The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Worship Together      16th August 2020
The Individual and the Community
Andrew Penny

The Individual and the Community; Matthew 15.

Despite its vivid imagery, our Gospel today needs a little commentary to bring out its full meaning, or rather what it seems to mean to me.

In the first place, we need to see the strange confusion about oral and gastric (not to mention cardiac) anatomy in the context of the biblical exploitation of the ambivalence of our mouths, with which on the one hand we eat and on the other we speak; food in words out. But words, and the actions which follow, from them are the result of what we imbibe or experience.

Equally counter-intuitively, or rather, counter-culturally, Jesus does not appear to subscribe to cleanliness being next to godliness; apparently, it’s OK to sit down to dinner with dirty hands. We need to remember that our ideas of hygiene are comparatively modern; Pompeian kitchens often doubled as lavatories; Jewish baths were for ritual, not physical, cleanliness.

Jesus is redefining what is truly clean. The word that the NRV translates as defile, means literally to make common and thus unholy; it doesn’t have any overtones of dirt, nor, necessarily of immorality. Rather, it means that which fails to distinguish a group or class from the common herd. But Jesus, as we shall see, will invest it with a more significant moral force that goes beyond communal or ethnic identity.

This sermon will, I’m afraid, be a bit discursive, but what I’m trying to bring out is the link between the idea that salvation, of religious arrival comes from the heart as a an individual and personal reaction to the presence or the teaching of Jesus. It’s not as the Pharisees thought a matter of what you eat, or any such mundane matters. Further, this salvation is linked in the Gospel to a revised idea of what community and the church might be, an idea which balances the sense of salvation, necessarily to some extent exclusive, or at least special, with a truly inclusive outlook. So, defilement, or uncleanness (and equally goodness and morality) come from the individual’s heart; rules and traditions can be the real defilers, in excluding others from the community of heaven.

The ideological background to our reading is the move from religion as a national phenomenon to something which we experience, and try to express, as individuals; it is the shift from the Old to the New Testament. Overall, the story of the Old Testament is of the People of Israel, the tribe in pre-Egyptian days that becomes a nation as it emerges from the Red Sea and defines itself and its special relationship with God in the wilderness.

Christianity too develops into a corporate religion, seeing the Church as the body of Christ, but it starts as a disparate band of individuals who in various ways are called to meet Jesus and recognise who he is, with dramatic consequences for their lives.

There are plenty of crowd scenes in the Gospels, but nearly always at the centre of each scene or story, is an individual’s encounter with Jesus, like that of the Syro-Phoenician woman. It’s an encounter which will lead to healing, vision forgiveness and/or rehabilitation as a new person. Typically, the encounter brings a dramatic and sudden change, but the gradual understanding which comes to the disciples shows the same process. At its centre is the understanding of Jesus’ nature and thus the understanding of one’s own nature; the understanding who Jesus is and that one is loved by God and whatever mess one’s life has been, one has the capability to be part of God’s loving work. As we learned from the parable of the sower, the realisation needs fertile ground to grow and it requires the obsessional faith of the pearl merchant or treasure hunter to come to fruition, but always it’s growing in an individual, or in the heart as today’s Gospel has it. And this is why Jesus is so emphatic about our inward disposition which is so often contrary to our actual behaviour.

This Gospel narrative is worked out alongside the controversy with the Pharisees. Whether or not it’s a fair picture of the Pharisees (probably not, I suspect), the Gospel writers and Mathew in particular depict them as exclusive and superficial; for them right religion is the strict observance of ancestral rules which are intended to distinguish them from other people. In their scheme, as depicted in the Gospels, inner sentiment, genuine motivation, even integrity, are irrelevant. God will be happy so long as the rules are kept, and the right rituals observed. Although highly topical to First Century Palestine, we can feel this in our own experience, as we are tempted to treat the physical and social trappings of religion, the liturgy, art music etc. on the one hand and on the other, the clubbiness and introspection to which we Christians are so easily drawn as, in both cases, the real thing- the essence of our religious experience. But I think Jesus is saying that these ephemera and this community will only be meaningful as the consequence, not the objective, of a true alignment with God’s will, by a group of individuals. Otherwise it becomes an excuse for damaging exclusivity; the attitude that regards anything outside its ken as unclean.

For the Gospel writers, however, this controversy with the Pharisees has a greater than topical significance. It serves to emphasise the divide between the communal, national religion of the Old Testament and the new inspired and individual based religion which Jesus preaches, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount, where genuine heartfelt belief is contrasted with superficial and formulaic observance. Washing your hands before eating and what you eat are both literally trivial, common place, compared with putting the heart right to create the truly god-inspired motivation needed for a complete and fruitful life.

As if to round off the argument, Matthew tells the story of the Canaanite woman, an foreigner and a woman, whose actions would have appalled the Pharisees, and even seem to cause Jesus a little hesitation. But she has understood who he is and her and her daughter’s lives are transformed by the encounter.

That is the transformation and the inspiration which we too as individuals called by name are promised at baptism and with which as an inclusive and outward looking community we can hope to become a new nation of all people and a new kingdom which is truly heavenly. Amen.

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