Something haunting about the Grenfell House fire is how a single neighbourhood, even a single building, can embrace such a breadth of humanity. We can trace the threads of lost lives to Syria, the Caribbean, to West and East Africa, to the ends of the earth as well as to different parts of these islands. And as that is true for the victims, so it is for the helpers, both the professionals and the neighbours whose acts of compassion so struck the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke of their ‘overwhelming depth of community, and ‘all faiths, no faiths, everyone just being with one another’.
In that situation, what would Jesus do? Just that, Christian instinct tells us. Just that. But this morning’s gospel passage may come as a shock to that instinct. It begins in a scene reminiscent of those in west London. Jesus sees a crowd and he feels compassion because they are ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. The need is great, so he sends his team of disciples with instructions meet human need wherever they find it. But not everywhere. Jesus tells them,
Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Why? Don’t Samaritans need help? Don’t Gentiles have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Three of our four gospels carry this story, but only Matthew has this surprising restriction. Perhaps Mark and Luke omit it because it sits awkwardly with the Christian instinct, that Jesus is for everyone and that his followers are meant to cross the barriers between people and nations.
Now, the fact that we are here, a largely Gentile congregation, shows that the Jesus movement moved on - we have St Paul among others to thank for that - and indeed, at the end of his gospel, Matthew describes the risen Jesus sending his disciples to all nations. But what was Jesus’ view when he was in Galilee? Did he see the mission to the Gentiles as part of the plan, but not yet? Did he make a political judgment, that going to the heretic Samaritans or the pagan Gentiles straightaway would discredit him with his fellow Jews? Or would the very idea of a ministry to the gentiles have genuinely surprised him? I suspect they were part of his plan from the start first, but we can’t be sure.
This is not just academic. To be a Christian is to say Jesus is Lord; that is, to have certain convictions about Jesus and to live by them. In short, believing in Jesus should make a difference. It matters, therefore, what picture of Jesus you work with - and there have been so many. Here is a list from Leslie Houlden’s book, Jesus, A Question of Identity, each found somewhere in the Christian centuries:
Jesus the freedom-fighter and Jesus the super-emperor; Jesus the overthrower of authority and Jesus its legitmator; Jesus the friend of the poor and powerless and Jesus the endorser of the powerful and established; Jesus the lover and Jesus the moralising judge.
Each age, each group, according to what they thought were the needs of their own time, claimed Jesus as their authority. In many cases their development of what they saw in Jesus rang true. In some it was an insult to him. And we can add to the list.
Jesus the superhero: Warner Brothers released sermon notes to this effect to accompany their latest Superman film Man of Steel. Elton John has described Jesus as a ‘compassionate, super-intelligent gay man’ who would surely be in favour of same-sex marriage, whereas Tim Farron (who has just resigned as Leader of the Liberal Democrats) has come in good faith to another conclusion. Meanwhile Richard Dawkins, is sure that ‘someone as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.’
What to make of all this? My point is not that we know nothing about the Jesus of history - we know quite a lot - but that we should be cautious about attaching his support to modern concerns. If he were preaching today, would Jesus use Twitter, or not? You can make a fair case either way.
There are so many Jesuses, yet there was only ever one Jesus who walked the dusty tracks of Galilee; and he was not always as we might expect. Today’s reading is a warning not to treat Jesus as a tailor’s dummy we can dress as we like, not to make him a vehicle for our own commitments, even if those commitments are good.
Grown-up Christian belief involves two worlds. The first world is this one, the present, with all its challenges - some age-old, some aggressively and complicatedly new - and the other is the world of our first stories of Jesus; in some ways a world just like ours, in other ways, truly another country - they do things differently there.
Matthew today lists the disciples. Each of them must have found - as a modern Christian does -something particular in Jesus that made all the difference, so their images of him were refracted thought their own personality, background and needs. Ours are too, though now we are separated from Simon, Andrew and the rest by two thousand years, and all that those years have held.
Meanwhile, in this world, you and I have to act, as family members, neighbours, as workers, as spenders or savers; and perhaps - sooner than you might wish - as voters. Again.
It will be good if our actions are done Christianly, if we do what we do because of God, and because of what we have seen or learned through Jesus. But what would Jesus do about managed immigration, or the triple lock? Which texture of Brexit would he prefer? Where would he place himself on the spectrum between Scandinavian levels of public provision and American levels of taxation? You may have your idea, I may have mine, and they are probably different.
When it comes to clothing the dispossessed and comforting those in grief, we know what Jesus would do, and following him should make us more ready to it than most. When it comes to other things - the policies, the priorities - what can Jesus do for us? The answer is not (to labour the point) to deliver a single ‘Christian’ answer, but there is, I believe, a single Christian approach to these questions. Its signs are these: first, an evident compassion, fed not just by worrying about the world but by praying for it; and, secondly, a willingness to be unsettled, and to face unwelcome evidence.
Millions are spending their Sunday morning indulging in confirmation bias - reading, watching, listening to people who feed their existing beliefs and opinions - but here we meet the uncomfortable person of Jesus. Here (in Leslie Houlden’s words) we
let ourselves be disturbed and moved by him in his own setting, with all its alienness and its power to change our appreciation of our own lives.
In his self-effacing resignation speech, Tim Farron said, ‘What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.’ If he is right, we shall need to be citizens who know compassion and can face inconvenient truths. And that Jesus can do for us.