10 August 2008

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’

Patrick Comerford

Trinity 12: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10: 5-15;Matthew 14: 22-33.

May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

At first reading, our Lectionary readings this morning are about exclusion and inclusion: who is inside the community of faith, and who is outside the community of faith.

In our reading from the Book Genesis, Joseph is excluded from his family and therefore denied his place as a Child of the Covenant when his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt.

The Apostle Paul, in our reading from his Letter to the Church in Rome, warns those early Christians against raising dangerous and discriminating barriers against one another. Instead, he tells us, that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, there is no distinction between believers or people of faith that can be justified on the grounds of language, ethnic background, or physical difference – and the physical difference between male Jews and Greeks was a discreet but at times visible one.

In Paul’s days, the big division in the Church was between those who claimed that we could not be members of the Church unless we first converted to Judaism. These were the Judaisers. Paul is not talking here about Jews as a religious community, but those who insisted that we could not be Christians without first becoming Jews, in other words, being circumcised.

Old symbols, such as circumcision, and old rules, such as taboos about food and sexual behaviour, mattered more to them than faith. They wanted to restrict the Good News of the Gospel to a select few rather than bringing that Good News out into the world, the cosmos, that God loves so much that he sent his only Son into it at the incarnation.

In our Gospel reading, it is a little bit more difficult to find what is being said about discrimination and exclusion. But it is important, and should not be lost sight of.

To put our Gospel story in its context, Jesus has just fed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes. As the Community of Faith, as the Church, as the Eucharistic Community gathered around the Risen Lord, we read all the Gospel accounts of meals with Jesus with both the hindsight of our faith in the Resurrection and with our conviction of the presence of Christ in the meals we share in his name.

The five loaves and two fishes are potent Eucharist symbols. The bread with which the multitude has been fed is not simply a meal of convenience – it is also the Bread of Life. For early Christians, the Greek word for fish, icthus (ἰχθύς) symbolised Christ, for its letters stood for the Greek acronym, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

To eat the bread, to be fed with the fish, was to feed on Christ, to accept him as the Risen Christ, to believe in him as the Son of God and Saviour, to be part of the Communion of the Church, the Body of Christ.

But these were the very people the Disciples wanted to avoid feeding and wanted to send away. Jesus has refused to send them home until he speaks to them and until he feeds them. They symbolically represent the outsiders, the multitude, the many, who are invited into the Church, to be fed by the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.

After the crowd has been fed, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, and sends the crowd away. The act of sending is at the heart of mission. Mission begins with God so loving the world that he sends his only Son so that we may know that love. And Christ then sends those who come to know this love out into that world with his message.

Sending is the foundation of mission – and the sending of the crowd is a sending on mission, just as our dismissal at the end of this Eucharist will mark, not so much the end of this Liturgy, but the beginning of our week in mission; we will be dismissed to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

For their part, the disciples are made by Jesus to get into the boat. From the writings of the Early Fathers, we know that the boat or barque was an early symbol of the Church (Apostolic Constitutions 2: 47; Tertullian, De bap., 12; P.L., 1:1214; Clement of Alexandria, Pæd. 3:2; P.G., 8:633).

But the disciples, instead of finding that the boat or the church empowers them for mission, treat it as a place to take them away from the crowds and the world. They see it as their own cocoon, their safe territory.

How wrong they were. When the storm comes, when the waves batter them, when he wind rises up against them, they find that we cannot be in the church and be without Jesus and without the crowd.

In their rush to get away from the masses and the world that needs to be fed, they left Christ behind too. And when the storm comes, they realise their need for him. They call out to him, but when they see him, they respond with the same reaction that some had when they first heard the news of the Resurrection – they think he is a ghost rather than the Risen Christ.

In the person of Peter, their faith is tested, and it is found to be weak, it is found to be shallow. Peter is called out of the barque and back into the world, but he cannot make the journey without faith, and without Christ.

Peter is called too to join Christ in mission, to be sent out into the world. But when we neglect the needs of the world, when we ignore those who are hungry, when we see the church as a comfort zone, rather than seeing the Church as something to send us out into the world, then we are not travelling with Christ on our journey through life.

There should be no room in the Church for us to think about it as a comfort zone. When we cut ourselves off from the world and from those we see as different, when we cut ourselves off from those Christ would feed, we cut ourselves off from Christ himself.

When we raise barriers between Jew and Greek, between people who are different because of their social or ethic or linguistic origins, because of their physical differences, we erect a barrier between ourselves and the Christ who is with them.

When we would separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters, like Joseph’s brothers separated themselves from him, we deny the promises of God’s covenant. When we deny others their place in the believing community and the Kingdom of God we are, ultimately, as Joseph’s brothers found, selling our very selves into slavery.

All that is important for the Apostle Paul in our reading this morning is faith in Christ. In turning away from the crowd, the disciples were in danger of losing their trust in Christ; they were turning their back on the call to recognise him as the Son of God.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask what old barriers, divisions and taboos we stick to, we cherish, we regard as being far more important than faith in Christ.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask whether we are in danger of seeing the Church as a refuge, as a safe haven, as a retreat from the world in which we can be pure and undefiled, rather than seeing the Church as a boat that takes us into the choppy waters of the world, where we will be safe despite all the waves and storms if we trust first in Christ and not put our first emphasis on our own social barriers, divisions and taboos.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask whether those people some would want to exclude from the Church, simply because they are different, are in danger of being denied their place as heirs to the promises of God’s kingdom?

But the story of Joseph has a surprising end: the brother who was denied his place in the family becomes the agent of their redemption.

The conflict Paul addressed had a surprising end too: the divisions over taboos and circumcision came to an end and the Church realised Christ’s message was for all.

The Peter who is in danger of being drowned because of his weak faith becomes a foundation stone of the Church. And instead of being tossed around in the storm, the barque or the boat becomes the Church, the symbol or the sacrament of the Kingdom of God.

We need not fear the present storms and waves battering the Anglican Communion. If we have faith in Christ, if we refuse to turn away from the multitude and the world, if we refuse to allow our brothers or sisters to be sent away and sold as slaves, then Christ will rescue us, will allow us to walk through those storms, will allow us to come to him, and we will find many more beyond ourselves who can say: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m. on Sunday 10 August 2008.

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