Other Homilies

Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

Home Mission Statement Homilies Liturgies In Memoriam Reports Resources Contacts Links


Easter 6, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 13, 2012

John 15:9–17

Love one another’

A “motherhood statement” is a broad, sweeping claim that non-one is likely to disagree with or about; a “feel-good” platitude without any specified plans for realisation. The sexist term is, of course, quite insulting to mothers everywhere well aware of real-life challenges their children face, well aware of real-life threats to their families. On behalf of our mums, let’s avoid “feel-good” platitudes, today of all days, as we take seriously Christ’s command to love one another. God be with you …

Some years ago I took part in a seminar at the College entitled “Validating Violence – Violating Faith”. Speakers presented papers on violence from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian perspectives. What I have to share today is by way of notes on one of the presentations – a presentation by Professor Emeritus Garry Trompf of Sydney University. Professor Trompf is Professor of the History of Ideas, and his paper was daring in scope: “Religion and Violence: A Macro-Historical Perspective” – in other words, a big-picture approach.

Professor Trompf is a renowned pre-historian. He’s researched Melanesian and Polynesian cultures most extensively. What did he have to say about religion and violence?

Well, he thinks that we have to dig deep to find root causes of our propensity for violence. He finds that there is a “basic, fundamental, perennial religion” going back to very early human societies. And he thinks that this perennial religion can be summed up according to two basic principles – two big preoccupations of the smaller-scale so-called tribal religions: celebrations of prosperity and victory. Prosperity or fecundity having to do with fertility, childbirth, plentiful crops, wealth and so on. And victory – success, military success, security of land and home. Fundamental religion entails concerns, rituals, sacrifices, keeping score (including retribution – rewards and punishments) in respect of prosperity and victory.

The impetuses behind these tribal religions carry on into early imperialist experiments – in Egypt, Assyria, India, China, Greece – and, of course, Rome, with prosperitas and victoria being the major motifs of social life (hence our own inherited concern for these things).

Rome represents a high point of religious “paganism”. We need to bear this in mind when we read from the New Testament – for the early Christian groups are speaking from within this very context, from within this quite sophisticated tribal religious culture – exemplified by the warrior and the imperial army. This is a culture in which to be a young man means to be a warrior, and in which the religious code would be something like: love your friends and loathe your enemies. As Trompf put it: “In tribal societies to be violent toward an enemy is right.”

Then along come the “salvation religions”, starting from Zoroaster (the tradition of the “wise men from the east”) and on through Judaic, Buddhist, Jain and Confucian expressions, to Christianity and Islam. They raise questions not asked by the older “natural” religions – about the state of one’s mortal (or immortal) soul, for example. About the inner life, morality, humility.

They critique the preoccupation with material wellbeing and victory over enemies as secondary to, even unworthy of the spiritual life. To varying degrees they reject grand-scale animal sacrifices and each has its own way of controlling or opposing violence. Their influence over many cultures has, of course, been immense.

Trompf cited the examples of Buddhist influence on the Indian diet – from meat-eaters to vegetarians in a few hundred years, and the great Christian and Islamic traditions of chivalry – honourable fighting, knights in shining armour, the just war. In essence, he understands Islam as a religion of the just warrior. Mohammed as the just warrior. An analysis of the Koran bore this out – verse upon verse relating to realistic compromise between warrior-hood and civility.

Trouble is the basic, perennial religion is usually more colourful and can appeal to the basic instincts more consistently, and will – in its various guises and hangovers – subvert the restraints of the salvation religions, and transform them. The history of the validation of violence follows: crusades, prosperity gospels, triumphalism, religious nationalism, religious racism, religious colonialism, theologies of glory (Luther), Christendom (Kierkegaard), a nuclear-armed Israel, terrorism (the word is linked to terra or territory) – in short, prosperity and victory.

This is all especially poignant for Christianity. In the context of later Judaism, militarism is at a peak. Roman imperialism meets Jewish resistance (warriors like Judith and the Maccabees). And into this comes Jesus of Nazareth, and his extraordinary message, embodied: “Love your enemies.” Jesus died pacifistically – laying down his life for others. From Constantine on, we have had acts that do not square with his challenge (in today’s Gospel, command) to enter into the peaceable “Order of God” (to love as he has loved) and his primal martyrdom.

Trompf referred to Jesus bringing about the most radical deconstruction of religion – in the very midst of Roman high paganism. He referred to the “utter singularity of the crucifixion”. How radically different is his example, how it shifts focus away from rewards and punishments, fixations on prosperity and victory, and toward an unconquerable goodwill, agape or love.

The early Christians, especially the martyrs and the monks, understood this – this near impossible love. And from Constantine on, an in-built tension has remained. Christianity remains very vulnerable to religion – at best naïve, at worst expansive and aggressive. And yet, wherever the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist is celebrated, there is the promise of real communion – with each other, with the earth (Iranaeus), with the God who is love. There is a new society at such a table – egalitarian, fair, forgiving, well-nourished, humble, thankful, joyful …

From Constantine on, the church and the Roman religion of prosperity and victory have been entwined. Trompf asked: “Will Christianity succeed in undoing it?”

St Therese of Lisieux (also known as the Little Flower of Jesus) said that when we meditate we ought not simply meditate on the sufferings of Jesus. We ought to meditate on the sufferings of humanity.

After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus said: “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from Abba God … go and bear fruit … love one another.”

Let’s complete the homily together. How are you/we coming to discern love of others from celebrations of prosperity and victory?Amen.