Sermon for the third Sunday in Lent, 4th March 2018

Exodus 5:1-6:1, Philippians 3:4-14

In the last week or so, Canon Dr Giles Fraser, who is described as a ‘priest and polemicist’ by Michael Buerk, when he is a panellist on the ‘Moral Maze’ on BBC Radio 4, has been very exercised both in print and, indeed, on the Moral Maze, about the law which Iceland is said to be passing, or is about to pass, forbidding infant circumcision. Giles Fraser says that it is, in effect, an attack on the Jewish people in Iceland, because if you are a male Jew, being circumcised is part of your Jewishness. To deny you the possibility of being circumcised on the eighth day after your birth is to deny you an essential part of your Jewish identity, says Dr Fraser.

Today we had a lesson from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians where St Paul proudly affirms his Jewish heritage: he writes that he was himself circumcised after eight days, and he sets out all his own personal Jewish history. But you should contrast that with the salvation which St Paul said he had gained through coming to faith in Christ. He had gone beyond the Jewish law, and his relationship with God was no longer a matter of a covenant between God and Moses, and his membership of God’s chosen people under that covenant, but rather St Paul had become reconciled to God, saved, simply by his faith, his faith in Jesus Christ.

It’s a consistent theme throughout the New Testament, this apparent conflict between Christianity and the provisions of the Jewish law as, for example, put forward by the Pharisees in relation to Jesus’ teaching: is it lawful for Jesus to heal someone on the Sabbath, for example?

Jesus’s ‘new commandment’, so called, that you should love one another even as he has loved us, has big implications. St Paul’s assertion that he was going beyond the law and that Jesus’s message of salvation was not just for Jews but also was for the Gentiles, for what the Bible calls ‘the nations’, which means the non-Jews, had the effect of turning Christianity from being just a Jewish sect into a worldwide religion; and that implied that the idea of the Jews being God’s chosen people, that God had some kind of favouritism of the Jews over against all other nations, that that idea had had its day.

Jesus himself said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it [Matthew 5:17]. He affirmed the most important part of the law, the so-called Shema Israel, the first of the Ten Commandments, that there is one God, and that thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and strength – and made it the first of His new commandments; and his second commandment was that they should love their neighbours as themselves. ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ [Matt.22:40]. In a sense, the ‘new commandments’ are actually restatements of old ones. ‘Love your neighbour’ is actually part of the Jewish Law too – it’s in Leviticus (19:18).

So Jesus is not abandoning his Jewish heritage. He is not saying that the Jewish law is made worthless by his coming among us as the son of God, as God incarnate. But we can be reconciled with God, be saved and have eternal life, by faith in Jesus, rather than by carrying out the mechanical requirements of the complicated code which had grown up based on the 10 Commandments in Judaism.

The Torah, the Jewish law, includes for Jews not just the provisions of the first five books of the old Testament, but also the Talmud and the Mishnah, the various teachings and interpretations of the rabbis over the years. It is like the common law in England where law is not just contained in the statutes, the acts of parliament, but also is contained in the decisions of the judges in the courts. In the Jewish law, in the Jewish tradition, (and that is what the Talmud and the Mishnah record), your relationship with God depends on carrying out the Jewish law, so the argument runs.

I think that might be why the compilers of the Lectionary, the people who choose which Bible readings we use each Sunday, have given us this reading from the book of Exodus, showing the various sufferings of the Jewish people under Pharaoh in Egypt, before they were led out of Egypt by Moses, God having answered his prayers and divided the Red Sea so that the Israelites could go through it. That is part of the national history of the Israelites, part of what forms their Jewishness. Against that, in the Lectionary they chose the part of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, setting out St Paul’s willingness to include the Gentiles, the non-Jews, as well as the Jews in Christianity.

This tension, between nationalism or cultural identity, rather than just narrow nationalism, being Jewish in this instance, and universalism, being a child of God simply by virtue of being a member of the human race, a race of all types, sizes and nationalities, is still very much alive today. A number of commentators have suggested that it is one explanation for Trump and Brexit, and indeed for the sharp divisions that both of those instances seem to have caused, or rather perhaps, brought out, in the people of the United States in the election of President Trump, and in this country over Brexit.

In this country there is tension between people who are more in favour of supranational unification, for going beyond the politics of individual nations towards world government, and those who want to affirm separate national identity and regain self-determination through a wish to ‘take back control’, as they say, by making it the case that only the courts of this country shall decide, and that there will be no pan-European jurisdiction. In the United States the same sort of instincts have championed ‘America first’ policies and protectionism, a wall on the Mexican border, and so on.

So what is a Christian to do? I think it would be unwise for me to come down on one side or another in relation to Brexit or President Trump, at least if I tried to invoke Biblical authority for one or other view. But I think that it is legitimate to point out where, in the Bible, this argument seems to be played out.

On the one hand, you have all the Old Testament tradition and the Jewish law, with no obvious downside to it; no one can seriously say that the 10 Commandments are a bad thing, or that they are not relevant still today – and Jewish identity still exists. You can see the force of what Giles Fraser is objecting to about the proposed law in Iceland against infant circumcision.

But on the other hand, Jesus has added a huge new dimension, which St Paul made it his mission to preach about, to build on that Jewish tradition and to take it out of the realm of legalistic interpretation and into a living faith – love God and love neighbour; loving God including, of course, loving Jesus and loving neighbour, loving the children of God, all the children of God.

So of course it’s okay to heal on the Sabbath. The same with Brexit and Trump: do we concentrate on narrow nationalistic concerns or, if that’s not a fair way of putting it, on love of country, patriotism in a good and noble sense on the one hand or on the brotherhood of man, universal human rights, and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves, on the other?

Jesus’ challenging statement, that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, might give us a clue towards squaring that circle. In following Jesus we are pressing on towards a goal, which is not in an earthly country but a heavenly one. However serious the awfulness of Trump or the possibility of Brexit turning into a catastrophe might seem, we should focus on something much more important: salvation, eternal life; what St Paul calls pressing on towards ‘the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’. [Phil. 3:14]