Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reign of Christ

Does anybody know the Robert Frost poem that starts, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’?   It seems we human beings are a tribal lot – psychologists tell us our almost universal tendency to set up divisions between insiders and outsiders helps us to see the world as orderly and even safe.  If I work out that there’s two sorts of people in the world, and I’m one of the right sort, then that’s OK.  Well, this morning we hear about the ultimate distinction – you’re either a sheep or you’re a goat.

Maybe you’ve already noticed that there’s a connection between this passage and Jesus’ very first speech in Matthew – the beatitudes – because in both of them he makes some fundamental contrasts that turn the world’s priorities upside down – in both the beatitudes and today’s gospel Jesus tells us that the standard for salvation isn’t whether we’ve got the right set of beliefs, but whether or not we show mercy – whether or not we’re willing to cross the dividing line between the people the world approves of and the people the world disapproves of.  ‘Guess what?’, Jesus seems to be saying to us, ‘none of the divisions and none of the categories that the world thinks are important actually matter at all’ – so here’s the hint that if Jesus is a king, then he’s not your usual sort of king.  In fact if he’s a king at all, then this controversial rabbi who scandalises religious folk by the scruffy and questionable company he keeps – if he’s a king at all, then Jesus is the king of the beggars.

But there’s a contradiction in all this – the problems I had with last week’s readings are continuing, because right in the middle of demolishing the divisions of this world, Jesus seems to be setting up a new outsider group in the next world!  In this world you might be part of the ‘in’ crowd, but watch out, because on Judgement Day you’re going to be a goat and you’ll be ‘out’.  You’re ‘out’ now, but don’t worry, because later you’ll be a sheep and that’s good, because you’ll be ‘in’.  And I think that’s a problem because this passage seems to contribute a whole lot to the wonky image of God that I spoke about last week, the split personality image of God – on the surface a genial, Father Christmas character who really wants the best for us in a vague sort of way, but who deep down is really just waiting for us to make a wrong move so he can cast us out into eternal hellfire.  And whose demands, when it comes down to it, are the next best thing to impossible.  You know, that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s not so far removed from the sort of image that a lot of people have, and it does a lot of damage – for a start, when we have a picture of God as being judgemental and vengeful, then it’s hard to act towards other people in ways that are forgiving and loving.

You have to wonder, too, whether the Jesus who eats, not only with prostitutes and tax collectors, but with Pharisees as well – the Jesus who stands on the side of the woman caught in adultery – how good a prosecuting attorney is this guy really going to make!  Much more in character, I reckon, is the imaginative vision in the first letter of Peter of Jesus going to be with sinners in hell on Easter Saturday, in between dying on the cross and rising again, choosing to be with the very ones who have made the choice to close their hearts to God.  It’d be a problem for the sheep too, wouldn’t it – I mean, talk about do-gooders! – this lot have fed every hungry person they ever saw, given a couple of bucks to every down-and-out they ever came across, regularly visited the local hospital and the local jail, helped out at the local soup kitchen.  Now they’re expected to trot happily off to their eternal reward while the goats end up as kebabs?  I don’t think so – if the sheep are as selfless as all that they’d be all for solidarity – ‘we’ll go with them’ – and so, I believe, would Jesus the Good Shepherd.

I read a while ago about a group of elderly nuns, discussing this passage from Matthew’s gospel, and someone wanted to know how you could be sure whether you were on the right side.  So the person leading the discussion asked for a show of hands – maybe we might do it here, too [1]

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever done what Jesus asks at the beginning of this passage and fed a person who was hungry, or given clothing or blankets to a family in the cold months, or visited somebody in prison or hospital?  That’s great – you are all sheep.

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever walked past a homeless person and not offered help, or have known somebody in hospital or jail and not visited when you could have?  That’s not so good – you’re all goats.

And this is the whole point – every single one of us is a sheepish goat - or a goaty sheep – our goodness and our failures are all mixed up together so that it’s impossible to really untangle it, and that, I think, is part of what it means to be human.  We spend our time trying to divide the world into two kinds of people, trying to convince ourselves that we’re the right kind, when the reality is that the world doesn’t divide that easily, and the sheep and the goats both represent our own personal experience.  The reality is that it is we who are divided, and we both pass the test and fail it at the very same time.  What’s God going to do with that?

The key to all this, I think, is to fast-forward the story just a little bit – because in Matthew’s time-line we’re still on the wrong side of the cross, the pre-Easter side.  The key to understanding the king-ship of Christ is the cross.  Actually, this day in the church calendar that we call ‘ the Reign of Christ’ is a very recent tradition started by Pope Pius IX in 1925 as a protest against the arrogance of fascism, and a reminder that there is only one authority that really matters.  Yet what sort of kingship is it that doesn’t have any of the trappings of worldly authority or power, the sort of kingship that’s on the side of beggars and prostitutes, and ends up being executed as a common criminal?  Well, it’s an upside-down sort of kingship, but it’s also a kingship that’s based on a completely different view of what power is about.  In the world we live in, a less than perfect sort of peace is maintained by dividing the world into those who matter and those who don’t, between us and them, goodies and baddies – and power is exercised from the inside out – that is, to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in.  In Jesus, God shows what a different idea he has of power – you might call it relational power, the power to demolish the false divisions of the world by coming amongst us as an outsider, by giving himself up to the violence and the hatred of our competitive human power, at the very same time as loving and forgiving us.  Jesus’ sort of power is the power to reconcile what the world holds to be irreconcilable, the power to heal the false divisions within us and between us.  The kingship of Christ is the power to join together what we can’t join, to make the divided reality of human existence whole and complete.

So what if the story of the last judgement ends like this:

All the nations and all of history is gathered before him in that in-between and timeless space that’s neither life nor death, and the king asks which among them have seen him in the face of the homeless and the hungry and the condemned of this world – and with one voice they reply that yes, they have seen him there, they remember that when they most showed compassion that was where they found the Son of Man.  And so he places them all on his right hand.

And then the king asks which among them were sometimes too busy or too self-preoccupied or too afraid or in a hurry, or which among them didn’t want to get involved, and didn’t stop and look into the face of the Son of Man lying drunk on the footpath or sleeping rough at the railway station.  Which of you closed your hearts to me when it really mattered?  And they all say yes, that was them sometimes, too.  Sorry.  And so they shuffle over to the left hand side.  Some of them try to stand more or less in the middle.

Well, says the king, you know the score.  As much as you did this to the least of these little ones, you did it to me.  You were created with the freedom to choose, and what you’ve chosen is to turn away from what gives you life.  Over and over again, you’ve chosen death over life.  I have to accept the integrity of your choice.  I’m sorry.  But then the king steps down and joins them and says, ‘But if I really am king of the beggars, then clearly I belong with you lot.  Haven’t you worked it out yet, that nothing you can do will ever separate you from my love?  So I think I’ll hang about.  We’ve got as long as it takes.  Then, when you’re ready, we’ll rise together on Easter morning.’


[1] Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn, Good Goats: Healing our image of God, (1994, New York, Paulist Press).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Pentecost 27A

I’ve heard it said that the Church of the early 16th century – the Church that in a few years was going to be torn apart by the Protestant reformations – that as the new century dawned the Church was essentially a cult of the living in the service of the dead.  Saying mass for the souls of the dead was big business, in fact, literally business, because the economy of the Church also depended on the big sums of money that changed hands in exchange for a certain number of Masses to be said for the soul of a loved one.  The idea, more or less, was that each time somebody had Mass said for them that was a little bit of credit to their account, a little bit to balance out the difference between the bad they had done and the good they had done in their lives, a few years off Purgatory.  It was a cult of high anxiety that is maybe hard for us to fully comprehend - the next world loomed every bit as tangible but at the same time just as precarious as this world – to be fair, Europe had just emerged from a most horrible couple of centuries, beginning with the Black Death in the early 14th century, wars with a resurgent Islam to the East and the Inquisition.  For the illiterate and poor majority, it seemed, life was a short and desperate struggle to accumulate enough brownie points with God to see you safe after you died.

It was in this topsy-turvy world that a monk named Martin Luther had one of the revelations that happens every few centuries and turns the Church on its head.  You might think we’re about due for another one in our own, also fairly frightful, century.  But Luther, a diligent and ascetic monk who worried even more than everyone else whether he was going upstairs or downstairs, had a sudden flash of inspiration from reading and re-reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It isn’t about what you do, he realised.  It isn’t works that put you right with God.  It’s faith.  You can’t earn your way to heaven. 

Actually, it was a back to basics message that millions, ever since, have found reassuring.  A focus on scripture. A focus on God’s grace, totally gratuitous, totally unearned.  At its very heart, the message of Martin Luther was simplicity itself.  Don’t worry.  God’s got you covered.

Unfortunately it wasn’t very long, in the overall scheme of things, before Protestantism began to develop some performance anxiety of its own.  If it’s all about faith – how can I be sure I’ve got enough?  It seems like it’s human nature to worry.  It’s human nature, perhaps, to be anxious about what’s going to happen to us when we finally meet Jesus face to face.  And so the rumours that began to trickle in last week get a bit louder.  He’s coming back!  No, really, says St Paul in the early, alarmist version of his gospel in the first letter to the Thessalonian Church.  Any day now.  Don’t let him catch you napping.  And you know he knows who’s been naughty and nice.

Well, St Paul was a little bit out on his timing and Jesus’ return performance.  We’re still waiting, and the Bible still keep reminding us we need to be just a bit more worried about what we’ve been up to while he’s been gone.

In our gospel reading we heard the very familiar story from Matthew’s gospel of the three servants who are given large sums of money to look after while their master goes on holidays.  Older translations of the Bible use the word ‘talent’ which in the original Greek means a large weight of silver or some precious metal – and that’s always given this story a certain ambiguity because where in the original it’s about enormous, lottery-sized sums of money, in the English version it sounds as though it’s about abilities, the talent for playing music or writing poems.  And preachers get something useful out of that – the message becomes something like ‘don’t waste your God-given abilities’ – even if you think you only have one or two talents, God intends you to use what you’ve got.  And that’s an OK message, but it overlooks the main point, which is that Jesus is talking about our accountability before God at the end of all things – and in the story what the servants are entrusted with is not the ability to crochet or talk in foreign languages – but huge, over-the-top amounts of money.  And this story follows another well-known story, last week’s story about the girls who miss the party because they run out of oil.  So if the first story tells us to say alert, and today’s story tells us we are accountable for what we’ve done.  Alert and alarmed!  Taken at face value this story says something like, ‘don’t get caught out playing it safe – the stakes are too high’.  Well, that’s one level of meaning in the story, and the fact that the sums of money are so huge – in one commentary it is estimated that a talent might be worth up to half a million in today’s terms – so that begs the question, doesn’t it – what have we as disciples been given that is so valuable?  If we’re not talking about crocheting, and we’re not talking literally about how much we’ve got in the bank – then what is Jesus saying is this wealth that we have been entrusted with?  And when you say it like that then the answer pops out by itself – the treasure that we have as disciples is the gospel itself – it is the good news of Jesus Christ, and it is the indwelling inspiration and the creative power of the Holy Spirit.  As disciples we should be busting with it, we should be splashing it around like a high-roller down at the casino, the last thing we should be doing with it is hoarding it away for safe keeping.  Like all of Jesus’ stories, this one uses wild exaggeration to make the point – discipleship doesn’t mean living defensively and hoarding away spiritual brownie points, it means taking the risk of living and loving joyfully.

But there’s a problem, and I think this problem has got something to do with the anxiety I have been talking about.  Because in the ancient world there was really only one way to double your money, if you were a landowner, and that was to turn the screws a bit harder on the peasant farmers that worked your land.  It’s not so very different today except we call it short-selling.  The only way the first two slaves can meet their master’s demands for a huge profit and make a bit extra for themselves is by creating a bit more misery and hardship down the line – but the third slave – who refuses to take that option – simply gives the master back what belongs to him.  The third slave who knows very well what his master is like is thrown out to join the peasant farmers he has refused to exploit – but is the ruthless master in this story really supposed to be an image of the loving, generous and forgiving God that Jesus has been telling us about?  If our image of God is anything like this nasty character, no wonder we’d be anxious!  Have we done enough – could we ever do enough - to please him?

And the problem I think is that many of us do have an image of God that’s like this character.  A punishing image of God, an image of a God who’s just waiting for us to put a foot wrong and then – wham!  In fact for many Christians God is a schizoid sort of character, one minute behaving like a jovial Father Christmas, whose sole purpose seems to be to give us whatever we ask for, and the next minute turning nasty, punishing us for some cosmic infringement we didn’t even know we had committed.  No wonder Christians are caricatured as anxious and guilty.

But like all Jesus’ stories – none of which we should take literally! – this one can mean different things depending on which way around we turn it.  I think the clue might be right in front of us if we just read the very next thing that Jesus says, the gospel reading in fact for next week – ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ – we already know, don’t we, that in the way he lives Jesus identifies himself not with the profiteers but with the ones who live ‘in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – and when we do find ourselves excluded or pushed out because of our love for the gospel, then we discover that Jesus is there ahead of us.  If we dare to look at the story this way around, then maybe it is the third slave who represents Jesus himself – rejected and discarded because he refuses to accept the logic of worldly power.  If this story is about accountability – and no doubt it is - then maybe it’s about our being accountable for whether we have dared to resist the false and anxiety-producing, self-serving logic of the world we live in.  Looking at it this way around, Jesus says to us ‘don’t be afraid, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Wherever you end up for my sake, I will be there ahead of you’.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Pentecost 26A

I wonder if you’ve ever seen one of those T-shirts that’s got a message on the front: ‘Jesus is Coming!’, and then when the wearer of the T-shirt walks past and you can’t resist peeking at the other side, it says: ‘Look Busy!’.  Or else it says, on the back, ‘And Boy, is He Mad!’

Yes, folks, today is the day for squirming in your seats.  Today both of our readings from the New Testament warn us to get ready to meet Jesus in person.

A few years ago the ‘Left Behind’ series of thrillers by Tim La Hayes made a huge impact in some Christian churches.  There even seemed to be some confusion as to whether these books were truly fictional, as the writer claimed, or maybe some sort of prophesy of the much-fantasised End Times.  Believers worked themselves into a perfect lather of excitement about the Second Coming, mixed up with a not-so-healthy dose of fear.  Will I be amongst the chosen few?  And for those of us who fail to make the grade, for those of us who don’t get whisked away in the Rapture, leaving our cars driverless on the freeway, the Second Coming of Jesus looked like very scary stuff indeed.

But as you’ve probably already worked out, I don’t take that sort of speculation too seriously.  I’m not impressed by the sort of supposedly Christian writing that tries to alarm people into believing as a sort of insurance policy.  I definitely agree with the idea that we need to be ready to encounter Jesus in the here and now – I think we need a bit more of that sense of urgency, in fact – but books like the Left Behind series have got a whole lot more to do with Hollywood than with the Bible, in my opinion.

One problem with this sort of speculation is that it is self-centred.  Like the pre-Copernican belief that the sun revolved around the earth, this sort of speculation depends on reading obscure passages in the Bible as being prophesies about us and our own time, 21st century time, rather than cryptic political comment or interpretation of current events happening in the here and now for the writer’s own community.  And when we do that, when we read the Bible as though it were a sort of riddle to be solved, we forget Jesus’ own warning: "No one knows the day or the hour -- not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father." [1] And the second reason – an even more serious reason – not to pay too much attention to this sort of speculation, is that it seems to forget who exactly it is that we are expecting to encounter.

It’s hard to read the gospels, I think, without drawing the conclusion that, all things considered, Jesus was a bit of a disappointment to friends and enemies alike.  By that stage there’d been hundreds of years of speculation that when the Messiah does appear, he’s not going to take any nonsense.  Watch out if you happen to be one of the long list of foreign nations who took turns invading and occupying Judea – you’re going to be sent off with a flea in your ear for a start.  Watch out, too, if you happen to be a bit lax with your religious observances, the Messiah isn’t going to stand for any of your laziness or hypocrisy.  And time and again, it seems, Jesus disappoints his disciples who have come to believe that he really is the one sent by God, but who can’t get their heads around the fact that Jesus’ agenda isn’t the one they expected. 

Because the sort of Messiah they were expecting wasn’t Jesus, but someone a bit more like Arne Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’.  Or a military hero like Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately, Jesus has got other ideas.  Jesus’ idea of showing us what God’s reign is about is to tell stories, to touch and to heal, and to share food with people, especially the poor and the sick and ne’er-do-wells who decent folk avoided.  So far from chasing the Romans out of town, Jesus instead lets himself get chased out of town and onto a Roman cross.

And that’s the biggest problem with these seriously scary versions of the Second Coming, like ‘Left Behind’.  Because, what sort of Jesus are we really going to encounter at the Second Coming?  Actually, that’s not such a hard question to answer because Jesus already did appear in the middle of his uncomprehending disciples for a second time, and that’s the event we call Easter.  And when he did come back for the second time, what was he like?  What did he do?  He walked with them, he listened to their disappointments and their fears, he opened the scriptures to them, he forgave them and encouraged them and he cooked them breakfast.  Still refusing to behave like a proper, Arne Schwarzenegger, kind of Messiah.  Still seems to think his job is to make broken people whole.

And anyway it seems to me we’re not even waiting here for the Third Coming, because that’s already happened too, and the Fourth and the Fifth, and about the Trillionth.  Because if we’re going to take Jesus seriously when he talks about coming among us again, we also need to believe him when he says to us, “whenever there are two or three of you gathered together in my name, that’s where I am, right among you.  The bread that you break and share, the wine that you pour out and drink, that’s my life poured out for you, over and over again, so that as you fill yourselves with my brokenness you will be made whole”.  How many times have we stood here and assured one another, ‘we are the body of Christ?’  What do we mean by that??

I think the Greek word the New Testament writers use to talk about the reality of Jesus among us, is a real clue.  Because St Paul, presumably looking around for a word that’s adequate to express the reality of the risen Christ’s presence, borrows a word that belongs to the political jargon of the day.  Parousia.  And in that jargon, parousia meant the arrival in your city of the imperial presence, a visitation by the Emperor of Rome himself, who would first ride past the city’s dead citizens – past the mausoleums and graves on the way in to town – and then the procession would be welcomed by the living, all the pomp and pageantry would happen way out on the road, or as St Paul puts it because the king he’s talking about is coming from the direction of heaven, up in the sky – but here’s the point – the Emperor’s procession doesn’t stay on the outskirts of the town – or up in the sky - because the people meet the procession and bring it into the city.  It’s a symbolic way of saying, we acknowledge the reign and the authority of the Emperor in our city.  So the parousia isn’t about us joining Jesus up in the sky – not about the dead but about the living - not about heaven but about establishing the reign of God on earth.  And then when Matthew comes to use the same word, parousia, a few decades later, he uses it in ways that suggest the Risen Christ is already present in his Church, arriving not like an Emperor but secretly, sneaking in like a thief in the night and staying hidden among us and within us until God’s purposes for the world are established. [2]

So it’s not really a question of when Jesus comes back, is it?  It’s more a question of when we’re going to start noticing him when he does.  And every time we do encounter the Risen Christ- every single time Christ returns - it’s not the end of the world, it’s another opportunity to act on what we pray for every time we say the Lord ’s Prayer - the realisation of God’s purposes among us.

You know, I don’t think it’s coincidental that in this story we read from the Gospel today, that what the girls with the lamps are waiting for in the middle of the night is a party.  These girls, like the Cyndi Lauper song tells us, just wanna have fun!  A wedding feast – in first century Palestine that would have meant food and drink and dancing and an earthy celebration of life and sensuality.  And that makes sense, because every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s an opportunity to open our lives – open our minds and our hearts and our senses – to the goodness of creation and the love that is meant to flow in us and through us.  Every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s for one purpose only – to connect us with what gives us life, and to open our lives to God and to one another

We certainly do need to get ready, or like the sleepy girls we’ll be in danger of missing the party.  So, how do we do that?  Primarily, I think, by loving what Jesus loved, and by doing what Jesus did  We prepare for God’s kingdom by living in a way that puts people first, by loving justice, by practising compassion and generosity, by gaining strength from the practice of prayer to enter into the rhythm and the beauty of creation and to expect the fulfilment of God’s purposes in the world around us

Jesus is coming!  Look busy!


[1] Mtt24.36

[2] Mtt 24.27, 37, 39.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

All Saints

I know it’s not uncommon for young children to play let’s pretend games where they become the super-heroes of their own fantasies.  That’s perfectly normal, and if adults don’t do that, well, it might just be that we’ve lost the essential art of improving on reality.  But most children of my acquaintance settle for Superman, or Batman or Wonder Woman.  Not many children base their let’s pretend fantasies, as I did, on St Simeon the Stylite.

Have you ever heard of St Simeon the Stylite?  Do you even know what a Stylite is??  This all got started in the deserts of Syria back in the 3rd or 4th century, when, to be frank, a lot of people went a bit potty.  St Simeon perhaps went even pottier than most, but at any rate he was a spectacularly holy man, and decided that the very best way he could express his dedication to God was to sit on top of a pole.  And so he did.  A sixty foot long pole, in the middle of nowhere.  And he sat on it for thirty years.

So at the age of six or seven, I thought this was rather fine.  As I remember, so did my sister, Bethwyn, and we decided that was the life for us.  Luckily we’d thought things through a bit better than Simeon and we had a support team.  Or at least, we had our mum, who helped us up unto the top of the kitchenette and gave us sandwiches and a glass of milk for our lunch  Unfortunately, after lunch, mum said she couldn’t stay in the kitchen all afternoon, but she was sure we could get on with our pole sitting by ourselves and if we needed her, just to call.  Which, a few minutes later, we had to do because we realised the exact same thing St Simeon no doubt realised five minutes after his sandwiches ran out, which is that it’s not much fun sitting on top of a kitchenette with a sister who keeps arguing.  I do remember being quite upset but mum gave us some good advice, ‘Don’t be too disappointed’, she said, ‘at least you gave it a try.  St Simeon probably had lots of practice before he went for the record.  And anyway, it’s next to impossible to be a saint in your own kitchen.’

Mum, of course, was very wise.  Bethwyn and I had been looking at pictures of saints in impressive looking storybooks where everyone had masses of curly white whiskers and disks of light shining around their heads, and looked relaxed and radiant in the middle of being pounced on by lions or burnt at the stake.  And even I wondered how St Simeon managed to sleep up there, on top of his sixty foot pole, without falling off when he turned over in bed.  Secretly I was just a bit relieved to have been down before bedtime.  But the point, I guess, is that it’s all very well getting martyred or sitting on top of a pole for thirty years.  How much harder is it be holy in your own kitchen?

Now, you might be very fond of your kitchen.  I like the kitchen in the Rectory.  It’s got good benchspace, a good big pantry and it’s well-lit.  I actually like cooking, but I do make a mess.  I spill stuff, I spatter it all over the stove-top, I leave scraps all over the benches.  I’m living proof that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  Luckily, we’ve got a rule.  One of us cooks, the other washes up.  But like most kitchens, ours is a functional space.  There’s always a work in progress in our kitchen.  Always something soaking, dishes waiting to be done, something unmentionable in the bottom of the fridge that’s gone mushy. 

Kitchens are places where things go wrong – sauces are lumpy, toast burns, people get tetchy. Kitchens are where we do that last minute desperate dashing around before the dinner party in the hope that it will look as though we didn’t go to any trouble at all.  Kitchens can be places where emotionally real and messy things happen too – where the real “us” gets exposed – and my guess is that the real “us” often doesn’t feel too saintly at all.

Today’s celebration, the feast of All Saints, is not just about oddballs like St Simeon the Stylite, it’s meant to be about all of us.  So, how do we go about it?  How can we be saints in the kitchen-y places of our own real lives?

Luckily, our reading this morning from the Revelation of St John is aimed squarely at us.

Have you ever wondered why this letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor is called ‘Revelation’ when it’s the strangest and most puzzling book in the whole Bible?  The whole thing seems to be written in a sort of code, and in fact, written during a time when the Christians of Asia Minor were facing persecution by the Roman state for refusing to worship the Emperor, in a sense it is.  Many Christians, facing the alternatives of abandoning their faith, or losing their lives, became martyrs.  Others weakened and left.  The writer of Revelation is painting a lurid picture of the very stark choice that Christians actually faced in these years.  Caesar, or God?  The passage we read today is intended for Christians who, maybe like us, at times, don’t know whether they’ve got what it takes.  Christians who want to be faithful, but who all too easily get overwhelmed.

In his vision, or day-dream, John of Patmos sees a great crowd of people.  In fact, a motley-looking crowd of people.  This is the first, very encouraging point.  People from every tribe, and nation and language.  In other words, not just Jews.  Not necessarily the people next to you in the pews.  Not just a few pillars of the church, elite disciples, great mystics.  Not even just the elect 144,000 of the previous chapter.  This crowd is the place for the rest of us. Membership of this unprepossessing bunch is inclusive, but who are they?  What have they got in common?  And John puts it in language that seems almost deliberately vague, ‘these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal’.

This lot aren’t pole-sitters.  They haven’t been roasted, skewered, or eaten alive, but they have persevered in the face of the hostility of Rome, the invitation of the polytheistic and secular culture around them to forget this funny religion that could only make life difficult for you.  A culture very much like the one we live in, actually.  A culture based on consumerism and looking out for number one, that found followers of the Way of Jesus odd and threatening.  In the face of indifference, and hostility, and the seduction of self-interest, these are the ones who proclaimed the Way of Jesus because they knew it to be true and life-giving

But this is an image of faithfulness that is surprisingly active, not passive.  There robes are Persil-white, explains the guide, ‘because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb’.  Look, not quite a kitchen metaphor, but at least a laundry one!  It’s something you do, not something you have done to you.  We’re not just in the business of waiting for Jesus to do whatever Jesus is supposed to do for us, we’re in the business of inviting people to rest and be restored, making people whole, giving people dignity and integrity, bearing faithful witness, sharing and continuing Jesus’ own work of compassion and forgiveness.  Jesus cooks, we wash up.  It reminds me of the way St Paul puts it in his letter to the Church of Colossae, our job is nothing less than ‘completing what is lacking in the suffering of Christ’. 

There are no guarantees for God’s kitchen-hands.  It’s imperfect, messy work, you get misunderstood, you try a new recipe and it flops, there’s always the temptation just to give up and open a McCain’s frozen dinner.  Go with the flow.  We meet resistance and feel like giving up.  And this vision tells us that being God’s people is about unglamorous perseverance, a devotion that costs something but at the same time, that the trials of God’s people are part and parcel of the suffering of Jesus.

So this isn’t a word of affirmation for lukewarm Christians, or lukewarm churches, is it?  But it’s a word of encouragement, and a word of love for the saints of the church who hear God’s uncomfortable call to live and proclaim Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness – and know that it is meant for them.

And then – right in the middle of all this uncompromising talk of perseverance – a note of comfort and even tenderness.  God’s kitchen saints, op shop saints, saints of vacuum cleaner and newsletter – here’s the promise!  Refreshment, and sustenance, and the power to follow through.  It’s exactly the same word of reassurance that Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading, the Beatitudes.  Blessed are you when you feel inadequate, because you will learn to rely on the adequacy of God.  Blessed are you when you feel unappreciated, because you will discover the companionship of those who love God.  Blessed are you when people think you’re potty, because that’s what they thought about St Simeon as well.