Violence and conflict as signs the world is changing
Sermon by Andy Wurm, 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 17th November 2019
A group of people who worked in an office went out for a farewell lunch for one of the staff who was leaving. There was an air of sadness to the lunch, because he had been a great member of the team, but couldn’t cope with the boss’s bullying any more. At least it was a chance for others to express their appreciation for his contribution and also how much they valued one another. As the discussion went on over lunch, there was a lot of anger at the boss expressed by a number of those present, to the extent that many of them would like to see their boss gone. There was a strong feeling of unity in being united against her. But one office worker felt uneasy at the growing resentment against the boss. While she could see what lay behind what others were saying, she thought it was important to remember that there was more to the office than the boss, – there was much that was good about what they did and there were good people too, so if they focussed too much on the boss, they would lose sight of all that. Then she encouraged others to stand up for themselves with the boss’s bullying, such as if someone felt they were being bullied, it was appropriate and legitimate to request the presence of a support person. It is behaviour such as this refusal to gang up on another or seek revenge, yet to stand up to aggression, that Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel story, when he says ‘by your endurance you will gain your souls’. The opposite, to gang up on the other, even if they are engaging in bullying behaviour, or to engage in revenge, will result in losing your soul.
How can we be people who gain our soul, or keep our soul, and not get caught up in revenge or other aggressive behaviours? We can do that by believing in and living the Kingdom of God, and what helps with that is knowing that the Kingdom of God is both coming in the future and also here in the present.
The Kingdom of God can be understood within the context of history. Apparently, the ancient Jews invented the idea of history. By that I mean they thought that life doesn’t just keep going around in circles, with the same things happening over and over, but things develop and people build upon events and achievements of the past. They also believed that history had a direction or purpose, which was the coming to fruition of God’s plan for creation, in which humanity flourished and was a blessing for the earth. Humanity has strayed from that, however, in that violence has become central to the way we relate to one another, but God is working to overcome that. God is determined to accomplish God’s good creation. For Christians, Jesus is the centre of that, but also he is the model of the new humanity that God is bringing into being. For us then, history is a movement through which eventually, all humanity will be like Jesus. That’s what we call the Second Coming of Christ. And it’s what we profess to believe and commit ourselves to living into, when we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. Christ will come again – humanity will be a blessing to the world and all of humanity will flourish. Not just the rich. Not just the powerful. All humanity. No more segregation. No more poverty or hunger. No more exclusion. No more war. No more bullying. This will be humanity finally as it was meant to be: as the image of God. When this new humanity comes into being, then the humanity that lives by violence, will come to an end. It will be the end of ‘this time’, or in a sense, the end of the world as it now is, with fallen humanity. The religious term for this end of the world is the eschaton. An eschatological view of the world then, sees the world is moving towards this transformation, or new creation.
Being captured by this hopeful vision, the early Christians believed that soon the world would end and
Jesus would return: the new creation was imminent. Others considered it long in the future, but there
was another view, which we get from the writer of Luke’s Gospel, who thought that the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ, is coming in the future, but is also breaking into the present. This is not God playing with time, but is like the way Christmas, while a month and a half off, is ‘breaking into’, or ‘reaching into’, our present, because we are starting to get stressed, beginning to buy gifts and so on. This is prevailing view of the New Testament. So, we have this hopeful view of the future, but also the present and with it comes implications for how we live.
The reality is though, often I am shocked by the violence I see in the world, so watching the news leaves me feeling hopeless. Well, says Jesus (in today’s gospel passage) don’t be shocked. Be outraged, because it’s tragic, but don’t be shocked, in the sense of being surprised, because this is the beginning of the end. In fact, expect this sort of violence to occur. Now, this is not like those people who say that these events reveal the end of the world is near, so you better join Jesus’ team, or you’ll burn in hell. What it means is that these events are the consequences of what Jesus has brought about. Or to put it another way, as the kingdom of God breaks into the world and begins to transform it, new forms of violence will emerge, for Jesus has deconstructed the way that violence shaped much of human life.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus points out that the temple would eventually fall. It would fall because it manifested the old way of ordering human life through sacrifice, and Jesus’ death would dismantle it by exposing the true nature of its violence. Examples of ordering human life through sacrifice include stoning a woman caught in adultery, picking on the class weakling, throwing a gay university lecturer into the River Torrens to drown. This violence was the means by which groups of people reinforced who they were – “we are not like that person or group of people. They are ‘bad’, they are not one of us, and by sacrificing them, we prove we are different and thus restore goodness to our community”. But really this is nothing more than ganging up on others to sure up your sense of who you are. That’s why Jesus was killed. His crucifixion therefore exposes this accepted means of ordering society as the strong dominating the weak. The more conscious of that we become, and the more we refuse to accept it’s the way things are meant to be, the more we free ourselves from it.
As ways of sacrificing others becomes increasingly rejected (or dismantled, like the temple of Jesus’ day), unless people relate to each one another in love and with justice, other forms of violence will emerge as means by which to maintain order, to take their place. For example, Jesus speaks of ‘nation rising against nation’, indicating that as sacrifice within the community no longer works, the need to establish who we are and where everyone fits, will be directed outwards to larger groups (such as nations) who are different. People will define who they are by making other races, or religions, or refugees, the enemy.
In all this, Jesus says, we must be careful who we follow, because people will arise who claim to have the answers to our problems, but who are, in fact, part of the problem. They may actually make
tensions between people worse. The danger of these people is that they just offer a new way of
dealing with difference through violence. Jesus says don’t follow them.
We live in in-between times, between when sacrificing others provided the means of establishing who we were, and when we no longer live in rivalry with one another. That is the future, but it is also breaking into the present, and is doing so through us, and others. That is how God is changing the world. And integral to that coming about, is the endurance Jesus speaks about. That is how we shall gain our souls; that is how humanity will gain its soul.
Endurance is not being controlled by what is happening, not letting it determine your world. How do we do that? Well, we have no control over much of what occurs in the world, but we do have influence over how we respond. We have a say and can influence the conversation at an office farewell, at committee meetings, over a drink with a friend. We can refuse to use violence as a means to sort things out, and as a means to establish who we are. In this way, we are the channels through which this future kingdom breaks into the world and begins to transform it.
Christ has died – yes humanity has embraced death to create order, but God raised Christ to life. Everything hangs on that – the future hangs on that. And the future is hopeful – Christ will come again. There will be a new humanity. God has promised to bring that about and will do so, as we live it out. We live in and are subject to the ‘kingdoms’ of this world, but we don’t believe in them. We believe in the Kingdom of God and the more we live it, the more we can believe in it, but it won’t come without a fight from those with much to lose, so we and all who work for this better world, may suffer as it comes into being through us, but that suffering will be for something good.