The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s118g09 Sunday 6 15/2/2009
'show yourself to the priest' Mark 1.44
Two weeks ago I spoke about the person with an unclean spirit confronting Jesus on his first official encounter with formal religion (1.24). Hear we have Jesus making someone clean and sending him back to the guardian of the cleanliness of the people of God as a testimony to them. In fact it could have been the very next day, depending on the weight given to verses, 39, 45 and 2.1. Jesus sternly ordered the man made clean NOT to tell anyone, but to witness to the religious establishment. Jesus therefore did not want public adulation, he wanted a change of heart in those who loved God with all their hearts and minds and strength, and proclaimed others as unclean. Again, Jesus did not want to destroy them, but for them to give up their positions of superiority over others.
So we are again confronted with the fact that Jesus preached a religious revolution - overthrowing, not the secularism of ordinary folk but, the pretensions of those who considered themselves the only true followers of God.
So Jesus' message remains a message directed towards us, those who consider ourselves the ones who speak with God's authority.
Hans Küng writes: 'historical analysis, however uncongenial .. can help us ensure .. that he is not simply fitted into our personal or social requirements, habits, wishful thinking, cherished ideas .. not played down in the Church's rites, creeds and feasts.' (On Being a Christian p166).
Jesus made this outcast clean. Jesus breaks down all discrimination, marginalisation and alienation. This is the message for the church and it remains as important a message today as ever, for there are still parts of the church who discriminate against non-Christians, marginalize women, alienate gay and lesbian persons all in the name of God still parts of the church who are quick to recognise 'uncleanness', and slow to admit God's presence anywhere but in themselves and their own coterie of devotees. The person with an unclean spirit is the person who sees the splinter in someone else's eye and not the log in his, or her, own.
God is not the author of discrimination, marginalisation or alienation and cannot bless these things. God calls us to make others clean and so remove discrimination, marginalisation and alienation.
I was reminded the other day in a congenial conversation I had that there are lots of good Church people who actually do believe in this inclusive God, yet are constrained by their upbringing and teaching to think that they shouldn't. It led us to discuss how the Church often damages people and imposes this intellectual, emotional and spiritual disconnect on others. But the church does do good things too. I mean it hasn't got rid of me even though I can often seem critical of the church. I suppose that the church realizes that I only speak what I perceive as the word of God. It recognises that in many ways what I say has some truth in it. It is recognised that I do not speak out of venom or spite, and while many would not say the things I do, or express them the way I do, I am somewhere in the continuum of reformation of the church.
Jesus sent the man to the priest, and our healing, while indeed personal, needs also to have community acceptance. How many reformed alcoholics return to the community from which they have come and they find themselves facing all the same pressures that were there before, and among people who are still drinking. It is no wonder that such people struggle!
How many people who have fallen into some hole or other in life feel that even though they are well they are still tainted for life? And it is the church that should be the first to accept people and to provide a supportive environment, but so often the church is busy with it's own self-preservation and self image.
The Rev'd Professor James Haire speaking at the National Chaplains Conference last week in Hobart said that the church has social and spiritual capital. If we accept someone into our community, then this is a powerful social and spiritual statement - to them and to others. Alternatively if we don't accept someone into our community, then this is an equally powerful social and spiritual statement - to them and to others. Each of these statements has long lasting effects, for good or for ill, for individuals and to the community. I have just been listening to the radio and a story about the resurgent Taliban in the northern provinces of Pakistan. They are burning schools because they don't approve of the curriculum. So the importance of Hans Küng's words above become clear. Education is an agent of revolution. When people are educated people will no longer be content to accept age-old discriminatory attitudes. How many parish churches have been made or destroyed by clergy who are happy to baptise those on the fringes or not.
God and the Church have nothing to fear from education, scientific study, indeed theories of evolution. All of these things are 'clean' and it is up to the church to acknowledge them as such. It makes one wonder what happened when this person who had been made clean did what Jesus said and went to the priest. We are not told. And in one sense it doesn't matter. Despite the social and spiritual capital the church has, it uses that capital to embrace the reality of change or the capital it has is diminished correspondingly. Reality has a way of enduring whereas myth and superstition have a habit of fading into obscurity.
St Paul was moved to say at the end of his theological debating in Romans: 'I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself' (Romans 14.14) and the same issue was central to Peter's conversion when 'the voice said to him again .. 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'' (Acts 10.15)
I wrote in last week's sermon: 'The Lord wants us to face the future, not hark back to the past, fight un-winnable battles, or live in subjection to others' emotional or theological whims. Indeed the only way we will find the Lord is if we follow him into the future.'
People will come to a church that helps them move into the future, and to face the realities of modern life. There is no point in pretending that we still live in the 17th century, or that we live in a monoculture where anyone different has to become like us. That helps no one living today. We live in the 21st century and we have to face the issues of the day - not by hiding our heads in the sand, suggesting that the church has all the answers, or that it's all the result of people abandoning the teaching of the church.
But this is not the wishy-washy ideals of a theological liberal. The words of Jesus bid the man made clean to confront the church of his day with the reality of his cleansing. Sadly the church of today needs to be confronted still.
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