The following notes are from a discussion-based ‘sermon’:
I’m going to start with a question. There is no certain right or wrong answer to it (it’s not like the question of the Labour Party leadership – clearly Jeremy Corbyn is the correct answer – just sayin’) so don’t be afraid to say what you think…
It’s not “all age” but there is a visual aid…
A bacon sandwich is presented to the congregation…
My question is: If it was handed to him, would Jesus eat this bacon sandwich?
We will go deeper in a moment, but let’s just ask for a show of hands on your initial response…
As a good liberal congregation let’s start with the ‘don’t know’s…?
Now the ‘yes’s…? (the Majority at the Church of the Ascension thought yes)
And finally the ‘no’s…?
Take two minutes to discuss…
What are the issues?
- Jesus was forbidden to eat pig as a Jew
- What if someone was being deliberately offensive to Jesus…?
- What if Jesus was innocently offered it by a Roman child…?
- What if someone was trying to test Jesus…?
- What if it was today…?
- What is cultural and what is God’s Commandment and what is Human Tradition…?
- If we think Jesus’ wouldn’t eat the sandwich… What does that mean for us…?
For what it’s worth I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have eaten the bacon sandwich. As a follow of Jesus shouldn’t I then do the same? Well no actually, because I think that Jesus was a product of his culture and some of his actions were conditioned by that culture, but some of his actions, like the command to love speak to universal truths of the human condition.
Deciding which are which is the biggest challenge of Christian Theology.
Jesus was a progressive thinker in his age. Do we honour him best by trying to be progressive thinkers today, or by crystallising everything he said into permanent immutable truths and leaving progress in first century Palestine?
The way I asked the question reveals my answer…!
A little bit of background to the reading:
The basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. After the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.” They attempted to bring the holy into everyday life. However, at some point, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a means of designating insiders and outsiders and for many it became an empty ritual which no longer led people closer to God.
Then we see Jesus’ disciples, who were a band of itinerant preachers, begging for their upkeep, and unable to follow all the ritual cleansings of the Law demanded. But Jesus says it’s not what we eat that makes us unclean, it’s not what enters our bodies – it is what comes out of us. Jesus has a list:
fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly
We can apply our thinking about the bacon sandwich to this list: Fornication, for example, is condemned in the context of women being the property of men… Any sexual relationship with a woman who was not protected by marriage put the woman in an extremely vulnerable position. Some people use the command to condemn all sex outside of marriage including equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. But I believe that it’s nearer the spirit of the command to try and prevent sexual exploitation – to work against sex trafficking, child abuse, the excesses of the sex industry… That’s more in the spirit of Jesus than inquiring about what consenting adults do in private. Jesus message was to refrain from judging others and that love is the most important religious practice.
I chose fornication from the list because the theme connects us to the first reading, and I don’t want to finish today without mentioning it:
Our first reading is from one of my favourite books of the Bible. The Song of Solomon is an extended love poem or collection of poems, a dialogue between a lover and the beloved with an occasional chorus that gives a kind of commentary on the love story. But the Song of Solomon is not universally loved nor universally understood. As far back as third century the theologian Origen thought that the book was an allegory describing the love of God for Israel and/or the love of Jesus for the church.
Origen is not the most reliable of scholars. His interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel “if your eye offends you, pluck it out” led him to castrate himself. But his was not a lone voice and much later Reformers like Calvin accepted Origen’s view.
But the most sensible interpretation of the text is that it is what it appears to be: an erotically charged love poem. The only reason to attempt an allegorical interpretation is a mistrust of sexuality – something that increased in the Christian Tradition as it became more influenced by Greek Philosophy. But that is another sermon.
This is one of only two biblical books, Esther and Song of Songs, where there is no mention of God. Also, unlike the majority of the Bible (with the exception of the books of Esther and Ruth) the woman’s voice is clearly heard. The voice of the woman is about 75% of the book. She is feisty, frisky, and sees the lover as an equal: she affirms, “my beloved is mine and I am his.”
So having traveled from bacon sandwiches to erotic poetry via Jesus and contextual theology… What does this mean for us?
Firstly I hope it made you wonder if you know Jesus as well as you think you do… We need room for doubt and uncertainty and questioning if we want our faith to grow. The faith that thinks it knows all the answers is not only dangerous, it’s a faith that clearly hasn’t fully understood the questions.
As Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
So firstly I hope it has made you think about your assumptions about Jesus.
Secondly I hope it’s helped shed light on how we can use scripture to reflect on our life today.