Twelfth Sunday of Trinity
Readings: Josh. 24, 1-2a,14-18; Ps 34, 15-22; Eph.6, 10-20; John 6, 56-69
Hymns: Come Lord to our souls come down; Lord Jesus Christ be present now; I come with joy to meet my Lord; All my hope on God is founded.
Joshua was polite when outlining the worship options to the Israelites at the end of their long period of travail: making clear that he would serve God, he asked his people whom they would follow: the gods their ancestors served in the Euphrates, the gods of the people with whom they were now living, or the God of Israel. There was no running down of others’ traditions or decisions: just a prophet asking a question. True, in the verses omitted in today’s reading, Joshua itemised what God had done for God’s people, point by point, but the choice he gave them was not ‘follow me or leave’ but rather, ‘make up your mind and follow through with the decision you make.’
Jesus too makes clear that there are choices to be made, and that the choice to follow his way, the way of God revealed, was a demanding one. He outlined the issue to the large gathering of followers around him: do you want to share my life and be empowered with my spirit, or would you rather slink off, now or in the future, when the going gets tough. Some indeed left, but the twelve disciples stayed for a while.
Unlike Joshua, who had set out God’s past acts for his people, Jesus set out the future acts of God, Father Son and Spirit, in the lives of those who accepted God’s gifts, for his way was a radical break with the past understanding of God. As we read in the gospels, he was sometimes insulting to the Pharisees whom he accused of hypocrisy, although we should bear in mind that the Gospel writers were not neutral reporters, and he was impolite about Samaritans until challenged by the woman with a sick daughter. Yet in making clear here that there is but one way, and a tough one, he did not insult those around him who could not or would not follow, not even those among his chosen disciples whom he knew would abandon him.
Insisting on one way only is what parents all over the world do when socialising their infants into the ‘proper way,’ which so easily becomes ‘the way for proper people,’ setting up an inevitable ‘us and them’ differentiation. As I was saying last week, designating others as ‘different from’ us generally means, as we read in Greek philosophy onwards, ‘less than’ us, with all the problems of denigration and potential decimation to which that can lead. It seems part of universal patterns of socialisation, but we do need to reflect on the implications in our lives.
One comes to mind immediately: how do we assert, if we do, that the way of God as we understand God through Christ is the only way in this life and beyond, without inadvertently denigrating or intentionally insulting those who follow other paths to Allah or Yaweh? Denigration or insult has been common enough in Christian history, in Muslim and in early times Jewish times too, especially when economic benefit or rank-ordering was concerned. Taxing, expelling or eliminating those who differ has been one way of managing difference followed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam and indeed not shunned by those in other traditions. So how do we negotiate the ‘faith ways’ around us and ‘the way?’ Christians may understand Jesus’ comment in John 14, that ‘In my father’s house are many mansions,’ offers a place for all who love God, whether from one of the myriad Christian brands or the other Abrahamic traditions. I am sure there are many different takes on that here, which I trust we respect. For just as interpersonal relationships survive only if respect is maintained amid the ups, downs and absences of love, actually respecting all Christians- exemplified in this congregation from nearly a dozen churches – and those of other faiths, is vital.
It’s the inter-faith area where it tricky, not helped by the entangling of Christianity with the colonial expansion of nine European countries. Does history necessitate keeping silent about our own faith, to avoid awkwardness, or be polite? No, and indeed people of other faiths rarely have respect for those who hide their faith, view it as an antiquated or even embarrassing hobby best ignored, or toss it off in favour of a new religion: interestingly the Dali Lama encourages European cultural Christians to seek peace and love within their own tradition, rather than grab scraps from the east. Speaking of and speaking up for our faith must be done, and that joyfully, -as our next hymn says; ‘as his people in the world we’ll live and speak his praise-’ and with respect and without belligerence as we witness to Christ in our lives and our choices. For me, that means choosing an inclusive grace before food if guests follow another faith – ‘For food and friendship and all the gifts of fellowship, let us give thanks and be glad’ – rather than ‘Come Lord Jesus be our guest.’ Some see that as hiding my faith: I see it as enabling others to give thanks. How we negotiate such practicalities of common living is up to each person: but respect for others together with our own witness is crucial.
Negotiating one way or several, living in difficult times, interacting with many peoples: these are not new. In Ephesus, when Paul was writing, a new city centre had been built to the cult of the emperor, Augustus, alongside the older temple to Artemis. The Roman gods were to be reverenced by all under Roman occupation, other than Jews, and today’s Epistle sets out how to fight such ‘forces of evil.’ Not with spears and guns, nor with insult or other forms of violence: almost parodying militarism, Paul urges us to oppose evil, whether of the obviously devilish, the cunning temptations, or continued oppression with those markers of faith which run through our scriptures like a glowing river: truth, righteousness, peace, trust, confidence and prayer, all empowered by God the Spirit. Having chosen to follow God’s way, let us be clad with our faith, our hope and our love, resting on the love of God for us.
Twelfth Sunday of Trinity