I was recently reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, the Preface of which starts:
After I finished my lecture Professor Jurgen Motlmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: “But can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik´ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying citi4s. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik – the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ, I think I should be able to.” In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Motlmann’s objection (p. 9)
This theme was confronting enough and I was drawn to the cover of the book. I invite you to take some time to reflect on what stands out for you.
This sculpture drew me in and I simply had to find out what it was called – it is “The Farewell of Ishmael.” Take some more time to reflect on what that adds to your reflections. To me it was a paradox: the one who is to be excluded is the one who is embraced; the one who will be included is standing off to the side and does not want to be part of the scene.
So what is the connection between all of these thoughts and any of our readings today? On the surface, very little, but as we dig deeper into our Gospel story, we do find the theme of exclusion and embrace embedded within it. For the last three Sundays we have been hearing parables that illustrate the Reign of God: the parables of the sower, the weeds among the wheat and those of the mustard seed and yeast. Now we come to what is essentially a practical application of God’s reign.
To me the miracle in today’s story is not so much about whether it was possible to feed 5,000 men (plus women and children) from a little basket of five loaves and two fishes. In a society where who you ate with demonstrated who you found acceptable, the miracle was that such a large crowd could simply sit down and eat together.
Imagine the crowd that had followed Jesus out to hear him preaching. If the other stories are anything to go by, there was a whole variety of people in this crowd. Pharisees and the establishment would have been there to check up on what Jesus was saying and doing. There were peasants who simply wanted to hear the preaching of a person who cared for them. Of course there were the many with disabilities and occupations that made them be considered as “unclean” by those who kept the religious purity. So many people, yet when push came to shove, they sat down and ate together without worrying about who else was there. This was the ultimate Eucharist: it so clearly demonstrates what it will be like to participate in God’s reign: perhaps this is why the imagery of the banquet appears so frequently in Jesus’ teachings.
This radical inclusion is not only part of the gospel sorties – it is the direction in which the early church went. Our epistle reading today contains something of a heart-felt pleas from Paul, though not the whole of it. It is the start of the passage in which Paul asserts that God will not give up on Israel for not believing that Jesus is the Messiah. Although at this stage of the church’s development there is not yet the outright animosity between Christians and Jews that occurred later, there are still outbreaks of persecution from the Jews which included the martyrdom of key Christian leaders. In spite of this Paul asserts that God will never give up on Israel, though he admits that he doesn’t know how this will work out in the long run.
This is comforting for us. Had God said “bad luck” to the Jews because they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, then there is always the possibility that God’s mind will one day change again and we will hear the “bad luck” that our faith is no longer sufficient. But God’s radical inclusion does not allow for that. We are loved and cared for by God regardless of what we do or what we believe. This gives us hope and, as we will explore in the forum after the service, hope is about enacting the potential future now, in spite of present reality – hope is enacting the reign of God on earth. This brings us full circle to where we started this reflection. I invite you to take some time to reflect where you are in that hungry crowd – in which group of people who may have been present are you? What groups in our society may be reflected in the other groups of people who were there? What do you think as you look around and see this diverse gathering of people?