Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 8:27-38

In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have, in our Gospel reading for this week, reached a turning point. St Mark has been describing Jesus’ ministry. He has selected incidents and encounters of Jesus with people to illustrate it. Whatever else, Jesus has made an impact.

The reaction of the ordinary people to Jesus has been positive. The crowds have responded enthusiastically both to Jesus’ teaching and to his ability to heal and cast out demons. Everywhere Jesus goes the crowds rush to see him. In our Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, we read how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute (Mark 7:31-37). St Mark describes the reaction of those who saw it in a way that sums up popular opinion of Jesus. St Mark writes:

‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”’ (Mark 7:37)

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, however, has been anything but positive. They have already had several serious arguments with Jesus: over his claim to have authority to forgive sins and to interpret God’s Law; over his breaking, as they see it, of the sabbath commandment; and over his rejection of the ‘tradition of the elders’. They can’t deny that Jesus has done some amazing things: they have themselves seen him do them. They have tried instead to explain them away as Jesus working in collaboration with Satan (Mark 3:19-30).

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus is not just about a difference of opinions. The Pharisees and scribes see him as a dangerous threat to what they genuinely believe in. St Mark has told us that they are so opposed to what Jesus is teaching that they have entered into an alliance with the ‘Herodians’ in order to ‘destroy him’ (Mark 3:6).

The Herodians are those who are loyal to King Herod, who is the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. King Herod has been responsible for the arrest and death of John the Baptist. King Herod himself thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him, and he is not the only one to think that this is who Jesus is (Mark 6:14-16). Given Jesus’ close association with John the Baptist, the threat to Jesus is both clear and real.

It is important to see Jesus in this context if we are to appreciate where Jesus is at this point in his ministry. Jesus is popular, but the threat to him is very real. Seeing how real the threat is to Jesus helps us to understand the disciples a bit more.

Unfortunately, we have allowed ourselves to get the impression that Peter and his fellow disciples were weak people, even cowards, who had deserted Jesus because they were frightened of dying. This might fit well in sermons in which preachers want to encourage us to be brave and faithful, but it is not the picture of the disciples that emerges in the Gospels.

The disciples have left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28), something which Jesus himself acknowledges (Mark 10:29-31). They have been willing to make real sacrifices to follow Jesus out of a hope that he was the Messiah. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection put it:

‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21)

In the disciples’ minds, Israel wasn't going to be ‘redeemed’, that is, freed from pagan rule, without a fight and this, as Israel’s history showed all too clearly, would mean martyrs and death. If King Herod had not allowed John to go free, why would his attitude to John’s close associate be any different? The Pharisees and scribes know they have a powerful ally in the supporters of King Herod. Jesus’ disciples probably didn't want to die any more than we do, but it is important for us to see that in committing themselves to Jesus, given the hopes they had of him, they must have known there was a strong possibility that they were in real danger.

It is against this background, then, that St Mark tells us in our Gospel reading that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it had been called Paneas, after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip had enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It is against this background, then, that Jesus asks his disciples:

‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

As Jesus’ name has become known, there has been much speculation as to his identity (Mark 6:14-16). As St Mark has already told us, some think Jesus is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as Elijah; still others, as one of the prophets. The disciples report these various opinions of him to Jesus. Jesus then asks them directly:

‘But who do you [in Greek it is plural] say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

Peter answers him:

‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)

St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, therefore, is a massively important moment.

What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see, even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship and the Roman rulers who brought it with them, evidence of which was all around them. Jesus would be the One who would turn the pagans instead to worship the God of Israel. The disciples were looking forward to the day when God’s promises to Israel through the prophets would be fulfilled and their oppression would come to an end.

A passage from the Psalms of Solomon, which were written in the first century BC just before the time of Christ, gives an indication of what many people were hoping for:

‘See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth …’ (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-26)

‘You are the Messiah’, we have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would help set Israel free and get rid of the pagan gods. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had first joined John the Baptist and had become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus’ disciples saw themselves in their day much as the Taliban have seen themselves in ours. Rome was the America of its day. Rome had great power. The disciples were just a small group of potential freedom fighters, but they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed. In the past, the Jews, under the Maccabees, had fought and defeated one great Empire. Imagine what they could do with God’s Anointed leading them!

Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he is saying, ‘You are the One to lead us against all this and who will rid us of it’.

And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was both right and wrong at the same time.

Jesus has himself invited Peter’s answer, and it is obviously the right one. Jesus’ next words, then, come as something of a surprise:

‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)

‘Not telling anyone about him’ has been a theme in St Mark’s Gospel so far. Of course, it could all be about strategy: Jesus could be waiting for the right moment to reveal who he actually is and so take the Romans by surprise. Jesus, however, does not only order them to keep quiet about who he is. Immediately after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while the disciples are still on an emotional high, Jesus goes on to say something truly shocking. St Mark writes:

‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In other words, Jesus knows he won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will Jesus not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.

St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. There was no doubt in Peter and his fellow disciples’ minds who the enemy was. Here, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, they could see the enemy all too clearly. The Messiah was the One who was going to free them from all this.

Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about it by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, albeit misguided, words of an over-zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God. But Satan knows only too well how humans think and how to get them to do his will.

It is not Pan and the pagan gods or Caesar and the Romans who are the real enemy, the real enemy is far more dangerous, and, at this moment, Peter has become his representative and he, the chief apostle, is leading the attack on Jesus on his behalf.

Having first rebuked Peter, Jesus acts decisively. He calls, not only his disciples, but also the crowds to him. Now is the moment for Jesus to make absolutely clear what following him means and where it will lead. Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).

What would the phrase ‘take up your cross’ have meant to anyone who heard it? The answer is that it would have struck terror into their hearts. We have grown used to hearing about crucifixion, and crosses are everywhere. We even wear them as jewellery! The image of the Cross itself has little emotional impact on us. This is not how it was in the time of Jesus.

Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they also had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.

Jesus is telling anyone who wants to be his follower: ‘Yes, there is going to be death’, it is not, however, the pagan Romans who must die, but Jesus’ followers, and Jesus himself is going to lead the way to the place of death.

Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as one possible outcome. If they want to follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to take up their cross willingly and deny themselves deliberately. Their goal in life isn’t to be success and glory. Jesus, by using the image of the cross, is telling them that they must live as people who have accepted that there is to be no hope of success and glory in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.

Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, he is telling us that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.

It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world, who are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who, for Jesus’ sake, abandon seeking what they want in this life who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38)

Jesus tells them that they must not be ashamed of either him or his words. Peter is ashamed. It was not how the Messiah was expected to think and speak. And to his shame, Peter has spoken for the enemy. Jesus, however, has now named the real enemies and exposed them: the real enemies are self and Satan.

Satan does indeed know how humans think and throughout the history of the human race, nothing has changed. Satan’s strategy has been the same from the beginning. In the book of Genesis, we read how, in the Garden of Eden, Satan sought to persuade Adam and Eve to turn from God and to turn instead to themselves and to what they wanted. He told them they should not listen to what God had said, but to pursue what they found pleasing and fulfilling.

In paganism, Satan gave humans gods that were a projection of themselves and of their own drives and desires. People worshipped these gods recognizing themselves in them. Satan’s most audacious move, however, is now being played out all around us. Tragically, we have either not seen it or have fallen for it, because, as with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we find it hard to resist what Satan is offering us. It appeals to our pride, our conceit, and our desire to be free from constraint. In the past, we were offered gods who mirrored our desires and who promised to satisfy them, now we are encouraged to worship ourselves and to follow our feelings.

Recently, I have been reading St Catherine of Siena. Saint Catherine is a 14th century saint. (I will say more about her another time.) St Catherine’s most famous work is her book, The Dialogue. This is a series of conversations between St Catherine and God.

During these conversations, God says to St Catherine, ‘I am he who is; you are she who is not’. When I first came across these words, I was shocked. It seemed as if God was denying that St Catherine had any value or worth as a human being. It was as if God really was the egotistical tyrant that many accuse

our God of being. If I were to say to you, ‘You are nothing’, you would be hurt and insulted. You would hear in my words contempt and rejection. But St Catherine herself heard in God’s words to her the exact opposite.

As St Catherine explains in The Dialogue, what God is saying is that he is our Creator, who has given us life and who is the One on whom we depend for our being. This is not about what we choose; it is something that simply is. As St Paul puts it, God is the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). We only have life as we have it in him. We have no life of ourselves. Whether we believe in him or not, like him or not, obey him or not, we cannot exist without him. Even as we are denying his existence, we are dependent on him for ours.

The lie that Satan wants us to believe is that we can have life without God. Satan only cares that we turn away from God. Once we have done that he doesn't need us to believe in him or consciously to worship him, he has already achieved his aim. By turning from ‘He who is’ to ourselves ‘who are not’, we are turning from him who alone can give meaning and fulfilment to our lives. We are, quite literally, turning to nothing.

By seeking the answers to life in ourselves, by believing that we can find meaning and fulfilment in ourselves and our own efforts, by thinking that we have in ourselves the resources we need to be able to pursue our goals and to satisfy our desires, we are putting our trust in he or she who is nothing. A society built on such self-belief is a society built on nothing; it is a society that has chosen death, not life.

Sadly, the Church’s message has become little more than a religious version of this Gospel of self; one that simply tells people what they want to hear. By setting our minds on human rather than divine things, the Church, like Peter, is speaking for Satan and not for God. Jesus doesn’t offer to accompany us on a journey of experience and self-discovery as we follow our dreams, rather he calls on us to follow him on his way of obedience and self-denial as we carry our cross. Jesus warns us not to be ashamed of him and his words. We need as his followers to have the courage to be honest in telling people what Jesus requires of anyone who is interested in becoming his follower.

If God was other than who He is, what Jesus is asking of us would be both frightening and beyond us. St Catherine, however, shows us there is no need to fear. St Catherine writes that not only did God create us and give us life, but that when he created us, he fell in love with us. If God were not love, the trust and obedience that Jesus asks of us would be terrible and terrifying. The One we are being asked to trust and obey, however, is not only the One who created us and sustains us in being, he is the One who loves us and longs for us to turn to him. St Catherine describes God as the ‘mad lover’. He loves us madly and completely, and he has demonstrated that love for us in Christ.

St Catherine is overwhelmed by God’s love for us. How can he love us creatures who are so wretched and sinful?

As I come into his light, I see all too clearly my sin, my failure, my weakness, and my inability to do even the good I want to do. Looking to myself, I am driven to despair for in myself I have nothing, can do nothing, and am nothing. But my hope is not in myself, my hope and trust is in my ‘mad lover’ who loves me despite who I am and what I have done, and who, in Christ, not only offers me love, but also the possibility of becoming who he created me to be.

When we see ourselves as we really are, we find it hard to believe anyone could love us. God, however, loves us despite how unlovable we are. Even though he sees us as we are, sees us better than anyone including ourselves sees us, because he loves us, he has mercy on us, and offers us in Christ forgiveness and salvation. God’s salvation is not only from our sin, but from ourselves.

Jesus said:

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8:35)

May we, like St Catherine, lose our life for him and in losing it find our life in him.


Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 7:24-37

For our Gospel reading this year, year B in the lectionary, we have been reading through St Mark’s Gospel. We paused our reading of St Mark’s Gospel when we got to the feeding of the 5,000. For five weeks over the Summer, we read instead the account of the feeding and of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum following it in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. We have now returned to St Marks Gospel, and last week picked up St Mark’s narrative in chapter 7.

At the end of chapter 6 St Mark’s Gospel, immediately after St Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, St Mark tells us that Jesus is attracting considerable attention (Mark 6:54-56). Everywhere he goes people rush to see him. The reason for their interest in him is that they want to bring the sick to him for him to heal them. This reason for their interest in Jesus is understandable but it is limited. The crowds are not so much interested in Jesus as in what he can do for them and what they can get out of him. Jesus still meets their needs, but this is not what he wants from them. Our Gospel reading this week shows us the response Jesus is looking for.

In chapter 7, St Mark tells us that as well as becoming popular as a healer, Jesus is causing controversy and making enemies. Ironically, the opposition to Jesus comes principally from the religious leaders and those in authority. Here, in chapter 7, the opposition is from the Pharisees and scribes. They were people who placed a great deal of emphasis on God's Law and on keeping God’s commandments. St Mark, earlier in his Gospel, has described how Jesus has already had arguments with them over the sabbath commandment and over who has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus has claimed for himself the authority to interpret God’s Law and to forgive sins. In chapter 7, we see how Jesus uses this authority in a way that may not seem such a big deal to us, but which was both revolutionary and shocking in Jesus’ own day.

The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes begins with the Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus why his disciples do not observe the ‘tradition of the elders’ (Mark 7:5). Nowadays, when we hear the word ‘tradition’, we tend to react negatively to it. We see tradition as being about binding us to the past and limiting what we can do in the present. This is not how tradition has always been seen, and it certainly was not how the Pharisees and scribes saw it.

Tradition, for the Pharisees and scribes, contained guidance and teaching on how God’s Law was to be interpreted and observed. Tradition had authority and was to be respected. Tradition not only contained guidance on, for example, how to keep the Sabbath, but on every aspect of everyday life. It included rules and rituals that needed to be followed. These applied to everything from eating a meal to going to the Temple to pray.

The argument, in chapter 7, centres on what rules and rituals should be followed when preparing and eating food. St Mark writes that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly. We know all about washing our hands ‘properly’ at the moment because of the pandemic. Properly for the Pharisees and scribes, however, doesn't mean in the right way hygienically, but in the right way religiously. There was a religious way of washing hands before meals, and not only hands, but also the pots and pans the meal was prepared in and the places where it was eaten.

Now this was all done sincerely and out of a desire to keep God's Law. The desire to get the rituals right came out of a desire to demonstrate obedience to God’s Law. It often led, however, to a focus on external acts and what people did outwardly at the expense of the inner motivation and obedience that the rituals were meant to reflect.

By focusing on the rules and rituals, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten that the whole point of the rules and rituals was to lead people to a greater obedience to God and to his Law. The point of the ritual was not the ritual itself, but what it expressed. Unfortunately, all too often with ritual, the original meaning of the ritual is lost in the desire to make sure the ritual is observed. Hence, the phrase ‘empty ritual’. The rituals that the Pharisees and scribes observed were originally intended as a way for the people of Israel to worship and express their faithfulness to God. These rituals had, however, been elevated to the same status as the commandments of God.

This was certainly how Jesus saw these rituals about ‘washing’ that the Pharisees and scribes were so concerned about. What originally had been meant to express love and devotion to God had become something that was done without much thought being given to it.

Imagine for a moment a couple falling in love. Every month they go to a certain restaurant for a meal together. He always buys her a flower. This ‘lovers’ ritual’ continues long after they have met. After several years, though, it becomes just a routine that they go through. This is how Jesus saw the rituals his disciples were criticized for not keeping, but which the Pharisees and scribes saw as so important. Quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says:

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mark 7:6-7; see Isaiah 29:13)

The Pharisees and scribes believed that failure to keep these rituals defiled a person, that is, made them unfit to come into the presence of God. It excluded them. Jesus tackles this head on. It is not failure to observe outward rituals that defile a person, Jesus tells them, nor even what a person eats. Nothing, says Jesus, going into a person from outside them can defile a person. The issue is what comes from within. And Jesus gives quite a comprehensive list of the unclean things that come from within, and which defile a person. The list includes theft, murder, and sexual sin, but it also includes evil thoughts, envy, and pride. Dealing with these unclean things, says Jesus, is far more important than how you wash your hands ritually.

Somewhat buried away in all this, is what, in English, is a six word comment by St Mark on what Jesus’ words mean. St Mark writes:

‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ (Mark 7:19)

For many of St Mark’s original audience, these words would have come as something of a verbal bombshell. This idea of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food is one we find hard to understand today. We understand the idea of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. And we know that some people, for various reasons, prefer not to eat meat at all. ‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’, however, is a religious concept. The Jews divided food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories – they still do – and unclean food was, and is, not to be eaten. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘kosher’. Kosher refers to the right food prepared the right way.

Jesus’ implied abolition of this concept was revolutionary. Again, we don't get today just how emotionally shocking was the idea that it did not matter what you ate. Jews, during the period of the Maccabees, for example, had been prepared to die rather than eat pork. Indeed, this was an issue that was to cause a great deal of controversy in the Early Church itself.

The question for believers in the Early Church was, ‘Should Gentiles who became believers be required to keep the rules about food in God's Law?’ St Mark clearly was on the side of those who thought they shouldn't. St Paul took a remarkably liberal view for someone who had been a strict Jew. St Paul taught that it was up to the individual to decide for themselves before God whether they observed them or not (Romans 14:1-9). St Paul himself agreed with St Mark that all foods were clean, but, as believers, he felt that we should respect each other’s choice in the matter. At the same time, St Paul believed this was a two-way process. Those who thought some foods unclean should respect those who believed that all foods were clean. But equally, those who thought that all foods were clean should respect those who believed that some were unclean.

But does it matter? Well, it did and it does. It is only a small move from thinking that some food is unclean to thinking that the people who eat it are also unclean. What follows next is the belief that not only should you yourself not eat unclean food, but that you shouldn't meet or associate with those who eat it either.

St Paul bluntly tells believers in Rome, who were dividing into groups based on whether they only ate clean food or ate all food, that they were to ‘welcome one another’ (Romans 15:7). What they believed about the food they ate was not to be a defining issue. What counts, St Paul writes, is glorifying God and loving each other.

This was something that the Pharisees and scribes found difficult to understand. For them, not eating unclean food was about obeying God. It was a lesson that even St Peter himself had to learn, and it wasn’t an easy one for him to learn. It took a vision from God, repeated three times, to get the message across to him, and this was after he had been with Jesus for three years.

The story is a well-known one. It is told by St Luke in Acts, chapter 10.

St Peter, St Luke tells us, is on the roof of a house in Joppa, praying at midday. He feels hungry and falls into a trance. While in the trance, Peter receives a vison of a sheet being let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. A voice tells him to get up, kill, and eat. Peter refuses, responding that he has never eaten anything unclean. The voice replies:

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10:15)

This happens three times.

Peter is puzzled by the vision and doesn’t quite know what to make of it. At that moment, some men come from Caesarea who have been sent by a Roman Centurion, a Gentile called Cornelius. Cornelius has himself been told in a vision to send for Peter and has been given the directions for finding him. The Holy Spirit tells Peter that he must not hesitate to go with the men for the Holy Spirit has sent them. What Peter says to Cornelius and his household when he arrives at Caesarea is particularly interesting. Peter’s words are:

‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)

Peter understands that his vision was not simply about which food he should find acceptable, but also which people. If a person is acceptable to God, they must also be acceptable to Peter and to the Church. Not only is Peter not to call any food unclean and, therefore, not fit to eat, Peter must not see anyone whom God has called to himself as unclean and unacceptable to God either. God goes on to show Peter how people Peter previously thought to be unclean are now called by God to faith in Christ. As Peter is telling Cornelius and his household about Jesus, God baptizes Cornelius and his household there and then with the Holy Spirit in the same way as Peter and his fellow believers were themselves baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us at long last to our Gospel reading this week. Jesus is in Tyre, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Galilee. A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches him. The woman has a little daughter who has an ‘unclean’ spirit. She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response to her request is somewhat shocking: he refuses. Jesus says to her:

‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Mark 7:27)

Jesus effectively tells the woman she is a bitch who doesn’t deserve to be fed. Preachers often try to soften Jesus’ words by arguing that Jesus is trying to test her or lead her to faith. We respond like this to Jesus’ words because we don't take seriously the fact that the Jews were and are God's people and that Jesus originally ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11). It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that salvation will be offered to the Gentiles as well. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Let the children be fed first’.

The woman in her reply doesn't dispute this. But even though it is the children's time to be fed, the ‘dogs’ can still eat the ‘children’s crumbs’. The time is coming, however, when those who are regarded as no better than dogs will themselves become children and eat at the same table as those who were originally God’s children. But that time is not yet. Jesus, however, by effectively announcing that all food is clean, also points to the day, which is coming soon, when all people will be clean.

We must not minimise the historical significance of this. Jesus came to God’s people the Jews. He came for the world, but he didn’t come to the world; he ‘came to his own’. God sent him first to those he had himself chosen and had separated from all other people. The laws the Pharisees and scribes sought to keep were God’s laws given by God himself, and while the Pharisees and scribes had wrongly interpreted them, and had missed the point of many of them, they were still God's laws.

What God has done in Christ, however, is to end his own Law, and, in ending it, has welcomed all people who trust in his Son into his family. This was both huge and controversial then and it still is today. Only recently, Pope Francis, no less, got into a lot of trouble for saying something similar. Can you imagine how much more trouble St Peter and St Paul got into for saying it? Indeed, St Peter after his visit to Cornelius’ household is called to give an account of his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Believers there are shocked that St Peter has met with Gentiles and has eaten with them (Acts 11:1-18).

St Luke tells us that those who heard St Peter’s explanation ‘glorified God’ when they heard it (Acts 11:18), but we know that it took them a lot longer to accept and come to terms with it. We learn from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians that even St Peter himself took time to understand its implications completely. What to us today now seems obvious was to be a major source of controversy and division in the Early Church. We see this controversy and division reflected in some of St Paul’s letters.

While today we don’t decide whether someone is acceptable to God based on whether they are a Jew or Gentile. We do still, mentally at least, divide people into clean and unclean groups, that is, into groups composed of those who are welcome to join us and those who are not. We know only too well, for example, that racism in the Church has led to people of certain races being discriminated against and excluded from the Church.

I think the Church today has recognized this, in theory at least. Most churches now go out of their way to be seen to be inclusive and welcoming. However, in their enthusiasm to be inclusive and welcoming, they often end up distorting the message of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that all are included in the Gospel invitation and that all are welcome to respond. But while we are invited to come as we are, we are not welcome to stay as we are. St Peter, when speaking to Cornelius and his household, puts it this way:

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ (Acts 10:34-35)

But how are we to do what is right in order to be acceptable to him? Our problem is the problem that Jesus describes in St Mark, chapter 7. It is not external things that defile us; it is not about where we are born, our social background, and all the other things that are used to exclude people. It is what we are in ourselves that is the problem. ‘Out of the heart’ of each one of us comes what it is that defiles and excludes us. We come to Jesus as people who are defiled by who we are and by what is in us, and Jesus invites us as defiled sinners. But if we want to go on with Jesus, we need to be cleansed from our defilement.

This is a message that the Church, in its understandable desire to be inclusive, has, both consciously and unconsciously, decided to ignore. The Pharisees and scribes were too exclusive in their approach; we have become too inclusive in ours. It's not that we should exclude anyone from coming, but that anyone who does not respond to the Gospel in the way Jesus says they must, excludes themself. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), one of the many who were invited did not wear the right clothes and was thrown out.

The Gospel invitation and welcome is to all people, but it is an invitation and welcome, not only to come, but also to change. St John writes:

‘If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:6-7)

No one is unclean in the sense of being excluded from the invitation that God offers in Christ. But we are all defiled, and in need of the cleansing blood of Christ, so that we can become acceptable in his sight. We need to be washed, cleansed by his blood, and set free from the things that defile us, so that we can begin a new life in the power of his Spirit. This is the message that we have been thinking about over the Summer as we looked at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It is only Christ’s body and blood that makes it possible for us to come into God's presence and which enables us to stay there.

The message that Jesus invites us to come to him and to be changed by him because all of us are not acceptable to God as we are and are incapable of doing anything about it, is not a message we welcome. We want both to come as we are and to stay as we are. And even if some change is needed, we want some say in how we change and to be given credit for doing so.

This is why, like the Pharisees and scribes, we like rules and rituals. They give us a feeling of control and of superiority. Control, because we get to do something worthy of praise; superiority, because we feel we are better than those who don't keep the rules and rituals. Rules and rituals give us something to boast about. More than that, our rules and rituals also let us take control of who is and who is not acceptable. Even when the rules and rituals are God’s, we want to be the ones who enforce and interpret them. Often our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.

In her desperation and need, the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus with an open heart and on Jesus’ terms. The Pharisees and scribes insisted that he come to them on theirs. She accepted that she had no right to Jesus’ help, but, relying on his generosity, was grateful for his mercy. The Pharisees and scribes thought they needed no help, but, relying on their rules and rituals, trusted their own judgement. Jesus came unto his own, but his own received him not.

Jesus told those who were gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum that he was the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35). Unwilling to admit their need, God’s own children rejected all that he offered them. The Syrophoenician woman, knowing her need, was happy to receive any crumbs that fell from the children's table.

Today, Christ doesn’t offer us crumbs, but his very self. To all who now receive him, who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he gives the power to become children of God.

May we, then, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, receive the eternal life he promises to all who believe in him and may we welcome as bothers and sisters all those who also believe – whoever they are.


Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

In this week’s church service, we commissioned our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers for the year ahead. This week, schools are officially starting back after a somewhat unusual summer vacation. The new academic year will begin, although, in the Vicarage, it doesn't feel as though the old one ever ended. I imagine it has been like that for many parents. As the new school year begins, however, no matter what disagreements we may have, one thing I think that we can all agree on is the importance of education.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously said in a speech in 1996 that his three highest priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’. It was a memorable, if somewhat meaningless, sound bite, but it was one that he could utter without too much fear of being contradicted. Education is universally seen as the key to prosperity and success both for children individually and for society as a whole.

It is this universal recognition of the importance of education that has made it such a focus of political attention. Here in Hong Kong, the National Security Law has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of National Education. Schools are under instruction to teach their students about what it means for Hong Kong to be a part of China and to give greater emphasis in the curriculum to Chinese history and culture.

Whatever we may think of this, the Central Government is only recognising what philosophers first said long ago. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher in the 4th century BC, said, ‘Give me a child until 7 and I will show you the man’. As is well-known, the Jesuits also said something similar.

There are those who think that education should be exclusively about children being taught the academic subjects of the curriculum, this and nothing else. The reality is that education never has been just about academic learning and, what is more, it never can be. Educationalists speak of the ‘hidden curriculum’. As well as the formal subjects that all schools say they teach, they also teach beliefs, values, and attitudes, whether they intend to or not.

Some schools are entirely upfront about this. They make it part of their mission to impart more than academic learning and they give thought and attention to what they are trying to achieve. Others don't make much of what they teach outside of the formal curriculum, deliberately or otherwise, but they do it, nevertheless. What the Central Government realises is something that political and religious groups have always realised, namely, that what you teach a child, intentionally or unintentionally, will inevitably affect the person they become and how they think as an adult.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of children being taught politics or religion in school. But children do need to learn beliefs, values, and attitudes, and these have to come from somewhere. The question is not whether children are taught at school what to believe and how to behave, but what they are taught about both.

What, then, should be our attitude as followers of Christ and as a church to what and how our children are taught? Frankly, as a church, we have rather shot ourselves in the foot over this. We are very sensitive in the church to the accusation that we are indoctrinating children by our involvement in schools. Consequently, we do what we can to show that we are not like some of the religious cults we read about, and we go out of our way not to force anyone to believe anything.

We think that it is OK to teach children Bible stories in special Scripture lessons, and we don't think that anyone will complain if we tell children that they should be nice to people. After all, isn't that what all good people believe anyway, whether they are religious or not? However, we go very easy on God and on what we believe, so that we will not be accused of being bigoted and dogmatic or of trying to brainwash children.

The result is that church schools are often little different to their secular counterparts. Certainly, the academic curriculum in most church schools is the same as that in their secular equivalents. Children are taught the same things in the same way by teachers trained in the same places. The main contribution of the church lies in providing people to serve on school management committees.

I am not, as a school manager myself, suggesting that this is unimportant, but, again, what we do as church managers is often not all that different to what non-church managers do.

This is not the time or place to talk about what a church school should be doing or about the way it should be doing it, although it is a temptation I'm having to work hard to resist! I would just say, however, that while we may be determined, as the church, to be seen to be impartial and not to be using schools as places to spread our faith, others are not so shy about using them to spread theirs. While secular society may not like religious dogma being taught in schools, it is not so reticent about secular beliefs, values, and attitudes being taught in them. And the teaching of secular beliefs, values, and attitudes in schools goes a lot further than simply encouraging children to be nice.

At the moment, many people in Hong Kong are worried about the effect the introduction of National Education will have. I have to say that there is a lot more about what our children are being taught for parents to worry over than National Education and their children learning about China and Chinese history and culture.

In Hong Kong, we remain heavily influenced by and dependent on western ideas about education. Many schools go so far as to boast that they are following a British or American curriculum. Certainly, in teacher training, many of the ideas and literature upon which teacher training is based come from western universities and faculties of education. What I don't think many people realise is the extent to which the ideas coming from these institutions, and which are finding their way into what is taught in school, are not only not sympathetic to faith in Christ but, I would argue, diametrically opposed to it. Not only is talk of God frowned upon, there is often open hostility to very idea of God. Indeed, many would see education as being a tool for liberating people from what they see as superstitious and harmful beliefs.

Many of those who value a western style of education are simply unaware of what western education has become. A recent appointment at Harvard University serves as a parable for what is happening in western education in general.

Harvard University was founded by the Puritans in 1636. It was named after Pastor John Howard who endowed it. Its original purpose was for the education and training of the clergy. For some 70 years, all its Presidents were pastors. In 1692, it adopted the motto, ‘Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae’, which translated from Latin means, ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ This became simply, ‘Truth’; Harvard’s motto today.

Harvard has some 40 chaplains responsible for the spiritual care of its students. They are drawn from a variety of religious traditions. In 1974, a humanist and atheist chaplain was appointed for those who wanted to be spiritual without believing in God. Last week, the present humanist and atheist chaplain, Greg Epstein, was appointed the Chief Chaplain. He is the author of a book entitled, ‘Good without God’. His appointment was endorsed by all the chaplains.

Who the chaplains choose as their Chief Chaplain is, of course, up to them, but the story of Harvard serves as a parable about western society in general. What originally began out of faith in God, first became secular, and has now become its opposite.

The chaplains may all have been agreed on the appointment of an atheist as their Chief Chaplain, but they don’t all agree about God or even about whether there is a God. So, presumably, in making this appointment, they don’t think belief in God is all that important for those they care for. God, it seems, has become an optional extra even for those responsible for people’s spiritual well-being.

This is one reason why many in the West itself are now taking their children out of state schools and are teaching them at home themselves. Some 11% of children in the United States are now being homeschooled. We can expect there to be a backlash against this from those who are ideologically opposed to religious ideas and to giving parents the freedom to decide how their children are brought up. Indeed, a Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, has called for an outright ban on homeschooling in the United States.

One thing many activists who are not religious can't stand is being denied the opportunity to teach their own ideology and beliefs to your child. They not only see the problem as being that children are being taught their parents’ beliefs, but that they are being denied the opportunity to teach the children theirs.

Regardless of what we think about homeschooling and parental rights in the matter, there is not that much that we can do about it here in Hong Kong. Homeschooling in Hong Kong is effectively not allowed, and the system is not going to change any time soon.

This makes what we're doing in Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo so important. It’s just a given that children are not going to be told, in school, the whole truth about the world and how it came into being. They are not, in school, going to be introduced to faith in Christ. And they are not, in school, going to be taught in any depth about what it means to live for Christ. If we leave educating our children to the educationalists, our children will be deprived of what is most important in their education.

In announcing our service this week on Facebook, I posted a picture of a child with the caption: ‘If we don't teach our children to follow Christ, the world will teach them not to’. Many parents, however, often for the best of motives, will sometimes question whether it is right to teach our children to follow Christ. They ask, ‘But shouldn't I leave it for my child to decide for themself and wait until they are old enough to make their own decision?’ I don't doubt the sincerity of many who take this attitude, but just think about it for a moment.

As a parent, you decide where your child is born, grows up, and goes to school. You decide what food they eat, what clothes they wear, and even who their friends are. Every important decision affecting your child’s life and upbringing is taken by you. Why is your child’s faith so unimportant that you feel it is OK to leave it out? Is it because we ourselves have believed the lie that faith in Christ is not really that important? Is this the reason we allow other things to come before sending them to church on a Sunday?

The baptism service has these words in it:

‘Children who are too young to profess the Christian faith are baptized on the understanding that they are brought up as Christians within the family of the Church. As they grow up, they need the help and encouragement of that family, so that they learn to be faithful in public worship and private prayer, to live by trust in God, and come to confirmation.’

There will come a time when your child will indeed have to decide for themselves. The time will come when they will get the chance, formally or informally, to confirm their faith. But we need to give them exposure to that faith now, as they are growing up, so that they at least have the opportunity to confirm it - or not, if that is their choice - when they are older.

If we don’t give them this exposure, then, when the time comes, there will be nothing for them to confirm. Make no mistake, the number of young people leaving school describing themselves as ‘nones’, that is, as having no religious affiliation of any kind, is high and growing all the time.

Faith in Christ is not an optional extra for those who have come to know him. Jesus spoke about the wise and foolish men and how they built their houses (Matthew 7:24-27). One built it on the sand, and, when storms came, it fell down. The wise man built his house on the rock, and it stood fast. Jesus said that those who were wise built their life on his teaching. As those entrusted with the education and upbringing of children, we should want to give them the opportunity to build their lives on the Lord Jesus Christ and on his teaching.

What, then, we are committed ourselves to in our work with children is something that will have long lasting consequences for our children. Faith in Christ is not just about our children's life here and now in this world, but also about their life hereafter in the world to come. Here and now, they will only be properly educated if they learn about the God who made them and who cares for them. They will only be able to live happy and fulfilled lives if they grow up knowing the One who gave them life. They will only have lives that make a difference and are of benefit to others if they are taught the values and attitudes they need for them to make a difference and to be of benefit to others.

St Ambrose, in the fourth century, said:

‘When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.’ (Explanation on Psalm 36, 65-66: CSEL, 123-125)

Faith in Christ is not a separate subject that can be included or left out of our children’s education at will. It can’t be confined to an occasional Scripture lesson or a weekly religious assembly. Faith in Christ needs to be central to everything they learn and an essential part of their education.

The responsibility for ensuring that they get this education lies, not with the school, but with their family: both their biological family and their spiritual family. As the family of God, we have a God-given responsibility to support our families as they raise their children and a God-given responsibility to children as members of our family the church.

Our work with children is a fundamental and vital part of what we do as a church, and it makes what we are entrusting our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers to do, so important. It is no good leaving it until the children are older and hoping it will all turn out alright. By the time they are older, it may be too late.

Yes, we want our children to decide for themselves to follow Christ and to confirm their faith in him when the time comes, but they need to be told and taught about that faith, and they deserve to be given the chance to grow up knowing Christ for themselves. Jesus told his disciples off for turning away children. He took the children in his arms and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). What we are attempting to do at Christ Church is to follow our Lord’s example. Our children are not the church of tomorrow; they are very much a part of our church today.

And so today, let us commit ourselves to educating our children and bringing them up in the faith of Christ to know Christ, so that they can decide to follow Christ and, we hope and pray, one day to confirm for themselves their faith in him.