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Proper 17, Year B, Track 1, Trinity 11, 31.8.03
Song of Solomon 2.8-13: my beloved ... the voice of the turtle dove
Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10: (Royal psalm) God has anointed you with the oil of gladness
James 1.17-27: pure religion: care for orphans and widows; keep self unstained by the world.
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23: (declaring all foods clean) nothing outside can defile (1455-63=1392)
Summary: We are called to the rich Pauline understanding of faith as trust in God who has acted for us in Christ.
Our readings from the letter of James and St Markís Gospel got me started on a train of thought concerned with how the meaning and connotations of words can change, and then led on to other things as well.
In the Stechford Parish Players musical evening in June Dorothy and I sang a duet, the song "I remember it well" from the musical "Gigi". In her final lines Dorothy sang, "How strong you were, how young and gay: a prince of love in every way."
Now, in 2003, what is the first association that you think of when your hear the word "gay"? It certainly isnít what most of us would have thought of in our childhood. I am not objecting to what it evokes now, but I am simply using it as an example of how a word can be radically shifted by a changing historical and cultural context.
Very early on the followers of Jesus experienced a major shift of ethos within their own community. Originally all of them were Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah, and they did so within a Jewish context, including the dietary laws so that they kept to foods that were kosher. At whatever level one reads the Book of Acts, whether as straight history as more of a composed story, there is no question but that the issue of what foods one could and could not eat arose, for it became crucial as soon as Gentile believers were admitted. Unless it was resolved, Gentiles would in effect have to follow Jewish dietary laws if there was to be table fellowship with them. In his letter to the Galatians, written about 50 AD, Paul tells how he had a confrontation with Peter over this very issue.
Around 80 to 90 AD Luke meets the issue with his story of Peterís vision of the sailcloth let down from heaven with all manner of beasts in it and the voice from heaven telling him to eat.
In todayís reading from Mark, the issue is met head on by having Jesus declare all foods clean. Now this was not originally part of what we may call the first edition of Mark, for that moved straight from the feeding of the 5,000 to the incident at Caesarea Philippi.
But the question of the mission to the Gentiles needed what we may call some ground rules, and so Mark makes a major insertion which runs from 6.45-8.26. Among other things, it includes the story of the Feeding of the 4,000. The earlier story of the feeding of the 5,000 has strong Jewish elements in it, for example, it is in Jewish territory, only men are counted, there are 12 baskets of fragments for the twelve tribes of Israel, and even the word used for baskets, kophinoi, are baskets associated with Jews. On the other hand, the feeding of the 4,000 is set in the Decapolis, a mixed Jewish-Gentile area, there is no mention of men in the counting, 7 baskets of fragments are for the proverbial 7 Gentile nations, and even the word for baskets, spurides, indicates a kind of basket anyone might use.
So the opening of the gospel to the Gentiles posed problems that required the community to adjust and to accommodate itself to new conditions as they arose. And this included an assessment of what was essential and what was not if they were to be a community open to outsiders.
Let me give you another example of a shift that occurred because of admitting the Gentiles. This time it concerns a word that changes emphasis within the scope of the New Testament, and this change of emphasis is reflected in how "faith" is used in the letter of James, probably some forty years after St Paul wrote his letters.
St Paul, writing in the 50ís to early 60ís AD, uses the noun pistis, meaning "faith", and the verb pisteuein, "to have faith", with a very rich meaning which has two major elements, so I am going to liken it to an ellipse.
Do you remember the difference between an ellipse and a circle? A circle has a single centre with all points on the circumference being the same distance from that centre. An ellipse, on the other hand, has two different centres, with the sum of the two distances from the centres remaining the same for every point on the circumference. A circle has only one focus, but for an ellipse both centres or foci are equally important.
Now, for Paul, faith is like an ellipse. It is total obedient trust in God - that is one side; who has acted for us in Jesus of Nazareth in a way that is witnessed to by the scriptures - that is the other side. Faith for Paul thus has both a credal content and a total life style. It is total obedient trust in God, but not in God as an oblong blur, but as the one who has acted in and through Jesus in the way that is witnessed to by the scriptures. This is why "faith" for Paul is like an ellipse.
Now the outlook of much of the Hellenistic culture from which converts were coming tended to be syncretistic and dualistic. That is, there was a tendency toward a pick-and-mix attitude and also a touch of escapism that not only wanted to avoid concern for mundane, material things, but even denied them any value.
Therefore, as the Christian community was joined by more and more Gentile converts coming in with their Hellenistic background rather than with the deep grounding in the scriptures of the original Jewish believers, so it became necessary to begin to define the content of what is to be believed, that is, there developed a concern for what we may call "orthodoxy". Thus, for example, in the first letter of John, coming from around 90 to 100 AD, we find the author insisting that one must believe three things: (1) that Jesus is the Christ, (2) that he has come in the flesh, and (3) that he is the Son of God.
It is this shift of emphasis and greater concentration on the credal element that means that at least in many quarters what was the Pauline ellipse of faith is coming close to being only a circle, with the one single focus of credal belief. This is the situation faced in probably the late first century AD by the Jewish-Christian author of the letter of James, who strongly reacts against this when he says, you show me your faith by your words, that is, your creed, and Iíll show you my faith by the life I live, for any concept of faith without deeds, that is, a living response, is dead. James is not contradicting Paul, but rather he is rather crudely trying to combat the breakdown of the deep level of commitment and richness of Paulís understanding of faith.
St Matthewís gospel in effect comes out of the same milieu as the letter of James, and he also attacks the same problem, but in a more subtle manner by the way that he builds on the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, as you may well remember, the disciples will never know who Jesus is until they follow him in the way of the cross. But in Matthew they know jolly well who Jesus is, for they have confessed him as Son of God before we ever get to Caesarea Philippi. Rather, Jesus addresses them as men of little faith, oligopistoi, and as having but little faith, oligopistia, when they show a lack of obedient trust in God, as in the episode of the stilling of the storm.
You and I are obviously called to the richer concept of faith, the Pauline ellipse. At one level we can say that if we confess one half of it this Sunday as we now go on to recite the creed, so we will confess the other half by what we do tomorrow, Monday. And at another level, we will show forth what is essential to our faith as we wrestle with the issues that are before us as a church and as a society in our changing world and determine how we are to engage with them.