Galatians 2:15-end & Luke 7.36-8.3
As religious initiation ceremonies go, we really do get off quite lightly as Christians. If, instead of baptism, we circumcised every new member of our faith I do wonder whether I would be getting the constant stream of telephone calls from new mothers keen to have their new little ones "done". And it would make the Alpha course quite interesting too wouldn't it? "Like what you've heard? Ready to make a commitment? Right, don't go away - I'll just get my knife!"
Well, we must all be grateful to St Paul that that eye-watering thought has not become a reality among us. And if you've quietly bought in to the bad press that Paul sometimes gets, then, once the tears have cleared from your own eyes and you're able to uncross your legs again without wincing, you might just send up a little prayer of thanksgiving for Paul's work.
Because incredible as it may seem to us today, the question of whether new Christian believers should be circumcised was the hot topic of the early church. And it made all our battles over women priests or same sex couples or far more contentious such modern songs and family services pale into insignificance. The circumcision issue was absolute dynamite and it threatened to destroy the church even before it had really got off the ground.
Why? Because, to state the obvious, Christianity was a Jewish movement. It was not, at that stage, a separate religion. The early Christians were all Jews who simply believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. They had no concept of starting a new religion just because the messiah had arrived. They fully intended to carry on worshipping God in exactly the same way they always had - after all, God himself had ordered them to worship him in this way. So keeping the Law of Moses was the very essence of their religion. And circumcision was at the very heart of the Law of Moses.
Circumcision, to the Jews was a tangible sign of God's love for them as a people and his promise (his covenant) that he would save them. If I can put it this way, they wore their circumcision with pride because it meant that God had acted again and again in their history to save them. And now for those who believed in Jesus, God had saved them, decisively, for all time by sending them his messiah. So it was surely all the more important to wear the mark of God's love and salvation on your body. Circumcision was, if you like, their baptism, their Book of Common Prayer, their tradition, their passport and language all rolled into one. It summed up their religious, national and cultural identity completely.
But the trouble was that this God they believed in had gone off script. Now that the Messiah had come and all his promises were fulfilled he had suddenly gone off making disciples in vast numbers among non-Jews (Gentiles) - outsiders. These were people who didn't understand the rules, who didn't have the story, who didn't know about the law and they certainly didn't circumcise themselves. And so it was a horrendous mess. If they were going to join this religion, they had to obey the Law of Moses and that had to start with circumcision - surely.
But Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit pointed out the fatal flaw at the heart of their thinking. They were missing the main point. The law and the cherished symbol of circumcision was not what it was all about. It wasn't about belonging to their culture. God's salvation was what it was all about. Without that, we all die, because we cannot save ourselves - only God can save. And God has saved us -by coming to us and dying our death and reversing our death into eternal life.
And so, if the early church then insisted on circumcision - on obedience to all the old laws, as a precondition to coming to Jesus for salvation, they are turning the Law of Moses into a stumbling block - an obstacle to people coming to God and being saved. By getting their priorities wrong, they were reversing the very purpose of the law. Instead of it helping people to come closer to God by reminding them of what God has done for us, it was being made into a precondition for receiving God's mercy.
And so the church saw the light and changed. The Jewish believers, at enormous cost to themselves, gave up on their insistence that all these newcomers become like them and they changed all the practises of their religion in order to let us non-Jews connect with the core message of the gospel. And the non-Jews came to Jesus in droves - a veritable tidal wave which so changed the church that it isn't noticeably Jewish at all today - but it is believed in by more people than any other religion or philosophy in the world. And when the Jewish believers saw what was happening, with all these people coming to faith, they were chuffed to bits to have Gentiles like us as their new brothers and sisters.
Well, that's fine isn't it? Thanks for the history lesson Stewart, but can we go home now? Well, no - not until you've grasped this: the circumcision debate is still alive and well in the church today and we still need to grapple with it. Only it's not about circumcision any more, but it's just as real.
Just think about it and see if it has any resonances (maybe you're already ahead of me on this one) - the Jewish believers of Paul's time had always done it this way. The Law of Moses was wonderful - their parents had practised it before them since time immemorial. It linked them together to the past, to their ancestors. Its practise was beautiful - the poetry of the psalms, their well-loved songs, they knew the liturgy by heart. The rituals brought them comfort and rooted them in their identity in the midst of a changing world. And now, it all had to go - everything had to change, just because of some new-fangled idea about bringing Gentiles into the faith. Why? Why, they asked, are we dumbing-down the faith? It's our faith, after all - we paid for the building of the temple. Why is it always us who has to change? Why don't the Gentiles have to change to be like us? Ring any bells?
Well, we must all thank God that the Jewish people found it in their hearts to change in order to welcome us in. But that means that we have inherited a faith that has a culture of change built in to its very constitution. And if we are to uphold that tradition of change, we must all understand what those early Jewish Christians found in their hearts that enabled them to do it. They realised that at the heart of their religious practise was a simple message - you were once an outsider, but now you're an insider because you have been welcomed (at great cost), so be welcoming in return. "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." They managed to keep the main thing the main thing.
The whole point of the Law of Moses was to remind them that "we were slaves in Egypt", but God set us free in the Promised Land. The whole point of the gospel is that we were slaves to sin, but God sent his son to set us free. We have received mercy - we have received welcome. God withheld nothing in order to save us. All of us were that poor woman kneeling at Jesus' feet, hopeless sinners who found a welcome in Jesus. So we cannot withhold anything from those who still need salvation. We exist to provide a welcome to other people like that poor woman kneeling and weeping - not to maintain the dignity of the religious and respectable elite, but to kneel with her at Jesus' feet, weep with her over our sins and see Jesus' overwhelming love for us expressed in his response.
And our cherished religious practices are designed to keep that message at the heart of who we are. If they start to get in the way - if they start to become the story themselves, to the point where they become a precondition to people coming to faith - then we reverse its purpose - turning what is good into something bad. Moreover, we will destroy the very thing we love - we will (if you will pardon the analogy) be like an England goalkeeper, grasping desperately at the ball only to see it bobble through our hands into the net behind us.
We have to keep the main thing the main thing. As Anglicans we have inherited a majestic tradition - one that I love and value deeply. I wouldn't be an Anglican priest if I didn't. I've given my life to serve God in this tradition. I love the old traditions, the beautiful liturgy and the incredible riches of the choral tradition are in my soul. If I only had myself to please, I would never have left the choir stalls.
But the story at the heart of every note I sang compelled me to change. Because the reality is that the majority people in our society can no longer access our story or our traditions. They speak a different musical language now, they live a different rhythm of life, they even use English in a different way. And the traditions that we cling to have require them (a) to have a fairly high academic and cultural understanding; and (b) to be able to overcome the cultural baggage that many people associate with formality and ceremony and even with classical music (although I sense that that last barrier at least is coming down to some extent).
Now I'm not for a moment suggesting that we abandon our tradition entirely - I'm not in the business of selling the family silver. But we must keep the main thing the main thing. Our Anglican tradition is designed to tell the story of salvation, but it is now a stumbling block to many our culture. And so we have to change, not least because Anglicanism is founded on a tradition of change. We have to change for the sake of the many people like the young woman in our gospel who are lost and weeping, but don't know that they can weep at Jesus' feet and find welcome and healing. For her sake and for many like her, we must find a new way of communicating. Yes, if you like the phrase, we have to dumb down - because God dumbed down one heck of a lot to save us. Jesus is God delivered free at the point of need - to adopt an old slogan of the NHS - and we have to change to deliver him free at the point of need in our own generation.
And that means we do have to find it in our hearts to engage enthusiastically in outreach services, like ATOM, that meet people where they are - with no other hope than that they encounter Jesus on their own terms. It means we have to welcome people from the younger generation into all our services and many of those services must provide songs, conversations and activities that speak their language and fit their lives. And it means educating them slowly and carefully in our traditions - not necessarily so that they change to adopt them (though we might be surprised at how many do), but because it's important to understand the shared story. And above all, it means that we must equip them, through our care and nurture and teaching, to become disciples so that in their turn they can interpret the tradition for their own generation and in turn make the sacrifices they need to make in order to uphold the tradition of change for the generation after them.
Now I will continue, so long as I'm here, to provide traditional worship alongside the old. I even intend to bolster it. But in return I call on us all, as a church family, to embrace change and to make the personal sacrifices we need (whatever they may be) to enable my generation and the one coming up behind me to access our amazing God and his majestic message of love, hope and faith in their own language and on their own terms.
It's a hard call. Fortunately, it's still nothing like the scale of sacrifice the Jews of the early church had to make - but it's still significant. Many of us have already managed to make that sacrifice and I have the greatest admiration for those who are instinctively traditionalists, but who still come along and support modern services, who (though they might cringe inwardly) join in the action songs for the sake of the children, or enter into the spirit of modern style services with a wildly different atmosphere and musical language to their own, and who do it all with good grace and even a sense of fun. Those sacrifices are costly - I think I know how costly, because I myself am, by inclination, a traditionalist. But believe me, when you make the sacrifice - when you reconnect with the message at the heart of our faith and when you see others from a totally different perspective also connecting with it - it is a wonderful, humbling and beautiful experience. And one for which, when you go home, you can give thanks to God, even if you say it in the traditional words:
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
If you can find it in your heart, to welcome these strange others, these wild youths, these noisy families, these ageing rockers, these good people that God is desperate to draw to himself - all these latter-day Gentiles, you will indeed see the salvation that God has prepared and they will indeed be your glory, world without end. Amen.
Preached: Great Strickland (UB) 13 June 2010