Is. 65: 1-9; Gal 3: 23-29; Luke 8: 26-39
St Paul’s, Clifton 22nd June 2019
A blessing from the early 20th century Carmina Gadelica:
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbour,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.
I will kindle my fire this morning
On June 25th 1945 towards the end of the second world war, fifty countries met in San Francisco and agreed the founding Charter of the United Nations. At the time the American President Truman said: “With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings may be permitted to live decently as free people.”
In my role as a tutor on a counselling course I have the privilege to facilitate groups of students who are doing what’s called personal development. One of the challenges of being in that sort of group is that it becomes apparent that you are all different, even when on the surface it might seem you are very similar. I’ve become aware of the challenge it is to sit with someone else who is different. That you might have a point of view you want to express, or deeply held beliefs that feel as if they really need to be said, or that you want to stake out where you stand. However, I try, gently, to facilitate discussion of each others’ stories first, what is it that might have led one person to be an atheist, or another an evangelical Christian, or yet another who is finding their faith challenged. As we listen to these stories, which are often very painful, and expose vulnerabilities, it begins to become possible to see the person, rather than the position they take on an issue. And, once we see the person, in all their rawness, then we can listen better to what they believe, or struggle with. Instead of being other we can begin to build bridges.
In two of today’s readings, I see large differences, and attempts to move beyond those differences.
Paul is writing to the Galatians. It’s a troubled letter, there are conflicts and divergences of opinion in the background of this epistle, and in the middle of it he affirms, ‘for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It’s possible this is even earlier than Paul, maybe a piece of early Christian liturgy.
Now, there are all sorts of questions around this epistle, but I’d like to pick up on Paul’s own sense of his identity. In various places in Acts and in the letters we see Paul proudly affirming his Jewish identity, he is a pious Jewish believer, who keeps the law. And yet, he tells us that there is no longer Jew or Greek, and his hearers will be a mixture of Jewish and Greek believers. And, he is affirming that a key part of his identity no longer has the importance for him which it once had. He is allowing part of the question of ‘who am I?’ to be gently let go of.
And, of course, Paul also use his Roman Citizenship when he needs to, in Acts, it’s often when he’s been arrested and he wants to highlight that he’s been wronged. It was a huge privilege, offering a sense of power and entitlement across the Empire. And yet Paul is saying that there is no longer slave or free. Once again something which is part of his identity is acknowledged as having no importance.
And then as a man Paul often speaks of the responsibilities of males and yet, touches on the contemporary expectations’ men had of power and privilege. I suspect that his maleness was something he valued, it would have been very much part of his cultural world, part of who he saw himself as. And yet, again he moves towards a radical stance, there is no longer male or female.
In the NRSV the repeating of “there is no longer…” creates an emphasis, a definiteness. And yet, Christian history has shown how poorly the Church has listened to this. The switch from Greek and Gentile as the outsider, to being the insider in the Church has led to centuries of antisemitism and hostility towards the Jewish people. The Church has not been good at saying ‘there is no longer.’ And it continues.
Privilege and power has been often approved by the Church as being in the hands of the few, the wealthy, the landed. A glance back through history shows how lords were preferred to serfs, how the power of inheritance has kept power and money for itself. And today as we look around the world, the Church is not good at standing up against power and wealth consistently and loudly. The poor are still poor, and often getting poorer.
And male and female. The recent anniversary of the 25th celebration of women becoming priests is a mark of change, but also a reminder of how little has changed worldwide. The recent rise of a more male dominated view in politics, religious institutions, and our national conversation raises the question again of the privilege that men often have, and the power that brings.
And, yet Paul was able to write ‘there is no longer…’ for any of these. He can challenge his sense of identity against what it is like to be in Christ. What does this mean for us in terms of the things which make up our sense of identity? How much do we rely on those things to prop up our lives, our beliefs, our differences with others? As an inclusive church how willing are we to say are we to say, ‘there is no longer…’?
And Jesus? He’s come across the lake of Galilee, and when he steps out of the boat he meets this man. A man who is possibly naked, probably a Gentile, a man who has been ostracised by his society. It says he is a man of the city, but he did not live in a house he lived in the tombs. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be this man? Bring it forward to today and to someone who has serious issues with his mental health, maybe has some form of dissociative identity, with several parts to his personality, or in his case a ‘legion,’ a hundred or so. Would anyone want to be associated with him? No one would want to have him in the house next door. And it says he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, often breaking the bonds, and this inner demon would drive him into the wilds. Can you imagine what it must be like to be so distressed, and yet to be bound, shackled, and feeling driven out from society?
We’re so used to seeing Jesus heal and work with those who are poor and excluded. But think about what it must have looked like, this Jewish Rabbi from across the lake is confronted by this man. What’s he going to do? There are all sorts of questions about this story, but I’d like to keep the focus on working against our own identity. Jesus would have been fully entitled to say that his mission was to the Jews, and he was a good Jew, wanting to keep ritually pure, but instead he connects with this distressed man. He is kind to him, helps him, offers him acceptance and welcome. He brings about some sort of healing which is transformative for him.
It’s clearly unsettling for those who witnessed this, as when the story gets around the people who live there ask Jesus to leave. The man begs Jesus to let him go with him, after all it doesn’t sound as though he’s going to be immediately accepted with loving arms by his community. But Jesus, by contrast to all those times when he tells people to be quiet, this time says: ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ That’s not an easy request.
So, again a sense of challenging our norms, of what we feel so naturally about ourselves as a good person. Can we accept those who are other than us? In a society where we seemed to have moved increasingly towards othering, making all sorts of groups unacceptable, condemned, feared, how as Christians can we move towards Jesus’ acceptance of this very challenging man? How can we, like Paul say ‘there is no longer’ a difference to all those people and groups who challenge or contradict us?
Can we say there is no longer Brexiteer or Remainer? Can we say there is no longer racial markers of privilege? Can we say there is no longer catholic or evangelical or liberal? Can we say there is no tory or labour or liberal or green or UKIP or Brexit party? Or whatever? Our society is riven with differences, and we inevitably sit on many of those fault lines. I sit on them, and they are very uncomfortable. How do I find a way to listen to others, to understand their pain and fears and vulnerabilities, and to offer mine?
Like listening to my students, to see their pain when they have been challenged, or when they’ve got it wrong. To sit with my students and to acknowledge that I get it wrong, and for me to be vulnerable with them. How do we see the person who is there, and is not the label? To follow Jesus is challenging. Can we, as he said to the man, declare how much God has done for me? It might be in helping the poor, the refugee, it might be in sitting with people and listening, it might mean sharing my story in some way, and it may be an uncomfortable way as a liberal and catholic benefice.
John A Powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society in California, says: “If we are to combat the rising tide of extremism across the globe, we must actively create bridges across difference, and resist strategic exploitation of our collective anxiety. For when we bridge, we not only open up to others, we also open up to change in ourselves – and actively participate in co-creating a society to which we can all belong.”
What would it mean for us to be authentically following Jesus to build radical bridges in our society? Could it mean a transformation for our society and of ourselves? Amen.