Who’s in and who’s out.

Pentecost 3 – 2014

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves all that God has created. Amen.

On Tuesday evening at St John’s Cathedral the Archbishop consecrated Cameron Venables as Bishop of the Western Region. The service was wonderful but what has remained in my mind is not the liturgy but Cameron’s thanks and greetings. Needless to say there were people present from all parts of Cameron’s life – family, friends and those among whom he had served. The last of his greetings took me by surprise. Using an Arabic form of greeting, Cameron thanked two members of the Muslim community who had attended the service. In a world which seems to be increasingly fragmented along religious lines and in which groups like Boko Haran wreak terror among those who do not share their faith, Cameron’s greeting and the presence of his friends was a breath of fresh air and a reminder that possibilities other than suspicion and hatred are possible.

I am lucky, as the child of an academic I have been privileged to meet a wide range of people from different nations and different faiths. During my late teens our Parish hosted a service for the beginning of the academic year at which adherents of different faiths were present. I have attended multi-faith conferences and the Parliament of World Religions. My P.A. practices the Buddhist faith. All of which is to say that I haven’t led a sheltered or insular life. Perhaps what struck me and filled me with hope was hearing the Muslim greeting uttered in our Cathedral and knowing that it was addressed to people who, despite having different beliefs and practices, had chosen to spend two hours attending a very particular style of Christian worship for the sake of friendship.

Our news and other media sometimes seem intent on exaggerating difference and on trying to build fear of those who differ from us. For many Australians what they know of Islam comes from media reports of the actions of extremist groups and the political fear-mongering that is associated with asylum seekers or boat arrivals.

Of course, the reality is that religious conflict is based less on religion and more on politics, avarice and ethnicity, but the current unrest in the world has made a number of people anxious, suspicious and even afraid.

Today’s gospel is only three verses long, but in the context of religious difference and who is included and who is excluded, they are very significant. Jesus tells his disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That’s an extraordinary thing to say – that welcoming you or I is the same as welcoming God. In this instance at least, Jesus does not demand faith, adherence to the law or Temple worship but suggests a simple welcome, an openness to who he is is all that is required. Jesus’ gospel is inclusive. It is open to sinners and to Samaritans and Gentiles and is very undemanding a simple welcome (a not turning away) indicates a preparedness to get to know Jesus and hence to know God.

In the context of first century Judaism, this would have been a radical statement because, as best as we can make out, the Judaism of Jesus’ time had drawn in on itself – drawn up boundaries to determine who was in and who was out. As a people the Jews had been under foreign rule for most of the last few centuries which led them to exaggerate those things which made them distinct – circumcision, food laws and in particular an exclusive relationship with Yahweh. By identifying and building on what made them different, they were able to hold on to the idea that they were unique and that they would survive as a people.

First Jesus and then the early church challenged the idea that God related to/was concerned for only those of Jewish descent. Jesus told parables about “good” Samaritans, allowed himself to be persuaded by a Gentile woman and mixed with those whose lifestyle put them outside the boundaries of the Jewish faith. In his teaching and behaviour he made it clear that goodness was not a characteristic that belonged to just one group of people and that God was not stringent in God’s demands, but offered love to any who would accept it. Paul in particular grasped the inclusive nature of the gospel and the fact that salvation was predicated on faith and nothing else. If belonging to the people of God was based on faith and not law and circumcision, then anyone could belong. Jesus and then Paul, broke down the barriers which had been built up to keep Judaism free from contamination by others – radically challenging the idea that one group alone had all of God’s attention.

When we are threatened or isolated from those who share our beliefs, it is comforting to draw our boundaries tighter and to strengthen our identity – to emphasise those things that make us different or special. This is a useful strategy in the face of persecution or when our culture or lifestyle is in danger of extinction. However, this behaviour can lead to the sort of arrogance that enables us to assume that we know what God wants and to presume that what we do or say, we do or say on God’s behalf. This leads to our setting ourselves apart as moral or religious guardians and believing that we are more special to God than others. It can have devastating effects – conflict, oppression and in some cases even annihilation of the other.

Jesus had the kind of self-assurance that meant that he didn’t need to impose his will on others or to tell them what or how to believe. What he wanted most of all was to open the eyes of those who were rigidly confined within boundaries of their own making and to show them that God’s abundant love was poured out on all those who would accept it not on just a limited and predefined few. Jesus’ greatest condemnation was not of sinners or those on the margins but rather of those who believed themselves to be at the centre and those who thought that they knew God’s mind and that they could judge/exclude others accordingly. He does not seem to have needed to make distinctions between people or groups of people, on the basis of faith, or ethnicity. People judged themselves according to their welcome or not of him.

Jesus, who did know God’s mind makes few demands and understands that a welcome reflects a heart that is open to possibilities and a mind that is willing to engage. How different might the multi-faith landscape be, if this was a view that was shared and promoted instead of a faith groups building fortresses and claiming right on their side?

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