Last Sunday of Church Year

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossions 1: 11-20; St Luke 23:23-43; & St Luke 13:22-30

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’gordon

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

The lectionary for today relates to the fact that it is the last Sunday of the church year. The subject of the lessons from the holy gospel is that the end of the church year is a time of fulfilment, Jesus ministry is fulfilled when He is crowned with thorns as the crucified King. And we shall see how the gospel lessons interpret this. To understand we must realise the Gospel narrative uses various words in the Greek language which indicate time not simply in terms of its chronology, its chronos (χρόνος). For example, the kind of thing Shakespeare had in mind in his famous soliloquy by Macbeth at the news of the death of Lady Macbeth: –

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

20Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

25That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

That is chronological (χρόνος) time. But the gospel also uses another word to speak of time not of time which just finishes, which comes to an end: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow kind of time. But time understood as having a purpose. We have no English word which expresses time as having a purpose, we only have words for time which expresses duration, a beginning and an end. But there is another word used in the NT for time which expresses not simply the passing of time, as in (χρόνος) chronological time, but time in terms of purpose. This word is Chairos (καιρός) which means fulfilment of purpose.

We can understand something of this mystery relating to our experience of time when we consider the relationship between the two lessons from the holy gospel of St Luke before us today. The reading set for the day, St Luke 33., the crucifixion of Jesus, his awful death on the cross between two thieves. The other from St Luke 13: 22ff, we read; –

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

In St Luke’s gospel the whole narrative of Jesus ministry is considered in terms of its (καιρός), its purpose. So, we read in chapter 9: verse 51 that “When the days drew near for him (Jesus) to be received up he set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem.”  From this point in the gospel narrative everything that happens is related to the fulfilment of Jesus ministry in Jerusalem and the crucifixion. This is the purpose of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and for the next 15 chapters of the gospel; that is the context and meaning of all that happens and is said.

This journey upon which Jesus embarks, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem”, lasts until chapter 23 & 24 of the gospel with the crucifixion and its aftermath and then into the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where we see the purpose of the journey fulfilled when, after the cross and resurrection, Jesus is “received up” into heaven as the risen Lord of the church.

It is in this context, this very specific context, that we must understand Jesus words that meet us in the gospel reading. For we must understand our journey, our life’s time, in the light of this journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. For our life’s time is given purpose and meaning by Jesus life’s time in His journey to Jerusalem.

The journey which Jesus undertakes to Jerusalem is one which started as he “set his face steadfastly” toward that city. We are to see in this, that the passion of Christ which he here sets his face toward, is not an accident that overtakes Jesus. His cross is not some fate which happens to him. His passion is that which He sees as the fulfilment of His life. This fulfilment is his identification with us as the Son of God. His taking to himself our flesh, with all that that entails in terms of what it means for him. Here he enters the far country of our human godforsakenness. This is the journey which Jesus is travelling, this is the way he embraces in v.51 of the 9th chapter of St. Luke when he sets his face “steadfastly to go to Jerusalem”.

It is in the light of this very specific journey that we must understand our journey as this is referred to by Jesus words in the lesson from St Luke 13. Which I read.

Jesus speaks of a narrow way, of few there be who find it; of exclusion, a shut door, and weeping and gnashing of teeth; of the last who shall be first and the first who shall be last.

Where is the popular image of Jesus as the Galilean carpenter, the itinerant teacher with his homespun philosophy of the golden rule; who speaks of the fatherly care of God for all people. These sayings are particularly harsh on those who acted on the assumption that they had a friendly relationship with God, that God was as it were one of them, a “mate”. They say, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets.” To them the reply is, “I do not know where you come from.” The final judgment will bring many surprises; those that think they are in will be out and those who appear to be out will be in.

There have been those in the history of the church who, confronted with this puzzle, have propounded a teaching which said that since God’s judgment is just, and since we cannot do anything to justify ourselves, and since some will be excluded by God’s judgment there must be a hidden eternal decree by which God elects some and excludes or damns others. Those who accepted this preposterous thesis nevertheless sought assurance in signs of God’s election of them according to the material blessings which they claimed God had given them. Poverty on the other hand was understood as a sign of God’s judgment. Some social historians have attempted to blame this doctrine as having a significant influence upon the easy acceptance by Christians of the excesses of early capitalism. And this doctrine is not too removed from those incredible TV evangelists who peddle the teaching that if you have worldly success then God is on your side. There are many to whom this godless doctrine is their practical rule of thumb for understanding God’s action in their life: the acquisition of private wealth as a sign of God’s blessing and poverty as a sign of God’s judgment.

Well these harsh words of Jesus turn this comfortable doctrine which infects the church and the lives of many Christian people upside down. Jesus says there is no way we can know, in terms of who we are that God is on our side, that the door will not be shut in our face: that we will not hear the reply to our pleas, since we believed we were on familiar terms with God,  Jesus the Judge says to these people, “I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!”

But how is this harsh exclusiveness in Jesus words about God’s judgment to be understood?

 How are the terrible misunderstandings of such words in the history of the church to be avoided?

We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus utters these words on his way to Jerusalem where he is to die. The Son of God descends to the depths of our human condition before God in this his final godforsakenness. Thus, the words of Jesus in their harshness are meant, in the first instance, to draw our attention to the immeasurable cost of human redemption. The fact that our relationship with God is bought at such terrible price. The eternal Son of God, clothing himself with our humanity and shedding his blood, means that our relationship with God is not a truth or reality controllable or manipulated by our petty religious foibles or fancies.

These harsh words of Jesus are intended to indicate that the narrow way that leads to life, or the door that is to be opened, is not a way or a door that can be found and opened by us at all. It can only be opened for us not by us. It is precisely in this that the narrowness of the way consists.

There is nothing mysterious about feeling we are on good terms with God when our natural inclinations and temporal interests are served by that fact. We too can say, like the people outside the shut door, “We have eaten and drank with you and you have taught in our streets.”

What is mysterious to us is that the narrow way that leads to life before God is not found by us. The harsh words that exclude all human attempts to find an easy way to God and avoid the contradictions of the human condition: the narrowness of the way, the harshness of the judgment, is meant to lead us to the awful humility of God who in the inconceivable freedom of grace takes the godforsakenness of our human condition upon his own heart and bears it, and in bearing it, bears it away from us. It is this singular mysterious action of God, which is the narrow way that leads to life, the door that shuts out all those whom believe they can find their own way to God by their good deeds, their happy personal circumstance, or spiritual experiences and ecstatic ecstasies.

The harsh words of Jesus are meant to drive us to depend upon God’s free grace. And this grace alone! God’s mercy is not an abstract idea of goodness; it is demonstrated to all who hear these words from the One who speaks them. In Jesus, the one who “sets his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem” for our sake. It is this One, the crucified God who is the judge of the world whom we must name as our King and only saviour, when we stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is in and through his redeeming work that our life, in its ending, is fulfilled in its purpose.

Dr. Gordon Watson.

The last Sunday in the Church Year

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year. Next week will be the first Sunday in Advent.gordon

I want to use a quote from Winston Churchills speech to the English people on the defeat by the English 8th Army together with the Australians at Tobruk and Alamein of Rommel’s Afrika Korp. In 1942 he said,

“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill.

For Christians today, there is an end and a beginning, there is fulfilment, finality, end but also hope. Fulfillment and Hope would be another way of expressing what today is in the Christian understanding of time. Our time, Our lifetime, the Lifetime of the world. This is the case since the Christian understanding of time is not based on the sun and the moon whereby in a rough manner, we understand time in terms of years and months. But the church understands time in terms of how God has and will act in his redeeming activity revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word.

We understand time by the way we experience it as past present and future time. We indeed measure it by clocks and watches. This kind of time the Bible calls chronos, what Shakespeare described as “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time”; on the other hand, the Bible has a name for the time which we celebrate today at the end and the beginning of the church year. It is called Kairos, that is time understood in terms of a purpose not as Shakespeare described our time, “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth spoken by Macbeth)

Today’s lesson from the Holy Gospel of St John speaks of Jesus role in the coming judgment of Christians and the world. They are cryptic words. Words which do not have an evident meaning in terms of how the world viewed and understands the One who speaks them, Jesus of Nazareth. He is on his way to the cross and in the next chapter of the gospel he indicates that only those who eat the bread of life, his body and blood, have eternal life.

Here Jesus cryptic words refer to his role in the coming cosmic judgment of the world. And what a contrast they express! The carpenter’s son from Nazareth with a band of semi illiterate disciples identifies Himself as the One who judges the world. That his being and presence in the world has this kind of cosmic significance.

What has this to do with where we find ourselves today at the end and the beginning of the Christian Year? Fulfilment and Hope, that is what it is about. An end and a beginning which must be understood from its pivotal point in the person of Jesus Christ. He it is who determines how our time and the time of world is understood. We come today to the end of time as measured by our experience of time as a fleeting past and present and an unknown future. But we come today and look toward a future time measured not by our experience but by Him who, having identified himself with us in his humiliating journey to the cross, now determines our time as a future with hope because of who He is and what he has done. For Jesus as judge receives His power as the humiliated and crucified One from God the Father. The way he is going, the course of his life, his time, is not a random series of haphazard events without meaning and purpose.  According to Jesus words in St John He receives His authority from the Father as the Judge of the world. We know from St John in chapter one that this same Jesus is the co-eternal Word of God who was with God in the beginning and is the One through whom the world came into existence and that He is one with the Father: as the Nicene Creed puts it, He is “of one being (homoousios)with the Father.” That He receives authority as judge means that it is as the humiliated and crucified One, the One who become incarnate for our sakes. Became one with us to establish our righteousness through His self-emptying journey to the cross. He receives this authority not for His own sake but for ours. That he may be one with and represent us to the Father.

“For as the Father has life in Himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgement because he is the Son of Man.” John 5:26

Jesus, as the Son of God, is ever one with the Father and does not need to have life given to Him. He with the Spirit are ever one with the Father. But here Jesus says his capacity to have life in himself is a gift from the Father. He thus speaks as the One who has condescended to make himself one with us; who do not have life in themselves. He speaks as the one who will glorify the Father in His obedience unto death. He speaks as the one who is vindicated by the Father for our sakes, as He is raised from the dead. His being given the gift of having life in Himself is therefore to be understood as a gift He receives NOT for Himself, but on our behalf as the One who represents us in our alienation from God.

As this One He lives and rules the church and the world. According to his words his presence now in His word and sacrament is how the world under the thraldom of sin and death is judged.

” The hour is coming, and NOW is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man and those who hear will live.” John 5:25

The presently active judgment of God of which Jesus speaks happens through His word. His word is the medium that now calls into being, actively creates the condition, whereby the cosmos, the world, is judged. The word of Jesus defines reality; Jesus word of promise changes the status of the world. Not simply as we perceive it and understand it; the power of Jesus word as that of the living crucified One is that which establishes the truth of our life before God, despite who we may think we are. It creates out of nothing a life of righteousness in the place of our sin, eternal life in the place of death. “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man and those who hear will live”. This judgment takes place despite appearances to the contrary, even though our experience of ourselves and the world contradicts it. This redefinition of reality by the word of Jesus is the foundation of our present hope, it alone sustains the church in its journey towards His final appearing.

Precisely the same paradox in respect of our time and the reality of our life of righteousness in Christ compared with how we experience ourselves and our time of sin and death, this very same paradox created by the presence of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God in the world, applies to the church and its relationship with the world.

Today, as we have just indicated, is an end and a beginning, fulfillment and hope, the end of the Church Year and the Beginning of a New Time when we look towards the Advent, the coming of Christ the Judge, who defines our time as past and future by the gift of His righteousness and the final destruction of sin and death. This is also true of the Church.

Fulfillment and hope are also how we understand the church and its life in the world. For like individual Christians and their pathetically feeble witness to Christ and His glory, compared with the promise of Christ’s Word that they know sustains them in righteousness before God. With the church it is no different.

What significance does the existence of the church really have in the tumultuous life of the city or it’s industry? What significance does the modest Sunday Service or Mass have

compared with what humanity usually sets up and deifies as the meaning of Sunday? What is the actual result of the church’s activity? Compared with the great or little achievements in other spheres of human activity, the discoveries of science and the inventions of technology, what is really accomplished in a visible and tangible form that can concretely demonstrated and of enough importance to be described in a meaningful way in the press?

What human beings do may be great or small but at least it is done in the light of day. What the church does in the world in all its uniqueness and cosmic importance never appears. It is hidden. This is the weakness of the church when compared with other human enterprises.

Yet in the weakness of its efforts and achievements there is concealed the active strength of the church. The church need not be ashamed of its weakness. In fact, it must seriously renounce all attempts to give itself the appearance of strength. It must see that its honour consists in the fact that its being unimpressive and unsuccessful is because it is in the company of Jesus Christ. It can therefore know its hidden but very real power. For the strength of the Christian community consists in the fact that in all its obvious weakness it is not concerned plainly and noticeably with the most important matters of the day, but with the matter which whether known or unknown by the wider community is determinative for all people. It is concerned with the decision taken in Jesus Christ in favour for all people: for their deliverance from sin and death, that they are free and not slaves, that they may live and not die. This decision and its coming revelation is that which holds the world together, whether the world realises it or not. If the world concerns itself with the periphery of things, the church concerns itself with the centre of all things that relate to human existence.

What other work, or accomplishment in politics and art, industry and technology, can be done with the unlimited confidence that the church has as it looks to the revelation of this decision of God in Jesus Christ. No other human work or activity has this strength concealed in its weakness. All other human work is done under the pressure of consequences, of success. The Church is free from this pressure because it may know and trust, can praise and confess the One who is the Coming judge of all things. This is the confidence, the strength, the hope that this word of God gives to us today.

“Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24.

Pastor Dr. Gordon Watson