Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lent 5

I always thought I'd like to write a book.  Not just any book, my book would be a literary masterpiece, the plot would be fiendishly clever, the characters would spring to life, every sentence a work of art, every word a brilliant gem.  This was one of my recurring fantasies as a teenager and a young man.  Nothing else seemed quite as worth doing as being a world-famous author.  Except, I told myself, it's important not to start too soon.  You need to have something to say.  Finish that degree, knock about a bit, get some experience of life.  All the while your great Australian novel is taking shape in your head.  And so I got older and settled down, got a job … I discussed my ambitions with a friend who had, as it turned out, the same idea.  There's plenty of time, she told me.  Wait till you're financially secure, writing novels isn't going to make you rich.  Wait till the kids are grown up.  I went back to university again – that novel kept nagging at me.  Too many essays to write, I reminded myself.  Not enough hours in the day.  I need to read more widely first.  I was ordained priest – priests don't write novels!  Way too busy.  What if the archbishop didn't like it?  Maybe when I'm retired …

It's called procrastination of course.  And lots of the time it comes from a sense of inadequacy.  Fear that if we actually committed ourselves, and did it, and started right now ...  Fear that our dreams are bigger than our abilities.  Fear that lots of the things I take for granted in my life might have to change if I were to really do right now the thing I always said I'd do one day.  Fear I'd have to put my money where my mouth is …

Today for Jesus is the moment of decision.  If we follow the timeline of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Matthew and Luke, then Jesus has been gradually working his way towards Jerusalem and now, in today's reading from John, he's actually there.  Next week we go backwards again to the story of Jesus' entry into the city which already was packed with locals as well as foreigners – Jews, by which John means locals, residents of Jerusalem and Judea and the provinces, country hicks from the villages of Galilee – and Greeks, by which John means Greek-speaking Jews from everywhere else in the known world, the cosmopolitan residents of Alexandria or Cypress or beyond.  It's a party atmosphere, a confused expectant mass of people and Jesus own followers are caught up in the general mood as well as their own particular sense of dis-ease and apprehension.  Jesus has been dropping hints and talking in a way that can only have struck them as morbid and incomprehensible.  They know that Jerusalem and this Passover are important to Jesus, but they don't know why.

And Jesus says, 'Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out'.  According to the sequence of John's gospel, Palm Sunday has already happened - the die is cast and the authorities are making their plans to put Jesus to death.  But he is saying a bit more than that.  Not just, oh heck, too late to change my mind.  No more procrastinating.  Not just that the hour of crucifixion is virtually upon him but he is making a claim that is way bigger: 'Now is the judgment of this world!'

It's quite a statement. I wonder how we might live, what choices we'd make, if we actually decided to live by this claim?  What would it mean to say that the 'one day' of the prophets was - NOW? What would it mean if the 'ruler of this world' will be driven out - NOW?

Well, for the first thing, it depends on whether we can actually take Jesus seriously.  His disciples still didn't, obviously.  Do we think it's just a metaphor, just a figure of speech?  Can we actually believe this – given that 2,000 or so years later the world is still patently run by the same sort of rulers, the lives of ordinary men and women still just as subject to the structural evils of war and inequality and poverty?  If he is serious, what does he mean?  If we can believe it, and take it seriously, what changes for us?

Well for one thing, if the ruler of the world is driven out – NOW – then it calls into question just where we have been putting our allegiance.  It questions the claim of every would-be ruler of the world before or since that moment.  And it calls into question our own claims to be living justly.  It means that the claims to power of the Barack Obamas and the Robert Mugabes alike are false – that the shabby self-serving morality of worldly power in all its forms has been seen through, that in fact the only power that presidents and dictators and iron ore magnates have to determine our lives – and the lives of millions – is the power of ignorance and complicity.  And it means that when we act in ways that exploit our power over others, when we manipulate or bully, then we ourselves usurp the power that doesn't belong to us.  Jesus' claim doesn't mean – sadly – that power is no longer assumed and misused – but it means that all human power is made relative and is out-trumped by the power of self-giving love.  The only fly in the ointment – the only catch – is that we have to believe him, and to act on it.  That we ourselves have to become the agents of that love in practise in our world.  Before you protest that you're not personally in a position to do much about Robert Mugabe – and neither am I – the point is that we do get to choose what we give power to in our own lives, and our relationships and in the corner of the world that we inhabit.  Jesus' claim challenges us – if we believe him, if we don't just think he is talking big for the sake of it – to question our own priorities and to put aside the false rulers of our own lives.  The obsession with self-serving and false priorities – the chase after money or consumer goods or status, for example, or the obsession with appearing respectable – the way of competition that our society teaches us from an early age and which we follow at the expense of practising vulnerability and compassion.  Like all of Jesus' big claims, this one works if we watch carefully the one making the claim – if we observe how he lives and follow suit. 

Because if the time really is NOW – and if we are prepared to believe it and act on it, then all the old priorities are actually gone.  All the false gods and false priorities – and let's not kid ourselves, we all have them – are gone, the moment we actually believe what Jesus just said.  The only power our false gods have over us is the power of a fantasy that you no longer believe in.  Actually, that is pretty much what we mean when as Christians we assert that Jesus is Lord.  It means simply that nothing else has the power to dominate your life or to prevent you from living in a way that is consistent with what you say you believe.  Which means also that when Jesus says, 'NOW is the judgement of this world', that isn't a scary or vaguely threatening possibility but simply (a) a statement of fact, and (b) good news.  Because the judgement of this world is quite simply the end of everything that separates us from one another and from God, the answer to our prayer that God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven – so long as we – you and I – are actually prepared to take it seriously, to believe Jesus' claim and put it into practise.

So, what are we waiting for?  Are we waiting to get a bit older, or a bit wiser?  Do we not feel quite ready yet, or do we need somebody's permission?  What keeps us procrastinating as Christians?  What stops us from living boldly, from living justice and forgiveness and compassion, and what stops us from naming injustice and inequality and oppression when we see it happening around us?  What stops us from demanding fairness and tolerance and understanding when we are confronted by selfishness and bigotry and ignorance?  Is it that we don't – not deep down – actually take Jesus seriously when he tells us that these things no longer have a claim to power?  The two sides of our response – the putting into practise of Jesus' way of forgiveness and love in our private lives – and the passionate advocacy of justice in whatever public sphere we inhabit – are intertwined.  We can't – unfortunately – even use our own imperfection in our private lives as an excuse to keep silent in our public sphere – because let's face it, whenever we oppose injustice it is our own lives that need to be the first to be re-examined.

In these last days of Lent, Jesus calls us to follow him.  He reminds us that the way of the cross is not a spectator sport, and that there is a cost.  There is a cost – of course – in the challenge to put to death everything in us that is inconsistent with Jesus' way of self-giving love.  But he also reminds us that there is nothing to fear.  Because in letting go of ignorance and self-obsession and injustice – our own – then – if we also believe in the gospel claim of resurrection – we open ourselves to really live.