Apologies for having been less good at posting these up in the last month. Rather a lot to concentrate on in the parish.
This week I've been wondering about how much we are actually changed by what we claim to believe in. A couple of Bible readings to start with:
‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Today, the last Sunday before the waiting season of Advent, is called Christ the King. Yet the Gospel reading seems a far cry from our ideas of monarchy. There are no robes of state, but instead a man pinned naked to a cross between two criminals, and the question this image asks, no demands of us is, what is our response? Or does it? The reason I say that is that one need not respond. After all, not everyone does, and that is precisely what we find in the Gospel reading. When you look through it you can see that besides Jesus there appear to be five different people or groups in this passage, and what happens as he is executed speaks volumes about them. And that’s really what I'm writing about. You see how we respond to Christ, or indeed to whoever we claim to follow, says something about how seriously we take him. So let’s have a look at the different people and groups as they come up and ask where we fit in to this.
The first group mentioned are simply the crowd. They are of paramount importance to the message of this account so I’m going to come back to them. The first group we’re going to look at are the religious leaders, who simply scoff at Jesus. Scoff is a bit of an odd word and I prefer the NIV’s alternative translation which says that they sneered at him. In other words they treated Jesus with derision and scorn. So the response of the religious leadership was essentially the view that Jesus was beneath them - unworthy of respect. He was getting what he deserved as an upstart who had threatened their status quo. They had been looking for some sign of power that he was indeed the one who God had anointed, not realising that sometimes the setting aside of power is its greatest strength, a message to be revisited at Christmas. The religious leaders were unable to grasp that God’s understanding of leadership is very different from our understanding. Human leadership often seems to be more about a desire for, and a demonstration of, power. The approach of God to power is very different, and that should go for the church too. Remember Christ said that it is the meek who will inherit the earth.
The second group are the soldiers who crucified Jesus and the two criminals. Their response mirrors the religious leaders, but where sneering implies looking down on someone who you regard as beneath you, mocking implies that they simply thought he was ridiculous.
Thirdly we meet one of the criminals. There is a bitter edge to his words as he challenges Jesus to save them all from their plight, and I find myself considering him as a man to whom life has been cruel, leading him to blame others in order to excuse his decision to take what he wants for himself. I think of him as a man who has taken no responsibility for his actions but thought only of taking what he sees as rightfully his.
Then fourthly we meet the other criminal, and this time it is a man who is able to take responsibility for his actions. He knows that what he has done is wrong and he appears to be the only one who actually recognises who Jesus is. He is the only one whose words name Christ as king, for he asks, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Unlike everyone else in the narrative so far, his focus as his death approaches, is not on what happens now but what is going to happen. He recognises the timeless monarchy of Christ because his focus is on another country, a kingdom not rooted in this world and its values. He is the only one here who can actually see what is truly going on. He has an otherworldly spiritual focus.
But what sticks out for me in all of this is Jesus saying at the beginning of the passage, ‘Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.’ There is a decision on the part of Jesus to not hold their acts against them because of their ignorance. So Jesus asks for forgiveness for the leaders. They sneer at him but it’s because they don’t know what they’re doing. And he asks for forgiveness for the soldiers who mock him, because they also don’t know what they’re doing. They are at least responding to him and that gives Jesus something to work with.
In other words he has provoked a response in them.
But it’s the crowd that has got under my skin. What exactly is it that they’re doing? Well not a lot really. They are simply watching. Jesus provokes a response in some people, even if it’s generally one of derision and mockery. But at least it’s something. The crowd however? Nothing. They just watch, and that bothers me. So I began to ask why it bothers me and I think it’s this. The thing with a crowd is that it provides safety in numbers. If you go along with the crowd and don’t stand out then whatever else happens, at least you’re going to have saved your own skin if no one has noticed you. I almost imagine Jesus staring at them, challenging them. ‘You. What are you going to do? How are you going to respond? Give me something to work with, please.’ But no, they simply stand there and watch.
And this is what frightens me about the church of today, the fear that we may actually be indifferent to the claims of Christ. Think about it for a moment. Is he actually who he claims to be, that is the Son of God? Is he who St. John claims him to be, the pre-existent Word of God - present as the hands of God moulding creation from the very beginning? And if he is that person and he is also the man that was crucified, died, was buried and rose again, what response is that going to provoke in us?
Let’s glance back at the New Testament reading from that deeply mystical book, Revelation. These are the words that St. John claims to have heard from the mouth of Jesus. You might like to think that in this part of the book of Revelation St. John is more or less acting as a secretary as Jesus dictates a letter to the church in Laodicea. Laodicea was a wealthy town fed by hot water springs, but that water had to travel some distance and may well have become lukewarm by the time it reached the city. Anyone who has drunk tepid water will know that it neither warms the belly on a summer day or cools the body on a hot day. It’s just a little insipid and rather useless. These then seem to be the images that Jesus draws on in St. John’s vision. The church is in a wealthy city but doesn’t realise that reliance on human wealth has left them bankrupt spiritually. And that rather than being hotly enthusiastic about Jesus or having a refreshingly cool spiritual nature, they’re a bit nothing.
You could think of it as like the monitor of someone’s pulse.
When the heart fires you see the pulse mark as a curve that goes up and then drops beneath the line. But when there is no pulse, all you get is the flat-line, a sign of death. I think this is what has happened. There is simply no passion in the Laodicean church. There’s no quickening of the pulse, and in fact barely any pulse at all. They don’t get excited. They don’t stand out. The effect of Jesus on their lives appears to be non-existent. In other words they are like the observers in the crowd at the crucifixion. Just watching and not doing anything. Don’t stand out. Don’t be noticed. Don’t do anything that could be misunderstood by others. It is as if they are allowing themselves to be unaffected by the events playing out in front of them.
This, I think, is what Jesus holds against the church from Laodicea, that as lukewarm believers they are giving him nothing to work with. So there is a warning here, that he is about to spit them out. Remember that we together are meant to be the Body of Christ, and the warning Christ is making to the Laodicean church is that if they continue to be unmoved then he will eject them from the body.
Let’s then do the uncomfortable thing of reflecting these two very challenging readings back on ourselves. Where do we stand in relation to Christ? Do we get enthusiastic and passionate about what we believe? Have the directions of our lives been challenged and perhaps changed by the relationship with which we engage? You see it is horribly possible for us to attend church week by week, pray all the right prayers, take communion, be involved, try and be nice people, but never actually really and truthfully engage with the possibility that if this man is the Son of God then following him may demand something other than just standing in the crowd.
I remember a band in my teens who had a song with the line, ‘Life is not a spectator sport’. Those words seem to be rather applicable to these passages. The crowd are just spectators. They’re just watching. Is that how we treat our lives? Maybe, maybe not. The question is, are we allowing ourselves to be challenged by what we believe on such a fundamental level that we want to set aside the ordinary and the mediocre in order to live, to really and truly live every moment, as far as we can, in communion with the Holy Spirit, being changed, becoming different people who stand out from the crowd, who can make a difference?
Stepping out of the crowd can be a scary thing to do, and often requires that we ask for courage to do so, but with the alternative being a lukewarm indifference that leads to going quietly into the twilight, which would you rather be like? I’m not talking about standing on street corners here, yelling at passers by. But are we actually still asking the question, ‘What do you want me to do about what I claim to believe?’
Descartes said ‘I think therefore I am’. Maybe our saying should be, ‘I believe therefore I do’. So what might Christ be asking of us?