In my Christmas sermon last week I made three suggestions, and one theological statement.
The first suggestion I made was Jesus had no interest in making a new club for the people he felt were ‘saved’ or holy. Jesus was very critical of the way his society labelled some as sinners, and treated such people disdainfully. Jesus wanted to break down the walls between the so-called ‘saved’ and the so-called ‘sinners’. He had an inclusive vision.
My second suggestion was that Jesus – in his wall-demolishing ways – not only met with, dined with, and included ‘sinners’, but he also met with, dined with, and included those who were considered ‘saved’. So to put a contemporary spin on this, Jesus dined with cops and crooks, with royalty and rogues, with Dominicans and dominatrixs, with Greenpeace and fossil fuel companies, with vegans and deer-hunters, and with fundamentalists and atheists. I’m not suggesting though that Jesus wouldn’t have been critical of some people’s occupations or ethics.
What I’m suggesting, like the story of Zacchaeus, the thuggish racketeer, illustrates, is that Jesus lived an ethic of radical hospitality.
And sorry Lorde, I think he would have gone to Israel, told them he loved all Israelis and Palestinians, told the Israelis why he thought their policies were wrong, and he would have either been thrown into prison or deported. Not that that means Lorde that you should go.
So even if Zacchaeus hadn’t offered to pay back four times as much to those he’d wronged, or even one times as much, Jesus would have still dined with him. Jesus’ willingness to break bread with a thug came before any change of heart in that thug.
And my third suggestion in my Christmas sermon was that the new belief-based, doctrine club that the Church created in the centuries after Jesus’ death needs to be dismantled.
Yes, Jesus had theological beliefs – but they are largely in the background in the New Testament. What was in the foreground - maybe shaped by those beliefs - was his behavioural ethics. So compassion and hospitality and loving your neighbour [especially the difficult ones] and healing and kindness are what shine through.
To return to the Zacchaeus story, and verses 9 & 10: “Then Jesus said to [Zacchaeus], ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Human One came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Some would exegete this to mean that Zacchaeus has now joined the saved club, whereas before he was in the sinner club. If that is the case then Zacchaeus join the saved club without assenting to any creed or doctrine!
However these verses can also be read that Zacchaeus was already a son of Abraham – or in our language ‘beloved of God’ – but he wasn’t behaving like ‘a son of Abraham’ until this moment. So the Jesus’ unspoken[?] challenge to Zacchaeus was ‘Become who you are’. There’s no ‘joining a club’ in this reading of the text. We all belong to the human family; it’s just that many don’t behave in humane or family-friendly ways!
So, to summarize, Jesus wanted to break down the walls that divide people – including the divide between saved and sinner. Jesus did this primarily by indiscriminate dining and mingling. He talked to all the wrong and the right people, and was criticised for not discriminating. And lastly, if Jesus had lived to see it, he would have been disgusted to see the Church build a new dividing wall between those who assented to certain beliefs and those who did not.
The theological statement I made at Christmas was the best name for Jesus’ God is Hospitality.
I also before Christmas wrote a piece for the NZHerald that wasn’t printed. It spoke of the loneliness and despair that afflict many, in all neighbourhoods. I suggested that what makes a difference is simply a kind word, or a suspension of prejudice, or sympathetic solidarity, or the gift of time ... Hope comes in small packages.
I titled the piece ‘The best present is presence’ and ended it with these words: “The best present is wrapped in the offer of unconditional friendship, and often tied with the strings of one’s own memories of suffering. For those walking those narrow corridors of trauma, loss, and loneliness, the presence of a friend is Christmas.”
We can be the hospitality called God to one another. Indeed it is through us that this hospitality God comes.
Each year in the days before Christmas the NZHerald prints a statement written by one of the Auckland Church leaders that the others then affix their signature to. Every leader of nearly every independent fundamentalist church is listed, outnumbering those of the mainline denominations – by 20 to 6 on my count.
Their statement this year was particularly appalling. Usually you can count on at least one social issue being highlighted – whether it’s those suffering from earthquakes, or children in poverty, or refugees. But not this year. This year we were told that the author of Luke’s Christmas was an ‘investigative journalist’, a doctor, and a personal friend of St Paul. Luke we are told relayed the factual eyewitness accounts of those who were present. Therefore the birth stories are factual and true!
For the record, yes there is an old tradition going back to the end of the 2nd century that attributes the Gospel to one Luke, a companion of Paul and a physician[i]. But scholarship for at least the last 70 years concludes that the biblical textual evidence does not support this claim. The theology in the Book of Acts [that Luke also wrote] is unlike that of Paul’s authentic letters: there is no evidence of professional 1st century medical knowledge, and – most important – Luke-Acts supports values similar to those of other New Testament works from the early 2nd century[ii]. Some ministers, including some Presbyterian ministers, unfortunately get seduced by the need to prove the Bible to be literally correct, and in the process do a disservice to the academic disciplines of theology and biblical criticism.
But my chief criticism of the Auckland conglomerate’s statement was the lack of challenge to do anything different. There was no challenge to be more loving or more compassionate. There was no the challenge to make a difference in the world, or even in one life. Faith it seemed was about believing facts rather than doing hospitality.
Our church leader, Moderator Richard Dawson, stayed well clear of ‘the facts of Christmas’ and wrote a message[iii] similar to my own about the struggle at Christmas for those who are ‘lost, lonely, and unloved’. He challenged us to, in his words, to make “a difference this Christmas, even for just one person who lies completely outside the circle of our own family, someone who just won’t get to celebrate unless we include them in some way.” Richard also offered the thought that “true justice requires proximity. That is, it requires us to get close to those who are suffering injustice.”
But Richard’s comments and my own pale when compared with Pope Francis’ Christmas message.[iv] Francis states simply that the mystery of God ‘assumes our mortal flesh’ and ‘becomes lowly and poor’ in the baby Jesus.
This isn’t of course how I would express incarnation theology, but let’s skip that for a moment. For what Francis does next is what is so inspirational and confrontational:
He takes us to country after country saying: ‘We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of…’ ‘We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children…’ We see Jesus in the children of Iraq...’ Venezuela…’ ‘Ukraine…’ ‘South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria...’ ‘We see Jesus in the children worldwide wherever peace and security are threatened by…’ He names the victims and the causes of victimization.
In other words Francis promotes a deep understanding of God in all human beings – those who believe what we do and those who don’t, those who are saved and those who are sinners, and those who are discarded and those who are doing the discarding. And Francis challenges those in power to see us as one human community and to care for each other. Yes, Francis has strong theological beliefs and they are there in the background, but in the foreground is his ethics and vision – encouraging us to be compassionate, hospitable, loving our neighbours [especially the difficult ones], and offering healing and kindness.
This is a message that I think resonates with Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas accounts, with the vision we hold to here at St Luke’s, and the God called Hospitality.
[i] Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11 .
[ii] The pastoral epistles – 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus.