Sermon at Püha Vaimu Church, Tallinn 18th June 2023

Gospel according to Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ”Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ”He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ”Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, ”Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Dear sisters and brothers, it brings me so much joy to preach in this beautiful and historical church. Every time I come to Tallinn, I try to visit this church. It always reminds me of the compassionate love of Christ, who identifies with all who suffer. The early history of this church begins together with a medieval house of care for those stricken with leprosy. Like in many medieval cities around the Baltic Sea, there was a hospital of the Holy Spirit adjacent to the church. Those suffering for the disease were treated with love both physically as well as spiritually. They were supported by prayer and sacramental life in this church.

A very touching symbol for the theological motivation underpinning this wholistic care is depicted on the back side of the main altar in this church. To see it, one must walk behind the altar and look at the panel on the right wing. There one may see the crucified Christ lying on a bed and served by holy sisters. Christ is wounded and dying, he is nailed on a cross, and at the same time, he is lying on a bed and suffering for a disease that can’t be healed. His body is bruised by the torture he has been submitted to. Christ identifies with those who were treated in the nearby hospital of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, became human. The Son of God left the divine glory he enjoyed in the heavenly realm of his Father and emptied himself of the powers he possessed as the second person in the Holy Trinity. He assumed the vulnerability of all humanity and became weak, only to be God with all the weak and those empty of all power. Christ continues to identify with all the weak, despised and excluded, all the oppressed and suffering. He is God with all those who can’t heal nor help themselves. He is God who has come to stand by the side of all helpless and hopeless. He is God who defends those who lack all human power and who are made victims of oppression and injustice by those who have the power.

I visited this church for the first time in 1986. I was a young pastor and joined a group of Finnish students who attended an evening service in this church. It was still the time of Soviet regime, and the Lutheran Church in Estonia did not enjoy much of freedom. As I remember it, the Church was only allowed to have worship services, not to practice any ministry for children or youth at all. But we attended here at the Püha Vaimu a concert of a local youth choir that sang in the evening service. The late archbishop Jaan Kiivit junior, who at that was the priest of this church, preached and presided over the eucharist. After the service, we were received in the sacristy for a meeting with the choir.

During the evening in the sacristy, one young member of the choir asked, if anyone of our group happened to have a Bible in Finnish to give her. She was happy to receive her Bible. When it came time for us to leave, our hosts led us out from the back door and advised us to sneak unnoticed through the yard and use the narrow alleys behind the church on our way to our hotel. There probably was somebody in the church who would have announced to the authorities that Estonian youth were having contacts with youth from Finland handing out Bibles. That might have caused trouble to both of us.

Thank God, those days are over. Many of you, dear sisters and brothers, could tell similar stories of a situation where a stronger power oppresses and steals your freedom. But God has his time, and all human powers have their time. All worldly powers, based on injustice and violence, are to step down and vanish when God sets the limits. Things can change rapidly when God steps in with his transforming power.

This is what happened with Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading for today. We can imagine that the people of Jericho had ample reason to despise Zacchaeus. He was a rich man who had not earned his riches in an honest way. He was a corrupt tax collector who used his position to steal money from people who could not defend themselves. He served the tyrant king of Judea and was backed by the occupying Roman military. He played his part in an unjust structure and benefited of the system that made it possible for him to take advantage of the poor. Nobody could raise a hand against him. Truly, this irritating man was more than annoying, and he well earned his reputation as a sinner in the eyes of the good people of Jericho.

Maybe Zacchaeus had become such a bully because of him being a physically small man? Perhaps he had been neglected and belittled by his fellow citizens and neighbors throughout his life? Maybe he unconsciously wanted to compensate his small stature by trying to appear as a big and powerful man? Maybe his climbing to a tree was just another sign of his endless desire to elevate himself over others and look down on them? Be it as it may, Zacchaeus had also a good reason for his climbing: he wanted to see Jesus whom he probably had heard about.

But what happens when Jesus shows up? Jesus does not utter any condemnation to this greedy bureaucrat and unworthy servant, although he rightly could have done so. On the contrary, Jesus looks at Zacchaeus with love, calls him by name and invites him down from the tree and announces that he will now pay a visit to his house. There is a word of promise to Zacchaeus and an act of compassion to him by Jesus. This unexpected positive attention changes Zacchaeus. The love of Christ transforms him. Suddenly he repents and promises to return fourfold all money he has stolen. He even decides to split his possessions and donate the other half to the poor. Who would have expected that? Not the good people of Jericho; they new this man is bad. But when Zacchaeus changed, did they change their opinion, too? The Bible doesn’t tell. The Gospel narrative leaves it open. Maybe there is a message for us, too. Maybe we only point our finger to Zacchaeus and remain unchanged ourselves. But that is not enough. Jesus invites us to come down from the trees we have climbed, too. Jesus wants to visit us, too.

The love of Christ transforms human beings who cannot change themselves. Zacchaeus knew perfectly well he was not doing justice. He knew he would need to return the money he had stolen. But he did not do so. He knew the law but was not motivated to obey it. What was needed was inner transformation. God’s law that demands justice and holiness grants no strength to change. Such miracles can only happen by the power of the love of God. Where Christ’s love is active in word and deed, people are transformed. When people experience Christ’s love, they start seeing themselves and their neighbors differently. They repent and turn to Christ. They begin to act in an honest, fair, and even loving way towards others.

God’s love is stronger than all worldly powers. In the Bishop’s house in Tampere, where I live, there is a chapel with a wooden crucifix hanging on the wall. The crucifix was given to the house during the second world war. Bishop Aleksi Lehtonen received it as a gift in 1942 from the German Evangelical Church when he was in Germany doing some theological research. Maybe this crucifix was also an attempt by the Nazi regime to use the Church for its military means. For me, it is a constant reminder on the patient love of Christ. There are bullies and violent tyrants in the world, but their time is always limited. They come and go; they rise and fall. But Christ stays from generation to generation because he is ready to suffer for his world. He agrees to weakness and poverty. His throne is the cross. He rules through suffering, not by force but by love. He keeps conquering hearts all over the world and transforming it towards the kingdom of God.