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Friday, 7 October 2011

Inclusion or Disgrace?


Readings: Exodus 32.1-14
Ps 106.1-6, 20-24
Philippians 4.1-9
Matthew 22.1-14

If we were to take but one message away from the Year of Matthew, year after year, (or third year after third year!) it would be the need to recognize that the context in which a biblical text is written is always an inescapably powerful weight resting around the shoulders of the text and its interpreters. Approaches to the scriptures that see them as effectively dictated from on high may well provide a great sense of satisfaction to the reader, to any person in the in-crowd, but they will not proclaim the grace-filled, welcoming and embracing Reign of God, the central message that we are commissioned by Jesus to proclaim. An outstanding contemporary Serbo-Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, has written a book called Exclusion and Embrace, in which he argues that a church that does not embrace inclusion even at the cost of reconciliation with bitter enemies (he is, remember, a Balkan Christian who saw the brutality of Slobodan Milosevic and his allies) is failing to embrace the Great Commission of Jesus.

To be a church of welcome in our post-modern world is to be a church that listens to the ways our words may fall on the ears of those who are hurting most in our communities and societies. We may, thank God, no longer be the powerful player that we once were in the western world – governments fail to quake in their boots when an Anglican or other Christian leader makes a pronouncement these days – but we are nevertheless a people of privilege. We are the wealthy of God’s earth, and most of us live lives of considerable comfort. Matthew was writing the gospel for a community who were unsure whether they would see their next meal, let alone where it would come from. Matthew’s telling of the Jesus is a gospel of hope for a frightened people. We are generally not a frightened people – though moments of trial in our lives may frighten us, and can open our ears to hear as Matthew’s people once heard.

You may have seen the chilling and multi Academy Award winning 1997 Italian movie film Life is Beautiful , directed and starred in by Roberto Benigni. In it the lead character, played by Benigni, creates a narrative alternative to reality in a concentration camp in order to protect his pre-school son from the Nazis. It is a chilling film, one I hope never to see again, yet undoubtedly one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. The point here, though, is that Benigni’s character creates a narrative in which the four year old boy believes he is in a game in which the child who remains hidden the longest will win a German tank. By this Benigni’s character conceals the boy from the Nazis, and although his own life is taken in the closing moments of Nazi control of the camp, the boy’s life is saved.

While we rightly look on Hitler’s Third Reich as one of western history’s darkest hours, we need from time to time to recall that the earliest Christians underwent their periods of abject fear and persecution, and that the most exclusive of the Christian writings - not least the Book of Revelation that some of us will soon be studying together – were written in such a context. As with Benigni’s tale, Matthew tells the story of Jesus in such a way as to offer hope – the hope of redemption and of divine retribution – to Christ-followers living in fear for their lives.

We could of course use this analysis to dismiss the hope-filled writings of our scriptures as pie-in-the-sky. It needs to be said that these narratives would not have transformed frightened believers into willing witnesses and even martyrs were it not for their over-powering experience of the presence of the victorious risen Christ who came to them in worship, in scripture and in fellowship. I fear too many of our most liberal analysts of the scriptures forget this, turning resurrection stories into a motion passed by a committee of story-tellers. It was not so, but rather the life-transforming experience of those who first and subsequently encountered the risen Lord.

At the same time though we must remember that as they began to tell the Jesus story they began to be victimised. Again, as I’ve said a few times recently, we lost the impetus of the Jesus story when we became the dominant religious paradigm, and used the story to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Eventually, tragically, in recent decades we have been exposed as having blundered into an arguably worse morass, enabling a church culture that allowed and then set about protecting perpetrators of gross betrayals of human decency, let alone of the gospel. In recent decades we have come once more to be a minority in society, to be back where some of the first Christians were – though perhaps not a persecuted minority like Matthew’s people. Nevertheless, as a marginalised and sometimes parodied people of Jesus we are cast back on the mettle of our own integrity, cast back for example to the place where Paul’s Philippians were (twenty years perhaps before Matthew) as they struggled to be Christ-bearers in a world that was largely scornful of their new religious movement.

Even there though, as Paul knew only too well from his struggles particularly with the Corinthian and to a lesser extent the Galatian people, there was room for destabilisation of the Jesus community. Philippians is, along with 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s most loving letter, but it is not without its cautions. Euodia and Syntyche, perhaps amongst the founding mothers of the Philippian Jesus community, are beginning to show signs of slipping into a power struggle, that most human yet most demonic of destructive force in church communities. Unlike the Galatians or the heinous Corinthians, the Philippians have not surrendered to the dark side, but the possibility is there, and Paul does all he can to nip it in the bud: I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche, to be of the same mind in the Lord. They have, Paul indicates, done much for the gospel, but this can be undone.

We need to know that too, for our world is in that respect unchanged from theirs: there can be no place for power struggles in the servant people of God. Paul – genuinely believing his own Galatian adage ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’, offers his own life as an example (few of us would be so brave!). Paul has just written I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead; now he adds whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things … it is these things that have been for years now the sole grace-filled focus of his life. That is our challenge too, as we seek to become a grace-filled, inclusive people of God, graced guests at the Feast of God, a people of inclusion and embrace.

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