Living into God – a Lenten sermon series by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Lent 2: Theosis – Living into God (number 2 of 4)

17 March 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 15:1 – 12, 17 – 18

Psalm 27:1 – 8

Philippians 3:17 – 4:1

Luke 13:1 – 9

Scottish poet Robbie Burns said it well: “The best laid plans o’ mice and’ men gang aft a-gley.”
This Lenten sermon series has been buzzing around in my head for months and the 2nd of four shaping up nicely almost ready to be put down on paper. And then a madman walked into a Christchurch mosque and began shooting!

I don’t know about you but my emotions ranged widely and wildly from utter disbelief – it can’t be happening in New Zealand, to anger and rage – what sort of a person does this, to the depths of grief which left me in wracking sobs. And why Christchurch – a city that has gone through so much in the last decade, is only just beginning to rebuild following the earthquakes of 2010 and 11, and all the thousands of after shakes that followed. What of my extended family? Are they okay, safe? And then more details of the event and the ever increasing number of deaths and injuries. The bravery of some and the utter devastation of those who lost loved ones. The outpouring of grief across the country and world; the steady controlled words of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, contrasting with the hate-filled twitter comments of a senator. The vigils across the country – both here and across the ditch; and, as always happens in times of tragedy, the wise words of caution, of forgiveness, of love. How well I remember the words of Peter Beck, the then Dean of Christchurch. When asked whether the collapse of the Cathedral was an act of God, he replied, “No – the act of God is how we reach out to one another in love.”

And here we are today, the 2nd Sunday in Lent, considering what it means to do theosis – to live into God, to journey into God. And the Gospel reading today is from Luke 13, speaking directly into a moment of tragedy. The story of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices bears an uncanny resemblance to Friday’s tragic events. Like the worshippers in the mosques, the Galileans had come from afar to say their prayers and do their duty to God. Why were they killed by Pilate? We don’t know and there appears to be little actual evidence for the event other than it is consistent with the way the historian Josephus portryas Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the deaths to have occurred.

Jesus uses this event and another that was uppermost in people’s minds at the time – the death of people due to a tower collapsing – to make a point. Thinking at the time understood disaster as punishment for sin. A tower collapse, people executed by a tyrant, even the contracting of a disease or being born blind or disabled – all was attributed to sin, the sin of the individual concerned, the sin of a parent; someone had to have sinned to trigger such ‘punishment.’

While few today would say it was because of the sin of the worshippers in the mosques, people, and I include myself, are very quick to look for someone to blame. Immigration policies, gun laws, radicalized disenfranchised youth, poor police surveillance. When something goes wrong we want to blame someone, something. It seems to be human nature. And yet, as the somewhat crass saying goes, “Shit happens!” The worst of this blame game is that all too often it is the victim who is blamed. We have seen that over and over again in cases of sexual abuse and rape. If she (yes it is usually she) had not worn that dress, those high heels, winked or smiled or smiled in that way …

So what can we do, how might we behave, what can we offer the people of Christchurch, our Muslim sisters and brothers in this city, any who are caught in dreadful situations not of their making? I believe that today’s New Testament reading, Paul’s words to the Philippians, may offer something. Paul contrasts two styles of life – those who follow Christ and therefore shape their lives around the example of Jesus and his love, and those who, according to Paul at least, are enemies of the cross of Christ. As so often in Paul’s writings, he brings us back to the cross of Jesus.

As we move through Lent towards Good Friday, let us take a moment to put ourselves again at the foot of the cross. What is happening there? A good man, one who was hailed as an example of good and godly living, who reached out to the poor, the outcast, the ones few others could be bothered with, even those of other cultures and faiths, was condemned and executed. In his own agony and suffering Jesus is able to think of others. So we find him praying that his executioners will be forgiven “for they know not what they are doing.’ He is able to offer one of his fellow sufferers an assurance of paradise. And he notices and ensures that his mother will be cared for. But more than all that, Jesus takes on himself the sin of the world, the sheer hatred of the baying crowd, the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter. The darkness of death itself is flung at Jesus – in ancient times the full might of the devil – and he dies. His broken body is taken down off the cross and placed in a sealed tomb.

It is this broken dying humiliated man whom Paul talks about following – whose cross is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Dig into the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel chapters 5 – 7 and we find some tremendously challenging words. Do not resist an evildoer, turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you – pray like this – forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us! Do not judge, take the plank out of your eye before trying to deal with the speck in your brother or sister’s. And the climax of it all, known as the Golden Rule, is this: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7: 12) Now that is living into God, that is theosis. It will be a lifelong journey even to begin to understand what Jesus is really on about, let alone put it into practice.

Tragedies such as we witnessed last Friday in Christchurch offer us the opportunity to follow Jesus. They offer us the opportunity to model ourselves on people like St Paul who was brave enough to suggest to the Philippians that they look to him as a role model. Perhaps we should bring in the rest of today’s Gospel reading here, the story of the fig tree which is given another year before being cut down. During extra time there will be loosening of the earth and manuring, fertilizing with the hope that it will bear fruit. What does that digging, loosening and fertilizing look like in the context of our own lives, and especially in our Journey into God?

At least part of the answer will come in how we react to events such as happened on Friday. We could harden our hearts against those who are different to us, and secretly think that the shooter actually did a good thing. Or we could echo words of Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Speaking shortly after she had heard of the attacks, and before too much information had come through, she said, and I quote verbatim: “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetrated this violence against us is not.”

Let me end this someone disjointed and distracted sermon with a prayer that speaks to me and that I pray often.

O God of many names, lover of all peoples;

we pray for peace in our hearts and homes,

in our nations and our world;

the peace of your will, the peace of our need;

through Christ, the prince of peace. Amen.

Collect from A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihinare O Aotearoa