Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25th August 2013
25 August 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
One of these days, this would get him into real trouble. Jesus’ controversial teaching about the Sabbath, alongside that related to the Temple, was one of those strands which contributed to his arrest, trial, passion and death. Traditional teaching about the Sabbath and the Temple was utterly central to first century Jewish identity. The Sabbath was the seventh day, on which God metaphorically rested after his creation. It was therefore the most holy day, which should not be contaminated by unnecessary activity. Sabbath time is about re-balancing, re-calibrating relationship with God, so that the rest of time – the other six days, if you like - might draw its strength from the Sabbath. It looks like Jesus overturns this teaching, but rather he goes more deeply into it, plunging head-first into the sources of the teaching, into the theological energy behind it, reweaving it so that it is more truly itself. The gospel we have just heard is an extraordinary example of this. The Sabbath is about rest, about wholeness, about having the space to enter the peace – the Shalom – which is at the heart of God and God’s gift of creation. Jesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years is entirely an action of Sabbath, an action of liberation, of freeing the woman so that she can herself live in the Sabbath. The Sabbath, as Jesus would teach elsewhere, was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Part of St Luke’s message then is that Jesus is a kind of walking Sabbath, it is in Jesus’s own self that creation takes its rest, finds its fulfilment and re-calibrates. Jesus’ very presence offers rest and re-creation; to come within Jesus’ orbit is to come within the reach of God’s restoration and God’s rest. But this story also reveals another interesting dynamic – very simply but importantly, Jesus calls the woman towards him. He reaches beyond himself, risking his own standing in the Synagogue, and calls the woman to him. Why? Because in reaching right into humanity, into its limitations and pains, Christ brings about the ultimate Sabbath – summoning those in his orbit not just to the peace of the seventh day, but rather to the eighth day, to the new creation when God’s purposes will be perfectly fulfilled in Christ.
There is much of importance in this Gospel – but perhaps at its heart is simply the radical compassion of God which leads people to a new future. Again and again, the Lord himself reveals a way of life which frees people, rather than imprisons them. It would have been quite possible for Jesus to side with the professional religious people, observing the traditional Sabbath convention and not healing the woman – but in choosing otherwise, he gave a much deeper interpretation of what the Sabbath was and is, and furthermore, gave a commentary on it. One of the fascinating things about this Gospel is that it gives a glimpse of how Jesus interprets scripture. The leader of the synagogue doesn’t get it, of course. But Jesus explains the hypocrisy of his position – of the traditional position, and does so by getting right to the heart of God’s mission to the world, by reflecting not just on the written words of scripture, but by bringing all of that into conversation with the situation in front of him, and with the future which he is himself opening up.
Those of us who are passionate about our faith, about religion, can so easily become mean-spirited, and find all sorts of so-called justifiable ways to bolster that hardness of heart. Often, this will be subtle and unintentional, even rooted in our own desire to be faithful. But in this teaching, Jesus shows – through his own interpretation of scripture, combined with the reality of the situation in front of him – that we must never divorce our theological and ethical teaching from the need to genuinely promote human flourishing. We need to get things the right way round. This is not an encouragement to an unlimited hedonism, but a concern to see real human lives as the sites of God’s redeeming action. The Gospel is addressed to real human beings as good news, as an invitation to something even beyond the Sabbath, where Christ’s Kingdom breaks through. So often, we risk the Gospel appearing as if it might be otherwise – bad news , or at best something to keep at a distance in case it threatens us too much. Instead, Jesus calls us to himself to enter the fruits of the Sabbath-relationship. This is Good News, and we must pay careful attention not only to the subject of the message itself, but also to how we proclaim it, and how it is heard. When people misunderstand us, or respond badly, especially on ethical issues, we must press pause; audit our own language, and ensure that our message is really liberating people to live the life of the Sabbath, to rest in God’s love.
This approach is not something confined to ethics. Such a freshness and depth also must be communicated in our worship. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews breaks into this new territory, beyond even what was considered holy by the Jewish people “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness… [to] a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” Rather, through worship you have come to “Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” If we are truly intent on bringing people to Jesus, on encouraging them to share the Christian adventure, we must ensure that our teaching brings them to their knees and genuinely connects with their hearts and their deepest longings, inaugurating a new kind of fundamental richness which is not often perceived.
These two poles of discipleship need to be held closely together. Our prayer life, our worshipping life, forms our hearts, not only for ourselves, but for how they respond to others. If we respond to others’ needs with meanness, with judgement, with a brittle approach, it is a symptom of our own inner-weakness. The Gospel must take flesh in how we are with people, in how we are with ourselves, if it is to be any more than a dry parody. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is perhaps one of the greatest contemporary examples of such an approach. Tutu writes, “I don’t preach a social gospel, I preach the Gospel. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the Good News to a hungry person is food.”
Our society is hungry, our world needs the redeeming power of Christ right at its very centre, right in the midst of its daily life. It needs the Sabbath to rest in God’s love and to be immersed in his mysteries, it needs the creativity and new promise of the Eighth Day, to answer its deepest longings and to heal its wounds.