The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s171g07 Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany 28/1/07
'Elijah was sent .. to a widow .. in Sidon' Luke 4.26
How blessed we are these days, to have the three year cycle of readings from the Bible. The communication and information technology revolution over the last 20 years has meant that nowadays readings can be readily compiled and printed out for congregations to have in their hand to read as they are being read. This has meant that prayer books do not have to have the readings printed out only references given drastically reducing the possible volume of the publications. (Links to the readings for the day can be had from my page http;//users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/myindex.htm)
But, of course, prayer books have become bigger rather than smaller but this is because alternative services are now provided. So now there are different services of morning and evening prayer for each day of the week rather than just one invariable version. This, and the multitude of other alternatives are indeed a blessing, to clergy if not immediately to lay people. We have much for which to be grateful to our liturgical commission.
In Australia, the majority of the Anglican Church moved to use the three year cycle of readings at the introduction of An Australian Prayer Book in 1978. I do not know when other places started using it, but it was modelled on the Roman Lectionary for Mass of 1969. The first time that this passage from Luke has been regularly read in the Anglican Church on Sundays was in the first year C after 1978 1980. How startling it is to me to realize that this was the first time this pivotal passage, describing the murderous reaction of the people who had worshipped with Jesus all his life; those who could name the other members of his family, has been read regularly publicly in the Anglican Church in Australia. And if you do the mathematics, today marks only the tenth time it has been read publicly since then. (A cursory look through the 'Book of Common Prayer' of 1662 seems to show that neither this passage from Luke or the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark were ever read publicly on Sundays.)
Recently a 'christian' tract has come into my possession entitled "He is alive'. It is an A4 folded sheet with a large cross on the front. Under this title John 3.3 is quoted: 'Unless A Man Be Born Again, He Cannot See the Kingdom of God'. In this small pamphlet, this quotation is repeated, in various forms another 10 times! I hope that this serves to indicate that only 'christians' of the author's particular variety are going to heaven and everyone else is damned for all eternity. To quote the author: 'The way is plain and you can be saved this moment if you will. It is your choice Heaven or Hell. And if you are not saved when God has made the way so plain and paid the price for your sins, then you have no one to blame but yourself.'
Luke leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was crucified because he proclaimed the biblical message that God cares for others besides the chosen people of God. This was the import of Elijah being sent to the widow of Sidon and Elisha curing the Syrian leper. If we as Christians only imitate those who opposed Jesus by implying that God only blesses us, do we not also crucify the very person we purport to follow? What a neat way of self delusion! What a neat way to read the Bible and completely miss its message!
The other neat way of crucifying Jesus is to propound the absolute necessity of believing in the infallibility of the Bible and dismiss the theories of evolution and only those who so do are saved the rest are damned for all eternity. This is only the same thing under a different guise.
There are, of course, many other guises, all centring around 'We are / will be blessed Others are / will be cursed'. Right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry Luke makes the reason for opposition to Jesus quite plain that he preached that God blessed others too.
It is Luke alone who gives Jesus' reason for the statement in John: 'his own did not receive him' which is also reflected in the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark for our reading for today.
So my first message today is that we have much to be grateful for technology. Without it we could continue in blissful ignorance of a cornerstone of our faith and continue damning others when we should be doing precisely the opposite. The 'good old days' tried their best, but now is better.
My second message for today is about the Bible. Those who opposed Jesus had lots of ways to distinguish themselves from others of different theological schools. They too took the Bible as seriously as any 'christian' yet the Bible itself tells us that God cares for the other. Jesus quotes the Old Testament, he had nothing else from which to quote! Please do not label me a 'liberal' with the implication that I do not take the Bible seriously. A brief look at htp://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/si.htm gives links to 62 of my sermons on the Old Testament, 85 on Matthew, 59 on Mark, 80 on Luke, 78 on John, 117 on Paul's letters and 76 on the rest of the New Testament a total of 557 in all nearly 11 years worth!
My third message for today is that God cares for us as well as others. The Bible we read and the faith we share is all about God caring for all and blessing all.
My fourth message for today is that we do not read the Bible to judge whether ourselves or others are saved or not. The primary message of the Bible is not to postulate a particular time-frame for creation, not to postulate a particular people who are blessed while others are damned, not to set forth a set of rules to live by so that some are saved and others are not, but to say that God blesses all.
The 'new birth' that the author of my 'christian' tract says is necessary for salvation is a new birth not into a select society of religious individuals all believing and worshipping alike. The new birth that Jesus talks about is into the society that Jesus blesses - others as well as us.
Lest I be thought to be particularly singling out biblical literalists, I have in my library a photocopy of 'The Ritual Reason Why' by Charles Walker 1919. In this fascinating booklet he answers a multitude of arcane questions like: 'Please explain (why) the priest, after making the oblations, places the chalice on the midst of the altar, and having arranged the paten in front of it, covers the former with a linen veil, and the later with a corner of the corporal.' (p106) One has got to conclude that we have come along way in 90 years and all for the better! (I should add that I do this myself every time I celebrate the eucharist old habits die hard :-)!
The importance of the message that God blesses all is no less diminished today than it was in Jesus' time, yet some people, particularly many in the Church, oppose it still. But to do so is to turn away from the very roots of our faith.
I have often reflected that the Reformation was predicated on the invention of printing, and so the communications revolution in which we are engulfed will bring it's renewal and opposition as people are able to think for themselves and not just accept the doctrines as preached from the pulpit. We are all exposed to a vast array of beliefs and unbeliefs, all quite public and the obvious fact that God does nothing about this.
The terrorists (of whatever faith) see their traditional influence wane and wage war against the advancing secularism, and we see this in our day often enough. Or they will seek to hide behind ever higher and thicker walls separating themselves from those outside.
But Jesus, killed for saying that God blesses others, through this Cross and resurrection, breaks down all barriers between people, and brings us - to others. So again our atonement with God comes by being at one with others, all others.
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