Sunday 16 • 23 Jul 2017

Genesis 28:10-19a
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30

Rev. Chris Udy

The world is an imperfect place –
and the Church shares
in its imperfection.
This week Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson
released a report they’ve been working on
for the last 12 months.
Julia Baird is a Christian.
She was, and I think still is
an active member of the Anglican Church.
When she was asked
how she found the calm and peace
to face surgery for cancer
she wrote: “In the days before the operation,
I turned off my phone and shut my computer.
I prayed so hard I grew unnaturally calm.
I felt like a flower shutting in on itself, bracing, preparing for the night,
closing to a quiet stillness.”

Her writing reveals a deep spirituality,
and a respect and understanding of the Bible,
and she enjoys the friendship and confidence
of leaders within many Christian communities.
The report she released with Hayley Gleeson
summarised research over the last 20 years
revealing that the men
most likely to abuse their wives
are evangelical Christians
who attend Church sporadically.
These men justify their violence
using verses from the Bible
and doctrines from the Church
that they say give them authority,
or ‘headship’ over their wives and families,
and they argue that their headship
gives them the right to demand obedience
and to exercise control.
The report also details the experience
of many women, who,
when they approached the Church
for support and protection,
were told that they needed to stay,
and submit, and forgive their abusers,
instead of being encouraged into safety.
It’s a profoundly sad, and shameful,
and difficult report to read –
but it’s also vitally important for us to hear it,
and it’s frightening, and doubly shameful,
that the first response of some parts of the Church
and from commentators in the Murdoch press
was to attack the female writers of the report
and to defend the doctrine of male headship.

The world’s an imperfect place,
and the Church shares its imperfection -
but after the Royal Commission into child abuse,
and decades of authoritarian repression,
and centuries of sectarian violence
most of us have been aware of that for years,
if not generations.
There’s never been a time
when the world and the Church
weren’t living with conflict and change;
the question is whether the changes we see
are leading to strength or to sickness:
is the imperfection we experience
a sign of essential corruption,
or is it the necessary mess
that comes with construction?

Last week we spent some time
reflecting on Paul’s letter
to the Christian community in Rome.
We thought about his struggles,
both internal – his spiritual and emotional turmoil -
and external – his political and intellectual battles.
We noted that the letter was written
around AD 57,
after nearly 30 years of preaching, teaching,
travel, argument and division,
and that in the letter Paul sets out
the grounding elements of his faith.

The world is imperfect -
and its imperfections
are also reflected in us, Paul says.
Whoever we are, whatever our faith - or lack of it -
we’re all hobbled by failure -
either faults of our own, or the weakness of others.
“All have sinned” Paul writes,
and all “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
Law and regulation
can help us diagnose our problems, Paul goes on,
and the Law can set out penalties for failure -
but Law can’t save us;
law can’t heal our illness
or fix our mistakes
or pick us up when others let us down.
Nor can we do everything for ourselves;
whether we like it or not,
we are utterly dependent on others,
and even if we, ourselves,
could always and in everything get it right -
the imperfections of others will cause us harm.

So what can we do?
And what hope is there?
And how can we find healing and salvation?

The world’s an imperfect place,
and its imperfections are reflected in us -
but are these imperfections
a sign of perfection forever lost -
have we been falling from Eden forever,
and will everything end up in ashes and dust -
or are we still on the way
to God’s hope and God’s plan?
Are we looking for perfection yet to come?

Paul’s a complex and conflicted man.
He rarely makes things simple
and clear and straightforward.
It was Paul who wrote most of the verses
used to justify the doctrine of male headship.
He writes things about women
and sexuality and slavery
in words that most of us think
are relics and shadows
of his culture and his age -
most of us wish he’d left those words unwritten.
But Paul is who he is,
and his letters are now Scripture,
and the verses being used to abuse
are printed in our Bible.
The world’s imperfections
are obvious on every Bible page,
but being included in Scripture
means we read Paul’s letters
with serious care and respect,
and, even if only because
there are some who will use them for harm,
we need to wrestle with them
and come to an understanding
of what they mean,
both for Paul and his community,
and also – but differently – for ours.

One thing we must absolutely affirm
is that Paul did not write his words
to be bound into a Bible or to be understood as law;
he certainly did not intend them
to add to the world’s distress.
When we read Paul’s letters
thoughtfully and with care
it becomes entirely clear that Paul
is an irrepressibly hopeful person
who understood his work as leading to healing.
Even after nearly 30 years
of suffering, himself,
opposition and hardship and abuse,
and also, most scholars think,
constant problems with a disabling illness,
Paul is steadfastly - almost relentlessly -
positive, and courageous, and inclusive,
and he lives with undaunted energy and purpose.

So what is it that keeps Paul active and hopeful?
What is it that sustains him
through attacks from his opponents
and betrayal by his colleagues and his friends?
What keeps him travelling
by foot and on tiny boats from Jerusalem to Rome
and almost everywhere in between
around the eastern Mediterranean
doing all he can to build
communities of reconciliation?

Last week’s passage concluded:
“If the Spirit of him
who raised Jesus from the dead
dwells in you,
he who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also
through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Paul wasn’t among the Apostles in Jerusalem
on the day of Pentecost -
and he never explicitly describes
when or how the Spirit came to him
but at some point later in his life
he came to an understanding
that the Spirit of God - the Holy Spirit -
was active in his life,
and it was his experience of the Spirit
that gave him his resilience and confidence,
and let him live
with extraordinary energy and hope.

“So then, brothers and sisters,
we are debtors,” we read today;
“not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--
for if you live according to the flesh,
you will die;
but if by the Spirit
you put to death the deeds of the body,
you will live.”

Paul describes himself as a battleground
of moral and spiritual conflict.
He understood the battle
as between flesh and spirit.
Flesh, for Paul, included everything that perishes:
bodies, belongings,
institutions, authorities and powers
everything that draws its strength and substance
from a world that’s constantly passing away.
Spirit, for Paul, was everything
that comes as a gift from God
and is permanent and substantial,
and is leading us home
to God and God’s redemption.
The Spirit leads us to faith,
and as we trust and believe,
the Spirit grows in us as a new person -
a bit like a baby -
and, for Paul, it’s that new person -
that new consciousness, that new self -
that has already been raised with Christ
and will continue with him into glory.
“All who are led by the Spirit of God
are children of God.” Paul writes.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery
to fall back into fear,
but you have received a spirit of adoption.
When we cry, "Abba! Father!"
it is that very Spirit
bearing witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--
if, in fact, we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.”

It isn’t always easy to understand
where Paul’s ideas and images come from,
but we do know -
because Paul writes about it
in what’s now 2 Corinthians 12 -
we do know that at some point
Paul had an experience that transformed him.
He talks about being
“caught up to the third heaven” -
“caught up in the Spirit into paradise”,
where, he says,
he “heard things that are not to be told,
that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (2 Cor 12:3-4)
Some who’ve studied Paul
through his writings and his life
suggest it might have been part
of his conversion experience,
when he heard the voice of Jesus
and saw a light so bright that it left him blind -
but no-one can be sure.
What is very clear
is that Paul always said
he received his understanding of the Gospel
directly from Jesus -
and however that happened,
it left him with a confidence and assurance
that nothing could shake.
No matter what hardship he endured,
or opposition he faced,
Paul was absolutely sure
that he was a child of God,
and that the Spirit of God was alive in him.

And so he continues on
as we read from Romans today:
“I consider
that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing
with the glory about to be revealed to us.
For the creation waits
with eager longing
for the revelation of the children of God;
for the creation was subjected to futility,
not of its own will
but by the will of the one who subjected it,
in hope
that the creation itself
will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom
of the glory of the children of God.”

The world is an imperfect place -
and, for Paul, its imperfections and problems
are all the more difficult to deal with
because we hold on too tight
to things that are passing away.
There are things that are perishing;
things that temporary, transient,
never meant to last forever -
bodies are like that;
so are belongings, and positions,
status and power –
all those things that have their foundations
in a world of movement and change -
including, I’m sure Paul would say today,
damaging gender roles
and all kinds of abusive and violent power.
What we need to do, Paul tells us,
is let go of the world that is passing away,
is invest in the world that’s coming.
The world is under construction;
it’s imperfect because it’s not finished;
it’s moving and changing
because something better is coming.
“We know that the whole creation
has been groaning in labour pains
until now;” Paul says;
“and not only the creation,
but we ourselves,
who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly
while we wait for adoption,
the redemption of our bodies.”

Paul says our resurrection has already begun.
Something has been planted in us,
and is growing in us – in all of us, together -
something that will continue into life eternal.
It’s that part of us
that’s born of the Spirit of God;
it’s that part of us that reflects the life of Christ;
the part that lives by faith,
and in hope, and with love.

“For in hope we were saved.” Paul concludes -
were saved” - he writes -
this is something that has already happened.
“But hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.”

It isn’t always easy to be patient -
and sometimes the world’s imperfections
leave us daunted and overwhelmed -
sometimes we fear that everything we value -
everything that makes life rich and good -
is passing away -
but Paul would urge us to look forward,
not back to the past,
and to trust that what is to come
will more than compensate for what we’ve lost.
But don’t look for it in perishing things,
like bodies and possessions - Paul would say -
look for God’s glory and hope
in people and in movements
where the fruits of the Spirit grow:
where people live with love,
and joy, and peace,
with patience and kindness,
goodness and faithfulness,
gentleness, and gracious self-control.
That’s where the Spirit of God
is moving and growing.