A sermon preached by the Revd Simon Buckley
19th Sunday After Trinity (BCP Lectionary)- Ephesians 4:17, Matt 9:1
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the gentiles live.
The opening verse from today’s first reading from one of the letters of St Paul.
Paul, though now a Christian following his conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, still regarded himself as being a good Jewish boy and a Pharisee at that, so he had a pretty low opinion of the gentiles: the non-Jew. And on his travels spreading the gospel throughout the Mediterranean he saw all manner of behaviour amongst the Gentiles that appalled him and he wanted there to be no possibility that Christians could be confused with them. The lives of the Christians, he knew, should be distinctively different to the pagan gentiles. For Paul one way to do this was to keep the Jewish traditions- and you may remember that there was much discussion within the early church as to whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised according to the Jewish law.
The Council of Jerusalem, which we read about in Acts Chapter 15 was the very first church council and called to resolve this very dispute between the apostles – how much ‘Jewishness’ it was necessary for the Gentiles to practice once they’d become Christians. In a wonderful compromise (that demonstrates why the Anglican middle way is always right!) Paul says, ok- no need for circumcision just avoid fornication, eating any meat bought in the market that has been offered to an idol- a false God- and don’t eat meat with blood still in it (blood being understood to be the life and essence of another being). But even in that, Paul sets out these standards with some equivocation: in his first letter to the Corinthians he says it was only necessary to avoid meat offered to idols if eating it would offend someone else at the table. The Christian is given freedom to act and his or her actions should be carried out with consideration of others. An equivalent might be to say that whilst it’s fine for Christians to drink alcohol, if you’re out for dinner with someone who goes to AA the Christian thing to do would be to avoid the booze and have an elderflower cordial!
So, Paul in this regard, and indeed others, is not the absolutist that he sometimes appears to be. Yes, a man of principle and absolute conviction: he didn’t repeatedly risk his life and finally die a martyr out of some wishy-washy values based on an ‘anything goes’ religion. Far from it. There was a fundamental difference between how he lived and the gentiles lived that transcended him continuing to observing pharisaic practices. That fundamental difference is found in that opening verse from today’s epistle: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live in the futility of their minds. That was the difference. They thought life was futile: how we live makes no difference because we’re all going to die anyway; whereas for the Christian life is not futile – it has meaning and purpose even though and supremely because we will die (and of course the early church thought that -through the second coming- death for all was immanent). For the Gentile life had no meaning– itwas pointless, so you may as well just enjoy it in any way you see fit, the “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” mentality; but for the Christian life has a point beyond mere existence that gives life worth and which recognises the dignity of others who we share our lives with.
I do find it interesting at times the things people expect me to do, or not do, as a priest: as a ‘card-carrying’ Christian. I’ve had someone express surprise at seeing me in a short-sleeved shirt- “oh I thought you’d need to keep covered up”, assumed I’d be offended when they’ve sworn in front of me (though they’d not given a second thought to the number of times they’d used the name of Jesus as a swear word), some expect me to be tee-total and others assume that, as a member of the clergy, I must be a secret alcoholic. As Jesus commented – people were repulsed by John the Baptist’s life of extreme austerity and equally appalled that Jesus was happy to have a drink with the local riff raff. The life of a Christian should have a distinctive quality – discernible to those with eyes to see it- but it should not rest on simply what they eat or drink.
What makes the Christian’s life distinctive is that it does not believe that life is futile: to quote Paul, they are not alienated from the life of God and they have not lost all sensitivity to their neighbour. As St Paul goes on to say in rather more florid language than I’m using now the Christian is different from the gentile because their ‘new self’ is lived in relationship to God in whose love life is eternal, and with other people whose lives we recognise as having as much worth as our own. Life’s not futile, it has purpose; and every day, every moment is an opportunity to live more fully and help others be more fully alive.
What makes the Christian identifiably different- it is that the word ‘pointless’ isn’t in our vocabulary (unless we’re referring to a popular tv quiz show). Life isn’t futile, we are filled with power and potential and opportunity and everything we do- no matter how small it may be can have a positive impact, it can have real meaning for them and for us. Of course, we are surrounded by situations that we look at and feel utterly powerless to transform. The heart-breaking pictures on television again this week of the vast swathes of plastic polluting our rivers, oceans and shorelines with its tragic and devastating effects on wildlife can leave us thinking what can I do? The sight of people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets of this neighbourhood, the irritating people who even at 7.30 in the morning are hassling me for money you know isn’t for a hostel or breakfast but for a £10 wrap of crack waiting to be collected behind McDonalds; the pitiful plight of the people of Sulawesi who have lost everything. The list could go on and on…
None of us can individually clean up the oceans, rid people of their addictions, house the homeless or rebuild the lives of Indonesian people. I often joke to people that at my ordination I wasn’t given a magic wand but a plastic collar (and I had to buy that myself). We can’t suddenly change the world, but what as Christians we absolutely cannot do is say ‘there’s nothing to be done’, or worse still, ‘it’s not my problem’. Christians do not pass by on the other side of the road: they recognise that there is value in trying to do something. Not because they have superior levels of compassion to the gentiles, nor because they are they necessarily blessed with super powers that can turn cardboard boxes into new build homes, but because they believe that life isn’t futile and so it’s worth doing something and no act of kindness, no matter how small, is futile either. Something as small as swapping plastic for than paper drinking straws, as we discovering, can make a genuine difference to our environment.
I absolutely believe that trusting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the World should make a difference to the way we live our lives as Christians. It won’t make us perfect, not by a long shot. It doesn’t guarantee us lives free from pain or misfortune. It won’t even stop us from occasionally looking wistfully at the other side of the road when the cares of the world feel overwhelming. But after an occasional slip across the road for a walk in the shade, knowing others haven’t crossed over, we will return again -not out of guilt but out of love for a world so full of hope, of worth and rich in meaning.
I believe too that just as the Christian faith makes a difference to our individual lives this church- which is each of us gathered ‘en masse’ (or you could say ‘at Mass’!) should make a difference to this community. It is significant that people still turn to the church, this church, when there is no-one else to turn to. When everyone else has said ‘there’s no point…. there’s nothing to be done… life is futile’. The church- we– still stand as sign that life’s not hopeless, just difficult at times; and whilst our acts of kindness may not always send those who come here walking away exactly carrying their beds, it often leaves them sitting up in bed a little more upright. People frequently thank me, not for completely changing their lives round- as we generally don’t achieve that- but for some small gesture, deed or word through which they were treated as humans. Nothing we do is ultimately futile and together, by the inspiration and grace of God we can live differently and we can make a real difference in our world.
So those are the thoughts of your Rector this morning at the end of another very full week, as many of yours will have been too… and on the brink of another when we wonder what will come our way.
Let me return to St Paul,
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart…. As Christians clothe yourselves with your new self, created according to the likeness of God and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.