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This is Jesus - Listen to Him

Ken Russell


A recent decision of the Presbyterian Assembly to exclude from leadership all those in relationships other than man/woman marriage has created interest and concern well beyond the membership of that particular Church. In this sermon at our Mornington Church, Rev Ken Russell examines two passages from Mark's gospel to ask what seems to be the attitude of Jesus, as far we can determine it. to the issues that have led our sister Church to embark on so severe a course?



I sometimes wonder, usually in a mischievous frame of mind, how Jesus would answer were we able to bring him back in a time machine, . . and ask whether he agreed with, or approved of, many of the claims made by his ardent followers today
Thousands, even millions of words, in his name -
Bold, confident assertions, allegedly on his behalf. - well meaning, most of them, sincere, from the heart . . .but were Jesus himself to hear them, from the hindsight of 2000 years, I suspect he would say “ sincerely wrong” .
History is cram full of obvious examples where the authority of Jesus has been grossly abused . . injustices condoned, freedoms denied, horrors inflicted, wars perpetrated, and inhumanity practiced, all in the name of a self-effacing itinerant Galilean preacher, rather ingloriously crucified as a criminal for being rather too loving, too generous and too inclusive of those who were regarded as outsiders in a very class-conscious world. Preachers over the years, from this very pulpit I am sure, have cited example after example of what we might call Jesus-abuse or Jesus- distortion - dictators, tyrants, popes, bishops, reformers and zealots, committing or approving every conceivable human prejudice or violence it is possible to imagine “in his name.”
One would think that 2000 years down the track of what we fondly call “Christian” history, some lessons about misrepresentation might have been learned. After all, scholarship and research about who Jesus really was, and what he actually said, has never been better.
Yet, the problem for our imaginary Jesus, delivered as I suggested in a time machine to the21st century church, is as real as it ever was.
As we arrived in Auckland just over a month ago, the Presbyterian Assembly had just concluded its much-heralded debate on leadership - whether people living in any kind of relationship other than legal man-woman marriage, were fit to exercise leadership in that church . .
We are now all aware of the decision, greeted by restrained but undisguised rejoicing by many who savoured a victory - but for others, the minority, including some here in Dunedin who were reported in the ODT this week, dismay, and a sense of shame.
The issue, as we might expect, stirred up huge controversy in Presbyterian circles in the weeks and months, even years, leading up to the Assembly - but, as we might expect, very little of it got much airing in the media - which was a great shame because that debate traversed hugely important issues for the Church and for the wider community. Issues of inclusion, issues on the nature of the gospel itself, issues concerning a Church that looks protectively in on its own life, as against a Church that looks selflessly out on the world. Typically, the media only got in on the act for the debate itself, and then only to report a few of the simplistic and emotional sentiments expressed on both sides.
The one that I remember, from a passionate young Presbyterian supporting the ban was
“We follow the Scriptures - not Shortland St.
“We follow Christ - not culture.”
I’ll bet that if you remember anything at all of the news of the Assembly just over a month ago, you remember that . . . . it was a cry that carried the day, 230 votes to 124 - it was a cry that made the speaker a short-lived TV star..
I offer three thoughts on what he said . . .
“ the Scriptures – not Shortland St!”
the young man in question obviously sees a lot more of Shortland St than I do - which would not be difficult!
But then, more seriously, my second response would be to say - as the (Mornington) Y@M group so wondrously demonstrated a couple of Sundays ago - the Scriptures - that’s a very wide canvas indeed! Our Youth Group managed remarkably well to give you an overview of the Bible in one service, highlighting as they did some of the important differences - but this ardent self-assured young man eclipses even that achievement - he claims the authority of all scripture, no less, all 66 books, all those sundry authors writing over at least 1000 yrs, for supporting his particular exclusive, parochial view of leadership in the Church.
“Christ - not culture”
And then, most seriously, he claims the authority of Jesus - which is why I mention him at all. Because, there, I suspect was his most presumptuous mistake . . . so easy to claim that name to justify your own sense of self-righteousness . . but how easy, as 2000 yrs of history have shown, to get Jesus wrong. Geoff King, loved by many of you, was one who was not carried away by such mistaken ardour and he took time during Assembly to write a poem to somehow help deal with his grief
When Jesus came to Assembly
they stopped him coming in.
They said he was not married
and might be 'living in sin'.
They wanted their church to be holy
on that final glorious day...
Surely Jesus would not want His leaders
to be de facto, lesbian, gay...
Surely God could 'change' them, and bisexuals
And transgendered - what could that mean??
No!!! Anything less than hetero-marriage
was considered debauched, obscene.So Jesus sat outside Assembly,
And he greeted me there, at the door.
We talked of his unmarried parents,
Of his friends -the prostitutes, and poor.
We wept at the thought of God's children
being told they don’t belong.
We raged at such sanctioned injustice;
We tried hard to sing the Lord's song.
We parted with warmth, and with sadness,
And as Jesus went his way
Assembly passed one more amendment
And the Pharisees won the day...”

Perhaps you’re wondering - where is this leading?
Well, it’s probably time I referred to our first Bible reading - today’s lectionary portion from Mark 12: 28 - 34
Jesus, the Teacher is challenged about authority - nothing unusual, I gather for he was very much a controversial figure, off-side with the religious establishment, and liberal and progressive in his approach to the myriad of rules and customs that good Jews were required to practice. On numerous occasions he had advocated the stripping away of formality and ceremonial when stuffy traditions and rituals imposed burdens on people he met in the course of his ministry. One of these was an argument about the marriage relationship, especially as it effected women - the Saducees going to absurd lengths to debate the hairsbreadth definition of the status of a widow in heaven - one who had married and remarried successive brothers after one by one they died. ( You’d have to wonder about the woman!) For the Church lawyers of the time it was an issue of consuming religious importance, and they tried to drag Jesus into the argument employing an extreme and ridiculous hypothetical situation.
Sick to the back teeth of the entire unproductive dispute a young scribe pulls Jesus out from the crowd, and nails the real question
What’s really important - what’s the heart of our duty to God?
To which Jesus responded with words many of us learned first at Sunday School . . . . “ Love the Lord your God - with heart, soul, strength, and your neighbour as yourself . . . .”

I rather like the observation of Bruce Prewer who, looking over what he sees today in Australian Christianity - its preoccupation with peripheral morality, and a Church looking inwards to its own welfare and survival. He says that in comparison with the loftiest vision of even Hebrew faith, let alone Christian faith, so much of what he sees looks shabby. Popular religion, he says, tries to supply a “use” for faith and worship - it has a consumer mind set. All to often it tries to woo converts to its particular brand by offering rewards.
By contrast, he says, the visionary Jews who were the heroes of Jesus as he was developing his ministry, were those who set out to please God whatever the consequences, and ( he says,) there’s a huge difference between the modern cults who fashion a God who buttresses their ideas, confirms their prejudices, and grants their wishes..
You get the idea that as Jesus was drawn out of that bickering crowd into a face to face with a genuine seeking enquirer, he breathed a purer air . . . and of course, as the two men had their conversation, there was a tacit agreement between them that divorce, whether on earth or in heaven, is ultimately important, but simply loving God and your neighbour - in this was “the whole law and prophets “
One wonders whether the Presbyterian Assembly, so full of Bible scholars, might have done better to read Mark 12: 28 - 34!
Mark is full of those cameos, stories and anecdotes from an unforgettable life that pointed to a more authentic way . . testing the law of God against the care and respect for people. Not altogether as an aside, I rather think our dear friend Anna Chinn was on about the same thing this week in her cameo letter to the ODT
Someone recently left the following handwritten message under my windscreen wiper outside the Allied Press building. Jesus Christ said “I am the Way, the Truth and Life. No one comes to God the Father but by Me.”
Thankyou, says Anna, I am familiar with his teachings. I especially liked it when he said “Do not go near each others cars in my name, for it is creepy.”
There’s that “in my name” phrase again . . we’ve got to be very careful! Thanks Anna for a shorter sermon than I have ever preached!

And then, trawling through recent readings from Mark I was tempted to go back several weeks in the Lectionary, and to take another read of 9:2-8. I have read this Transfiguration piece scores of times, and so have you, but sometimes no matter how familiar you think it is to you, something will leap out at you, as it did to me
- Mark 9: 2 – 8 ( read)
It’s not an easy story - full of Jewish mysticism and significance and a bit unworldy for pragmatic rational people like me. But bear with it, There’s Jesus, grappling with the huge issue of his calling and his destiny . . . chatting with the great patriarchs of the past, Moses and Elijah - an awe-inspiring moment you’d have to say . . . and then the ground-breaking word to Peter and John who are the awestruck witnesses to all of this “ This is my beloved Son, Jesus - Listen to him.”
And I tell you it hit even me with some force - hey, here’s the world church spilling its guts all over its expensive carpets and polished floors over the rights and wrongs of gay and lesbian ordination and leadership
The moral dimension - the cultural dimension
The traditional dimension - the unity dimension
The scriptural dimension
- it goes on and on - the most bitterly divisive issue, I think, maybe, since indulgences and slavery.
Pretty well every one of those Presbyterian congregations represented at Assembly, not to mention the ones at Conference in Rotorua right now, have trawled their way through Mark in this “Year of Mark”
- did they stand for even a moment on the slopes with Peter and John and hear again that seminal word for the Church in every generation since . . “This is my beloved Son Jesus - listen to him.”
And if we do listen - we hear nothing about homosexuality - I doubt he would have known anything about it in the way we do . . . his was an age steeped in terrible ignorance and superstition, and models of behaviour we could not imagine, let alone condone. And he would have struggled to update himself on everything we put under the umbrella of defacto - let alone civil unions - let alone faithful gay and lesbian relationships. Jesus has not ever been an authority of any of that stuff that the church continues to disembowel itself about . . . our Church as well, sadly, as the Conference will again discover to its discomfort this week.
Yet, God help us if in embracing the trivia of moral judgementalism so prominent in the church’s solemn deliberations, we ignore that word of authority, delivered to us - not by time machine, but through the succession of faith - this is Jesus, listen to him.
And what is he saying? Well that’s for every faithful Christian to discover for himself or herself . . but the last time I listened, I believe I heard in unforgettable words , and with warnings about imposters and false shepherds
“ Many will come in my name - crying ‘ Lord, Lord’ - do not follow them” . . . but
“love one another, as I have loved you - there is no greater love”




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