Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Sunday 22nd July at All Saints’, Cuddesdon and St Giles’, Horspath.
Readings: Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56.
Sam Well’s latest book Incarnational Mission opens with this amusing story:
Did you ever hear the one about the sweet old lady who got onto a train? She found a seat and settled herself down. At the next stop a young man in a business suit swaggered onto the trained and sat opposite her. The old lady got out a Bible and started to read and meditate on its words. The young man was curious to find he’d sat next to someone who wasn’t preoccupied with a small electrical device, so he manoeuvred his line of sight to find out what she was reading. Realising it was a Bible, he asked, incredulously, “Do you really believe those stories?” The old lady, without moving her head from her book, peered over her half-rimmed spectacles and said, “I most certainly do, young man”. Undeterred, the man continued, “What about that old geezer who got swallowed by a fish?” How could someone survive in a fish for three days?” “You’re talking about the prophet Jonah, young man, I have no idea how that happened, but I look forward to asking Jonah about it when we meet in heaven one day”. The young man thought he’d cornered her this time, “Fair enough, but what if Jonah’s not in heaven? What if Jonah went to hell?” “Well then,” replied the old lady, smiling sweetly, “you’ll be able to ask him yourself, won’t you?”
One of the reasons why this story makes us laugh is because, like all good humour, it presents a somewhat difficult issue in the most literal and audacious way. There’s something Miss Marpleish about the little old lady who is past caring what people think of her cunningly outwitting the brash young businessman. Yet, lying behind this encounter on the train is the rather uncomfortable observation that there is a vast gulf between the generally older generation of churchgoers and the sceptical, often dismissive approach to religion by the so-called millennials. In this story the two worlds collide in the most amusing and startling way.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes. But we all know how easy it is to start labelling folk and defining ourselves against them. Are you young or old, do you go to church or not, are you religious or atheist, are you a man or a woman, a child or an adult, are you a committed Christian or casual attender, are you going to heaven or hell? It’s a narrative of exclusion that has been played out to devastating effect in the past and continues to do so at all levels of our society be it from politics to gender, nationality to religion.
Our readings today, however, present a different image, one of inclusion and incorporation. Those of you who have been to the Roman ruins at Ephesus in Turkey will know what an important centre it was in Asia Minor. It was a central trading post and home of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. Paul lived there from AD 52-57, initially teaching in the synagogue but soon converting many so-called Gentiles to the Christian faith. Part of Paul’s letter to his church in Ephesus is to bring together two camps of Christians who were defining themselves against each other: those who had a Jewish heritage and those who had not. Pauls uses the language of inclusion and gathering to bring together those who were far off, namely the Christian Gentiles, and those who were near, namely Christian Jews into one ‘household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’. No longer are Christian Jew and Christian Gentile defined against each other but are brought together as citizens of one kingdom, the kingdom of Christ.
In our gospel reading we are given an insight into what Christ’s kingdom looks like and there are no buildings, or doctrines or rules, only people whose lives are touched and affected by the healing, teaching, compassionate presences of Christ and his disciples amongst them. These are the crowds who will one day reject Jesus and abandon him but un today’s reading they are curious, searching and sick like the young businessman. Jesus does not condemn or judge them instead he wanders through the towns and villages where they are and responds to their needs. He does not ask them to join a club or a church but simply draws alongside then and is with them, thereby bringing transformation by his and his disciple’s presence.
This is encounter with Christ that has no pre-judgement or pre-requisites but an open inclusion of all, a church without walls defined only by relationship with the person of Christ. There is a fluidity to the kingdom which that encounter on the train, however amusing, no longer allowed. A place where questioning is valued, otherness celebrated, wounds healed and barriers broken down. It is the church of the future as well as the past where all are welcomed and defined only by encounter with Christ. So let us be careful not to build walls, to define ourselves against the other but seek to be citizens of a kingdom which stretches far beyond these four walls. Amen.