Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Andrew MacDonald

1Kings 21:1-10, 15-21A, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

Every now and then in this digital era, a time when information is instantly available with the press of a button, we come across headlines or articles that, despite our better judgment, we click on and read. It’s the kind of headline of an opinion article that you see in the Free Press that you read, knowing that by the end of the article you’re going to be annoyed or frustrated by what it said, but you read it anyway and you end up being annoyed and frustrated by what it said.

I had that experience – again – this past week when I came across an article in a Catholic journal based in the UK, which was talking about the meeting between Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby that took place a few days ago. And the content of this article doesn’t matter much, except to say that its writer was taking the stance that there is no chance for unity between the Catholic and Anglican Churches as long as Anglicans continue to ordain women, dispute the total authority of the Pope, and live in schism over issues of gender and sexuality. The writer goes on to speak of the many heresies we commit as Anglicans, such as calling ourselves a church, and concludes that there’s no need for the Pope to meet with Anglicans or continue the Anglican-Catholic dialogues, or anything like that as long as, and I quote, “Anglicans make unity so willfully impossible.” My blood pressure, typically slightly above normal, went for a roller-coaster ride that day.

Now there’s nothing less attractive, interesting or productive than someone using the pulpit to snipe back at a fellow Christian with whom you disagree, so you may be relieved to know that that’s not what I intend to do here today. But when we consider the Scripture readings that we shared today, we see in fact, just how long these kinds of arguments has been going on, and that it goes back way before Luther or Henry VIII, Justin Welby or Pope Francis came onto the scene.

The early Christian community in Galatia is a good place to start. Because the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians drops us in the middle of a dispute Paul is having with Peter. Paul, who is preaching Christ among the Gentiles, is irritated with some discrepancies in Peter’s ministry to the Jewish people. On one hand, we have the Jewish people, who represent one understanding of the Christ event, and are trying to make it work in the context of the Jewish law code; and on the other hand, the Gentile people who represent another tradition and experience of Jesus Christ.

Similarly in our Gospel today, we see one of these conflicts arise when Jesus has dinner with a Pharisee named Simon: at this dinner, a woman that Luke identifies only as a sinner comes to serve Jesus in a deeply emotional way – wiping his feet with her tears, and anointing them with oil. The Pharisee, as we heard, is shocked by this display, and shocked that Jesus would allow it to happen: clearly he must know that she’s a sinner, he thinks...Why is he allowing this?

So today we have two stories that are about who’s in and who’s out. Who’s one of us, and who’s not? What is it that makes us acceptable in God’s sight? Are the Gentiles lesser followers of Christ? Are us Anglicans pseudo-Christians, or are Pentecostals or Baptists lower in the order than Anglicans? Is the woman with the alabaster jar, a woman seemingly weighed down by sin, less worthy of God’s love?   You and I here today know fully that the answer is No.

And our readings today confirm this for us in two incredibly powerful ways. The first of these is found in the woman from today’s gospel, with the assurance that with God, there are no insiders or outsiders.

Last week we heard about Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, a story about outsiders. The widow was not a follower of God, not a part of Israel, and even an outcast in her own community. Elijah was a stranger in this land, famished from his time in exile, and a prophet of God in a community of worshippers of a false God. In the religious landscape of the time, there was simply no reason these two people should have had anything to do with each other.

It’s a similar thing that Simon the Pharisee, felt in the Gospel reading today. This outcast, this embarrassing woman comes into his home and has the nerve to put on such a display. And Simon’s disdain for the situation isn’t limited just to her, but also to Jesus, whom Simon immediately decides clearly isn’t this great spiritual leader, because he doesn’t recognize and accuse a sinner when one is right in front of him. If Jesus were the holy man that Simon had expected him to be, then Jesus should have cast the woman who is anointing his feet far, far away.

But instead, Jesus allows this moment to happen, Jesus demonstrates God’s mercy and grace for all those gathered in Simon’s house to see. Whatever she had done, wherever she was from, whoever she was or felt herself to be, her faith that Jesus would accept her brought her closer to God. In this town, we can assume she was known as a woman of shame, her sin was obviously quite public: but despite this, the hope she had that Jesus could free her from all that, transcended all that shame, and she took the chance that in God there are no insiders or outsiders. And in Jesus she found these liberating words, “Your sin is forgiven....go in peace.” In Christ we see that God’s power to forgive sins is stronger than the hold that sin has on us. It’s that tiny fraction of faith that God works within our own lives, that mustard-seed faith, through which God invites us into relationship.

In the parable that Jesus tells, the parable of the forgiving debtor, our Gospel today reminds us that it’s not always through our greatness that God acts, but through our weakness. So we hear about Simon, who instantly becomes concerned about who was in and who was out, and Jesus challenges him on that very notion. Simon had hoped to see in Jesus someone who would validate his status and zeal: instead, he saw that God’s power to include everybody is stronger than our ability to exclude anybody. The work of God in Christ is available for all, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we see the second proof of this, that when we live our faith in Christ, Christ lives in us.

I’ve already said a bit about this reading, that Paul was in dispute with Peter regarding how new Christians were to attain salvation through Christ – specifically the issues were adherence to the law and the practice of circumcision, and clearly the people of Galatia were dealing with the same problem – the problem of diversity of opinion in the Church.

This probably sounds familiar to many of us, because it’s another battle about who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong. And whenever these discussions start up, we end up putting the continuing ministry of Christ, the continuing work of God in the world on the backburner so that we can debate, like Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel did, and like the disciples did elsewhere – about who is greater, or who is eligible for God’s love, and for the benefits of Christ’s redemption on the Cross.

Arthur Paul Boers, in a book on conflict management in the church setting, wrote that “when these disputes arise in the life of a church, there are often individuals who express concern that the community’s very salvation depends on that particular decision: from what we read in Paul’s letter, this was exactly the case: How will we all be saved if those people keep doing it wrong?

And Paul, for his part always trying to be the diplomat, can’t quite help from thrusting further into the fray. But even so, the words he uses are most striking. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

In our baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own: in our baptism, we participate in the life, death, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and we are made new in Christ. When we live our lives with faith in Jesus Christ, when as a community we minister in ways faithful to our lives in Christ, we live, and move, and act as Christ in the world, we have Christ at the core of our being.

So how do we know when we’re being faithful to our lives in Christ? How do we know when we have Christ at the core of our being?

In the reading from Paul we heard today, he throws around the expression “works of the law,” which is generally thought to refer to circumcision. But some scholars disagree about whether “works of the law” means not just circumcision, but also the moral and social aspects of the law. But Paul says later in his letter: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” When we live our faith in Christ, Christ lives in us.

The story of Naboth’s Vineyard that we heard as our first reading today serves as a sort of case-study for all of this. Because from our readings we know two things: with God there are no insiders or outsiders; and when we live our faith in Christ, Christ lives in us. The story of Naboth shows what happens when we put those two things aside, and try to manage things ourselves.

In the story, King Ahab, decides he wants to acquire the vineyard that Naboth depends on, so that he can plant a vegetable garden there. So Ahab goes to Naboth and makes an offer for the land, but Naboth declines the offer because the land was ancestral, inherited land: he is not permitted to sell it or give it away. As we heard in the story, Ahab is quite put out that Naboth has turned him down; but undeterred by the refusal, Ahab and Jezebel turn to conspiracy to seize the land. They succeed, and with the assent of the whole community, Naboth is killed, and Ahab and Jezebel take possession of the land.

In a heartbeat, Ahab makes Naboth the outsider, the one who is easy just to overlook and trample over in favour of being right and getting what he wants, of validating his own life. Like the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment, like the Aboriginal People of Canada, like the widow and orphan, the enslaved and imprisoned, who get pushed to the margins, the story of Naboth’s vineyard shows us what is at risk when we let our pride and importance stand between God and ourselves, when we cease to be led by Christ, when we put up walls between us and other people.

But let’s hear the words of Paul one more time: the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

The love that our faith calls us to is the kind that breaks down walls, rather than puts them up. The action that our faith calls us to is the kind that knows no inside or outside. And the God that calls us, the Jesus we confess, and the Spirit which guides us is the three-in-one, the Trinity which binds us all together, all Christian people alike. With God there are no insiders or outsiders; when we live our faith in Christ, Christ lives in us.

One of the communion hymns that we will sing this morning captures quite well some of what I’ve said this morning: and perhaps that’s no accident, because it is in the celebration of the Eucharist that these two ideas are made most clear to us. In the Eucharist, God breaks down the walls that divide us, it’s in the Eucharist that Christ binds us into one: and it’s in the Eucharist that we are spiritually strengthened to go about the work of Christ in the world: and so I close this morning with the words of hymn 60, which we will sing during Communion:

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends.
The love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.
Together met, together bound, by all that God has done;
We’ll go with joy to give the world the love that makes us one.