A shoulder to the Wheel – Rev’d Jonathan Gale
When Jesus reads the Scriptures in his home synagogue he is reading Isaiah 61. In this passage Isaiah is referring to the release of the captives, those people in the southern Kingdom of Judah who had been taken by the Babylonians in about 586 BC and exiled for70 years.
The Jews understood that Scripture (especially those significant events in the biblical account) would often have a two-fold fulfilment. Prophecy, in other words, referred to both a literal event and to something greater in the future.
The Jews were always looking for the Messiah who would bring about the vindication of Israel, would see them recapture, in a sense, the Kingdom of David, the golden age in their history. It was the best they had to go on.
So when Jesus hands over the scroll and says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ his listeners were not thinking about the return of the Babylonian exiles, they realised he was claiming to be the Messiah. No wonder a few verses later they are wanting to hurl him off the edge of a cliff.
Jesus was ushering in the new kingdom but it was difficult for them to grasp that it was embodied in this young man and in the message he was preaching. I think they thought it would all be fun and games; that the heavens would roll back, and they would have God waiting on their every whim by turning them into the overlords they so despised in their Roman rulers.
But here was this man telling them to love one another, to forgive their enemies, to associate with the poor and helpless, to give up their own desires, take up their crosses and follow him. What sort of vindication of Israel was that? What sort of justification for the centuries of suffering they had endured as God’s chosen people was that?
Perhaps had they actually read their Scriptures and looked back to the actual return of those Exiles from Babylon, and seen what life was like for them, they may have had an inkling of what was to come.
When the Exiles returned to the remains of Judah, they had more than aggressive neighbours to attend to. Whilst they had maintained the faith in Babylon, their religion was temple-based and very much tied to the land. Recreating the commonwealth of Israel and the lifestyle that went with it was a huge challenge. They came together and the Scriptures were read to them by Ezra the priest. The import of what they had lost and what faced them was simply too much and they began to weep. It was a moment of rare corporate honesty.
When we think of Jesus announcing that the Kingdom of God had come, and implying that he was the Messiah, what were the implications? Paul constantly reflected on these things in his letters to the churches. Prof NT Wright, in the introduction to his lecture on Paul’s letter to the Galatians that I sent out with Day One on Thursday, says this:
A new world has come to birth. But it’s a contested place. It’s going to be difficult to live in it. In fact it’s going to be a big challenge. Paul is asking us to figure out what this world is and what it means to live in it.
It certainly is a big challenge and Jesus’ kingdom faced two challenges:
- For Jesus, part of the challenge was the scandalous claim he made that he was the Messiah and the offence people took to his claim. It was a challenge rooted in other spiritual powers; religious, political and social. The most obvious of these was the religious hierarchy of the day aided and abetted by people like the Sadducees and the Pharisees. In other words, there are other parties who want influence over people. You could call this an institutional challenge.
- But there is a great deal more to it than that. With the new order comes a huge challenge to what William James calls “the convulsive little ego.” Jesus faced the built-in resistance in the hearts of people, a resistance that screams, “Me first!” It’s a resistance we always underestimate.
Today that institutional challenge is driven by secularism – the perspective that there is no God – and we could discuss to what extent spiritual powers are behind this. The philosophy behind virtually every institution in modern society is that humankind is at the absolute pinnacle of existence because there is no God. This is sometimes called the Enlightenment Project or The Kingdom without the King. Marxism is probably the most spectacular failure of secularism. Western godlessness the most spectacular success of secularism.
And human nature has not changed. God’s arrival in our midst challenges the supreme self-centredness that characterises our lives. And it is a self-centredness that blinds us to the truth about ourselves and our motivations. James’s “the convulsive little ego” is alive and well. Because if there is one talent that fallen humankind has honed it is the ability to justify sinfulness. And this is completely understandable because only God can lift the blindness from our eyes.
That wonderfully God-given urge we all have to preserve life has been twisted by Satan into a self-preservation that benefits ourselves at the expense of others.
The prophets in Israel were up against these two forces all the time. And one aids and abets the other. When Jesus accused the Jews of murdering the prophets he was not wrong.
How do we combat these forces today? How do we become aware of and combat what lies behind our secular society and of the work of the “the convulsive little ego” in our own lives?
National trauma sometimes does it. Something like the destruction of ones country and being exiled from it will sometimes serve to lift the veil from our eyes. That is what opened the eyes of the Exiles. That is what made them receptive to the one place we find answers: God’s Word brought alive in the context of corporate worship.
I say in the context of corporate worship because they needed to be together if society was to be recreated. Individualism is ineffective at times like that.
The conditions for renewal then were:
- A people who understood their failure to fulfil God’s call upon their lives, especially their corporate responsibility – in their case to be a light to the Gentiles – part of which was the restoration of their institutions of worship.
- A people who were open to the Scriptures and the affect they have both at a heart level in changing attitudes to God and at a practical level in providing guidance as to how they were to conduct their lives together.
- A people who were prepared to put shoulder to the wheel and see the reforms through.
Those conditions remain very much the same for us. When Paul says to the Roman church, 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12: 2a) he means to alert them to the fact that there is a pattern to this world. For us it is overwhelming secularism that eats away constantly and persistently at a Christian world view.
Ever since the Enlightenment turned a somewhat simplistic Medieval world view on its head, the very idea of God has been gradually and systematically erased from Western consciousness.
This is what drives the institutions of the West and if we are not forewarned and forearmed we are sitting ducks in their sights and so are our children.
The conditions for renewal now are:
- A people who understand our failure to fulfil God’s call upon our lives – especially our corporate responsibility – in our case to share the Good News to all humankind, part of which is the restoration of our institution of worship: the church.
- A people who are open to the Scriptures and the effect they have both at a heart level in changing attitudes to God and at a practical level in providing guidance as to how we are to conduct our lives together.
- A people who are prepared to put shoulder to the wheel and see our own reformation through.
Individualism just doesn’t cut the mustard. That’s why Paul defines the identity of the Corinthian Christians as 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And one part of the body can’t say to the other, I have no need of you.
And so as we enter this year and the challenges we face in implementing the findings of the Parish Review we need to see these things from both individual and corporate perspectives.
You, the parishioner of St Peter’s, have identified the issues you believe we should address going forward. Your representatives in Vestry have taken those concerns with the help of the Archdeacon and provided suggestions as to how they might be addressed. What you may not be aware of is that Bishop Ross has weighed in on the process providing his perspective, as has the Ven Carole Hughes, the Archdeacon for Auckland North.
The entire process (including the matters to be dealt with and the Working Groups associated with particular tasks), has been summarised in a document which I am happy to share with you. Simply email Mandy at the church office and ask for a copy.
From an individual perspective we need you to soak yourselves in the Scriptures so that you might attain and maintain the mind of Christ.
From a corporate perspective we need you to acknowledge that your inputs into the parish review are valuable and pray for those tasked with addressing these.
We need you to agree with St Paul when he says, 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it acknowledging the value of one another in Christ.
Let us pray:
O God forgive us for and protect us from the view that religion is there to serve our own selfish needs. Grant us, Lord, your perspective. Help us so to imbibe your Word, that our minds might be renewed and our wills inclined towards your will. Grant us the understanding that whatever is worthwhile achieving does not come easily and the commitment to push reform through with you.
May we be encouraged to recall that our doing so is a participation in the work of Jesus who said,
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.