Epiphany 3 (26-01-2020)

Angels Among Us   

Read Psalm 27 and Matthew 4:12-23

“They are but men.”  (Ps.9:20).   “They are equal to angels.” (Lk.20:36)

There is a mythical story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven.  As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift  that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back.  She brought back many gifts: drops of blood from a dying patriot; some coins a destitute widow had given to the poor; dust from the shoes of a missionary labouring in a remote wasteland.  But she was turned back repeatedly.

One day she saw a small boy playing by a town fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence.  Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realised what he had done with his life.  And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks.  The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love.

For many people, the call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church, yet one that is often used in the wrong way.  In Jesus’ mouth, the call to repent is usually an invitation to all; an invitation to life.  Unfortunately, the word, today, tends to be wielded by the self-righteous, and addressed to people to whom they give the label,’sinner.’  When Jesus does use ‘repent’ in this way, i.e. not as an invitation, it is most often directed towards the religious people of his day; and presumably would be directed similarly today. 

Likewise, the conversion experience of Paul was not to turn away from a life of so-called ‘sin’ to living a life of everlasting moral purity. It was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion. So the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness.

When we fail to hear this, and fail to communicate this call to others, the world hears the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying: “Become good and religious like us…” when, if anything, it should be heard as the opposite of this: “Be accepting of others and also of yourselves…”

The call to repent then is not to say we are not measuring up to the standards ‘others’ or ‘God’ expects of us.  It is a call to be accepting of other people, in their faith or their lack of faith.

The call to repent is not to write people off because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms, or live the same sort of life we try to do.

The call to repent is a call to respect all people. For there is, in fact, much goodness in all sorts of people: in religious and non-religious people; in Christians, Jews, Muslims and  all sorts of faith.

It seems to me that this understanding of repentance sheds quite a different light on the role of the church than the one that with which many of us have grown up.  You may remember a TV series called “The Sea of Faith.”  In the first program English theologian Don Cupitt said this:

“Religion [is] a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last.  It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”.

A different approach seems to be offered in a Michael Leunig prayer that was written for the commencement of 2008.  It is called “We shall be careful”:

We pray for the fragile ecology of the heart and the mind.  The sense of meaning so finely assembled and balanced and so easily overturned.  The careful, ongoing construction of LOVE.

As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth, and as easily abandoned.

Hard fought and won are the shifting sands of this sacred ground, this ecology.

Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend, this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith, this precious order.  This sanity.

We shall be careful. With others and with ourselves. Amen.

This is the enterprise of the church.  You, with the help of your fellow members of the Ocean Grove/Barwon Heads congregation strive, in the words of Michael Leunig, “to be careful with others and with yourselves, “ and in the words of Don Cupitt, “to affirm the value of human life…to affirm human dignity in the face of an indifferent universe.”   

As we all wonder how best to carry out this work of the church, and as you properly feel the weight of responsibility for ministry in this grand endeavour, let us listen to scripture.  The first verse to which I would like to point comes from the last verse in Psalm 9  “They are but men!”  ‘Of course,’ you say, ‘this is the problem.’ How can we, mere mortals, make a difference in this world, or even in this community. We ‘are but men’ (and women).  However, in Psalm 9, this reference is to those who are the enemies of God.  The ones who stand in the way of our calling are but men, mere human beings.

The second “they are” statement, from Luke’s gospel, pertains to the followers of the Way of Jesus: “they are equal to angels and are sons (and daughters) of God.”   It is hard to define what this means in worldly terms, yet the sons and daughters of God play out their role in the world.

It is easy to be confused if we try to identify God’s special people – God’s children – in terms of exalted positions in human terms.  As you well know, Jesus had a way of overturning our usual perceptions and values.  In his eyes, the first in the world would be last into God’s kingdom, and the last would be first.   We may wonder what qualities define those who are “equal to angels,” for they are the ones we look to lead the church as it goes about its business of making saints.   

Who are those, of whom it may be said, are “equal to angels”?   Certainly not the superstars whom the masses idolise, nor celebrities nor even the TV evangelists.  As Henri Nouwen says, “Keep your eyes on the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights or rule with great power.  Keep your eyes on the one who says, “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers.  Keep your eyes on the one who is poor with the poor, weak with the weak and rejected with the rejected.” In other words keep your eyes on the servant, not the star.

We can get equally confused if we equate angelic qualities with moral or spiritual perfection.  A couple of humorous examples may help make the point.  An adult group leader, who was trying to lead her group into a discussion of the biblical concept of sainthood, asked:  “Does anyone here know a saint?”  No one responded until a little man stood and said, “Well, I didn’t know him, but I’ve heard of him.”  The leader asked who it was, and the man replied, “My wife’s first husband.”

A similar concept of the saint comes from the comic strip “Peanuts.”  Lucy told Charlie Brown, “I have examined my life and found it to be without a flaw.  Therefore, I am going to hold a ceremony and present myself with a medal.  I will then give a moving acceptance speech.  After that, I’ll greet myself in the receiving line.”  Then she concludes, with a sad sigh, “When you’re a saint, you have to do everything yourself.”

Christians are not perfect.  Not even saints are perfect.  And since the Bible equates us with angels, I suppose even angels are not perfect.   And just in case I am ever tempted to get carried away by my own importance and station as minister, I remember a poster I once saw.  It read: “If all preachers and all rubbish collectors died at once, which would you miss first.”

We are, with all due respect, not perfect or even close to it.  But we are pointed in the right direction.  We are people who have found the right road, we are here, and with God’s help, we are seeking to pursue the higher path. And each of us has been equipped with the particular gifts and talents to help someone else along the way. Together we become the people of God, and together we create the reign of God.

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