Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The attractiveness of sinners.

Pilgrim Theological College Chapel
October 25th 2017.

Texts: Matthew 20:1-16;  Romans 5:1-12.

This sermon was preached at the regular college chapel to a congregation of almost exclusively ordination candidates and college faculty.


So here we are. Almost 500 years (less just six days) since the Reformation began

The day when, at least as legend has it, Martin Luther strode to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church and posted his 95 theses.

The ripples from that stone dropped in the pond of Western Christendom reach across to this very institution, to this community of people, to this moment.

But, of course, those ripples have not reached us through a smooth advance of gentle concentric waves travelling across those five centuries.

Between here and now and there and then, those ripples have travelled an ambiguous journey.

The impact of that initial protest in 1517 has included violence, division, death, mistrust and mayhem.

And none of those on a small scale.

And that's not even to mention the links that are drawn between the Reformation and secularism with its disenchantment, individualism with its weakening of community, or capitalism and its inequality.

Like all the Christian movements in history, the Reformation is marked by deep ambiguity. 

So, even allowing for these various reasons for ambiguity, what is it that we are celebrating?

Well, we could say we are celebrating a certain liberation from ecclesiastical tyranny.

We could say we are celebrating a liberation of the gospel from its disappearance beneath layers of tradition.

We could say we are celebrating the liberation of ministry from its centuries of institutionalism.

We could say we are celebrating the liberation of the biblical text from its dogmatic control.

But I’m going to invite you to celebrate the ‘alien righteousness of God’.

Let's face it, could there be anything more certain to induce a celebratory mood?

In his essay ‘Two kinds of righteousness,’ written in 1519, Luther referred to

“an alien righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith.”

At once we are into Reformation disputes about righteousness, faith, justification, works, and law.

And at once we are also into the disputes about Luther’s relationship to Pauline exegesis and the impact of the New Perspective on Paul on our reception of Luther as an interpreter of Paul.

Can I ask you to put those concerns on hold just for a moment?  

Regardless of how well he interpreted Paul, Luther can at least, I think, be recognised as putting his finger on something essential to Christianity and the gospel it proclaims.

Jesus, Paul and countless Christian thinkers, prophets and activists since, have unsettled prevailing conventions about the relationship between piety and morality.

Or between what we might term religion and ethics, or even between spirituality and justice.
At least some of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God seems to unsettle prevailing assumptions which suggested God’s favour was a reward for a virtuous or religious or spiritual life.

Many of Jesus’ parables seem to invert assumptions about what is deemed natural or conventional. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (to which we listened) inverts everything we might assume about natural justice. In the kingdom of heaven, a different economy of grace operates.

Paul’s teaching about faith and righteousness exploded the nexus between law and justification maintained by at least some of his contemporaries. And in the passage we heard from Romans 5, we hear the striking claim: ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. Christ did not die for the religious, or the virtuous, or the holy, or the spiritual.

Did you hear that? Christ died for the ungodly. And who’s that. By Paul’s logic in Romans: that’s all of us.

But I want to suggest that behind these challenges to prevailing assumptions about human faith and human behaviour, both Jesus and Paul were also saying something about the character of God.

Or at least, what they were saying about human faith and human behaviour inevitably unsettled some prevailing assumptions about the character of God.

And so was Luther.

In thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther contrasted the love of God with human love.

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

In other words, the love of God is not responsive as human love is; the love of God is creative and not determined by that which it loves. In terms of this contrast, human love is reactive; God’s love is just there.

In his ‘proof’ of this thesis, Luther says something else. Now the focus is on what it is that make sinful humans attractive to God.

“sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

Let me say that again:

“sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

In other words, we cannot attract God’s love by virtue of what we do. Rather: God is attracted to us because it is God’s character to be attracted to us.

Let me ask you: How much has this thought grasped you?

Yes, we might well be able to articulate the ‘priority of grace’.

We might well be able to affirm that ‘God is love’

But has this idea that God draws near to us regardless of our worthiness really grasped your theological imagination and your pastoral calling?

I ask the question because I think that many of the prevailing assumptions that Jesus, Paul and Luther unsettled continue to prevail.

I trust I’m not simply projecting my own assumptions on to everyone else, but I’ll venture to say that we find it quite easy to think that we can bargain with God. It comes almost naturally to us.

If I just do this, then perhaps God will…

It is a kind of quid pro quo understanding of our relationship with God.

Christianity has never been able fully to release itself from moralism; or from a certain impulse towards religious purity.

When 15 or so years ago, the researchers into American youth Christianity coined the phrase ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ they were not simply describing one cohort of Christians. They identified something that seems to run very close to surface of all Christianity and all Christians.

It has shown itself in the ease with which Christians have pronounced judgement on ‘the world’ in harsh tones that suggest deep down we really do think that we have somehow earned God’s favour in a way that ‘the world’ has yet to.

And I don’t mean ‘those other Christians’. I mean us. We can so easily default to the quid pro quo mindset. We think we can make ourselves attractive to God. And perhaps we even do it most pointedly when we think it is only a problem to be seen in those other Christians.

(And in this regard this there is a real challenge. Christians can and do distort the understanding of God. So, there is an issue of how we challenge ‘Christian views’ that we believe to be wrong without falling into the trap of thinking that those we think are wrong can’t challenge us back. And that would take another sermon or two to address adequately.)

There is no shortage of presentations of Christianity getting air time in the midst of the national debate about Same Sex Marriage which I believe are fundamentally wrong.
I can’t help but hear a certain and pervasive moralism underlying many of the Christian contributions to this discussion.

I can’t help but wonder what idea of God actually underwrites some of these views.

But perhaps we also have to ask about the ideas of God that underwrite even our strong convictions about the inclusivity of God’s love. Do we draw those convictions from the radicalness of the Christian gospel? Or do we draw them from what we as sophisticated modern liberal people think God should be like? A view that perhaps only thinly veils its own quid quo quo logic.

But let’s not focus just now on the self-critical introspection, even if that would be a very Luther-like thing to do.

Let’s think about  God.

Let’s think about God who, Paul tells us, “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”.

Let us think about God whose son “Christ died for the ungodly”.

Or think about the landowner in Jesus’ parable who declares to those who thought themselves more worthy: “Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you”. God is not a God of the quid pro quo.

To come back to Luther: it is an alien righteousness by which we are justified – not our own. This focus on this alien righteousness that comes from outside ourselves means, as Luther saw,that we are not loved because we are attractive. We are attractive because we are loved – by  God.

Is that insight worth celebrating?

I think it is.

One of the most basic Christian convictions is that God is love. For all the ease with which we might cite and proclaim this, it is not a self-evident truth ready to be picked up from a few random observations of the world.

It is a hard won conviction. The early Christians we convinced of it not because they looked at the beauty of the world or the circumstances of their lives. Far from it. They were convinced of it because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. After all, again to quote Paul, God had to prove or demonstrate his love for us.

At least according to Paul, God didn’t think it was self-evident.

Yet we as Christians and the church collectively can so easily live in forgetfulness of this conviction. As much as it is a hard-won conviction, it also an easily-lost conviction and an easily-domesticated conviction. 

Nevertheless, from time to time, so it seems, God, raises up people, sometimes the most awkward and irritating of people, to unearth that conviction from beneath the layers of piety, religion, spirituality, ecclesiasticism, and even theology, with which we cover it.

So, this is at least one reason why the Reformation should be celebrated, notwithstanding all the ambiguity that comes with it.

As a church that stands in the Reformed tradition, what might any of this say to us as ministers or future ministers in the Uniting Church in Australia?

As a church are we fully convinced of this truth?

How prevalent is the quid pro logic in our lives and that of the church’s wider membership?
My own view is that it is quite prevalent.

Twice recently, I’ve had UCA ministers tell me their sadness about members of their congregations declaring that ‘they are not good enough’. And these are members of 40 and 50 years standing.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of the parishioner of mine who would never participate in communion because in her words, ‘I am not worthy’.

These scenarios will have multiple reasons. But at the very least they are evidence of the resilience within the church of forms of piety and theology that have never been unsettled by the generosity or the radicalness of the gospel. 

How will you as minsters proclaim this gospel to those in the church so that they will know that they don’t have to be worthy?

Perhaps we could have a moratorium on discussion about the future of the church and spend a decade trying to unearth from beneath all the layers of Uniting Church-, Australian protestant- and Christendom-piety that hard won conviction that “God has proved his love for us that whilst we still sinners Christ died for us”.

And perhaps we might need some of the belligerence, pugnacity, and even existential angst of Martin Luther to do this.

We might ponder his idea of the ‘alien righteousness’.

And we might ponder his insight: “sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

And I suspect that not a few members of the Uniting Church might find that quite liberating.
But not just ‘those other members of the Uniting Church’ – perhaps it is also us who need to be constantly reminded of it and be liberated by it.

We are attractive to God just because God loves us. We are not loved by God because we are attractive. And that is gospel. And, however alien it is, it is worth celebrating. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tony Abbott, the West, climate change, and the Bible.

The Guardian has published a short piece I wrote on Tony Abbott, climate change, and
his use of the Bible. What I originally submitted was pretty much exclusively focused on Abbott's speech to the  Global Warming Policy Foundation. Interestingly, a week had passed by the time I submitted the article to The Guardian, and got the response that since a week had passed it risked no longer being relevant. But rather than therefore knock it back, the editor invited me to expand the article to indicate the pattern of linking the Bible and the defence of Western culture in Abbott's writings. So, I did. Bravo to The Guardian for being willing to publish something that was theologically slightly technical. The article concludes thus:

Convinced that climate change is the new religion, Abbott argued in his London speech for “less theology”. Actually, Abbott himself needs more Christian theology if he’s going to quote the Bible. As a former seminary student, perhaps he could rekindle his own theological studies. He would discover that the Bible contains literature capable of calling every culture into question, not least “the west”. And he would be better informed for those occasions when he makes theological pronouncements from the various platforms he is given as a former PM.