26 August 2010

God’s Kingdom breaking in – through us?

22 Aug 2010 12th Sunday after Trinity CW Proper 16
Luke 13 10-17, Hebrews 12 18-29

Both our readings this morning, from the Letter to the Hebrews and the gospel of Luke speak about the difference that faith makes – faith in God through Jesus Christ. But I think it’s fair to say that they are very different in character – I wonder which one of them you respond to best?

It’s not easy to interpret the book we know as Hebrews. We don’t really know with any certainty who wrote it, when it was written or who it was intended for – though it’s clear from the style and content that it was written for a Christian community with a Jewish background. It’s even been suggested that it was originally the text of a sermon – in which case the congregation would need to be able to concentrate very well, and probably for a long time!

I think the biggest problem for us as readers of Hebrews today is that it expects so much of us by way of prior knowledge. So many of the images and ideas draw on aspects of Judaism and Jewish history

• which for the original audience were second nature, part of their identity

• but which for us are obscure – the sort of thing you need to study in depth to achieve any sort of understanding.

Rather like an occasion, many years ago, when I took a French friend to watch a cricket match. I can tell you, it certainly spoils your enjoyment when you have to stop every few minutes to explain what’s going on! And however carefully I had prepared him for the experience, he couldn’t possibly interpret what was happening – much less have read a report of the match – with anything like the understanding of an Englishman, who had grown up watching the game! I think he gathered that my team won though!

So, if Hebrews can seem a bit obscure, how do we respond to the passage from Luke?

Well, again it’s rooted in an aspect of Jewish belief and tradition – but we do have some sort of grasp of the Sabbath and it’s importance to the Jewish community. And it’s not so very long ago that the same sorts of issues about working on Sunday were discussed and debated in our society. (I think it’s still a live issue in the Western Isles of Scotland).

And of course, our reading from Luke is a story – the account of an individual woman whose meeting with Jesus was a life-changing experience. It’s much more interesting to engage with a story (or so [my wife] tells me! Our tastes in reading are very different!) Jesus heals the woman of her physical condition, but he also restores her to her community – transforming her daily life, and truly setting her free.

I think in their own way, each of our readings has something to say about God’s Kingdom. The imagery of Hebrews is tricky because it draws so heavily on the Exodus from Egypt and an experience of God which even terrified Moses. Although there is some comfort for believers, I (at least) am not tremendously reassured by the reminder that “our ‘God is a consuming fire’.” But as our passage says:

“since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful.” (Hebrews 12: 28 NIV)

Thankful, too, that we are part of the New Covenant, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the picture of God’s Kingdom in Luke is easier to understand – a Kingdom where God’s people are healed, restored, set free; where we live the “life in all it’s fullness” of which Jesus spoke in John’s gospel. Those are experiences which cross all cultural boundaries – the fulfilment of very human and universal longings: the life for which all have been created.

By this very practical demonstration of his power to heal, his power over evil, Jesus shows that, through him, God has broken in to human history. God has acted decisively in his creation, and has acted for good. In Jesus, God’s Kingdom has come – though future events in his own life and ministry, (and present realities of which we are only too aware), show that that Kingdom has not yet been fully realised – that the promise is not yet fulfilled.

And if we believe in Jesus, if we believe that God has broken in: inaugurated his Kingdom, even if it has not yet fully come …

then we must make a response. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it:

“See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.” (Hebrews 12: 25a NIV)

Of course, for each of us our response is individual and personal. But I believe we can properly ask ourselves whether our belief in God and his purposes, our faith in Jesus really sets us free? For this woman, her encounter with Jesus transformed her life – and she is by no means alone in this experience: it seems to have happened a lot to people Jesus met!

Our Christian faith should have something of the assurance and confidence expressed in our Hebrews reading; something of the wonder and compassion of the woman’s story.

• That’s not to make us feel guilty when things are difficult – things were difficult for Jesus and his companions too.

• But perhaps we need God’s help to be more aware of him at work in our lives, more conscious than we sometimes are of the good things, the wonderful blessings he grants us.

What’s more, our faith is not just an individual matter. It’s worth noticing that Luke told this story as an example of Jesus challenging the religious leaders – condemning the narrowness of the organised Religion of the time. (Now, there’s a thought!)

Here we are today, meeting in church, part of the Church of England (in all its diversity!) What about us? What about me? (Because I’m really not trying to let myself off the hook!)

What is our Christian faith like?

• Does our faith set us and others free?

Or are we sometimes indignant when Jesus seems to be doing something unexpected?

• Does our worship in any sense foreshadow

“thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, … the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven”? (Hebrews 12: 22-23 NIV)

Well, don’t write it off too quickly –

when I read that passage again on Friday, I couldn’t help but think of the wonderful funeral for [N] that so many of us were able to share in this week.

• And is our faith expressed in practical action, showing glimpses of God’s Kingdom breaking in?

These are challenging questions, drawn from challenging passages of scripture.

Our society these days is largely sneering and cynical, but I believe that God is at work in his world.

What’s more, I believe God is at work in us, as individuals and as a Church – that in and through people like us may be glimpsed signs of the Kingdom of God.

The real challenge is to continue to work with God,

drawing on his power and his resources,

so that God’s Kingdom may come more and more:

amongst us, in our communities and throughout God’s world.

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