Sunday, April 12, 2015

Edges

Edges
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 12, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 37-47
Deuteronomy 4: 1-20



Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
39 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 41 I do not accept glory from human beings. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God in  you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” [1]

One thing that I have noticed in my life time is that people these days have trouble with edges, we have trouble with borders, we have trouble with things that provide dividing lines between things, admitting that some issues are actually quite black and white. I used to not like, Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," but have since grown to really love it and enjoy it. . . he poses in the poem two major ideas, and puts them at tension with each other, and then beautifully does not relieve the tension, but lets it just linger, and marinate within the readers' minds. He writes, on one hand, "Good Fences make good neighbors" and he is saying how he and his neighbor walk the wall each spring to fix it, to replace the stones that have fallen out during the year, but the other line he throws out it, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" . . . which literally refers to the forces of nature that cause the rocks and stones that make the wall to need to be put back in place. . . it is as if something in nature, some force seeks to tear down the walls. It's a good tension between our desire from old truisms like "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" and some more free and natural urge to tear them down. But whatever the metaphor we want to use, I think that we are often afraid to go near the dividing lines that separate us. . . or we are subconsciously nervous, or unconfident, and therefore self conscious about our own "edges" and so seek to round them and sand them down, so as to make social settings all the much less tense. We especially are that way about Religion. . . and that is what I want to speak about this morning because I think that is what Jesus is speaking about in this passage.
If I were to ask my students what the differences between the great religions of the world are at the beginning of the school year, before studying world lit at all, they would and usually do say that basically all the world religions are the same. There are a few small differences, but all in all they are all about moral teaching. . . they all in some way shape or form, instruct their members as to how to treat each other, their neighbors, those around them with kindness, respect, dignity, and love. In a diverse and multicultural society like ours such teachings, that all religions are the same, are taught to seek to minimize the conflict that could arise between religions, focusing on the commonalities, and it all seeks to tear down the walls that divide, those edges where we are uncomfortable, where we flee from discussion in hopes that we will not offend, that like the famous "Coexist" bumper stickers promote, with their multi religious symbols, we could just get along and forget our differences, but in passages like the one we have today Jesus does not allow us to wish away those edges because they do exist, and when push comes to shove they really do matter because they are at the heart of why. . . the what's may be similar, what we do, how we do, but the why's really shape the fine tuning of the what. . . like the differences between diseases and symptoms.
There is a great story from the Arabian Night's stories called "The Fisherman and the Jinnee" and it shows a real truth concerning the tradition out of which the faith of Islam is formed. In the story a fisherman is out in the waves and he is fishing, and catching nothing, but then on the third cast, he casts further out, and is just about to quit if he doesn't catch anything. On this third cast he doesn't catch a fish either, but he does catch an lamp, and as he is cleaning off the lamp, rubbing the side, a jinnee comes out. . . and when he comes out his first words are, the pious words of faith, "There is no God but Allah. . . and you would expect him to say, and Mohammad is his prophet. . . . like the first pillar of Islam states, but he does not. . . instead he says, "There is no god but Allah, and Solomon is his prophet." That is a really packed statement about the religion of Islam and where it comes from, and just exactly who "Allah" is, or who they see Allah to be. . . by saying Solomon is his prophet, they are suggesting that Prophets come and go based in historical reality and circumstances, but Allah does not change. . . and Allah was the God of Solomon in the Bible. In the story the lamp and the Jinnee work as a time capsule. The Jinnee was imprisoned in the lamp during the time of Solomon, so he is the prophet of God. . . had it been 40 years earlier, the Jinnee would have said, there is no God but Allah and David is his prophet, before that, Samuel is his prophet, Gideon, Deborah, Joshua, Moses, There is not God but Allah and Abraham is his prophet. Packed in that one line is the claim that the God of Islam is the very same God that is in the Bible, that Allah is Yahweh, is Jehovah, the God of Moses, Jacob, Abraham. All one in the same. . . so if that is true, then why the struggle, why the conflict, what is the edge of Islam and Christianity, and well Judaism. . . it would seem in  today's world that knowing the edge would help us because ignoring the edge has not staved off conflict. . . so what is the edge, if the claim of Muslims is that Allah is the very same God as the God of the Bible? Why the problem? Do you know?
It comes down to this. . . and is capsulated in the first statement of pillar of Islam, there is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet. Christians may agree about the first half of that statement, but not the second, at least not traditionally. Mohammad claimed to have had the Word of God revealed to him in the cave outside of Mecca, that the Angel Gabriel came to him and told him to Recite. . . and what he recited, is or became eventually the Koran. . . which means Recite in Arabic. . . now this is a huge edge. . .for a Muslim the Koran is the perfect word of God. . . that it is Revelation, and that it is perfect. . . and it is then in the same tradition as the revealed laws to Moses and other revealed teachings out of Jewish and Christian scripture, however the reason for the need of another prophet of God, that is the need for Mohammad is that the revealed Word of God had been corrupted over time by human teachers, translation, time, misreadings, mistakes made by scribes in copying, basically the instructions that Yahweh, or Allah had given to human beings had been altered and God was using Mohammad to set things straight, in that way Moses and Jesus, and the other men of God were prophets like Mohammad, but the perfect word of God they brought or relayed had been damaged.
So that becomes the edge, or at least the source of the edges. Christians and Jews do not believe that Mohammad is a prophet of God, and therefore the Koran has no real authority as the "Word of God." It becomes an edge, you either believe that Mohammad was visited by Gabriel or you don't. He is either a messenger of God, or he is a crazy claiming to have talked to God and having such delusions of grandeur, or he is using and experience to manipulate others. There is a source, and it divides.
Now look at what Jesus says to the Jews that he is talking to in this chapter. Remember the context as well. . . Jesus has healed that man in the pools on the Sabbath, and has claimed to be doing what the Father has told him to do. The Jews there have gotten angry because he has broken the Sabbath rule, and has claimed to be the Son of God. They are looking at him like he is a blasphemer, or he is crazy. . . sound familiar? Jesus says to them. . .  
39 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 41 I do not accept glory from human beings. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God in  you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” [2]

Think about this situation. You are a good and pious Jew, a Pharisee even, and you are taking scripture and leading a life based on the book, and now all of a sudden there is a man, standing in your midst, and claiming to be the one the scriptures are pointing too, claiming to be the fulfillment of the promises of scripture, but he is breaking those rules  you have based your entire life on. What do you do? What would it take for you to believe in him instead of what you've been told? We are the products of such decisions and such faith, the descendants of the people who made that decision throughout the years, who saw the edge and chose. It is an interesting question still about what we follow, do we follow Jesus or do we follow the book? are they the same thing, or are they slightly different? Where is the line, where is the edge?
These questions are front and center in the world today, and create many edges of belief between the different denominations within Christianity, and in some cases are creating more edges and dividers even within denominations. One thing that this passage shows is that the answer to the question is not easy, and it is not simple, and is not clear. It is more proof that the Bible is a very complicated book of voices, rather than one clear cut contiguous point of view, because here is Jesus interpreting scripture in a very new and different way than the trained religious teachers of his time. . . what would Jesus say about our struggles today? What side would Jesus be on? Would we be on his? It is so very hard to answer these questions. . . one thing though is the case. . . Jesus does not allow it to be simple for us. He does not make it easy. He challenges us to see him in a very real way, to see God in a real present way. . . and in a rule shifting, way, where everything we thought we knew about life, death, and God is challenged. . . or it isn't, the claim of change comes from Jesus himself. . . salvation comes from Jesus himself, the authority from the Father comes from Jesus himself. . . I put the famous quote from C.S. Lewis in your bulletin. . . and it seems to really be magnified by this passage, Lewis wrote:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

We may like to live in the safety of shaving off edges like that, but Jesus is an edgy kinda cat. . . and is not safe. . . to quote another of C.S. Lewis book's describing his Christlike metaphorical character the Lion, Aslan. . .
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” 

Jesus may not be safe. Jesus may not be Politically Correct. Jesus may not fit into our secure categories. Jesus challenges what we know and think about the world, even what we thought we knew about God. It is not easy to follow Jesus, nor simple. . . but he claims to be The Way, the Truth, and the Life. . . and He is not Dead but Risen. . . will we follow where he goes? Is he the Son of God, or just another mad man claiming to be. . . that was the edge then. .  . and is still an edge today? Something there is that doesn't love a wall. . . 





[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:37-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:37-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.