Pentecost 3A. 2008
A Liturgy is also available
RECASTING THE AUTHORITY OF THE ‘HISTORICAL’ JESUS
Some years ago I was loaned a DVD copy of the 2005 movie, Kingdom of Heaven.
Set during the 12th century crusades of the Holy Land, it follows
the fortunes of a French christian soldier called Balian.
It seems soldiers volunteered to fight in the crusades because
(i) they were told they would be doing God’s will, and
(ii) they were promised an ‘insurance policy’ - entrance into the kingdom of heaven should they die in combat…
A rather familiar and modern sounding reason, hey!
As one commentator on the film suggested:
if the crusaders had a slogan, it might have been ‘Kill a Muslim for Jesus
(or a Jew, if you can't find a Muslim)’.
Somehow, somewhere, someone seriously misunderstood,
or intentionally subverted, the ‘vision’ of the sage we call Jesus!
Much, if not all of this morning’s gospel story, has been imagined and voiced
by the storyteller we call Matthew, or by someone else
close to the small community of people
where Matthew has some influence as a leader.
And the presenting issues behind this story seem to be similar
to that faced by soldiers who went to the crusades nine centuries ago:
(i) how to know and do the will of God;
(ii) how to ‘mix-and-match’ one’s inner dispositions with one’s external actions, and
(iii) how at the end, to prevent the ‘judgement’ of God
- a theme much loved, I am assured, by my
fundamentalist and pentecostal advisers!
Hence, the story of two builders contrasting a choice between ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’.
Now such choice is also very much apart of our modern, ordinary lives.
• If we say our family takes primacy of place, does the amount of time we carve out
to spend with family as compared to the number of hours worked, reflect this?
• If we say we believe in standing with the poor, can we name concrete instances
when we actually do this?
• If we say we value exercise and a balanced diet, how is this evident in our daily fitness routines?
• If we say we believe in prayer or meditation, how often and with whom do we actually make the space for silence and prayer? (Reid 2001).
And with all the current debate on a carbon tax
and the radio 'shock jocks' campaign against both the tax and the science,
how do we introduce ‘fairness’ into the national economic scene,
especially among the 350,000 or more Australians
who are unemployed?
We always seem to be faced with contrasting choices: between ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’.
The storyteller then sets forth a situational conclusion:
“One who has heard Jesus’ interpretation of the Law now faces the decision of whether to accept or reject it… it is Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah that is at issue” (Reid 2001:71).
Finally, the storyteller indicates a choice was beginning to be made.
He assures us that it was Jesus’ different interpretation that impressed those who listened,
rather than the interpretation of those
“who knew only one way to interpret scripture: in a very demanding and legalistic way, a kind of fundamentalism” (WLoader. Web site,2008).
William Loader, the Uniting Church New Testament scholar from West Australia,
also suggests Jesus’ new or different interpretation became authoritative
“because it made sense. It rang true” (WLoader. Web site, 2008).
I reckon, we - you and me - living in the early part of the 21st century,
are also faced with having to make choice,
hopefully on the basis that it rings ‘true’.
We now have a chance as never before, to facilitate a new religious ‘authority’.
And for me the pulse of that new authority
comes from the disciplined studies within the Westar Institute
and its various Seminars.
For 2000 years, Jesus of Nazareth has been represented to the world
“in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said” (Hedrick 2004:98).
For instance… in the beginning, that which is called ‘orthodoxy’,
(represented in the Uniting Church by a group calling themselves ‘Assembly of Confessing Congregations’),
was but one of many diverse movements tracing their origins in some way
to the sage we call Yeshua or Jesus.
Those more learned than I on this matter, indicate that
initially these groups used a Greek form of the Hebrew Bible as their scripture.
But that collection proved inadequate to their needs.
So they eventually reduced their new visions of faith to writing.
Beginning in the 4th century, some self-proclaimed ‘orthodox’ representatives,
led by the meddlesome Bishop of Caesarea called Eusebius,
sought to establish the Bible 'canon' - a collection of texts which, centuries later,
would become “divinely inspired scripture.”
Other texts, from movements competing with ‘orthodoxy’,
they libeled as ‘heretical’, or ‘not genuine’.
And more often than not, the orthodox went about with sword and fire and creed,
seeking to solidify their claims, and eliminate their opposition.
A crusade against former colleagues you might say, rather than against Muslims.
And they got away with it for hundreds of years, despite the gap
between the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Christ of faith.
But not anymore!
Now with the new work being done by modern scholars on both
the extra canonical material (The gospels of Thomas, Mary and others),
as well as that on the early christianities,
we have an opportunity to go beyond their ‘orthodoxy’
and draw our own inferences about Jesus and his ‘vision’.
And that is truly incredible!
“The only other time in history that this was possible was in the first century” (Hedrick 2004:99).
Let me stay with all this for a moment longer.
Throughout the last 500 year or so history of the church,
people have wrestled with the clash between the Bible and modern science.
And many have coped by a ‘suspension of disbelief’
for an hour or two each week.
But what happens when those same people decide
they can no longer live with the inconsistencies
of tired metaphors and a belief known “to be patently false”? (Hedrick 2004:100)
Welcome the ‘church alumni’ association!
The urgent question for the church right now, in the 21st century, is:
How long can it, the church - you and me - count on suspended disbelief
to shore up its outworn myths? (Hedrick 2004)
To me, that sounds very much like a question of choice
between ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’!
So how shall you respond?
Hedrick, C W. 2004. “The ‘Good News’ about the historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for preachers. Year A. MN: Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.