The luckiest man alive

A homily preached on 21 November 2010 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission.

The Last Sunday of the Church Year
Proper 29C
Luke 23:27–43

Have you heard of Gladstone Gander? A character in Donald Duck short animations and comic books, he is Donald Duck’s cousin, rival and nemesis all at once. The thing that most infuriates Donald about Gladstone is that he is the luckiest bird alive. He never needs to exert himself or make any effort—he wins every raffle or lottery going, stumbles on wallets dropped by their owners and in every way enjoys improbably good fortune. In the meantime, his luckless cousin spends his days working hard for very little reward—and resenting both his bad fortune and Gladstone’s luck.

They are hardly serious works or profound literature, but the tales of the two feathery cartoon characters genuinely strike a cord with the human condition: both the desire to be ‘lucky’—to get good things without the effort—and the resentment for the fact that there others luckier than ourselves. How else do you explain the National Lottery: people spending their hard-earned money on a competition where you are statistically more likely to die on the way to buying the ticket than you are to win the thing—because who knows, you might be lucky this time. Whether it’s relationships, careers or wealth that we value, I suspect we all would would prefer to be Gladstone Gander rather than Donald Duck. Who wouldn’t want to be the luckiest man or woman alive?

In today’s Gospel, we also encounter two classes of people who fall broadly into these two archetypal categories: those doing well and those down on their luck. At first glance, it seems obvious which people belong to which category. On the one hand, we have Jewish leaders, ordinary people, Roman soldiers. On the other hand, we have three condemned men led to the Place of the Skull to be executed. It’s no hard to spot the unlucky ones, the ones on whom fortune is no longer smiling. At least two of the men had brought their bad luck on themselves. The evangelist describes them as ‘evil-doers’. In the case of Jesus, it’s an even more tragic story: His downfall is the result of the schemes of others, a judicial murder born out of envy and malice.

It’s not for nothing, then, that the women of Jerusalem are moved to tears as they watch the pitiable down-and-out heading towards his grisly end.

And it’s not for nothing that we shed tears for those who walk the same road today, having met with the sharp end of the world’s wrath. Writing to the Romans, Paul quoted the psalmist’s despairing cry:

“ For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

If that was the case in the first century, how much more so today. Christians today in Muslim countries daily risk their lives—and too often, lose them—when they confess Jesus as their Lord, while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. More and more, Christians in Western countries are under pressure from society and government—and sometimes even from church leadership—to abandon the Word of God in exchange for a message that is more palatable to an increasingly pagan society.

And where there isn’t hostility, the Gospel is met by a deafening wall of indifference, as it is among so many of our family members, friends and neighbours. More often than not, we don’t even have the privilege of meeting the enmity of the world, as a sign that the Word and our testimony is having an impact on people. We are not being killed, just ignored.

It can be hard not to feel that the Gospel has run out of steam, run into a brick wall—whether that brick wall is violence of silence. It’s easy to weep for Jesus, on His way to another defeat.

But Jesus did not accept the pity of the women. Not because He was stoical or proud, but because He saw things very differently. It is not He who was to be pitied. Yes, He was about to die an agonising death, and that unjustly. Yes, to the eyes of the witnesses of those events, His very fate was proof positive that He was a failure, another would-be-Messiah who in the end couldn’t save others because He couldn’t even save Himself.

But He needed no pity. He had chosen His path, He was carrying His cross willingly and ultimately by choice. It was the women themselves, all the people of Jerusalem who were to be pitied. Because they, too, would feel God’s wrath as Jesus was feeling it then. In a very short time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it would lead to scenes far more atrocious and pitiable than the death of one man on a cross. A city that was chosen by God as His holy habitation had turned its back on Him by rejecting His Son: that would be the real tragedy.

Even as He was mounting the hill of Calvary, Jesus knew how the story would end: in His glorious resurrection, His vindication and the salvation of all who trust in Him. Whereas the end of unbelieving Jerusalem would have no happy end.

The fate of Jerusalem was a local tragedy for a small group of people in the corner of the Roman Empire. But as we heard last week, the destruction of the Holy City had a far greater significance: it was a dress rehearsal for the fate of the fallen, unbelieving world. Just as Jerusalem was destroyed amid terrible scenes, so the world too will be brought to a cataclysmic end when God finally allows His righteous judgement to fall on it. The world will end, and the end will not be happy. Those who now cause Christians to weep because of their unbelief and their hostility will one day weep for themselves as they are forced to acknowledge in the face of His coming in glory: that Jesus Christ is Lord, who has come to judge the living and the dead.

Weep not for Jesus, and weep not for His people—because He is already victorious over death, and so is His body, the Church. Even death cannot defeat the bride of Christ, because death no longer has dominion over us.

Jesus was most definitely not down on His luck on that terrible Good Friday. It looked like a defeat, an ironic proof that He had failed. He saved others, but He cannot save Himself. Whereas it was the greatest victory of all: He saved others by refusing to save Himself. His failure to save Himself wasn’t a failure—it was precisely that that was the means of His victory, the completion and fulfilment of His saving work. His death may have looked like the death of the other two, the criminals on His left and His right, but it was the precise opposite: they came to a nasty end as a reprisal for their evil deeds. He came to a nasty end—but which wasn’t the end—for our evil deeds.

So it wasn’t Jesus, who was having a Donald Duck day outside Jerusalem on Good Friday. That misfortune was yet to be played out, and it would fall on those who seemed to have got their way with Jesus that day, who rejected Him.

But who, you may ask, was the Gladstone Gander of Golgotha? Who would you say was the luckiest man alive that day? Was it Pilate, who had managed to avert a potentially disastrous riot by some careful manoeuvring? The chief priests, who had got rid of their nemesis after all? The soldiers, who had another victim to amuse them in the midst of dreary garrison life, and some new clothes to boot?

None of the above? The luckiest man alive that day was none other than a thief on the cross, a dying criminal suffering at the hands of earthly justice. A man who had got what he deserved and was feeling it. A man who was on death’s door, a man under the curse of law, the curse of society and even the curse of God’s law—for cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. He had nothing left of his life. He would leave no legacy except his crimes and their just desserts. He had nothing left to offer to anyone, except a bloody spectacle. It was curtains time for him.

Except for one thing: he was crucified next to Jesus, and at death’s door, knew what that meant. He alone recognised in Jesus the means of his salvation. He had nothing he could bring to Jesus, except this plea: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me—because you can save others. Jesus, remember me—my only hope.

And he discovered that fact, which is also our only hope: that sinners with nothing left to offer who pin their hope on the mercy of Jesus are in the best place in the world. Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. You have placed your faith in me: by faith, you are mine, and I am yours. Wherever Jesus is, there is paradise. In his wretchedness, in the moment of the shipwreck of his life, this criminal was the luckiest man alive: he was in paradise even as he hung on that cross.

He was the first to enter paradise after Good Friday. But he was not the last. Over two thousand years, millions of sinners have heard the same voice of Jesus: today, you shall be with me in paradise. At every baptism, Jesus speaks these saving words. He spoke them to you at your baptism. When your sins assail you, when your conscience troubles you, when you run into the hostility or indifference of the world, Jesus invites you to say after the thief on the cross: Jesus, remember me. And in His word, He repeats to you, again and again: today, you shall be with me in paradise. I did not save myself so that I may save you. In His Supper, you will participate in the feast of His kingdom, reminding you of the fact that you already are in the kingdom.

There is no need to weep for the Church. Even as we grieve the earthly damage wrought on the body of Christ and its individual members, we need not weep as those women wept, bereft and disappointed. Rather, we may rejoice that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We may rejoice that every Christian who endures suffering for the sake of the cross is thereby displaying the saving cross of Christ in his life. We may even rejoice, as the apostles did, when we share the suffering for the sake of the name of Christ. Because He remembers us—because He has reconciled us to the Father by His blood—because in Him, we have overcome the world. We are the luckiest people alive.

Modern alchemy: making white black and black white

A guest post from my friend, Samuli Siikavirta:

The biannual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) voted today for the approval of a prayer with and for registered same-sex civil partners (78 for – 30 against). This compromise view was said not to create a new rite or to signify an actual blessing for the partnership. However, it is considered to lie  somewhere between private pastoral care and public prayer: if the couple so wishes, guests can be invited and church buildings can be used for the prayer. The Congregation of Bishops will give more detailed instructions on how to conduct the prayer without elements that would falsely confuse it with the rite of the blessing of civil marriage (e.g. exchange of rings).

It has been stressed that the church’s doctrine and teaching on marriage solely between one man and one woman has not been changed. At the same time, however, same-sex partners may now be given the church’s “support” through private or public prayer, and the church shall put no stop to members of staff and clergy living in same-sex partnerships. Pastors and laymen shall remain their freedom of conscience, and no one ought to be forced to pray, the congregation of bishops have emphasised.

The decision is considered an intermediary compromise: conservatives think it has indeed changed the church’s view on Scripture, sin and sexual ethics by de facto approving of and supporting homosexual unions within the church. Liberals maintain that a vague prayer is not enough nor equal towards sexual minorities. Archbishop Kari Mäkinen has comforted the liberal majority with implicit statements according to which “it is good to advance on the basis of this [decision]”. It is highly possible that in the near future, the next synod may well have the required 3/4 majority to pass a rite of blessing that would officially change the church’s teaching and practice.

Approximately 78 % of Finns are members of the ELCF that is considered a “national church” with the right to collect church tax from its members and a portion of business tax from all businesses through state taxation. Its Church Law is also ratified by the Finnish Parliament. Political parties have the right to compile lists of candidates for church elections. Despite a considerable membership of 4.2 million, less than two per cent attend Sunday mass, and close to half do not believe in God. However, many Finns have strong sentiments towards their national church and wish to modernise its teachings.

In recent years, the ELCF has suffered from membership declining by approximately one percentage point per year. After a national TV debate on the same-sex issue last month alone, it was reported that some 40,000 left the church. The average leaver is a young adult to whom the church means little and who does not want to pay church tax.

In the first paragraph of the ELCF Church Law, the denomination defines its confession to be bound by the Holy Scriptures, the three ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions of the Book of Concord. The biggest disputes tearing the church apart consider this paragraph and its interpretation. For instance the Church of Sweden, a sister church of the ELCF, has no such statement in its church law, making liberal reforms much faster.

Numerous members and pastors who oppose women’s ordination and other reforms considered to violate against the church’s confessional basis have taken to their own measures. Some have founded their own congregations and ordained their own pastors and bishop in co-operation with the Mission Province of Sweden and Finland – an independent non-geographical Confessional Lutheran diocese with apostolic succession. The Mission Province has been strongly attacked by the national churches of Finland and Sweden, and their ordinations are not considered valid within the established churches. According to the Mission Province, taking independent steps to create an alternative diocesan structure by still remaining within the national churches is the only way to offer people a traditional Lutheran option that can help reform the church without having to leave the church. According to the established churches in Sweden and Finland, the Mssion province resembles an independent church body.

Despite promises to the contrary in 1986 when women’s ordination was accepted, the ELCF has more recently ceased to ordain and appoint pastors who cannot be in communion with ordained women. These traditionalists appeal to their freedom of conscience, whereas the bishops have pleaded to governmental anti-discrimination laws. Some traditionally-believing pastors have been defrocked, while others have even been sued and convicted of discrimination.

With the current intermediary decision to allow prayer for same-sex couples, more divisions are likely to arise. The conservative and liberal wings, that are already so far apart, will find even less common ground. Membership will continue to drop from both ends.

Samuli Siikavirta, MPhil, is a PhD student in theology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Who do you think you are?

The Festival of All Saints
A Homily Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 7 November 2010
1 John 3:1–3

Who do you think you are?

What makes you who you are? How is your identity forged?

Of course, these are difficult and complex questions with no simple answer. However, at least in one way, the television programme that has our question as its title, Who Do You Think You Are?, has got the approach spot-on. In case you are not familiar with the format, Who Do You Think You Are? follows various famous people as they go in search of their roots, digging through their family history in order to understand better who they themselves are. The premise is simple: we are in some significant way products of our past—our personal histories, and the histories of our forebears.

And so it is. Every new day, we wake up at the end of a string of days stretching back the length of our lives, and the kind of day it turns out to be is determined at least in part by what has happened before. Our state of health, our state of mind; our bank balance, and how we hope to occupy ourselves; our families and friendships: they are what they are because of what has already happened. A good investment, a missed opportunity, a life-saving operation, an unexpected injury, a chance encounter, a relationship carefully nurtured, our sins, the sins of others—all these happy turns or dark shadows of the past have left a mark on us, and made us who we are. Some of you can look back at our pasts with pleasure, grateful for how a succession of happy events and circumstances have made our contented lives. Others will contemplate difficulties and hardships and wonder what might have been if things had gone differently.

And, humanly speaking, all of us have every right to be conscious of the unpredictability of life, of the great unknown that the future is. Just as we are made by our pasts, every day we are making our futures by our decisions and having them made for us by our circumstances.

Perhaps this is why in some languages, people speak of looking forward to the past—at what we already know and is laid out before us—and of looking back to the future—because it’s behind our backs, as it were, waiting to come to view as we travel unsighted into time to come.

Humanly speaking, that is.

When we examine ourselves in the light of God’s word, things look very different. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. According to our Epistle reading, it is not the past that is significant but the future; and it is the future, not the past, that defines who and what we really are now.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

In Christ, we are not products of chance, nor are our identities shaped by what we or someone else has done. In fact, to understand who we are in the Kingdom of God, it is not the past but the future that we are to consider. For while all of our pasts are chains of unpredictable events, our future is certain and guaranteed.

It used to be the custom, and in some places still is, that a child would not be named until its baptism. Likewise, people baptised later in life would receive a new, baptismal, name. This is a concrete way to mark the fact that in Holy Baptism, we all receive a completely new identity. In Baptism, we are united with Christ’s death and resurrection; in Baptism, we are clothed with Christ. And so we become by adoption what He is from eternity: children and co-heirs of the Heavenly Father. Being God’s children, we are members of His household, citizens of His kingdom.

However, we are always being tempted to think of this reality only as a future blessing: that one day, we will join the twelve tribes of Israel and the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in the heavenly kingdom. After all, our daily lives are hardly heavenly. And I am not referring to the circumstances of our lives. Rather, more often than not, each of us finds that it’s not the image of Christ that is shining forth in our lives. Even in church, we squabble and snap, play home advantage and judge one another as if we were just another social gathering. We measure our worship by our tastes and experiences rather than God’s word, we seek pleasure rather than God’s will, and ultimately prefer the promises of this fleeting life to God’s eternal and unshakeable ones. Such a far cry from the happy throng crowding around the throne of the Lamb. Thank God that one day we will go to heaven and it will all be different.

And in some ways this is precisely what John writes in his letter: we are God’s children now but what we will be has not yet been revealed. We are God’s children now, but what we are now is not the sum total of what God has in store for us. By no means! One day, we will not only be given the outside righteousness of Christ as a possession—one day, we will be righteous and pure as He is. One day, we will be part of a happy throng around the throne of the Lamb, pure and without blemish, united with Him and, through Him, with one another. Every time the Church on earth gathers around God’s gifts, she looks forward to the new creation when this sin-ravaged world will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no sin. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the banquet at the wedding feast of the Lamb with His bride the Church, in unending joy.

But that’s precisely it: the foretaste is already here. We are already children of God, because He has already given us that name. We already gather at the throne of the Lamb—because He comes down to us, to establish His throne at this plain altar by His bodily presence. Only now we are living as dual citizens. Our sinful flesh is a product of our past and the past of our forebears. The only certainty for the flesh is that which is unchangeable because it has already happened or inevitable because it cannot be prevented—death.

But that is not who you really are. Since you were given the name of a child of God, that sinful self began its death and an entirely new life began. A life already determined by the certainty of a future guaranteed by Christ. While we live in this sinful flesh, we cannot imagine what it will be like to shed our mortal garb and to enter fully into life in the new creation. But we have the sure hope, the cast-iron promise that in Christ, that is our destiny.

And the promise is cast-iron because it is in Christ. Yes, we are a motley collection of rat bags of varying degrees like any motley collection of children of men always will be. But in Christ, we are God’s dearly beloved children, spotless and without blemish—because He has taken all our spots and blemishes upon Himself and given us His perfect purity. As His children, we are called to purify ourselves from the sin and filth to which we are so attached. But not as a condition but as a consequence of our heavenly calling.

Moreover, we have been not only been given the command to purify ourselves but also means of purification. Earlier in His letter, John writes, “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” And the motley crowd from all the tribes of Israel and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the Lamb’s throne had this one thing in common: “They [had] washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

On this feast of All Saints, we remember with thanksgiving the saints that have gone before us and are now free from the shackles of the past, from every sin, suffering and evil. But we don’t only rejoice for them. We also rejoice with them. There is only one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. They have triumphed over death, we are still engaged in battle. But like them, we gather around the throne of the Lamb, to be purified by His very blood, and praising Him with angels and archangels, while we await the resurrection of the body, when sin, death and the devil will be no more and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”