Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday after Trinity 2022
There has been much talk of borders in recent weeks.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner
Sunday, 19th June 2022 at 11.15 AM
There has been much talk of borders in recent weeks. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government’s current much-criticised policy of sending people seeking asylum to Rwanda, and the Northern Ireland protocol all raise questions about borders. What they are for, who determines them, and why, what they really mean, and how they should be managed. Often, answers to questions such as these are politicised answers. They can touch on broader questions of identity, security and public policy. Borders are frequently lightning rods for all sorts of other concerns; these are often as emotive as they are actual, and can raise issues of paradox. Why is it, in such an interconnected and networked world, that the nation state and its sovereignty, continues to stir such emotion, for good and for ill?
Today’s Gospel show’s Jesus crossing several important borders. First, he is in Gentile territory. The presence of swine – pigs – tells us that this is certainly not a straightforward Jewish community on ‘his’ side of the lake. St Luke tells us that they are in the country of the Gerasenes, on the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee. Secondly, there, Jesus encounters a man absolutely beset not by one evil spirit, but by very many. In the eyes of the contemporary religious, not to mention the social establishments, this guy is as unclean as it gets. As the reader has already heard just a few verses earlier in the preceding story of the calming of the storm, Jesus masters the chaos. It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for both the pigs and the pig farmers who respectively lose lives and livelihood – but they are not Luke’s focus. The next crossing of a border occurs in the possessed man himself and in those who live in the city near him. This man has now passed from his imprisoning condition into his right mind, sitting at Jesus’s feet. He has become a disciple, only to be sent back a few verses later to his own home, to proclaim the Gospel. There is another border crossing at work here too, for those who are natives of the country of the Gerasenes. Jesus, the stranger, gives them a glimpse of life-beyond-the-boundaries: the former demoniac sits at his feet, clothed and well. The chaos is over. There is a chink of light here showing a way into the new world which is becoming visible through Jesus and his ministry. But the Gerasene people daren’t go there. They are seized with fear and ask Jesus to leave. They can’t quite cope with what any of this means.
It is a simple truth that human beings are good at throwing up boundaries and drawing lines. This remains a significant problem for the early Christians, and arguably, a lesson which the Church still refuses to fully learn. St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a page-turning account of how Paul wrestles with the implications of Christ’s Gospel regarding the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, and faith and the Hebrew Law. Whilst the occasion of this teaching is a specific moment of crisis in a particular Church, the passage we heard this morning is an early exposition of material which is close to the very heart of St Paul’s conviction about what God has done in and through Jesus. And it is dazzling stuff. The Law – that most precious series of texts in second temple Judaism – was simply a ‘childminder’ to bring us to Christ. The translation we heard read this translates the Greek word as ‘disciplinarian’, but ’childminder’ really gets the sense of this phrase. So, the law – with its ritual instructions and ethical teachings – was to prepare God’s people for the coming of Christ, and for relationship with God in Christ through faith. Through baptism we literally ‘put on’ Christ like a robe or a cloak, so that our true identity is no longer found in ourselves alone but through us-in-him. Through baptism, we stand in relationship with God where Christ stands. So, the law is no longer a marker of privileged identity, the visible sign of the Covenant for the people of the Covenant with the one Lord, because faith in Christ allows for incorporation in Christ, incorporation into the very mysteries of God’s self-donation to the world. Our Christian identity is ‘put on’ like a robe (one remnant of this is found in the white garment still used for candidates at many baptism services) so that Paul can utter those words which shatters so much of ancient Jewish and Graeco Roman society – no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus, heirs according to the promise given to Abraham, made well before the Ten Commandments were chiselled.
It is perhaps easier to exist with clearly defined boundaries and borders. The Gerasene people ask Jesus to leave because they are afraid – they don’t feel safe in this rather topsy-turvy unfamiliar world. Better the known unsettled life, than the risky liberation of new futures. But the choice is not a binary one between strictly defined exclusion on the one hand and a collapse of identity and culture on the other. The Gospel is richer than that. The opportunity is a life of communion – a rich unity in Christ which honours diversity rather than which seeks to flatten it out. But human experience, and the record of scripture, shows this to be hard work. We still prefer the borders. But Jesus’s actions and St Paul’s testimony reveal that there simply already is this new creation, it is possible to live in a life of non-competitive communion because Christ’s death and resurrection has broken down the dividing wall that was between us, to use an image Paul deploys elsewhere in his writing.
So, how do we do this, and how might it impact on our life together during the time of the world? It has often been said that the Christian life is more a faithful improvisation on topics and themes – the life of Jesus, self-giving love, joy, hope – than it is a carefully choreographed ballet. Movement, yes, but a joyful movement away from the chaos represented by the roar of the Sea of Galilee on a wet and windy night or by the cries and groans of a man whose life had been destroyed by sickness, evil and the forces of a fearful crowd. But it is movement. It is life patterned on the self-giving love of God in Christ. The Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail has riffed on this theme, and on how it relates to love, desire, community, in many of his works. But most famously, in the poem entitled Madam Jazz:
Hail! Madam Jazz
Worship, hold her a moment in thought,
Femme fatale, she shapes another face,
unveils an idol. O Never-To-Be-Caught,
Minx beyond this mind’s embrace,
Hider-Go-Seeker, Miss Unfathomable,
Demurring Lady playing at the chase.
As stars or atoms we turn, fall
towards each other’s gravity. I spin
In your love’s nexus, Mistress All.
Once a child of Newton’s
Fallen apple, I’d the measure of your ways.
My stars my atoms, are we one?
Mischievous Strategy, Madam Jazz!
Old tunes die in metamorphosis.
Rise, fall, reawakening. I praise
That is a manifesto for worship, life, and culture. Can we perceive it? To do so, together we must return again and again to scripture: to the teachings and action of Jesus, and to the writing of Paul as he tries to pick his way through what all this means. We will learn it together, slowly, unlearning, risking. Or we will not learn it at all.