Sunday, August 30, 2015

Searched by good news


A sermon for Trinity 13


‘Gospel’ means simply good news, and the Gospel reading this morning is just that – good news.  But whilst it is good news for anyone; it transpires that it is not good news for everyone.

The lectionary gets a little squeamish this morning – it wants to spare you particular Jewish customs and Jesus talking about bodily functions. I however think you can cope, and so have read the whole of the passage from Mark! In those missing verses we hear this: “Thus he declared all foods clean”. If only it were so simple. In fact, what Mark summarises as a very straightforward piece of teaching took much of the first generation of the church to work out. The letters of Paul show a good deal of evidence that the church fought bitter battles over the question of whether Gentiles had to become Jews first before they could become Christians.  Frankly, it took the Roman destruction of Jerusalem to really settle the question.

What we have in this story of Jesus is a hand grenade. The pin has been pulled out, but the explosion is delayed. There is something important here for a theology of the Bible – the full significance of something that Jesus said, or of a text or story from the Bible, may have surprising implications for us. It may be as explosive as this story was for the early church.

But important though it is, the theology of Biblical interpretation is not what we need to hear most from this Gospel story. What we need to hear most from this story is Jesus’ criticism and exposure of the way that the Pharisees and scribes use religion in order to mask their own defilement. That is why Jesus complains about the tradition of Corban, in which declaring things to be dedicated to God means that they don’t have to be used for the needs of family members. It was a kind of religious off-shoring of assets, and just like off-shore tax dodging, it was simultaneously legal and morally abhorrent.

Now the Pharisees get a bad press in the New Testament. But an important thing to remember is that they were the church goers of their time. They were the ones that turned up to services, listened to sermons and took their faith seriously. That should prompt us to ask questions of ourselves, questions that ask whether we are doing the things that the Pharisees are accused of doing. Do we use our faith as a means of dodging our responsibilities to support and help those around us? Is spending time here or at the Cathedral a way of avoiding spending time elsewhere? I am not at all meaning to be critical of the wonderful volunteering and other work that folk here do. But we do need to check in with this question from time to time. My answers are not always as comfortable as I would like them to be.

Even more searching is the next set of questions with which Jesus confronts us. In the midst of this argument about washing hands and purity, Jesus complains that the Pharisees use ritual washing to obscure their true impurities – ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ he says. And then gives a long list of examples: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.’ So here is the searching question for us. Do we use our faith, our religion, to hide our own sinfulness even from ourselves? Do we assume that because we are religious, because we go to church, that we are good people? As I run through Jesus’ list, I find that I can see the roots of many of the things the Jesus lists in my own heart.

During this and every Eucharist, we confess our sins. That can have two effects. It can be a pretence that we are good and that all is well. Or it can be an honest acknowledgement of our faults and a continuing commitment to following Jesus. 

The Gospel is emphatically good news; but it transpires it is not good news for everyone. It is only good news for sinners. We are sinners, and we are capable of using our faith as a way of hiding from that uncomfortable fact. But if we will allow ourselves to be searched deeply by the Gospel we will be sinners who are the only ones for whom the Gospel is good news. Amen.


Originally given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby, 30.8.15

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