Homily for Evensong – Ordinary Sunday 26C

In Uncategorized on September 27, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Our first reading continues the saga of Ezra-Nehemiah,
which tells the story of the “historical miracle”
of return from Babylonian Exile,
and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, and of the city itself.

Incidentally, I have intriguing memories of Nehemiah the Musical
performed by the Peninsula Parish in Dunedin when I was six or seven.

Key components were a big wall made of polystyrene blocks
and, more unlikely than the miraculous story itself,
my Mum playing the drums.

There are 3 “historical miracles” which Jewish thinkers sometimes refer to:
The Exodus, this return from Exile and rebuilding,
and the foundation of the modern State of Israel.

All three coming out of great tragedy and torment,
all three seen as great signs of hope and blessing,
all three falling short of creating a society
where the demands and justice and holiness of the God of Israel
were enshrined and enacted.

Our second reading, though, from the Gospel of John,
turns this sense of home-coming, of an end to Exile,
on its head.

Throughout John we can read the tension permeating the narrative
of that Christian community’s sense of exclusion and rejection.

John’s community live in Judea, but his picture of Jesus
has him constantly opposed by – in his shorthand – “the Jews”.
In other words, John’s community feels under siege, outcaste,
even in their own land.

With ears open to this, you get a sense from the very outset
of the great grief and pain of this:
from the Prologue:   He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;  yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

At a couple of points in the telling, the narrator
moves from Jesus speaking as “I”, to his community’s speaking as “we”.
From the Nicodemus encounter:
Jesus answered … “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we
speak of what we know
and testify to what we
have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”

This takes nothing away from the telling.
Rather it helps us understand the real context in which John’s Gospel
was being shaped and forged and written down.

I’ve got two books in my little library.
One’s called The Metaphor of God Incarnate.
The other – I assume written in response –
is called The Truth of God Incarnate.

I’m a good Anglican, and want to have a bet each way.
The way we view Scripture and articulate theology
doesn’t need to sit in only one of several opposing camps.
Precisely what has been recorded in biblical texts
can help us understand absolutely
the struggles of those who framed the language and set the scenes.

We have a classic encounter in tonight’s passage,
between Jesus and “the Jews”.
And I want to say clearly that,
even as criticism of the modern nation of Israel is not,
as is often lazily thrown up, “anti-Semitism”,
so the portrayal of Jesus’ opponents as a party called “the Jews”
– or perhaps equally accurately, “the Judeans” –
is taken out of all context and defiled
when used to bolster any sort of past or present anti-Semitic agenda.

All the protagonists are Jewish, let’s not forget.
And it’s the Jewish community of John’s Gospel
who feel the pain of exclusion and discrimination.
The Church in our part of the world
would do well to remember that feeling.

Tonight’s reading is about Jesus’ identity,
Jesus as the one who speaks truth, the truth that liberates;
Jesus as the Son, who can set slaves free;
the Messiah, whom Abraham longed to see,
indeed the one who before Abraham was, is.

Jesus uses – as six times elsewhere throughout John’s Gospel
– making the perfect biblical number, seven –
an “I am” statement.  But this one is emphatic.

Imagine the characters here
as again representative of the Johannine community
and those who exclude and even persecute them:
Jesus is called a Samaritan, one who has a demon.
In other words, the early insults we know existed
concerning Jesus’ parentage,
both in human terms and in the realm of the supernatural.
Jesus’ followers are having thrown at them
the insults that Jesus was the son of a foreigner,
and in the service of the devil.

In the face of this, Jesus utters the simplest of statements,
but with universal echoes.
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.
amēn amēn legō umin, prin abraam genesthai egō eimi

“Ego eimi” – “I am” – in Latin, “ego sum”.
“I am”.
Not “I was”, but “I am”  –  “… before Abraham was, I am.”

Clearly we have there on Jesus’ lips,
and in the understanding of John’s community,
an echo of the divine Name,
the revelation that Moses encounters in the burning bush,
the truth and identity that is forever in the present tense.

Godself, the liberating truth that Christ makes known in our flesh and blood.
Whatever dishonour we may feel is heaped upon us
by a world that generally shrugs us off,
whatever sense of being in exile from our own culture
we might sometimes be aware of,
the truth of God Incarnate is attested by the earliest Believers.

It’s a truth that is also beautiful, poetic, metaphorical,
not a sterile clinical fact, but a rainbow of illumination and depth.

The only true reality, is God.  “Ego eimi” The only, ultimate, “I am”.
That truth sets us free if we allow it to resonate within us,
liberates that which is in exile,
and would have us speak that truth to a cynical world.


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