Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Centurion and Slave: Unpredictably Saved!

I think it is far easier for most of us to think that we are in control, that we have things in hand, that things are predictable.  But all of us know that when it comes down to it there are limits to what we can control and there is an unpredictability to life.

Today we heard a story from the gospel of Luke which reminds us that there is an unpredictability to being saved.  This notion of unpredictable salvation might be disconcerting yet I believe on deeper reflection the idea of being unpredictably saved could be a source of great hope for us all.

To understand the hope contained within this story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s slave we need to dig a little deeper into the characters and the implications of Jesus’ actions.

Picture by Tomas Fano Creative Commons
So let us first contemplate the Centurion.

According to the commentaries I read on this passage it is unlikely this man was a Roman.  As the
Roman Empire expanded it drew soldiers into its army from the lands it conquered. 

Yet, whether or not a Roman it appears that he was not a Jew but was sympathetic to the Jewish community in which he lived.  We are told that he was a good man and had built a synagogue for the people and that he loved them.  Although not a Jew he may have even engaged in some form of belief and practice.

Despite this, as a Centurion with authority over a cohort of 100 soldiers, this man was still to be considered a part of the occupying enemy force.

He also had some understanding of Jewish practices as he did not approach Jesus directly but rather sent Jewish leaders from within his community to make contact.

It is unclear what this man knew about Jesus but this event appears to be relatively early in Jesus ministry.  So when it comes to consideration of the centurion’s faith it would be naïve of us to read too much into this.  He has faith in Jesus ability to heal the slave, even from afar, but we should not think of it as faith in Jesus in the way we might express faith in Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God or as our Saviour.  Even his use of the title ‘Lord’ for Jesus should not be overplayed in a way that suggests he had an insight into Jesus identity that even Jesus followers did not.

Throughout the interaction between Jesus and the Centurion, which all occurs through messengers, the focus of the conversation is on the worthiness of the Centurion for the miracle not on the worthiness of the slave.

The sum result of the interaction is that without Jesus even arriving to see the slave or ever meeting the Centurion the slave is healed. 

The inference of the passage is that without the healing the slave will die yet even from afar Jesus can do the miracle - healing occurs. 

For those embedded in the story, living in the moment, there is an unpredictable edge about the way the healing occurs and even Jesus’ response to this outsider – Jesus is impressed or amazed at the faith of the Centurion!

If were to travel back into Jesus’ time the notion of salvation did not revolve around dying and going to heaven.  To be saved was a ‘this life’ experience.  I can’t but help think of a story we find later in Luke’s gospel, the story of Zacchaeus in which Jesus’ declares, “today salvation has come to your household.”

In the act of healing the slave no less should we think of the Centurion: “today salvation has been visited on your household!”  He has encountered salvation in the healing of his slave.

Could anyone predict that Jesus would reach out and help this foreign soldier, this centurion?

Could anyone predict that Jesus would hold up to his disciples and followers the faith of this gentile?

Could anyone predict that Jesus did not even have to visit the slave for the healing to occur?

But more than that could the slave himself predict or understand his fate?

Think about this slave for a moment.  Once again probably not a Jew and maybe someone bought in marketplace and brought to this foreign land.  A man viewed as a commodity but clearly more than that for the Centurion – he valued the slave more than the cost of simply replacing him.

The slave does not ask for healing.

It is possible that the slave knew nothing of Jesus.

It is possible that the slave was disconnected from his homeland and family.

It is possible that the slave did not feel that same connection with the Centurion as the Centurion felt to the slave.

This anonymous character is left mysteriously ambiguous and a step away from this miracle.  Yet the truth of the situation is that the salvation visited on the home of the Centurion is visited on him personally.

The slave is found to be in good health.

He is saved by Jesus.  He is just as much the recipient of grace.

So often, my experience of the Christian story is a domestication of salvation to those who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in Jesus in a particular way.  More than that so often being saved is only associated with what happens when die.

Yet this story has an unpredictable edge that shatters the domestication of what it means to be saved and reminds us that when Jesus healed and gave hope to people salvation visited in this life – the coming kingdom of God is glimpsed in these moments and maybe it is when people encounter salvation in this life, a miracle, that it is on earth as it is in heaven.

For the early Christian community that Jesus was writing for the story might have opened up the possibility of gentile converts being valued by the community of faith – maybe, like the Centurion, their faith could be an example to the followers of Jesus that were of Jewish background.  Remember, when Luke was writing his gospel that majority of followers were meeting still as part of the Jewish community.  Maybe the story addressed the unpredictable number of gentile converts after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

Yet as we listen to this story of the unpredictable nature of salvation in that ancient community and reconsider what it means for us I think there are words of hope grounded in the unpredictability of being saved.

When I think about the Centurion I think about all those people who are sympathetic to the church in our era, maybe they even work for the church.  People who seek out the help of Jesus, or maybe simply they co-operate with Jesus followers, to bring aid to others.

At Synod we heard about the work of UnitingCare and Wesley Mission Brisbane and the Schools commission and the Residential Colleges.  Whilst many of the people who work in the church may not yet have committed their life to Jesus in the way we have I wonder if their faith is a bit like the Centurion so long ago.  Like the Centurion they build synagogues of hope and they risk making contact with Jesus and his followers.  Trusting in Jesus mission, and trusting his followers to bring a better life to others now – a little bit of heaven on earth. 

When I think about the slave that was healed I consider all of the people that the church reaches out to in need.  People who are sick and dying, people who are frail and aged, people who call lifeline for a listening ear, people in remote locations and in the inner city.  Unpredictably saved, helped out, given hope by people in Jesus’ name – even though they may not realise it or have even sought it they receive from the wellsprings of the grace of God.

What this means in terms of their relationship with God beyond this life remains obscured from our view but the story indicates Jesus’ willingness to save a person in the midst of his life even without knowing that someone else had interceded.

As followers of Jesus, I would say that you and I are unpredictably saved – we have encountered the mystery of God which is beyond our domestication and comprehension yet closer to us than breathing.

As part of the crowd that follow we can only look upon the unpredictable nature of how God saves people and celebrate it and share it.  And maybe we too can become like the Jewish leaders and the friends of the centurion in the story, emissaries and messengers between people and their needs and Jesus, who we believe can bring healing and hope to any situation.

We become the storytellers of God’s grace: we latch our lives on to the hope that people we know and love will be saved in this life and the next; we also consider the possibilities of God’s love for our enemies; we gather together to listen to the stories, to be astounded as we celebrate the surprisingly unpredictable salvation of our God.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Pentecost: In the last days

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

Luke writes down the following ominous words declared by Peter as he describes the events of the first Pentecost:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

In the last days, in the end times! This is what could be described as apocalyptic language coming to us from 2000 years ago at Pentecost!?

What Luke’s audience understood these words to mean is difficult for us to comprehend: did they think the end was associated with the end of the Roman occupation? Was the end associated with the return of Christ? Was the end an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the world?

As modern Christians we should understand that when the day of Pentecost was unfolding there had been no long and detailed reflection about Jesus identity and his mission.  There was no scriptures other than the Torah – the books we call the Old Testament.  What there had was the experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection!  They had witnessed his presence in the world and they were still trying to make sense of.

It is in this context that Peter boldly quotes the prophet Joel as if the end times were upon them: “In the last days”.  Whatever the people who heard these words thought the idea that the end times were close is undoubtable.

The sense of the proximity of the last days that the first followers of Jesus had is reflected in the fact that it took almost a generation before Jesus stories were to be written down. And, might I say, far longer than before the Bible, as we know it, emerged as the recognised authoritative witness to Jesus’ life and its meaning.

I wonder if there was a sense of irony as Luke wrote the story down around 30 years later. As he penned those words ‘the last days.’  Did he still wonder whether they were in fact in the last days given the number of years that had passed?

And here we are almost 2000 years on from that point grappling with that same question.  Were Peter’s words correct are we still living in the last days – has every generation since been living in the last days and what might this mean.

Peter indicates that there will be signs in the last days, portents, to help us become aware that we are indeed coming close to the end of all things, signs which include the pouring out of the Spirit of God on all things.

Yet, whilst this might be seen as a positive sign I have lived through an era in my life time when the signs of the time, the warnings seems to surround us.

I was born in 1968 under the sign of the Vietnam War and grew with the shadow of the cold war looming over me.  By the time I was old enough to be aware of the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust I was also aware enough to believe I would live past my teenage years.  The pall and threat of war was great.

If the sign of impending war was not enough in the same year I was born Paul Ehrlich published his seminal work “The Population Bomb”.  Whilst it has been criticised as being too alarmist and some of his predictions have been off target Ehrlich continues to stand by his basic premise that the population of the planet will outgrow the capacity of the planet to support humanity.  According to thesis the consequence of the overpopulation will include famine and starvation, mass movements of people, political instability.  Consequences potentially exacerbated by a Western culture obsessed with the notions of growth and consumption.  Concerns echoes in the writings of people like Clive Hamilton, Zygmaunt Bauman, Paul Gilding and the list goes on.

Signs of the times, war and conflict, overpopulation, uneven distribution of wealth and a changing political landscape.

Despite the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s somewhat hopeful if yet ambiguous assessment of liberal democracy as “The End of History and of the Last Man” the turmoil of the last two and a half decades have seen the rise and rise of the conservative state and the continuation of political instability for humanity.

With all of the signs around us environmental crisis has come upon us in succession as more species die out, as pollution destroys the beauty of so much God’s good earth and then to top it all off climate change.  As if the other signs of the time were not enough, this week on the internet I picked up this graph tracing the increase in average global temperatures since 1850.

This week I read an article about the rising of the oceans in the Pacific and how a number of reef Islands have already disappeared and that in some low lying communities people are already being forced to move.  I met a pastor from Kiribati around 6 years ago who was wondering whether the Australian government will be prepared to accept the population of just over 100 000 people when the Island becomes uninhabitable.

The signs of the time are with us and I can’t but help think of these stories and problems we face as humanity when I read these words.  It is not be surprising to see people living with a pathological lack of hope in the face of the issues that have weighed us down just during my lifetime.  Or, maybe to see another approach, typified by hedonism, ignorance, and the seeking after the good life with disregard to the common good and the problems of the world.  It’s easy to just not contemplate all of these depressing things.

But Peter’s quote from Joel is not just about a meaningless end of the world, his words contain hope for us and for all that God has made.  They contain an invitation to look beyond the signs of the times, of the last days, and to God. 

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

Jesus himself warned against watching for the signs of times and about predicting when things were going to come to a head – only God knows, and even when the end comes, even the end of life, our faith revolves around a hope that defeats death. The Christian notion that the last days are not an end but a new beginning.

Peter describes to the witnesses what is occurring on the day of Pentecost declaring God’s promise that those who call on Jesus name will be saved and that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.
This idea that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh needs to be emphasised – though only the believers received the outward signs, tongues of fire and rushing wind, the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.

The Spirit of God which Jesus had describe as a helper is being poured out, it is with them and those who receive the outward signs of the Spirit gives us a glimpse of something special.

In the miracle on the day people were speaking different languages but were understanding one another, people from different lands could hear what was being spoken in their own languages.  In this manifestation of the gift of speaking in tongues what occurs is more like a gift of hearing.

The promise of God’s Spirit is a vision in which one of key barriers to human reconciliation and unity is transcended.  God enables people to understand each other without losing their distinct identity represented in their language.

Paul will later speak of Christ’s presence in the world being about the reconciliation of all things in Christ.  If anything the last days are not the last days of the creation.  The Bible’s vision of the end times is a new beginning in which we as human being transcend our differences.

It is important to contemplate too that in the scene whilst not everyone appears to receive the gift of tongues they become witnesses to it.  In some more obscure way they are being drawn into God’s future.

The last days have come and the church is being born as a place in which human beings will grow in their ability to understand one another.

The great theologian Karl Barth described the church with two words that I think relate well to this particular moment.  The church is anticipatory and provisional.

Let me briefly explore each of these words.

The church is anticipatory because in the church we encounter the vision of the last days, the time of reconciliation and understanding established through the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.  A new creation is unfolding.  Of course I am not naïve and I am aware that as a sign of the promised future the church has often failed in its task because of our divisions and our sins.  Nonetheless, our life anticipates what is to come and enfolds itself in a transcendent hope which sits in contrast to the hopelessness of the signs of the times.

The church is provisional because we are a sign which anticipates the consequences of what it means that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.  There is a future in which the church will no longer need to anticipate the coming future because the future will have arrived.  Like children in a car as long as we sing out from within these walls, or within the community of the church, “are we there yet?” – The answer is “no!”

But, in the midst of this provisional and anticipatory life we also take confidence that the Spirit is upon us, the when 2 or 3 gather in Jesus name he is present, and that our task in not for our own benefit and edification but in order that the world might see the promise of God’s last days, the end times which is the new beginning.  When we live anticipating those last days times, when we live as if the kingdom has already come, when we know that power of the Holy Spirit is on us we can say with confidence in the face of the signs around us the end is nigh, God is with us, our hope is bigger than this life and this world.  Our hope is in God.

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

If it is so then bring it on for in those last days the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh and those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

King's College Commemoration "The truth will make you free"

A sermon on John 8:31-37

As you walk up the steps and into the front door of Kings if you look up you will see carved into the stone the words “The truth will make you free.” It is a great saying, a hopeful saying, it is the motto of this college.

Tonight as we celebrate commemoration, remembering with one another, things we may have forgotten I have deliberately taken us back to the origin of those words.  They were read to us tonight from John’s gospel:

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth that Jesus was speaking of is a truth that is connected to Jesus and is an absolute claim about the nature of truth.

I suspect though when many people read the words of the King’s motto “The truth will make you free” disconnected from origins we are probably thinking of a different definition of the word truth.  I suspect a definition that we may discover does not offer us the freedom we think.

Let me briefly explore two approaches to the truth that may be less helpful than we might suspect.

The first is the idea that the truth that will make us free is knowledge.  This is after all a college located in a centre for learning. 

There can be no doubt that the search for fact in history and in science has lead us to make great discoveries as human beings.

Yet the discovery of so-called truth has to always be tempered by three things.

Firstly, Michael Polanyi the Chemist and philosopher in his great book “Personal Knowledge” reminds us that all truth is subjective because “we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves.”

Secondly, as the Physicist Carol Rovelli points out the notion of something being “scientifically proved” is nearly an oxymoron and that “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.”

Finally, even when science discovers something that is occurring around with the best research and evidence available science like most things now is treated as a matter of belief if that truth is inconvenient, as Al Gore pointed out in his presentation of the issue of climate change

Equating scientific fact or knowledge with truth does not necessarily set us free: from the fact we can only tell our stories through an anthropocentric lens; from the need to continue to search more deeply for more answers; and, from the fact that even when the best knowledge and evidence is presented people still make a choice to engage in that new knowledge of reject it.

Another view of the truth prevalent within our society is the notion that the truth is about exposing lies and deception.

There is a pivotal scene in the old film “A Few Good Men”.  Tom Cruise has Jack Nicholson in the witness stand and pushes him to reveal what happened.  Nicholson’s angry response is well known, “You want the truth! You can’t handle the truth!”  As the ugly truth comes out I don’t think anyone is set free – there are uncomfortable and incomprehensible consequences for the characters in the film.

Exposing the deception and the hidden stories does not necessarily set us free.  As a student history I recall Robert Hughes significant work on early Australian history called “The Fatal Shore”.  The book told us uncomfortable truths about our origins including the frontier wars, enslavement and genocide committed against the indigenous people of this land.  It is a history we still struggle with us a nation despite the PrimeMinister’s apology delivered by Kevin Rudd.

The same is true for the history of this college community and even its current reality.  Whilst “Men and Masters” the history book of King’s College covers some of the struggles and successes of this college there are many stories it avoids telling.  Stories of what can only be described as hazing, stories of violence and bravado against other colleges, and stories that continue within the wider community of misogyny and sexism within the college.  Telling these stories may be confronting, may cause us to be defensive, may be a truth we can’t or don’t want to handle – but ultimately is not a truth that sets us free.

So where does this leave us with our saying our motto on this night of commemoration of the college.  We remember with one another the transcendent connection and vision that lies behind this saying.

Jesus said: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

What is this truth if it is not some sort of scientific fact or intellectual insight?  What is this truth if it is not an expose of the stories we hide and avoid and cover up?

If you were to pick up a Bible and read a few pages on in John’s gospel what you would read is these words which are also spoken by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life now one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6)

In these words we discover something of a surprising idea the ‘truth’ is Jesus himself, who says, “I am the truth.”

Truth is embodied in Jesus, it takes on flesh, it is incarnated.  In this claim that Jesus makes we are challenged with the notion that not only is there no inconsistencies between his words and his actions, but that he is also the source of the key to understanding ourselves, this world that we live in and God.

To be freed by Jesus is to be set free from the delusion that we can domesticate knowledge and to be set free from the self-deception and fallibilities we all share.

From a Christian perspective knowing the truth is ultimately about knowing Jesus.    

This does not mean that Christians are perfect people and know everything and never lie, rather it means that instead of locating the concept of truth in an abstract idea we locate truth in a man, Jesus from Nazareth, who lived, and died, and rose again so that we might be set free to live an abundant life.  As Christians we seek after the truth by following Jesus and this sets us free.

“The truth will make you free.”

On page 199 of "Men and Masters" it says that the Chapel sits in the college like a lost soul. On nights when we come and worship here together I believe the soul of the college stirs.  And I pray that each one of you here might remember that we have already been set free by Jesus who is the truth.  But more than that as the soul of the college stirs so too your soul might be stirred and that you will hear the invitation that comes to us from the founders of this college to see beyond any parochialism and insularity of this community and become one who knows Jesus as the truth and to follow him who came to make us all free.