Thursday, 5 September 2013

From hate to hope.

By Peter Lockhart

I wonder what you think it means to be a Christian. 
What does it mean to be a church goer? 
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus: a disciple even?

I know that early in my life I believed very much that to be a Christian meant being a good member of society, upholding Christian values, which included family values.

It is interesting to note that one of the political parties with a religious leaning personify this commitment to family values in their name: Family First.

But is this really what the faith is about having family values and being good citizens.

On the dawn after our Australian election the lectionary give us the challenging gift of this reading from Luke 14:25-33:

25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Jesus said: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Now I am not sure how well you know the Ten Commandments but honour thy father and mother is
To love or hate?
Creative commons: Kudaker
certainly one of them.  Is Jesus contradicting the law?  What does it mean for him to say that we should hate our families?  How do his words challenge the whole family values idea?

I know personally I hold to an idea that the message of Jesus is meant to be good news.  The first words of Mark’s gospel read “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Hating family does not sound like good news!

A week ago the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discussing marriage equality of Q&A said himself that at the heart of the New Testament is a message of universal love.  In 1 John we read “God is love”, if God is love from whence is this hate of family?

Where is the hope?  Where is the grace?  Where is the mercy?  Where is the good news?

How can we move from this message of hate into a message of hope?

The answer for me is that we must always take step back from a reading like this and look at it in the broader context.  We need to consider where it fits in the flow of the narrative of that particular book of the Bible and we also need to weigh it against the prevailing themes in scripture.  We also need to use our reason and intellect to consider it in light of revelation around the passage and in the world that has occurred through two millennia.

Looking at Luke’s gospel the preceding story is the story which we read last week.  To recap for those who were not here or may have forgotten Jesus was at a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees.  During the meal Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, questioned the jockeying for hierarchical status at the table, and challenged the religious leaders to include those who were ostracised from the community.

In other words Jesus was challenging religious, social, economic and even political norms and standards of behaviour.  He was being counter cultural and in so doing was emphasising the tension that exist between God’s will and the society in which the Pharisees were operating and the underpinning assumptions within that society.

Jesus words about hating family and even life itself are a continuation of this confrontation between God’s will and the way people lived.

In the first century the life of any Jewish person was very much defined by their household.  The individualism of our society would be completely foreign to them culturally.

In Jesus time a man would be the head of a household and the household would usually be understood in a broader sense than the notion of the nuclear family of mum, dad and kids.

In this household of Jesus time the members of the household were intricately connected and the behaviour of one member could bring shame or honour to the whole group. 

Looking back to the passage for a moment at the end of the passage Jesus says “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” 

It may seem unusual for you that Jesus parallels hating family with possessions but in Jesus time viewing members of the family as possessions was more the norm.  Women in particular were viewed in this way.  Wives were in a sense owned as possessions by their husbands.  Daughters were married through arrangement as a point of trade that came with a dowry and could be used as a way of establishing or advancing social status and possible economic, political or religious power.

I must admit in terms of conversations around Christian marriage that are current I find it strange that much of this context is either lost or ignored as people redefine Christian marriage to reflect the relatively modern ideal of the nuclear family.

With such a strong tie between the individuals in the society and their families I have little doubt that Jesus confronting words to the crowd are about the costs of engaging with the transforming work of God.

It will cost in terms of social relationships, but it also had economic, political and religious implications.

Living as followers of Jesus, being proponents of God’s will in the world, would bring individuals in conflict with the society in which they lived.

This is more like the beginning of John’s gospel where John says of Jesus “He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.”

The good news of Jesus does not sit comfortably in the cultures of this world, Jesus was counter cultural and dare I say Jesus still is counter cultural.

Each week as a congregation we say pray the Lord’s Prayer which includes the words:

Your kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as is in heaven

I wonder whether we really consider how radical and subversive these words are as we pray them.

Jesus words suggest that being his follower is not about family values and being good citizens.  Rather it is about understanding that following Jesus is counter cultural.

In Paul’s letters he refers to us being like strangers in a strange land and citizens of a heavenly kingdom not yet arrived.  These words were a reminder then and I believe now also that the culture we find ourselves embedded in and are possessed by is not consistent with God’s vision for the creation and to seek to follow Jesus comes with tensions and costs for us as well.

Yesterday we voted and now we have a newly formed government with new representatives.  Regardless of whom you voted for, or whether you simply observed with interest as a visitor in our country, the reality is that the kind of core issues which drive our culture and society have not changed.

Our faith, if we are committed and honest about it, leaves us in tension with the culture in which we live.  The social, political, economic and religious tensions remain.  And whilst we might believe that the party we voted for may have best represented our values the reality is to vote for any party necessarily involves a level of compromise.

I have heard it said that liberal democracy is the best system of government from a list of inadequate choices and it may just be that it is the best we as humanity can do but Jesus words of hating the things we possess and which possess s are timely.

In Jesus time the question of hating family was as much about elevating God to a central place over and above the controls of the ancient household as it was literally about hating your parents, or wife or children.

I do not think Jesus is saying hating your parents is a good thing but that if we live in response to God’s love first we will love and honour parents appropriately ass the scripture suggests.  Not seeing other family members as possessions to be controlled.

If anything our problem is the opposite so highly have we elevated the rights and identity of the individual that communal relationships and commitment are being lost.  We would be very wary to rip Jesus words out of context suggest Jesus is any way encouraging and affirming the breakdown of families, divorce rates and the like within our community.

But Jesus words do challenge us on what it means to be his followers in the context of our culture.

In the midst of the election politicians played on our sense of individual entitlement, placing “me and my needs at the centre” of the decisions I make.  We were made to think about economic outcomes, and growth and wealth as priorities by both major parties as if these are the end goals.

We basically live in society which is grounded in teaching you to covet and consume.

Jesus challenge echoes down to us “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  I am yet to meet a person who has taken this seriously and in all my study of Christian history only find very rare examples of such commitment to poverty of living.

Despite your generosity as individuals I suspect not one of us can claim we have done this and in our consumerist world obsessed with growth it is hard to fathom.

The character of Voldemorte in J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series is a parable for us of the dire consequences of locating our souls in objects as he does but we do not have to dwell too long in fantasy to be confronted by the consequences of our consumerist culture.

In the documentary “Surviving Progress” the consequences of our obsession with growth and consumerism are explored and message is we are on a course towards disaster if we do not change.

Returning to Jesus context by the time Jesus said these words he had already indicated his understanding that he was heading towards his betrayal, suffering and death.  Something even his closest disciples did not want to hear.

When he confronts the crowd he is telling it like it is.  Following Jesus was not about being in a fan club, it is not about pressing “like” on a Facebook page, it is about being prepared to go all the way.

Now before we get too despondent about where we are in relationship to this journey we know that whilst some followers left Jesus at this point by the time he falls into the hands of the Romans his own disciples have runaway or denied him.

Which brings me back to that question how do we move from hate to hope?

It is only in encountering the broader context of God’s story of pursuing us in love that we can find that hope.

We heard it in our readings today:

In the vision from Jeremiah that God’s will is like the potter at the will, continually reshaping the spoiled form into a new pot.  God’s love promises to reshape and remake not destroy.

In the words of intimacy in Psalm 139 which remind us God knits us in our mother’s womb, is with us through all of life, and when we breather our last is there.  What words of hope “I come to the end—I am still with you.”

In the words of encouragement from Paul to Philemon and the longing for God’s presence: “Refresh my heart!”

We are people who pray

Your kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as is in heaven

And as followers of Jesus we should be aware that there is a tension between the way we live now on earth and the coming of God’s kingdom and that there may and will be times that this tension is borne out in the relationships which we have with those around us and even amongst ourselves.

The good news of Jesus Christ and of God is the vision of a God who has pursued humanity and the whole creation in love from one generation to the next.  Governments, cultures and ways of life come and go but the promises of God and our hope in God flow from generation to generation.  Our experience of being good citizens or holding to family values may sit in tension with God’s will but God is always reaching to us.

As we pray for our newly elected government and for our Prime Minister and all of the elected representatives let us also hold on to our hope that spans decades and generations, and centuries and millennia unto the end of time and beginning of the new creation not simply the next 3 years.

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