Working it out

Working it out
Philippians 2 :1-13
Matthew 21:23-32
It can be a bit of a taskmaster, the Common Lectionary. It provides readings on a three year cycle – A.B.C. – and for many of us it is the spine around which the  body of an act of worship is formed. Taking notice of the festivals of the Church and often introducing us to parts of the bible we might otherwise not think about, it can be a challenge to a preacher and a congregation, but also a unifying experience, for lots of other churches will be doing the same as we are.

It’s never an end in itself. It’s not a take it or leave it exercise. The scriptures however we get to them always have to be interpreted. We are always revising and relating what we read, and often we are left with a host of unanswered questions.

Which is how it was with Jesus, for he had the habit of asking straight, penetrating questions, rather than providing prescribed answers. ’A’ – the first set of readings in the lectionary – has a series of gospel readings from May to November that are all from the gospel of Matthew.

As you know it’s likely that Matthew was writing for Jews who had become Christians. Not an easy exercise and therefore one might think that the evangelist would have made it as easy as possible for his readers to deal with this polarity, as they ventured from an old culture and moved to a reformed one. But not a bit of it.

He could have written (it wouldn’t have been true) ‘Jesus is really one of us, but slightly different’ He was altogether different and for people used to being told what to believe, his use of the Socratic – or rabbinic – method of teaching, was to pose questions and to leave listeners to come up with their own answers. Whether the method is to use a story or to create a dialogue, there are often these climatic challenges for people to question their own assumptions and then to think their way forward from them.

The difference here between Jesus and Paul becomes very clear. Jesus appears to be looking for the truth, probing it (not all the time. Sometimes he is very direct and specific – ‘the Law says this, but I say to you something quite different’). He is declaring God’s rule, but also seeking it. Paul on the other hand whilst often humble, gives the impression that he is certain about everything and expects others to be the same. You can overdo the difference and we have to accept the difference in context. Jesus was a travelling teacher opening doors to closed minds and meeting social need, whilst Paul was trying to establish a new organisation. Once people start getting near to each other and communities are formed, some sort of structured belief and order is needed to facilitate that. When an idea becomes an institute there’s always the danger that the idea gets swallowed up by it. But without the institution, the idea could be lost for ever.
Think about the people who have influenced you in your faith journey. Some of them popular preachers perhaps, and you were affected by their certainty and brilliance. Some teachers at school can be remembered in that way – your own Miss Brodie, or a Mr Brodie. If that’s the case there comes a time when you break out of adolescent dependence and find your own values rather than following theirs. Then there are the quiet people who you have watched as they think their way tentatively to a truth that makes sense to them and you have learned from them how to find the right questions and then to seek answers which have helped to shape your life. It’s not just the early years; all through our lives we are observing how people become themselves.
And it was this ‘throw away’ style of teaching which was how Jesus shared his insights. When people asked him for his credentials, he avoided direct answers. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Perhaps he was reluctant to be put into a religious pigeon hole, and there were plenty of those around to chose from. It was the pure humane sense of what he said – the sick to be healed, the poor to be cared for, the rich and powerful to be contested – that people needed to examine the beliefs they inherited and to see and relate to the world they lived in.
There were photos in the press recently of the previous Pope Benedict and the present Pope Francis, talking to each other. An unusual occasion – a meeting of Popes. It reminded me of another occasion when Benedict preached at his predecessor’s funeral when he said there is something called Truth.  Christianity, he said, is not a pick and mix religion, a matter of personal choice, something ephemeral and of the age. The Faith is handed down and is there to be received. It was a message you could expect from the chief representative of a church where obedience is more important than exploration. It might be the natural response of many Christians; your response too perhaps. I think it is not as simple as that, and denies the freedom of the spirit – God’s and ours. And it ignores the fact that every statement of faith to some extent derives from and is tied to the culture of the days in which it was formulated.
One way of describing the history of the Church is to interpret it as one long argument, sometimes a bloody violent one. But at its best the argument has been healthy and life-giving. I believe there may never a moment when the Church’s truth is utterly pure, utterly of God, irrefutable, beyond examination and reinterpretation. It is ‘handed down’ as Benedict said, but our religion (any religion perhaps) has to be thought through and reformed before it can be our own. That doesn’t take us away from the insights of Jesus, for this is what he was about. He was reforming an existing religion and we who follow him are in that continuing tradition.
It’s time we got to Matthew’s gospel story. Jesus has eaten a last meal with his friends after his peaceful entry into Jerusalem. He makes his mark and seals his fate by overturning the money changers’ tables. In response, bystanders call him the prophet from Nazareth and the Son of David. Jesus heals sick people. The next day he is teaching in the Temple. The guardians of religion, official teachers, are affronted and deeply upset and angry. It’s a fair question they ask of him – ‘who gave you the authority to do these things’? And here comes the typical answer – not an answer but another question, as John the Baptist enters the scene.
There was plenty of unrest and scandal about the Baptiser. Living a very simple life, denouncing the high living, corrupt and licentious court of Herod, he had a basic and simple message for the people and it was ‘come back to God – repent : make for yourselves a new life, for the Kingdom of God is near’. But he also said to the Pharisees – not helping his message by calling them a brood of vipers – that they had to look to their souls, not to their history. It was no good claiming that they were the sons of Abraham, it would be by the quality of their lives that they would be judged. And judgement was on its way : ’beware!’ The promise in his message was that whilst he baptised with water, another would come ‘who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire’.
Jesus points his listeners back to the man – St Luke suggest that he was related to Jesus – who had disturbed their comfortable assumptions, as if to say – you made a mess of making sense of John, how can you possibly begin to understand me? In one respect the message of these two very different men, one dead and one soon to be dead, is the same. They are both about authority, self-evident to people who look for spirit rather than word, who seek the inner realities of life rather than the outward appearance, who don’t believe that words imprison truth, they only reveal it, for truth makes its own quiet claims upon the soul. The tragedy of the Pharisees is that they were so offended by each of these men – John and Jesus – that they never got to the message.
Finding an authority that is not authoritarian is the greatest test of spiritual maturity. We all need some yardstick against which to test ourselves and our beliefs and values. Unbridled licence or a totally unfocused faith is neither helpful to the individual nor can it contribute to the building of community. ‘This is my son in whom I am well pleased’ were the words Matthew claims was spoken from heaven to the listening Jesus. Our pilgrimage of faith is helped not when we are told how to behave or what to believe by the Church, the government, our grandmothers or the culture that has nurtured us, but when we walk in faith and love rather than by dictate. That’s where John’s fire and the spirit can be found.
It so easily forgotten that Jesus hinted at more than we can see, nudged us by anecdote and parable, not to lay down a new law but to lead people to a new way of being religious, in fact to the new ‘Way,Truth and Life’. I cannot see that God wants us all to be the same, for evidently we are not! Nor does he want all churches to be the same, and some of us could save a lot of wasted energy in trying the make the impossible happen. Even Paul, who I have characterised as authoritarian, doesn’t try to do that. He wrote in different ways to different churches. It seems that the Church at Philippi was one of his favourites. As he reflects with them on the nature of Christ, stressing the humanity of Jesus before going on to glorify him, Paul seems to be asserting his authority: ‘just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence he says,  but then here comes the surprise….
‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’