It All Back To Front
A sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-3 & John 2:1-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 14 January 2007
Recognising Jesus as Lord requires such a reversal of conventional values that it cannot but dangerously transform us.
One of the questions that plagues many people in our churches is, "How do you know if you have really put your life under the control of the Holy Spirit?" "How can you be sure that the Spirit of Jesus Christ has really become a force in your life? How can you be sure that you are not just kidding yourself?"
Many of us who have grown up in evangelical churches have been taught a rather shallow answer to this question based on one of the scripture readings we heard today. Going with a more familiar translation than the one we just heard, Paul says to the church in Corinth, "I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Let Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." This verse has often been taken to say that you can tell whether or not the Holy Spirit is in your life by what words about Jesus come out of your mouth, and then we've run it backwards to convince ourselves that the Holy Spirit is in our lives by saying the right thing an awful lot. Most of us in the churches wouldn't think of saying, "Jesus be cursed" , anyway, so we were half way there, and then we've set about saying, or singing, "Jesus is Lord" ad nauseam until we were absolutely sure that there was no possible chance we hadn't said it enough to be evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. The trouble is, as Jesus said, the devil himself can quote scripture, so how can simply getting our voice boxes to construct the right sequence of syllables be the evidence required? Surely it is getting it all back to front. It suggests that "Jesus is Lord" is some kind of magic incantation that manipulates the Holy Spirit into taking up residence where we say. But if that's all back to front, how else are we to understand these words from the Apostle, and how else are we to answer our question?
To get our heads around what Paul is saying here, we need to begin be recognising how counter-intuitive, how back to front, these two contrasting statements are. Looked at through the eyes of conventional wisdom, "Jesus be cursed" makes a lot more sense than "Jesus is Lord." To say "Jesus be cursed" is almost a statement of the obvious, a simple taking sides with common sense. Jesus had to be got rid of for the safety of everyone else. "Better that one man die than that the whole nation be put at risk," reasoned the authorities as they decided what to do about him. String him up. "Cursed is the one who is hung on a tree" said the scriptures. Cursed is Jesus then. And no wonder. He was clearly a trouble maker; a threat to national security, common decency, and law and order.
It wouldn't be any different today. In these days of the so-called war on terror, what are we to do with an influential preacher who advocates loving our enemies. That means loving Osama Bin Laden; loving Sadam Hussein; loving Abu Bakar Bashir. These people have been responsible for thousands of deaths and have been openly incited their followers to kill and destroy us. How can anyone in their right mind advocate loving our enemies? Are we to love Sheik al-Hilali who last week publicly said that anglo-saxon Australians are mostly dishonest and that we are denying Muslims basic freedoms in this country? How are we to love him? Surely it makes more sense to do as several government ministers have done and tell him that if he doesn't like it here he should piss off and live someplace else. Surely it makes more sense to do as several newspapers have done and call for him to be sacked from his position as Mufti. Or even, as one friend of mine seriously suggested, to have ASIO or someone kill him and make sure it looks like an accident, before his attempts to incite hatred and violence bear any more fruit. Surely it makes absolutely no sense to love him, to seek the best for him, to advocate that we respond to him with grace and generosity and compassion? Surely anyone who advocates such love is a friend of terrorists and collaborator with anti-Australian elements. Surely anyone who advocates such love must be spoken out against, ridiculed, sanctioned, cursed. It is just common sense. How is the community supposed to protect itself against these threats if you've got influential lunatics running around advocating that we love them and treat them as well as we would hope to be treated ourselves? A curse upon them! It's only natural. Isn't it?
Maybe the reason we don't find it natural to say "Jesus be cursed" is that Jesus has been reduced to some kind of culturally acceptable slogan, and the real Jesus with his difficult prickly words that undermine our national interests has been kept far from view. And maybe the Jesus who we so glibly proclaim to be Lord is not the real Jesus either. For to declare that the real Jesus is Lord is also patently ridiculous. The real Jesus is an executed political prisoner. The real Jesus was recognised as a trouble maker by both Jewish and Roman, religious and imperial, authorities. He was arrested and tried, and no one came to his aid or spoke in his defence. He was clearly powerless to do anything to stop the torture and death he was subjected to, and he apparently remains equally powerless to do anything to stop the similar atrocities that are inflicted on other powerless people every day in far too many places on earth. On all the big ticket issues of ecological crisis, global poverty, and escalating terror and war, Jesus seems to have little or no influence at all. What on earth are we doing calling him "Lord" ? Clearly anyone who does so has got it all back to front. It makes no sense at all.
Now when you put it like that, it throws a different complexion over what the Apostle Paul was saying. He is not so much concerned about whether or not you can say certain words like a magic formula, but whether you look at this dismissed and executed teacher, and the strange culture he advocated, and find yourself agreeing with those who wrote him off and called for the death penalty, or find yourself going, "Yeah, I reckon he was onto something, and I want to follow his lead." Only the Holy Spirit, says Paul, could be responsible for a change like that.
Now the bad news is, that if we are looking for some kind of security of salvation in that, then it is not going to give much hope. All of us are products of our culture, and all of us frequently find ourselves reacting in unison with the world around us, abandoning love and calling for someone to be made to pay for what is going on. You can bet your life that over the coming weeks and months, Australian society will seek to strengthen its sense of unity and identity by turning on Sheik al-Hilali, and most of us will find ourselves powerfully attracted to joining in that game of hate. But Paul is telling us that a culture of scapegoating, a culture of cursing someone else to secure ourselves, is not a product of the Holy Spirit. It is in fact the culture that cursed and lynched Jesus. If we are instead to declare that "Jesus is Lord" , we will do so by siding with the victim, and that's very hard to do when the victim is busy cursing us! So the immediate evidence is likely to suggest that there is at least as much worldly culture as Holy Spirit directing our words and actions.
But the good news is that God's willingness to love and accept and save us is not dependant on how successfully we have allowed the Spirit to transform us. The good news is that this crucified Lord even prayed for the forgiveness of those who hammered the nails into his flesh, and if he can forgive them, then forgiving you will be a piece of cake. You cannot fail so badly or drift so far off course that Jesus will be unwilling to forgive and accept and transform you. The only thing that can put your salvation at risk is the danger of you slapping it back in his face when it is offered, but even then he will continue to offer it.
But how then are we to become people who are so gripped by the Holy Spirit that we respond as Jesus would respond, and recognise in his way of grace and humility before hatred and violence the key to the liberation of the world from its imprisonment to terror and oppression? The answer is deceptively simple, and it starts right here at this table. The answer comes in surrendering ourselves, in offering ourselves to this crucified Lord to be transformed. For transforming us is not actually our job. We wouldn't know where to start. In no time at all, we would run out of the new wine, and be left serving weak water - the old stuff by which we sought to keep ourselves clean but which never had the power to change us or bring life to the party. The only one who can work this transformation in us, who can change the water into wine, is Jesus himself.
So we gather here at this table, offering bread and water and ourselves, and calling upon Jesus to send his Holy Spirit to transform all things, to pour out the new wine that will intoxicate us with his wild and reckless love, and make us his body, ready to go into the world and offer ourselves as the embodiment of this crazy new way of loving enemies and absorbing the hatred and hostility that is aroused by such foolishness, so that the world might see its own bitterness and be set free from its hostility. And even here, in the apparent foolishness and vulnerability of our stand, we will taste the first fruits of the coming joy, and find ourselves glimpsing the new day when Christ will spread the banquet before all the earth and pour out the new wine with reckless abandon as the whole earth erupts in joyous celebration and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess - all back to front though it may be - that Jesus Christ is Lord!