The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      4th March 2018
Lent 3 Year B 2018:Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
Jan Rushton

Lent 3  Year B  2018

Readings:  Exodus 20.1-17;  1 Corinthians 1.18-25;   John 2.13-22

Corinth was city with a devastated past. Two hundred years before Paul would build its vibrant church, the Romans had destroyed the city, its citizens killed or sold into slavery, the wasted land left lying vacant for a hundred years. In 44 BC, the year of his assassination, Julius Caesar had begun its rebuilding, and now a hundred years later, it was once more, a thriving cosmopolitan port and centre of commerce, strategic crossing point between east and west, north and south, mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, a city which welcomed all comers, and city of delight for those seeking pleasure. This Caesar would be murdered, and yet, as Mary Beard told us in her TV programme a couple of weeks ago, he would leave a profound impact on his world, on our world, not least in the shape of his nephew and adopted son and heir, Octavian. Octavian was first ruler in Rome to take the title Augustus - acclaiming his divinity for, as heir of the deified Ceasar, he Octavian, was: son of God, prince of peace, wonderful counsellor - mighty saviour, all aclaimed titles of the Emperor - over twenty years before the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.

Astonishing as it is to us, that leap to divinity for their emperors was not as great a leap as it might appear to us today. In a culture where heads of families could expect something akin to ancestor worship when they died, and a successful general leading his troops to victory could be deified for ‘a season’, this was the next stage.

The cult of the divinity of the emperor became central to Rome’s official theology - and not to support it was treason.  Here the wisdom of this world! Pax Romana and the reward of prosperity!   Roman might had indeed, brought peace through military victory and suppression and those faithful to Rome could do well - wherever they came from.

Around the year 50, Paul, together with Silas, moved on to Corinth following Paul’s fruitless missionary work in Athens. Here they got together with the Christian Jews, Aquilla and Pricilla, also tent-makers.  At some point in the 40s this couple have been expelled from Rome when the emperor Claudius purged Rome of its Jewish population, together with Paul and Silan they build a church, a church with members from every strata in society, yet founded on equality: Jew and Gentile, rich and poor; slave and free - male and female, filled with the Spirit, indeed, much of it quite spectacular, speaking in tongues and prophesying, these young Christians exercised a wide range of ministries from teaching to healing but as so often happens in life, their new gifts and powers went to their heads and when Paul moved on to missionary work in Ephesus, they descended into pettiness, division and strife. Competing factions claimed superiority: Peter’s converts, or those who followed the eloquent and charismatic Apollos; those of the 'Christ party' who apparently needed no teacher at all, and most painful of all for Paul, a belief that they knew better than him, and a diminishing of his particular ministry and teaching.

This dynamic enthusiastic group of Christians, despite in particular, the astonishing equality accorded to women, is status conscious, the wealthy ignoring the poor. Puffed up by pride, their many spiritual gifts have also caused them see themselves as wise! Full of their own wisdom, they forget what faith in Christ is actually about.

Paul in Ephesus hears what is happening in Corinth and is deeply grieved, he writes to them, he is filled with joy by their faith! He prays for them and then he launches into the heart of the gospel: Christ crucified, foolishness to Greeks, and a stumbling block to Jews.

Hearing the gospel for the first time, we can hardly blame those Jews and Greeks for such thinking! The power of Rome was all around them - for good or for ill! Death on a cross was the very antithesis of power, it was the epitome of degradation and shame, a death reserved for slaves, criminals or other social outcasts, for both conquered and conquerors, the cross revealed the power of the Empire to crush its opponents.

Yet Paul declares this scandalous death to be precisely God’s purposeful action revealing God’s wisdom and power, a very different sort of power, the power of utter self-giving love, the power of forgiveness - forgiving as we know ourselves forgiven, the transformative power of knowing ourselves loved - ‘liked’ to quote the Dominican theologian, James Alison, a new freedom to rejoice in the successes of others - rather than looking on from the sidelines, jealous and envious, freedom from the tyranny of pride.

Rather than the fearful and fragile peace of military domination, here is lasting peace built on justice and mercy - the Kingdom of God, the freedom of not only loving our neighbours, but loving enemies too, doing good for those who seek to do us harm will transform life around us. The strength we find in believing in ourselves as the people God has made us, confident mature human beings able to take hold of all that life offers, rejoicing in the gifts and accomplishments of those around us. Passionate about human flourishing - around our world and willing to make the sacrifices to achieve this.

The cross is the point at which God’s ways and human ways are shown to be irreconcilable. Human force and dominance cannnot accomplish salvation but it is only those who are being saved who are able to perceive this truth, the truth that as human beings we cannot save ourselves, we are the recipients of God’s salvation. Not a past event, but in the power of the Spirit, an on-going inner process transforming our lives, the cross does away with all human boasting. Those who are being saved are those whom God has called and God calls those who are undeserving, confounding the logic of this world.

Today, paired with our New Testament reading from Paul, is John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus throws out of the Temple - admittedly only a small part of an enormous precinct, the doubtful means by which the Temple authorities fill their coffers. This is possibly the last straw for the religious leaders finalising their decision to rid themselves of this troublesome prophet, His words are blasphemous! Don’t you know the commandments! Here is reason enough!

As we look around our world at the leaders of the nations, we shudder at those so obviously full of pride, full of self-righteousness; full of indignation at lack of respect.  Determined to hold onto power no matter the cost - mostly to others, though certainly also to their own inner spirit, including those who believe themselves followers of Christ.

Pride which pushes us to give our utmost to all that we do, is obviously a good thing but pride which closes our minds, blinds our thinking and pushes us to aggressively cling on come what may, is thoroughly debilitating at best, highly destructive at worst.

The central tenet of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom of God, Jesus has declared that God’s rule is breaking into the world in a new way through him, and he invites his hearers to become part of it! To join the community of his followers - and discover their lives transformed, in going to the cross Jesus overcame the power of vanity, hubris and revenge, the power of sin to hold us captive.

Through Lent we commit ourselves more seriously to walking Jesus’ Way and perhaps today we can reflect on where pride may be distorting our vision - as we also pray for the leaders of the nations. I want to finish with a powerful poem by war poet Wilfred Owen, pertinent to our times too - and very much in the Hebrew idiom.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

0Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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