Sunday 31 May 2020: Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
Context: a small intercultural and intergenerational worshipping community in a modern housing estate at the Sunday Eucharist
Aim: to encourage the congregation to apply the notion of justice as a lens that informs our everyday Christian living
At the 2014 United Nations General Assembly, UNICEF unveiled a recorded version of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song Imagine. The single, released in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, assembled a number of A-list celebrities for the largest singalong version of the song.
In the accompanying video, various artists, athletes, actors, politicians, and children take turn in singing lines from the song. The stream of faces of people of all ages, heritage, and religion stated the simple, yet powerful truth that, in the task of bettering the world, every voice counts. Imagine is an invitation for all to transcend political barriers, religious divisions, and futile material pursuits to join in building a world where all could, in the words of the song, ‘live as one.’ Imagine is an invitation for people everywhere to enrol in the global coalition that makes peace more than a concept common to all languages and cultures, but a universally shared reality.
In our gospel reading, we hear Jesus offer the gift of peace to his frightened and confused disciples. As a Hebrew and Aramaic speaker, Jesus would have likely used the greeting shalom. Often translated as peace, shalom has a far richer concept in meaning. In its most basic form, it is often rendered as complete or whole. In its fuller meaning, shalom refers to the state of a complex ecosystem with all its parts operating in perfect alignment with each other. However, shalom exists in a fragile balance, and is subject to multiple factors capable of offsetting its balance and threaten its integrity.
In the Hebrew tradition, the idea of shalom is more than individual wellbeing. It transcends the personal and private sphere and evokes the ideal of a justly ordered society at peace with itself. This is a cross-cutting theme in the Bible, found in the historical writings, the prophetic narratives, as well as the wisdom literature. It is summed up in the Hebrew concept of mishpat.
Mishpat is about taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable, and actively work at challenging and changing unjust social structures. It is about a radical selfless way of life. For biblical writers, justice is about restoring the image of God in all humanity. It is what the people of God in the Old Testament were all about; or at least were supposed to be about. Instead, the reality of injustice seems an unescapable one. We are all entrapped in its tentacles and are all subjected to its influence. We all play a part in it passively, actively, even unintentionally.
However, injustice is not the last word on the creation experiment. Indeed, God has a plan to counter this perennial problem: Jesus, the Prince of Shalom who will right all wrongs. In Jesus God’s gift of himself is crystallised as He shares in our humanity and demonstrates what a life of mishpat and shalom could look like. In Jesus, God offers to a broken and brutalised world the ultimate invitation to live as one. In Jesus, disfigured creation is restored to wholeness.
For the disciples, and indeed for the early Christians, this gift of Jesus was understood not merely as a privilege to be enjoyed for personal gratification or fulfilment. Instead, they received it as an invitation to live and strive for common good. For them it was the manifestation of the transformative and irresistible power of God that compelled any open and willing heart to live and act in radically new ways.
Our era is not less fragmented or fractured than the description we have of those who preceded us in the story of faith. Daily we experience fragmentation and fracture manifested through our politics of fear and hatred, where the other is only understood through hermeneutics of suspicion. It is experienced in the narratives of exclusion and exploitation where the vulnerable are treated as disposable commodities. We experience the break of shalom and mishpat in relationships that only seem to exist in transactional dynamics, where all the norms are redirected to serve individual preoccupations at the expense of the other.
Shalom is about working together for mutual benefit. To cultivate shalom, we need love; the kind of love that causes the innocent one to die on a cross. We need the kind of love that cannot be held back by a tomb or kept out by locked doors. We need the kind of love that unlocks imagination to speak with fluency of God’s deeds of power.
Maya Angelou, wise beyond her words, beautifully describes it as she writes: ‘Love recognises no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.’
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