Monday, 17 June 2013

Was Luther right on justification by faith?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
16 June 2013

Galatians 2.11-21      
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I stood up to him face to face. He was in the wrong. 12 Before certain persons came from James, Peter was eating with the Gentiles. But when they came, he drew back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcision-people. 13The rest of the Jews did the same, joining him in this play-acting. Even Barnabas was carried along by their sham. 14But when I saw that they weren’t walking straight down the line of gospel truth, I said to Cephas in front of them all: ‘Look here: you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?’
15We are Jews by birth, not ‘Gentile sinners’. 16But we know that a person is not declared ‘righteous’ by works of the Jewish Law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.
That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared ‘righteous’ on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared ‘righteous’.
17Well then; if, in seeking to be declared ‘righteous’ in the Messiah, we ourselves are found to be ‘sinners’, does that make the Messiah an agent of ‘sin’? Certainly not! 18If I build up once more the things which I tore down, I demonstrate that I am a lawbreaker.
19Let me explain it like this. Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. 20I am, however, alive – but it isn’t me any longer, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
21I don’t set aside God’s grace. If ‘righteousness’ comes through the law, then the Messiah died for nothing.
            From The New Testament for Everyone translated by Tom Wright

Acts 10:1-16   In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called.  2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.  3 One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius."  4 He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter;  6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside."  7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him,  8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.  9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.  10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance.  11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.  12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.  13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat."  14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean."  15 The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

Meet Martin Luther, the founding father of the protestant reformation. He was the son of a copper miner, who went to university before joining the Roman Catholic church as an Augustinian Friar. He quickly set himself apart as a man with great academic gifts, and was soon teaching at the University of Wittenberg. When he was 27, he made a visit to Rome on behalf of some Augustinian monasteries, and whilst he was there he became appalled at the corruption he encountered in the hierarchy of the church. The thing that most distressed the young Luther was a practice known as the ‘selling of indulgences’ where priests would, in exchange for large amounts of money, perform the ritual for the forgiveness of sins either on behalf of someone still living or indeed on behalf of someone who had died. What this amounted to was, in effect, a licence to print money. The great fear of the medieval mind, and it was a fear that the church did little to alleviate, was the fear of spending either eternity in hell or a considerable period of time in purgatory. And so priests who offered release from purgatory, or forgiveness for sins, in exchange for money, were clearly onto a good thing.

But the thing which so upset Luther wasn’t so much the blatant profiteering  from religious fear and superstition, as it was the propagation  of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later come to call ‘cheap grace’. Bonhoeffer speaks of Martin Luther’s growing conviction: ‘When the Reformation came, the providence of God raised Martin Luther to restore the gospel of pure, costly grace... [God] showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction.’(The Cost of Discipleship, Ch.1)

On 31st October 1517 Luther published his now famous ’95 Theses’, in which he attacked the sale of indulgences along with what he regarded as many other abuses of the church’s power. As was the University custom, he pinned the theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, and in many ways, the European reformation began here.

One of Luther’s great concerns was that the doctrine and practice of the church should be based on scripture, rather than tradition. And it was his study of Paul’s letters, particularly Romans and Galatians, that led him to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic church of his era had gone so far away from a biblical perspective that full scale reformation was needed. When Luther read Romans and Galatians, he thought that in Paul he had met a kindred spirit, battling against the forces of tradition and legalism in favour of liberty and freedom.

The Paul which Luther met in the Bible was a man engaged in a battle with a group of Jewish Christians who were trying to impose Jewish legal requirements on the Gentile Christian converts of the first century. Paul seemed, to Luther, to be arguing against legalism, he seemed to be fighting against the attempts  by certain religious leaders to introduce the requirements of legal tradition into the relationship between the ordinary person and God. And for Luther, this seemed in many ways to parallel the situation in which he found himself. For Luther, Paul’s battle against Jewish legalism was a parallel to his own battle against the corruption of Catholicism. And in this battle, Luther encountered Paul’s doctrine of Justification by faith as the final clinching biblical argument that people are not justified by the church, or by priests, or by indulgences, or by any other ritual or practice, but by faith alone.

As Luther said in his commentary on this morning’s passage from Galatians: ‘Here the question arises by what means are we justified? We answer with Paul, "By faith only in Christ are we pronounced righteous, and not by works." Not that we reject good works. Far from it. But we will not allow ourselves to be removed from the anchorage of our salvation.’

So far so good. But, and it’s a big but, there is an issue here relating to the translation from the original Greek of Paul’s letter, and it’s one of those translation issues that really matters! I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people regarding the difficulty of translating things into a different language. There are a good number of people here today who speak English as their second, or even third or fourth, language! And I’m sure they will know the difficulty that can sometimes be faced when trying to take a phrase from one language and accurately translate it into another. Last Sunday afternoon I preached at the Japanese Christian Fellowship which meets here at Bloomsbury on a Sunday afternoon, and my translator asked me for a copy of my sermon in advance so she could work on the translation. Afterwards, one of the things she said was that I use a lot of English idiom. And that she had had to put some thought into how to best render what I was saying into Japanese.

Well, this morning’s reading from Galatians contains two words in the Greek where it is not entirely clear how they should be translated. The words are ‘pistis Christou’ and they can either be translated as ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faith(fullness) of Christ’. For those of you who are linguists, the difference is whether it should be treated as a subjective genitive or an objective genitive but we don’t need to know the technical jargon to appreciate that this is a significant difference. And there is no linguistic way of judging between them: both are acceptable renderings of the original Greek. Which means it is unclear whether Paul, in Galatians 2.16, means to say: that a person is made righteous by faith in Christ, or that a person is made righteous by the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ.

Clearly Luther went with ‘faith in Christ’ reading, because it so clearly resonated with the attack he was wanting to make on the corrupted practices of the church of his own time. Luther’s point was clear: You are not justified by the works of the church, you are justified by faith in Christ alone. And in opting for this he made an exegetical decision which was born of his cultural context, and which, inadvertently, set the trajectory for protestant theology for the next five centuries.

There are some very good things to come out of Luther’s reading of justification by faith in Christ. For starters, it brings an emphasis on personal response, where you become a follower of Jesus through free choice. This emphasis on the faithful response of the individual opened the door for a whole raft of breakaway Christian movements including our own Baptist congregations and in many ways spelled the beginning of the end for the unholy alliance of church and state that had come to be known as Christendom. The emphasis on justification by faith in Christ also gave rise in time to the evangelical movement, with all the great missionary endeavours that followed, as the gospel of Christ was conceived of as ‘good news’ which needed to be told as far and wide as possible.

Again, so far so good. But Luther’s theology also opened the door to some dark places as well, and I’m especially thinking here of the way in which his conflation of Jewish legalism with Catholic corruption paved the way for wave after wave of European anti-Semitism, with a reformed Europe needing to be purged of the ‘legalistic Jews’ who had killed Christ. Indeed, one of his more distressing works, was an essay entitled ‘The Jews and Their Lies’ which he published in 1543. The concluding paragraph gives you a summary: ‘My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew) with enough material not only to defend himself against the blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of the Jews' malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils. May Christ, our dear Lord, convert them mercifully and preserve us steadfastly and immovably in the knowledge of him, which is eternal life. Amen.’

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith in Christ also led to many Christian groups over-emphasizing the ‘personal response’ that is required for a person to be considered a proper Christian. And this over-emphasis on ‘personal choice’ can lead away from the entirely proper freedom to choose one’s religion, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to an ‘in or out’ mentality, where various shibboleth’s are used to define in ever more nuanced fashion the question of whether someone is actually justified. Justification by faith in Christ has become, in many strands of post-Lutheran Christianity, a requirement to choose faith, and to then demonstrate that choice in some proscribed manner as a requirement for full acceptance within the body of the church. Whether it is a requirement to say a prayer of commitment in a certain way, the ‘sinners prayer’ as it is sometimes called; or a requirement to manifest a particular expression of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues; or a requirement to undergo a certain rite or ritual, such as believer-baptism; the effect has been to place a fence or boundary around the people of God whereby those who are ‘in’, know that they are ‘in’, and those who are ‘out’ know that they are ‘out’.

All of which is rather ironic, given this morning’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Those who are enthusiastic about Justification by faith in Christ alone will quickly focus in on 2.16. But I want us to take a step back for a moment and remember that Paul wasn’t writing a thesis on justification. Rather, he was writing a personal letter to some friends, and his theology on justification by faith is not some abstract statement of the doctrine of salvation, but the answer he gives to a real and intensely pastoral practical problem, which was grounded in a very real and pragmatic situation.

It seems that Peter, yes ‘St Peter’ of the 12 disciples fame, had been struggling with the issue of how to relate to the gentiles who had started following Jesus. Particularly, he had been struggling with the issue of whether it was appropriate for him, as a Jewish follower of Jesus, to sit and eat with non-Jewish followers. Our second reading this morning told the story from the book of Acts where Peter received his vision of a table-cloth spread with all kinds of food, both ritually clean and ritually unclean. A heavenly voice told him to eat, and Peter protested that he had never eaten ritually unclean food. The voice told him that what God had made clean, he must not regard as unclean. The context of this vision was that Peter was about to be called to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius to lead him and his family to faith in Jesus without requiring them to convert to Judaism, something that Peter, as an observant Jew, might have struggled to do. And the message is clear: in the renewed people of God that has come into being in Christ, ethnicity and cultural practice are no bar to membership of God’s people.

However, if we fast-forward some twenty years to Antioch, it seems that Peter was still grappling with the issue of the full inclusion of gentiles who have converted to Christianity. He had been quite happily integrating his Jewish identity with the Gentile Christians there, until some Jewish visitors from James arrived. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and also one of the brothers of Jesus. It seems as if the Jerusalem church, based in the Jewish capital, had not really addressed the issue of fully integrating gentile converts, and so when they arrived, Peter and the other Jewish Christians in Antioch had started to separate themselves from eating and socialising with the ritually unclean gentile Christians.

Paul tells the Galatians in his letter that when he discovered this he was having none of it! And that he had called Peter’s hypocrisy for what it was: ‘Look here’, Paul said to Peter, ‘you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?’ And here we catch a glimpse of what, for Paul, was the defining issue of his ministry and his theology. If God has included in his kingdom the ritually unclean gentiles, then the ritually clean Jewish Christians have no cause to exclude them in any way, including the refusal to sit at table and eat with them. Paul is utterly opposed to any sense of drawing back, any implication that the ‘best’ or ‘proper’ Christians are those who combine their following of Jesus with their on-going observance of the law. Paul does not accept that those who are followers of Christ but not followers of the Jewish law are in any sense second-rate citizens of the kingdom of God. And so he says, ‘we know that a person is not justified by the works of the Jewish law, but through faith.’

The context for Paul’s great statement in Galatians on Justification by faith is that of Jesus eating with gentiles in the churches of Christ. Of course, for Paul the Jew, this was a radical departure from his previous beliefs as a Pharisee, just as it is a radical departure for Peter the Jewish fisherman from Galilee. But for Paul it is not a break with the past, rather it is the appropriate development of his Jewish heritage. For Paul, the stories of his Jewish ancestors found in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were stories of God’s on-going faithfulness to his people. God had made a covenant with Abraham that for Abraham’s children, the Jewish nation, he would be their God and they would be his people. And the Hebrew Scriptures tell of God’s on-going faithfulness to that covenant even when the people of Israel behaved in ways that broke their part of the covenant.

But for Paul there was a purpose to God choosing Israel, there was a purpose to God calling them to be his people and promising to be their God. And that purpose was to ultimately bring not just Israel but all nations into the kingdom of God. Not just the Jews but the gentiles as well. And it is this covenant purpose that Paul understood as having been fulfilled in Christ. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God had decisively intervened in human history to bring about the fulfilment of his covenant with Abraham as the gates of the kingdom were thrown open so that all could be made righteous through faith, and through faith alone.

However, here our exploration of Paul’s thought hits up against Luther’s exegetical decision to render Paul’s Greek phrase pistis Christou as ‘faith in Christ’. Many contemporary scholars are now convinced that here in Galatians, as well as in Romans and elsewhere, the alternative translation is more appropriate. That is why our reading this morning was from Tom Wright’s translation ‘The Bible for Everyone’ rather than our usual pew Bible the NRSV, which puts the alternative reading only as a footnote. It seems most likely that what Paul meant when he used the phrase, ‘a person is justified not by the works of the law but by pistis Christou’ was that a person is justified not by their faith in Christ, but by the faithfulness of Christ. In other words, it is on the basis of the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant of God, demonstrated through his death and resurrection, that people are declared righteous. The human response of faith is not what makes a person righteous, God does that for them through the faithfulness of Christ. The faith-full response of the believer is the appropriate response to what God has already done.

The relationship between the covenant faithfulness of Christ and the Christian response of faith is analogous to the relationship within Judaism of the covenant faithfulness of God and the Jewish response of faithfulness to the Jewish law. And Paul is clear: for Jews, keeping the law was the appropriate and faithful response to the covenant faithfulness of God, but the works of the law in themselves did not make a person righteous. It’s the same with the Christian response to the faithfulness of Christ: keeping the faith is the appropriate response to Christ’s covenant faithfulness, but we are not made righteous by our faith. We are declared righteous because of the faithfulness of Christ. Therefore any attempt to introduce any kind of division within the kingdom of God based on different responses of faith on the part of Christians is as bad as Peter withdrawing from the Gentile Christians and refusing to sit and eat with them.

And here, perhaps, we start to hear the challenge for us today: Who, I wonder, might we not want to sit at table and eat with? Who might we not want to share food with? Where might we start to draw the boundaries in our minds, hearts, and lives which begin the process of setting ourselves apart form others? What ‘works of the law’ are there in us which, whilst entirely appropriate responses in themselves to the faithfulness of Christ, run the risk of becoming defining issues by which we reckon ourselves righteous and others unrighteous? In what ways do we nee to hear Paul saying to us: ‘we know that a person is not declared righteous by the works of the law, but through the faithfulness of the Jewish messiah.’ Our faithful ethical and moral response to Christ is certainly the appropriate response of faith, but it does not in itself declare us righteous. We are not justified through our faith in Christ, but through the faithfulness of Christ to us!

Just in case Paul’s Galatian readers hadn’t got the point yet, he goes on over the next few verses to spell it out even more clearly. The reason, he says, why Jews should believe in Jesus as their messiah is precisely because their faithful adherence to the Jewish law had not enabled them to be declared righteous. In fact, any attempt to keep the law for its own sake had only served to highlight the sinfulness that lurks deep within the human heart. Paul was painfully aware that none of us, by our own efforts, can become perfect. Goodness knows as a Pharisee he’d given it his best shot. But he knew that no-one by their own efforts can banish every wicked thought, every selfish action, however successful they may be at projecting piety in their outward being. Our souls know better, and we cannot heal ourselves. The path to true righteousness lies outside of us, not within. It is found in surrendering to the one who is faithful to us, and to God’s covenant purposes for all people. We are declared righteous not because of what we do or who we are, but because of what Christ did and who he is.

And what he did was this: in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham, Christ died under the law so that we might die to the law with him, and in so doing might find release from the compulsion to find our own path to righteousness. And in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham, Christ was raised to new life to bring into being a new humanity where people are themselves made truly alive because Christ lives in them. The response of faith to the faithfulness of Christ is what leads us to baptism, It is the response of faith that calls us to enter the tomb with Christ so that we might be raised with him to new life. But baptism does not save us; it is the appropriate faithful response to the faithfulness of Christ. We are declared righteous through the faithfulness of Jesus the messiah. This is the gospel of Christ, and it is good news for us all. Amen.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The death of a young man, and the hope of resurrection.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9th June 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24  After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  18 She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!"  19 But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.  20 He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"  21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again."  22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."  24 So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."

Luke 7:11-17   Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.  13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."  14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!"  17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

The death of a young person is never good news: whether it's a young soldier at the hands of extremists, a young woman at the hands of her abductor, the tragically youthful victim of accident or illness, or the young sons of widows in ancient Israel, the premature ending of life is tragic and distressing; it always has been, and it always will be. And it’s something that affects not only the immediate family and friends of the person who has died, but the whole community within which they lived. There is something about a young death that affects everyone who hears of it. It grieves the soul, it challenges our perceptions of our own mortality, and it requires of us a choice as to how we will live in the light of our own continuing existence.

Last weekend, Liz and I went to visit the John Keats’ House Museum in Hampstead, and we were struck not only by the tragedy of his death, from tuberculosis at the tender age of 25, but also by the fact that by the time he died, he had, by some estimations, revolutionised English poetry, even if the extent of his contribution wasn’t recognised until some years after his untimely death. Indeed, part of the tragedy of Keats’ story was that he knew he was dying, and he was convinced that he had failed in his task of writing poetry of enduring value. He famously wrote to his fiancée Fanny Brawne, saying "I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things,    and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd." So said the great, and eternally young, John Keats.

Knowing that that the passages for today’s sermon were two stories of untimely death, over the last week I have found myself thinking about other people who are known, not only for their contributions to humanity, but also for their tragically early deaths. From Anne Frank to Eddie Cochran, from Buddy Holly to James Dean, from Alexander the Great to Princess Diana, From Vincent Van Gough to Caravaggio, from Amadeus Mozart to Amy Winehouse, the list goes on and on… And there is something deeply compelling about the tragic combination of youthful demise with the brilliance of youthful prodigy. The questions are unavoidable: What would they have become if they had lived? What further greatness has been denied to humanity? How best can we immortalise their memory and contribution? In some ways, it can seem as if society seeks to almost deify those who die young, with the retrospective of obituary providing our opportunity to canonise their contribution and purge their shortcomings.

The two passages for this morning, one from the first book of Kings, and the other from Luke’s gospel, tell very similar stories. Both narratives feature a widow; a woman who has lost her husband, and along with her husband, her financial security and her status within society. In both stories, the widow’s only hope for the future rests with her only son. These, you understand, were patriarchal days. Women didn’t normally work for money, at least not honourably, and so they relied on their husbands or sons to provide for them.
The life of a widow with no son was no life at all; she would be at the mercy of the charity of others, alone in a hostile world. And in both our stories, the only son of the lonely widow falls sick and dies. The death of a child is always a terrible tragedy, but for a widow in ancient Israel, it meant more than personal grief, it meant economic destitution, and social rejection. Both these stories, tragic though they are, were also stories of normality. Widows were not uncommon, childhood illnesses were not uncommon, lack of food was not uncommon teenage death was not uncommon. A widow whose son dies was not uncommon. Tragic? Yes. Heartbreaking? Yes. Uncommon? No. And yet, in both these stories, the unexpected happens. The oh-so-predictable outcome of the story is subverted, the future is re-written, the certainty of death is confronted with the unforeseen intervention of resurrection, and suddenly everything is different.

Let’s start with Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. The context here was Elijah’s lone struggle against the Baal cult which king Ahab had introduced into Israel. At Elijah’s proclamation, the Lord had sent a drought on the land, to provoke Ahab into repentance. But the drought was affecting everyone; from the King, to Elijah himself, to the poor widow and her son. By rights, they should all have been at death’s door, and Elijah had only survived this far because he had been miraculously fed by ravens. He then turned up at the house of the widow, who was about to prepare her final meal for herself and her son so that they could eat one last time before dying together. But of course, it wasn’t their last meal, because God intervened again in the story, to bring unexpected life from a situation of certain death, miraculously sustaining them through what I can only think of as the ninth century BC equivalent of a bottomless cup of coffee! The point is clear: death does not have the last word when God gets involved in the story.

But death does still have some cards to play, and the good news of the miraculous food quickly gave way to the tragedy of illness as the young man succumbed to a sudden sickness. The widow-mother’s response was typically human, as she blamed Elijah, God, and herself in quick succession. But then, again, God intervened, this time through the direct actions of Elijah, and the child who had died was restored to life, and to his mother, giving her back not only her son, but also her hope for the future. And again, the point is clear: death does not have the last word, when God gets involved in the story.

Which brings us to the gospel of Luke,   and to his account of Jesus’ visit to the Widow of Nain and her son. The set-up for this story actually occurrs a few chapters earlier, when Jesus was invited to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth, and took the opportunity to deliver his now famous exposition on the Isaiah scroll. To start with he read from Isaiah: Luke 4:18-19  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then, in his sermon on this passage, Jesus said the following: Luke 4:25-26   the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

In his sermon, Jesus took the words of Isaiah, which the Jews of his day had interpreted as applying to them,  and to them alone, and he re-interpreted them as applying to anyone who was in need, whatever their ethnicity, class, or gender. He pointed out that Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, was sent not to the aid of Israel, but to the aid of an impoverished gentile widow. And through this and other examples, Jesus’ sermon directly challenged the dominant protectionist mind-set that sought to preserve the privileges of history for the heirs of the powerful. To this end, Jesus provocatively pointed to examples from Israel’s history which demonstrated that God’s concern had actually always been for those beyond the boundaries of the chosen nation, and not simply and exclusively for those in Israel.

His sermon was, in effect, a manifesto for the overturning of the old order, and his visit to the widow of Nain’s house, which Luke narrates in language that deliberately echoes the visit of Elijah to the Widow of Zarephath, was a visible enactment of the point he was making. The old order decreed that women could not work, the old order decreed that widows would be impoverished, the old order decreed that the sick would die. And to a world where the old order had reigned unchallenged, Jesus brought the challenge to end all challenges. This wasn’t some idealistic preacher, exchanging his pulpit for a soapbox whilst expounding a utopian vision of equality. Rather, this was a man of God who lived the message he proclaimed, and went to the widow of Nain, just as Elijah had gone to the widow of Zarephath. And the point, again, is clear: When God gets involved in the story, death does not get the last word. The boy had died, and should have stayed dead. The widow’s world had ended, and should have stayed ended. But Jesus disrupts the old order, bringing new life, new hope, new beginnings. The message of resurrection is here and it is clear: When God gets involved in the story, death does not get the last word.

So, back to the story… Did you notice the crowds?           No? How could you miss them? There are two large crowds in Luke’s story! Listen to the first couple of verses again, and see if you spot them this time… Luke 7:11-12  Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. One crowd are following Jesus and his disciples, and the other crowd are following the dead body of a young man. One crowd are following life, and the other crowd are following death.

There is no doubt, death attracts a crowd. And the sudden and tragic death of a young person attracts a very big crowd. It was ever thus, and the media frenzies of our own day are merely the latest manifestation of the common desire to gaze on death, to experience vicariously the grief of the bereaved, and to begin the process of collectively immortalising the memory of any young person taken by such cruel fate. But life attracts a crowd as well. The overturning of the old order is compelling, the good news for the poor, the release of those held captive, the restoration of sight to the blind, these are good news if you are poor, captive, and living in darkness. The promise of new life where death appears to reign supreme is good news for those facing death, but it is also challenging news for those who stand to benefit from the on-going reign of death. It pulls the rug from under the feet of those  who might seek to control the narrative of death. It deconstructs those who might find it expedient to take the story of the recently departed and re-tell it to their own ends.

The new life to the widows of Zarapheth and Nain was good news for them but it was profoundly disturbing news to those who had a vested interest in creating a history which maintains the belief that the God-given privileges of society were for a small group defined by those who were inside that group. The crowd surrounding Jesus when he preached his sermon in Nazareth understood this; and this is why tried to kill him by taking him to the top of a cliff and throwing him off it.

It’s that crowd again, you notice? And which crowd are we in, I wonder? Are we in the crowd that follows the dead boy, feeling oh-so-sorry for the victims of tragedy, whilst remaining thankful that it’s not us that the tragedy affects? Re-telling history to our own advantage where the survivors are the winners and the winners take it all? Or are we in the crowd that follows life? The crowd that confronts death head-on and refuses to allow the narrative of death to have the final word.

Because if we are in the second crowd, if we are in the crowd that follows life, then we are part of the crowd that is called to challenge the dominant order of the world; we are part of the crowd that refuses to accept the status quo where the poor, the destitute, the sick, and the dying are simply to be pitied; we are part of the crowd that is committed to joining with Jesus and Elijah in going beyond the boundaries of the acceptable as we seek to bring new life to those whose life-stories are dominated by death; we are part of the crowd that knows that when God gets involved in the story, death does not have the final word; we are part of the crowd that sees the importance of benefits for the poor, of help for the destitute, of healthcare for the sick. If we are part of the crowd that follows life, then we are ourselves called to become agents of resurrection in a world that continues to believe and invest in the narratives of death.

To a world that says one death must be punished by another, we say that forgiveness and restoration are more important than retribution. To a world that says the poor deserve their lot, we say that the poor are dearly loved children of God. To a world that says those who are not like us do not deserve equal rights in our society we say that Jesus has called us to go beyond the barriers of ethnicity and culture with messages of hope and new life. To a world that says equitable distribution of global resources is an unrealistic objective we say that it is not acceptable that 1 in 8 are dying of starvation whilst many in the Western world are dying of obesity. To a world that wrings its hands at the suffering caused by climate chaos whilst continuing to plunder the planet for profit we say that there is a different way of being human which rejects the dominant narratives of consumption unto death. To a world that says death is the end, we say that it is not the end when God is part of the story. To a world that fears death, we say that death is not to be feared because life itself finds meaning in the resurrection of Christ. Those of us who have died and been raised with Christ, those of us who have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, are those who live and proclaim the message of life, we are those who live and proclaim the gospel good news of new life.

Resurrection is not about where we go when we die, it is about so much more than this. It is about discovering life in the midst of death, it is about plundering hell and bringing the lost to new life, it is the good news of the gospel of Christ, who calls us to follow him and to share in the establishment of his in-breaking revolutionary kingdom.