Sunday’s Gospel finds Jesus in Gentile territory. He first encounters a Syrophonecian woman who pleads with him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Next he encounters a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. They are not his people. Why is he there and why would he heal people like them?
Behind this story is the question of whether Jesus’ mission was consciously just to the Jews or intentionally extended to Gentiles. The biblical record is clear; Jesus never turned away anyone, Jew or Gentile, who sought his help. The realm he proclaimed is an inclusive realm of grace, open to everyone.
In the early Church, the question shifted to whether one had to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian. Paul's more inclusive way prevailed over the more exclusive approach of Peter. The grace of God was offered freely, without the need for circumcision or a particular religious pedigree.
Today, this question has emerged in yet another way. It comes to us transformed by the growing awareness that Christendom as we have known it in the West no longer is (and perhaps never was) the dominant religion in the world, and by the growing visibility of the diversity and vitality of the many other religious and spiritual traditions in the world. The emerging question is: What does it mean to be a Christian in the world?
Biblical scholar and preacher, Fred Craddock, tells the story of a missionary sent to India near the end of WW II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home. His church wired him the money for passage on a steamer. When he got to the port city, he discovered that a boatload of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. They were staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city.
It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, “Merry Christmas.” The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, “We're Jews.” “I know that," said the missionary, “What would you like for Christmas?” In utter amazement the Jews responded, “We'd like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany.”
So the missionary used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find. Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States. As you might expect, they wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent.
He replied that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews. They wired back, “Why did you do that? They don't even believe in Jesus.” He wired back: “Yes, but I do.”
This missionary was a doer of the word and not a hearer only! So are we when our ears are opened and our tongues are loosened, for the hearing and the doing of the reconciling word entrusted to us.
In May of 1738, Peter Bohler, a Moravian missionary, said to Charles Wesley, “If I had a thousand tongues, I’d praise Christ with all of them.” On the 21st of May, Charles’ quest for such a faith was fulfilled. He was so stirred by those words of Peter Bohler that near the first anniversary of his conversion he wrote a hymn beginning, “Glory to God, and praise, and love.” The seventh stanza recalls Peter Bohler’s words: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!” (Here is a lively rendering of that great hymn.)
Much of what passes for evangelical Christianity today is aimed at closing ears, tying tongues, and excluding people. It sometimes seems to me that much of what is presented as good is in fact demonic. In contrast, we have the inclusive, healing, liberating ministry of our Redeemer, who not only talked about God’s love, but did something about it. Each of us can only ask that he liberate us from whatever demons torment us, unstop our ears to hear him, and loosen our tongues to praise him – with our words and with our actions – so that we become an extension of the heart and hands of Incarnate One who came not to condemn, but to give life.
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral