Texts: John 13.16-20 & 1 Corinthians 9.16-19
Last week, as I’m sure
you remember, I pondered the value of service both to the receiver and the
giver of acts of love. That theme of
servanthood continues in today’s readings, thanks to the Lectionary – only,
this time, there is a critical edge to the words we read.
First, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we can infer
(from what he says) that he’s having a bit of a problem with the troublesome
church in Corinth. Much of his letter
addresses matters of church discipline – and particularly focuses on
inappropriate use of the gifts of the Spirit.
But today, we hear a note of frustration on the topic of boasting. Paul starts this portion of his letter by
saying ‘if I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting…’, which
we infer means that the Corinthians were doing entirely the opposite.
They had fallen prey to that most pernicious of problems in
all religions; the sin of religious pride.
Perhaps, after the initial excitement of their conversion, the
Corinthian Christians had started to pump themselves up as being superior to
believers of other religions. We can
imagine them standing in the town square, railing at the crowd about how sinful
they were, and about how the only way to be saved was through faith in
Jesus. The trouble is that a significant
portion of the members of all religions have this tendency. Amongst certain strains of Islam, for
example, anyone who isn’t a Muslim is described as an ‘infidel’ (which means ‘unfaithful
one’). There is a built in superiority
in certain kinds of people who claim that what they believe is the only faith that matters.
We see this tendency today among certain sections of the
church. There are strains of
Christianity which teach that all other so-called Christians are, in fact, apostate
sinners condemned to hell. Maybe that’s
because such ‘sinners’ have a different attitude to Scripture, or they believe
in welcoming people of varying sexuality, or they are criticised for letting
tradition get in the way of the Spirit.
But among the most boastful sects of Christianity are those who hold in
contempt anyone who doesn’t believe exactly
what the sect believes. That might
be about, say, the meaning of the Cross, the coming of End Times, the Creation
of the Earth, and the infallibility of Scripture. Such people are labelled as ‘back-sliders’,
at best, or ‘heretics’ at worst.
Which is a shame because I count myself among those who tend
to have a rather more flexible, open approach to Scripture and its
teachings. My yardstick for deciding what
is important in the Bible is Jesus himself – at least the Jesus presented to us
by the Gospels’ sometimes competing and contradictory accounts.
In our Gospel we read Jesus’ teaching that no servant is
greater than their master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent
them. Jesus is clearly warning his
followers not to get ahead of themselves, and especially not to imagine that
their ideas about God, theology and the world are of more import than the clear
and plain teaching of Jesus. Jesus spoke
plainly, or in easy-to-understand parables about a whole host of subjects. He left us in no doubt about how we were to
live with God and with one another.
So when people turn to pages of the Bible to justify their
own prejudices on a whole variety of topics, I find myself wanting to check their
views against the published teachings of Jesus.
So, what did Jesus say about whether the world was made in six
days? Nothing. What did Jesus teach about the meaning of his
death? Only that he had to die for the
sins of the world – nothing about how his death would achieve that, nothing
about paying a ransom to the devil, or paying the price for our sin, or
appeasing the wrath of God. He just said
that he would pour out his life for the sins of the world.
What did Jesus say about homosexual relationships, or about
transgender politics? Absolutely
nothing. But he did teach about the importance of love, and committed faithfulness
in human relationships.
What did Jesus say about how to treat refugees and
strangers? He told a story of a hated
Samaritan who turned out to be a blessing on one who would have labelled him a
stranger. He welcomed Romans, Samaritans, and gentiles of all kinds into his circle of love.
What did Jesus teach about whether women could be priests? Nothing. But he did include women among his wider circle of disciples – something unknown for any other Jewish Rabbi.
What did Jesus teach about wealth and possessions? That hoarding them is stupid.
Do you see the point I’m making? We human beings are very good at religious pride. We are very good at nicking odd bits of Scripture, written for a desert tribe between two and three thousand years ago, and then quoting those Scriptures boastfully to claim that our version of the Gospel is the only Truth.
Instead, I recommend, we are invited to bring Jesus to the
fore. Let’s explore what God is like,
and how we should live with each other, through the lens of Jesus: the one man
in human history who could claim that God was his Father, in a real and literal
sense. After all, like Paul, we have a
gospel – good news – to proclaim. It’s
the good news that God is real, though we’ll never grasp God’s infinite
immensity. It’s the good news that God
loves us, and created us – never mind how or when. It’s the good news that he sent Jesus to show
us what the father-heart of God is like, and to teach us how to love each
other, and live with each other. Perhaps
we would do best to return to the gospels, and see the world through the lens
of Jesus Christ. Now that would be
something worth boasting about.