Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 24 February 2013: Year C, Second Sunday in Lent
Sing hey! for the Pharisees!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Come with me, come wander, come welcome the world
where strangers might smile or where stones may be hurled;
come leave what you cling to, lay down what you clutch
and find, with hands empty, that hearts can hold much.
Sing hey for the carpenter leaving his tools!
Sing hey for the pharisees leaving their rules!
Sing hey for the fishermen leaving their nets!
Sing hey for the people who leave their regrets!
The Pharisees, generally speaking, get a bad name in the New Testament. Again and again, we hear of Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees. Perhaps it was because that in some ways, they were quite alike. Both Jesus and the Pharisees called people to stick to God’s ways in a world dominated by the pagan rulers of Rome. So, for example, the Pharisees said that you should tithe a certain amount of your income. Jesus accused them of being obsessed with the detail, and said to them, ‘[you] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith’ (Matthew 23.23 NRSV). Or they obsessed with ritually cleaning the plates and cups they used to eat; no point in that, said Jesus, if your heart is not in the right place: ”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence’.
Worst of all, from the Pharisees point of view, was that Jesus did not agree with them that you kept yourself pure by keeping away from sinners. Matthew’s Gospel records a time when the Pharisees complained that Jesus had the check to eat with those they deemed unworthy of a religious teacher:
..as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9.10-13 NRSV).
The New Testament gives us this notion of the Pharisees as hypocritical enemies of Jesus. So it’s a surprise to find some nice Pharisees today! For as Jesus is on his way towards Jerusalem, he gets a warning: ‘At that same time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “You must get out of here and go somewhere else, because Herod wants to kill you.”‘ This is one of the few places in the New Testament where Pharisees come out well. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t always be fooled by stereotypes. For here is a group of people- often seen as enemies of Jesus- who cared enough for him to pass on this warning.
Yesterday we had the latest ‘Future Focus’ session, which was about ‘Our Community’. It’s tempting, isn’t it, as we look out beyond the walls of the Church, to imagine that everyone is our enemy? If you believed the impression you get from the media, for example, you would think that everyone in our culture, in our communities, were hostile to Christianity. And so many Christians, think that if they attempt to get involved in the community, or admit to being Christians in our culture, they will be ridiculed or attacked- just as Jesus was often the focus of furious controversy when he spoke to or about the Pharisees. But not always. I am sure that the state of the Church- even the state of Old High St Stephen’s- is something which interests not just members of this congregation, but the wider community out there. A few years ago the Kirk Session asked me to begin a dialogue with the gay and lesbian community in this city. I expected hostility, because we know that many gay and lesbian people have felt hurt and rejected by the Church in the past. But I found I was welcomed- that they were glad we want to speak with them, we were interested in them. They were not hostile, but gracious to us. Another example would be the Kirking of the Council- an event which we in this congregation often underestimate. A few years ago, when a proposal was made to downgrade it, but many people in our community expressed their shock at the idea. Last year, when someone from the National Secular Society wrote a cack-handed letter to the local press complaining about the participation of local schools in the service, many people in the wider community spoke up to defend the event. Like the Pharisees who were worried about Jesus, people in our community worry about us, and care for the Church. Thank God for our friends in unlikely places!
And yet being involved in our community does carry the risk of rejection, failure, and worse. We were thinking yesterday about our congregation’s mission to city of Inverness. Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus speaking about his mission to the city of Jerusalem. He can see that his journey to Jerusalem is a journey into controversy, conflict and confrontation. In Jerusalem he will meet his enemies head on. Already, on the road to Jerusalem, here are some Pharisees telling him that Rome’s puppet ruler, King Herod, wants to kill him. In Jerusalem Jesus will be arrested, tried and executed. Going to Jerusalem will be the death of him.
But he still goes. He replies to the Pharisees, ‘Tell that old fox Herod I’m carrying on with God’s work. He’s not going to stop me today or tomorrow from bringing healing to the sick and struggling with evil’. Jesus refuses to give up, even though he is aware of what a dangerous place the city is: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you!’. And yet he will go there, for two reasons.
Firstly, because even when the people of Israel reject him, Christ still loves the city. He uses a lovely image: he’d like to be like a mother hen looking after her chicks, taking city under her wing. But the city will not let him. Jesus loves the city of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the city often rejects God. He laments for the city, precisely because he loves it so. And Christ loves our city, this city of Inverness, despite the fact that so many in the city reject God. For even if there are those who wish well for the Church, still our city, like all cities, too often only pays lip service to God, or ignores or rejects God. The many churches which exist within our city are not a sign that this is a city which loves God (in fact, many of these churches are a sign of the sinfulness of the city, because they have been set up by Christians who feel they are too good to be in the same Church as other Christians!). If our city loved God, there would no-one homeless, no families wondering where their next meal will come from, no-one who is lonely or despairing. And when we do try to bring God’s kingdom to the city, we too will meet controversy, conflict and confrontation. Yet Christ loves the city, and all who live here- so we have to love it too!
The other reason Jesus carries on into the dangerous city of Jerusalem is because it is God’s plan for him. Recall the message he gave the friendly Pharisees for Herod: Here, Jesus is talking about what he believes his mission to be. Right now, he’s bringing healing and carrying on with work which indicates that God’s kingdom is on its way- the sick are cured and evil is driven out (‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow’). But then he adds, ‘and on the third day I shall finish my work’. In fact, this might be better rendered as Jesus saying, ‘on the third day I will be perfected’. The reference to ‘the third day’ is a reference to his death and resurrection. Elsewhere, he takes his disciples aside and tells them, ‘Listen! We are going to Jerusalem where everything the prophets wrote about the Son of Man will come true. He will be handed over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, insult him, and spit on him. They will whip him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life’ (Luke 18.33). Going to the city will lead to Jesus’ death, but that is just part of God’s plan. It does not end at the cross, but it ends, is perfected, ‘on the third day’, with Easter, and his resurrection. And so Jesus will continue on his way.
There is a sense in which our Future Focus is about us planning for the future. And so yesterday, when we spoke about our community, we began to lay plans for how we might better be involved in our community in the future. But it has always been clear to me that it is not for us to make up a plan. Instead, it is for us to discover God’s plan. It is not for us to decide what we might do for our community in future. It is for us to discover what God wants us to do for our community in future.
But we run a great risk here. For God’s plans for us might seem- to us- to be disastrous. When Jesus warned his disciples what was ahead at Jerusalem, they often did not understand. For the idea that your leader might be intending to go to where he will die must had seemed just crazy to them. And yet, that was God intended- crucifixion and resurrection.
I think we are fearful as we think about the future of the Christian faith and the Church… and not just in this city, and not just in this congregation. But we need to follow where God is leading us. Perhaps that will mean, as it did for Jesus, death. There will be things we have to put to death, to leave behind, to crucify, if we are faithful to God’s plan. But ultimately, the cross is not the end. St Paul says that we who have been baptised are already ‘citizens of heaven’ (Philippians 3.20). And he hints that we will share in Christ’s resurrection: ‘He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body’ (Philippians 3.21). Whatever struggles lie ahead, we will continue to have hope. For we are Easter people. We believe in resurrection- in the possibility of life arising where once there was only death. This is why we gather around this Table. A broken body, and blood shed, become for us here hope and life- the promise of resurrection.
As we make plans as a congregation, we need to pray. But we are not to pray, ‘please God make our plans for this congregation successful’. Instead, we have to pray, ‘Please God, show us your plan, and give us the strength to stick with it. Lead us through the controversies, and difficulties, the opposition, help us to stay with your plan for this congregation. Make us willing to make sacrifices, even to let die things we love, if that’s what’s in your plan for us. But sustain us with your hope, until we are perfected on the third day, the day of resurrection. Make us more and more like Christ. And thank you, God, for unlikely friends. Amen’.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible or New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo
Come with me, come wander by John L Bell (born 1949) and Graham Maule (born 1958) © 1987 WGRG, Iona Community, 4th floor, Savoy House, 140 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland Used By Permission. CCL Licence No. 970971 Copied from HymnQuest 2013: CLUE Version HymnQuest ID: 51952