30 April – Shipwrecking Ritual Worlds

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Easter 4

1 Peter 2:17-25
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God may my words be loving and true. And May those who are listening discern what is unloving and untrue in my words, that you may be glorifying. Amen

St. Francis is credited with saying, “preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” As good Protestants we know it is necessary to use words and gestures and symbols and rituals and candles and textiles and visual images and song and acts of kindness and mercy. It is necessary to use all things in the world to tell the story of God in Christ.

The task of preaching, the task of living a life of witness is to give some shape, some articulation to the story of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ: to turn parts of creation to tell that story, to build a sort of symbolic world of new creation that we can inhabit. To this end, we weave together stories, images, practices. We take bits of creation, and we twist them.

The Christian tradition is famed for its use of irony. The core word we use for our central story of Jesus Christ killed by the Roman Empire is this word “Gospel”: good news; which originally meant the triumph of military power. And it becomes for us the story of military death. We name Jesus Christ as “Lord,” to spit in the face of all other lords of this world.

But there is a risk in doing this work of building a symbolic world that tries to give shape to our vision of new creation — that world just behind the veil of this world, the world which Christ, the risen crucified One has established. The risk, of course, of trying to articulate this world beyond us — that has yet arrived — To articulate this world, in language, in metaphor and symbol, in practices and ritual, runs the risk that what we build is not, in fact, this new creation, which is in the hands of God. But instead, we build our own creation. We create a symbolic world that we control, where we set the limit, set the limits of what is true, and what is real.

At the same time, by building these symbolic worlds of faith and religion, we can trick ourselves and delude ourselves and turn our gaze away from a sober reckoning with the reality that is still before us. And so we construct schedules of readings for each week in the Christian calendar, and we omit the difficult parts of the text. In our reading from First Peter the lectionary does not include the lines, “honour the Emperor.” It does not include the verse that begins and says, “slaves obey your masters.” And it has been my experience that not many people preach from First Peter at all.

So when we come to a text like First Peter with all of its challenging words, that seems to shipwreck the symbols we have associated with our tradition, Jesus who is Lord against Caesar, who is Lord. And yet here, we hear the call of Scripture itself to honour the Emperor. The apostle Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul says, “there is no longer slave nor free.” And here scripture says, “slaves obey your masters, even when they hurt you unjustly for your suffering is a sign of Christ.”

One of the great gifts of scripture is of course, that it shipwrecks our assumptions and claims about God; it forces us to dig deeper to understand where God is acting now.

What first Peter teaches us, I think, is that in our attempts to be faithful to God, we cannot do this by looking away from the real concrete reality that stands before us. I don’t think — I don’t want to think that the writer of First Peter tells slaves to obey their masters because the author thinks that slavery is in itself, an inherently good thing and suffering at the hands of cruel masters is an inherently good thing. And yet, in an early religious renewal movement, a small community spread across Asia Minor, a group with no political power, with no credibility, struck by prejudice, it is difficult to find a way forward that negotiates the experience of suffering and persecution.

What First Peter offers then, is not a guide that says for all time, we must accept inequalities, discrimination, domination, violence and abuse and suffering as if all these things are what God wills for the world. Rather, I think first, Peter points us to this idea that whatever we want to say about new creation, it must be something that we are saying about this creation. New Creation is something that emerges in this creation. It is not the resurrected Christ who was never put on the cross, but always the Resurrected Crucified One. The One who brings new life to a broken world, the one who brings healing to a sick world, the one who brings freedom to a bound world. And so, to be faithful to that message, to be faithful to the declaration of liberation for someone who is literally not metaphorically enslaved means to do the hard work of negotiating with sober and tragic honesty how to be Christian in a world where we suffer.

And for those of us who enjoy the privileges of 2000 years of water under the bridge, of a world that has been radically changed, of a world where we are the beneficiaries of forms of freedom, dispossession of others, and wealth creation. Our faithfulness to these early teachings is not simply to replicate them but to look again, with honesty and sobriety, at our situation in the world. Because there are some churches in the privileged, rich white West, who are talking about how the church is now on the margins as if we don’t hold billions of dollars of property. There are those who say that the criticism that is levied against the church that has hurt and abused people, and continues to, is an act of persecution rather than a prophetic voice of justice calling us back to the good ways of God.

And so we should allow First Peter to disrupt the assumptions we make about what Christianity has to say about following the shepherd who is God in our world today. We should not allow ourselves to say well, we know what Christianity is about.

“Christianity is obviously about caring for those on the margins as we were on the margins.”

“Christianity is obviously about speaking truth to power as if we are not connected to the axes of power.”

The Call of the gospel today is to face up with the complexity of our place in life. To face up to what it means to have a legacy of Christendom that the church still holds on to, but must renegotiate in a new way. The point here is to say that there are no easy answers in scripture or in life or in preaching or in the life of faith.

There is only the hard work of discernment, of placing our stories about ourselves and the world and our place within it. Placing those stories into conversation with our own tradition and history, with the lives of those who are suffering and calling for justice, and acknowledging where we stand in relationship to the guilt and shame of the world.

The point might be to say that we actually do need to construct the symbolic world we inhabit. We need to gather as communities of faith, that worship, that tell the big story of God’s reconciliation. We need to come to the table and be fed. But we should always do this not because we seek to encounter something that comforts us, something that we understand, a story that we are telling. We do this to listen to stories of others, stories in which we are engrafted, stories that shape us and that are not shaped by us.

The story of God’s transformation is always the story of God’s transforming work. We must tell the story over and over and over again. And in doing so, we must discern that God is calling us. We must be willing to confess.