All Together Now

By A.K.M. Adam

If you invite a professor to preach, you run the risk of getting a quiz. I give my Greek students a quiz every morning, so that they keep on top of their vocabulary; this morning, I want to ask if anyone recollects the epistle lesson from two weeks ago. In that reading, Paul lists a long catalogue of terrible things that can happen to disciples of Jesus, but then he promises that “in all these things we are more than conquerors.”

Those words point beyond winning and losing, beyond hurting and suffering, to a destiny that surpasses victory; they point us toward a unity in which we hope to hunger no more, thirst no more, suffering neither from the sun by day nor from any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd, who will guide us to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. These words urge us onward to an unrealistic vision of the world, which is at the same time the truest, realest expression of what God created the world to be.

The reason I remind you of that lesson from two weeks ago is that this morning’s lessons spell out what this claim means. All three of the lessons speak to us about one of the hardest things we followers of Jesus must learn: they speak to us of learning to recognize that other people, people we know are outsiders, who aren’t people of God like us, all these other people have a claim not just on our toleration, but on our love.

God calls us not simply to be good citizens with the strangers, but to recognize that they’re our beloved friends, our family. They are the presence of our Lord come to receive from us the hospitality and grace that God has given us the power to offer. While we may think people like that are cut off from God’s mercy, or that we have inside knowledge of how God will separate the sheep and the goats, this morning’s lesson reminds us that the divisions we make among people are not in any way the divisions that God will make — if in fact God excludes anyone who wants to come and join the blessed.

The Old Testament lesson makes this point with regard to two groups whom most cultures traditionally looked down on: foreigners and sexually unproductive men. We remember that the Israelites commonly saw all foreigners as threats to their identity; Israelites were forbidden to marry non-Israelites, and foreigners were not allowed too near the Temple of God in Jerusalem, lest they profane the pure and holy dwelling place of God.

Likewise, women or men who could not produce children were outcast; men with genital deformities were not allowed to function as priests; and barren women could simply be discarded. Foreigners and infertile people were thought by their very existence to be an affront to the God of Israel, who called for a single, unified people who were obliged to multiply and raise vast, strong families. 

But Isaiah turns this logic on its head in this morning’s lesson. You heard him say that foreigners who join themselves to the Lord count just as well as the descendants of Sarah and Abraham, and that foreigners who keep the sabbath and obey the covenant will be welcomed into the Temple on Zion. Listen for a moment to what Isaiah says regarding eunuchs, infertile men: “Do not let them say, ‘I am just a dried-up tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”

Likewise, in another passage, Isaiah urges women, “Sing, o barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have been in labor!” Isaiah identifies God as the one who includes those cast out from Israel, and includes with them even more outcasts. The foreigners and the infertile ones were formerly cast out from God’s chosen people, but in these verses they are promised that they will be welcomed into God’s house, which will be a house of prayer for all peoples.

In the same way, Paul and Jesus overturn the common wisdom of their day in the name of the wideness of God’s mercy. Paul stresses that not only has God included Gentiles into the chosen people, but that the people of Israel are also still included, “for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” God does not simply turn the tables on Israel, letting the Gentiles in but shutting the formerly chosen people out; God scandalizes Israel by admitting the Gentiles to the rewards of the covenant, and then keeps the promises made to Israel as well.

So there is no cause for anyone to boast about having a special place in God’s heart, since those who received the Torah and those who have entered into communion with God through the Church are sharers in the glory of God’s country. There are no other people to the God who calls us all, all together.

Jesus himself shows this in this morning’s gospel lesson, when a Gentile woman — Matthew describes her as a “Canaanite woman,” an epithet that emphasizes her descent from the ancient enemies of Israel — comes to beg Jesus’ help for her daughter. At first the apostles brush her off; they say, “Don’t bother the Lord, this is his retreat time; if he has to heal people all the time, he’ll burn out early.”

Then when she persists, Jesus himself suggests that the lost sheep of Israel are the children he’s been sent to feed, but that others like she and her daughters are dogs. The Canaanite woman doesn’t snap back at Jesus, but simply reminds him that even the dogs get a small share from the Lord’s table. Jesus concedes the point by praising this outcast foreign woman for her faith, and by healing her daughter. His example corrects our sinful tendency to construct rigid boundaries to protect us insiders from those other outsiders.

In all this morning’s examples, and in countless other biblical stories, God breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, of competition and exclusion, in the name of a humanity that is truly created in the image of the trinitarian God: that is, a humanity in which difference goes all the way down to the roots, and which at the same time cooperates in a unity constituted by the God who created us. We are created for a harmonic cooperation with one another, a harmony that does not deny our differences but modulates them in an ever-varying texture of communion. 

God begs us not to disrupt that heavenly harmony by chasing the foreigners and the childless away from our altars; God begs us not to tear apart the variegated tapestry of salvation by claiming spiritual superiority to other people of God; God begs us not to scorn and insult our long-standing enemies, but in all things to work for reconciliation and inclusion, for harmony and peace, for cooperation and togetherness. We need to express our differences in harmony, as in the hymns of thanks and praise we sing, as in the exquisite stained-glass windows that illuminate our worship here. This kind of cooperation, and sharing, and harmonizing, is our greatest good, our gift to God and our neighbor.

In other words, this is the center of the gospel: that we willingly take the harder path, even when it would be easier simply to reject those others; that we displace the false gods of comfort, wealth, realism, and political power in the name of the true God of peace; that we undertake the challenging work of working together, joining our hands with all of our sisters and brothers. This is not a practical or realistic path; it leads us through the discomforts and frustrations that have always accompanied the saints on their journeys.

But in simply taking up this challenge, in taking even our first steps to follow the God who includes all the nations into the heavenly country, we are more than conquerors; all together, we are holy children of the holy God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, whom no one and no thing can separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All together, we embody the endless differences that God harmonizes into the music of heaven. And when we join together with the foreigners and outcasts, Israel and Gentiles and Canaanites, when we welcome the strangers and the very ones our sinful hearts urge us to cast out, then all together we will be brought to God’s holy mountain, we will be made joyful in God’s house of prayer; for on that day this place shall truly be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Dr. A.K.M. Adam is tutor in New Testament and Greek at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University.


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