IC sermon: Labels, identity and inclusion

St Michael’s Aston Clinton

The below sermon was written and delivered by Ruth Wilde, the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church at St Michael’s Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire on the 25th November 2018.

Readings for the day: Daniel 7: 9-10 & 13-14 and John 18: 33-37


Labels , Identity and Inclusion

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I’m really delighted to be here and to be a part of your exploration into what it might mean for you to be an inclusive church and benefice. I hear you had Bishop Alan speak to you about inclusion recently, so that’s a pretty hard act for me to follow but I’ll give it a go!

We had a couple of interesting readings today- from Daniel and John’s Gospel. As I’m sure many of you know, Daniel (like Revelation) is a piece of Apocalyptic Literature, so it’s full of dreams and visions which convey meaning on a deeper level than might be obvious at first sight. For me, the Gospel of John is just like that- not because it is full of dreams and visions (although it is a bit dream-like in places!) but because it is full of deeper meaning which is not immediately evident.

John is very different in style and content from the other three gospels, and could have easily been rejected when the books of the Bible were chosen by the church councils, but I’m really glad it wasn’t. I think it’s a fascinating gospel which gives more and more the deeper you delve into studying it. At first sight, it seems to be an exclusive gospel and I think that’s how many people view it still. Much of this is to do with the way it has been interpreted, i.e. badly and sometimes wickedly.

I’ll give a couple of examples. The expression in the Prologue to the Gospel about God ‘so loving the world’ is often interpreted in an exclusive way by churches, and yet is an example of the expansion of God’s love. In the phrase interpreted ‘God so loved the world’, not only are all people of every nation and religion included (Christians often think it is all about them!)- not only all people are included, but also all things are- the whole cosmos. The expression interpreted as ‘the world’ is actually ‘the cosmos’. How can God loving the whole cosmos- animals, stars, trees, and yes- humans too- have been interpreted in such an exclusive way- to mean Christians going to heaven or something equally simplistic? It is a perversion of the text, especially in the light of the stories in the rest of the Gospel, which show Jesus interacting with great respect with outcast and marginalised people and with people who are of a different religion to him (for example, in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, which only appears in this Gospel).

Another example is the trouble with the expression ‘the Jews’, which is used throughout the Gospel, often in a negative light and has become very problematic to our modern ears since the Nazis used abused phrases from John and other gospels for their own nefarious ends. It’s hard to get away from how painful it is to hear this phrase in John nowadays, when used negatively. ‘The Jews’ appear in our reading today in a negative light, when Jesus says: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’ However, what we often miss when we are cringing at the negative expressions, is that there are also positive expressions about the Jews. Pilate’s question to Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews’ is not a negative expression. It is perhaps meant mockingly, but Jesus is being associated with being a Jew and the King of the Jews no less, so it can’t be that John is being antisemitic. In fact, John was of course not antisemitic, because John (or whoever wrote the gospel) was a Jew himself- all of the Joannine sect which grew up around the gospel writer pretty much were, both ethnically and religiously.

So the gospel cannot be antisemitic, but it is understandable that we find it hard to hear negative sweeping statements about Jews after the history of Christians’ treatment of Jews. The truth is that, for the writer of John, the Jews were a microcosm of ‘the world’, and the world is presented as both good and bad- as both the place that God sent God’s only son, and the place in which God’s only son was rejected.

The trouble with the expression ‘the Jews’ in John brings me to a topic which I find interesting and important when talking about inclusion- the use of labels and the idea of identity. We hear this term used a lot these days- labels. Also, the term ‘identity politics’ seems to be popular at the minute- often used as a slur against people who care about inclusion. I find this curious, because the very people who talk about identity politics as something inclusive people do also seem to have very strong exclusive identities as white nationalists and the like. Anyway, that’s a conversation for a different day!

Pretty much all politics is identity politics. That’s because identity is a very strong driver of what people do and believe. Belonging- which is linked to identity- can be both negative and positive. It can be used to include or exclude. Similarly, labels can be used to help people flourish or to put them in a box which they did not choose to be in. We need to be careful in the way we use labels and the way we speak about identity. Getting a child who is autistic a diagnosis so that they can be helped to have the best life possible, with teaching which is tailored to them and teachers and parents who understand the way their brain works, is a good thing. It helps that child to flourish. However, people preventing that same child from doing certain things simply because they have been labelled autistic is not helping them to flourish. As another example, naming a minority sexuality as ‘bisexual’ or ‘gay’ and claiming that for yourself as a helpful tool to calling out the prejudice towards your group in society and demanding better treatment is a good thing. Someone telling you that you can’t have a family because you are gay or telling you that you can’t be a moral person because you are bisexual is not.

Going back to the two readings, it’s interesting to see how labels are used for people. Jesus does not claim the label ‘King of the Jews’. He asks Pilate if someone else gave him that label: ‘Did others tell you this about me?’ Jesus did not give it to himself, and he explains why: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be a worldly King- and no wonder. Kings are part of a hierarchical system of domination, or at least they were then. Jesus wants no part of that world or that system. Jesus cares most about the people on the bottom of that system, as the stories about him throughout the gospel show.

What label does Jesus use for himself? Nothing in this passage from John. He describes himself as a testifier to the truth but gives himself no name. The only name or label Jesus really uses throughout the gospels for himself consistently is ‘son of man’, by which he means human being. Jesus only identifies himself as a human being. Not as a Jew, or as an Israelite, or a citizen of the Roman Empire. He is a human being, and that is what the incarnation teaches us also. Jesus is a human being and he identifies with and suffers alongside all humans, especially those who are despised and rejected, just as he is at the end.

The other reading from today also talks of a ‘son of man’ (or human being, as it is translated in the NRSV) with a kingdom that ‘shall never be destroyed’. We don’t know and can’t claim that this passage was written about Jesus- the writer likely didn’t have that in mind. However, Jesus may well have been identifying himself with the passage when he called himself ‘son of man’. He will have known about this piece of scripture and might have wanted people to know it was about him. His kingdom, which has no end, and which has already come if we want to be a part of it, is about inclusion and putting marginalised people at the centre. Or, as a friend who is disabled said to me, ‘No, Ruth, it is about moving the centre to the margins’.

Either way, Jesus wanted to identify his kingdom with the inclusion and raising up of marginalised people to the highest level of importance. Kings and being a King were not important to him. Powerful people were not important for him. Being a human being and having solidarity with human beings, especially all those who suffer at the hands of injustice and marginalisation were the things which were important to him. He showed throughout his ministry – from the very first declaration of his mission in Luke’s gospel to the very final conversations with Pilate before his death- that marginalised people and people experiencing injustice- not Kings and the powerful- were most important to him. If we are to be disciples of Jesus, we must make sure that we have the same priorities as he had. We must move the centre to the margins.