The Word|Body problem (discipleship as ontology)

6th Sunday after Epiphany

February 13th

St Andrew’s Indooroopilly

Fr Richard Browning

Readings:

Jeremiah 17.5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26

Prayer:

As the Word is shared and broken open, we pray, may your Word live in us, and bear much fruit to your glory.

Introduction

Well good morning. The summary of my reflection this morning is the same as the prayer: may your Word live in us, and bear much fruit to your glory.

The visual image would be the one given to us in the readings: a tree, planted by waters, untroubled regardless of the season, flourishing and abundantly fruitful.

Announcing the Word

When C.S. Lewis said ‘If you want a religion to make you really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity,’ he could easily have had today’s Gospel reading in mind. There is no easy pathway here between blessings and woes. I offer not answers, but more a conversation and a shared journey. I start that journey looking over the week. Some crazy things have gone down in Canberra town.

Of them all, the most compelling and inspiring would be Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame’s National Press Club addresses. See there two people who have been done to by males who enjoyed the shelter of institutionalised protection. We need to intentionally attend to the voices of survivors, as uncomfortable as that might be. In their forceful insights is a clarity that cannot be ignored[1].

There was an impatience, even indignation (rightly) at the disconnect between words and action. Both Brittany and Grace made the point: there must be a coherence of word and action. What is spoken on the lips must be born in the heart and bound in the body with actions that at least bring life if not justice.

Talk without action is not meaningless, it is noise, destructive noise. Empty talk occupies attention in the precious space set apart for the work of justice, sucking out oxygen and draining out energy. Justice requires words to come alive inside people who lead with their actions.

First conclusion:

May our words be true, born in the heart and bound in our bodies given to action.

Epiphany (and so on)

We are here today because the Living Word, woven in the heart of God, has a body and has been committed to a place and a people. Jesus is the face, the hands, the living presence of the mind and heart of God. Jesus is what God looks like in history, for all of history.

Jesus has many titles, Christ, Eternal Light, Living Word. I would like to offer another, uncommon as it is. Our faith holds up the notion that the whole of life emerges from the Eternal Word, that life comes from this Word, without whom is nothing made that is made. So, Jesus is the Real, the one in whom reality is sustained; Jesus is attuned to the dream of God in creation and the desires of God in completion.[2]

When we encounter Jesus the Real, the first thing to hear is: Bless. The work of Jesus is simply blessing; from the Real receive the Love from God in person: you are seen, known and loved.

Jesus the Real stood before people – not ideas, theories or statistics but people – and named what he saw, in all its raw, aching human reality.

Seeing before him a person, he recognises the condition and says:

Blessed are the poor and devoid of power. He then offers the blessing:

Yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Seeing before him one to whom grief and loss has drawn near, one who has dared to live and love, Jesus says:

Blessed are you who mourn. The reality is not that you will be saved from pain, but that in it you will be comforted.

And so he goes on.

Blessed are the meek,

(you who are not able to project onto the world a claim from your ego)

you shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice, (for restoration, healing, peace)

you shall be satisfied.

Jesus addresses reality, and in reality comes the blessing.

You will notice that I have used the first four Beatitudes from Matthew’s account. We are reading from Luke who records Jesus coming down among the people and speaking from the plain. Jesus draws down the full beatitudes but uses a different rhetorical device, couplets pivoting from blessing to woe. Before I venture into the woes, a word first about the context.

Historical Context:

This Gospel account by Luke was recorded around sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus and twenty years after the sacking of Jerusalem. The world at large was Roman, with networks of cities founded on slavery and ruled with brutality. The Jewish diaspora had begun, the first virtual network of human beings cut adrift from geographical homeland and cast abroad.

Theological context:

The Jewish expulsion occurred as the Gentile was explicitly included in the mission. God’s imagination was being revealed in history: it is a new people and a new identity, one citizenship, a shared kindred, we are all members of the one family and citizens of the Peaceable Kingdom under God’s rule. Nationalism is dead. All emperors were subjects[i]. Jesus’ mission outlined in the beginning is with the poor, the captive, the blind and oppressed[3]. Jesus’ mission comes straight from the heart of the one he calls Abba. His work is described in the prophets: goodness, freedom, sight and liberation.

Narrative context:

Jesus is addressing his closest followers and is speaking about discipleship. The beatitudes are as close as we get to Jesus’ manifesto. This is what the Word would look like when bound in a heart and body.

Woe.

So to the woes.

Remember, there is no coercive violence in the work of Jesus. None. There is no woe or wrath at the hand of God that is anything other than the consequences of the playing out of reality. The logic runs like this:

              Woe to you who do not practice good dental hygiene, your mouth will empty of teeth.

              Woe to you who do not practice conditioning, you will be out of condition.

              Woe to you who persist in destroying koala habitat … there will be no koala.

              Woe to you who engage in promiscuous unprotected sex … (you can finish that one.)

              Woe to the earth when the atmosphere fills with carbon … (and again.)

You get the picture.

(Finally: woe to you who fail to vaccinate the entire global population from the virus, you be faced with variant after variant.[4])

Now. Given the context described, if we seek to be a home for the Word but do not attend to the reality of the Word; if we do not attend to the Word’s dream from the beginning nor God’s present desires of completion, there will be natural consequences.

Woe will be us if we do not practice mercy, or purity of heart, or peacemaking or justice; woe if we do not know the poor, the hungry or the grieving and put our name and ego over reality.

Provisional conclusion.

blessed are you who attend to reality, who resist all temptation to hide or flee or shrink.

Attend to the Eternal Word, The Real, and you will know comfort, mercy, fulfilment.

Caution[5]:

Unless the Word is the focus,

unless the Word is bound in our hearts and bodies and shaping our actions,

the beatitudes will be a religious program of impossible practices.

Unless Jesus the Real lives in us, and we are connected to God’s dream for earth, then all the verbs of discipleship will spell burnout and complex messianic failure. You know them, (Sue will be preaching on them next week):

              Love your enemy

              Turn your other cheek

Surrender, give, forgive, hand over, do good, lend, even and especially with your enemies (Luke 4.27fl).

Let the Word live in us, and the fruit will grow.

As Sue preached last week, we have no place snaring people like fish and making them Christian. Our work is to be like Christ, where our actions are gracious, beautiful, compelling[6].

Final Conclusion and Prayer.

Come. Stand before Jesus the Real,

Lean into reality.

Let the Eternal Word live within:

receive God’s blessing, the Source of all Being, Eternal Word, Holy Spirit, bless you.

And as the blessed, become the blessing:

to the glory of God and the good of the earth.


[1] I wrote a fuller reflection on what I saw and learnt from the event which can be found here: https://www.blog.ascmission.org/2022/02/11/notes-from-survivors/

[2] How beautiful is Paul’s description of the time when the partial has ended and the ‘complete’ comes, teleos in Greek- 1 Corinthians 13.10. Jesus is the complete, the fulfilment, the fullness of Reality.

[3] Jesus uses the voice of the prophets to announce his project initiated through his anointing of the Holy Spirit, Luke 4.

[4] The reflection on woes goes deep. In light of the recent anniversary of Auschwitz liberation: Woe to humanity, and Jewish peoples especially, when ordinary people turn a blind eye, holocaust becomes possible. The same mechanism is in play when Tame says: the survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders. So too MLK Jr writing from Burmingham Jail: “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

[5] When the teachings of the Sermon on the Plain are not grounded in the disciple’s identity as God’s child, they become an onerous list of ethical demands that do not further justice and wholeness. When the disciple understands his actions as flowing out of God’s abundance, to which he belongs and which belongs to him, turning the other cheek becomes an act of resistance to evil that has the power to transform others and the world. SUSAN E. HYLEN

[6] It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said something like, “I’d more likely follow the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed”.


[i] Is an End Note too serious? It is good! This paragraph on the theological context of Luke the Evangelist’s writing is shaped by the work of Willie Jennings. In this instance, the text below is taken from his commentary on the Book of Acts. It is a brilliant introduction to the mission of Christ post resurrection and ascension as recorded by Luke. It is thoroughly consistent with what we have been engaging today from the sixth chapter of Luke.

The Acts of the Apostles is about aesthetics before it is about ethics. It is about a God whose weapon of choice is the divine desire placed in us by the Spirit. That desire has the power to press through centuries of animosity and hatred and beckon people to want one another and envision lives woven together. Such a life never asks people to forget their past or deny their present, but to step together

into a future that will not yield to the given order of isolations, but yields to the Spirit that is poured out on all flesh. Segregation is an ancient strategy for creating a world, and it continues to work because it teaches us to see the world in slices, fragmented pieces of geographic space that we may own and control. Segregationist ways of thinking and living permeate this world including the church,

dimming our sight of ourselves as creatures and our connection to other creatures, and weakening our ability to discern where and to whom the Spirit wants to lead us.

The prevailing fantasy of people is to have power over others, to claim the power of self-determination, and to make a world bow to its will. This is the fantasy of nations and clans, peoples and corporations. But the Spirit offers us God’s own fantasy of desire for people, of joining and life together and of shared stories bound to a new destiny in God. This desire for people is not the desire for their utility but for their glory, to draw them into the divine pleasure and joy at the sight of the creature in communion and formed in hope. The disciples are to make evident divine desire, reveal it to be the central gift of the Spirit. Where the Spirit of God is, there is divine desire. (Page 11)

Finally, the book I have found extremely useful in exploring the Beatitudes is by Mark Scandrette on the Nine Fold Path of Jesus. It is a stunning invitation to practice and allow Jesus the Real to be deeply wedded to our hearts in our bodies across our days. See https://www.bookdepository.com/The-Ninefold-Path-of-Jesus/9780830846849

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