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SERMON: A sense of déjà vu

A Sermon preached by Canon Anthony Phillips on 28 August 2016

I have a sense of déjà vu. The last time I preached, the Gospel reading was also about Jesus being invited to a meal and some of the conclusions which I drew then, I will draw again to-day.

But that gives me the chance to digress and say something about the way the Hebrews argued as opposed to the Greeks for both Old and New Testaments are Hebrew literary works. Greeks would take a subject and pursue it through the exchange of ideas to something beyond where they started, something out there, journey into the distance. Hebrews on the other hand like good lawyers would state a case and go on repeating it ad nauseam never budging from their opening stance. There is no sense of progression, something to be found. From the beginning they know the answer.

A good example is the book of Job which is in fact constructed as a court battle, Job on the one side and the three so-called friends on the other. Sometimes scholars have tried to differentiate the positions of the friends but this is an error. They essentially say the same thing. God is just and Job’s horrendous suffering can only be explained as God’s punishment for the sins he has committed. There can be no other explanation. If Job repents, he will be forgiven and all will be well. But Job knows he has not sinned and is suffering unjustly and so takes God on summoning him to appear and answer in court for the mistreatment Job is enduring.

The case continues until exhausted Job forces God’s hand by a legal device and while he is given no answer to the problem of unjust suffering – just as we are given no answer – he is rewarded for having spoken correctly and not as his friends spoke. He has both maintained his integrity by denying that he has sinned but by forcing God’s hand, has reaffirmed his faith in the just God.

Since both Old and New Testaments are Hebrew literary works, one must expect repetition in the New Testament as well which we certainly find in to-day’s set Gospel passage. Hence my déjà vu.

But this difference between the way Hebrews and Greeks go about things has profoundly effected Christianity at its roots and made it almost incomprehensible to Jewish and Islamic theologians. Whereas our document of title, the Bible, is a Hebrew product, Christianity through Paul and others spread westward into the Greek world where Christian doctrine was formed against the background of Greek philosophy. This was the language of the early church fathers who in bitter disputes worked out the creeds with highly technical Greek philosophical terms such as ‘substance’ and ‘person’ which do not simply mean what we understand by the English translation. So Christianity has as its statement of belief, defining what it means to be a Christian, a Greek philosophical text while its document of title is a Hebrew literary work – not an easy mix.

And one more thing. To understand that literary work, you need to recognise that the Hebrews did their theology by story which means that nine times out of ten to ask of a Biblical event, ‘Did it happen as it says it happened?’ is to ask the wrong question. Instead one needs to try and find out what the author was trying to say to his contemporary audience in narrating the ‘events’ as he records them.

For instance the account of the exodus narrative is no more historical than the Eden creation story of the first man and woman. Both are though important theological works the first describing the nature of Israel’s God as one of grace who liberates his people and the second by the use of the two trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life – by the use of these two trees sets out the limitations of what it means to be human. We cannot know ‘good and evil’ that is

that kind of knowledge that only God can have because we cannot get outside the system he has created – things like the reason for unjust suffering – and second we are mortal and cannot know what lies beyond death – though experience of the God of grace will lead us to trust him with whatever future he plans for us.

And theology as story applies equally to the gospel narratives written long after the Christ event and Paul’s letters to already existing churches with their own particular problems. We see this in to-day’s Gospel reading.

I hope though that this digression has spelt out that Christianity is a far more complex religion than it may seem at first sight. Happily though one does not have to have a theology degree to know God, enjoy his love and respond in worship. For centuries the majority of Christians could not even read or write. It does though mean that you should beware of those who preach a simplistic message often seeking to clinch their argument with the phrase, ‘The Bible says’. First it is what the Bible means that is important and that meaning may well need reinterpreting for a world very different from the world in which the author wrote.. The Bible itself written over 1200 years is full of such reinterpretation. We do not believe in the Bible but in the gracious God and his Son Jesus Christ and it is for every generation through the working of the Holy Spirit to discern what is truth for that generation. Failure to do so will lead to disillusionment and distrust, a loss of those who find Christianity incompatible with the conditions of the world in which they are called to live. Years ago for the BBC I interviewed the actor playing Jesus Christ Superstar in his dressing room. I asked him the obvious question, ‘How had playing Jesus affected him?’ He looked at me as if I was quite mad and answered, ‘If I believed in Him, I would have to believe and Adam and Eve and all that’. I imagine he is not alone. Let us return to to-day’s Gospel.

Jesus is again invited to a meal with a hostile host and ‘they’ – presumably other Pharisees – ‘were watching him’. Those who devised our lectionary then leave out what Jesus did – a sabbath healing. Presumably they think your attention span limited! This is the third Sabbath healing that Luke records showing the importance he attached to such an event. In a relatively short narrative one would have thought one incident enough. No, in typical Hebrew fashion, Luke is driving home that this rabbi heals on the Sabbath.

And in doing this, Jesus confronts the watching Pharisees by questioning them directly – learned in the law as they were – whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath and in the face of their silence asks which of them having an ass or an ox that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath would not immediately pull it out. Then the evangelist records, ‘And they could not reply to this’. Once more Jesus has wrong footed the opposition. You will recall he did this with Simon over a question about debts. There, those he confronted answered correctly. Here they are struck dumb. In effect Luke by this very similar account is reinforcing the overwhelming authority of Jesus’ words and actions.

Then again as in the previous incident, Jesus warns his audience not to think too highly of themselves – a dig at the Pharisees who prided themselves on keeping the law and therefore had little need of God’s grace. They had earned their place at the top table. It was theirs as of right.

This leads Jesus on again to the question of one’s guest list. For Jesus, instead of those whom one would naturally have been expected as guests, it is the poor and disabled who could never repay their host who should be invited.

This is of course precisely what Jesus is doing in his ministry and which Luke constantly emphasises from the beginning of his Gospel with the unclean and despised shepherds at the manger, the last people one would have expected to greet Messiah. Likewise in the previous incident of a dinner party on which I preached, it is a former prostitute who washes Jesus feet, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with myrrh. It is the outsiders and the outcasts who recognise Jesus for whom he is. Unlike the Pharisees in their righteousness, they know their need. In other words what Luke is spelling out is that if one is going to be on God’s side one has to show the same preference as God. As the Father runs out to greet the prodigal son and embrace him in his arms before taking him to his feast, so must we for all who are broken and lost. As God is love, so must his disciples be love. Forget precedence at the high table and look for the despised and rejected and place them there for they are the beloved of God their Father.

In minutes we shall be welcomed by that God of love at the altar, fed with the body and blood of his Son, and sent out as Christ bearers to his broken world. May we have the courage to realise that as Christ was broken for us – This is my body, This is my blood – so we may be broken for others. Divine generosity requires the same generosity from those marked in baptism with his sign. Luke cannot say it often enough. But will we listen?