The Pharisees weren’t bad people.
They were acutely aware of their history, and of being the group of people whom
God had revealed Himself to, had lead out of slavery and said that He would be
their God. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out. They were aware of God’s
awesome majesty, of the story of Moses hiding in the cleft of a rock because to
see God’s holiness would be death. Their Temple worship was set up on the
knowledge that only the priest could enter the holy of holies once a year. The
Jewish people had to uphold the covenant which God had made with them, and this
included keeping their group pure. No inter-marrying, no false idols, and
adherence to the Law as laid out in the Torah. And to cap it all, here they
were living as aliens in a foreign land, a land under occupation by the Romans.
They were feeling pressure on them from all sides.
And then along comes Jesus. A born
troublemaker, but a Jew, one of them, he starts to speak obliquely about the
fact that Yahweh, the God of the Jews, is somehow the God of all humankind.
What is this going to do for the purity of the Jewish people? What will this do
to the covenant that has lasted so long? How will an angry God react to an
unfaithful people? How can this idea of accessibility relate to such a holy
God, whose holiness radiates out like blinding light?
And they were right to be afraid.
Because for us standing here today, we can flip further through our Bibles and
read one of Paul’s earliest letters, one of the oldest Christian documents we
have today – to the Christian community in Thessolonica, one of the major
cities in the Roman Empire. Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, Jews, writes to
this group of Gentiles using a mixture of Greek expressions – such as the word
‘ekklesia’ for church, which originally had the sense of a civic assembly of
citizens – and then takes expressions from the Hebrew Scriptures and uses them
to describe this new Christian community – “he has chosen you”. How
right the Pharisees were to want to get rid of Jesus the troublemaker. Look
what’s happened now! These converts they are writing to have left worshipping
their own idols, and now “serve a living and true God”. The genie is out of the
bottle. Something has happened and now this gospel, this good news, is
spreading throughout the Empire “in power and in the Holy Spirit”. Those
strange stories that Jesus went around telling have become true. The Law has
been supplanted by two new commandments- to love God with all your heart, and
your neighbour as yourself.
The Pharisees didn’t’ want to stop
Jesus just because he was a troublemaker. They genuinely feared the
consequences of allowing a false message to be spread. Relationship with God
was all important.
You know, I wish I were like Jesus
as he is portrayed in this gospel story. He was painted into a corner and
managed to leap out over their heads with what seems like a quick come-back.
You know that feeling? When someone finds out you’re a Christian … so, what’s
your opinion on – gay marriage …. salvation through other faiths … home
schooling ….. abuses carried out in the name of the Church …. Eh?
And I buy into it. It becomes so
easy to disparage other Christians who have different views on secondary issues
to me. Take the issue of women being ordained. It was hard to see the pain in
some of my friends’ eyes when I told them I was going to train for ordination. But
a starting point for me has been the realisation that like the Pharisees, they
didn’t want to risk the loss of salvation. Their aim is that none should perish
but all should be saved. And that is a good thing, but also painful to live
with. The God of the Old Testament is the same God today, and we should
remember the holiness that is so bright we can’t look.
And that challenges me to live in
the tension. Because I can also blur the boundaries between what are essential
issues of faith and what are not. And yet in the end we need now more than ever
to show others that we have been called into a new family, … that like the
Thessalonians, others can see our faith acted out in the way we treat each
other – because it is through the Church that God’s holiness, God’s mercy, love
and grace, will be revealed to the world.