Isaiah 65:1-9, Galatians 3:23-end, Luke 8:26-3
My colleague Wilma Roest, Team Rector of the Richmond Team, rather surprised her congregation the other week when, on the 25th anniversary of the first ordination of women to the priesthood in this diocese, she said that she did not believe in women priests. She quickly clarified what she meant – she firmly believes in priests, and some will be men and some will be women and that is all that is necessary.
In that statement, which is blindingly obvious really but well worth saying, Wilma puts to the fore Paul’s radical statement about our freedoms and unity in Christ: that there is no longer any difference between anyone in the Church, for all are baptized into Christ, therefore all are one in one family. We don’t consider each other to be British Christians or Christians from abroad – all that is irrelevant. Likewise, we are not employed or retired or not working Christians, it does not come into our minds. In the same way, women and men make up God’s family, and we all have our different roles, all of which can be done by both men and women. The sad part is that the Church chose to ignore the women and men bit for 19 centuries, thereby sidelining talent, creativity and pastoral care by the ton. We have much to make up, today.
There are still plenty of people who are on the outside of both the Church and society. Some are put there so that we can quietly forget about them, and others put themselves there, as a coping mechanism in this stressful and complex world. They are not as extreme as the man that Jesus and his disciples met as they got out of the boat on the other side of Lake Galilee, but they can be just as difficult to deal with. This man was seriously disturbed, yet in all his distress, he can recognize Jesus as special, different, a life-changer. Jesus does not delay: he deals with the situation immediately. By removing the source of the problem – all the illness, all the madness – Jesus returns this man to the way that he should be, the way that God had created him, and all that was wrong with him was consigned to the deep.
Yet curiously, the locals object. It’s not that they didn’t want this man to be cured – he had been causing problems for them for years – it was their loss of income in the pigs’ destruction that really upset them. They got a member of their community back, but at a price they did not expect. And so they ask Jesus to leave, the Jesus who had restored peace not only to the man but also to their community. Sometimes it is hard to accept God’s ways, and we look for a way out.
Naturally, the man wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus gently says “no”. Instead, Jesus wants him to go back, live a normal life, and to make sure that everyone knows just what God had done for him in Christ, so that their faith would be more robust and their worship of God more intense. Difficult though it will be to avoid the title of “the one that Jesus healed”, he was intended simply to be a full member of his society, no better or worse than anyone else, and an example of the love of God at work in practical, loving ways.
We have played our part in reaching out to these people who live on the outside of our society: the rough sleepers, the refugees, those who struggle to be part of our sophisticated, privileged society. For over 30 years we have welcomed in the marginalized and the distressed to the Vineyard Lunches, three or four times a year. For the past two winters, we have joined with people of faith from across the borough in providing winter night shelters for rough sleepers. This year, over 150 people were reached, 35 of whom were rehoused during the 5 months the project ran, which bears extraordinary testimony to the skills of the contact workers from Glass Door and SPEAR who worked with these people during the day.
That‘s the practical side, making a difference to people’s daily lives. But there is also the Church side, the spiritual side. Next Sunday, we will admit to communion over 20 children, here, at St Luke’s/the Barn and at St Anne’s. They will not simply be children, sat with their parents, blessed at the altar. Rather, they will be recognized as full members of the Church, communicant members because of their baptism – that baptism which makes us all one in Christ, which is where we started this morning.
That radical statement from Paul sets the Church a challenge. Whenever anyone within the Church is defined over against another, then that must change, because Christ has brought about that change, whether we like it or not. We welcome with love, because Christ loves us. We include with grace, because it is by Christ’s grace that we are included. We recognize each other as God’s beloved children, for that is what we are, wherever we come from, because of our baptism. The reality of all this is there in Christ. We just have to admit it, and experience its joy as we live it out to the full.
Rev Peter Hart