Sunday, 23 April 2017

From the Upper Room to Pentecost

Some years ago, Mel Gibson made a film called The Passion of Christ.  It spared nothing of the blood, guts and cruelty of the torture and death of Jesus in his last hours.

But of course that’s only one meaning of passion.  Jesus’s real passion was for the truth, love, peace and justice that characterise the Kingdom of God, a passion so great that he was willing to suffer death, even death on the cross rather than compromise the message.

And at the point of confronting earthly power with the truth, all his followers ran away.  James and John who had wanted the seats on either side of the throne.  Even Peter whose passionate declaration that Jesus was the Messiah proved to be fragile under pressure.

It’s easy to be passionate when you think you are on the winning side, rather harder when the chips are down.

The twelve apostles had two problems, their passion was fragile and they lacked imagination.

And in this they were no different to the other religious people of their time.  As a downtrodden people paying tithes to the landowners, taxes to the temple and taxes to the Romans, under the yoke of a cruel oppressor and only one accident away from the debtors prison, they yearned for change but the only route to change of which they could conceive was of a Messiah who rode at the head of a revolution which put the oppressors to flight.

Riding into town on a donkey, may have faithfully reflected the biblical prophecy of Malachi but it didn’t really cut it when the Roman Army was tramping up the other side of the hill to ensure order at the festival.

The apostles listened to Jesus’s parables, realised he was something different but couldn’t quite imagine the Kingdom of God he talked about.

And this why they locked themselves in the Upper Room, fearful that their Galilean accents might betray that they are Jesus’s followers. 

Let’s remember that Jesus spent his ministry teaching amongst a God-fearing people, a people that knew their scriptures, their foundation stories were steadfast in their Jewish faith and attended synagogue regularly.

Some of them were so zealous in their faith that they took pride in ensuring every minor point of the law was interpreted to the last detail and followed.  We know them as the Pharisees.

The problem, as Jesus pointed out to them on many occasions was not God’s law, but the fact that they interpreted it and lived it without love.  He told them wonderful parables about the Kingdom of God to show how it should be.

The Upper Room was not just a physical place in Jerusalem but it was, and is, a place in people’s minds.  For all the prophesies, for all the parables, the apostles could just not imagine what a world run and lived in accordance with God’s love would look like.

We too are faithful people.  We attend church regularly.  Most of us are kind, decent, polite and believe in fair play and social order and we believe these to be God’s way. We give modest amounts to charity and contribute to the food bank.  We have transposed our quintessential British values onto our faith and made them our faith.

But this is not the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim.

Do our young people have visions and our old people dream dreams of what a revolutionary, radical world lived according to God’s values of truth, love, peace and justice might look like?

Can we dream as Martin Luther King did when he proclaimed, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

What would equal mean?

Would it mean the list of sterile tick boxes you have to fill in every time you fill in an official form or job application?

Would it mean working out how the wealth of the nation is better shared among its citizens?

Is it enough to treat decently just the people we know or should we be concerned about those people we don’t know?

What does treating people equally mean when those fleeing from war are turned away at our borders, even when they are children?

Jesus told us that the whole of the Law could be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbour.  Our country would ensure the Good Samaritan didn’t even get in the country to upset us with his revolutionary love.

Can we really dream of what a world where people were treated equally would look like?

I’m sure that everyone here tells the truth but are you willing to speak truth to power.  Have you even written to your MP to ask why, in sixth richest nation in the world, we need food banks or to the county councillor to ask why we have increasing numbers of people sleeping on our streets?

Can we have a vision of what our country would look like if poverty were eliminated and what sacrifices we would be willing to make to ensure that happens?

When Pilate worried whether Jesus was claiming to be a king, Jesus said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Is keeping the law sufficient for there to be justice?  What about the prisoners of conscience that Amnesty International works to support?

Or the campaigns to protect our environment?  Are we for the quiet life or should we be doing more to ensure that there is a world fit for our grandchildren to inherit?

Can we imagine what a society where we respected God’s creation might look like and what changes in our lifestyle that might mean?

Is peace just an absence of conflict and good social order?  How do we feel about our nation being one of the biggest arms exporters in the world?

Can we dream, as those who founded the United Nations in 1945 did, of a world at peace where our differences are settled in conference chamber?  Are we willing to be poorer as a consequence of the reduced arms sales?

Over the next few weeks, we will bombarded in the media and through the letter box by politicians selling their wares in a general election which I suspect few of us wanted and in which most of us will vote without great enthusiasm.

But it gives us the chance to speak truth to power.

If we Christians were to dare to be passionate and live and voice the revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ, to have visions and to dream dreams, to imagine what a world would look like coloured with God’s values, we might just change the world. 

We would be changed from Upper Room Christians to Pentecost Christians.

Does that scare you or enthuse you?