Tenth Sunday after Trinity 16 August 2020
The prophet Isaiah glimpsed one united humanity, gather together in God’s temple: ‘And foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…these I will bring to my holy mountain…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ (Isaiah 56:6-7) God’s plan is to bring the world together in one family, gathering a divided world into one peaceful kingdom.
As we look around the world today we struggle to see the reality of such a promise. The headlines are more about division than unity: the Black Lives Matter campaign, migration, boundary disputes, riots. Closer to home we know how easily family life can fracture, the tendency for communities to divide, the power of social media to stir up hatred, and the way people are made into scapegoats.
But the news that is rarely told on the television and in the newspapers is the quiet story of reconciliation that goes on unseen. In countless churches and communities around the world God is bringing together people of different colours, creeds, social groups and ages. Through a shared faith in Jesus Christ we see the birth of a new humanity.
This was hard for the disciples of Jesus to grasp. They wanted a Jewish hero to fulfil their ambitions for a purer Israel. Tired of being dominated by Roman authorities they wanted a leader to take them back to the glory days of King David. They wanted to see Israel rise again from the ashes of oppression, they wanted the God of Israel to show his power again.
So when Jesus preached that he had come as much for the Gentiles as the Jews, the disciples despaired. And when he preached peace to the enemies of Israel, they were angered. And when he ministered to the Romans, they disapproved. And when he travelled into foreign territory, some disciples fell away, seeking to rally under a more nationalistic banner.
The incident in our gospel reading today took place way to the north of Israel. Jesus is the land of the Canaanites, perhaps seeking refuge from the endless questions and demands he faced, and away from the schemes of the Pharisees who heard his message as blasphemy.
It is there that Jesus learns that the time has come for him to practice what he preaches. The idea of calling the Gentiles into God’s family was not new to him – he had preached this in his parables: the net which collected all kinds of fish, the calling of the waifs and strays from the hedgerows to share in the wedding banquet; and demonstrated it in the feeding of the 5000 Jews and the 4000 Gentiles, showing that God’s mercy towards people was wide and generous. But now his Father reveals to him that now is the time to reach out decisively towards the Gentiles.
In the exchange in Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus seems hard-hearted, even rude. But the woman’s logic wins the argument. If the Jews are being fed with the good news of the kingdom, with miracles and healings, why not let a few crumbs of that feast fall to the Gentiles now? Why not let the promises made to Abraham and Isaiah be fulfilled now?
Later Jesus would tell a parable about a persistent widow who seeks justice from a judge and wins him over because she is resolute and determined. Perhaps that parable was based on his experience with her.
From that day on Jesus knew it was time to serve both Jew and Gentile. And it soon became clear that the Gentiles were going to be more responsive to God’s call than the Jews.
This is good news for us. We are not spectators, watching the game of salvation played out by a select few. We are on the pitch, invited to join in, called to participate by Jesus Christ himself. We are the nations blessed by the seed of Abraham, the foreigners seen by Isaiah entering God’s holy temple. The promise which creates one united humanity has reached us. The healing of the Canaanite girl confirms that the great ingathering of the nations has begun.
Every church is a signpost to the united humanity God will one day reveal.
We are a local demonstration of how God gathers different people and makes them one family.
Through our shared faith in Jesus Christ, we can put aside what might divide us. And we must do all we can to protect our unity, by growing in our faith, by being careful how we speak to one another, treat one another, even how we think about one another.
If we preach Jesus Christ as the source of unity we must also show that unity in our words and actions.
The church’s work may not reach the news headlines often but the great ingathering is going on in every community of this land, and throughout the world. In the churches of the Middle East, despite the bombing and persecution racial divisions are being overcome. In the churches of Africa centuries old tribal conflicts are being healed. In the churches of India the punishing caste system is being overturned. There is still so much to be done, but churches are standing firm in the truth that in Christ we can be one family. Salvation and hope came to that Canaanite family that day. And now Jesus knocks on the door of every home and offers a place in God’s family. This is the unity the world needs and which we are part of.
Revd Stephen Griffiths