Friday, 17 May 2019

“‘New!’: When is it good? When is it bad? When is it ugly?”: a sermon (Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35)

I mentioned this earlier in the service, but I’ll say it again.  All of my preparation for worship this week was completed before the polling places opened yesterday.  Nothing in this sermon or anywhere else in the service should be regarded as a comment on the result of yesterday’s election.

My sermon has the title “‘New!’:  When is it good?  When is it bad?  When is it ugly?”

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

The word “new” features in both scriptures passages we’ve heard a few minutes ago. 

In our lesson from the Book of Revelation, we hear of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem descending from God.  We hear of the voice of God declaring, “See, I am making all things new.”

In our lesson from the Gospel of John, the setting is the Last Supper.  Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment”, to love one another.  Oddly, Christians will argue about the meaning of this new commandment:  with some saying it’s a command to love our fellow-Christians, others saying it’s a command to love all people, yet others saying it’s a command to love all creation, and a few particularly sad sorts saying you’re off the hook as long as you love those who are the same sort of Christian as yourself.  Personally, I think the wider the definition of “one another”, the better, so that we don’t cause Jesus to ask us the question “What part of ‘Love one another’ don’t you understand?”

But meanwhile, here’s a fun fact about this passage.  The word for commandment in Latin is mandatum, from which we get our English word mandate.  The fact that this word is used in the Latin version one of the gospel accounts of the Last Supper is why the day before Good Friday has been called Maundy Thursday (in the English-speaking world at least) since the Middle Ages..

That Latin word is also relevant to the fact that there was an election yesterday.  After elections, politicians (at least the ones who won) talk a great deal about their “mandate” from the voters.  In our passage from John, Jesus gave us all a new mandate, to love one another, with the widest definition of “one another” which is possible.    

But looking at this word “new” or, in Greek, kainos, we see that the word is used in these passages to speak of something very good:  … a new heaven, a new earth, … a new Jerusalem, … a new commandment.  Here the word new implies being renewed, and perhaps even (as they say in advertisements) “new and improved!

But, in the Bible as in our day-to-day lives, the word new doesn’t mean always mean renewed.  Sometimes new may merely refer to a novelty or, as Luke called it, a kainotoron.   In the Book of Acts, as Luke described Paul’s travels, he mentioned his visit to Athens with some exasperation.  The Athenians were only interested in discussing the most recent novelty, the latest thing, the kainotoron.  Reading Acts 17, it’s easy to pick up that Luke was expressing Paul’s sense of both profound annoyance and sheer boredom with the Athenians.

This brings me back to the question I asked in this sermon’s title.  When something is new, … when is it good? … when is it bad? … when is it ugly?

When does “new” equal “ugly”? … When does “new” equal “bad”?

Sometimes a novelty can merely equal a trivialisation, a cheapening, or even an outright trashing of our culture.  Not all things which are new are examples of profound ugliness.  Most are not.  But some are. 

If something new, for example, happens merely (or even just mostly) for shock value, this is usually something profoundly ugly.  Sometimes, it crosses the line into something that’s also ethically bad.  To give an example of an event from two years ago, I would not call it “art” when a person cuts up a dead animal in front of an audience.  If the meat from the animal is than wasted, rather than used for food, the ugliness of the act is compounded into something that’s ethically very wrong. 

To give another example, much of “reality television” can involve the manipulation of vulnerable people to behave badly, in the interest of becoming a “celebrity” (whatever that means).  Frequently a group of strangers are placed in a confined space and presented with an artificial situation, while the viewers watch and wait for them to fight.

And, in the quest for the latest superficial novelties, the churches are by no means immune.  In the name of “relevance”, “getting bottoms on seats”, being “contemporary”, and (dare I say it) being “missional”, some churches have become as enthusiastic as Paul’s Athenians in embracing mindless kainotorons.

So, then, when does “new” equal “good”?

That is where the new commandment, the new mandate comes in.

Whenever something new makes us more caring, … more merciful, … more inclusive, … more compassionate, … more loving (as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, as a human race), the new development is good.  To use words politicians like to toss around, it’s progress.  It’s a reform.  It needs to be embraced and celebrated. 

If it makes us less caring, … less merciful, … less inclusive, … less compassionate, … less loving, it’s an abuse.  Get rid of it.  (Do not pass “Go”.  Do not collect $200.)

Jesus gave us a new commandment, a new mandate:  “Love one another”.   As I said earlier:  Personally, I think the wider the definition of “one another”, the better, so that we don’t cause Jesus to ask us the question “What part of ‘Love one another’ don’t you understand?”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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