Friday, April 19, 2013

Easter 4

It was probably the biggest party Australia has ever seen – hopefully the biggest party we ever will see – and a party that for most of us, even those of us born a decade or more after the event, is summed up in a single image, a single iconic piece of grainy black and white footage – the Dancing Man on the streets of Sydney on the 15th of August, 1945, the day the war in the Pacific ended.  In the background – as the dancing man twirls and lifts his hat and beams – we see piles of tickertape and rubbish and happy people laughing and hugging and kissing each other.  The world had come through six years of horror and had been changed forever – the price paid by innocent men and women and children on all sides of the conflict has been unspeakable.  But on this spring afternoon in Sydney all that matters is to be alive, to be able to believe again that there is a future, to dance and to laugh.
The Book of Revelation gives us all this and more, on a cosmic scale.  This is time out of time, beyond history or perhaps, all times rolled into one and all of history gathered together.  John of Patmos's vision or dream of the conclusion of all things, written for Christian communities in Asia Minor suffering persecution around the end of the first century, assures them that salvation belongs not to the Roman Empire or to any earthly power but to God. It is the party to end all parties, because this uncountable multitude from all conceivable races and cultures – and from our own 21st century perspective we might also add – from all social classes, all genders and sexual orientations, all religions and political persuasions – have come through the great suffering and now celebrate the final victory of the risen Christ.
The background of the Book of Revelation is this – that John in political exile on Patmos imagines a world in which the realities of persecution and suffering and fear are no more – a world in which the blank cheque signed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is finally cashed, a world in which the promise of tears turned to laughter is finally made good – and his vision intersperses scenes of victory and celebration for God's people with darker images of the consequences for those who have opposed the Gospel and persecuted God's people.  It is a style of writing called apocalyptic, coded, underground writing for a resistance Church – and in the Biblical literature, in the Old Testament we see the same style of writing in Daniel and parts of Ezekiel.  It is a promise and a word of hope for a Church in the thick of it that doesn't know the way forward, it invites us to look beyond our own fearful conditions and circumstances to contemplate the inevitable completion of God's promises.  And it tells us some truths about ourselves.
For a start, this party is a multitude.  It is not just the usual suspects – in fact, if we start reading a bit further back, we find that this is an expanding crowd.  At the beginning of chapter seven we read that it is a big crowd – 144,000 representing 12,000 each of all the tribes of Israel.  Maybe the author has in mind the actual Jewish people, maybe the tribes of Israel are a reference to the Christian churches, but it is still a limited selection.  A lot of people, but still carefully organized.  All insiders.  But then, right where we come in at verse 9, the vision is abruptly extended – now it is 'a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues'!  
I remember a derogatory description of the Church of England that used to do the rounds a generation or more ago – the Tory Party at prayer.  It was an insult that contained some truth – this was a Church that saw itself as white, middle class and privileged.  It was an insult also, fortunately, that long since ceased to have a grain of truth about it – in fact, the Church of God has always been gloriously multicultural – an unexpected blessing of the big movements of people in the second half of the 20th century is that we see the true diversity of the Church right here in Cannington.  Perhaps the image conjured up by John of Patmos encourages us to lift our heads above the local horizon and see the Church as it really is – not tentative and introspective, or struggling and dwindling, as it sometimes appears in our well-to-do and self-assertively secular country but unstoppable, ethnically and linguistically diverse, global and uncountably numerous.  Did you know there are more Christians today then ever before? About 1.2 billion of us, over one sixth of the world's population.  This is a message we Aussies need to hear, next time we find ourselves a bit shy of owning up to the fact that we go to church, that we are followers of Jesus Christ. John of Patmos actually gives us a totally accurate picture of the Church in our own time, and God is not finished yet.  A friend told me the other day of buying a coffee from a street vendor in Subiaco.  'Thank you', the young woman told her over coffee and a friendly chat.  'You are a blessing'. 'Oh', my friend said to her – 'what a lovely thing to say!' 'I am a Christian', the young woman told her.  'In my country we say that'.  Lift your head above the local – see the global perspective of lives transformed, of communities filled with the breath of God's Holy Spirit.  Live the gospel with confidence and don't be afraid to tell others about it.
Of course, the diversity of God's people is not only empowering and inspiring, it is also sometimes difficult and confronting.  We don't agree.  We argue, and sometimes we misunderstand one another.  We have different cultural prejudices, sometimes we mistake what our culture is conditioning us to believe or do, with what the Gospel teaches us.  Arguments in our Church about human sexuality often have that sort of misunderstanding as their basis, for example.  Incidentally, the same friend yesterday told me she was surprised at how much time we spent in the Church talking about sex.  I told her I was surprised we don't talk about it more – our intimate sexual relationships are at the heart of what it means to be human, and we need to talk more, not less, about what gives our relationships dignity and integrity, because it is our human relationships that form us in the image of God.
But I digress. We do arguments very well in the Church, and especially in the Anglican Church, which historically is founded on the fault-lines of a very bitter argument indeed. I don't think that is a bad thing – I think the structural tension in Anglicanism is a strength.  We value and we encourage diversity, and we allow men and women to have their own opinions.  We don't all have to be the same, and we don't have to think the same, in order to be brothers and sisters united in and by the love of God in Jesus Christ.  So we have arguments, and we grow through them if we argue with love and respect – and this of course is just as true at the local, parish church level.  God's people – our brothers and sisters in the pews – annoy the heck out of us sometimes.  The practice of forgiveness is not just a theoretical possibility, but an everyday necessity in Church life as in family life.  That, and a sense of humour.  Speaking the truth in love is not a formula for being judgemental and critical, but for being honestly and gently assertive.  
But, just one other thing about this crowd that John of Patmos sees in his dream.  This crowd that we recognize as us – united in diversity, recognizing Christ in one another in just about the same proportion that we find it challenging to live with one another.  This is the multitude who have come through the great tribulation. Sometimes we tend to gloss over that bit.  
John is writing to a church in tough times, and notice he doesn't say, 'it's alright.  Once you are a Christian everything will fall into place.  God's going to look after you.  You'll never lose your job or your marriage.  You won't find yourself in hard places, facing tough moral choices or domestic violence or the heartache of losing a loved one'.  So many modern Christians seem to think that faith is – or that it should be – an insurance policy against misfortune.  But of course the regular life experiences keep happening – life for God's people is just life, with its heady and bewildering mix of joy and loss – and that is because we are a part of God's creation, where the cycle of life means that things form and fall apart, death and decay make way for new life and change.  We live in this world, but Jesus life and death and resurrection assure us that the reality we see is not all there is.  That from suffering comes hope, from death comes new life, and that the God who creates all things in love, gathers all things – including we ourselves – in joy.  
This is the great tribulation of life, which we as Christians share with all God's people, but there is also the great tribulation of the Church.  To be followers of Jesus Christ carries a cost, to call ourselves the Church carries a cost and a responsibility, it is not just a community that confers a warm inner glow of belonging, but the body of Christ that is tasked with living the Gospel.  We claim after all in our baptism not just that we are raised with Christ in his resurrection, but that we are submerged with him in his death.  There is a cost.
Some of that cost is quite simply that the Church attracts persecution.  Just for being the Church.  Just for proclaiming resurrection and the perspective of eternity, because that calls into question the perspective of consumerism and self.  But there is also the cost of dying to self, which is to say, of living in a way which is self-giving.  Looking beyond our own interests and concerns to notice the needs of others, giving of ourselves financially, contributing our time and effort and abilities not just in our life of worship but in service.  The life of a parish should provide opportunities for reaching out to others in service.  That's the cost, and perhaps it is a cost that few of us wish to pay.  Particularly, it is necessary to say, here in the lucky country.  
The vision of John of Patmos – I would say it is a vision, not of heaven but of the Church of God on earth – is realistic.  It is a true vision, but it is not yet reality.  To be honest, we are not yet that Church.  But it is also a promise, that all things will be transformed, including us.  To which, perhaps, we can only say: 'Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus'.

Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112