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5th November 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 November 2017

Readings

Joshua 3:7-17

Moses had divided the sea to allow people to escape into the wilderness and in this reading Joshua divides the Jordan to allow the people to leave the wilderness and move into the Promised Land.

This is an important marker in salvation history and an important feature in the genre of our religious scripture. Elijah divides the Jordon on leaving Israel to be lifted up to heaven and Elisa parts the Jordan to come back into Israel to begin his prophetic ministry.  The Elijah figure of John the Baptist appears in the Gospels where Elijah left and when Jesus is baptised it is not the water but the heavens that are divided to emphasise the divine relationship because by this time the reader understands that anyone can divide water. 

We also need to remember that in Genesis 1 creation was effected by ‘A wind from God swept over the face of the waters’ and the waters were divided and dry land appeared.  So dividing the water is the act of creation and each division is a new creation. [1]

Matthew 23: 1-12

In this reading Jesus is talking to a largely illiterate audience and is instructing them to listen to the scripture when it is read but ignore the interpretation which the scribes and Pharisees offer. Such interpretation, Jesus suggests, is largely constructed to legitimise and reinforce the position of the religious elite. [2] ‘They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them’.  Interpreting scripture to legitimise and reinforce authority is a technique that has also been used, and is still used, by the church.  Making people feel guilt so they need the church to redeem them is what upset Martin Luther and is still alive and well today.

Phylacteries were boxes containing scriptures which were worn on the arm or forehead and, although they might express genuine faithfulness, the long boxes here indicated that they are more a public show of piety than genuine commitment to the law.  The tassels or fringes on garments were likewise designed to be reminders of the law but became fashion accessories that designate status. 

Sermon

31st of October marked five hundred years since Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. 

What Luther published was simply a list of propositions for an academic debate on the Power of Indulgences but its publication was credited with starting the Reformation, which profoundly changed Europe although there was a mood for reform at the time.

Luther saw indulgences as abusive.  Indulgences were certificates that were sold in the belief that they reduced the punishment for sins committed by the purchasers themselves or their loved ones in purgatory.  As a priest of his time Luther was very much caught up in the theology of sin and repentance but claimed that the repentance required by Christ in order for sins to be forgiven involved inner spiritual repentance rather than merely external sacramental confession.

He argued that indulgences led Christians to avoid true repentance and sorrow for sin, believing that they could forgo it by purchasing an indulgence.  They also, according to Luther, discouraged Christians from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy, because they saw the indulgence certificates as having greater spiritually value.

The church of the time was very focussed on salvation by works and the film released by the Lutheran church shows Luther obsessed with purity and good works to earn his own place in heaven.  The theology that emerged was that we cannot do enough to earn our salvation but are saved by God’s grace.  The down side of that liberating thought was that if it was totally up to God who was saved and who was dammed then there was no point in any missionary activity because those people who had never heard of Jesus must have been created to be damned.  The breakthrough came though the European Pietists movement whose mission theology suggested that although we cannot earn our own salvation by good works we are obliged to respond to the Grace we receive from God by being graceful to others.  In other words we respond to God’s love by loving others and because we respond to others with love we help them if they are in need and whatever blessing we receive in life we want to share with others. 

We not only love God and love neighbour but in loving neighbour we are loving God.  We love God by loving neighbour.   

Jesus’ message was about living with and for each other in a world of conflicting powers, races and ideologies.  Jesus did not set out to form a church or any form of organisation. 

The problem was that to keep Jesus’ message alive from generation to generation needs some form of organisation.  Unfortunately the greatest temptation facing any organisation is to put the survival of the organisation ahead of the organisation’s mission.  Indulgences were a great way to keep and recruit members because, in the fearful disease filled world they lived in, simply by paying money they were assured of salvation, not just in this world but also the next. 

Of course that was hard on the poor but there are very few ruling classes that ever cared about the poor. 

In the episode that focussed on the potato famine in Ireland in the recent series about young Victoria the British aristocracy were saying they could not interfere to save the Irish from starving.  Their deaths were just a natural selection that kept the population stable.  Furthermore making more grain available would be bad for the economy.  That is an argument that is alive and well in our world.

Five hundred years ago the church had moved past its partnership with absolute monarchs and become a church that ruled Europe’s monarchs and therefore their kingdoms.  Indulgences were a great source of funds that helped maintain the power of the church and keep its clergy in the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to. 

They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. (Matthew 23:5)  Well not quite because even in religion fashion changes. But they still wore costumes that proclaimed their status in the great ecclesiastical pageant designed to control people’s lives. 

That pageant had also developed on the wilderness journey and our reading from Joshua describes a procession of priests leading off with the Ark into the river to stop the flow and allow the people to cross over and redeem their promise.  

Luther stepped out into the river of church history carrying only the faith he believed was revealed in the Bible.  In so doing he divided the power of the church and created a flood of reforms that are still seeping into churches today. 

Reformed churches challenge themselves to be both reformed and reforming and that is an ongoing challenge to this day.  Luther’s reforms quickly developed into violence as did Joshua’s migration into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites etc who weren’t accepting refugees at the time.

Likewise the Church and the princes of Europe held onto their power and new organisations stepped into whatever vacuums were formed. Allegiance to the state became equated with allegiance to the state’s religion and Christian missions to the new world were co-opted to become servants of empire.

At the UCANZ forum the Methodist President, Prince Devanandan, made the point that our inherited mission came from the church planting of British colonisation and he called for a reform of the way we understand and do mission.  Prince challenged us to consider that when our mission focused on bringing people to church we needed to ask if we were doing God’s mission or the church’s mission and went on to quote Tim Dearborn:

‘It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world’[3].

In our Gospel reading Jesus acknowledges that the tradition that the scribes and the Pharisees taught was of value and people should take note.  But they should not replicate the way the scribes and the Pharisees use their privileged position to exploit people.  Therefore a mission that is focused on supporting colonialism, church planting or church membership is also exploiting people.  That is not to say that churches don’t need members, all organisations need members to survive, and the Dearborn quote notes ‘God of mission who has a church in the world.’  However the quote also infers that God’s mission is to the world and in his address to the UCANZ forum Prince made the point that we will not change the world by simply attending church or getting other people to attend church. 

The vital function of the church is the same as the scribes and the Pharisees, to teach people the tradition and prepare and encourage them for mission in the world.  For the memory of Jesus to move from generation to generation the church performs a vital role in preserving the Jesus tradition and equipping people to be Christ in the world.  For that reason I think that keeping the church alive is vital.  However as the body of Christ the Church must be Christ in the world and it must not only be in mission collectively but must send its members out into the world in mission as well.  

In our triune understanding we get our image of God from the Jesus we believe is Christ and Jesus’ mission was to proclaim that the kingdom of God was at hand.  The kingdom of God or God’s Realm is a way of truly being human no matter what system of government or disempowering oppression people live under.  Citizens of God’s Realm live lives of empathy, caring, healing and lovingkindness and, by so living, change the world.  That is the mission of God, the mission we are all called to.  The pressure to be involved in church focused mission used to irritate me as a new Christian because I felt that I was called to my profession by God and equally called to my activity as a Scout leader and involvement in community activity through JCs and my professional body.  But I was often made to feel that I wasn’t properly Christian if I didn’t teach Sunday School or plan to go off on some missionary trip.  I guess the fact that I am preaching now means that I eventfully succumbed to the pressure.  But to survive the church needs people to administer it just as the Temple needed scribes and Pharisees and, as it says in Ecclesiastes: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time to every matter under the heaven’. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)  So undoubtedly when I retire I will be called back into God’s mission in my part of the world.

Nevertheless the church falls down when it fails to encourage and support its members who are in mission in the world and becomes an abomination when its primary focus is self preservation. 

Five hundred years ago the Reformation moved the church towards a self-adjustment.  It was a painful process and an incomplete process without ongoing reform.  Reformation must never be an Ark that stops the flow of change while the church’s wilderness journey seeks out its promise.

Reformation must always be a continuing river of reform that aligns itself with the agenda of the God of mission who has a church in the world.

 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.178

[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark  International 2004) p.452-453.

[3] Tim Dearborn Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission,

 p. 2 quoted in https://www.missionalchallenge.com/quote-the-god-of-mission/

 

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