What kind of world?
Sunday after Ascension: 16th May, 2010
Theological Student, on assignment at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Acts 7:55-60, Ps 97:1-2,6-7,9,12, Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20, Jn 17:20-26
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.
In today's Gospel reading, we have just heard the final segment of a three part prayer in which Jesus prays:
'Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you.'
I want to spend a little time thinking about what this world Jesus prays for is like — this world that does not know the Father.
Driving to S. Peter's this morning, I passed under the Hartwell railway bridge; on it is a billboard advertising a major international bank. On the billboard is a large photograph of a young woman in a shoe shop with a big smile. The text across the photo says 'In my world my credit card rewards me'. Half her luck; in my world my credit card means big bills! I wonder, is this the world Jesus prayed for?
Or perhaps it is the world of S. Stephen whose tragic story we read from the book of Acts? Stephen was a deeply spiritual man who, in the face of an inquisition, faithfully tells the story of Israel and truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Instead of giving in to the authority of the Council S. Stephen stands firm to confront an entrenched self-serving doctrine that contradicts the divine truth that has been revealed to him.
Now, we all know that institutional authority cannot bear dissent, and so it was that Stephen was killed by stoning — just for professing what he believed. Not only was he killed by the authorities but the ghoulish witnesses paid tribute to his chief persecutor, Saul, whom we now know as Paul the apostle. This group of gutless hangers-on saw that their reward lay not in saving an honest and faithful man but in supporting the institution — the firm if you like.
I wonder if this is the world Jesus prays for? Do these examples ring a bell in your world?
I wonder, in your world, when you:
- work hard,
- are faithful and charitable to family and neighbours,
- are selfless and devoted to community
are the rewards just those derived from a retail transaction on a lifeless rectangle of plastic. And, is your world one where injustice takes place every day but you can't or you are not willing to do something about it?
If you said "Well no, my world is not at all like that", why is it then that a billboard such as the one I have described — and many like it — get away with the drivel they proclaim as gospel, as good news? Why is it then, that injustice still prevails?
This is the world we live in — isn't it? Reward measured in money, injustice, and a failure of will to confront the system. Is this the world Jesus prays for?
My own recent experience, until I became an ordination candidate, was in a large multinational technology company. In that place the rewards all revolve around money and promotion in the institution. These rewards go to the most efficient and best performers. They are the ones who achieve "performance targets" — in sales or revenue or profit. Money, simply. The money that is the axis on which this world turns. Life in that company is all about money. Money is its very lifeblood.
Well, that's OK if you are good at what you do, but what if you don't meet these "performance criteria"? Or what if, like St Stephen, your personal integrity requires you to call out the truth of what you see, like dishonesty or corruption. What if you contradict the company line — what happens then? Maybe it will be the conversation that starts with — 'Richard, would you step into my office for a moment, please?' and ends in "Redundancy", "surplus to requirements". I was surplus to requirements once. It is the corporate equivalent of stoning.
And what if you can't compete in the first place? If you can't even get a job to be sacked from? What if you simply don't have the skills this world requires, or if its markets change like they did in the GFC in 2008 and, out of your control, you're no longer needed. No big smiles in the shoe shop for you then.
You see, this world which is money and performance oriented is also very competitive. The job you get is the one the other applicant didn't get. The bonus you are paid means less money for your workmate. And because of this we become competitive and we start to operate as individuals rather than community. We race against each other for these supposedly scarce resources of jobs or money. From this mode of working it is only a short step to deny refugees hospitality because we believe they will steal our jobs, or to look the other way on indigenous Australians living in poverty, or the homeless, or gay people — you get my meaning. This is I believe the world Jesus prays about.
So what does Jesus imagine is the alternative to this dismal picture I have portrayed? Can Jesus provide an answer?
On that Thursday night when Jesus prayed, he and his disciples had withdrawn to the Upper Room to eat the Passover meal. Judas had already left the scene to do his treacherous business and the disciples were becoming aware that something was going on. Jesus washed his disciple's feet and gave them a new commandment — that they love one another. He promised the Holy Spirit, predicted a world of hatred and betrayal and instructed the disciples to keep his word. It must have been an atmosphere pregnant with confusion and portent for everyone.
As the evening drew to its dramatic close, Jesus stopped and in the presence and the hearing of the eleven he prayed for the world he desires we become:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Who will be one with Jesus and the Father? Jesus' disciples around the table listening to him, of course — these are the ones who have heard his word.
But also those who have heard it from them. That is us my brothers and sisters, as we have heard the word even this morning.
This is quite a different world to one of credit cards and sales targets. It is one where competition is replaced by love and community. And it is one where we, that is you and me, have to lead by example.
How do we do this? How do we, in this competitive and individualistic world I have described, achieve this ambitious goal, indeed responsibility, of being united in the love of God in order to be a world changing example? You and me?
To fulfil this responsibility of example we have to change. We have to allow God to move in our hearts. We need to turn away from the illusions of the world — its performance bonuses and consumption mentality, we have to change from being individuals living by ourselves in the world of cheap rewards on credit cards and we have to stop living in fear of speaking the truth.
God is creating this unity. Even yesterday we heard a seminar on ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Committee, which has been working for about thirty years on ecumenical dialogue between the two great churches. We heard Bp Peter Carnley, who is with us today, and Fr Gerald O'Collins of the Roman Catholic Church. It was encouraging to me that despite the vagaries of church politics and the odd surprise from left field, like the Apostolic Constitution from Rome that invites Anglicans to join their church, these and other faithful people continue to work for unity.
Like them, we must change in our hearts to see again that the true rewards lie not in this world but in the world that has unity with God and Jesus Christ as its chief and most valuable reward.
Then will we be able to see God in each other person, then we will love them, even to wash their feet, and to stand up for them when they are treated unjustly, and most importantly to treat them as ones who are also one with God and not just competitors for the next job or pay rise. Sure, we may have the odd stone thrown at us in the process but that is the way to be the world Jesus prays for.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.