For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 10 – Isaiah 56:1-8 (Related)
First of all, apologies for last week’s omission. I have now located my proper computer and I’m ready to rock and roll from the new house in Sheffield, surrounded though I am with other, as yet unpacked, boxes.
And so to Isaiah, and to the eternal question ‘Just who is God for?’ That’s the subject both for today’s Gospel and for our OT passage, which I have taken the liberty of unfilleting in order that it might make some sense. It might seem a silly question, although both theologically and practically it is a vitally important one. Theologically it is raised by the very idea of a ‘chosen people’, those whom in the OT God had apparently selected to be his own special possession, those who would have a relationship with him and a privileged position in his heart and purposes which other nations were not to share. Is God, then, as universal as we might think? And of course practically it is raised by our natural human tendency to want to be with ‘PLU’s – People Like Us – rather than those who are in some way different. This attitude has manifested itself down the ages through the middle-class culture of the British Church, through apartheid in Dutch South Africa, to denominational mistrust across the globe, and has done so with differing attempts at theological justification.
So let’s go back to basics. When God called Abraham back in Genesis 12, the call was twofold – to be a blessing and to bless. Right at the very start of the Jewish nation there was built in a universality which has always been God’s purpose for this people. But throughout the OT, and on into the New and the Church today, two things have happened. First of all God’s people have been too welcoming, and secondly they have not been welcoming enough.
From very early on the Jewish people formed relationships with other nations, usually either through intermarriage or political expediency, on their terms, not God’s. This inevitably led to false worship, idolatry, and of course idolatry inevitably leads to immorality, since only the True God, Yahweh, is a God or righteousness (far more, incidentally, in the Bible than he is a God of love). The OT prophets could see this happening and so they responded with all that stuff about separation from the nations around, and the need for purity and exclusivism. But that in turn led to a kind of arrogant superiority which made God’s people look down their noses not only at ‘foreigners’ but also at those of their own race whom they considered to be sinners. That’s the kind of attitude characterised by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Again the prophets responded, this time with the opposite message, recalling the people to their original vocation to bless other nations, not just to receive God’s blessings for themselves. The classic example of this comes in Is 49:6.
The early Church had to battle with the same question, and it wasn’t until Acts 15 that they finally realised that you didn’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus, and then only after two dramatic interventions by the Holy Spirit. And all this in spite of Jesus’ quoting from our passage when he cleansed the Temple from those who were out to make money – significantly this market place was set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the nearest non-Jews could get to God. Yet still today, in so many ways, the Church is an exclusive organisation. Every church I have visited in my diocesan ministry has told me that it was a very welcoming place, yet most of the time I have been left standing like a lemon at the back with my coffee while everyone else talks to their friends. When I was a parish priest we tried to enforce a rule that after worship you weren’t allowed to speak to a friend before you had first spoken to someone you didn’t know.
Isaiah today reinforces the original message to Abraham – you are there to be a blessing to all. Even eunuchs, specifically banned from Israelite worship in Leviticus 21 and 22, are included in this dramatic reversal of Scripture – if they are welcome, anybody is.
Yet Isaiah is not taking one prophetic side against the other with his universality. He is very keen to make the point that this inclusion has to be on God’s terms, so that ‘outsiders’ are drawn to God, rather than ‘insiders’ being tempted away from him. Note the conditions Isaiah builds into this passage: maintaining justice, not doing evil, binding oneself to God to minister to him and love him, and interestingly keeping the Sabbath, which is mentioned twice. This inclusion is not a watering down of the faith, but rather an invitation to all to experience its benefits.
It would be worth pondering three things: firstly, where in my church is there any kind of exclusion, any kind of fear of non-PLUs, any practical actions which ‘others’ might find offputting and unwelcoming? Secondly, where are the areas where our desire to be inclusive has compromised the gospel? And thirdly, might it be possible that like many many churches, we’re blind to our exclusion and kidding ourselves?