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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist - 26 Oct 2014

Sunday 26th October 2014
Cathedral Eucharist
Matthew 22.34-46
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Question Time; Any Questions; Prime Minister’s Questions, even here at the cathedral a couple of weeks ago the place was packed with six-formers grilling a panel with questions: the asking and answering of questions, or, perhaps, dodging of questions, is at the heart of the political debate of the nation. And those of us who remember the older style Catechisms, manuals of Christian teaching, will remember them as being set out in a question and answer format. Questioning is a good thing: it means we are probing, seeking after truth, and it means we are acknowledging, in human terms at least, that a closed down conversation or discussion with no scope for further questions is a dubious thing. And as we see in this morning’s gospel reading, there is a time when as part of the unresolved nature of things no more questions come and we stand silent before mysteries about which we cannot even frame a question.

The gospel passage is full of questions, but it has one big one underlying it: who is this? Who is this Jesus? That’s really what the Pharisees want to tease out. And so should we. Whenever we ask a question we bring a whole set of assumptions with us. In this morning’s gospel the Pharisees have come with the presupposition that Jesus is a Rabbi, and might even be a prophet. In the second part of the passage Jesus shifts the conversation about himself away from being a Rabbi, or possibly a prophet, to suggest something radically different as he opens up the possibility that he is something more even than David, that he is the Messiah.

So what might the Pharisees’ issue have been? First we must remember that within Judaism in Jesus’ day there were fractures. Both Sadducees and Pharisees held, in common, adherence to the Law of Moses as the way in which God’s covenant was honoured: but they diverged on the hope of resurrection; the Sadducees rejected resurrection and the Pharisees accepted it.  As St Matthew tells it, Jesus had just confuted their rival party, the Sadducees, and so quite possibly the Pharisees approached Jesus thinking he might be one of them really, asking, in that very human way, ‘are you one of us?’

To establish this we see a classic piece of rabbinic debate. Rabbis did, and still do, test out ideas by asking questions. It is a method that tests out the intricacies of the Law of Moses. So, this encounter in St Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the Jewishness of Jesus and his relationship to the Law of Moses. As St Paul reminds us, Jesus was born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4.4). He was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the Temple at 40 days in accordance with Jewish Law and custom. Jesus both knew and lived out the Law of Moses; and remember for Jews the Law is a blessing not a burden.

So of course Jesus knew the answer to a classically Jewish question: ‘Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ He answers with the verse from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) known as the ‘Shema’ which is the basic affirmation of Jewish belief. This is the heart of the Law that is to be embodied and lived out by the People of Israel, the Jews, in faithfulness to their Covenant with God.

So far, so Rabbinic. Then Jesus adds the words “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’: to do that is typically what a prophet would say: like John the Baptist, it is a call to be faithful to God by going beyond the letter of the law. But even that quotation is itself from the Law of Moses in the book of Leviticus (19.18). Indeed in inter-faith terms that phrase has become known as the ‘Golden Rule’ because it lies at the heart of all world faiths. So if we want to define Jesus by the novelty of what he says he’s not teaching anything new, he is radically restating what he been taught before: ‘On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 22.40).

There is no indication from the text that the Pharisees had any issue with what Jesus said. Even Matthew doesn’t imply any dissatisfaction on their part. And that’s the issue; they were satisfied that Jesus was a Rabbi, a good teacher, even a prophet in the mould of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos or Hosea. They were satisfied with Jesus being a good bloke; they could live with him being a particularly good teacher, even a divinely inspired one and very close to God. And, you know, there are many good people, seekers after God, Christians included, who would be at one with them: love God and follow the so-called ‘Golden Rule’ with Jesus as a very good teacher with deep insights and compassion. So the Pharisees represent, if you like, those who think of Jesus’ humanity as what identifies his significance to the world.

That is where the second part of the gospel passage is both unsettling and revealing. Jesus asks questions of them and us, ‘who am I?’ Jesus is shifting the question. What he asks are textually dense questions from a messianic reading of a particular psalm: in other words looking at a text to ask the Pharisees about the identity and nature of the One who is to come, the Messiah, who heralds God’s kingdom. Jesus follows the tradition that David is the author of this psalm and the author, David, refers both to God as ‘my Lord’ and the Messiah, ‘my Lord’ so, contrary to what had been believed, David is not the Messiah, someone else is: David is calling the Messiah his ‘Lord’.

Jesus is revealing his identity by his questions. This is an identity already established since as St John puts it ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1.1). It is revealed in the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ is, in St Matthew’s terms, ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ and, in St John’s, he is the ‘Word made Flesh’. The Gospels restate and draw this out.

So, the Church proclaims that Jesus is so much more either than an able Rabbi or radical prophet, or even a divinely inspired example of what it is to be human. The question of Jesus’ identity is on the one hand complex and multi-layered and on the other very simple. Questions of his identity have swirled around not just from the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees but in the early and contemporary Church too. So we have Arianism, the assertion that Jesus is a creature like you or me, to which the Church asserts his identity as divine and eternal; or we have the opposite, Docetism, which identifies him as being divine and just appearing to be human. We could run a whole checklist of identity affirming propositions all of which culminate in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD that he, our Lord Jesus Christ is, ‘truly human and truly divine’.

So that question about the greatest commandment was testing out an aspect of Jesus’ knowledge and practice in the Law of Moses. He demonstrated himself as an authentic teacher of the Law by answering, and stands in the prophetic tradition by stressing that such Law is fulfilled by love of neighbour. The question he throws back at the Pharisees open up the Messianic promise that not only he is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, he is the Lord.

So our questions about life, purpose and what it’s all about begin and end in the identity of Jesus Christ, the one whose identity we will declare using the words of the Creed in a few moments. That Creed, consonant with scripture, is a safety net for us to ensure that our speaking of Jesus Christ is authentic and true and, that as truly human and truly divine, he knows and shares our joys and pains, and honours his promise that in his Name we are drawn into union with the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit; ‘if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17).