Sermon on Tuesday of Holy Week 2016
Sermon at Lancaster Priory
Insiders and Outsiders, The Revd Dr Liz Horwell
If Jesus’ suffering wasn’t pre-ordained or demanded by God; what was it about? I suspect we need to look no further than human nature to find our answer.
Jesuit Gerard Hughes in his wonderful book ‘God of Surprises’ asks his readers:
“If Christ were to appear in the flesh today, how would we receive him?”
and he suggests that there are many ways in which our own cultural conditioning may blind us to the truth of Christ. For instance:
Jesus moved from place to place, like a traveller.
He had no formal education or qualifications, yet he set himself up as a religious preacher – I wonder how we, in the university town of Lancaster might respond to someone like that today?
He kept company with some highly dubious people: prostitutes, extortioners, beggars, outcasts; (how inclusive is the institution of the Church of such characters, if we’re really honest?)
He criticised those in authority, he refused to keep Church rules, once he started his ministry he didn’t seem to work for a living.
So many things might render him a questionable character to us if we look at him through the lens of our own cultural conditioning; so how can we be sure we wouldn’t be part of the crowd shouting ‘crucify him!’ rather than standing up for him at the end?
In truth, Jesus must have seemed like an ‘outsider’ to those around him! Though he was born a Jew, the religious leaders certainly didn’t see him as ‘one of them’. Trevor Dennis, in his book ‘Christmas Stories’, rather daringly suggests that what must have seemed a rather far-fetched story linking the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ conception had probably given way to the rather more plausible story that he was Joseph’s ‘born out of wedlock’ child. That would explain Jesus being seen as an outsider as well as his empathy with other outsiders.
And, quite apart from this, time and again Jesus upset the religious leaders who saw themselves as sole guardians of Scriptural interpretation. How could this untrained ‘nobody’ from Galilee (of all places) presume to know what God wanted? What right did he have to ignore the food and Sabbath laws and just about every other Jewish law?
Jesus came and turned upside down everything the Pharisees taught. “You’ve been told an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I tell you if someone strikes you on the right cheek offer the other also. You’ve been told love your neighbour and hate your enemy; but I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The leaders felt threatened by this young upstart; and the gut response to threat is to fight back, to sort out the competition once and for all.
Barton tells us that this is one of the downsides to religion… because from a sociological perspective, religion tends to be a way of maintaining a group identity, and a way of defending that identified group against outsiders. Religious commitment, at its worst, has a kind of club mentality which excludes those who are not part of the ‘club’. Both Judaism and Christianity, as they have developed, are no exception to this rule; both are deeply concerned with identity, and authority, and with initiation rites that make it absolutely clear who’s in and who’s out.
And yet both Judaism and Christianity began life by challenging this insider/outsider distinction. Israel’s prophets spoke of the one God who created all things and cares for all people; the God who is so committed to caring for all people that he actively takes the side of those whom others call outsiders – strangers, widows, orphans, slaves….
During the Exodus God tells the Israelites: “The Lord your God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, He loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
But the Israelites constantly forgot the inclusion clause! As time went on the letter of the law took precedence over the heart of the law; rituals over compassion. And Jesus brings them up short, challenging them to remember God’s love for all and especially for outsiders! Jesus freely associates with all manner of undesirables; he’s highly critical of the complacency, arrogance, and ‘holier-than-thou’ ways of the club leaders. No wonder they‘re angry and want to distance themselves from him! They don’t want the people to start believing his radical ideas. Heavens no! That might disturb their own comfortable lives. So his rebellious talking needs to be stamped out at all costs!
So what crucified Jesus both metaphorically and physically was this human drive to form a club to keep out non-members: a human and harmless tendency in one way yet with potential to become the most destructive and demonic of forces – as the human race’s long history of hatred and malice and genocide have proven time and time again.
Families display the same sort of problem. We need our families for support, and within a family lie possibilities for the greatest love one human being can show for another; and yet, families also potentially provide ingredients for destructive and vicious fighting against those outside the clan. Close-knit families, gangs, even children in the playground all have the potential to destroy those who are perceived as being outside: the ‘them and us’ syndrome. Yet we need to band together in groups to survive: what a dilemma!
Barton comments: “Jesus’ life and death are God’s way of handling the problems of the human condition (not of solving them, they really are insoluble) but Jesus is God’s own willingness to get involved in the contradiction and experience it from the inside. He came to warn people of the dangers of establishing an exclusive club and to challenge people to reject the drive that makes them exclude others. In the process he became excluded himself, and the mock trial and death by crucifixion were the consequences of that exclusion.