SMC – Easter 6 2019
Churches are funny communities, aren’t they? Funny in the sense that they show how fragile we all are because sometimes we can get upset about the most insignificant of things. My great grandmother, I understand, would always sit on the back row at church when she went, no matter what! A new priest arrived and asked her why she always sat there and she informed him that she had always sat there and she liked the back row because it was by the door and so if there was a fire she - and her friend Doris who always sat next to her - would be first out. I never met my great grandmother but I’m not sure that really gets the priorities right. Surely where we sit should be about helping other people and ensuring we worship God as best as we can. Anything else is irrelevant!
The Church in our first reading had some slightly more significant matters to sort out; though to us they will undoubtedly seem trivial. But at their heart was the dignity to be given to those who worship the one true God.
So, the first reading is set in the context of a Church Council about 15 years after the death of Jesus where what was being discussed was how non-Jews could approach God and worship Him when they hadn’t been following the same requirements of holiness as the Jews who embraced the Christian faith. First that is mentioned is circumcision. This aspect of godly living for male followers of God had been given to Abraham in Genesis 17. Abram had believed in God and was to be a father of a multitude of nations and was given the injunction: “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” And so this was done on the eighth day of the life of males for generations.
The early church, and St Paul chief among her, ended the requirement for circumcision early in her mission, the Apostle writing to the Corinthians, “Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision” (I Corinthians 7:18). Paul elsewhere berates the Christians in Galatia: “Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending in the flesh?” (Galatians 2:3) because they were being led astray by people who were teaching them that salvation was based on materialistic things. “It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.”
In our first reading other issues were mentioned too, namely what was eaten and fornication. The eating requirements are listed in detail in the Old Testament, for example in Leviticus 11 but these were all wiped away by our Lord’s teachings, specifically when He said, “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile.” For fear the significance of these words is lost, St Mark adds an explanatory parenthesis: “Thus Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19). The prohibition of fornication continues to apply to us, the holy nation of Christ’s people, but by dispensing with the food laws the world was being turned on its head for those who had been faithful followers of God.
Folk had even been willing to die for these dietary laws of the old covenant. Read the crushingly sad account in II Maccabees 7 where a woman has to watch her seven sons die because they refuse to eat pork. She is proud of them that they refuse to eat that which was forbidden by Jewish Law and never tries to persuade them to eat it: God, after all, gave them life and therefore life is to be used to His honour. But within two centuries Christ would come and sweep these regulations away.
Such requirements also extended to preparation for worship. The people of God, of old, couldn’t have come into contact with a dead body in the seven days running up to worship, for example (Numbers 19:11-13). This is the background to what we see imagined in the parable of the Good Samaritan where the Levi and the Pharisee cross over to the other side of the road fearing the attacked man might be dead and they then be contaminated and unable to offer worship (Luke 10:25-37). Similar logic was at play when lepers and those with a whole host of skin diseases were kept at arms length, in part because it was thought to be contagious and in part because a disintegrating body was not seen as worthy for one offering sacrifice and worship, open wounds leading to blood seeping out (Leviticus 13-14). And so a priest had to check the sores before re-admission to the cult was permitted. My word, I’m happy I don’t have to inspect the bodies of people who want to worship today!
Jesus is the Messiah, long-awaited by the Jewish people and despite the fact that we are not obliged to follow the dietary requirements and regulations concerning bodily unity, Jesus is clear that He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). And so, we read the Old Testament as authoritative and preparing humanity for the full revelation once again of who God is. The use of the number twelve in the second reading from Apocalypse 21 teaches us that this sense of continuity was important. The new Jerusalem in Heaven has twelve gates, with twelve angels watching over them, built on twelve foundation stones. And what are the names written on these foundation stones, but those of the Twelve Apostles, Matthias having replaced Judas? Twelve is important for it is the number of the Tribes of Israel and on Tuesday at Study Group we were discussing the birth and naming of Jacob’s eleven sons who would form the basis of that tribal system.
We are the fulfilment, then, of what the people of God in the Old Testament prefigured. Isn’t that astounding, that the identity you and I have as Christians was being clarified and refined for centuries as God’s people encountered Him in the run-up to the birth of our Saviour. What a dignity we must have! This dignity is expressed in us being able to worship God whom no one has seen (John 1:18) and whose ways are beyond our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Christian worship supersedes all that existed before it because we now have the Body and Blood of Christ on our altars and in our tabernacles. We are now a priestly people. The death of Jesus tears down the curtain in the Temple (Matthew 27:51). Yes, God has chosen to abide with His people, God the Father, God the Son shall come to those who love Him and “make our home” with them, as we heard Jesus promise in this morning’s Gospel.
So I’ve shown how many of these things from the Old Testament concerning ritual purification don’t apply to us today in terms of what we are required to do but that doesn’t mean no expectations are placed upon us: ‘Jesus saves’ is not an excuse for us to do nothing. And so, just three final little thoughts on how this sacred vocation might be better revealed in our lives.
First, how do you prepare for worship? When you wake up on a Sunday morning and when you wake up on other days you are coming to Mass, start thinking about that worship straight away, not just what hat you’re going to wear or which train you’re going to get. But prepare for the sacred duty of offering this Mass and worship the eternal God. Be early for Mass for while it’s better to be late than not to be here at all, it’s surely the best thing for us to be on time, so we can truly bear the fruit God wants us to bear by being here. Have a prayer intention for each Mass, something, someone to pray for at each Mass. Be resolved to give the best of yourself here. Come ready to forgive and not ready for a fight.
Second, preserve the unity of the Church for this reveals who God is. The compromise reached at the end of our first reading is striving for unity, ensuring the weak are brought together along with the strong and our individual churches are to model this, as is the whole Church. This is revealed in our service of each other, our striving in faith and practice to live out the Christian faith as held by the church, not invented by someone with a glossy mag standing outside the tube.
And finally, be reminded of your dignity at the Offertory when we’re usually singing a hymn, for you’ll notice that after the priest has censed the altar with the incense offered from the thurible, the priests are then censed and then all of you have incense wafted at you too. Before and after censing you the server bows. It’s acknowledging this your dignity, your status as God’s people before we then offer the sacrifice together. When we’re here let’s respect each other and know the sacred duty we’re each entrusted with, to worship God. Amen.