A sermon given by Revd Victoria Ashdown, at All Saints Church, on the first Sunday after Trinity 2018. Mark 2.23-3.6 Who shall be Lord of the Sabbath?
What traditions, rituals or habits do we put before God? The message is for churches, church leaders, but also for individuals. So let’s explore further…
In Jesus, God shows us that the core of authentic human life it is love. The person who loves, Paul writes, fulfils the law. We could say that the only reason the law of God exists is to point us toward the life of love. To love is to enter into the divine fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to dwell in the eternal love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father.
People are more important than systems and programs. People are more important than ritual and religion. John wrote that if a person loves God, then that person will love his brother (1 John 4:20). William Barclay wrote: “The best way to worship God is to help men”. It might be easy to think that loving God and loving one’s neighbour are two different things. They are not. Our love for God is expressed precisely in how we treat others. If we are mean, hateful, cruel and inconsiderate of others, that is a demonstration of how devoted (or not devoted) we are to God.
God loves all people, even the ones we have no use for, the ones we don’t like. When we behave poorly toward the people that God loves, then we are behaving the same way toward God. God is interested in people, not in rituals for rituals’ sake.
In our Gospel reading today, an idea has gotten around that the Sabbath is greater than God. The Pharisees are so wrapped up in what their law says, they have forgotten how to be humane how to love as God does. It is as though God is the guardian or protector of the Sabbath, making sure that people keep the Sabbath holy, and finally awarding salvation only to those who are faithful Sabbath-keepers. In other words, in this kind of thinking, the main thing is the Sabbath; God is the enforcer, He made the Sabbath, then made himself subject to it, then made people subject to it.
Jesus cleared all such convoluted recipes off the dinner table. He makes things plain: people were not made to be servants of the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made to be a servant of people. Furthermore, Jesus was not talking to or about all people. He was talking to first-century Jewish teachers of the law. And he was talking about Israel, the specific humans to whom God gave the Sabbath.
Now I could use this as a way to preach on the evils of Israeli government policy and perhaps indeed I should for who can watch without horror the slaughter of innocent men women and children in Gaza at the moment.
Has the world gone mad? Well yes, I think it has, we are losing day by day the ability to love. Yes, we can love our spouse our family, but do we really love our neighbour? As you know we are very involved in the middle east and perhaps too immersed in the politics of the region, and yes maybe these experiences cloud our thinking, but there is a real danger of the world becoming a place of conflict war and hate if we don’t look closely at our own lives and the way we love – individually and perhaps more importantly, as a community of faith.
We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.
I wrote an article recently – it’s on the website – about some of what has happened in Northern Cyprus – where we holidayed recently, the desecration of the churches after the occupation of the Turks the turning them into mosques, or museums or just old relics. (its a complicated history). And I warn in this writing of the possibility of this happening here in Europe, in Britain. I am not, as you know, Islamophobic, we have plenty of Muslim friends of differing sects and we share a lot in common with our faiths. However, there is an increasing Radicalisation, a twisting of what Islam is into something hideous and grotesque and we are seeing it ever increasing across the globe. It is here in this country, and it will continue to build if we Christians allow ourselves to get so bogged down in dogmatism that our churches just die. We must be alive in our faith, we must work to love others and draw them in to the truth and the life.
Who when a friend comes to dinner serves up something you know they don’t like, or upsets them? Who would force that friend into an activity you know they don’t enjoy just because you do? We don’t do that – when a guest comes we make them comfortable, we perhaps sacrifice the activity we were about to do and replace it with something we know they would enjoy. Why then do we let our churches stagnate into something only we understand and enjoy, rather than seek to find something to inspire and encourage our guests, our community?
(here at All Saints, we are good at welcoming others into this building, of thinking of ways we can better accommodate others – but we mustn’t rest on our laurels, we need to continue to be innovative, to seek ways to encourage others into faith and salvation)
If we don’t build our churches it won’t be long until they are just community halls, mosques, museums or knocked down for redevelopment – (it won’t matter how pretty they are) – as is happening in other parts of the world.
This may sound a bit like a radical rant of its own, but it is imperative that we seek ways to build our Christian communities now, we need to continue to work together to share the Good news beyond the walls of our churches – we need to seek ways to encourage new worshippers. It doesn’t mean we have to change everything we love about our sabbath, our tradition, but we can’t impose those things on others - unbending, unyielding to the needs of those others.
Jesus gave a new command to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”.
That’s a novel thought in our highly sceptical and secular society. Suppose Christians were well known for being the kind of people anybody would enjoy having for a friend. Suppose they weren’t known for being boring and judgmental. Suppose churches weren’t known for being old fashioned, uninteresting and incomprehensible. There is more to hospitality than just being nice, it’s about thinking of the others needs about caring for those who are different and catering for them it’s simply leading others to Christ just by the way we speak about Him and demonstrate His love through love of others.
It has never been easy in a world so full of sin, churches have never found one formula that fits all, there will always be conflict of opinion, but in this world so full of division, war and hatred we owe it to Christians everywhere to try and save those around us.
Yet no matter how great the affliction, no matter how grave the danger, no matter how severe the struggle, the life that Jesus, our Lord, won for his people shines out. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Yes, we, who have eternal life through faith in Jesus, we, who are truly alive before God, we face this world's deadly hatred because we follow Jesus, this world's hatred that wears down our mortal bodies of flesh and blood. Yet the harder our earthly existence the more clearly the real life Jesus has won for us can shine out.
And the second part of that text shows us this: Others come to know the life-giving light shining from the face of Christ as they see God’s saving power at work in you and me despite the struggles we face. That’s what Paul is getting at when he writes, “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12). Our Lord’s treasure shines out through our struggles. It’s a treasure that enlightens others. That's why we want to make it clear that the power is his.
So, dear Christian friends, we are clay jars, but that’s not bad news. Through his Word, God has shone into our hearts, shattering our darkness with the knowledge of his saving glory beaming from the face of Christ. He has placed that treasure in us. Let us therefore let others see his all-surpassing power sustaining us no matter what the struggle, so that they too share in the life for which our Lord has redeemed them. And let us not get bogged down in material and liturgical tradition but shine always God’s glory.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.