Sermon - 30th August 2015
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
If there is one thing that the wider community knows about the Christian Church it’s that we disagree a lot! A friend of mine told me a few weeks ago that he was talking in the pub with a guy who was a lapsed Catholic from Glasgow. My friend is a URC minister and he was trying to explain what the URC is – the nearest his friend could come up with was Presbyterian – “ah” he said “they are the ones that are always splitting.”
For different reasons the Christian Church has always been discerning and debating doctrine. Sometimes these discussions are good natured; at other times they have become murderous. There are different types of churches because of history, politics and doctrinal differences. Thankfully we live in an age where these differences matter less than ever – at least in the West. To the outsider, however, these divisions seem as incomprehensible as many non-Muslims find the differences between Sunni and Shia. These divisions, however, are not new.
In our Gospel reading we heard a puzzling story where Jesus says some, at least to his original hearers, startling things. For us to make sense of it we need a little bit of context.
We all know that the Jewish religion has, at its heart, a desire to worship God and obey his commandments. Jews believe that the Old Testament contains 613 commandments which must be obeyed. Non Jewish people can be rather astounded by the number of the commandments and Christians, in particular, like to think that we are free from these and don’t have a legalistic religion. We tend to think that there must be a crushing burden from all these laws for Jewish people. I’m not sure that Jewish people see this as a crushing burden; simply the way they live.
Who drove here this afternoon? How did you remember all the laws that you had to obey in order to get here? How did you remember put your seat belt on, to stop at red lights, slow down at amber, not overtake when there is a solid white line in the middle of the road, not park on the zebra crossing, not talk on your mobile phone whilst driving, indicate before turning, keep to the speed limit, etc? Did you find all those laws a huge burden to you? You may wish some laws didn’t exist but, in the main the driving laws are simply part of what it is to drive just as the Jewish religious laws are simply part of what it is to be Jewish.
In the Early Church, however, there was a dispute about if people who became Christian had to become Jewish first. At its heart this was a question of identity – was the Church another division within Judaism or was it wider. For us with 2,000 years of history we know the answer the Church decided to take but it’s a more complicated question.
We worship the God of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Moses. We use the Jewish Bible as an integral part of what we call the Bible. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus’ disciples were Jewish. The first Christians were Jewish. They interpreted the world, and the events around Jesus and his death and resurrection through the lens of the Jewish Bible. The Book of Acts tells us that the first Christian community in Jerusalem went to the Jewish Temple to pray. So in a real sense Christianity is Jewish.
However, as gentile people converted to become Christians they saw no sense in becoming Jewish first. They didn’t want to keep to obscure food laws about what could and couldn’t be eaten and male converts did not wish to submit to circumcision.
This is the context of today’s passage as when Mark included it within his Gospel there was a debate going on about whether Gentile converts to Christianity should follow Jewish food laws. Mark remembered a story about Jesus being criticised by the Pharisees for his disciples not following the ritual laws about washing before eating properly.
Jesus criticised the Pharisees – the holy people of his day – and said they misused the law. Some Pharisees got out of the obligation to care for elderly parents by saying that their wealth really belonged to God – though God seemed to let them carry on using it! In this way the Law was misused and meant older people suffered. Jesus called them out on their hypocrisy and went on to say that what we eat doesn’t make us unclean but what comes from our hearts.
We don’t know how long it took for the Church to finally resolve this issue. It’s clear that the new congregations that sprang up around the Roman Empire were predominantly gentile but I suspect some Jewish Christian congregations continued for many years and they were probably happy to carry on with the Jewish food laws.
Later it took around 400 years for the Church to clarify how it understood the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Christians have had an uneasy relationship with art in Church. Some Christians had no problems having statues of Jesus and the saints in church; Eastern Christians were more cautious as the 10 commandments forbid making graven images so they only had paintings, called icons, not statues. At the Reformation some Protestants thought statues should be removed from churches; other Protestants were more relaxed.
In more recent years some old discussions have resurfaced. Eastern Christians have always been compassionate about divorce and allow people who have been divorced to marry again in Church; until the 1930s no church in the West would have allowed a divorced person to remarry. Yet over the next 70 years more and more churches allowed this so that now only the Catholic Church doesn’t allow this – but they have a work around to this with their system of annulments.
And of course as this is the LGBT Pride festival in Manchester this weekend the dispute in the Church about LGBT people is an obvious one to think about. Sometimes we get frustrated when one or other church leader says silly things about us; sometimes we look at statements from bishops and cardinals in African and Asian countries and think nothing will ever change. But I think there are wonderful reasons to hope.
The first book that tried to argue a pro-gay Christian stance was published only in the 1950s. There was a long gap before more material was published with an explosion of material coming out, as it were, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. An obscure academic text “Christianity and the Western Church Tradition” led the way for many other books. As the LGBT community became more visible, and more assertive LGBT Christians started to do our own theology and we realised that the truth was more complex than ever before.
Now the Church generally struggles to make sense about our loves and lives. On the one hand Pope Francis asks who is he to judge gay priests, on the other some of his cardinals and bishops say dreadful things about us. The Archbishop of Canterbury tries hard to be inclusive but Anglican gay clergy are forbidden to marry and last week a lay preacher was deprived of his licence as he has married his long term male partner. The Baptists have allowed their local churches to marry gay couples if they so wish but forbid their ministers to officiate at or enter into such marriages.
Of the mainline churches the United Reformed Church has travelled the furthest with sexuality being no bar to membership nor ordination as an elder or minister; we can bless civil partnerships and we should, if all goes well, be free to marry same sex couples from next autumn. But even within the URC these discussions have been painful as some have rejoiced at greater openness and some have felt the church is moving away from Biblical standards of truth.
However, in a historical context we have moved very fast indeed. If it took the Church between 300 and 400 years to work out what it believed about God a 40 year discussion on sexuality is nothing really!
So Don’t Worry!
Of course it’s hard to have an historical perspective when we’re in the middle of things. It’s hard to be positive when bishops, archbishops and cardinals support repressive legislation and give theological cover to murderous homophobia but I really believe these attitudes are the death cries of a tired fundamentalism that will be vanquished. The Church is learning that God is speaking and has to respond. It is unsettling that God speaks through the world which He loves and needs to repent for ignoring the voice of the Lord but the Church is moving.
So where does this leave us?
So what are we to do? The simple answer, is to carry on striving to live our lives as faithful Christians. We are called to love God and love our neighbour. We realise that we cannot love God unless we love our neighbour and that love of neighbour is how we show our love of God. We continue to be faithful in prayer, in worship, and in making a difference in our world through our church.
In my role I constantly meet people who are SO impressed by this church. People who may never come to us but who see something life affirming and essential in our various ministries here. If we continue to live our lives as faithful disciples we show the world that Church is not just about disagreement and division, we show the LGBT community that Christian spirituality is life affirming and we show the wider Church that, as Troy Perry said in the late 1960s, the Lord is our shepherd and He knows that we’re gay.