April 28, 2013
EASTER 5. (Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35)
Some years ago, I watched a programme about Victoria Wood visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup – which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected – one of which was bird spit.
The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.
Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart, so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.
Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat- which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.
This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals. We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.
The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find our selves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.
If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world, to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate n against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God – the worst of sins.
It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice its not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves; “ Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?
God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for one another.
This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we do have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short – for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to he died on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.
Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.
Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.
Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks – but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.
August 14, 2011
Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Matt.15, 10-28
A few days ago I was talking to someone from another Christian congregation about how to manage changes in a church. He said he thought there would be deep differences in his congregation about proposed courses of action, and that “Things would get political, and people would split into parties which is never a good thing in a Christian community”.
We tend to have a rather idealised view of the beginnings of the Christian church, seeing it as a community united in belief and practice. In reality, it was far from united. One group of Christians, led by the remaining eleven disciples and the family of Jesus, evangelised only Jews, and saw their mission as largely confined to Palestine. For them, the Gospel was essentially a call to reform for Judaism, and Jesus came (as our Gospel reading says) for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. It was only after the events of Holy Week had shown that most of the Jews rejected Jesus that the message could be taken to Gentiles; and if they wanted to be part of the Christian movement, they had to convert to Judaism, with all that involved in the way of keeping food laws, purity rituals, and circumcision for men. Paul, on the other hand, believed that the message Jesus brought was for all people, and saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. At the core of his message was the belief that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave of free, male or female”. (Gal. 3.28).
Our Gospel reading this morning reflects those tensions in the early Church community. In the first part you have Jesus stating that the food and purity laws don’t matter – supporting the Pauline view of his mission. But in the second part, you have him rebuffing the approach of a foreign woman, and stating the Jerusalem church’s line that his mission was primarily to the Jews.
We don’t actually know how much of this story goes back to Jesus. It appears only in Mark and Matthew, and Mark does not have the statement about Jesus’s mission to the lost sheep of Israel only. In Mark the foreign woman is a Greek Syro-Phoenecian; Matthew makes her a Canaanite woman, a member of a race with which the Jews fought for the possession of Palestine. Biblical scholars are divided over whether Jesus did speak and minister to the many foreigners living in Palestine at that time, or whether he preached and ministered only his fellow Jews. Some commentators believe Jesus would not have had any problem speaking and ministering to Gentiles, since he sat very light to the purity rules which demanded separation from non-Jews. Others think his mission was to recall his fellow Jews to their covenant with God, and he would not have involved himself with Gentiles.
Whichever of these was the case, the emerging Christian community struggled with the problems of how to cope with the many Gentiles who were attracted by the Gospel message, as the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts bear witness. Eventually, the problem was solved, as the Jewish Christian Church disappeared following the Jewish revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of the original Jewish apostles. Pauline Christianity became the orthodox view, and the idea that to be a Christian you had to convert to Judaism became so strange that the later editors of John’s Gospel could refer to Jesus’s opponents as ‘the Jews’ without any sense that Jesus himself, and all his early followers were, in fact, Jewish.
Perhaps it’s because we read this story from that perspective that this story is so profoundly shocking. Do we really follow a Saviour who was prepared to reject a woman who came to him asking for help just because she was a foreigner? Can we love a Saviour who called another human being a bitch?
(Any minister of religion nowadays who used that sort of language to a female parishioner would find himself on the front page of the newspapers the next day!). And what do we make of a Son of God, whose mind about God’s purpose for his life is apparently changed by the witty repartee of an insignificant stranger who he has insulted? The story shows us a more human Jesus, one who is having to learn on the job about the mission his Heavenly Father has for him to do. It is very problematic.
Nowadays it would simply not be acceptable for an educated, civilised person to speak to anyone as Jesus is shown as speaking to this foreigner. Yet the gospel writers seem to have no problems about including this. How can we explain it? The Palestine of Jesus’s day was deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines, as it is still. There was virtually no interaction between different racial and religious groups, and especially not between men and women from different communities. For many Jews, the survival of their faith and their way of life depended on maintaining this separation from the foreigners who had invaded their land and oppressed them. So they felt justified in using this sort of language about them.
But the effect of using this sort of language about other people is always to diminish our sense of their humanity. If they are ‘dogs’ they cannot be our brothers and sisters, they are not children of God, and we can leave them outside our concern.
This has been brought home to me forcibly this week as I read and watched the coverage of the riots in London and elsewhere. A woman in Ealing, who had watched her shop being trashed and the stock looted, called the perpetrators “feral rats”. A commentator on the Watford Observer website called them “feral scum” and “dog excrement” who should be shot on sight if they are found looting. Max Hastings called them “wild beasts”. While their anger at what happened is understandable to all of us who witnessed what went on, the effect of such name calling is to separate society into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and to deny to ‘them’ the human rights and consideration that underpin both our society and our faith.
But from those who perpetrated the rioting and the looting, there is a parallel dehumanisation of ‘the other side’. Two young women talked about the ‘fun’ they got from ‘getting stuff for free’ and how the riots showed ‘them’ – the rich, the police, the government, the Conservatives – that ‘we can do what we like’. A teacher from Tottenham writes about how a whole generation of youngsters has been inculcated with a distrust and hatred of the police, calling them names like ‘pigs’ ‘bacon’ ‘feds’ and ‘po-po’ that come from American city gang culture. Yet the same teacher said many of them are totally ignorant about the history behind such community attitudes, and have not actually had negative interaction with the police. But generations of mistrust have meant that “large groups of young adults in some cities have created a parallel antisocial community within the community, which operates by different rules.” In this subculture “acquisition of goods through violence is justified, the notion of dog eats dog pervades, and the top dog survives the best”. (Camila Batmanghelidjh http://tinyurl.com/3pjgj3w)
The causes of last week’s riots and looting are complex, and this is not the place to try to analyse them. But those who see the riots as a product of the unique conditions of 21st century British cities ignore a lot of history, and some of the evidence that is already emerging from the courts as the cases of those arrested are heard.
On the historical side, wise commentators have reminded us of the situation in the London of the 1820’s, when a feral underclass terrorised parts of London with street robberies. Or of the fact that looting was rife during the Blitz, the time when the conventional view is that Britain pulled together against a common enemy. An article in The Times yesterday gives an account of mob attacks on shops and businesses in South Wales in 1911, which only ended when the military were sent in. The shops were owned by Jews, and those who were convicted of the attack were respectable working miners and their wives. Others have reminded us that this sort of riots most often happens in the school summer holidays, when it’s hot, and that the end of the rioting might have had something to do with the heavy rain in some cities on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the increased police presence on our streets.
Analysis has shown that the riots took place in some of the most deprived areas of our country, with the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty. But similar areas did not have riots and looting. The court appearances so far have shown that the majority of the rioters were aged under 25, and male; but although many had no occupation, the proportion who were unemployed was no more than the average for these areas. Another interesting statistic is that 70% of those appearing in court came from outside the area which they were destroying or looting.
All ethnic groups appear to have been involved among the rioters and looters – and those who robbed or received looted goods come from across the social spectrum – like the young woman who came from a million pound home accused of driving a getaway car for a gang of looters, or the graduate who wanted to work with children who took a TV from a burnt out store – then handed herself in to the police because her conscience kept her awake. Some of the court cases have shown how easy it is to get caught up in lawlessness when everyone else is doing it.
Family breakdown has been blamed; but while some in court came from broken homes, others were there because their parents marched them down to the police station when they saw them on film of the riots, or found stolen goods in their possession. And while it has been widely asserted that the riots were a symptom of community breakdown, the clean up campaigns that immediately followed, and the moves to collect clothes, money and furniture for those who lost homes or businesses or were robbed, and the way people came together to defend their communities shows that community spirit is still strong in these same areas, even crossing racial and religious boundaries.
There are no easy answers; but there are things to do.
The Archbishop of Canterbury when he spoke in The House of Lords debate on the riots talked about the importance of rebuilding communities through education based on the values of civic virtue, values which are as much needed among the rich and privileged as among the poor and deprived. This echoes what the Bishop of St Albans said in his address to Diocesan Synod in June about the rebuilding of the sense of community, known in the jargon as ‘social capital’. Bishop Alan emphasised particularly the need to increase not just ‘bonding social capital’, the sort of community spirit that is so strong in our churches, which prompts people to look after other members of the community in difficulty; but also ‘bridging social capital’ the community spirit that prompts people to reach out to the wider community, to those who are different from themselves, and in particular to the newcomers, the aliens and those who are most vulnerable, and to build a community which includes them all. If we do this it will involve committing ourselves to caring for those who seem unworthy of our care. Caring costs as Jesus showed us, and caring also costs money – but so does rebuilding after riots and looting.
This sort of social capital, this reaching out across the social divides, to create a society which is one integrated community is what we call in religious jargon ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’. That perfect community has never existed on earth, and perhaps it never will this side of Judgement Day, but it is our calling as Christians to work to build it, no matter how difficult it seems, and how any setbacks we encounter as we do so.
The story of Christ’s meeting with the foreign woman shows how the early Church came to realise that it was God’s will that they should (in Jewish terms) ‘go to the dogs’ and bring them – the Gentiles – fully into their community, the community that Isaiah foresaw, when the Gentiles would worship in the Holy City as part of one dedicated people.