eiesland and I have each been ministered to by being invited to minister to others.

When author John Swinton was asked how he would wish to be treated if he were diagnosed with a cognitive disability Swinton responded that he would want to be cared for and loved just for who he is, even if who he is had become difficult to handle.[32]  This is the nature of the gospel and the way in which God responds to us.  Swinton went on to say that when wellness is thought of within a theological framework it can be described as life in the presence of the relational God rather than the simple absence of illness.[33]  With his focus placed firmly upon the person rather than the person’s condition or behaviour I believe Swinton gets to the heart of the question of ministry.  More so in the situation of a person with a dementia, Swinton speaks of dementias as an erosion of the self,[34] and asks that if salvation is given freely to those who call on the LORD (Romans 10:10) what happens when the LORD is forgotten through cognitive diminution.[35]  I understand that to be ministered to is to be reminded of one’s value as imago Dei and as an integral constituent of the community of faith: even if all that one can bring is one’s self that is enough. (We are remembered by the LORD even if we forget God.) By faith we are brother-sisters alongside people who have disorders, not people who are each a disorder (or disordered persons).  In this regard the maintenance and development of relationships is central to the congregation’s work in conveying the message and reality of hope[36] which is the very centre of ministry.  Where Swinton has observed that the primary loss of people with a disability is not the loss of ability but the loss of value accorded to them by a society frightened by the presence of the disabled[37] it is the role of the local church to subvert this tendency.  The offer of friendship on equal, not patronising terms, is imperative.[38]

As a final investigation into the ministry of the church to people with disabilities it is requisite to ask how a congregation might empower those same people to minister to the Church.  LaCugna offers that to do what is true, (which is how she chooses to define “orthopraxis”), requires that each Christian engage meaningfully in relationships which serve God in word, action, and attitude.[39]  The question I would like answered is what this looks like in practice, and that if it is a true statement on the part of LaCugna then how might each Christian be made welcome and assisted to participate in ministry activity.

In Paragraph Seven of its Basis of Union the Uniting Church assumes responsibility for the discipling of its members, which is to say those it has baptised, and Cahalan believes that disciples have a communal and a personal relationship to Jesus and to each other.[40]  In agreeing with Cahalan and mindful of the Basis of Union the necessity of the (Uniting) Church offering opportunities for all members to act as ministers toward each other seems obvious.  This is the meaning I take from the Biblical understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”, not that there is no need for a paid clergy but that each Christian can be of help to his or her friends, neighbours, and encountered strangers.

From such an understanding I see two paths, the first of which is open to all disciples.  Christians as Christians, without prejudice to their uniqueness, are gifted in ministries by God through the Holy Spirit, and are accountable to God and the Church for the employ of those gifts.

The second path, which is not distinct from the first, is the recognition of the unique gifts provided within the lived experience of disability.  My experience of physical and mental illness[41] has provided me with an enhanced awareness of my kinaesthetic and emotional self, and Eiesland writes of a similar understanding suggesting that people with disabilities understand that they cannot take their being for granted.[42]  Where daily life is more challenging for the person with a specific disability than for people with a more complete ability the awareness of that specific element of personhood or existence is enhanced, not as simply as heroic overcoming but as a deep knowledge to be shared and taught.[43]  To use a Biblical example we might think of the greater insight of Job in the final chapter of his tale regarding what he knew of God and personhood in the first chapter.  Through his experience of loss and renewal it is fair to say that Job came to know God far more intimately: the sense that he came to know God “in the Biblical sense” does not seem inappropriate to me.

Those who have experienced disability are very often knowledgeable guides to the alternative pathways.  They (we) are the regular users of roads less travelled because of blockages on the expressway, we are the knowers of the alternative exits (which may be behind you) since our aeroplane really has crashed and there is fire outside the most obvious door.  As a one-time Londoner who hosted Australian tourist friends I know that anyone can read a Tube map, eventually, but I know the way so well that I can cross London in four different, instantaneously flexible ways, if required by line closures.  As a traveller of alternative pathways my experience of God and the Church is similarly broad and lithe, but no less orthodox for being so.

If the Christian Church is identified in any local place by its proclamation of the Word, its public celebration of the sacraments, and by its modelling and practising discipleship, then this can be no less the case if some of the Christians in any local place are people with disabilities.  There is no reason why people with disabilities should be excused or excluded from participation in ministry as practitioners or recipients simply because of their deficiency in one area.  To suggest otherwise is to subvert the meaning, and the purpose, of the Christian Church.

Bibliography:

Cahalan, Kathleen A.  Introducing the Practice of Ministry. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994.

Foskett, John.  Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill. London: SPCK, 1984.

Hallahan, Lorna. “On Relationships Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spirituality: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008.

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Swaffer, Kate, Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia. London: New Holland, 2016.

Swinton, John. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Swinton, John. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, 512-545.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Wansbrough, Ann. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith, Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) 404.

[2] ibid. 405.

[3] ibid. 406.

[4] Rebecca S. Chopp. “Forward” in Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 9.

[5] ibid. 11.

[6] John Foskett. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill (London: SPCK, 1984) 163.

[7] ibid. 166.

[8] Nancy L. Eiesland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 20.

[9] Kate Swaffer and Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia (London: New Holland, 2016) 47.

[10] Ann Wansbrough. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985) 38.

[11] ibid. 39.

[12] ibid.

[13] Lorna Hallahan. “On Relationships, Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spiritualty: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life, edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008) 98.

[14] Laurence Hull Stookey. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993) 15.

[15] ibid.

[16] Stanley Hauerwas.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 182.

[17] Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid. 136.

[20] ibid. 152.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid. 153.

[23] ibid. 158.

[24] ibid.

[25] Kathleen A. Cahalan. Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010) 108.

[26] ibid. 109.

[27] ibid. 110.

[28] Eiesland. The Disabled God. 112.

[29] ibid. 113.

[30] ibid. 116.

[31] ibid. 117.

[32] John Swinton. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 2.

[33] ibid. 7.

[34] ibid. 9.

[35] ibid. 10.

[36] ibid. 139.

[37] John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 517.

[38] Swinton. Dementia. 141.

[39] LaCugna. God For Us. 383.

[40] Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry. 5.

[41] I have lived through Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome and an Anxiety Disorder alongside Depression.

[42] Eiesland, The Disabled God. 31.

[43] ibid.c

The Eternal Happiness

Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Camp Park Chapel on Sunday 5th February 2017.

Midrashim, there’s a great Hebrew word for you, make up a fair portion of the Bible, depending upon which scholar you ask.  A midrash is simply a commentary or interpretation, perhaps even a sermon where a rabbi takes a passage from scripture and then interprets and expands it for his or her disciples.  There is a suggestion that Psalm 112 is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 which reads [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding.    And then we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments.  So, what is so happy about these peoples, what are the blessings that come upon such ones?  Descendants who are victorious, happy and glorious for starters: in other words, these are people of good reputation.  Yet even in his or her own life, for the one who fears the LORD and is gracious and compassionate in the way that God is even in darkness light dawns according to Psalm 112:4. It is well with those who act with the character of God.  As we heard last week from Psalm 15:5 so here in Psalm 112:6-8 the righteous are steadfast and will not be shaken nor moved, and neither shall their children who follow in their example be.

They are generous and their good reputation is everlasting because of their generosity and godliness in grace.

But what, exactly, is the meritorious behaviour of the woman or man of God with regard to the commandments?  I think that it is not necessarily in obeying them, but in knowing them to be there as statements of wise action.  As I said last week this is not so much a regime of demands to be followed but a description of what such a person’s life looks like from the outside.   They are reminders of what you already do as a Christian or Jew, not rules that you must learn before you join the congregation.   It is all well and good to say “thou shalt not bully”, and for people to obey that, but it is much better to say “the reputation of that man (or woman) of God is kindness, and it will go well with you if you seek to emulate him or her.”  It’s this second understanding that I am trying to get across, while in no way undermining the rationale and requirement that the first commandment be heeded.  The point is if you act with kindness then you won’t ever be a bully anyway, and to follow this Psalm’s example if you act with generosity and good humour you’ll never be covetous, or adulterous, or murderous, or disrespectful to your neighbour or your parents, and you’ll not go seeking God’s other than the LORD.  You just won’t do those things.  So, it’s not that evil is forbidden for you, although of course it is, it’s more that you just won’t be in a place to disobey God if you are always living in the reflection of God’s own character.

As with last week so this, we continue our journey with Paul into the intricacies of the church in Corinth and his kind instruction that the Christians begin to act more like the humble Christ and less like snobby self-righteous religious people or puffed up academics.  Look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 where in effect Paul is saying, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smart-alec when I visited you.  My whole message to you was Christ as the living likeness of God, and Christlikeness as the best model for Christian discipleship, and that’s it.”  I really hope you’ve heard that message from me to.  I’ve mentioned in passing that I have four university degrees, not because I wish to boast in my intellect but because they are each part of my story.  You know I am clever and some of you have been kind enough to comment to me that you enjoy my sermons, that I am obviously well-read and that I put a lot of effort into preparing my talk for you each week.  So, thanks for that, it’s lovely encouragement.  But my message is never going to be the years I spent at university. my message is the simple truth of Christianity and identical in this regard to the message of Paul.  Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world.  Be nice.  That is a midrash for you upon the entire Bible.  It’s not the only message of course, it says nothing about salvation, but it says all you need to know about discipleship.  Act like Jesus, because what you see in Jesus is actually what God is like.

So, let’s see what Paul actually says here.  We pick it up at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom that he does have to speak to the academically-minded people on their level.  The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you, love each other; but in that uncomplex statement is more wisdom than all of pages and ages of ramblings from each and every Wisey McWiseface who ever lived.  “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.”  The living image of the only true God comes to the world preaching love and generosity, and the world’s key leaders execute him for treason and blasphemy.  There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.

Yet love is the answer, and the exercise of love is the truth of all truths.  Look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10.  God has such brilliance in store for the generous and the righteous woman or man that it absolutely defies human wisdom.  And Paul goes on in his defiance of human wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:11 to question its very root.  Human beings are incapable because of the limitations of their humanity of understanding what human wisdom actually is.  In 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 God the Holy Spirit says through Paul “let me tell you who you really are.  Let me, the spirit of God, tell you from above and beyond what humanity really means and what your deepest, strongest sense of rightness is.” At the end of verse 12, which is the end of today’s set reading, the Spirit hasn’t said what that deep rightness is, but it does display more of the nature of God.  “You can’t possibly know”, says the Spirit, “but I can and do know and I shall tell you.”  God is wise, kind, and generous; doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.  That is what salvation is, isn’t it?

Greater in wisdom than Paul, who for all of his insight and guiding by the Spirit, is as human as the rest of us, let’s turn to what Jesus says about God and about the life of a disciple.

In Matthew 5:1-20, and indeed well beyond that stopping point but that’s as far as I’m going today, Jesus speaks to his disciples about what life in the reign of God looks like.

Last week in many churches around the world sermons were preached on the Beatitudes.  As you know I chose to focus on Micah and 1 Corinthians, but the lectionary gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12.  Today’s set reading is Matthew 5:13-20, and in the few minutes we have left I’m going to talk about one key point across both readings.  Of course, the Sermon on the Mount is a mine of good wisdom, so I could spend days telling you about it all, but as I say my focus this morning is on just one aspect of what Jesus said to his gathered disciples.  We’ll see where the next few weeks take us as the lectionary leads us through the Sermon on the Mount until the start of Lent and the lead into Easter from 1st March onward.

This morning I summoned you to worship with the words of the beatitudes.  In eleven verses Jesus describes eight groups of people that he defines as “blessed”.  In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”, and I think that fits both the sense of what Jesus was saying in his sermon and what I have so far been saying in mine.  Such people as the ones who follow Christ and act with God’s nature are happy, and they are to be envied.  From Matthew 5:13-16 we read where Jesus spoke of his disciples as being salt and light to the earth, in other words a visible example of God’s reign rolling forth.  (We addressed these themes last week when we spoke about how we might be useful to God.)  And from Matthew 5:17-20 we read of Jesus’ reiteration of the story of the Jewish gospel.  Jesus says quite clearly that he had not come to denounce Judaism nor the commandments.  The testimony of the prophets, the scriptures, and the legal authorities of the People of God still stood.  Even in our day they still do; since the conditions listed by Jesus in Matthew 5:18 have not been met.  So, what is Jesus saying?  If Judaism is still solid, and the messiah says it is and does not anywhere else say it isn’t, then what is the story for Christians and Jews today?

[Any ideas?]

I think the answer is the same one I’ve been speaking of these past few weeks.  Live, publicly, a godly life.

Think of the beatitudes.  To each group of people who are acting in generous response to God by:

Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;

Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;

Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;

Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;

Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed;

Jesus offers the promise of a reward in Heaven based on the assurance that if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably doing what they did, which is to say modelling the life of God and thereby calling the world to account for its lack of godliness.

Into today’s reading the same, keep bringing the God-colours and God-flavours to the attention of the world.  Point to the commandments as promises of God’s upholding of your good character and the evidence of your life’s consistency with the divine will.

Jesus is offering a midrash on all Jewish tradition here.  “It’s all valid,” he says, “so long as you take the right interpretation from it.”  Live with the character of God; you were created in the image and likeness of God so return to your natural being, reflect God’s image and likeness in your behaviour and your attitude.  Specifically, be generous, says the Psalmist.  Specifically, be wise in the things of God, says Paul.  Specifically, model righteousness and know that if you’re facing attack it’s only because your example is convicting the wicked of their own wickedness.  The ways of the world are not normal, says the scriptures, it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested.

Once more, as was my conclusion last week, be yourself, the self God made you to be.

Amen.