6th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon Title: 6th Sunday after Pentecost.
Date: 26th June 2016
Preacher: Rev’d Kate Lord
Lectionary Reading: Acts 22:3-16, Psalm 117, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 24:44-48

In the name of our Trinitarian God, Sacred Three, ever One.  Amen.

On one of my train trips back from the city last year, I was watching the world go by as I gazed out the window.  I noticed that the close-up things, like houses and shops and the names of stations went past very quickly, so quickly that it made my eyes and head hurt to try and see everything!  Things in the middle distance were a little easier to see, though they were never there long enough for me to study them as much as I’d like to have.  But things far away, like mountains on the horizon and clouds in the sky hardly seemed to move at all.  And when I looked at those, I found that my eyes and my mind relaxed, and the things whizzing by, right next to me, became less engaging in comparison.

I have found this to be a really good metaphor for life.  In the short term, things seem to change so quickly that they make our heads and our hearts ache.  This time in six months it will be Boxing Day!  Since I left you sixteen months ago, your Director of Music has moved on, you have engaged a new Director of Music, and today you farewell David as he moves on to a new position.  But look further out into the distance.  For over 120 years, this Parish has ministered to the people of Canterbury, and for a century, the organ and, later, the choir, have been supporting you as you bring glory to God each Sunday.  I know that some of you have worshipped here longer than I have been alive.  Your vocation to witness, here in Canterbury, to Christ’s saving, forgiving and reconciling love for all people will never change.

The call to stand in solidarity with the poor and the marginalised, and to challenge violence, injustice and oppression will always be upon you.  Mission and ministry are the horizon to which you are called to turn your gaze, letting less important concerns fall away.

Change has also been pronounced in the wider world.  The recent vote to ‘leave’, the prospect of a President Trump, and our own forthcoming election are all pointers to change.  But they should also make us reassess our own priorities, reminding us to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves, and to work for the kingdom of God here and now.

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  It would be helpful for us to understand the world in which they lived, and its similarities to our own situation, so that we might gaze at their horizon and from it draw inspiration.  If you have never read the book of Acts through, from beginning to end, I encourage you to take this cold winter’s day to curl up on the couch with the Good Book, and read it like a novel.  Acts is a cracking yarn.

Paul lived in a multicultural and religiously pluralistic society.  Greek thought was making many religious practices look like superstition.  Judaism, in order to survive in such a world, had split into several camps; denominations, if you like.  The Sadducees held tightly to the Torah, containing the Law given to them by Moses.  They took it literally, and did not hold to any of the traditions and variations that had grown up around it.  That is why they did not believe in angels, spirits, the resurrection or predictions about the end times: they found no proof of such things in the writings of Moses.  To them, the temple cult was the most important thing, and they were willing to compromise with the Hellenistic authorities as long as they could worship in their traditional manner.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that the gulf between what they saw of the world around them, and the kingdom of God to which they looked forward, was so wide that it could only be bridged by divine intervention.  They therefore tried to maintain separation from the Hellenistic culture to prevent contamination.  That is why they followed all the additional rules about ritual washing, dietary restrictions, fasting and prayer.

The Essenes saw themselves as the community of the new covenant, and separated themselves from the world in order to practise monastic devotion to the Torah.  They lived in the desert northwest of the Dead Sea, waiting for the end of the historical drama, when God would overthrow the powers of evil and inaugurate his kingdom.  Their zeal for the Torah and their hope for an apocalyptic kingdom led them to revive the ancient concept of holy war, by which the land would be purified from the contaminations of pagan culture in ‘the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness’, and would be converted into the Holy Land.

Do any of these approaches to religion sound familiar?  It is easy to see why Paul’s message is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago!

Paul himself was a Pharisee.  He was born around the same time as Jesus, so he is in his early 30s when we first hear about him.  And if Paul lived today, we would probably label him ‘radicalised’.  He was zealous for his religion, much more so than his quite moderate religious teacher, Gamaliel.  Paul was so angered by threats to Judaism from the new sect known as “The Way”, that he set out to arrest and execute its followers.

Imagine the turmoil that Paul must have experienced upon having a vision of the risen Christ, calling upon him to stop the persecution!  He carries the guilt of his actions with him until the end of his life.  Jesus asks to raise his eyes from the rules and trappings of religion, and set his gaze on the horizon that is the living, loving God.  Let us look at some of the ways in which he does so.

Paul speaks into a culture where nationality, as expressed in language and culture, affect people’s access to justice.  One time when he arrives in Jerusalem, he is mistaken for an immigrant from Egypt who had been inciting violence.  But when he speaks Greek to those arresting him, they are taken aback, and grant his request to speak to the Jews.  But the Jews are not willing to give Paul a fair hearing, until he speaks to them in Hebrew, their own language!  Even then, the Jews do not like Paul’s message, and have him arrested.  He is subjected to injustice and beatings until he lets it be known that he is, in fact, a Roman citizen!  Then his captors are afraid of the repercussions on them.  One captor comments to Paul that his own Roman citizenship had cost him a lot of money; Paul retorts that he was born with his.  Roman citizens had the right to stand for election and to vote; they could make a will, sue someone in court, marry whomever they chose, and travel, expecting to enjoy the same privileges everywhere in the Empire.

This should also sound familiar to 21st century ears.  We also have insiders and outsiders.  An Australian, or even a British passport, gives us certain rights.  The ability to speak the right language may get others a fair hearing.  Even then, however, their religion may still be a barrier to justice.  Citizenship, and the privileges it brings, are not readily available to those seeking them today, and are very costly, in terms of money and safety.  But Paul’s is the mission to bring all people, citizens and immigrants and slaves, into the kingdom of God, breaking down the barriers between them.  He calls them to see the horizon of eternity with God, and to work towards bringing the kingdom to the here and now.

Paul also challenges the status of women in society.  Attitudes then were so entrenched that even Paul himself was not always able to articulate alternatives well.  Likewise, negative attitudes towards women in our society are both so insidious and so invidious that challenges to them make it into the news.  We are expected to let boys be boys, and told to learn to take a joke.  We might surprise ourselves to realise that it will be as difficult for us as it was for Paul to change society’s attitude towards women and see them as truly equal.

Finally, Paul gives us a wonderful understanding of our responsibility to the earth.  In the letter he writes to the Christians in Rome, Paul says that creation witnesses to the eternal power and divine nature of God; the visible helping us to understand the invisible.  Such an understanding of the role of the earth and of nature, as pointing humanity towards God, should make us honour and care for her.  Instead, our hunger for the latest fashion and gadgets, our thirst for power and wealth, convenience and control, the spread of capitalism and the wars it begets, are destroying our planet.  It is no wonder that belief in God is waning; we have lost sight of the horizon, literally and metaphorically.

All of Paul’s writing seeks to break down the barriers between people, so that they may more fully comprehend the all-embracing love of God.  Just as the horizon surrounds all that we can see, so God’s love, as shown to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, encompasses all people.  In Christ there is no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.  There is no long gay nor straight, Liberal voter nor Labor voter, asylum seeker nor border control.  All are one, like the members of one body, the body of Christ.

Under Paul, this good news of Jesus Christ spreads throughout the known world.  He sacrifices his position in society and his own safety so that all people can hear of God’s love for them, and take part in the life and work of the church.

Paul boasts, in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, of his floggings, lashings, beatings, stonings, imprisonments, attacks by bandits, and exposure to the elements; he boasts that the has been in danger from Jews and Gentiles, in the country and in the city and at sea; he boasts that he has laboured and toiled, been hungry and thirsty, been naked and gone without sleep.

Few of us have undergone such trials.  Maybe we are grateful that we don’t feel called to such privations.  But maybe we also wonder why the church is not growing and thriving as we would like it to, as it did two thousand years ago.  Yet in some parts of the world, that are today experiencing violence and persecution (like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen), famine (like Niger, Chad, Congo and Malawi) and natural disasters (like Argentina, Indonesia, Bhutan and Vietnam), Christianity is burgeoning.

People who are self-sufficient and safe do not consider Christianity, or, indeed, religion, necessary.  People who focus on the things in life that whizz by quickly, such as power, money, influence, security and fame, are generally so busy that they have no time, and are so exhausted that they have no energy to focus on yet another thing.  What they do not realise is that it requires less time and energy to look away, to look afar, than it does to keep up.

Christianity, then, is about letting go of things that take our gaze off God, and off our mission and ministry in the world.  To order our lives to the priorities of Paul, we need to cling to the constancy of scripture, and find stillness in prayer and meditation.  We must search the faces of everyone we meet to see in them the image of God.  And we must look to Christ for hope in eternal life beyond the horizon of death.

The Lord be with you.