One of the more ‘outside the box’ suggestions that has been made to me lately by some members of our online community is that I should throw my hat in the ring as a candidate to be the next Pope.
This wasn’t an idea that I came up with myself, and I haven’t quite decided yet whether I will accept the job, if asked. Even so, as has been pointed out, an Episcopal Pope would be a first and we could expect a lot of changes. And indeed I promise that, if elected, there will be a lot of changes!
Even so, I don’t think it’s highly likely that I’ll make the shortlist. Indeed, I received an email from a Catholic friend of mine today that listed the likely candidates for the top job, along with their respective odds, and my name wasn’t to be found anywhere on that list. Indeed, the list was made up entirely of Catholic cardinals. And so I’m guessing that, while in a sense the job could go to anyone, it will most likely be given to another aging white cardinal. No surprises there.
And that’s generally the way it is with the religious life – it’s one of few surprises. It doesn’t always start out that way of course. Our initial days and weeks and even years with Jesus can be full of dynamism and upheaval, but after a while things become more predictable, and reading the Bible can be like that too.
We read these passages from the Old and New Testaments here week after week, and after a while you do start to be able to anticipate what’s going to happen next, even if you’re not familiar with the exact text.
Someone in a town Jesus is visiting has a terrible illness! Well … I think I know where this story is going! I bet they’re not going to be sick for much longer! And so we close our eyes and drift off and let the words of Scripture float by with minimal disruption. There’s not much to disturb us here!
Well … today’s passage from Luke chapter 13 is NOT one of those passages!
Luke 13:31: “At that very hour some Pharisees came”
We know what this means of course. The Pharisees are there because they want to trick Jesus in some way. Their overall intent is to kill Jesus, and so we know that whenever they show up on the scene it is with some evil intent.
Not so! These Pharisees are there to warn Jesus: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Just when we thought we had the Pharisees and their religious buddies all worked out we come across this group of Pharisees who appear to be genuinely concerned for Jesus.
And why not? Not all Pharisees were bad people. The vast majority were probably very decent people, even if many of them did end up getting involved in the plot to destroy Jesus. Decent people often do terrible things, and often for the very best of reasons! It seemed like a good idea at the time! 😕
We love to divide the world into good people and bad people – us and them – but life is never that simple.
I watched some of a satirical version of Star Wars the other night and it brought home to me again that one of the reasons we like that series so much is that it does lay out the world for us in those simple terms. There’s a light side and a dark side – black and white. Those who are on the dark side are very dark and those who are of the light are as courageous as they are virtuous.
The part I watched included the death of Darth Vader, where his son says “I can save you, father”, to which he replies, “You already have”. And it is touching and heart-rending, but I wondered as I watched that scene what would have happened had Luke been able to save his father from the decaying Death-Star?
Had Darth survived the war I assume he would have been put on trial as a war criminal – charged with the genocidal murder of masses of people! No doubt he would have been sentenced to death, and probably not a simple death by firing squad but some more despicable death that befitted the magnitude of his crimes.
All this would have happened despite the protestations of his son who would have been pointing out that his dad had in fact transitioned to the light side. And as his father was subjected to a slow and horrible death Luke would have had to learn that there’s a bit of dark in the light side, just as there’s a bit of light in the dark side, and in fact that nothing in real life is really black and white!
The Pharisees come to warn Jesus: “Herod is trying to kill you!”
Here again we seem to be on familiar territory. How is Jesus going to react to this looming confrontation with one of His day’s leading political power figures? Well … He’s going to be apolitical, isn’t He? We know Jesus. He was not one for politics. When people tried to make Him king he slipped away, just as He always showed Himself to be radically disinterested in the trappings of earthly power.
How would we expect Jesus to respond? We would expect Him to ignore this news about Herod or perhaps to say something about “my Kingdom is not of this world”, but He doesn’t! “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (Luke 13:32)
Jesus, it seems, is happy to confront Herod! He sends a message to this ‘king of the Jews’ and it is not a friendly one! Jesus refers to him as a ‘fox’, which in the language of the day was a term of contempt, implying not only that Herod was devious but also insignificant. And it is indeed the insignificance of Herod in the greater plans of God that is the thrust of Jesus’ response.
Reading Jesus’ words, I could not help but be reminded of similar words once uttered by the famous American Confederate General, Stonewall Jackson. When asked why he was so unflinching in the heat of battle, Jackson said that God had already determined the day of his demise and until that day came he was as safe on the battlefield as he was in his bedroom, adding that “If all men believed this, all would be equally brave.”
It’s an eccentric view to take, and yet it seems to be exactly the view of Jesus. He is as safe on the battlefield as in His bedroom until the third day came and His God-given work was finished! “Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way”, Jesus says, as he is heading towards Jerusalem (Luke 13:33).
And again, for all of us who are familiar with the Bible we know what the mention of ‘Jerusalem’ means. This is once again familiar territory.
Jerusalem is the ‘City of David’ and at the centre of the Jewish world as it houses the great temple towards which all the faithful turn when they pray. It is the holy city, the city of promise, the city of God! “I was glad when they said to me; Let us go up to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122).
Jerusalem is a feel-good place – a place of peace and spiritual pilgrimage, or so we might expect. Jesus though speaks of Jerusalem only as a place of death: “it is not fitting for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I think this is the only place in the whole Bible where we are exposed to the sarcasm of Jesus: “It is not fitting for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in the Holy City, Jerusalem”
Why is it only ‘fitting’ for Jesus be murdered in Jerusalem? Because it is the Holy city where God chose to ‘make His name to dwell’. Where else would we expect people to brutalise, mock and kill the very messengers that God sends to them? Jesus is being blatantly sarcastic. A modern translation might read, ‘I’ll be safe in Jerusalem … NOT’
Normally we associate this sort of sarcasm with a cynical outlook on life that is broadly hopeless and despairing, where one laughs in order to avoid crying! This was certainly not Jesus’ general mindset, and yet He seems to despair over Jerusalem – “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Nothing much has changed – that’s my feeling! Jerusalem today is still considered a holy city at the centre of the holy land by three of the world’s biggest religions, and yet it is still about as far from being a place of love and peace as one can imagine! Indeed, it is still a place of division and pain!
The ongoing tensions between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem are well known. What may be less well-known is that even the Christians in Jerusalem have trouble getting on with one another! At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there is an ongoing dispute between various sections of the church as to who has rights over the building! The current arrangement is that they all share the space somewhat uneasily, with a Muslim family minding the key to the front door as none of the Christians trust each other enough to be trusted with it!
I won’t extend my lament over Jerusalem as Jesus’ lament is more than sufficient. I will though recall the conversation I had over coffee after Sunday morning worship at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem during my one visit there in April 2004. I was talking to a welfare worker who spent his days in the Palestinian West Bank.
He said to me, “do you know that part of the Bible where it speaks of how the Spirit of God gets up and leaves Jerusalem?” I said, “It’s in the book of Ezekiel”. He said, “Yeah, it’s a lot like that here, isn’t it?”
How does the holy city become a city of violence and death? How is it that the most dreadful wars and acts of violence are so often initiated by religious people who claim to be carrying out the work of God?
As you know, I’ve been keeping myself abreast of the developments in Syria quite closely, as I hope to be travelling there in a couple of months’ time, and it’s been gut-wrenching to hear of some of the terrible acts of violence that have been committed in the name of God!
I’ve heard first-hand accounts of villagers who survived a massacre where men, women and children were slaughtered by masked bandits who wore headbands with the words “God is great” emblazoned on them! And these men apparently turned to the Heavens as they murdered each man, woman and child – offering up their victims as sacrifices to God!
What is it that turns holy people into demonic people? How is it that the religion of God can become an instrument of torture and death?
It’s popular in this country to talk of all religions being basically the same, but of course we’re not thinking of that sort of religion when we speak that way.
Of course it’s Muslim extremists who are carrying out those atrocities in Syria (with the support of our country, I might add) but it’s not a specifically Muslim problem. All fundamentalist extremists are basically the same so far as I can see, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu or ‘other’.
What is it that distinguishes good religion from bad religion – the holy from the unholy? It’s an important question, and at one level the answer is extremely simple: Good religion is powered by the Spirit of God and bad religion is not.
That’s the simple truth! Unfortunately though it doesn’t provide us with any objective standard by which we can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Genuine religion is grounded in the Spirit of God. Bad religion has lost touch with the Spirit of God and so it substitutes something else as its basis – the written text, the proclamations of the theologians, or the infallible word of the leader, and so it inevitably drifts towards a mindless group-think.
Bad religion is everywhere. Bad religion has always been with us. Bad religion killed Jesus and it continues to kill people today. And while bad religion comes in many shapes and forms, one thing it always has in common, I believe, is that it is always tribal.
Beware, sisters and brothers, of the temptation of tribalism. It is symptomatic, I believe, of a drift into bad religion. Tribalism is exalting the importance of our tribe above others. It’s thinking that we are better than other groups because we are the better race or because we have the better skin colour or simply because we have the truth while the rest of the great unwashed languish in their ignorance! Tribalism may not always lead to bad religion, but bad religion is always tribal.
And so we have good religion and bad religion, good Pharisees and bad Pharisees, good rulers and bad King Herod, though, as I say, our experience is never in black and white. We always find some light in the darkness along with some darkness in the light.
And I don’t really want to leave the sermon at this point. I was taught that when you preach the good news you make sure you focus on something good, and yet it’s not that sort of passage. It’s a lament that revolves around the sarcasm of Jesus and the irony of godless acts performed in the name of God.
And it would be nice if I could at least extract from this some simple formula that we could all hang on to that would protect us from any potential drift into bad religion but unfortunately there is no such simple formula, and dare I confess that even if I were elected Pope I would not be able to protect us all from that drift. In the end we will all just have to depend on grace.
But therein there does lie some genuinely good news. For as the Apostle Jude reminds us, He who is able to keep us safe on the battlefield and in the bedroom is also quite capable of ‘keeping us from falling and presenting us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy’ – “to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25).
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on February 25, 2013.