Saturday, May 1, 2010

Let's Hear More about What the Faith of Christians Does and Less About What the Christian Faith Is

[These are notes for a sermon preached at St Saviour's Anglican Church in Nelson BC on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 25 April 2010.]

+ May only God's truth be spoken. May only God's truth be heard. Amen.

In the fall of 1978 I entered seminary. I was very excited and looked forward to my first class in theology. Dr. Jim Griffiss was our professor and on the very first day of class he stood up and said, "I am about to tell you in two sentences all you need to know about theology. When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God. Everything else is commentary." We all rapidly wrote this in our notebooks. Then some of us closed them. Dr. Griffiss looked at us all and said “Why are you closing your notebooks?” “Well,” said one of my colleagues, “we think we're done.” Dr. Griffiss said to us, “I'm far from being done. We have three years ahead of us to learn about the commentary!”

The question that divides Jesus from his opponents is this: Can one experience in Jesus the power and presence of God in the world? Before we can answer this question, it is important to say that Jesus’ opponents are not the Jewish people but the religious authorities and the elite. These authorities have constructed a religious world and in this religious world the actions of Jesus cannot fit. They cannot hear Jesus because their understanding of what it means to be a Jew does not permit the kind of behaviour that Jesus has thus far manifested.

• In John 2 Jesus comes to Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple, an explicit critique of the practice of the Jewish leadership of the time.
• In John 4 Jesus has his encounter with the woman of Samaria and violates two principles: (i) she's a woman and he should not speak to her and (ii) she is a Samaritan, a member of a group that Jews ostracize.
• In John 5 Jesus breaks the Sabbath by healing a paralytic at the pool of Beth Zatha, choosing mercy over the strict rules of religious observance.
• In John 6 Jesus scandalizes many of his listeners by describing himself as the bread of life and saying to them that they cannot have life unless they have him in them.
• In John 8 we have the famous story of the woman caught in adultery where Jesus says ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone’.
• And then in John 9 Jesus heals a man born blind, a man who later on when questioned by the authorities asks them, ‘Do you want to be one of Jesus’ disciples?’, one of the greatest misreadings of an audience perhaps in all of Scripture.
• And then we arrive at today's reading in John 10 which forms part of the ‘Good Shepherd’ narrative which contrasts Jesus’ style of leadership with that of the religious authorities with whom he is in opposition.

What the religious authorities are confronted with is one of the oldest religious conflicts known to humanity. This is the tension between right believing or orthodoxy, and right acting or orthopraxis. When Jesus says, ‘The father and I are one,’ he is not making a doctrinal statement about his identity. What Jesus is pointing to is what he has done. He has been sent by God to show by deed what continues to elude many people to this day: God is more clearly known by what we do then by what we say. Let me repeat that: God is more clearly known by what we do than by what we say.

‘The Father and I are one’: Jesus and the God who sent him into the world are united in the work that God is doing in Jesus. If you want to know who God is, then watch what Jesus does. What Jesus does is this:

• He challenges unjust structures.
• He respects those who are considered outsiders.
• He chooses mercy over religious correctness.
• He offers himself for the life of the world.
• He forgives those who are caught in other people's webs.
• He gives sight to the blind.
• He chooses service rather than prestige.

What John is trying to say to you and me in today's reading is this: Do the things and we will know who God is and we will have life abundant.

Many centuries ago when the Christian movement was a struggling illegal offshoot of Judaism, a wealthy non-Christian Roman in North Africa wrote a letter of complaint to the local authorities. His complaint was that the Christians were increasing in numbers. Why? Because the Christians cared for the sick, the needy, the orphaned and the imprisoned --- whether they were Christians or not. So long as the civil authorities did nothing for those in need, he wrote, Christians would multiply.

My sisters and brothers, I know that these are difficult times for us. I have no magic that will suddenly reverse the trends we have been witnessing. I am convinced, however, that our future lies in acting like Christ more than in doctrinal disputes. What ‘the spiritual but not religious’ folk or young people or those who left the church as a result of some disappointment need is the witness of Christian communities such as yours and mine who are responding to the real needs of their communities.

Our gatherings for prayer and sacrament are meant to shape us so that we can act as Jesus acts. Perhaps the world needs to hear less debate about what Christian faith is a more about what the faith of Christians does. Let me say that again. What the world needs to hear is less debate about what Christian faith is and more about what the faith of Christians does.

Today Jesus' voice whispers in our ears, ‘You are mine. Have no fear. No one can take you from me or from the loving embrace of the One who sent me. Have courage and act.’ May that voice drown out the voices of fear and doubt and despair May that voice draw us out to undertake new ventures. May we be one in action with the One who speaks to us, just as he is one in action with the One who sent him into the world. Amen.

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