St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 3 (12.06.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Who’s in and who’s out? For once I’m not talking about the EU! I mean, who’s worthy and who isn’t? Those are the questions with which our readings today confront us. They have an added sharpness this morning, for me at least, because yesterday I was very much part of the “in” crowd as Oxfordshire celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday with a service in Christ Church Cathedral. Because it was a Cathedral event, and the Queen is the Cathedral’s Visitor (capital “v”), the College of Canons was very much on parade, both the residentiary canons in their gold copes, and the honorary canons, the hicks from the sticks, in choir dress. We had mayors and council chairmen, Lords Lieutenant with their deputies and vices, dignitaries from both the Universities (Oxford and Oxford Brookes), the magistrates, the high court judges, and various ecumenical representatives, including a couple of Dominicans from Blackfriars and Canon Robin Gibbons, who is really a Benedictine monk but who works with various Eastern-rite Catholic congregations in Oxford and beyond. It was all very “Establishment” – and one of those events at which I usually feel as if I’m waiting for someone to feel my collar and have me thrown out for being an unexpected Scouser in the bagging area.

So, I have a faint sense of what it must have felt like for the woman in this morning’s gospel, a long way from her normal surroundings, but drawn by the attractiveness of Jesus. It’s a faint sense because I can, after all, blend in with my surroundings at the cathedral. There are plenty of other people dressed like me, doing what I am doing, behaving with proper decorum. The woman in today’s gospel sticks out like the sorest of sore thumbs. For a start she’s a woman, at what was almost certainly an all-male gathering. And her behaviour is not exactly decorous. Emotional, extravagant, erotic are probably more accurate descriptions. The late Bishop John Robinson famously got into trouble for wondering in print what effect it might have had on Jesus. No wonder Simon the Pharisee was scandalised – and probably very embarrassed. How had such a person managed to get into his private dinner party, this very select gathering? Where was “security”? And why did Jesus not reject her?

He gets his answer soon enough and it’s a stinger. First there’s the rather baffling parable of the two debtors. Then Jesus applies it. Clinically, he dissects Simon’s own behaviour, his meanness, his failure to offer the basic tokens of hospitality. He contrasts it with the generosity of the woman’s actions. These are the extravagant gestures of someone who loves and loves deeply because she knows that she is forgiven.

In the 1970s the late Monica Furlong wrote widely about what we used to call “the spiritual life”. In one of her books she described how, in her early twenties, she had left the office where she worked one lunch-time, stopped at a local café to buy rolls and fruit for a snack lunch, and walked up Chancery Lane to find a place to eat it. “It was”, she wrote, “an August day, quite warm but cloudy, with the sun glaringly, painfully bright, behind the clouds. I had a strong sense that something was about to happen. I sat on a seat in the gardens of Lincoln’s Inn waiting for whatever it was to occur. The sun behind the clouds grew brighter and brighter, the clouds assumed a shape that fascinated me, and between one moment and the next, although no word had been uttered, I felt myself spoken to. I was aware of being regarded by love, of being wholly accepted, accused, forgiven, all at once. The joy of it was the greatest I had ever known in my life. I felt I had been born for this moment and had marked time till it occurred.”

Such moments of transformation are rare, but many more people than we might think experience them. We can’t bring them about. We can’t even wait for them to happen. They just do. And when they do, we begin to understand what St Paul is getting at when he writes to the Christians of Galatia. Like Simon the Pharisee, they had come to imagine that by behaving in particular ways, keeping the Law, making the effort to grow in righteousness, they could please God and gain his approval. What Paul says, what Jesus says, is that we don’t have to do that. Like the woman with the jar of ointment, like Monica Furlong that day in the garden of Lincoln’s Inn, we are already forgiven, we are accepted, we are loved. As King David discovered in our first reading, that remains true however badly we behave. As David also discovered, that doesn’t stop our bad behaviour from having unwelcome consequences. But we are still loved.

We are, in Monica Furlong’s words “wholly accepted, accused, forgiven, all at once.” And when we realise that we also realise, with St Paul, that our life is being totally transformed, so that we can say, with him, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And the more we realise that, the more totally we are transformed so that, to quote St Paul again, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” We can’t make ourselves holy and righteous and acceptable to God. We can’t find justification through what Paul calls “the works of the Law”. If we try to, we shall fail.

But if we do indeed “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”, if we do live with the confident love and trust which brought the woman into the presence of Jesus, despite the strong disapproval of his host and, in all probability, of the other guests, then we can experience the overwhelming joy of knowing that we are loved, forgiven and accepted. If we truly know that, we begin to reflect the attractiveness of Jesus and his inclusiveness rather than the self-righteousness of Simon, because we have learned that there is no one, no one, whose life cannot be taken up into his life and transformed by his love.

And now to God the Father…