GOD'S PROVIDENTIAL MERCY

Sermon delivered on the 8th Sunday after Trinity, the 20th August 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8     Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32     S. Matthew 15: 10-28

Isaiah 56:7 “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”

Romans 11: 2, 29 “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. ... For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

The Scriptures today reflect upon the purpose of a sovereign God who chooses freely and yet makes binding undertakings amongst the peoples of His created universe, a universe which has become flawed by the waywardness of those with whom it is peopled. In consequence of these factors, there is a divine drama being played out at the heart of our human existence, and this divine drama affects every one of us.

The Scripture readings today refer to the people of Israel as elected by God by His own will and choice, but Scripture emphasises that His relationship to non-Jewish people is not limited by the election of Israel. God is not limited in His outreach to mankind by the covenant relationships He has already established. Yet as St. Paul says, referring to the elect people of God, “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

The Church teaches something similar to this with regard to the means of grace that God uses in the Church to establish covenant relationships. The Church teaches that once a person has been baptised validly, he never needs to be given a second baptism, no matter how far he fell away from God after his baptism. Such a person is called away from sin to the call of his baptism rather than given a new call. Similarly the marks of confirmation and of ordination are indelible. If discipline is exercised by deposing someone from his office as a priest or bishop, this means that the person involved is debarred from exercising his office in the jurisdiction from which he was deposed, not that his ordination has been revoked. Someone baptised with water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is entered into the covenant relationship with God through Christ as the child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. While that does not necessarily prevent the person falling away from his calling, just as Israel too fell away from God’s call, the call itself is never called back. God is free too to operate outside the original calling, and Scripture tells us that when a person or a people are disobedient to their calling, this may become the opportunity for others who have not yet been called into a covenant relationship with God to hear his voice to them. It is good and necessary for God’s people to receive the sacraments as the Lord has provided them and made commands in respect of them, but He Himself is not limited in His action for others by what He has provided to us.

So in the book of the prophet Isaiah it is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa 56:7). That “house” that is being spoken of is the temple at Jerusalem, the Jewish temple. These words should remind us of the occasion when Jesus came into the Temple and drove out his own countrymen who were using it to make unjust profits, by selling sacrificial animals to worshippers at inflated prices. He quoted the same words from the Old Testament “My house shall be called a house of prayer”, and added “but you have made it a den of thieves”, quoting words from the prophet Jeremiah. We know that the Temple was constructed for the people of Israel, and to be the means of their fulfilling the demands of the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant; but as we see, God’s purpose for even the Temple is revealed both in the Old Testament and here in the New as going beyond Israel.

St. Paul in the New Testament lesson today tells the Gentile Christians at Rome that they received God’s mercy because of the disobedience of the Jews. Paul means, I think, that God’s purpose is never thwarted. The crucifixion of Jesus was an attempt by the Jewish authorities to silence the Jesus movement once and for all. But it had the very opposite effect, as the Scriptures themselves had foretold. That horrific injustice mounted by the Jerusalem authorities released the salvation of God to the entire Gentile world. So it can be said that the Gentile world received the good news of Jesus because of Jewish disobedience. Paul may also mean that since the good news of the salvation of men through the death and resurrection of Christ was preached first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, if Jewish people rejected that good news it would reach the Gentiles sooner. Certainly, Paul’s own practice was to turn to the Gentiles as soon as he met resistance from his fellow-Jews. However, St. Paul also warns his hearers, the Gentiles, that they must never think that God’s call to the Jewish people was made void. He emphasises that the Jews may have temporarily refused the gospel, but they are still beloved by God. The gifts and the call of God to the Jewish people are irrevocable, he says. God still calls His ancient people, the Jews, to receive their Messiah, in fulfilment of the law and the prophets. And the day may well come when the Gentiles throughout the world will turn their backs upon the Gospel that they once accepted. This is to a large degree occurring in the West, though not in an even way elsewhere. There can be little question that the problems of the financial system both of Europe and the United States, and the societal problems of the United Kingdom that have been so recently disclosed in many cities there, are a logical outcome of the loss or abandonment of the ethical framework that the Gospel secured to the minds and hearts of those who have preceded us. Who knows if it will be following a general Gentile apostasy that the Jewish nation itself will finally embrace its Messiah?

In today’s Gospel the Lord describes His personal mission on earth in terms of a mandate. He was sent, He says, with a specific mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Yet the demands of His own love cannot resist the words of faith of a woman who was very much not of the house of Israel. The woman in fact was a descendant of the inhabitants of Palestine before Joshua’s Conquest. She lived in the region of the notoriously ungodly cities of Tyre and Sidon, and her ancestry was seen as religiously bottom-class. The disciples of Jesus seem to have given her neither a moment’s thought or compassion. They just asked Jesus to send her away because she was being a nuisance. When Jesus described His mandate to her, though, she was not discouraged. She was wise enough, apparently, to see that He was testing her faith. She was even willing to accept the characterisation “dogs” that Jews at that time used of non-Jews, and give this person that she had called out to as “O Lord, Son of David”, a ready answer in the way that women seem best able to do. He had said to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”, and she immediately came back with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. As a result of her faith, her daughter was healed instantly at Jesus’ word of command.

I do not pretend to know the answer to such questions as “Does God love any one equally to any other?”. Certainly it is the case that God can be in a covenant relationship or a sacramental relationship with one, and not with another. However, in spite of such a difference, God does not deny His own nature as love, as revealed by Christ Jesus, for any person who calls upon Him. The gifts and the call of God for those that are His by covenant and sacrament are irrevocable. Yet as St. Paul says too, God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Accordingly, as God holds out his hands even to a disobedient people, the unanticipated exercise of faith by the disobedient will indeed be met by His love. The obedient acceptance of the means of grace is indeed important enough to be commanded by God, but the power of the Gospel is circumscribed neither by system nor structure, but only by whether men and woman are willing to receive it and their commitment to believing.