‘I enjoyed your sermon, Bishop’, she said half-heartedly, as I shook her hand by the church door, ‘but there’s just one thing’ – and here her face hardened into an expression of genuine outrage: ‘I really don’t think that bishops should use the word ‘testicle’ in their preaching!’
Well, maybe she was right; and maybe I’d been coarsened by five years in Birmingham and was no longer fit to address the rather more genteel congregation who had assembled for day one of the Great Malvern Bible Week. But then I hadn’t used the word lightly, or as part of some juvenile theological college dare, and it was such a good story – a confirmation candidate I’d met in Hall Green, a furniture remover, who had found himself praying for the first time in his life as he lifted a family Bible into his furniture van, and whose prayer went like this: ‘God, if you exist, please take away this lump on my testicle’. The next morning, the lump had completely gone, at which the man responded, ‘Blimey, I’d better start going to church!’ and had brought his whole family along with him. So did the sharing of this remarkable testimony of healing and salvation outweigh the unseemly episcopal reference to a somewhat delicate part of the male anatomy? Well, on balance, I think it did.
And so to the theme of outrage: because outrage, of course, is both an internal response to something we don’t think right and proper, and a political device to push our agenda without the tiresome need for rational discussion or mutual respect. Outrage has been a huge theme in the politics of the past 12 months, so that whoever has best manipulated it has found themselves on the winning side. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson used it to great effect in the Brexit debate. Donald Trump powerfully harnessed it in his path to the White House. And we in the Church of England have not been immune to this growing tendency to bypass the normal Christian disciplines of prayer, respect and taking counsel together – the humble position exemplified by young Samuel in our Old Testament reading this morning, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’; instead buying into the politics of outrage, especially when it comes to emotive issues surrounding gender and sexuality.
These are emotive issues, of course. The alternative to outrage isn’t some kind of cold and insipid apathy, the bland leading the bland. But when a godly, gifted man like Philip North withdraws from his appointment as Bishop of Sheffield because of, quote, ‘highly individualised attacks’ upon him, we need to repent as a Church, and to recognise the huge spiritual dangers of deploying outrage as a political tool. Yes, it may win us the battle, such is its power in today’s culture. But it will never bring in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus might have put it, but didn’t quite, ‘Those who live by outrage will die by outrage’.
It’s not just Philip North either. Part of the cost of all Christian leadership is the calling to be a recipient of other people’s outrage, whether or not we are personally at fault. I’m struck by the idea of ‘Howlers’ from the Harry Potter books – angry letters in red envelopes that howl as you receive them, a noise that only grows louder and more ear-splitting as you prevaricate about whether to open them or not! And from my experience of howlers and e-howlers arriving at Willow Grange, the potent combination of political fault lines, economic uncertainty, human pettiness and the use and abuse of social media is increasingly producing a culture in which a metaphorical shooting from the hip has become our natural default setting, within the church as well as outside of it.
Jesus himself, of course, was the object of considerable outrage – a response to his ministry that began in relatively harmless ways – in the musings of a man like Simon the Pharisee, who thought to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner’ – and that culminated in the harshest way possible, with those blood-curdling howls of ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’
So why?, asks Samuel Crossman in one the greatest of all Passiontide hymns:
Why, what hath my Lord done,
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight.
Yet they at these
And ‘gainst him rise.
And part of the answer to Samuel Crossman’s question ‘Why?’ lies in my trivial story from a church door in Malvern, and in the far weightier story from our gospel reading this morning. ‘If this man were a bishop, he wouldn’t use that kind of language in a sermon’. ‘If this man were a prophet, he wouldn’t allow that woman to get anywhere near him’. It’s Jesus’ refusal to be pushed into the box of other people’s expectations, of the neat, comfortably-defined categories of prophet, rabbi, king or Messiah, which led to the steady crescendo of antagonism and hostility - of ‘rage and spite’, as the hymn puts it - which spilt over into the events of the first Holy Week.
Jesus stubbornly refuses to fit into our modern-day categories too, wrong-footing us just as surely as he wrong-footed the religious and political establishment of his day. Was Jesus a liberal? Today’s gospel might suggest that he was, with his genuinely inclusive approach to the woman contrasting with the narrow conservatism of Simon the Pharisee; but then this is also the Jesus whose teaching on sexual immorality and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount makes parts of the Old Testament look positively mild.
Was Jesus an evangelical? His commitment to the Scriptures is never in doubt, so that ‘not one letter’, he teaches, ‘will pass from the law until all is accomplished’. And yet he was hardly a strict Sabbatarian, and his passion for the Kingdom of God went far wider than standard evangelical preoccupations with evangelism and church growth.
Was Jesus a catholic? He regularly joined in the liturgy of both synagogue and Temple, he celebrated the great Jewish pilgrimage festivals and inaugurated the Holy Eucharist: ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood’. But he also avoided the language of priesthood, and spoke of new wine breaking open old wineskins, of the Spirit blowing where He wills.
Was Jesus then a charismatic? He was ‘led by the Spirit’, we are regularly reminded, and performed signs and wonders aplenty; but the Spirit also led him into the desert and towards a most cruel and brutal death – hardly the expectations that are held out in most charismatic circles today.
Was Jesus a capitalist? The parable of the talents would suggest that he was, so that the two who doubled their money were rewarded, and the one who buried his money punished. Was Jesus a Communist? The parable of the workers in the Vineyard seems to point in that direction, where all were given enough to live on, regardless of the hours they’d worked.
Was Jesus an environmentalist? He certainly encouraged us to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, but then blotted his environmental copy book – and his vegetarian one as well – by speaking of killing the fatted calf, with all its implications in terms of animal cruelty, methane production and global warming. Was Jesus a tee-totaller? He certainly warned against debauchery and drunkenness - but please remember not to preach on the wedding at Cana in Galilee when you’re next asked to minister in those circles.
So how do we cope with a Jesus who doesn’t behave like a prophet or rabbi, a king or messiah, a liberal or evangelical, catholic or charismatic, capitalist or communist, environmentalist or tee-totaller, is supposed to behave? How do we respond to a Jesus who – in the terms of the Narnia stories – is ‘not a tame lion’, who’s ‘not safe, but he’s good’? In Jesus’ day, the simple choice was between adoration and outrage. In our own day, selective hearing has become the norm.
That’s part of my problem with wearing a wristband inscribed with the letters WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – because the danger of asking the question WWJD without asking the prior question WDJD – What Did Jesus Do? – is that we end up selectively constructing a Jesus in our own image: a conservative Jesus, perhaps, or a liberal Jesus, or whatever other Jesus takes our fancy. It’s part of my problem too with calling myself an Evangelical or a Charismatic or even an Anglican. Yes, I’m happy to own those words as adjectives, and other words too. But to my mind the noun is always Christian.
So here in our gospel reading Simon is quietly outraged not so much by the woman as by Jesus: by his wildness, almost recklessness, his refusal to be tamed, which is such a feature of the gospel narratives, even when it’s his mother Mary, or Peter the Rock, attempting to do the taming. And how does Jesus respond? He responds as he always responded, not least in the events of the first Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, confronting rage and spite with grace and truth.
Grace to the woman – that’s a glorious feature of this story, not simply in Jesus’ words of absolution – ‘Your sins are forgiven’ – or his words of dismissal - ‘Go in peace’; but also in his very acceptance of the woman’s offering, and more powerfully still, his lifting her up as a role model, something that I’m quite sure had never happened to her before. Just as he recognised great faith in a pagan soldier and great generosity in a destitute widow and great understanding in a small child, so now he recognises great love in a prostitute. When it comes to choosing role models, the Son of God is not half as picky as we are.
But there’s truth here too: truth to the woman whose love was great but whose ‘sins are many’, and truth especially to Simon, whose inner thoughts were exposed with almost surgical precision by the One who truly ‘knew what was in the heart of a person’.
Grace and truth. Again we tend to put them in separate categories, either slashing the cost of discipleship with a message of grace, grace, grace which seems to bear very little relationship to the challenging call of Jesus; or else, banging the drum of truth, truth, truth, which only whips up the misplaced self-righteousness of the in-crowd to the exclusion of everyone else. Yet here once more is the wildness of Jesus, and the very essence of his goodness: that Jesus consistently rejected the easy option of grace or truth – an option that only leads us to the peddlers of cheap grace on the one hand or the survival of the smuggest on the other – and instead consistently adopted the tough option of grace and truth – an option that led him and that leads us too - to the cross and to the empty tomb beyond.
And the grace-and-truth test is the best measure of all of our ministries, whether lived out in the context of church, of home, of our local community or our secular workplaces. We are called to place grace and truth above our inherited traditions and political convictions, whatever the misunderstandings we might create along the way. We don’t set out to cause offence, of course. We need to watch our language when it comes to the delicate sensibilities of the people of Great Malvern. But whatever the adjectives we place before it, the noun is always Christian. And the Christian is the follower of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’.