As our Lay Minister, I had the privilege of leading the service today.
Readings for Epiphany 4:
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
One of my favourite films is “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” – that film that caused so many people to boycott it, because it was blasphemous, it made fun of Jesus, it didn’t take the Gospel seriously. All of these things said by people who hadn’t seen it, of course, and who didn’t know how Jesus was portrayed in the film. In fact, Jesus doesn’t appear very often, and is sympathetically portrayed. The scene that I want to talk about though is the scene where various anti-Roman zealots meet to discuss their next action of resistance. Brian, our hero, arrives and asks to join the group, named the People’s Front of Judea.
The conversation ensues (with the swearing removed!)
REG:The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People's Front.
FRANCIS: And we hate the Judean Popular People's Front.
LORETTA: And the People's Front of Judea.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters.
LORETTA: The People's Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: We're the People's Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People's Front!
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front,
REG: He's over there.
All the different anti Roman groups, with different names, all hating each other because of their slightly different ideologies. All supposedly working towards the common goal of expelling the Romans, but actually more involved in fighting amongst themselves.
Last week in his homily Rich mentioned the rather astounding fact that there are more than 4,500 different denominations of Christianity, and it was a fact that really shocked me. Is the church worldwide like the People’s Front of Judea – so involved in nit picking over details that they forget that the common goal: spreading the Kingdom of God.
The problem is that we are human; we have finite minds. We want to limit God so that we understand him. We want to say that Jesus is “ours”: the Episcopal Church, we’ve got the “real” Jesus. We know what he wants.
But of course there are other denominations – what the People’s Front might call “splitters” – who believe they have the “real” Jesus. To take an extreme example, Westboro Baptist Church, nominally a Christian denomination, believe and preach (and I apologise for the language) that “God hates fags”. Their Jesus is what they want him to be. Our Jesus is what we want him to be.
And to the people of Nazareth, the Jesus who stood up in the synagogue was their Jesus. The home town boy, the son of the local carpenter; they had seen him grow up, they had watched him get into scrapes the way all boys do. And when he stood up and spoke about the Kingdom of God being fulfilled, they could puff up a little with pride that this fine speaker was from their town. But then he spoke about the blessing going not to those in his midst, but further abroad, to gentiles. He uses stories of Elijah and Elisha where God healed and included people that were not part of the usual fold. He teaches that God’s liberation is more inclusive and abundant than the exclusive covenant that the people in the synagogue believed God had with them. With this, everything changes.
It is interesting how the mind can turn quickly when we do not agree with someone. We may feel that a priest, a CEO, a political leader, a teacher or a friend is wonderful until they say or do something that isn’t exactly what we believe. Then we are shocked or angry. After all, we like to congregate with like-minded people because it feels good to be part of a group that we understand and that we think understands us as well. When someone who we feel belongs to us says something contrary or challenges the current status, we are often quick to turn on him or her. It is one thing for an outsider to say or do something divergent, but a whole other game when it is one of our own.
This is what happened to Jesus. His people turned against him, because he said things that did not fit with their picture of him, or what they wanted him to say, or be. But God was with him. He was protected, and he was able to leave and to continue with the work God had set before him…for another three years.
We need to recognise that we are still children in this. Like children, we want to keep the things we love safe in boxes, to keep them where we know them to be what we want them to be. But God is not like this. God cannot be contained by our finite limitations, and the sooner we, and the other four thousand and something denominations recognise this, the better. We, here in Christ Church, or in the Convocation, or in the Episcopal Church, We don’t get to define what or who or how God is. We do not have a special claim on God. Rather God has a special claim on us.
Paul reminds the Corinthians, and us, of this fact, when he writes: when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The only thing we can say, with any certainty, about God is that God is Love. And this is what we are called to preach. We may not fully comprehend what that love means, for we are finite beings and our understanding is finite. But Paul gives us a fairly good resumé of what it involves. Love for this world, love for others, love for ourselves. Not hate, not disdain, but love.
Like Jeremiah, we may not feel ready for this task, but God calls us to it. God reminds Jeremiah that his love and knowledge of us is more than we can ever imagine – before we were born God knew us; before we were conceived, God knew us. We cannot comprehend this, but it is so. And God will protect us as we seek to do his will, and live out the Kingdom of God.
I know how Jeremiah felt, when God set before him the task he was called to do. Me? Oh, no, I can’t do that…I’m too immature, I don’t know enough, I’m not clever enough…But God knows us. We see what we are: God sees what we have the capacity to be. We need to be willing to trust him. The Psalmist came to that realisation, seeing that God has been there from the very beginning and will be there to the very end: all we need to do is be open to that love, a love that breaks our chains, liberates us, opens our eyes so that we can do the same for others.
Jesus proclaimed that he came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to bring freedom to the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. He has done all those things: he has given us the good news, he has released us from our prison of oppression to sin, he has opened our eyes. He has shown us God’s love.
Now we are called to show others that same love.