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.