James 1:17-27: Mark 7: 1-8,14&15, 21-23
Years ago, when I was in training for the ministry, I had a very wise tutor in the subject of Psychology and Religion. One day when we were discussing the development of faith in children he introduced us to the idea that children are “human becomings” rather than human beings – that they need good interaction with kind people in order to develop fully into the people they were born to be. After a little pause, he asked the three of us in the tutorial “do you think you are a human being.. or are you still a human becoming?”. I have never thought of myself as a human being since that day – I am a human becoming, still learning, growing, and still trying to become the person God has made me to be.
What about you? If you think you are a perfect human being, you can stop listening now – but for the rest of us, I’d like us to see what God’s word says about becoming fuller, better people.
We have already (in our all age talk) started to look at how Jesus treats the question of ‘doing the right thing’. Jesus is criticized because some of his disciples are not washing their hands properly before they eat.
This is not a question of cleanliness, but of purity: the expectation was that good Jews would ritually clean themselves, for example after coming from the marketplace, before eating. The market place was thought to be part of the sordid world, full of nasty other people, which a person needed to set aside before eating God’s good gifts.
Jesus isn’t just interested in defending himself, but wants the people listening to him to understand what their relationship to the world’s people and to God’s gifts and to God himself should be.
The marketplace could be seen as the opposite of the temple – the place of worldliness rather than the place of God. But Mark, who’s telling us this story in his gospel, has just told us (at the end of chapter 6) what Jesus has been doing in the marketplace. He hasn’t been buying and selling, wheeling and dealing, doing what might be thought of as the work of the world. Jesus has been healing the sick, who have been brought on their beds by their friends and relatives and laid in the marketplace, so that when Jesus comes near he will heal them. Jesus has been doing the work of God, announcing, through what he does, the arrival of the kingdom of God in the marketplace. Jesus doesn’t separate himself off from those people, he embraces them. And now he’s going to eat, he gives thanks to God for what he eats as part of the world of diversity God has made. This is all God’s world, announces Jesus, this is the kingdom of God, where God’s will is done – healing the sick, enjoying the feast, teaching the obstinate - all this is of God.
After the criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus calls the crowd and tells them “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile”. Jesus lists them “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” In other words, in God’s good kingdom it is human greed and human grasping for an unfair share of God’s good gifts that causes evil. Taking a person or a thing that is not yours, failing to seek the truth over personal gain, only looking after number one. These are the things that make people less than the human beings they ought to be, not an idea of ‘uncleanliness’ that can be caught from other people.
So if we are to grow as human becomings and do the right thing in our lives, we need to remember that this is God’s world, and ask not just ‘what do we need?’ but ‘how can the good gifts be shared for the good of all?’.
After the week of news we’ve heard I have to mention the way we respond to the need of other human beings whom we conveniently label ‘migrants’. Desperate people, escaping war and poverty and persecution, are dying on boats and in lorries and under the wheels of trains. Are we going to build better walls, stop rescuing people from the waves, tighten our borders, wash our hands of them? Or are we going to reach out as Jesus did and embrace and heal and save?
The letter of James tells us to be “doers of the word, not just hearers”. Watch out for that little word ‘just’ – James is not saying ‘forget God’s word and get on with being good’ he is telling followers of Jesus to listen to God’s word and then to act.
Martin Luther, famously, did not much like the letter of James (you might have heard of his ‘review’ – “a right strawy epistle”), because he felt it did not have enough to say about God’s grace and relied too much on human action.
But right there at the start of what we heard today, the letter of James says “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above”. When we listen to God’s word and respond with actions that are in accord with God’s kingdom, we are not just acting in our own strength, but through God’s grace. When we grow as human becomings, it is because God’s love is producing that growth. Children are not the only ones who learn to love by being loved – it applies to all human becomings – love makes us grow.
I was delighted to be asked here to preach as part of the “Bald Statements” exhibition, which I remember seeing at General Assembly some years ago.
I’m sure those of you who have spent time with Jean’s imagery have been impressed by how she has used her artistry to express how all of us can deal with loss of all kinds, working through our experience so that it can be a time of growing, of becoming.
When we are in the midst of such experiences, we might wonder ‘where is God?’ Yet time and again people under duress find that God is right in the midst of it, alongside us in all our struggles.
Just this week I came across a wonderful phrase from Frederick Buechner, the American writer and minister – “God does not give us answers, God gives us himself”.
So perhaps the greatest answer to how we can be better human becomings is that we need to accept the grace God has shown us in Jesus Christ.
By the grace of God, we can see in the gift of the life of Jesus both what a true human being looks like and what God’s kingdom is all about.
By the grace of God we too can be human becomings and part of God’s kingdom. So be it.
In the name of Christ,