Sermon: Sunday 26 October 2014
Last Sunday after Trinity 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8
Today’s Gospel reading – so familiar, so obvious and yet so deeply complex. Where to start? Well, perhaps a story…
As many of you know, I worked in a prison. One of my prisoners struggled with the implications of his newly-found Christian faith. What did it mean to love and serve God? There seemed to be so many difficulties. He’d clearly got a very stable relationship and friendship with his long-term girlfriend. However. she did not catch his enthusiasm for Christ and, crucially, was decidedly unimpressed when my young man not only renounced any future sexual relationship prior to marriage, but actually told her so on a visit in the visits centre! Sadly both the relationship and his Christian faith floundered, leaving the young man in question decidedly rudderless on leaving jail.
This was one of those not unfamiliar situations where enthusiasm, coupled with straitjacketed teaching and uncritical Biblical study, had led to an unreflective embracing of faith as a set of rules, most particularly in this case, rules governing sexual behaviour. My young man, to paraphrase another Biblical passage, went away discouraged, perceiving Christianity to be beyond him. How sad! It may be that his relationship with his partner was not wholesome. It may be that we might want to encourage him into lasting commitment in the form of marriage. But for that to be the starting point, the gateway to a relationship with the eternal living God? Christianity as a set of rules? Particularly about sex?
We see a number of different attitudes under the umbrella of Christianity. There are Christians who have withdrawn from the world, seeing the world as negative and thus ring-fencing their own communities to protect them. There are others who see the world as ungodly and bad, and seek to rescue people from it by conversion. Then others see the world as in a mess and seek to change it – let’s build Christ’s Kingdom here on earth. Let’s bring Christ into these dark places.
All three are attractive and have some merit. To be truly Christian today is to be counter-cultural and therefore different. If our hearts are beating for Christ, then we want both to share this and for others to experience it. Humanity is making a mess of managing the globe and our relationships within it: Christ’s wisdom seems sorely needed. But in each case something is missing – the wisdom of Christ already in our midst.
For a moment let’s consider the passage at the core of our faith which we think we know so well. It occurs in all three synoptic Gospels. Matthew sets it amid mounting tension and tense exchanges between Jesus and the authorities. The Pharisees testing Jesus – once again, can they trip him up? Mark’s questioner is a scribe, observing the interchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees, perhaps similarly testing or perhaps genuinely seeking. When Jesus replies, Mark’s scribe enthusiastically endorses Jesus’ reply, provoking the response from Jesus, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’. For both Matthew and Mark this is a Jewish question – the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the ancient Law. And Jesus gives an understandably Jewish answer: drawing on scripture known to his questioners. Luke’s questioner asks something far more universal, the kind of question which anyone spiritually journeying might ask, albeit phrased in all sorts of ways. ’What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And, because the questioner worries the question like a dog with a bone, his version leads into the Good Samaritan story.
I want to ask why the questioners need to know ‘What is the greatest commandment?’ So they can be picky about what they obey and what they break? Perhaps Jesus may have expected this question – after all they’d labelled him as a law breaker. A word of caution, though – Jesus is not that easily pigeonholed and he was, in Matthew at least, quick to uphold traditional Jewish teaching; and the Pharisees could have found little to object to in his comments today. And when they clearly can’t, he poses a riddle to them and silences them.
And this riddle is a teaser! Jesus tying the Pharisees in knots is not unusual; but how should we read it? It leads us into Christology, rooting the Messiah in his Davidic ancestry, yet forcing us to consider his divinity. The irony is that he is standing in front of them and they don’t realise it! But, of course we do. Almost like a pantomime scene, where the audience knows someone is there, but the characters on stage don’t!
A legalistic religion like that of the Pharisees is, in some ways, very appealing. All you have to do in an ethical dilemma is look it up in the book or ask the scholars and act accordingly. Jesus, on the other hand, says all you have to do is love God and your neighbours. This may seem more appealing still, until, in dilemma after dilemma, you try to figure out just how to go about it. What do we mean by loving? Loving God? It can be very difficult to love a seemingly remote and intangible God – much easier to love members of our family whom we can hug and interact with.
Similarly, loving neighbour, where the other is remote, unknown, different and perhaps difficult. When we encounter difference we so easily stereotype. We can assume we’re right, we have the solutions and the other is wrong. We don’t listen, let alone acknowledge they have a point. And, God knows, national, global and even local affairs are so complicated that there are many points to be grasped. We cannot come near to accepting others’ realities until we see them as neighbours with human faces; but we won’t be able even to glimpse ways forward, let alone find lasting solutions, until we do.
Love God, love your neighbour as yourself. There’s three lovings in there, or so it seems. But a word of caution (because the love of self here is sometimes over-egged): while it is impossible to love your neighbour, or even enter into balanced relationships with others, if you hate yourself, Jesus is not advocating any kind of self-absorbed self-love. We cannot love our neighbour as Jesus advocated and exemplified, if we have deep needs and dependencies on those around us. But, equally, this is not talking about love merely as some feeling, but something more akin to behaviour and commitment. And to love God with all one’s heart and soul is not simply to pray, but to become so close to God that one is thinking and acting in some small way like God. Synergy, oneness. And thus the love extends way beyond overt mechanical piety, but spills over into a way of living which encompasses those around, those who share our world and, indeed, the globe itself. Thus love is not passive emotion, but an active way of being; and loving God naturally becomes loving neighbour.
Here we hold to a faith which allows for difference, for ambiguity and for unresolved issues. We recognise that neither Scripture nor tradition provides every answer to every question. Those who are seen to be soft on boundaries, and to have few certainties in faith, can be perceived to be weak. Those who are clearly attracted to faith systems or other drivers which provide unambiguous teaching, clear rules and therefore a compelling sense of unanimity and belonging, can despise what they perceive as the wishy-washy approach of Christianity. I know from my prison experience that my young men were much more attracted to perceived certainties than any apparent sitting on the fence, in the form of living with questions and ambiguities. But they recognised that for all the 600 odd precepts in the Torah, there is not a solution to every problem or situation. What then?
We’re about to participate in the Eucharistic supper. What does that mean to us? If it is no more than an especially personally holy moment, then we’ve missed the point! If we believe Christ is truly present among us at the Eucharist, as he was among his disciples, then we, like them, have to take seriously the injunction to go forth, which the closing prayers at the Eucharist make plain. We must practise what we have become and go forth, bearing the mark of Christ, Christ before, behind, alongside and within, to love and serve God in God’s world. In practice, if we believe Christ is in the world already, this means, above all, listening and walking alongside God’s people. Not having all the answers, or even the questions.
The Poverty Commission work I’ve been doing for the Bishop and for Synod has involved considerable exploration of what poverty really is, and how this is lived out in our Diocese. To do that, we’ve needed to listen to people. And it’s been a humbling and unsettling experience. We listen so often to politicians and others talking about the disadvantaged, the deserving poor etc. etc. – language which I treat with a great deal of caution, I have to say – but what do those who experience hardship have to say? The Poverty Commission has heard from them first-hand, and not by pre-empting or foreclosing on the answers but by simply starting by asking, ‘What are the burning questions and issues?’ And the answers have surprised us. The experts are quite simply the people who live and breathe the questions.
I could weep for an interpretation of the faith and the Christ I believe in, which sees the way to God as fulfilling a set of rules. Of course it isn’t ‘anything goes’ but if my prisoner had been able more fully to catch the enormity of the love of God and the liberation which that brings, then he, and hopefully his girlfriend as well, might have been able to discover the paths along which God was aching to lead him, and hopefully positively, rather than negatively, make appropriate life choices. My sorrow and failure is that he didn’t catch that wonder sufficiently. Like the Pharisees, we make it all so complicated. Let’s simply remember that God sent his Son to heal the sick, feed the hungry etc. etc. and go and do likewise. No more, no less. And let God deal with everything else.
© The Revd Alison Adams