Christianity on Trial
A sermon by Frank Rees
(Professor of Systematic Theology and Theological Dean of Whitley College)
18 November 2001. Texts: Isaiah 65: 17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5-19.

When I listen to these readings, as I have tried to do over this last en days or so, I find a strong sense of jarring between them. Despite a little admonition from Nathan that I should not expect a thematic unity within the readings, I want in fact to attend to this sense of things being dissonant.

Do you remember the reading from Isaiah, with it’s announcement of a joyous, peaceful utopia, in which cities will be renewed, people of 100 years will be considered young, and the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and nothing can hurt our children?

And then do you remember the words of Jesus about wars and famines, about families turned against each other, and dreadful portents in the skies?

This all fills me with a deep sense of alienation. How can I hold together the hopefulness of the prophet and the apocalyptic horror of the preacher from Galilee?

The prophet speaks of hope and happiness, while Jesus speaks of horror, destruction, trials, abandonment?

This sense of jarring, of things being not right, it doesn’t fit: this is spiritually significant for us. It fits immediately with how so many Christians feel in Australia, and indeed around the world right now.

We have just re-elected a government, rewarding it for its meanness, its refusal to bend with compassion and its willingness to support the bombing of innocent people in a desperately poor country.

I feel profoundly alienated from these ideas which are said to be supported by a huge majority of our people.

I feel appalled at the ignorance and racism, and wanton manipulation of peoples’ fears, in the media, and by our leaders.

And I feel ashamed that the churches have been silent, or seem to have done so little to counter these movements, or shown another way.

The sense of jarring between the texts fits with my sense of not belonging in this country, or not knowing how to be, what to do, and even how to pray.

I’d like to suggest to you that the words of Jesus fit well with our situation: I mean especially the image of being on trial. Jesus uses the image, derived from the book of Isaiah, of the people being on trial. We are on trial:

Christians are on trial before the court of public opinion, and the questions put to us are something like these:

Have you any bread for the hungry?—a question Jesus asked the disciples, when the crowd was in need, and the disciples thought they had nothing to give them and no money to buy bread. What will we offer to the hungry? — bread, or a stone?

Is there no balm in Gilead, to heal the troubled soul? This is a question God asks a people who should know that there is, but they have been looking elsewhere, and now find they do not know where to find healing? And for us, in a time when people are desperate for wholeness, in a myriad of ways, do we have anything to offer for their broken lives and troubled souls?

And another challenge to us, in the court of public opinion, is the question coming in a piercing whisper from the empty tomb: Why do you seek the living among the dead? Why do we look always to the past, for a pathway for the future, as if we will find life, and God, only through the rear-view mirror?

We are on trial: and indeed not only before the courts of public opinion, but Isaiah has it we are on trial before the Lord:

Do you not know, have you not heard? – the Lord asks. Don’t you have enough stories, enough reason to know that God is not dead, that God is not absent, that God is not lost somewhere in the past: Have you not known the living one? the present and active one?

So, in the words of Jesus, who do you say I am?

Who do you say I am?

When you are hauled before the courts, Jesus says, it will be no use trotting out the prepared answers. They won’t work.

Don’t seek the living among the dead.

Don’t trust the broken cisterns, to find fresh water of life.

No, in this jarring, alienating trial period, we are called to stand here and trust the Spirit of a living God.

Jesus says: ‘This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.’

I believe that we, the church, are on trial, here and now, in the ways I have described.

I think that none of the old answers will work.

We are called upon to trust the Spirit: trust the Spirit, for truth that will prevail. Trust the Spirit for the courage to endure. Trust the Spirit, for it is in this way, amidst the jarring and alienation of our situation, that we may gain our souls.

I don’t know what this means, in detail, for you, or me, but I invite you now to commit yourself, not to any of the prepared answers, but to the way in which the Spirit will bring peace, justice, and healing for our souls.