INCLUSION AND BRIDLED DIVERSITY

Sermon delivered on the 1st Sunday after Trinity, the 29th May 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J G Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: 1 Kings 8: 22-23, 41-43     Galatians 1: 1-12     S. Luke 7: 1-10

S. Luke 7: 7-8 “I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

In one way or another, the three lessons today are all about being given and exerting authority. The theme of authority too, is important in any social context. For instance a person of faith and conviction may ask, How just must a law of the land be for it to have sufficient authority to be obeyed? Must a law be obeyed only because it is enforceable by the authorities of the land, or because it is essentially a just law that ought to be obeyed? Or, might it be possible for an international convention, let us say, to give rise to an unjust law, one that is enforceable by authority, yet nevertheless one that is inherently unjust because of some defect in its drafting? Would the authority by which a person that resisted it could be sanctioned then be just, or would it be unjust?

According to the Scriptures, the building of the Temple by David's son Solomon was originally part of David’s succession strategy, as he was led to believe that his own role was to found a dynasty, the House of David as it was to be termed. His son Solomon was to be left, as a man of peaceful rather than warlike pursuits, to build or at least head up the building of the great Temple of the Lord. We could, not unreasonably, say that the idea of a government of inclusion might be derived from the words of King Solomon's prayer in today’s Old Testament lesson. For Solomon first praises the Lord for keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to His servants who walk before Him with all their heart; but then Solomon petitions the Lord for the foreigner who, hearing of the Lord's great name and His mighty acts, comes to the Temple to pray to the Lord. Solomon prays that the Lord may “hear in heaven” and “do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you”. Solomon says that the outcome of this will be that all the peoples of the earth may know the Lord's name and fear him, as do his people Israel. Perhaps Solomon sadly did not maintain his wisdom up to the end of his reign, but at the beginning certainly he seemed to have learned the wisdom of some of the good traits of his father David. Solomon's words exemplify the nature of the covenant between the Lord and Israel: it was so far from excluding all the other peoples of the earth, as to be the core relationship that was intended to include them, albeit in a secondary sense, as well. This aspect of inclusion was maintained in other works of the Old Testament, perhaps most notably in the book of the prophet Jonah, which contrasted the reluctance of that prophet to speak to Gentiles at the Lord's command with the ready repentance of the king and people of Nineveh when Jonah eventually was prevailed upon, after his great setback, to do what the Lord required of him.

Turning to the New Testament, at first sight S. Paul's introduction to his letter to the Galatians does not seem to portray anything inclusive, because he is chiding his correspondents, the church in Galatia, for accepting the teachings of some others who are apparently teaching quite differently from what he Paul had taught. But we should be very careful not to be naïve and assume that because S. Paul expresses upset and astonishment over this that it is Paul who is wrong, and that he should be more open-minded towards other teachings and so on. Unfortunately there are some, and not a few, in today’s world who make the assumption that anyone who declares anything to be wrong is narrow-minded and perhaps hateful, and must therefore himself or herself be wrong. But in that case, someone who declared that 2+2=22 was wrong, would himself be narrow-minded and wrong. The consequence would be that a universe in which no point of view could be wrong would be a universe in which no point of view could be right – including the very principles by which the moralists in this alternative universe declared that no point of view could be wrong.

However in any case, the letter to the Galatians as a whole gives us a good understanding of what the teachings that S. Paul objected to actually contained. Briefly, the objectionable teachings were that the new Christians should take upon themselves the demands of Jewish Law, and in particular be circumcised. My commentary states, “Paul sees that these pseudo-Christians … want to win approval from the Jewish authorities by showing how effective they are in converting Gentiles to a form of Judaism. Since the Jewish establishment approves of the fact that they are making Gentiles Jewish, the false teachers have the best of both worlds: they have created a sect of which they are the leaders, and they also escape any Jewish persecution.” So as S. Paul says, this wrong teaching was indeed not the Gospel of Christ; for the Gospel of Christ reconciles Jew and Gentile inclusively under a new law of the grace of Christ accessed by faith and governed by the Spirit, and frees both from the various practices that had previously enslaved them. It was the Gospel itself, proclaimed with authority by S. Paul, which demonstrated the full inclusion of the nations along with Israel, and not this contrary pseudo-gospel, which caused division in the church and excluded those who were not circumcised.

So it is not the exercise of authority that is necessarily contrary to inclusiveness, as some today tend to assume. Today’s Gospel reading confirms this. It describes a Roman centurion, who is extremely familiar with the ways of secular authority. “I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”, he declares to Jesus. In effect he is saying through his messengers, who are Jewish elders, to Jesus, “I too can do things because of the authority given me, so how much more can you!” Here therefore, we see authority combined with humility. The Gentile centurion, for all his power, does not see himself worthy of having the Lord come under his roof, or even of coming into his presence, but knowing what the power of authority can accomplish, believes that the Lord can still heal his dying servant if he is humbly asked to do so. Today we might be inclined to ask: Well, did not the man have the right to approach Jesus as much as any Jew did? Perhaps or even indeed so, but it is not necessarily the exercise of an assumed right that brings forth the fullness of the grace of God. Indeed, the Scripture encourages us to pester God with prayer, but as this Gospel reading confirms, that should also be accompanied by a calm attitude of humility and faith in God’s goodness, timing, inclusiveness and greater authority.

There is, then, a difference between unbridled diversity and a just inclusiveness. Biblical Christianity, in line with but extending the old covenant faith of Israel, aims for and strives to include all who are within earshot of the Word of God, no matter who they are, where they have come from, and indeed what they have done with their lives in the past. But just as we may occasionally see in the political arena, such an inclusion requires a response of heart, mind, and ultimately behaviour. As Jesus Himself said, the one who responds to Him will be asked to deny his own very self, albeit to receive back his own self in a greater and better form, as a member of Christ. One could, perhaps, characterise such inclusion as resulting in bridled diversity, rather than unbridled diversity. For members of Christ whether here or in heaven will indeed be extremely diverse in many sorts of ways, but to be such members, and to exercise such membership, none of us can retain a mind so diverse as to be detached from the mind of Christ.