A good number of us from this church recently went down to Canberra to participate in a rally on behalf of our local Islamic Sheikh – to prevent the Government deporting him without a trial!
And it was both a wonderful and depressing experience – wonderful because of all the wonderful people we marched with, but depressing too because of the depressing silence that greeted us when we reached the hallowed halls that house our so-called ‘elected representatives’.
Its depressing too when you read newspaper reports that seem to deliberately distort what took place, and when you get letters and phone calls and emails and Twitter-tweets and more that malign and misrepresent, twist and slander!
Someone called me a Nazi online the other day. That hurt (as absurd as it is)!
Another very interesting piece of information I found published as a comment on one of my YouTube videos, explained that the reason I feel such a kinship with the local Sheikh is because our church here in Dulwich Hill is also being funded by the Iranian government (which is news to me, of course, though I’m thinking of asking for a raise if we’re really that cashed up).
As I say, I find all this sort of stuff (and there is a lot of it) depressing, though I admit that it does make me feel a little closer to the Apostle Paul when he says, ‘this Christian Gospel that I preach was never my idea!’
“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:11-14) I really wasn’t looking for this!
Paul was doing very well as an orthodox Jew. He would have made a great Pharisee. Perhaps the powers-that-be already had a very nice parish lined up for him, working in a lovely little synagogue by the seaside in Capernaum, or perhaps they had some higher academic post in mind for him – teaching at the seminary. Either way, life was looking good for the young Paul.
Paul was, by his own confession, advancing well beyond most of his peers as a teacher of the Torah. His career was on-track, his future was bright, his prospects great … until he met Jesus, from which point there began for Paul a process of downward mobility that continued right on to his bloody death!
I wasn’t looking for this, says Paul. This Gospel was not my idea. If it hadn’t come to me straight from God, I would never have believed it, “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles …” What else could I do?
Sigmund Freud and countless others have analysed religious faith as being some form of fanciful wish fulfilment. We really wish it were true and so we pretend that it is true. But the truth is that coming to faith can often be an extremely uncomfortable experience, and certainly not something that we wished were true!
And surely this is most especially true of the Christian faith, for it is the Christian faith that confronts head on that most fundamental and most comfortable characteristic of all human societies – namely, tribalism!
Tribalism (in case you’re not familiar with the term) is that basic human tendency whereby we identify ourselves as part of a particular group (ie. an ethnic, religious or social group) and simultaneously recognise that we are not part of other groups.
Tribalism is very closely related to that other very primitive phenomenon that has characterised human society in all its forms throughout history – namely, ethnocentrism, which is our tendency to believe that our ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups should be measured in relation to our own.
Tribalism and ethnocentrism are complex words but the realities they point to are very basic and familiar:
- I am Australian, I am African, I am Lebanese – this is tribalism.
- My group is better than your group – this is ethnocentrism.
Like it or lump it, these two are characteristic of every human society. In Paul’s case though these two are built in to the very fabric of his religion!
For as a man of Jewish faith, Paul didn’t just believe in God. He believed in the God of Israel. And he didn’t just believe he was a child of God. He believed that the Jewish people were the people of God. And so it was not only that Paul had a special place in his heart for his own people. In Paul’s understanding, God had a special place in His heart for the Jewish people.
And there were lots of things within the Jewish theological framework that were open to question. There were lots of areas about which faithful Jews could disagree. As to whether there really was life after death, Jews would argue and disagree. As to when and how and if the Kingdom of God would come, you were free to argue the point. As to who the Messiah was, there was room for disagreement even on that point. Many Jews had many different ideas about who the Messiah was and when he was coming, and even on how many Messiah’s there were going to be.
But if there was one point that really was not open for discussion, it was this, that the Jews were the chosen people of God, specially favoured by the Almighty since the foundation of the world, and especially called out by Him from all the peoples of the world. And it is in this very area that Paul is so confronted when he meets Jesus, who reveals to him that, as much as God loves the Jews, He loves a whole lot of other people too!
I remember Morde Vanunu (who is now back in prison) saying that the reason his country despised him was less because he told the world about Israel’s secret nuclear stockpile than it was because he became a Christian! He had departed from the ways of the tribe.
Of course tribalism isn’t restricted to any one group or culture. I am always astonished at the way in which churches continue to punish and exclude divorced persons and other recognisably sinful persons, all of whom have likewise departed from the ways of the tribe.
I’m familiar at the moment too with situations where a couple of young gay men are living in fear of their families finding out about their sexual orientation because they are both from cultures where gay men are, at best, ostracised from the community but are, in other cases, killed for their departure from the ways of the tribe. Tribalism can be brutal!
And yet tribalism is natural too. It is the most natural and normal way for human beings to behave. Birds of a feather flock together. It’s the normal way to behave. It’s the Christian Gospel that is unnatural. It is the Christian Gospel that intrudes into our world and pushes us towards that which is outlandishly unnatural (perhaps we should say ‘super-natural‘), pushing us towards recognising in every tribe our sisters and brothers.
Paul was happy as a Jew. He had a good job, good prospects. He was respected by his peers, and most probably had a well-groomed wife (who seems to have departed by the time we find him in ministry). He could have had it all (humanly speaking) but then he met Jesus!
“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that is preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
I didn’t want it. I wasn’t looking for it. It was never my idea. It was Christ who decided to saddle me with this thing and what was I supposed to do?
And that’s our story too! We were very cosy here as a small group of educated white people, not having too much contact with the rest of the world. It wasn’t my idea to invite people from other cultures into our holy huddle. And it wasn’t my idea to allow gay people in, let alone trans-gender or bi-sexual people, confusing our monochrome heterosexual identity and diluting our homogeneity. I blame Jesus for that entirely!
And I certainly blame Jesus for our association with the Muslim community. It had never been my plan to have Muslims come and join our prayer meetings (as happened over Easter) just as I never would have envisaged myself marching alongside so many Muslim sisters and brothers this week in defence of the truth. I blame Jesus for all of that, just as I blame Him for my friendship with the Sheikh in the first place. That was not my idea any more that it’s my Gospel. It didn’t write the thing and I’m sure if I had written it I would have made the whole thing a little less uncomfortable!
And so we find ourselves, as St Paul was, uncomfortably captive to the Gospel – being misunderstood and caricatured at times, and embracing the prospect that things in this regard could yet get a whole lot worse!
We would have preferred to remain in our monochrome, homogeneous holy huddle but with the Gospel this was not an option. We would have liked to have been able to maintain our feelings of superiority – to have been able to point our fingers at the great unwashed and think that we were better than them, but because of the Gospel this is not an option! Still we would like to pretend that our group is better than all the other groups – that our theological correctness makes us spiritually superior to all our sisters and brother of other faiths and no faith – but we know that the Christian Gospel will not allow us to look down upon any man, woman or child!
We would like to keep our doors closed to the homeless and our minds closed to the ways of those who are not a part of our tribe but it is the Gospel of Christ that continues to force us to keep opening our arms and opening our minds and opening our hearts to those around us.
This is the Gospel that has been given to us and it is not of our own making. We were not looking for it. It was not our idea. We were doing just fine without it! And yet, in clear and unadulterated tones we stand alongside St Paul and declare with him too: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
This is the Gospel of Christ – the Good News of salvation for all. It is the declaration of the love of God, extending beyond our tribe and pushing us out of our ethnocentric enclaves and into the world. It is the Good News that in Christ there is no Jew, no Greek, no rich, no poor, no slave, no free, no male, no female, and that there is nothing that can ultimately divide us or separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is not our idea. It is God’s idea, and it is a great idea, and it is the power of God for all who dare to believe!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 2010.