Living with the Saints
A sermon on Luke 6:20-31 & Ephesians 1:11-23 by Nathan Nettleton, 1 November 1998
The values Christ calls us to live by can (for most people) only be lived in community with the saints, past and present.
I was talking to Sal the other day about the teaching shes doing at the moment at Northcote Secondary College. Among other things shes teaching social history to year eights, and she said, the trouble is, most of these kids couldnt care less what happened yesterday, let alone what happened in the middle ages.
I remember Rowly Croucher saying one time that the trouble with a lot of preaching these days is that people dont actually come to church eagerly wanting to find out what happened to the Amalekites! Now I hope Im right in thinking of myself as someone who usually manages to find ways of bringing the message of scripture to light without needing you to absorb detailed analysis of the social customs of ancient cultures, but it is certainly true that much of what we do as a church connects us to some very ancient traditions and our experience will be much the poorer if we lack any understanding of those traditions.
All Saints Day is clearly one of the days in the church calender that invites us to do some of that, to remind ourselves of those who have gone before us in the faith, those whose legacy we have inherited and whose memories we treasure. But having said that, Im not going to do it today! Remembering individual faithful people and celebrating their stories is an entirely appropriate thing to do on All Saints Day, but it is not the whole of what it is about. And what Im wanting us to tackle this morning is some questions which will probably help us to see why tapping into those memories is important, but which are important questions regardless and perhaps are particularly important for us at this stage of our life together in this church.
In the gospel reading we just read we heard some of the Bibles toughest descriptions of Christian living. Its part of whats known in the gospel of Luke as the sermon on the plain. The similar sermon on the mount in Matthew is better known, but this version in Luke is even more brutally blunt and demanding. Both accounts start with whats known as the beatitudes: Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, you who weep and mourn, you who are persecuted. But Lukes version rams the point home far more forcefully by following it up with the opposites: Woe to you who are rich now, woe to you who are well fed now, you who laugh now, you who are applauded and commended. Youve had your rewards.
Both versions then follow with a series of instructions for how to live Christianly. They are if you like, Jesus manifesto for Christian lifestyle. Actually they are whether you like it or not.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Matthew goes into more detail, but Lukes economy of words probably leaves the words cutting even more sharply and deeply.
And they really do cut sharp and deep. I mean what do you do with this stuff? If you stand outside Flinders Street Station and give to everybody who begs from you, in half and hour you dont even have your train fare home. Before some attackers, if you keep turning the other cheek, theyll shortly be calling the ambulance to rush you to hospital with multiple compound fractures of the skull. And if you say nothing when someone takes away your goods, the next night they come back and take away your neighbours goods.
Surely Jesus is not really calling us each to be naive and easily exploited doormats for everybody else to wipe their feet on? Well maybe not, but you can be quite certain that he didnt mean for us to just ignore these words because they were too hard either. So how on earth are we supposed to live in ways that take these words seriously, in ways that are more in line with the values system revealed in Jesus Christ?
Well, Im afraid I cant tell you all the answers to those questions. One thing I have learned is that the answers to questions like that dont come ready packaged for easy consumption, they unfold along the way as we tackle the journey together.
But there are a few starting points I can talk about. Perhaps the most important is to do with a quirk of the English language that conceals something vitally important about these words. Somewhere in the evolution of the language we lost the ability to distinguish between the second person singular and the second person plural. That is, the word you sounds exactly the same as the word you even though they mean something quite different. You means you sitting there in that chair, while you means you sitting over there in those chairs. If I say to Helene, I want you to lift the piano of the floor, I think shes going to struggle, but if I say to all of you here, I want you to lift the piano of the floor, I dont think youll have much trouble at all.
But when we read in Luke that Jesus said, I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, how do we know which you it is. Well in the English translation we cant tell, but fortunately in the old Greek manuscripts from which our scriptures come, you can tell, and its plural. I believe the Americans of the south have revived the distinction in their version of English with the word yall so it would read, I say to yall that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate yall. In some places youse is gaining usage too. Youll remember the Aussie boxer, Jeff Feneck, who used to say I love youse all. That would make it I say to youse that listen, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate youse. Now I dont want to make the case for adopting Jeff Feneck-speak, but I do want us to note what a difference the distinction makes in passages like this one.
I dont know anybody who I reckon could live this stuff out for long on their own. Being hated and cursed and abused and continuing to turn the other cheek takes its toll on you, even if none of it is physical attack. It saps your spirits and robs you of joy and hope. If youre on your own and thats all you ever cop, you will eventually be crushed and destroyed by it. If you live by these words on your own, theyre a recipe for self destruction. But they were not written to you on your own.
They were written to us as a community of people called to live this way together. You can cope with a lot more cursing and still keep blessing if your getting a lot of blessings to counteract the cursing by a group of supportive and loving sisters and brothers around you. You can turn the other cheek far more times if there are people standing with you wiping your cheek and massaging your shoulders and stepping in front of you to cop the next blow. You can give away your shirt and coat without freezing to death if there is always a group standing with you who will wrap you in a blanket and find you another coat. And apart from anything else, people are much less likely to keep abusing you when youre not alone.
Now what were talking about when we start talking about trying to live like this is a radically different culture to the mainstream culture around us. Were talking about living by a whole new value system. Were talking about seeking to create a community of people sufficiently interconnected with one another that they can support and nurture and encourage one another in living prayerfully and generously and hospitably even in the face of hatred and exploitation and abuse. And I for one dont reckon weve got a snowflakes hope in hell of achieving that over a half hour coffee after church once a week.
I mean think about for a moment. Tim spends four days a week faced with desperate and often manipulative people begging for this that and the other thing from him and then abusing him when he cant give it all. Mike spends his working days seeking to treat disturbed and often abusive people with the care and respect that wed all like to be treated with. Jill struggles to keep her head above water in an organization that keeps demanding more and more work from less and less people and all the time she finds it a fight to keep believing in herself when she keeps getting knocked back for the sort of job she wants and is trained for. Visier lives every day with the memories of friends and relatives gunned down in a civil war and in some cases he knows who the killers were. I could keep going right round the room.
If were fair dinkum about following Jesus Christ and we expect to see these people continuing to grow in mercy, generosity and love, then we had better find new ways together of sustaining among us that level of cultural non-conformity.
Think for a moment about how the various ethnic communities in this country maintain their distinctive cultures while living in the midst of anglo-Aussie culture. They manage it only by creating strong sub-cultures with distinctive features and spending enough time together to affirm each other in their desires to maintain their ways against the pressures around them to give up and just assimilate.
When you look at the ethnic churches, they are perhaps the churches that have most seriously faced the need to provide ways to support their people in maintaining values and lifestyles that are different from the surrounding culture. And when you look at their approach, whether you look at the Ethiopian church round the corner, or the Indonesian church that uses our hall on Saturday afternoons, or the Chinese Evangelical Church at St Aubans up in Wynnstay Road, you will find that the most obvious difference between their approach and ours is that they get together and stay together for most of the day. And I dont know if that is the approach we should take or not, but I am convinced that if we are to take these words of Jesus seriously we need to find ways of sustaining each other in radically different lifestyle and values system just like those churches are.
We will only make it with the mutual support of our sisters and brothers. In our Wednesday evening Eucharist, at one point we say that we are praying together with all the saints before us and beside us. And thats what it is about. Thats what this All Saints Day is about. Recognizing that were not in this alone, and that if we were wed never make it. Recognizing that if were going to live by the values that Jesus calls us to live by, were going to be absolutely dependent not only on God but on these saints sitting around us this morning, and not just on them but on all the saints who have sought to faithfully follow Jesus in various places down through the ages.
If we want to resist the seductive power of the hypnotic but hard-hearted world around us and want instead to follow Jesus we must do it in company, the company of those living among us now and the company of those who have gone on ahead and whose life is in God. We must cherish and draw on their wisdom, their encouragement, their prayers, their memory. We must take the time to hear one anothers stories, and to listen together to the stories of those whove gone before us. We must find ways of developing a closeness that will enable us to know and sense whats going on in one anothers lives so that we can adequately support, nurture and encourage one another. And above all else we must spend time together gathering around this table, the place where most clearly our prayers and praises unite with the prayers and praises of the whole communion of saints across the world and across the ages and with the whole creation in honour of the one God who holds us together in one body - the fullness of Christ who fills all in all. Amen.