s043g02 Lockleys Sunday 10 9/6/02

"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Matthew 9.11

This question of the religious authorities expresses their profound chagrin at Jesus and what he said and did. It is a pivotal question, remembered by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew, whose version of the story we read today, and in whose home the interchange takes place, obviously had particular cause to remember it. He follows it, soon after, with two remarkable occurrences, the raising to life of the daughter who died and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhages, which form the other half of the gospel portions for today.

And I think it is highly significant that the two great taboos of life are dealt with here, death and sexual intimacy. It is not just tax collectors and sinners who are visited and honoured, but the dead are raised to life and the pleasure of physical intimacy is restored for this woman.

The religious authorities had the conception that God was concerned about the minutiae of the ritual law and just who may and who may not approach God. Jesus came and said that God was actually interested in ordinary people and the things that ordinary people considered important, like illness, death and intimacy.

I think it is important to realise that Jesus goes out of his way to point out the healing of this woman. Matthew, Mark and Luke all know that this woman had suffered this complaint for 12 years. What would normally not be mentioned in polite society became common knowledge. And I rather think that this is on purpose, for here Jesus is restoring the possibility of pleasure in intimacy to this woman - something that is so important, yet ordinarily would be "swept under the carpet".

This woman had lived these twelve years where every act of intimacy was tinged with the realisation that she was unclean and her partner incurred uncleanness by contact with her. This was hardly conducive to the sort of joy and pleasure designed by God for intimacy. Jesus sweeps all this away and restores the possibility of joy. This needs to be heard, and I suspect that many, even in our so-called "liberated" society need to hear that God wants all of us to have a happy and fulfilled life in this way.

I find it interesting that Jesus says, quoting Hosea, that God desires mercy not sacrifice. The mercy God desires is obviously our mercy towards other people - God does not want us to be merciful towards God! There have been many occasions during my ministry when I've said to people that God can cope with them railing at the unfairness they perceive to have received. God has got broad-shoulders. No, God doesn't cry "mercy" when we accuse the deity of responsibility for all the injustices we perceive in the world. No, God bids us be merciful towards others. God thinks about people other than ourselves as well as ourselves. God does not want sacrifices, God is not interested in how much we or others love God, even when we love God to our own detriment.

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him, and I find it curious where Jesus went, for Matthew to follow. We might think that Jesus was calling Matthew to follow him to Jerusalem, to the high mountain, or to the Cross. We might think that Jesus was calling Matthew to a life of prayer and adoration. No, the first place where Jesus went and Matthew had to follow, was straight back into Matthew's own home. Jesus invited himself to dinner.

This tells me again, that Jesus is interested not in how much people can support his cause, but that he is interested in blessing the minutiae of our daily lives. Jesus most important ministry was not in the temple or the synagogue but in the homes of people like you and I. Had Jesus kept to the Temple and the synagogue, he would not have been killed. Our Christian mission is not how we devout we are in temple, synagogue, or church but how we live with those in our families. As Fr. Douglas said some weeks back, "there are those who are street angels and home devils." Our Primate, speaking at our recent Synod, expressed some dismay that Christian ministry is so often defined as what we do in Church. I would heartily agree with him here. Christian ministry is actually what we do after we leave. Christian ministry is whether or not we take on racist attitudes when we leave. Christian ministry is whether or not we accept those different from ourselves - how merciful we are.

And it is interesting that Jesus also says here that he has come to call, not the righteous, but sinners - and we assume this is because the "righteous" are the religious authorities and the sinners are those who are less religious people the authorities looked down on. But in the true manner of Jesus turning things up side down, of course it is often the less than religious who are in fact more merciful towards their fellows than those who are more religious, and indeed this is what "righteousness" really means - being merciful towards others. Jesus was calling sinners, and I suspect in the context he was calling the religious people "sinners" who needed to mend their relationships with other people over whom they pretended to lord.

So it becomes clear just why the religious authorities were so piqued by all this. Instead of their position of superiority, Jesus was saying it was them who had to mend their ways, not those they looked down on. He was saying to them "join in the celebrations with these my friends" and this they could not countenance.

The fact that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners is actually the logical reality of the incarnation - that Jesus became "truly human" like you or I. The religious authorities were offended that the divine didn't become just like them - with all their religious facades. But if Jesus had become just like them and not like ordinary people, the incarnation would have been a charade no less than the religion of the authorities was a facade.

That Jesus came and sat and ate with sinners, means that you and I do not have to be different, we have only to accept that we will be with others.

It is somewhat ironic that we have come from a congregation where some of the people looked at a crucifix with some suspicion - preferring a plain Cross - to this church where we have the figure of the crucified Jesus on our tower, without the Cross behind. And I don't remember if it was me or Catherine or someone else who suggested it is a bit like Jesus is "bungee-jumping". This may seem an irreligious thing to say, yet for me it really expresses the joy of the incarnation - that Jesus came to be fully involved with life as we live it, not just in the times when we are "meekly kneeling on our knees".

God in Jesus enters into life as we actually lead it, not with the usual and customary reserve, but bungee jumping into your life and mine. God in Jesus enjoys our company, when we are out and about, not just when we are on our knees. God in Jesus enjoys the company of all people as they accept themselves and accept others.

For in the end it is the religious authorities, who believe that God is only interested in the facade that we too can assume we need to put up, who actually deny the joy of what our God is all about. They truly are thieves who come only to kill and steal and destroy.

At this stage, I began to wonder about the statements that some Christians, from a perhaps rather different tradition to that which I have been brought up in, make - where they speak about having in Jesus a personal Saviour. Such people say things like "Do you know you are saved?" being able to point often to a personal experience they have had which has convinced them of God's love for them as persons. Sometimes one can get the impression, perhaps it is unintended, that the person and God are close "buddies". Without such an experience of God's saving grace, it can seem as if these look down on others as "second class" christians, or even sometimes as not really christians at all.

I have always found myself uncomfortable with this outlook as it seems that inherent in this approach grace is retained rather than shared. The grace of God must be used to magnify others not the recipient. My experience of God is that grace retained becomes a curse for the recipient rather than a blessing.

And yet as I think about the words I have typed, I realise that I do believe in a personal Saviour, because I do believe in a God who is interested in me (and all people) as we are. I believe God wants me and all people to live fulfilled lives, fulfilled physically, emotionally, intimately.

I notice the words of Jesus to the woman - words of ultimate empowerment beyond the subservience the religious authorities of the day (and still sometimes of ours) demanded. Jesus says to the woman: "Your faith has made you well". Not my power or the power in the cloak he was wearing, but her faith. And her faith was in a God who was interested - not in how much she could contribute to the Temple coffers or in how many hours she spent on her knees. No - her faith was in a God who was interested in the pleasure of her intimacy. How much we owe this anonymous woman who brings us this message!

And finally, perhaps it is salutary to those of us of the male gender to realise that God is interested in the pleasure women find in intimacy. I suspect that this incident tells us that God is actually more interested in this, rather more than whether they are appropriately subservient to their husbands! I can't recall Jesus ever commending wives to be subservient to their husbands, and he was hardly likely to have been crucified for saying this. He might of course be crucified by feminists these days - and rightly so :-) I suspect that over the centuries far more sermons have been preached at weddings on the theme of the supposed divine authority of gender inequality, than there has about God's particular care for the concerns of women - and our society, and ourselves, are by far the poorer for this.


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