St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.

Advertisements

You Can’t Ask That.

Here in Australia, there’s a TV show called You Can’t Ask That.  The premise of the show is to identify a group of people who are often misunderstood, and to allow the public to submit questions which one normally might not ask.

Recently, an episode was done on priests, and you can see it here: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/you-cant-ask-that/series/3/video/LE1717H008S00   See if you can work out which one is me. 🙂

(International readers, I’m afraid that it seems to be difficult to get access to from outside Australia; if you work out how to do it, please let me know in the comments!)

It was a fascinating experience; to be invited to reflect on the big-picture questions about who we are and what we do.  To give you some idea, I was in the studio for three hours, and the material had to fit a half-hour episode; so a lot of what I thought was really valuable material hasn’t made the cut.  But I think what is there is fair.

Do tell me what you think of it!

Repent

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 6:1-13.

When I worked at the Cathedral, there was a young man who used to come and stand on the pavement just outside our doors, and engage in some public open-air preaching.  (Actually, there were quite a few people like that, but I’m thinking of one in particular).  And his message always struck me as a bit confusing, because he would yell at passers-by that they were all going to hell… but he’d punctuate that with random cries of “hallelujah!”

If you really thought everyone you could see was going to hell, that wouldn’t prompt most people to break out into spontaneous praise, but it seemed to make sense in his head.  I didn’t see him get much in the way of a sympathetic audience, though.

I was reminded of that this week when I looked at today’s gospel reading, because in it, Jesus sends out the apostles, on a kind of exorcism-and-teaching mission trip.  And Mark tells us that they went out and proclaimed, specifically, that all should repent.  (And they cast out demons and anointed the sick, but for the moment let’s focus on the message of repentance).

So often in the gospel we hear that the message being proclaimed was good news, or was that the kingdom was at hand, and so forth; it struck me as interesting that here, apparently, it was just a call to repent.

And it seems to me that the call to repent can cut in two very different directions.

The first is the one taken by my old acquaintance the street preacher; you need to repent because you are bad.  You are sinful, your life will be fruitless, and God might love you – because that’s who God is – but he probably doesn’t like you very much right now.

This is the kind of classic approach to trying to convert people.  First you convince them how bad they are, then you convince them that Jesus is the answer, and before you know it you have a thriving church full of ex-sinners (in theory).  And some people have really found a relationship with God that way.

It’s not a message without problems, though.  And any approach to sharing the good news, which starts by trying to convince other people that they’re bad, well… here’s the thing.  God created every human being in God’s own image.  And God said that creation was good.  The question we have to wrestle with is what sin has done to that good creation.  Is all the goodness totally destroyed?  Or is the goodness still there, but with some other mucky stuff going on around it?

If we think the goodness is still there – and Calvinists aside, pretty much every Christian tradition agrees that it is – then trying to start to share our faith with people by telling them how bad they are, moves away from truth, and more into the realm of effective emotional manipulation.

Not that I’m denying that sin is real; but it’s a question of where we put the emphasis.  Do we want someone to hear that they are God’s good creation, a beloved child, for whom God longs, and for whom there is a hope and a future?  Or do we want them to hear that they are worthless and without hope?  Especially when we bear in mind that often in these discussions any intellectual nuance gets lost in emotional responses.

So.  If we don’t want the call to repentance to end up being a message of our condemnation of others, what is its more positive side?

How about, you’re invited to be part of something better?

People know that the world is stuffed.  You only have to open a newspaper to see it; fathers shooting their children, teachers being charged with child porn offences, politicians completely failing to inspire us with their vision and integrity.  I could go on, but that was just a quick glance down the headlines as I was writing this.

People also know that their own personal lives are far from tidy.  We struggle as parents, struggle as spouses, struggle in the workplace.  Living up to our ideals and hopes and dreams seems impossible and unachievable.

And in the midst of all the world’s mess and brokenness, God opens a door and says, there’s a better way.  There’s a way to be who you were created to be, before all the mess and the brokenness got in the way.  There’s a way to be part of the solution, not the problem, in all the corruption of our world.  There’s a way to be part of a community that, although it isn’t perfect, is committed to living in this other way, this way of justice and peace and reconciliation.

And you’re invited to be part of it.  Just turn around, and take that step.

Every time we pray “we repent…” we’re saying yes to that invitation.  We’re turning around and stepping through that door.  We’re committing ourselves to relationships with God and others in which our love and our joy are stronger than our sin.

So often we’ve internalised the message that we are pretty worthless, as human beings; but the call to repent, instead of kind of hitting us over the head again with our worthlessness, can be an invitation to rediscover our true worth; or sometimes, even, to discover it for the first time.

That’s why, so often, Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  It’s near!  It’s not so far that you can’t be part of it; it’s only as far away as your choice to be part of it.  Or John the Baptist’s words, “Repent and believe in the good news.”  It’s good news!  Something better than what we have now is possible.

This was the mistake the street preacher outside the cathedral made; he told people they were going to hell, but he gave them no sense of any hope.  He didn’t show them what the alternative was like.  He didn’t invite them to anything better.

But we can.  Our job is to be absolutely crystal clear on what God invites us to; to respond to that invitation wholeheartedly, and then to hold out that invitation to others; to be part of a community which does its utmost to make real and concrete, the better way God offers us.  To show people, by the way that we are church together, that the kingdom of heaven has substance.

That’s how the call to repent becomes truly good news.  The disciples did it with exorcisms and healings; our experiences may be less spectacular, but they must be no less real.

Lament

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Lamentations 3:22-33.

On my side of our family, I’m the only person – at least of our closer relatives – who has any connection with a church.  It wasn’t always that way – both of my parents were raised as Roman Catholics – but as teenagers or adults they walked away, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, haven’t had any real desire to go back (or to find some other denomination to which to belong).

And while the reasons for a decision like that are always complicated, I think it’s fair to say – from the version of the family history that I’ve been given, anyway – that at least part of the problem for both of them was that when life was crap, church gave them neither language nor space to deal with that.

When church spoke of the incredible holiness of God, and of the blessedness of our life in relationship with him; but found no words for brokenness, no space for grief, and no answers except a prescription for deeper piety… is it any wonder that my parents, along with many of their generation, ended up deciding the church was pretty irrelevant to the big stuff in their lives?

Few of us would feel comfortable bursting into tears in the middle of a church service, or otherwise being demonstrative about our wounds.  Partly that’s a social thing – our culture doesn’t go in for public displays of distress, in general – but in church there’s often an extra layer of expectation that because God is good (all the time!), we should be okay.  That God should be enough.  And it can make people very anxious indeed to be confronted with evidence that maybe it’s not all that simple.

But we know that’s not reality.  We know that when we gather, some of us are hurting.  Some are grieving.  Some are anxious.  Some are weighed down with worry.  For some people, the bit of the intercessions where we acknowledge that people are struggling – or the chance to light a candle in silence – might be the only moments in coming to church where there’s kind of tacit permission to feel those feelings.

But – here’s the key point of what I want to say this morning – this kind of flattening of our human emotion before God and one another isn’t what God wants.  It’s not even Biblical.  This morning we had a reading from Lamentations; a whole book to give expression to grief and sorrow!  And if we flip through the rest of the Bible, we find in Job, in many of the Psalms, in a fair few of the prophets, and even, at times, on the lips of Jesus, absolutely righteous examples of people voicing so-called “negative” emotions.

The people who wrote these parts of our Scriptures didn’t keep silent about what they were feeling or experiencing.  They found words, poetry and even music to give shape to these emotions, and to share with others the experience of processing what was happening.

That means that these parts of Scripture can be a precious resource for us.  When I don’t know the words for how I feel, I might find that someone else has written something that resonates.  When I feel “stuck” in my own emotional mess, using a phrase from Scripture as the starting point for journaling or creative writing can help me find a way to work with it.  When I want to feel that I’m not alone in what I’m struggling with, I can relate to other people with similar struggles; those who wrote about them in the Scriptures, and other believers now who gather around those Scriptures seeking company on the journey.

And more than that, these texts can help us bring how we feel into our relationship with God.  If we believe that God wants to bring healing, restoration and hope in answer to our brokenness, we also need to understand that that can only happen when we confront our brokenness, are honest about it, and allow God to be at work in it.  To open our wounded hearts to God, and to be able to be vulnerable as we wait for what God might do.  A piece of text can help us to do that in a more controlled and measured way – I’d almost say a more emotionally safe way – than if we just kind of try to deal with everything all at once.

But they help us do that because these Scriptures aren’t empty words uttered to no one.  God’s people have someone to whom we can bring all of our emotional burdens.  In fact, lament – naming what is wrong – is just as valid a form of prayer as praising God for what is right.  It’s not somehow a denial of God’s goodness to say that your heart is breaking; on the contrary, it’s an affirmation of God’s goodness; because to even try to have that conversation with God says that you trust that God actually cares.  That God’s heart is moved with compassion; that God will not leave you unanswered in your distress.  Think about it; you wouldn’t complain to someone you really thought didn’t give a fig, would you?  But we can say these things to God because we know that God does care, and does want to respond with tenderness.

Our emotional lives are complicated.  I don’t for one second that preaching a sermon like this will magically fix everything, or even fix anything.  I do hope it will encourage you to be open with yourselves about the times when you’re not okay; and open with one another (this is half the benefit of the social time over a cup of tea), and maybe even give you some ideas about how to feel you can talk to God about this stuff.

How we might make space for it in our worship together is trickier, but I think it’s important to be thinking about that too.  I’ve been wondering for a while whether we might make more creative use of the oratory; set up different prayer stations at different times, encourage people to explore different ways of praying.  Doing that sort of thing well takes work and thought, though, so at the moment it’s really just an idea I’m keen to explore.

We neither want to rush past our difficult emotions nor get stuck in them.  I hope what I’ve said today will encourage you to accept them as normal and healthy, and explore some of the resources we have for finding the life God wants to give us, even amidst our difficulties.

Seeds and life cycles

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 4:26-34.

“Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what arrived was the church.”

That’s a famous comment by a French priest of the 19th century, and I think he meant it to express both his hope that in the church, he might find something of the kingdom; and at the same time, his ironic disappointment that so often, we find so very little of the kingdom.

And I wanted to start with that distinction today because we’ve often been conditioned to assume that the kingdom and the church are the same thing; or at least, that we can speak about them as if they are the same thing.  Or that we can read parables about the kingdom, and mentally substitute “church” without doing any damage to their meaning…

But that’s not really the case.  And I want to think about that a little bit this morning, in light of the parable of the mustard seed, which we just heard.

The kingdom of God is like the smallest seed, which grows up to become the greatest of all shrubs with large branches, so that other creatures are sheltered by it.

It’s a great image. To a tiny, persecuted, first-century community of believers – the first people to read and hear Mark’s gospel – it would have been an encouragement.  Hang in there; we might not amount to much now, but just wait till you see what God’s going to do with us!  For them, seeing the kingdom and the church as more or less the same thing made sense.

But we stand at the other end of an enormous span of time.  The church did grow from those tiny, persecuted beginnings; it spread all over the world, allied itself with powerful states, and birthed institutions and movements which shaped whole cultures and societies.

And now, in the west, at least, it seems to be shrinking in terms of commitment of people to it, it’s more and more at odds with the states within which it operates, and many of its institutions are tottering, if not gone.

What happened to the greatest of all shrubs, and all of that?

The way to make sense of this is to realise that the kingdom might be always growing until Christ’s return, but the communities through which the kingdom is expressed go through life cycles.

That’s really important, so let me emphasise that: the kingdom, the unseen reality which is the reign of God, which brings wholeness, justice, peace and so on… that’s always growing.  But the communities – including the churches – which are the expression and the vehicle of the kingdom go through life cycles.

They have small beginnings, they grow and are innovative and pioneering, they become settled and plateau, and then they decline… that is the life cycle of a church or organisation, or a parish, and all organised groups of people go through it.

We’re in the decline phase of that cycle right now.  Betty [a 95-year-old parishioner], whose funeral is tomorrow, when I used to visit her, used to reminisce about the days when you had to tell people to “shove over” so you could get a seat in a pew at a service here; now frankly you could stretch out and sleep on a pew and still not put anyone out.  (Just not during the sermons, please!)

The question is – what comes after decline?

Death and resurrection.

Here’s what I mean.  The kingdom is always growing.  The kingdom is always breaking through into our messy, chaotic, sinful lives in grace-filled ways.  The kingdom will always do that through whatever people offer themselves to the work.

So after a group – or let’s say a parish – goes through decline, the kingdom isn’t necessarily going to let go of what was done there.  Even when a parish closes, the people who leave there and worship elsewhere, and their ongoing influence in the world, continue to be part of the dynamism of the kingdom.  New life breaks out in surprising and unpredictable ways.

But even when a parish doesn’t close, there still is death and resurrection.  Because for a parish to go from decline, back into the growth part of the curve, old things have to die, and new things have to start.  New people have to be involved in new ways.  What was settled has to be shaken up, as the community returns to the open, experimental, innovative and creative attitudes and culture that allow for growth.

I’m not saying there’s no continuity between what went before the decline, and what comes after.  If there were no continuity it wouldn’t be resurrection, it’d be a whole new creation.

But while there might be continuity of ethos, continuity – in some sense – of the fundamental identity of a parish, that ethos and identity are expressed very differently in a growth phase, than they are in a phase of decline.

A growth phase is a time of dreaming big dreams. It’s a phase of asking ourselves what we stand for, and then setting bold goals in line with that.  It’s a time of being excited about what we can accomplish, an excitement that’s infectious and invites people to commit themselves freely to be part of achieving something worthwhile. It’s a time where the focus is on a vision of God’s kingdom made real and tangible in this time and place, in this community of people.

A decline phase is the opposite; It’s a time of not knowing where we’re going, or what we might have achieved when we get there.  It’s a time of managing administrative details as a matter of routine, rather than with a sense of a larger goal.  It’s a time of turning inward, and where the focus often shifts to doing what we like, and keeping people happy.

I am, of course, talking about trends, not describing what’s in every person’s heart.

But if we want to shift from decline to growth – and I certainly do! – if we want to know the resurrection and growth of our community again, if we want to be a dynamic expression of the kingdom of God… that tells us something of what needs to happen.

It’s time to start dreaming together.  What would you like to look back on, in ten years’ time, and marvel that we’ve accomplished?  What would you like to take a stand on, and see our parish actually make an impact?  What aspect of the kingdom of God can we give ourselves to living out together?

These aren’t trivial questions.  These questions are key to shifting from decline to growth, from death to life.  Nobody wants to join a dying church, but they want to join a church that’s going to make a difference for the kingdom.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and part of what arrived was this parish.  How will we relate to the reign of God, that organic growth of wholeness, justice and peace, in the next phase of our life together?

Growing edges of welcome

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5.

Long distance relationships are difficult.  These days, with the internet and skype and all of that, it’s not quite so bad; but I can remember when I was little, and writing a letter to family members in another country meant it would take weeks to arrive; and that was if you had a “by air mail” sticker on it!  I know some of you have had similar experiences.

Ministry – like any other relationship – is difficult at long distance, too.  In the last parish where I worked, there was one vicar for two parishes; and this meant his effective absence from a lot that was important in the lives of each of those communities; and that was keenly felt as a problem.

How much harder then for St. Paul!  Absent for years on end from congregations he’d started, communicating by letter – in the days before any sort of postal service, when you had to try to convince someone going in the right direction to carry it for you, and then hope and pray that your letter would eventually get there – it’s not surprising that sometimes his relationships with these churches became a bit strained.

That seems to be one of the live issues in his second letter to the Corinthians, which we read part of today.  Paul’s been away for some time, other teachers have been involved with the Christian community in Corinth, and the relationship with Paul is being tested.  The bit of the letter that we’ve read this morning seems to be part of a lengthy defence of what he taught and the way he’s acted.

That’s helpful to bear in mind because otherwise it can be hard to understand why he makes the arguments he does.  And the bit that this morning’s reading hangs on is this sentence: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

It’s not about me, Paul’s saying. I didn’t do and say what I did for my sake, because of ego or the desire for power or what have you.  But everything in my ministry has been for your sake.  And, through you, for the sake of all the people to whom you’re going to proclaim the gospel, and whom you are going to introduce into relationship with God.

That’s what matters.  That’s where Paul’s focus is; not on the leadership squabbles or whatever else was going on in Corinth, but on the big picture of the church’s mission.  Jesus Christ – or at least this is the way Paul presents it – has opened the doors of grace to everyone, so that grace should extend to more and more people.

And it does so as we interact with them in a way which makes God’s hospitality and welcome real and concrete in each person’s lived experience.  Rowan Williams put it this way: “The one thing you know for certain about your tiresome, annoying, disobedient, disedifying fellow Christians is that God has welcomed them; that becomes your challenge.”  Paul welcomed the Corinthians into a community of belonging to God, and their challenge now – and it remains our challenge as well – is to extend that grace-filled welcome to more and more people.

What has happened in the events of Jesus’ death and rising is that the social barriers between us have been destroyed; people who were far off have turned up next door (or sometimes even closer).  We need to make our peace with that, each of us within our own heart, and then between ourselves, and looking outward, down the street and around the suburb, at all the people who don’t know it yet.

Now here’s something uncomfortable that I’ve observed.  We as Christians like this as a big idea, but we are not always so comfortable with it in practice.  The idea of a big inclusive community is a great thing – because all of us want to belong – but when we need to extend that to people we find difficult, we struggle.  I notice this particularly with some kinds of mental illness, actually.  I’m not sure why; is it that we lack confidence in dealing with people we find volatile or whose sense of reality is at odds with ours?  But whatever it is, we need to identify it and get over it.  In a country where one in five people have experienced mental illness in the last year, we can’t afford to overlook their need to belong, and our responsibility to provide a community where they can truly belong.

Let me give you some examples.  It’s very common for people with mental illness to be told that their mental illness either means they’re not really a Christian, or that they’re not a good Christian.  That is false.  Our job as a church is to surround people with mental illness with love, warmth, understanding, acceptance and friendship; for who they are right now, without any expectation that this will somehow “fix” them.  We should neither criticise nor judge for the things they find difficult, even if they’re things that we ourselves take for granted.

More than that, I remember a friend of mine who goes through bouts of depression, saying to me once that when someone in the church is physically sick, people turn up with casseroles; but that when she’s bed-bound with depression, nobody brings her a casserole.  She was trying to point out to me that we tend not to do a good job of caring for people with these kinds of struggles.

Caring here starts with understanding.  How much do we have a good working understanding of anxiety disorders, of depression, of substance use disorders?  Do we know how to care for people coping with these things?  Do we have a plan for support that we can put into action as it’s needed?  Is our theology of illness and the way we relate our wellbeing and our faith one which supports or undermines people with mental illness?  Do we even know the difference?

I’ve made an extended example of mental illness because it seems to me to be one of the most consistent existing social barriers in our community.  I do want us, as a parish, to think about whether someone with anxiety or depression would find it easy to belong here.  But it’s an illustration of a bigger principle, the one Paul was on about in his letter to the Corinthians: grace is supposed to extend to more and more people.  And that commits us to relationship with more and more people.  We mush each look out for one another.  We can’t do effective Christian community at long-distance, or indeed at arm’s-length.

And when we really get that, when we really live it, then we’ll be the kind of church that Paul was trying to help the Corinthians be, where more and more people know grace and are able to give thanks to God.

Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.