RESPONDING RIGHTLY TO GOD’S CALLING

Sermon delivered on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity the 19th June 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Isaiah 65:1-9     Galatians 3:23-29     S. Luke 8:26-39

Galatians 3: 25 “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.”

Our Christian faith is commonly thought of, both by ourselves and by others, as outwardly providing boundaries of action beyond which we should not go. These boundaries may be exemplified for us by the 10 Commandments, which can still be seen displayed within many Anglican (and other) churches. St. Augustine, however, is well known for his describing of a Christianity by which our souls are so inwardly changed that the will of God is identified with our souls’ deepest desires. For that is the meaning of his famous saying: “Love God and do as you like.” The two ways of thinking about Christian discipleship seem to form a contrast: first, our discipleship must cause us to say No to our own souls. But ultimately and by the grace of God, our discipleship is the expression of our souls’ deepest and truest Yes, to their deepest and truest desires.

St. Paul in today’s Epistle speaks of the law and faith in these contrasting terms. The law provides boundaries of legitimate action. Keeping within the boundaries provides a training for faith. But there is a quality to faith that merely keeping within the boundaries cannot describe. That quality is the relationship with God to which we are called: a relationship of filial devotion, the relationship of being a son or a daughter, rather than of coercion through fear.

There are quite a number of families where the child is more or less brought up by the helper because the parents choose or are constrained to be at work or in other pursuits. In a sense the helper is a trainer or custodian for the child until the child reaches a certain age, but quite often the helper becomes more of a mother to the child than the real mother. In the Gentile world of New Testament times, a family of class might possess a well-qualified male bondservant to bring up the sons until they were of age. This custodian or trainer had real authority over the child, and the child had to respect him and was punished if he did not do what the trainer told him to do. But the custodian was never thought of as the child’s father. The child will inherit from the parent and not from the custodian. Especially in the Western world we like to suppose and hope there to be an intimacy and understanding in the parental relationship that goes far beyond one of enforcing the child’s compliance to the parents’ will. Children are supposed to be educated from the state of merely doing what the parent commands, to a state of understanding and sharing the mind of the parent. At that point, of course, doing the will of the parent would be exactly what the child wanted too. In the world such ideals are often not realised. But St. Paul, as well as Jesus Himself, says God desires that sort of relationship with those who would be His. We are to seek to go beyond just doing what He says. It’s not to stay at the level, “Do as you’re told, boy!” “But why ...?” “Because I said so.” It’s to be more at the level of the meaningful glance, which is understood immediately and responded to with understanding. As the Lord Himself said, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Today’s Gospel describes not only the healing of the Gadarene demoniac but also some significant relationships between the various parties involved in the event. We see the healed man clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, the typical position of a pupil in those days and in many cultures to this day. The man was beginning to get an understanding of what Jesus was teaching him. But the people of the place who had seen what happened, had no sense of pleasure from seeing the man sit at the feet of Jesus. We are told that they were afraid. Their concept of the power of God which they had seen, caused them to beg him to remove it from them. Hence they asked him to leave immediately. I have heard commentators say that this was because so many pigs had got drowned, and the people were angry about the commercial loss. But nowhere does the text say or imply that. They asked him to leave because they were afraid of the power of God that had been shown. If they had had some sense of the personhood of God and the sonship to which they too were called, they would not have begged Jesus to go away.

But Jesus did not leave these people without help. He refused the healed man’s pleas that he might stay with Him, and sent him back to them, saying “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” I like to think of the difference between Jesus’s direction to the Twelve and to the rich young ruler, and this direction. In the one case, those called are to stay with Him, and in the other case, the called one is to go to His own home and tell his people. We too need to listen to our Lord and discern what He wants us personally to do, not merely to obey a command that others will hear, but to respond to the Lord’s meaningful glance to us, and to understand and appreciate the meaning of it, because when we respond in this way, we are being His friends.

There are examples in our readings today of people being given instruction, but not responding to it. In Isaiah 65 in our first reading, the prophet shows God saying, "I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, 'Here am I, here am I,' to a nation that was not called by my name." This is an ironic reference to people that were indeed within the Old Covenant, the people of Israel. Not only did they give a non-response, but according to the prophet they provoked God to His face continually, even though God remained eager for their eternal joy. A second example is the Gadarene demoniac of the Gospel who was eventually healed. According to the text of S. Luke 8:29 and the parallel texts in Matthew and Mark, Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man, but the command had at first gone disobeyed, and further elements of exorcism were necessary. So we are being reminded today that when God utters His word, the human response can range from outright refusal and disrespect, through a grudging compliance, to a full but uncomprehending obedience, and finally up to a wholehearted loving and understanding response. When we discern God commanding us in some way, it is good to check what the quality of our response is to His command.

S. Alban, who can be thought of as a father in the faith to Britain, being the first martyr of Britain, and of course to us in St. Alban’s as our patron, seems to me from the records we have to be one that responded to the word of God in a truly loving and wholehearted way. We have no record of any specific direction of God to him, but we have an idea of the circumstances in which that word was spoken. It is told that Alban was a new Christian, a Roman soldier in Britain who, under instruction from a Christian priest, had been newly converted to faith and baptised. However, the Roman emperor of the time was setting out to stamp out the Christians, especially priests who were instructing others. So Alban courageously and lovingly responded by changing his clothes with the priest, who was then able to escape to pass on the faith to others, and Alban in the priest's robe was taken. Alban gave his earthly life so that others could be brought into eternal life as well, because the Lord did not will that they be left without witness and help. Alban proved to be of those that were no longer under a custodian: in Christ Jesus we are all sons of God through faith. If Alban is a father in the faith to us, then let us also aspire to be wholehearted, loving and understanding in our obedient response to the Lord.