Not One Stone
Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.
In reference to racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement – but it could be in reference to almost any issue in this time of tumult, social activist Adrienne Maree Brown wrote that “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
I’m struck by Jesus’ ambivalence towards the grandeur and beauty of the temple that others were admiring. There is a constant reminder in the narrative arc of Scripture to ignore what society pays attention to and to learn to notice what others ignore. Jesus is simply unimpressed with this grand status symbol of Jewish nationalism, permanence, certainty, security. They see empire in its glory. He sees rubble.
The historic significance of “our faith” having place of prominence at the centre of society is now long gone. Other institutions are crumbling around us. When they crumble, we can feel despairing, as if we are living at a time of Ichabod, that the glory of God has departed and left us in chaos. That’s what we think of when we hear the word ‘apocalypse.’ But apocalypse doesn’t focus on the great disturbance, but on the revealing that it brings. Which is why Adrienne Maree Brown’s words are so apt. This is an uncovering. Stones and the empires they represent hide what is real. They are an illusion. We live in a time of great disillusionment, and this is not bad, it is the stripping back of illusions so that we might see clearly. Disillusionment is the competitive advantage of the people of God.
The Jesuit scholar John Donahue believes that Luke used apocalyptic language to take the saving event of Christ’s death from the eschaton – the end times – where followers of Christ we will be saved at some future point in history – to the every day lives of people in the now. Unlike the recent obsession with end times literature within evangelicalism (which seems quite happy with the world falling apart, as if it alone will foretell and hasten the return of Jesus), Luke uses Jesus’ words to invite us to get on with our lives today and see opportunities that would not otherwise exist. He reminds us that the paschal mystery is always before us, inviting us more fully into our lives. And he invites us to stay calm as we stay engaged. To not buy into the hysteria we see around us.
This has profound consequences for how we live out our faith, most especially after a week of unprecedented bush fires across eastern Australia, and tragically more to come. Two weekends ago my wife and I spent a few days with dear friends of ours in Tasmania. Bob Mitchell, a dear and long term friend, heads up Anglican Overseas Aid in Australia and is also preaching on this passage today in Melbourne, so we did a bit of comparing notes as we gazed out over the Freycinet Peninsula.
Bob’s PhD focused on the way Christian theology can influence international development work and practice. One of the challenges he has observed within churches of the Pacific Island nations is the belief that rising oceans and a warming planet are signs of the return of Christ. Any human intervention, therefore, would delay that return. This is a frightening form of gnosticism that came from Western religion. It equates this earth and our embodied existence upon it as something less, as profane, sinful and lesser, and Heaven as some ethereal, holy place that God wants to take us to. It is as if the first words of the Lord’s Prayer – your kingdom come on earth – have been deemed irrelevant.
Gnosticism has its origins in the first century among both Christians and Jews. Gnosticism creates a false dichotomy between a supreme, transcendent God and the fallen or evil material world, where the divine spark is seen as trapped inside matter and seeks disembodied release back to God. Gnostics considered special knowledge of the divine – and fleeing to that otherworld – as the nature of salvation. It results in very little practical engagement with participating in and transforming this world.
Sadly, it seems much of the Western church has hitched a ride with political forces that promise to hold in perpetuity our temples of dominance, material prosperity and certainty – while at the same time waiting for that chariot to carry us home. It is a disembodied faith that conveniently offers thoughts and prayers at times of crisis. It lacks the will for engagement in the struggle, seeking the human glory of empire, stones stacked upon stones. It believes in a scarce cosmos, which can only lead to nation against nation, king against king.
But when Jesus speaks of nation against nation and king against king, it is possible he’s shifting the long held story from God against humanity to humanity against humanity. Violence is not of divine origin. God is for humanity, and this world. Violence is what we humans are responsible for, and through the genius of the Cross, we have been resourced to transform. We are invited to speak without fear before an imposing empire, because we have an awareness of the paschal mystery, the remarkable invitation for awakening that God gives us through suffering, and our solidarity with the suffering of others, and of this planet. “We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
This entire reorientation of cosmic reality began with Jesus’ sermon on the mount. You have heard it said, but I say to you…. The way you think reality works is this, but it has been superseded by something infinitely more substantial. From then onwards, Jesus is dismissive of human wisdom and power.
One apocalypse in my life time was ended by a nine year old girl. Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc. Her photo was taken by Nick Ut, a Vietnamese American photographer on June 8, 1972. She was naked and running in terror from a napalm attack of her village by her own government. She had third degree burns. Two of her cousins had been killed in the attack. Within days, she had appeared on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Overnight, the world’s attitude towards the Vietnam war shifted. In less than three years, all Western troops pulled out of Vietnam and Cambodia. The war ended.
As men and women gazed at the image of a little girl trapped in a conflict of nation against nation, king against king, Christ arose within their hearts. Christ was unveiled, in the form of a little girl. Peace can be the only outcome of such a resurrection. The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone. To get to the cornerstone, all the powerful looking stones above it must be thrown down. For it is these oppressed stones that are crying out, and God is listening. As Jesus reminds us, stand firm, and we will win life.
The American poet Wendell Berry reminds us that if we ground ourselves in the truth we hold, we won’t go about screaming at our enemies, or rebuilding the old monoliths, or worse, go looking for some afterlife evacuation plan. Everything we need is here.
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes. Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here