A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 20 June 2021, the Third Sunday after Trinity
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Two readings that bear on what we call interfaith relations. Neither, though, is what inter-faith dialoguers usually have in mind.
First up, some observational comedy with the prophet Jeremiah. Let me tell you about foreign gods, he says. Here’s how it works. They cut a tree down, they saw it up, they work it over, they nail it down, they bling it up with gold and silver. And then they call this scarecrow (his very word) a god, and pray to it. What’s that all about? (as Peter Kay might ask.)
This isn’t the kind of talk to foster interfaith harmony. It's probably from the time of the Jews’ exile in Babylon and it’s protest comedy, powerless people finding strength in satire. The Babylonians have the clout, so you’ve got to do what they say, but you can’t take these people seriously.
Jeremiah reminds us that religion is not only about culture, about what works for different people in different places. It is also about truth, about what makes best sense of life, the universe and everything. The anthem we just heard echoes Jeremiah: God is ‘the maker of al thing’. Different religions offer different answers to these deep questions, so they can’t all be equally true, unless – and this is the atheist position – they are all equally (but differently) untrue. We need to be friends across religious divides, and true friendship relies on speaking the truth as you see it (while being more polite than Jeremiah).
Differences are not always between communities of faith. They can be within communities, they can cut through families, or even through the same person, and the ninth to eleventh chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans are written by someone cut in half. They contain some of the most obscure stuff Paul ever wrote, but they are written with passion – and with pain.
Paul, a devout Jew, becomes a Christian. No, that’s too simple: Paul’s faith in Jesus is his way of being a devout Jew; indeed, he believes it is the way to be a devout Jew. And here is Paul’ s tragedy. Many gentiles respond to his preaching of Jesus, but many of his brother and sister Jews do not. They share a faith powered by hope, that has survived exile and occupation, because it longs for God’s day to come and trusts that God’s promises will be kept.
For Paul, Jesus is the one in whom all the promises of God are fulfilled. He tells people about it with all the eloquence he can muster, he does everything he can not to obscure the blinding good news that has transformed his life, that Jesus is the hope of Israel – and many of his fellow Jews, who pray as devoutly as he does, who love the scriptures as much as he does, just do not see it. What are they thinking? What is God doing?
Paul tries to hold together what he loves most, his Jewish identity, his faith in Christ, and his trust in a God who does not lie. Were all those centuries of Jewish faith a mistake? Unthinkable. Is this new life in Jesus a delusion? Impossible. Does God change spots? Inconceivable. And so he mentally wrestles to understand a mystery. We haven’t space here to examine Paul’s argument. Instead, let us feel his predicament.
There are many reasons for reading St Paul. You can read him as a source of information about God and Jesus, or as a source of guidance for living with one another on this rich and now fragile planet. And you can read him as your emotional comrade. If you long for someone to share the faith you know – and they don’t; if you are troubled that people you care about – family, colleagues, friends – just do not see the deep down things the way you do; and if this makes you wrestle inwardly with them, with yourself, even with God, then you and Paul understand each other very well. You may want to say with him:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
Reading St Paul can also be a cause of creative discomfort. If you listen to Paul and you just don’t see it, you don’t recognise his personal urgency – or, indeed, Jeremiah’s defiance – then now would be a good time to ask, Have I really been paying attention, to myself, to others, to God? Because these are people I have to take these people seriously.