At first blush, the gospel lesson this morning seems rather innocuous – Jesus heals a woman’s daughter then opens the ears of a deaf man. What’s new about that? And so, our tendency is to take the witness of this passage and lump it in with the witness of any number of other passages where Jesus does much the same thing.
But, as we look closer – and it takes a Bible atlas to do this – we’re able to see that the two places where Jesus performed these miracles are outside the boundaries of what we might call his Galilean ministry. The region of Tyre and Sidon is to the north, in present-day Lebanon. What’s he doing way up there? And the region of the Decapolis was to the east – present-day Jordan – where ten major Roman cities were located. What’s he doing hanging out with the Romans, for heaven’s sake?
And if we were to read on just a little further in Mark’s gospel, we’d find Jesus feeding a multitude, only this time it’s not a crowd of 5,000 on a hillside near Capernaum, it’s a crowd of 4,000 on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the Gentile side – the side where Jewish mothers warned their little boys they should nevergo.
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In 1998, I participated in a preaching seminar in Galilee. Among other things, we visited the ruins of a synagogue in Kursi, on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in the floor of the synagogue was a mosaic picture depicting the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. Sure enough, just as Mark tells the story, there were seven baskets of bread left over. Only the baskets depicted in the mosaic were basketswith handles like the ones Gentile women used, not the flat baskets typical of Jewish women!
Clearly, Jesus has expanded the boundaries of his ministry beyond the Galilee to the surrounding region; more importantly, he’s broadened the scope of his ministry to include both Jew and Gentile. And that leads us to ask: What are the boundaries of the kingdom? What’s the outer limit? Just how inclusive ought we to be as Christians in relating to the world-at-large?
As we explore these questions, I’d like for you to think about the boundaries of your own faith and the limits of your own understanding and acceptance of others.
Years ago, a great preacher and theologian, J. B. Phillips, wrote a little book entitled, Your God is Too Small. In it, he challenged the readers to broaden their understanding of who God is and what God is about in reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.
Well, If J. B. Phillips were living today, I think he might write a sequel entitled, Your Kingdom is Too Small, in which he would challenge us to reach out beyond these four cozy walls of First Presbyterian Church, Hope, to embrace a much wider diversity of folk than we might otherwise have ever imagined.
So, what are the boundaries of your faith? For example, do you believe that you have to be a Presbyterian to be in God’s good graces? A Protestant? A Christian? Do you have to speak English? What if you speak in tongues? Does your faith include people of other races, other nationalities, other cultures?
There’s a wonderful little scene in the Broadway musical, Shenandoah, in which this older mountain couple sit down to eat with their son and daughter-in-law. Before they break bread together, the father offers this prayer:
“Lord, bless me and my wife,
John and his wife;
us four, no more. Amen.”
That’s an expression of faith, all right, but it’s not very inclusive. Its boundaries are pretty restricted. How wide is your circle of faith?
A psychologist friend of mine once developed a personal growth seminar entitled, The Friendship Mirror. It began with an exercise in which you were asked to write down the names of ten people you consider to be friends – people you enjoy being with … people you like … people you feel most comfortable relating to. Then he’d ask you to describe them in terms of their age, race, height, weight, education, views, whether they’re married or single, with children or not. When you finished, what you found was a striking similarity between the people you like the best and … are you ready for this? Yourself!
Surprise! We tend to identify most easily with those people who are like us. “Birds of a feather flock together,” they say. Which is nothing new, of course, but it’s something we do well to be reminded of, from time to time, for to grow up is to grow out and to mature in faith is to widen your circle to include those who don’t just mirror your image, but challenge you to think and act in new ways.
Now, if this makes you feel a little squeamish, relax. It’s nothing new. The early church had the same problem. One of the earliest examples is the newly-ordained deacon, Philip. After the stoning of Stephen, the Christians fled Jerusalem for their lives. Philip went to Samaria, just to the north of Judea, and, if you remember your Bible history, Jews and Samaritans didn’t have anything to do with each other.
But that didn’t slow Philip down. He shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with the Samaritans, and, lo and behold, they came to faith. When Peter and the others got word, they rushed up to Samaria to check it out. Sure enough, the gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, just as Jesus had predicted. It wouldn’t be long before it spread to the ends of the earth. (Acts 8:5-17)
In fact, as Luke tells the story, Peter went down to Joppa, where he stayed with Simon the tanner. One day he had a vision. He fell into a trance and saw something like a sheet descending from heaven and on it were animals and reptiles and birds of every kind – everything you could imagine that was contrary to the kosher food laws. He heard a voice saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter refused saying, “No, Lord, I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” After all, Peter was a devout Jew. But the voice persisted saying, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
As it happened, prior to the vision Peter had received an invitation to visit the home of Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman soldier and a God-fearing Gentile who lived in Caesarea. Being the good Jew that he was, Peter refused: Enter the home of a Gentile? Never!
Now, having received this vision, Peter took it to be a sign from God that he was to go to the home of Cornelius. He confessed,
“Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism;
but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness
is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
So, Peter went to the home of Cornelius, and, as he was speaking to Cornelius and the people of his household, the Holy Spirit came upon them and brought them to faith. Peter baptized them on the spot, and the circle defining the outer limits of the church was expanded to include the Gentiles.
When Peter got back to Jerusalem, you’d think the others would’ve applauded. But, no. They criticized him and said, “Why did you go to the uncircumcised and eat with them?” Peter told them about the vision and the voice he had heard, and he told them about how the Spirit came upon them all. Luke says:
“When they heard these things,
they held their peace, and glorified God,
saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles
repentance to life!'” (Acts 11:18).
It’s important to note, Peter resisted going to the home of Cornelius, not because he was a sinful man, but because he was a man of faith. His reluctance to act in obedience to the leading of the Spirit was based on adherence to the Law. He was only trying to guard the integrity of his faith. Like Peter, our unwillingness to widen the circle and include those who are different is often a matter of conviction and principle.
In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the village milkman, Tevia, has a wife and three nearly grown daughters. The oldest wants to get married, but she doesn’t want the local matchmaker to choose her husband. Instead, she wants to marry Sidel, the tailor. He’s a good Jewish boy. He has a respectable trade, and what’s most important, she loves him. Tevia can see the love in their eyes, but he’s hesitant not to use a matchmaker. “It’s not Tradition!” he protests. Finally, he gives in, and his circle of faith widens.
The second daughter falls in love with a young military officer. They decide on their own to get married. They come to Tevia, not to ask his permission, but his blessing. He can’t believe it. “Not ask the father’s permission? Never. It’s not Tradition!” At first he refuses, but he loves his daughter, and he wants her to be happy. Again, he bends and stretches his circle of faith. He gives them his blessing and grows a little more.
Finally, his third daughter announces her intention to marry. She has not sought the help of the matchmaker. She is not asking her father’s permission. What’s more, she intends to marry a Gentile. Her father is crushed. “Marry outside the faith? Never!” Not only does it violate the Tradition, but for Tevia it’s wrong in the sight of God. As much as he loves his daughter, Tevia simply cannot stretch any further. He has reached his limit. In a moment of great tragedy and resolve, he declares that if she marries this Gentile, he will disown her.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can sympathize with Tevia. I want to be ecumenical and inclusive of others, but I can only bend so far. And yet God seems to be pushing and prodding and leading me to expand the boundaries of my faith.
On the campus of Texas A&M there’s a student organization called the Interfaith Dialogue Student Association. It’s made up mostly of graduate students from Turkey, and they’re all Islamic. Their sole mission is to promote dialogue and better understanding among people of different religions. For the past three years, one or two of these students came to First Presbyterian Church every Sunday. They were more faithful in attendance than most of my church members.
At first, I resisted having much to do with them. I was suspicious. What are they up to, really? I wondered. But, as I got to know them as individuals, and as I ate with them and had fellowship with them in their homes, I came to appreciate their enthusiasm and their sincerity. They weren’t terrorists in disguise, and they weren’t trying to convert me to Islam; they were flesh and blood human beings doing their part to promote peace and harmony in the world in which we live.
Well, in their quiet, gentle way, they won me over. Not that I’m thinking about becoming Muslim, but that I now think of myself as a Christian in a new way. These are my brothers, even though we think of God in far different ways, and I must make allowance for them. The boundaries of the kingdom are wider than I thought.
I’m not the first to come to this realization. Charles Wesley discovered it years ago, and it’s with his words that I’d like to close:
“What shall I do my God to love,
my loving God to praise!
The length and breadth and height to prove,
and depth of sovereign grace?
“Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends,
it reaches all mankind.
“Throughout the world its breadth is known,
wide as infinity;
So wide it never passed by one;
or it had passed by me.
“Come quickly then, my Lord,
and take possession of thine own;
My longing heart vouchsafe
to make Thine everlasting throne.
“Assert thy claim, receive thy right,
come quickly from above,
And sink me to perfection’s height,
the depth of humble love.”
(The Book of Hymns, UMC, p. 130)
Friends, dare to broaden your boundaries of faith. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.