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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 31, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 30, 2011

Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107; Matthew 23:1-12

How does Jesus help us?’

A fortnight ago, Clive Pearson led a workshop here in the church – a Christology workshop. Christology is study/discussion/thinking/writing about Jesus – who he is and how he helps or saves us. Clive mentioned that, unlike the teaching on Christ’s identity that achieved fourth-century consensus (Christ as fully humanbearer of full divinity) there is no official Christian teaching as to how Jesus helps or saves us. There is no catholic/orthodox doctrine of Atonement – of reconciliation with God through Christ. We have biblical metaphors and stories about it. We sing and dance and paint pictures in celebration of it. But the mystery of it – according to the tradition – the diverse mystery of it – is honoured by way of doctrinal silence. This is always an interesting and liberating fact for me because, like some of you, I was raised, religiously, in a community that did teach, with doctrinal seriousness, the Atonement theory scholars call the theory of Penal Substitution. As a child, this was a supreme test of faith: Did I believe that Jesus died in my place as a guilty sinner in order that the anger of God might be appeased?

I begin here today because our Gospel is concerned with authoritative teaching; more precisely, with authoritative teachers; more precisely still, with the damage wrought by authoritative teachers. As a portrait of abusive authority it says less about late first-century Pharisees (many of whom, no doubt, were decent and compassionate teachers grappling with the meaning of faith for post-Temple Judaism), than about moralists of all times and places – teachers prone to hypocrisy, and sometimes vanity and superiority – even violent abuse. Is God so angry with sinful people that anger must be appeased? Appeased by the death of God’s own child? Is God’s love at the mercy of God’s wrath? Does one death really set the record straight? The more this model is insisted upon, the more it resembles a justification of abuse – all kinds of abuse.

Certainly that was a diagnosis I came to make, painfully, with regard to my early religious instruction. We were taught a lot about God’s “grace” (God’s accepting the death of Jesus as payment for the debt of human sin), but not so much about graciousness itself – not so much about living graciously, gracefully, gratefully. Faith was intellectual assent – essentially an out-of-body experience – to a single theory of Atonement I later learned originated in the 12th century. Faith was intellectual assent to a theory based on sacrificial and legal metaphors no longer explained or examined – and without reference to alternative theories (none of which the church catholic insisted upon in terms of formal doctrine).

I was not, as a child or teenager, introduced to the Exemplarist model of Atonement – the theory that the example of Christ’s love had power to attract and to transform believers. I was not introduced to the Cosmic Struggle model of Atonement – the theory that in Christ forces of evil were duped, defeated, or overcome. All this came later. I say now that I was converted out of a narrow religious community, and (via art school!) into a cross-cultural community very much centred on Christ’s example, on Christ-like kindness, solidarity, courage and reverence for life; into a community whose poetic professions of evil overcome are engaging, political and cosmic; into a community whose understandings of sacrifice and redemption relate to the very real costs of social inclusion.

I am grateful to all the teachers – David Russell, Father Chris Riley, Kate Scholl … – whose lives invited me into the world beloved of God. I include Clive in that group. It was Clive who introduced me to a fourth theory of Atonement, one he calls the Contextual model. It is based on the Greek word for “salvation”, meaning healing, wholeness, wellness. The Contextual model asks: What particular healing is needed in this time and place? What particular calls for help, for support, for empowerment and wellbeing are discerned here, now? How does the Good News of God in Christ address these needs? How is Christ among us, here and now, to save us?

Like the prophets before him, Matthew’s Jesus is troubled by a Law, by a religion taught for its own sake. Jesus is troubled by a presentation of faith that is not taught to influence lives toward justice and the common good. Jesus is troubled by the exalted position some teachers take that doesn’t take into account the lives of those who are to be instructed.

Put positively, Matthew affirms Jesus as one whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light” – whose “way” and wisdom we are invited to follow. In Jesus, and in the lives of all the saints, God is the one who teaches. As one commentator says: “The authoritative Christian is the one who lives not to his or herself, but to the God who, in love, empties Godself and becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Garry Deverell).

Among the desert communities of the third and fourth centuries, a person was called “Father” or “Mother” not because a bishop had appointed such a one, but rather because of the holiness of his life;her seeking to be rid of selfishness and filled with Christ. An ancient story illustrates the point. There was once a brother who had lived for many years in prayer and penitence, alone in the desert with God. One day Satan decided to undermine his virtue, and realising that extreme measures were called for, disguised himself as an angel of light. He burst into the hermitage in a blaze of glory and announced, “I am Gabriel, sent from God with a message for you!” And the monk, glancing up from his housework, smiled and said: “Oh no. Can’t be me. You must have the wrong person.” Satan could do nothing more. He vanished. In this, the word of the Gospel was fulfilled: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

A sense of humility, then – genuine and not a form of self-loathing – is the supremely trustworthy trait of good leadership. Such humility asks as to the wellbeing of others. Genuine humility makes space for others – creative, social, personal space. It teaches by way of God, by way of Love, by way of taking actual circumstances and real persons into account.

What particular healing is needed in this time and place? What particular calls for help, for support, for empowerment and wellbeing are discerned here, now? How does the Good News of God in Christ address these needs? How is Christ among us, here and now, to save us?Amen.