A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Who Do You Say I Am?: Proclaiming Inclusive Hope
November 23, 2003
Sunday Before Advent 2 Samuel 5:1-3 John 18:33-37
The readings today provide a rich array of opportunities for us to get stuck in to some in-depth scriptural analysis. The reading from 2nd Samuel is the last words of David, King of Israel. These words are almost ironic as they reflect David's understanding, finally, at the end of his life that what is important in leadership is justice.
This comes after David's tumultuous life as shepherd, warrior, musician and poet, and husband of one, no two, no three, no, too many wives to name, and lover of numerous concubines-so much for Biblical family values. Indeed, to be called a "Son of David" was to number you among a cast of dozens; Matthew traces Jesus' lineage back to David and, yes, Bathsheeba, his fourth named wife. [Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba].
David's family life is one that makes the House of Windsor look positively tame, as David's eldest son and heir raped his half sister, and was pursued and killed by another half brother, Absalom, for doing so; Absalom later led a unsuccessful rebellion against David his father, and was killed in battle. It is little wonder that at the end of his life David reflects that justice is the key virtue of any leader. But what could I add here at St Matthew's, which already has such an active ministry of justice?
As we end the Church's yearly cycle of readings, the Revelation to John offers an apocalyptic vision of the end of time, and a vision of the final victory of Christ triumphant over the world. This vision is offered to Christians in a time of tremendous tumult and persecution, and it is very tempting to draw parallels with this time and other terror-filled times in history, and the reign of Christ in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. But what could I add here at St Matthew's, which already has an active on-line ministry, and who only recently hosted Bishop Spong and his vision of the new Church?
Today on the last Sunday of the Church's year, I would like to draw your attention to the reading from the Gospel of John. This reading obviously comes from the trial of Jesus before Pilate, and occurs immediately before Jesus' humiliation and crucifixion. The trial brings into sharp focus many of the theological points that John makes throughout his gospel account.
In order to understand what John is doing in this story we need to remember two things about John: firstly, that in every story in John there are three levels of belief, represented by three characters or groups in the story: 1) there is the character who represents unbelief, who cannot believe that Jesus is anything but an unimportant magician; 2) there is the character who represents cautious belief, who understands Jesus as a good teacher, perhaps a prophet after the OT tradition; and finally, 3) there is the true believer who understands that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God.
Second, in John you will remember that the identity of each of these characters is signalled to us by John's use of light: Nicodemus comes by night, a man approaches who has been blind from birth, Lazarus comes from dark to light, and so forth.
In John 18, which takes place after the second cockcrow as dawn is breaking, Pilate is in the Praetorium, personally conducting the interrogation and trial of Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus effectively says to says to him, "What do you say?" You decide. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has been inviting his followers into a full belief in him, and this, now, is his most urgent demand. On trial for his life, Jesus calls on his followers to make a decision about him. They must decide whether he is teacher or prophet, or the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God. Jesus demands that Pilate make a decision.
It is merely the twilight of dawn however, and the turbulent crowd outside stands in the dark. In the flickering light of the Praetorium, Pilate is confronted with his own moment of truth. This was not Pilate's first confrontation with the Jews, and he knew how dangerous they could be. Pilate is encumbered by his own political concerns and personal ambitions; he must satisfy an array of competing political interests and hold his region together; he must keep the nationalistic Jews content, and he must represent the military and political interests of the Roman emperor, otherwise his political future is finished.
Although Pilate proclaims Jesus king twice, and innocent three times, he does not, or cannot, make his own commitment to acknowledge for himself who Jesus really is. Pilate's only reality is a political one, not a personal one. He remains in the dim twilight of his ambition. When the full light of day comes, Pilate has vanished, to be remembered by history chiefly for his indecision and political ambition. When Jesus demanded that Pilate make a decision, Pilate was distracted by the cares and occupations of his authority, and the opportunity for a bold, if unexpected, declaration of faith is lost.
In his gospel, John demands that every one who encounters Jesus make a decision about who he is. In his gospel, John demands that each of us decide who Jesus is, and make a frank confession of our faith. This is no easier in the apocalyptic 21st Century than in the first, for this is a confession more easily promised than made. Each of us is caught by the care and occupations of our own lives, and we are easily distracted by the demands of the children, the boss, the government, the rugby (ouch!), the mortgage-holder or the IRD. And yet by our very presence here each of us has said that we are trying to live out the decision that we made at our baptisms: that Jesus would be Christ, Messiah, and sovereign in our lives. Although it may not seem so to us at this moment, being a Christian today is a brave act, as Christians around the world are being tried and killed for their faith by both the powerful and the angry.
But John's gospel calls us to make this decision about who Jesus is not only as individuals, but also as the community of faith we call the Church. It is easy to forget that our liturgies, our polity, our synods and meetings, our leadership, are all intended to point beyond themselves to the Christ who reigns eternally. But how simple it is to be distracted by the immediate cares and occupations of our lives and our church, and to lose our vision.
As you well know, the Anglican Church is caught up in one of its periodic tizzies that so fascinate non-Anglicans, and once again it appears to be about sex. Sigh. (Although I think it really is about ordination, but that's for another time.) It would seem that the new bishop of an obscure North American diocese has been given the ability to break apart the church founded by Latimer, Ridley, Cramner and an adulterous royal nearly 500 years ago. These apocalyptic threats of disunity, collapse and the general End-Of-Civilisation-As-We-Know-It are both familiar and tendentious. They not only do a disservice to the community of Christians called Anglicans, but they are ultimately unfaithful.
They are unfaithful because they forget that the Church is the Body of Christ, and that Christ dwells in the Church. If we truly believe that the Church is the body of Christ, if we truly believe that Jesus Christ dwells within the church, then it can only be changed, not broken. We proclaim that humanity was restored to wholeness with God through Jesus broken body on the Cross. We proclaim that the Church is made one in the breaking of the bread at the altar. We can also remain confident that the body of Christ can remain whole even whilst it appears to be breaking apart. Jesus Christ will manage the church and will lead it into the next place, even if that place looks quite different from what we know now. We and Anglican church leaders are now confronted by Jesus' question, "What do you say?" And if they are distracted by tumultuous and desperate calls for unity in the church at all costs, then we, like Pilate, will have missed a crucial moment to declare our faith.
We have begun to hear the expression "post-Christian" tossed about these days, as though Christ were somehow like Nanna's old armchair in the lounge that we'd like to get re-upholstered. If that expression means that we must re-create our understanding of Christ in the same way we had to reconstruct our understanding of God in the years after the Holocaust-Hiroshima events of the second World War, then it is no bad thing. It means that we can create a robust, lively, and attractive church that responds to the world today.
We heard dire threats when the Anglican Church became more inclusive in membership and leadership in the past: and yet I submit that the American Episcopal Church was greatly enhanced by the ordination of the first "Negro" [Absalom Jones] in 1802; the Church in Aotearoa was greatly enhanced by the ordination of the first tangata whenua priest [Rota Waiota] in 1853 and finally Pihopa [Frederick Bennett] in 1928, and the first diocesan bishop who is a woman [Penny Jamieson], although all of these ordinations were vigorously protested with apocalyptic threats in some parts of the church. The church has not only survived, but flourished because of those historic events, and it will survive and flourish now, if only its leaders will have the courage to allow it to do so.
If we have decided as individuals that Jesus Christ is ruler of our lives; if we have decided as a community of faith that Jesus Christ is head of the Church; then we must have the confidence that the will of Jesus Christ has been expressed by the Church in its due deliberations and processes; and to suggest that the unity of the body of Christ is under threat for sociological reasons, or to hold the church hostage to any cultural point of view is ultimately faithless, and is not worthy of our church, its leaders, or our historic tradition.
We, you and I, must remind ourselves, our lay leaders, our bishops and archbishops, not to be distracted by trying to satisfy an array of competing political interests simply in order to hold the church together.
We remind ourselves why we are here: to proclaim our faith in the Risen Christ. John's urgent question this morning comes to us as individuals and as a community. You have responded as individuals, for you are here. Now the Church must get on in the brightness of the day with the much more urgent business of proclaiming an inclusive hope, and working actively for justice in the world, and allow Jesus Christ to take the Church into a new age.
Dr Mark Henrickson
Mark has worked for many years in HIV-related health and mental health care before joining Massey University. He has published on HIV prevention, care delivery, and programme design and evaluation. His current research and teaching interests include human sexuality, alcohol and other drugs, cultural competence, and social work field education.