Proverbs 8:22-31; John 4:7-15
“The church is not a building – it’s a group of people who follow the Way of Jesus.” I’ve been saying that quite often this week in the follow-up to our Church Council decision not to accept the bill for full replacement insurance on this beautiful building, should it be destroyed by earthquake. Even though we love this building dearly, we know buildings are not churches. The church is a group of ordinary people, seeking to live authentically human lives; loving God and neighbour. In some ways that sounds so simple – so trite – and yet, we who try to be Christian, know that being the Church is deeply challenging. Today, as we baptise and welcome another member into our midst, it seems timely to consider again what it means to follow the Way of Jesus.
This last week has been one in which the juxtaposition of two languages has grated and screeched across my consciousness. For much of the week, the language of insurance has competed for attention with the language of faith: “Act of God” “Peace of Mind” and “Bottom Line” shouted out against “following the way of Jesus”, “peace that passes understanding” and “living water making us whole”. On so many different occasions this week, the Light has been hard to see through the cracks; as the language of control and power has done battle with words of love and life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at times these languages have become entangled. It’s been an unusual week, in that some, who have little to do with the church, have struck up conversations with me in the street, in cafes and shops, about our stance on insuring this building. Without exception, they’ve encouraged our decision, even if not fully understanding – but somehow they sense that the world, with its escalating reliance on deficits of both dollars and compassion, is going slightly mad. Perhaps the church offers a glimpse of hope.
It’s been quite a week, during which I’ve seen some examples of extraordinary kindness and generosity emerging out of suffering. However, I’ve also been hearing an increasing number of stories about people caught up in the intense misery caused by corporates, institutions and governments wielding power, exercising greed and refuting responsibility for care. How, I wonder, is such untold misery happening when, within every corporate, every institution, every government there are people, individuals – many of whom would describe themselves as Christian – trying to be compassionate? I wonder, have we lost our way? Have we forgotten what it means to follow Jesus?
In my questioning, I turn again to Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, where you might hear, sung in a different key, echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “Every heart to love will come – but like a refugee”.
Johnson writes about three young German theologians, who “grew up under the dark shadow of National Socialism, and experienced firsthand the devastation of war during their teenage years. All studied theology at universities just getting re-established in ravaged postwar Germany. [Here,] the issue of horrific suffering” challenged their faith. Using the Holocaust as the starting point for their theological study, they found a powerful model for exploring what it means to be Christian.
One of the three, “Dorothee Soelle tells of her young years being ‘defined by hunger, bombing, coldness, and need. Spiritually, [she wrote] it was a ruined landscape as well.’ During the war her family hid the Jewish mother of one of her classmates in their attic. One of her older brothers was killed on the Eastern front. As a young theologian she travelled to the death camp in Auschwitz, Poland, an unusual move at the time. There, where so many were brutally murdered, she felt the theological ground silently shift beneath her feet. Her classical Lutheran training and piety had been founded on the God of classical theism with all the ‘omni’ attributes: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence. [God, all-powerful, all-knowing and always-present] After her trip she could no longer understand how theology could talk like that. ‘In the light of Auschwitz’ [she wrote] ‘the assumption of the omnipotence of God seemed a heresy.’ [It was] ethically offensive and impossible to believe.”
For Soelle and her colleagues, the suffering they saw and experienced became the context for the light to break through – the context for them in which to understand who and how God is in relation to humanity – the context to understand what it means to be those who walk the way of Jesus.
Their concern was particularly for the “wretched excess of affliction that occurs from injury that people inflict unjustly on each other en masse: grinding poverty and hunger, slavery, domestic abuse, rape, murder, war, genocide”. And to that list, we might add today the rape of Earth and its resources. Johnson reflects “This is harm that destroys [people] and their ability to love; it assaults their identity and violently extinguishes their life. Looking back over the history of the human race,” she writes, “such suffering is a red thread that runs through the whole bloody tapestry.” 
That thread continues its run through our lives today.
We who have lived in recent times in middle class Aotearoa have oft times tried ignoring or avoiding such suffering. We have lived our charmed lives in this so-called lucky country - not through any particular merit of our own (although we often kid ourselves that we have achieved it all by ourselves – and others could do just like us, if only they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps). We have assumed we have a right to a comfortable life, which we manage tightly within our own control. When the storm comes and the cracks start to appear, we try to maintain what we believe is our right; because if we don’t, we’re not sure how to achieve meaning; and when the cracks appear in other peoples’ lives, we’re not quite sure how to respond. Elizabeth Johnson suggests that our attempts to avoid pain – our own and others – result in “boredom, stagnation, inability to experience intense joy – in a word, apathy”. This state of being, she suggests, is particularly noticeable in young people today.
In trying to shape their faith within the context of “massive public suffering and the middle-class attempt to ignore it, the young German [theologians] began to use the term ‘political theology’” ... theology that connects talk about God with what is happening in the city ... holding those who claim faith to be accountable in the public arena. They criticised the narrow, private view of faith, which allowed churches to collude with Hitler and his regime.
And, like those young people, we too, as people of faith, are drawn into the public arena, to speak into the places where we see economic, corporate and government policies robbing people of hope.
In developing their stream of political theology, the young Germans aligned themselves in the prophetic tradition, within which Jesus also lived and taught; a tradition highlighted in today’s Gospel, where Light comes breaking through a multitude of cracks within the multiple layers of oppression and abuse found in this story. Into her deep suffering, Jesus offers the despised Samaritan woman not insurance, but assurance of a God who loved the loveless, even when their lives are shaken to the core.
“Post-Holocaust political theology rediscovered a God of pathos deeply involved with the pain of the world.... a God who feels intensely: loves, cares, is glad, gets angry over injustice, urges, prods, forgives, is disappointed, gets frustrated, suffers righteous indignation, weeps, grieves, promises, pours out mercy, rejoices, consoles, wipes away tears, and loves some more.”
This is the God within whom our discipleship is shaped. In following the way of Jesus we seek to let go ideas of God that bolster our own need to be in control. In being the church, the Body of Christ, we too become involved in the pain of the world, challenging the dark forces which cause suffering; offering, instead, hope to all people. Today as Tracey is baptised – indicating her commitment to follow the way of Jesus – we acknowledge that we too walk this path in company with her and all members of the universal church – as together we seek to live in the Light and Love of Christ, whose people we are.
Lord Jesus we belong to you, you live in us, we live in you;
we live and work for you – because we bear your name.
see, for example, http://www.3news.co.nz/Dunedins-churches-struggling-after-ChCh-quakes/tabid/309/articleID/224189/Default.aspx
 Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
 Elizabeth A. Johnson Quest for the Living God (2008).
 Jurgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle and Johann Baptist Metz.
 Johnson, p.53.
 Johnson, p.53-54.
 Johnson, p.55.
 Johnson, p.55.
 Johnson p56-57.
 “Lord Jesus, we belong to you” words © J.W. Kleinig, Together in Song 686