The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s027g14  Fourth Sunday of Easter  11/5/2014   ( modified)

‘the sheep .. will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’   John 10.5

One of the prayers added to the communion service in those ‘high church’ Anglican parishes, when a little water is added to the wine is: 'By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’  (1)

This is an example of what I might term ‘reluctant incarnation’.   The classic expression of this is by Paul: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.   Therefore God also highly exalted him ..’  (2)   The incarnation is reluctant in the sense that there has to be a carrot offered at the end of it - to be exalted.

God becomes male - or to be strictly accurate - a white, English speaking, straight, male - to elevate them (alone) to divinity.   God wouldn’t deign to become coloured, anything other than British, gay or female!

The Gospel of Thomas, perhaps as early as 40 CE or as late as 140 CE (3) - ends with the words: ‘Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life.”   Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.   For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”’  (4)   So the idea of the subordination of women is very early.   Jesus’ answer provides fuel for the thought that others have got to become like us, white, English speaking and straight.   I recall my own father held that the indigenous people needed to assimilate into white society, and he was only reflecting a widespread view in the community of that time.

But I want to suggest that Jesus, when he talks about us following him, it is not to heaven, or becoming religious or divine, but the complete opposite, by not being strangers to others as he was not a stranger to anyone.  

So we follow Jesus by befriending those who are not white, English speaking, straight or male - not that they become white, English speaking, straight and male, but that they might also befriend others who are different.

Jesus was not a stranger to anyone.   Jesus associated with one and all, the rich and the poor, the devout and the sinners, the movers and shakers as well as the hoi polloi.   This is the essence of the incarnation and it is the essence of the good news.   Jesus took great pains to visit one and all, to become someone rather more than a stranger.   And the voice of Jesus is the voice of one who first and foremost wishes not to be a stranger to anyone.   Jesus was not one to make grandiose claims for himself or extravagant demands on others.   First and foremost he sought to walk alongside another as he walked alongside Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus.  (5)

We are called to follow Jesus, and this means that we too are called not to be a stranger to anyone.   We too do not make grandiose claims for ourselves or for the church we claim to be members of, nor do we make extravagant demands on others either.   We too are called to walk alongside others, sharing the journey with them, the frustrations as well as the achievements.

People will not listen to the voice of strangers and rightfully so.   If we spend our time making grandiose claims about who Jesus is, or extravagant demands on others, we remain strangers to others.   Others will not follow us if we remain strangers to them - indeed they should not follow, for in doing so we place ourselves among the company of the thieves that Jesus talks about. 

These thieves come only to steal, kill and destroy.   Thieves steal a person’s dignity, thieves kill individuality, thieves destroy community.

We can see this happening in the life and death of Jesus.   The morally pure, orthodox and devout counted themselves as above the rest of humanity; they made themselves strangers to others who did not think like them, believe like them, worship like them and live up to their expectations.   And along comes Jesus and proclaims precisely the opposite way to relate to others.   Instead of being a stranger to others, he associated with others.   Such behavior was an affront to the devout and the orthodox.   To suggest that this was what God was like was for them the ultimate blasphemy. 

Jesus comes that we might have life and have it abundantly, and this implies that life in all its fullness comes as we cease to be strangers to those around us.  Life in all its fullness comes as we enter fully into the society of which we are a part.

But as I say, time and again, there is little point in you and I doing this, when the church proclaims herself different from others – that membership of the church implies we are to be strangers to those around us.   This is essentially divisive.   In doing so the ‘church’ destroys community - where God would have the community built up. 

So baptism isn’t into a holy huddle, but our birth into the world and all who are in it.   I have often thought, when I’ve heard clergy speaking, that they seem to only reluctantly baptise babies if there is some doubt about the orthodoxy or commitment of the parents to the priest's holy huddle.   Neither are we born again into a holy huddle but into a life where there are no strangers other than those we haven’t had an opportunity to meet already.   I note that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus flits to and fro, not especially caring that not all are cured in the place he had left.   (6)   And we maintain our friendship with others who are different by sharing table fellowship with them - not by proscribing rules and exclusions.

I have made the comment before that I would invite someone whose friendship I valued to a church if I knew that that church would accept my valued friend without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.   This is just another way of saying that the most important thing is for we in the church to be friends.  Conversely I wouldn’t want to invite anyone whose friendship I valued when they were not going to be accepted without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.

But the reality is that often the church wants to be other-worldly, and wants others to become other-worldly too.   The church wants to take a person’s dignity, the church often kills individuality, the church often destroys community.

The missionary command is 'Go on your way. .. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  (We are not to have just fleeting acquaintances).   Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!'    And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.   Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid.   Do not move about from house to house.    Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  (7)  For the kingdom is precisely the community not being an assortment of strangers, but a community of people who know and respect each other.   The kingdom and eternal life are not personal achievements, but a vision for all people.
And finally, if we want people to listen to our voice, the voice of someone familiar to them, then we will need to learn the language of others.  To expect others to learn the language of the church is to expect them to listen to the voice of a stranger.   No, we are to learn the languages of others, and if we read carefully the account of the first Pentecost which we are to celebrate in about a months time, this is precisely what the Holy Spirit enables the first apostles to do: to proclaim the mighty acts of God in the languages of the hearers and the most mighty act of God is to want not to be a stranger to anyone.

While we view the incarnation as reluctant, our faith is only really compulsion masquerading as liberation.   A ‘god’ that needs to be deceptive to get followers is not worth worshipping.   The good news is that Jesus rejoices in being incarnate, delighting calling us and all people friends - making plain by his words and actions what he is doing - befriending us and all people - that we might befriend all others too.   (8)

2. Philippians 2.5-9
4.  v114
5. Luke 24.13-35
6. Mark 1.38
7. Luke 10.3-9
8. John 15.15