SERMON 29 MAY 2016
Here we are. Sunday 29 May 2016, sitting in this church which is so familiar to many people here and for others, a place that they are still becoming acquainted with. Some things become so familiar we hardly notice them any more. I am still enjoying looking at the stained glass windows and getting to know them better. I know Malcolm is working on getting the light fixed behind the window of Dorcas (?) at the back so we can enjoy that again, since her illumination was blocked off by the building of the vestibule.
Here we are, doing something that is, hopefully, a precious part of our routine, whether weekly or more occasional. But I feel the need to disturb the peace. I want us to take a leap of imagination and look more closely at the Middle East, at the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived and the world that Paul inhabited. I think this is a very important journey, because, from where we sit in this time and this place, we inevitably make assumptions about life back then based on what we know, and sometimes these assumptions may cloud our understanding. This is a cross-cultural journey for all of us. I think when we begin to understand that, we discover new insights.
By way of introduction to that, I would like to share with you something that happened to me soon after I moved to the Southern Hemisphere. It was a culture shock to live in New Zealand in ways I never expected. It was a privilege to get to know several Pacific Island peoples. It was a revelation to experience being in a still largely oral culture. I went to a minister’s post-ordination celebration. We sat around the edges of a crowded large hall. I was one of the few Palangi, western people there. Clive was there but he was with the official party. People got up and spoke, then sat down again, all in Samoan of course. After this had been going on for at least 20 minutes I asked the friendly woman next to me what was going on. She said “They’re deciding who is going to speak”! It was a long night for me, unaccustomed as I was to just sitting and listening. Never mind the fact that I couldn’t understand.
Let us remember that Jesus and Paul were part of an oral culture. Very few people could read and fewer still write. The gospel stories would have been told to the groups who gathered to hear more about Jesus, to hear about the experiences of those who had known him or been closely connected with those who had been with him. Similarly the letters that Paul wrote would have been read out to the people they were addressed to. We are so used to being able to read the words in our Bibles that we can don’t realise the affect these stories would have had on the listeners.
The next cross-cultural learning for me was as a student at UTC, where one of the Pacific Island students there was explaining that they had had no word for “I” or “mine”, because everything was about “we” and “us”. Think about that! I am not sure how much this might also apply to Korean and other Asian cultures. That is a vastly different approach to life from our highly individualised society here. I have come to realise, especially as I supervise Pacific Island ministers, that this understanding of community and family based culture is a very powerful influence still, even for those who live between two worlds, as it were. It had been a shock to learn that babies are quite often given to someone else within the family or community, maybe an aunt or an uncle, in a semi-official adoption. We find that hard to imagine. We would be caught up in wondering whom this child regarded as their mother, their aunt and assuming that that must cause a confusion of identity. It doesn’t, because they are all held within the whole. These things are also a window into Jesus’ world. The culture then was much more akin to those of indigenous peoples and to what it is still like in the Middle East, and I think that this is an area where we miss some important understandings as we, here, listen to readings from the Bible.
In Jesus’ time, the family was all important. It was not about “me” and “mine” but about “us” and “ours”. The head of the household was the man. Everyone knew how they fitted in and what their roles were. People knew that they belonged and were protected within the family. The father often was somewhat separate from his wife and children. Boys and girls grew up together with their mother and any other women in the household, until the boys were old enough to learn their father’s trade. The boys followed in their father’s footsteps. The connection between brothers and sisters was strong. People didn’t expect to move out from this and anyway, to leave would be to dishonour the family. The honour of the family was all important. Honour was regarded as finite. Some people were born with particular honour from their family’s status. Others could accrue more honour by particular deeds or also, in some instances, at the expense of others by successfully shaming them.
Think, just briefly, about what different emphasis that puts on stories we are very familiar with: Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James and John away from their families, James and John actually leaving their father there alone in the fishing boat. Think about the impact on Jesus’ family of his actions and how the Pharisees and others were always trying to bring shame on him for his actions that broke the Law, such as healing on the Sabbath, eating with the dishonoured like tax collectors and others named as sinners. Jesus and his followers, men and women alike, were being far more radical than we may sometimes appreciate. And to follow Jesus was far more costly than perhaps we imagine. And yet people did.
So let us return to Luke and his gospel which we left behind in the Easter season. In the reading we heard today, Luke is telling us a very important account of the new order that Jesus was creating, where honour and shame were given a whole new slant. The centurion was Roman, an official who was used to commanding his 100 men. He is the head of his household, but Luke emphasises other things: the care this man had for a servant, the connection he had with the Jews, the subject people; the respect he evidently had for them and for their faith in the support he showed them. Already this man was one who had broken through barriers. And more than anything, he respected and valued what he had learned about Jesus, this itinerant teacher, a man otherwise apparently without honour or status but, it seemed, man of God - a God who was not his God. He would also have realised that for Jesus to come to his house would have made Jesus unclean, should Jesus have been concerned about that. So he changes his request for Jesus to come. From all he knows about power and authority, he was prepared to believe that Jesus had the power and authority to heal his servant from afar. No wonder Jesus was so amazed at this foreigner. This centurion is being held up by Luke as an example of how the call to a life of faith in and through Jesus was a radical call away from normal expectations. It was a call for everyone who will hear, and that often required humility and an ability to see beyond the norm.
Luke is telling us a lot about who Jesus was and how even a Roman official could understand. How many barriers were being taken down in this story! Jesus was indeed there for all people whose hearts were turned towards caring and were not held back by social convention, most particularly by concern to preserve one’s honour.
Now let’s move to Galatia, a bit of a journey northwards, to this group of Jesus’ followers amongst whom Paul had spent time, taught and preached. How can we understand what is going on? Clearly Paul is really fired up. He spells out that this letter is from himself, Paul, “and all the brothers and sister with me”. He states in the very first sentence that he was sent not from men nor by a man but by Jesus Christ. Only then does he offer his usual greeting “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. He then berates them – and remember that this would be read out aloud – for turning to a different gospel.
Paul particularly mentions his brothers and sisters in Christ. We learn from stories in Acts and in Paul’s letters, about some of those individuals who were among these brothers and sisters. This was the new family, the new social structure that was a new kinship of those who had left their own behind. This is the family of Christ, who himself looked around when told that his own mother and brothers wanted to speak to him and said “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters.” His own family relationships were not thrown away but he indicated he was setting up a new pattern of inclusive relationships under God. All his teachings about being a servant, the first being last and the last first, about welcoming the outsiders, all these fit within the new kinship patterns of his followers. It overthrew the old honour system. Paul knew this. He himself had originally fought fiercely to protect Jewish values and traditions from the teachings of this man Jesus, but had then been shown the light. He had moved from being a passionate accuser to being a passionate teacher himself within the Jesus movement.
Now, something else was threatening this community. The old values and customs were being recalled. It’s not surprising. Here in Galatia, some of the Jewish Christians were finding it hard to let go of what, for centuries, had defined them as belonging to the family, the community, the tribe, and that was circumcision. They wanted to insist that all new Christian converts had to be circumcised before they could be accepted. They wanted to put up a barrier around who was an insider and who was not. This was so contrary to what Paul had been preaching about in the gospel of Jesus being for all people, and he was angry. He is at pains to tell them that the gospel he has been preaching is not from himself but was given to him by Jesus. This was actually a very important moment for the early Christian communities as they were finding their new identity together.
These new kinship groups were formed on the foundation of a gospel of inclusion, where it didn’t matter what family you belonged to or how much honour they might have. It didn’t matter if you were an important man or a woman who might have been given little honour before. Now they were brothers and sisters together and all belonged equally and were equally valued. This was a radically new movement within society.
So I wonder how we might see this addressing our churches today. How much are we affected by what is an unspoken honour system, or one where some are valued more than others, or given more importance than others? I don’t mean necessarily here at Lindfield but in the wider church. In our nuclear families and fragmented individual lifestyles, how do we show a sense of kinship, of belonging together and being of equal worth? Of course we start with an openness of love, and I think this is a very loving community here. We also believe the gospel is not just for the few but for the whole world, so these same responses of openness and love are what we are all called to show not just within our own circle but in our society, our neighbourhoods, our country, our world. I read a quote from St John Chrystosom “If you don’t see Christ in the beggar at the gate you won’t find him in the cup”.
We are in the midst of an election campaign where easy slogans and promises about a better society are rolled out. It is hard to believe them. If you want to look at what the Uniting Church is saying about election issues you can look up Uniting Justice and download the booklet they have prepared. We look at our TVs and see the news and it is disheartening, if not downright depressing. I must admit I turned off SBS news the other night as I just didn’t want to see more bombings and deaths in Syria and imagine what life there must be like for those who struggle on.
Luke tells us of how Jesus was fundamentally breaking through the old systems and how, in the kingdom of God, the old ways were not what mattered. Rather, faith in God broke down the barriers and let love through. Paul passionately defended the new kinship, the new community of Jesus’ followers, the community where all could find a place of belonging. And so we too are always called to look at how we nurture our own kinship, not for our sakes, but in order to show God’s love to the world around us, to be a community founded on faith and open all. So may we keep learning together.