Sermon: Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 19 July 2015, St John the Divine

Reading  Ephesians 2.11–end

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

Compelling words about the impact of Jesus’ life and death in today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians: He has abolished the laws with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity. It seems to me this is a lesson that churches – and, incidentally, many other religious institutions and systems– have yet to learn.  For, historically, the church has had a great tendency to lay down commandments and ordinances around right belief, sound doctrine, correct pastoral practice, to the point where it has claimed a form of infallibility all its own, whereas this verse from the Letter to the Ephesians points towards Jesus as the figure who breaks down dividing walls, who sets aside the rule book when it is in danger of taking pride of place, and allows basic humanity to have priority instead.  This is clearly illustrated in today’s Gospel, as Jesus’ compassion for people takes priority even over the need of his tired disciples – and no doubt his own need – for some peace and quiet away from the crowds.  Mark’s Gospel tells the reader a number of times that people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one having authority: a new kind of teaching, and a new slant on authority.  This, surely, must be the model on which the church bases its own authority.

In his book, ‘What was Jesus’ Message?’, John Fenton identifies two contrasting examples of ‘teaching with authority’.  A teacher can say, ‘I’m an authority on this or that.  I’ve got more degrees on it than I can count, I’ve written book after book, therefore I’m to be believed in this matter.  You must acknowledge that, take my advice and do what I say’.  Or the teacher could say, ‘Look at the matter for yourself.  Explore this subject from every angle.  Examine what’s known so far: here are some places to look.  Find out what you can, then draw out the deeper meanings for yourself’.  The first example, Fenton suggests, is a false authority, because it enslaves the student to the teacher and disengages them from the subject.  The second is genuine authority, freeing the student to be inspired and to discern.  It encourages ownership and respects the individual.  And I would suggest it is this second kind of authority Jesus employed.  He never says, ‘I am a great teacher, prophet, Messiah or Son of God, therefore my teaching has authority’.  His authority wasn’t based on proclaiming himself.  And because this kind of authority leaves open the possibility for us to enlarge our knowledge beyond what is currently understood, there’s no place for static dogma, or any assertions of infallibility.

In any case, for the authority of Jesus to have included the idea of infallibility would have denied the fact he lived in the first century and therefore in a context of first century thought and culture.  His message, according to Mark’s summary, was grounded in John the Baptist’s preaching on the end of the world: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. But the kingdom of God – at least of the type they were expecting – didn’t come then and hasn’t come now.  Jesus also said that some with him in Palestine wouldn’t die before they’d seen the kingdom of God come with power, but they all died and the new age hadn’t come.  He also accepted that the first five books of the Jewish scriptures (our OT) were written by Moses, that David wrote the psalms, that demons are the cause of illness – all of which we now know to be false.

Infallibility was never a component of Jesus’s teaching.  If it were, he would never have been free to change his mind with regard to the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Her intriguing story, in which she asks for her daughter to be healed of a demon, tells us Jesus said to her that his mission was only to the Jews.  But she challenges him, and he changes his mind and heals the daughter – obviously a non-Jew.  Also, that the idea of infallibility was alien to Jesus’ teaching is evident by the way he taught – in parables.  Parables convey their meaning by metaphor, allegory and simile.  They don’t present the kingdom of God by means of rigid, incontrovertible definition.  Rather, they invite us to ponder their mystery and draw our own conclusions.  They provoke our imagination and help us to frame our own insights.  This is the example of authority set by Jesus, and I think it is the only appropriate example for the church to follow.

There is, of course, always the temptation for the church to misinterpret the idea of authority, and try to devise clear, unmistakeable and infallible rules.  But whenever it tries to do that, as it often does, it runs the risk of ceasing to point to the true God, and pointing instead to itself, or to a god of its own ideology.  We can become obsessed by a desire for control, enforced by rules, restrictions, limitations – even to the extent of reducing the scriptures to the one interpretation that supports a uniform, fundamentalist theology.

Personally, while I understand the human desire for security, for firm ground, I think the idea of infallibility, whether scriptural, doctrinal, or pastoral, has no future.  It is too problematic to be of any practical use.  The whole idea of Christian people telling other Christian people what they should and shouldn’t believe and do is out of place.  It is contrary to the example of authority given by Jesus.  Infallibility eliminates the opportunity for faith and stifles our exploration into the mystery of God.

But as I draw to a close, I must pose a question: Can a faith which eschews infallibility, dismisses fundamentalism, and openly acknowledges the blurred nature of its own vision command our allegiance?  It might be best to turn the question around and say that it is only such a faith, one which does acknowledge the blurred nature of its own vision, which can rightly claim our allegiance.  It was Maurice Wiles, a former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, who once wrote: It is only such a faith which is pointing us to the true mystery of God, and not enrolling us in the service of some lesser God of its own invention.

A church ethos – like ours at St. John’s – which encourages inclusiveness is sometimes caricatured as being merely politically correct, or a celebration of woolly, lukewarm Anglican compromise and relativity.  But I would counter that, and say that it is a celebration of the miraculous, life-giving diversity of creation and of God – the God who reaches out across divides, as the Letter to the Ephesians makes clear.   Brother Roger of the Taizé community, tragically murdered some ten years ago, spoke about how God’s community does not allow for us to build frontiers and defences and prejudices for survival. It calls upon us to sit down side by side with difference and, somehow, from the source of the Spirit of God, defeat the fears which divide us, and celebrate the love that should unite us, the same love we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  One last thought: In another Gospel passage, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it.  That fulfilment is surely the only infallible rule in the Christian Gospel, and it is the rule of love, for God and for neighbour – which essentially is one and the same thing.

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