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‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean

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Title: ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean

Date: Sunday 16 June 2024, The Third Sunday after Trinity

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

Hector Pieterson died 48 years ago today. Had he lived, he would now be sixty, and, one hopes, beginning to contemplate plans for retirement. He might have had a successful career, a loving spouse, children and possibly grandchildren, in whom he might have found joy and pride. But it was not to be. And the reason it was not to be – the real reason – was quite simply that he was black.

The apartheid government of South Africa had implemented the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools across the country, refusing to heed the desire of the majority of black schools that tuition should be in local languages, and not the language felt to be ‘the language of the oppressor’. Across Soweto, students from many schools protested, and into the midst of peaceful demonstrations, came fierce police brutality resulting in at least 176 student deaths.

Of this tragedy, Hector became the icon, captured in a famous photograph as he was carried, dying, in the arms of a friend, with his elder sister running alongside. A tragedy fuelled, at least in part, by the strongly propagated teaching of the Dutch Reformed Church that apartheid was divinely ordained and set out in the Bible – a teaching that encouraged and emboldened the South African government in this abhorrent era.

And yet, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. And that means we need a new way of thinking about things…

For the sixty-six books of the Bible, of course, can be understood and interpreted in so many ways, and are redolent of images, not all of which seem to make a great deal of sense. You will find ample proof of this in the Great East Window, most of which is devoted to recounting the narrative of the Revelation to John in 81 remarkable panels of glass that are one of the greatest highlights of this magnificent cathedral.

But, remarkable and exquisite though John Thornton’s breathtaking window is, the bizarre and complex imagery of Revelation has ensured that its message of encouragement to a community of persecuted Christians in the very late first century has been consistently misinterpreted in all sorts of weird and not very wonderful ways – some of which have been downright dangerous, especially when the religious fundamentalism they create gets mixed with political fundamentalism.

Interpretation, of course, is at the heart of our gospel reading this morning, which also contains some less flamboyant but nevertheless rather challenging assertions. For while the science of agriculture is understood in a far more complex manner in the modern age than in first century Palestine, to depict a farmer watching plants ‘sprout and grow’, and to say, ‘he does not know how’ would have done a great disservice to those who tended the land in Jesus’ own day. For you may be assured that two thousand years ago, they understood the importance of ploughing, of weeding, and most certainly of watering.

If we should wonder, therefore, what is going on, the answer is at least hinted at in the curious paragraph that ends almost an entire chapter of agricultural parables in Mark chapter four. In this editorial note, picking up a similar text inserted into the longer Parable of the Sower which immediately precedes this morning’s section of this chapter, we learn that only Jesus’ disciples are privileged, at this point, to get a clear explanation of what he is talking about.

And, if it were the case in Sunday School, that you were simply told that a parable is a story based around one easy-to-grasp, straight-forward image, we need to accept that this is an over-simplification that simply does not work all the time. For if it was a straight-forward truth that parables use one easy to understand illustration to make one simple point, then the confusion and lack of understanding that pervades this part of Mark’s gospel would simply not be the case.

Indeed, if you scroll back a few verses in this chapter you will find Jesus explaining that he speaks in parables precisely to cause mis-understanding, quoting the prophet Isaiah, and saying, “everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

And, in the passage we just heard read, Mark’s editorial remark clarifies that the word – and even outside the Fourth Gospel our ears should prick up at the use of this term – Mark clarifies that the word is spoken to people ‘as they were able to hear it’.

So what is going on?

How could people not understand the basic point Jesus is making about the universal mission of the kingdom of God offering shade, shelter and protection to all who seek it?

Or, perhaps more worryingly, how could almost fifty years of the offensively vile apartheid regime in South Africa be propped up by theological arguments propounded by a major Christian denomination justifying its evil and often murderous behaviour?

What – to get to the root of what is going on – what does it take ‘to be able to hear’ Jesus’ teachings in a manner that elicits an appropriate response? A response that – in the context of South Africa of fifty years ago produces a Tutu-like condemnation of apartheid, rather than the faux-theological justification for it that so stained the Dutch Reformed Church of that time.

Of – if we were to borrow the language of the better known Parable of the Sower which immediately precedes this morning’s gospel – why is it that only some seed falls on fertile ground, while other seed lands, unproductively, on the path, or amongst thorns, or on rocky ground?

A clue to the answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the words we have just heard from Saint Paul. Words penned by him at a very low point in his life, castigated and criticized by his beloved Corinthians who, now that he no longer is living and teaching among them, have come to regard him in a very harsh light that clearly has stung Paul very deeply.

And thus, from a section of this letter which speaks of the pain and risk of human vulnerability, Paul is, as it were, getting back to basics, and speaking of the call and of the demands of love – of divine, selfless love. Of the love of Christ which, so he passionately believes, is what urges on both him, and others who truly know they are called by God. For, as Paul has come to know in the very depths of his being, the love of Christ has consequences, because, as he says so powerfully:

We are convinced that one has died for all… so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

The issue at the heart of the call of today’s readings from Scripture – the issue at the heart of our response to the Good News of the gospel – is about God’s love, and our response to it. It is about whether we have the great-heartedness to open our lives to God in the manner in which Paul did in such a remarkable and surprising manner.

For when we first get to know Paul or Saul, he has a very rigid view of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘not in’. At least in a religious sense, the Saul we first meet in Acts has an apartheid-like view of those who are acceptable to God. An apartheid-like view that saw him approve of a murder even more violent than the murder of young Hector Pieterson in South Africa, as he stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen – something which, at first, propelled this zealous Pharisee into active and harsh persecution of the first Christians.

But then, on the road to Damascus, Paul loses his sight as he encounters the risen Christ, but perhaps – to pick up the language we are using this morning – perhaps he gains his hearing, as he encounters the true breadth, depth and height of God’s love

And thus, as he writes so profoundly to his erstwhile friends in Corinth, he has learned that if we hear the words of Jesus properly and take them into our lives, From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

Young Hector Pieterson died an evil and tragic death because those in power in his native land did not regard him, and all those whose skin colour was different to theirs, as God regarded him. Their actions were actions urged not by the love of Christ, but by the worst sinful instincts of human greed and hatred – sinful instincts that, in other parts of the globe lead to similar suffering and death right now.

As we gather today to feed on the Body of Christ and to be transformed anew into being the Body of Christ, let us never forget that Christ died for all, precisely to ensure that we who live might, indeed, ‘live no longer for ourselves’, but strive to look at the world and its children as God looks at us, so that, truly, in Christ there might yet be a precious new creation. Amen.

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