Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese theologian, once told of a car journey with a Hindu friend. On the road they saw on the road side a billboard proclaiming: “Campaign for Jesus.” Koyama’s Hindu friend remarked: “I thought Jesus campaigned for you, isn’t that what you should be telling the world?”
This morning I wish to preach on one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament, which forms part of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday. That is, I wish to preach from Matthew 13: 24 – 30 and 36 – 43. This passage contains the basis for one of the great controversies in the history of Christianity, which created division within all the antecedent churches of the Uniting Church, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism, and also between the members of these churches. It is the issue of predestination.
A number of issues need to be born in mind. First, the issue of what a parable is. A parable, as we know from Mark 4:10 – 12, is a story about the nature of God, which radically confronts you and has the effect of changing your whole outlook on life. In John’s gospel, it is the “I am” sayings of Jesus, like “I am the way the truth and the life” , which confront you and change you. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is the parables. So this is going to confront us and change us.
Quarrels have often centred on the claim that some people are permanently superior to others through being among God’s so-called “elect”. Indeed, within one strain of Calvinism, that is the Presbyterian and Congregational traditions, there arose the doctrine of double predestination, that is, that some people were eternally predestined to salvation, while others were eternally predestined to damnation.
In our time, a political perversion of that view was one of the main factors that gave justification to apartheid in South Africa, based as it was on a particular strain of Calvinism.
This line of thought in relation to predestination did not begin with Calvin, of course, but can be traced right back to Augustine. It is vital, however, to understand that both Calvin and Augustine were writing from a different location from that of the New Testament, and that notions of predestination that are most familiar to us actually arose from later interpretations of their teachings.
Let us therefore, go back to the beginnings of Christianity and to the context in which Jesus spoke these words. Maybe by doing so, we can see what precisely Jesus is saying and bring ourselves to a more adequate understanding of what predestination might mean for us today.
I have noted that there is a major difference between the world of Jesus on the one hand, and the worlds of Augustine and Calvin on the other. The difference is this: Jesus is writing to a minority of a minority, that is to his followers who had originated within Judaism, where Judaism itself, in its totality, was still a small minority in the Roman Empire. So his followers were a minority within a minority. They were therefore highly vulnerable to abuse, both from the Roman Empire itself, and from within Judaism. After all they at times were despised within Judaism. On the other hand, Augustine and Calvin lived in a situation where power was on their side. Augustine lived after the Constantinian Settlement, where Christianity had become the official religion of the largest and most powerful Empire at that time. Calvin, despite the fact that he faced the political power of Rome, nevertheless lived in the security of the Reformed city of Geneva, where his particular tradition of the Reformation had become the dominant one. Geneva effectively, in our terms, was virtually a nation-state in itself.
These different contexts in which predestination was understood radically changes the content of the message.
As we will see, predestination is not actually about putting down the weak and the marginalised, but rather defending the weak and marginalised and showing their real value in the eyes of God.
It is to give comfort and succour to those who are oppressed.
It is to provide a levelling of distinctions between Christians and a new identity. It is to do the kinds of things that our dear departed Ron Wilson was doing in the last years of his life in relation to the Stolen Generations.
The first point is to say that despite our own human views of people’s value, God has a different value based on a radical and egalitarian identity found in Christ.
The second point is that Jesus is speaking for the unity of the Church.
Later, in Paul’s writings, we can see that there were tensions between Christians of Jewish descent on the one hand, and Christians of Gentile, or non-Jewish descent, on the other. This can be seen in the background of the church at Rome. The first Christians to arrive in Rome, probably around in the 40sCE, were Christians of Jewish descent, who had very considerable economic power. They had, however, suffered political oppression. In 49CE, they had been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius along with all other Jews, because of accusations of political and economic manipulation.
There were Gentile Christians, on the other hand, who were larger in number, who were politically correct, as we might say these days, but who were economically very disadvantaged. They lived on the fringes of the city of Rome and were probably some of those referred to in the house churches greeted by Paul in Romans Chapter 16, where there is a long list of names. The Jewish Christians believed that the Gentile Christians were inferior unless they observed the purity laws of Israel. Paul stood against this view.
Probably what happened in Rome was something like this: the Christians of Jewish descent, had a beautiful church in the centre of the city, which was probably a re-vamped synagogue, and there is some archaeological evidence for this. The Gentile Christians simply met in their poor homes on the fringes of the city.
When Claudius expelled the Jews, including the Christian Jews, from the city in 49CE, probably the Gentile Christians came into look after their nice church in the centre of the city and to use it. Claudius died in 54CE and there was a serious economic downturn at the time of his death. The Roman authorities encouraged the Jews to return to Rome and to get the economy going again. Doubtless, then, the wealthy Jewish Christians returned, saw their nice church carefully looked after by the Gentile Christians and said: “Thank you very much for looking after our church. Now back you go to your fringe dwellings.”
The Gentile Christians, refusing this rebuke, said: “Oh no, you may have the economic power, but we are politically correct and who knows when you may get chucked out again.”
So here we have a diverse early church in Rome, composed of an economically powerful minority who were politically incorrect on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a politically correct majority who were economically challenged. Here was a perfect cocktail for social chaos.
It is against that projected background that these words of Jesus would have been proclaimed. The weak are the closest to God’s heart.
At Roslyn, near Edinburgh, there is the famous statue of Reconciliation. It depicts two human beings, one embracing the other. You cannot see the difference between the two as you walk around the statue, until finally you notice in the hands of the outer of the two, the one embracing the other, has the marks of the nails. It is Jesus the Reconciler, the One who exalts the least. Jesus is the one in and through whom the new humanity is created. We find our identity in and through Christ alone. That has been preordained since the beginning by God. And that means that all other human divisions are trivial – transcended even – in the sight of God. Here is the true doctrine of predestination.
One of the difficulties at the time of the Reformation was that to counteract the power of Rome, Protestant churches were set up as national churches. So was have the Protestant Churches of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, and so on.
But this is fundamentally problematic when viewed in the light of Jesus’ teaching, for the church must be universal. There must be no sole identity in the country of origin. Therefore, the WCC has done for Protestants what the Catholic Church does for Catholics.
Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, attending the 5th Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi in 1975 and surveying the vast crowd, said: “You people are a sociological impossibility. You have absolutely nothing in common, except your extraordinary conviction that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.” That is why we are the Uniting Church in Australia, not the Uniting Church of Australia.
These words of Jesus are words of two things: first they are words of encouragement, indeed words which have the potential to create identity for a fearful, marginalised minority, who wondered about their very existence. Secondly, they are the basis of the only true unity that there can be within the church.
From that we see three things:
1. That our identity and our very future as individuals are in God’s hands. Fear for our future as individuals is something quite outside, unnecessary, for our Christian faith.
2. Our identity as a Uniting Church is ultimately not a denominational identity. It is an identity of truth and faithfulness in Christ alone. That is what the Basis of Union is all about.
3. The true worship of God, that is the worship in which we engage ourselves this morning here in Kippax Church, or our worship during the week with our minds, our will, our service, and our enjoyment, and our political interests, and our social concerns, and our moral outrage, is a worship which only can exist through Jesus Christ, for in him we have a new identity. Nothing in life or in death, or beyond death, can separate us from that.
So, predestination, as understood in Jesus’ words, not as understood in particular later interpretations of Augustine or of Calvin, speaks of raising up the oppressed and the minority, and of lowering the proud and the mighty
It gives the whole a new identity to these groups who find their identity in Christ, which points to a true non-discriminatory unity in Christ. It is about the grace and wonder of God, which cancels out the meanness of humanity.
I began with a Japanese Christian, Kosuke Koyama. I end with a Scottish Congregational theologian, P T Forsyth, who put it in these words: “For years I thought I was a lover of God: now I know that I am an object of God’s grace.”
That faith is what God creates for us. May you and I be enabled to live it out in our daily lives.