Sermon - 9th October 2011
The Three-Pronged Gospel - Christian Community
Scripture - Mark 3:31-35
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Some time ago we did a series of sermons which showed how counter-cultural Jesus could be in his teaching - how he could turn the accepted values of his day on their heads, and reveal a powerful truth about our understanding of God. Well, he’s being counter-cultural today when he challenges his listeners to think about the meaning of family with regard to the Kingdom of God.
And that’s good, because today we will also look at another counter-cultural movement as we continue to think about the Three-Pronged Gospel which Troy Perry declared, over 40 years ago, to be the foundation of Metropolitan Community Churches.
Last week, Andy looked at the meaning of what Troy defined as Christian Salvation. Next week we shall look at Christian Social Action; but today we’re going to think about Christian Community. And ‘community’ is certainly linked to ‘family’ in a number of both simple and complex ways.
When Troy first defined Christian Community he said that Metropolitan Community Churches will be a family “for those who have no families who care about them, or who find themselves alone or friendless...” For Troy, it was clear that God’s love for all people worked above and beyond the boundaries of traditional family life, and God’s Kingdom on earth would be well served by a church which embraced those people for whom a traditional family meant rejection, grief, loss or even danger.
I wonder if Troy realised just how biblical - and authentically Christian - his approach to the family actually was, because in today’s reading Jesus effectively says that our lives of faith need to expand beyond our usual confines, beyond our traditional loyalties, and even beyond our family ties.
The reading can sometimes be seen as a snub by Jesus to his closest relations - not least, his mother. But there is a deeper significance behind what Jesus is trying to say to his followers in this episode and in the chapters which follow it in Mark’s Gospel. We can sense an impatience - an urgency - in Jesus’s attempts to make people understand that the Kingdom of God is breaking in upon them and requires a hugely different response compared with the rules, customs and traditions within which they presently live their lives. Boundaries have got to come down, barriers have got to fall, and prejudices have got to be washed away if God’s Kingdom is to become a reality.
And against this context, Jesus uses an opportunity to illustrate his message that, sometimes, God’s work takes priority over even family demands; the community of those who are working for the coming of God’s Kingdom is where we are sometimes called to be. There was no insult intended towards Jesus’s mother or his other relatives; there was just a question left hanging in the air: “Is there life, is there a calling, beyond the family?”
Again, looking at the context of those early years of Jesus’s ministry - even thinking about the first few decades after his death - you risked family rejection by coming out as a follower of the teacher from Nazareth. See if this sounds familiar:
The family is a crucial institution in society.
Families were often split by members who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Such a belief immediately placed you in a minority.
You could well be judged to be crazy or possessed for holding to such a belief and might be deliberately isolated from your family.
So, quite naturally, the Christian community became the ‘family’ for those who were rejected or cast out by their blood relations - a family of whoever does the will of God. Christians effectively became sisters and brothers to each other in the faith, as a way of acknowledging their inclusion in the Christian family.
And ‘inclusion’ is a key idea here, because in the four chapters which follow today’s reading, Jesus spends his time travelling from place to place around Galilee and the cities of the North, sharing his message, healing diseases, being seen, being heard, and getting known. But when you look at the cultures and faiths of the places he visits, you see that he spends as much time in gentile or pagan towns as he does in Jewish ones.
He cris-crosses Lake Galillee a number of times; but only the western side of Lake Galilee was Jewish: the eastern side was gentile. And everything he taught and did and accomplished in those eastern towns of Gerasa, Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi was among gentile communities; just as everything he did in Capernaum, Magdala and Nazareth was among Jewish communities.
There were no boundaries, or barriers, or prejudices about how Jesus created his community of those who would work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. His good news was for whoever would listen, whoever would follow, and whoever would pay the price for doing so.
So, let’s bring the story up to 1968 and those early years of Metropolitan Community Churches; and let’s look at the Christian credentials for what Troy recognised as the community element of his three-pronged gospel:
People were rejected and excluded by their families and friends because of what they believed or who they were;
Jesus ignored all the social boundaries and prejudices which would have separated people - both insiders and outsiders - from his message of God’s love;
Christian congregations became families for those who were rejected because of their understanding of the truth about who they were and what God was calling them to be.
There you have the clear rationale for that second prong of the three-pronged gospel: Christian Community. And it’s so remarkably close to how the early Christian communities dealt with people who needed to know that God loves them.
Western society has changed a lot since Troy first unmasked and began to challenge the degree of rejection, fear, persecution and isolation which a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans identity brought in its wake a few decades ago. Our approach in this country to sexual and gender diversity is steadily becoming more enlightened; and now we do not simply accept such diversity, we positively celebrate it and delight in its particular gifts. But it is not so everywhere. Listen to the charities who deal with cases of bigotry, exclusion and rejection in this country and elsewhere, read about their work, and a different picture emerges.
But we have cause for hope - not least from the inclusive roots of the faith which Jesus demonstrated in person when boundaries, barriers and prejudices were brushed aside for the sake of God’s love for all people.
For lgbt people, perhaps the kingdom has come closer, but is not fully here yet. But we are here; and Christian Community - deeply biblical, and authentically Christlike - is how we are called to make a reality of what inclusion really means. In fact, the model was there to see from the days when our faith was formed.