Inclusiveness - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


Luke 7:1-10

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Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.

And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.

And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.

And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:

For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.

Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:

Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.

For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

If there is one word that expresses the thrust of our readings from the Bible today it is 'inclusiveness'. In the Old Testament we are shown Solomon praying at the dedication of the temple, which is brand-new. It is to be the new centre of worship for Israel, God's chosen people.  We heard the beginning and the end of the prayer. Solomon prays that God will always hear the prayers of his people and forgive them when they have sinned and repent and turn back to him. Then, surprisingly, at the end, in the portion we heard,  Solomon makes the same prayer for those who are not Israelites, foreigners, gentiles, who nevertheless come to worship Israel's God. They too are welcome in the temple, included.

Then we have the reading from Galatians, surely the most polemical of all Paul's letters. In the portion we heard he is on the defensive. His opponents claim he is not a genuine apostle and so does not know what he is talking about, and he fiercely defends his credentials. But that is not the real issue. As in politics, principles get mixed up with personalities. The real issue is the terms on which gentile converts can become Christians. Are they in effect to become Jews first, if male to be circumcised, and, male and female alike, to observe all the requirements, ritual as well as moral, of the law of Moses? Is that the only way in to Christian faith? Paul knows he is an apostle specifically to gentiles, and for them faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to him is enough. God is for all nations, not just for those who are or become Jews, an inclusive God.

And that is echoed in the gospel reading. Here is a gentile soldier, sympathetic but from a pagan background, and Jesus is astonished at the depth of the man's faith. 'Not even in Israel have I found such faith.' Gentile or not, the man is a believer. God does not discriminate.

What are we to make of all that today?

Let's begin by reminding ourselves that we are the beneficiaries of that inclusiveness. We too are gentiles. We too are included in God's promises along with our Jewish brothers and sisters. We too can bring our prayers and be heard. When in this service the Sanctus is sung, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts', remember that we are joining in words heard in the Jerusalem temple by the prophet Isaiah twenty-eight centuries ago. The setting may be different but Solomon's prayer is fulfilled. Sunday by Sunday God hears and answers our prayers.

I pause here to underline a point I have just made in passing. One of the darker facets of Christian history is the way Christians have treated the Jews, as though they have been superseded and no longer have any standing in the eyes of God. The Church has behaved as the proverbial cuckoo in the nest, treating the treasures we have inherited from the Old Testament as exclusively our own. Of course we believe that God is fully revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, but we cannot deny our common heritage with Judaism or make the inclusive God exclusive.

Let me take the thought of the inclusiveness of God a stage further. I come to you today as a Methodist, and last Tuesday, May 24th, Methodists across the world were observing the fact that on that date in 1738 an Anglican clergyman, John Wesley, went reluctantly to a meeting in Aldersgate Street, not that far from here, and discovered, deep down, that God loved him, that Christ had died for him, and that he was forgiven. Of course, as an educated man he knew that already. He knew in general terms that Christ died for all. That evening it struck home to him that 'all' included him. He came away a changed man, and the 18th-century religious revival, and the Methodist churches across the world owe their origins to that moment. God's inclusiveness means you, and me.

So today we celebrate the inclusiveness of God. But I also ask myself some questions. For example:-

Fifty years ago I served in East Africa. A controversial issue in those days was, how much of indigenous African culture could be incorporated into the life of the church. The Victorian missionaries banned drums and dancing in worship, and insisted on translations of English hymns sung to English tunes. But why should  English culture be inherently more Christian than African culture? Things have changed since the 1960s. Drums and dancing are back, though polygamy remains a controversial issue. There are similar issues in other parts of the world. But why speak of the rest of the world? As British culture changes in so many ways the question for all our churches is, how much of contemporary culture, in music and the arts for instance, can, or should, be incorporated into the worship and life of the Church? How do we as churches witness to the inclusiveness of God?

The question is not only about worship and style. How inclusive are our churches in other ways? Inclusiveness is a general concern in society these days, in the professions, in politics, in golf clubs, and many other spheres. Glass ceilings still exist and there are celebrations when someone breaks through. The Chelsea Flower Show was celebrating this last week its first black female garden designer, and people were asking, why only now, and why not more? In a way it is a matter of plain justice and equal opportunity. But the Church has its own fundamental reasons for being inclusive: we believe in an inclusive God. So how inclusive are our churches - inclusive of race, of gender, of orientation, of life-style, of age? More difficult to assess, how exclusive do we appear to be without intending it? Do people pass our doors on a Sunday morning and not venture in because they fear they are not wearing the appropriate dress, or have not received the necessary education or fear, at least from the outside, that access and seating will be difficult for them with their particular disability? How do we show that people are welcome? What does it mean for the Church to witness to an inclusive God?

One final question. Jesus in the gospel was amazed at the faith of a man who did not belong to the chosen people. Can we learn to recognise faith in those who do not profess to have any - faith by other names, faith shown not by credal confession or church attendance, but in attitudes and behaviour? Can we learn to include those who profess no faith in a circle of discovery, where what faith means can be explored and people can discover that they already have more faith than they thought they had, and life can be made sense of in new ways? Can we learn as churches that sharing our faith with others is not a matter of delivering a prepared package but of learning with them what God is already doing in their lives? There are places where churches are learning to do this, and discovering that God is already ahead of them.

For the God of Solomon and of St Paul, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is an inclusive God, for whom the only barriers are the ones we erect.

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