David Barton preached this sermon on Sunday 5-July at St Mary’s Iffley and earlier at Fairacres Convent. The passage to which he refers in 2 Corinthians can be read here.
I want to do two things in this sermon today. I’d like to say a little bit about the epistle, from Corinthians, which is a wonderful bit of Paul, but, on the outside anyway, a bewildering passage at first. And then I would like to say something about the situation we find ourselves in with Islam, flowing on from the shootings on the beach in Tunisia. I am sure we all have the victims and their families in our prayers. But what is a Christian perspective on the response? I’d like to say something, very briefly, about that.
But the Epistle – Paul writing to the Corinthians.
It is a wonderful bit of Paul, carrying us to the heart of the gospel.
Let me explain. The background is really about a battle for power, or at least for authority. Paul has left Corinth some time before. Poor Paul. Wherever he went he seems to have been followed around by groups of people, seemingly intent on correcting what he has taught. This group has arrived in Corinth and, in effect, want to take the church there over and push it in another direction. They are strong characters it would seem, demonstrating powerful leadership. They claim, and talk about, powerful spiritual experiences. The Corinthians are impressed, and they write to Paul and tell him about these impressive people, and ask him to tell them about his spiritual experiences. But Paul refuses to rise to the bait. The temptation for him would be to stamp down on all this firmly, show his authority. Lay out the foundation of his calling. But he does nothing of the sort. He is not going to talk about his powerful spiritual experiences. All that stuff about “I know a man who….” Is really a way of putting himself aside. His greatest moment he says was a long time ago. But he is not allowed to say anything about it – except that he has ended up “with a thorn in the flesh”. There is a hint there of Jacob, wrestling with God and ending up limping. Unsurprisingly, an encounter with God is both life changing and wounding.
What Paul is really saying here is that power rests not in strength, but in weakness. The only thing that matters is the grace and love of God working through a person. And, he says, the more his life has gone on, the more he has discovered the truth of this. Imprisoned, abused, beaten up – none of that destroyed the power of God’s grace in him. It simply shone through the more. This was just thirty years after the crucifixion, but it shows just how much Paul totally understood of the message of Jesus. On the cross Jesus met evil with grace and love and forgiveness, and triumphed. And the grace he released in Cross and Resurrection flows out to you and I. That is what the Christian Faith is about: receiving it and simply letting it flow through our lives. What matters for the Corinthians – for us – is that we should each of us, in all the events of our lives, take a step back into the grace and love which is there for each one of us. Just hold ourselves in it. And then see what the world looks like, and what authority looks like, when viewed from that place.
As it happens I am celebrating 50 years of being ordained a deacon this month. So I am rather interested in this summary of Christian leadership: at all times in our lives, in good times and in bad, simply making clear the love of God. And if you put today’s gospel beside that, then it does not matter who we are, provided that is clear, and provided we, the followers – because we are all of us both leaders and followers – discern the love underneath the character of the one who leads. The people of Nazareth had known Jesus as a baby, and child a young man. They knew all about him – they thought. They expected a prophet to be powerful, different, other. They failed to see that underneath the familiar, the person so easily dismissed, lay the loving mystery of God, God’s very self.
And this passage of Paul makes clear that leadership is not a one way street – “do what I say”. What I love about Paul is the way, when he is challenged, he goes down to the heart of faith and produces pure gold. The Corinthians were not an easy church to lead. They took nothing for granted, always questioning. How familiar! . But when that happens Paul digs into his faith and reveals a quite new understanding, a deeper level of Christian living and obedience.
And that is really what matters about leadership in a Christian community: that the to and fro of discussion and argument should lead to a deeper level of faith and understanding – to which we are all then obedient.
Something for all of us in the church to take note of.
The lesson of the epistle is that we are all loved and accepted by God – a love we are to reflect in our own lives. And the gospel reminds us to learn to see the presence of God in the most unlikely of people. Which leads me on to the second part of what I want to say.
Last week I went down to my favourite shop, Noor’s Supermarket in Magdalene Rd. At this time of year it’s the best place for mangos in the whole of Cowley! It’s Ramadan, and the shop was crowded with Muslim families buying supplies for their evening meal. These people had had breakfast before sunrise, which is round about 4.30 am at this time of year, and they would neither eat nor drink until sunset – at about 9.30. They were choosing dates to break the fast, and advising me about the best mangos to buy. I could not help reflecting that these are devout, peace loving people. It seemed a very far cry from the fear of Islam that seems to lie below the surface of our public life at the moment.
Let’s be clear: so called Islamic State is appalling. Horrifying. But we need to be careful that our response to it does not marginalise the Islamic community in this country, who are equally horrified. I don’t know what lies behind those teenagers who go off to join IS, but I am quite sure that it’s not because they too are infected with evil. It is too little recognised what a difficult position Muslim teenagers are often in, in our country. They grow up between two cultures. Brought up in a strict Islamic way, they are also exposed to all the secular influences British teenagers are exposed to. Where do they belong? And – is there a place for them in our Society? Guantanamo Bay and its torture has been a terrible advertisement for the west. Easy to think that your tribe, your collective group is under attack. We need to be very careful as Christians not to label Islam as an inherently evil religion. But too often that is the implication of so many public attitudes.
Yes, there have been times in the past when violent Jihad has appeared, as it clearly does now. But then, remember the Crusades. They no more define Christianity than violent jihad defines Islam. The issue here is politics, not religion. That’s a distinction we need to make.
I read yesterday about a Mosque in Birmingham that is putting on a special dinner to celebrate a woman in the local community who has just been made an Anglican Deacon. A wonderful example of interfaith cooperation. But that same mosque and others is now being regularly patrolled by so called “Christian Patrols” from a group called Britain First. And that’s shocking. What message does that give to a young man or woman wondering if there is a place for them in our society?
Perhaps in the autumn we need to look again as a parish at our understanding of Islam, as we have in the past. But for the moment I think Christians need to have one simple resolve: to see our Muslim neighbours for who they are – good neighbours.