Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Easter, 17th April 2016

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Series C

St Albans, Epping

17th April, 2016

Rev. Ross Weaver

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23;

Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-3

I have noticed over the years how the emphasis of Anzac Day has changed. When I was a child Anzac Day was a day for the service men and women of Australia. It was their day, a day of remembrance. But it seems to me that these days the emphasis has changed so that now it is a day for all Australians. It’s a day for all of us to celebrate our country and those who have fought to defend it. It is something that everyone can be involved in. In recent times children have been allowed to march wearing the medals of their fathers or their grandfathers. I doubt that would have been allowed when I was a child. Children didn’t have a place in the celebrations back then. But today, the invitation is for everyone to be involved and anyone is welcome to be part of the celebration. Also, there is today the sense of a sacred trust that we must pass on to the next generation an understanding of Anzac Day, an understanding of what Australia has achieved in its own defence. So it is frowned upon on if people don’t give the day some respect, some acknowledgement of the importance of the celebration.

But what we read in today’s reading this celebration of the Jews is similar to our Anzac Day. Here was Israel celebrating the feast of the Dedication. What was that? Just over 150 years beforehand Israel has been invaded. The tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, who claimed to be the very revelation of God, had raided the Temple had desecrated it,and had performed his own sacrifices as well as killing and stealing from as many in the population as he could. Antiochus might have spelt the ruin of the nation of Israel. It was a disaster.

But amazingly, Israel recovered under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus. Judas managed to scratch together an army. Under his very able leadership he drove Antiochus out of Israel and Judas set himself up as their new king. Once Israel had recovered and restored their Temple a special ceremony was conducted to cleanse the Temple and re-dedicate it to the worship of Israel’s God. So each year, in December, they remembered these great events in what they called the feast of Dedication. It was a time to remember a great victory. It was a time of great nationalism as well as a religious ceremony not unlike Lent where people re-dedicated themselves before God. It was a time of year when Israel thought about its own future under Roman rule, where people wondered whether God would do it again, whether God would raise up a new leader, a new messiah who would rid the country of the pollution of these Romans, where Israel would truly be the Holy Land once more.

So we come forward a little over 150 years later and here was Jesus walking through the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the feast of the Dedication. And the one question the Judeans had for Jesus was, “Could he be the Messiah that all Israel was looking for, that great leader who could win back their country, who could restore Israel as God’s land once again? Jesus had been critical of the Pharisees and their piety. Naturally, he was asked the question – what right did he have to criticise these religious leaders. The Jews had seen the miracles Jesus had performed and they wondered who Jesus might be. For much of John’s gospel the question is asked repeatedly regarding Jesus’ identity. Was he a new messiah? If he was, what kind of Messiah was he? Was he going to fight any battles? Was he going to attack the Romans?

Back in chapter 8 we see the same arguments. In the end Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see his day. The people wondered how that were possible when Jesus was less than 50 years old so how could he know Abraham? Then Jesus replied with those words, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This was a very Jewish way of invoking the name of God himself. It was an indirect way of claiming to be equal with God. The Jews understood exactly what Jesus meant and they responded by picking up stones to stone him for such blasphemy.

And these questions about Jesus and his identity are just as relevant today. Who is this Jesus? What was he teaching? What was his main message? What was Jesus’ missions? Many churches are re-thinking their fundamental beliefs. Even the Pope has been involved in this process. But one sad side of this process has been the rise of churches who believe their teaching is better than the other churches. The Pope has said that no matter what church you come from, the fundamental issue is one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Saviour. The Pope is emphasizing our unity, what we share in common. But these other churches are not interested in unity. They emphasize difference. They want to be seen as separate and distinctive from all the rest. So if you go along to Hillsong and listen to Brian Huston it won’t be long before he will start to criticise other churches pointing out how Hillsong is better than anyone else. It has been a common theme in his preaching over many years.

But we see the same approach in our Anglican Churches. The previous Archbishop used to encourage people to attend a “Bible-believing” church, or a church that was “Christ-centered”. Here, he was speaking about Anglican churches implying that there were some Anglican churches in Sydney that were not Bible-believing and not Christ-centered. But when you think about it, the idea is nonsense. What Anglican church in Sydney does not have the Bible at the centre of its liturgy. What Anglican church is not “Christ-centered’? Sadly, it leads to the idea that there is a two-tier Anglican church in Sydney, the best and the rest. It is the John West theology of church membership. It is because of the churches I have rejected that makes the one I attend the best. This is nonsense if not heresy.

There is also different approaches in Sydney to how one understands Jesus. These Bible-believing churches generally attempt to understand Christ through the reading of Paul’s letters. The advantage of Paul’s letters is that they often address the pastoral concerns of the day and so they are easy to apply to the pastoral issues of today. But sadly, there is a methodological problem here in that we can’t assume the pastoral issues of two thousand year ago are the same as the issues of today. So wrong assumptions are easily made. Many people have also tried to systematize Paul’s theology and pastoral teaching where no real system actually exists and attempts to systematize have been a failure.

The other approach is to learn about Jesus by reading the gospels. This is a much harder task because so many issues Jesus addressed don’t have a direct relevance to us today. He preached to a very different culture to the one we inhabit. But ironically, all this leaves us asking the same questions about Jesus that we read about in today’s gospel reading. The Jews had seen amazing miracles. They couldn’t believe their own eyes. They were so stunning they could not be ignored. They had heard Jesus’ radical teaching. His views about God were very different from what the Pharisees believed. Constantly people asked if Jesus really were from God or was he an agent of the devil. These are difficult questions. There are no easy answers. But this is where John the gospel writer leads us. He confronts us with this Jesus and he demands we think about him. John is the one who confronts us with the empty tomb demanding we come to some conclusion about the resurrection.

There are no easy answers. Trying to contain the glory of Jesus in mere words is an impossible task. But thinking about Jesus, meditating upon him, thinking about him and his ministry to each of us in never a waste of our time. This is the challenge John lays before us.