8 September 2007
St Saviour’s Cathedral, Goulburn, Australia
The Hymn to the Universe in Colossians, expressing the supremacy of Christ over all things, including the Church, must be one of the most confidently reassuring passages in the whole of scripture. I quote it often, not least to reinforce what I believe is fundamental, that is, environmental issues and ecological justice issues are core business to Christian people. Christ is not simply God’s word to fallen humanity; He is God’s word to the whole created order which groaneth in travail until now. These are not optional extras, this is not some trendy green thing, the sustainability and reconciliation of the whole created order is as core to us, as is our belief that Christ died for our salvation. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross. If Colossians 1: 15 ”“ 20 does not stir your blood, I do not know what will.
But what of verses 21 ”“ 23, the verses that follow, the verses we read this evening? What does it mean to be estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds? What is the hope promised by the gospel which we have heard and from which we are not to shift?
Well, one of the great joys of Anglicanism is our lectionary. I am unapologetically disappointed to hear of parishes that do not use it. It is not simply that when we use it we are in unison with countless thousands of Christians who have reflected on the same passage, on the same day, which we are: nor even that it has saved us from constant recourse to the passages that suit us best, which it does: it invites us to read scripture against the backdrop of other scripture.
Now, the passage from Colossians chapter 1: 21 ”“ 23 has been read this evening against the backdrop of Luke 6: 1 ”“ 5; the first of two passages in Luke 6 in which Jesus directly challenges the prevailing teaching and practice of the Sabbath. You know that the sins of the religious were a favourite target of Jesus, in fact he used stronger language of them – “hypocrites”, than he did of the more colourful sins of the great unwashed. So are we being challenged this evening not to think of a “hostile mind and evil deeds” as referring to those things that the tax collectors and sinners do, but those things that the Pharisees do, the things, please do not hide under the pew, which religious people do. Are we prone to believe we are righteous and in the believing more likely to rest secure in our condemnation of those we consider to be more notoriously sinful? Are we, the people in Church, being called to consider our “hostile” minds, rather than preaching to those outside whom we think should change their hostile minds?
You are all familiar with Jesus’ challenges about the Sabbath. His fundamental problem with the teaching and behaviour of the ruling religious class was that they had turned a divine ordinance for the celebration of life, into an ordinance which essentially had become life denying. They had made the law a thing to be worshipped, rather than serving the principle that it was designed to celebrate. Celebrate is the right word. The Sabbath was never fundamentally about one day being holier than another, not even about religious observance per se; the Sabbath is no less than the celebration of creation itself, and a foretaste of its redemption. Wherever praise is offered, the Sabbath is celebrated; when the hungry are fed the Sabbath is celebrated; when the down trodden are set free the Sabbath is celebrated; when human work builds divine community the Sabbath is celebrated; when those who have been estranged are reconciled the Sabbath is celebrated; when a paddock is rested the Sabbath is celebrated; when debts are forgiven the Sabbath is celebrated; when ones preferred seat in high places is given to another, the Sabbath is celebrated; when the face of Christ is seen in a child on the street, or the woman selling herself that her children might be fed, the Sabbath is celebrated; when soiled and worn bodies are anointed with perfume, the Sabbath is celebrated. The Sabbath is not celebrated by simply creating space; it is celebrated by what fills the space. The Sabbath is about celebrating life. Hostile minds then are minds hostile to life, because life is of God and Sabbath celebrates God, by celebrating life.
What then is the “hope promised by the gospel which we have heard and from which we are not to shift”? Is it that Jesus has died for our salvation – well yes it is? Is it that he has taken away the sin of the world – well yes it is? I do not believe this hope can be expressed more clearly than by John. These (words) are written that you might believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and through believing you may have life in his name. Jn 20:31
Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love. God’s love was revealed to us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4 7 -10
If this is truly the hope promised by God, the hope from which we are not to shift, is it possible to lose the prize, or perhaps to lose the opportunity of conveying the prize to others, by holding on to a lesser truth as if it were the main game.
Those about whom Jesus was extremely critical had taken a passage or passages of scripture and turned them into an idol. They had made their interpretation of the law of the Sabbath the litmus test by which virtue and righteousness was to be judged, indeed that by which all human behaviour, however virtuous or evil, was to be judged.
Are there parallels today? Are there examples of religious people taking a passage or passages of scripture and turning them into a litmus test for all? Are there examples of people taking passages of scripture and saying of them to the wider religious community “we say to you that these particular passages are the tests we will set to show whether you hold to the hope promised in the gospel, which we have heard, and from which we are not to shift”. Well sadly – yes.
In our beloved Anglican Communion a litmus test has been set and whether any of us like it or not we are apparently to be judged by it. In less than 12 months from now the 2008 Lambeth conference will have come and gone. In coming months you are sadly going to have an increasing commentary in the press about those bishops who are going and those who are not; those who have been invited, and those who have not; those who will stay away if others attend, and those who will attend if others stay away.
I say to the Anglican Communion please stop it. I say to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please tell us to stop it. Archbishop Rowan, please do not allow yourself to refer to this matter as core, even if others do. Please do not take as seriously as you seem to the cries, on either side, of those who make this debate, the debate on homosexuality, the core business of the Anglican Communion: by so doing you are disenfranchising the rest of us, who with respect, are concerned about far more important issues. By making this the litmus test, will the Sabbath be celebrated, as Jesus intended ”“ I do not see how? By making this the litmus test will we address the more important issues of the presence of Jesus amongst the poor and disenfranchised, please tell me how? Will the voice, the prayer of Jesus, for justice and peace in the Jerusalem, in the Middle East where the call of the mosque prevails, be more clearly articulated? A vain hope. Will the healing of those dying from Malaria and HIV AIDS be more urgently addressed? Sadly no. Even at home, by pressing this debate will it enable the voice of the gospel to be heard more widely in Australian society, to be respected more intensely, to be understood more thoroughly – I think not. Then please stop it. This does not mean that I think it is unimportant, or that I am not committed to the Lambeth 98 resolution, or that I do not think people have the right to strongly held views, but will this debate open wider the gates that lead to everlasting life ”“ I am afraid not.
All legitimate Bishops in the Communion should attend the Lambeth Conference. We need to be challenged by one another and to try to understand each other. To be honest, the Bishop I will find it hardest to understand is the Bishop of Harare, Zimbabwe, the Bishop who applauds, supports and encourages the activity and behaviour of President Robert Mugabe who has wreaked so much pain and evil upon his own people. How this Bishop can possibly reconcile his pronouncements with the “hope promised by the gospel” is beyond my comprehension: well not quite, he is, apparently of the same tribal grouping as the President, he is of those who currently hold power. We are called to share the company of those who do not have power. So, even he, perhaps especially he, needs to be present.
We are so blessed to have heard the hope promised by the gospel, the promise of life in his name, we are so blessed to be personally redeemed by it, may we never be without the humility of spirit, the compassion of heart, the confidence of mind, and the strength of will to live it, and proclaim it to others.