Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 4,
5th July 2020
Romans 7 vv 15 – 25a Tension between law and faith
Matthew 11 vv 16 – 19 ‘You can’t win.’ Rest for the weary.
- Introduction. “You can’t win” is how one might sum up the opening verses of our gospel reading, in which Jesus speaks of children playing both lively music and dirges in the market place. I would love to know what is going through the mind of the Archbishop of Canterbury as he hears, perhaps reads and even preaches on the Gospel reading for today. Last Monday’s letters in the Daily Telegraph had many related to Justin Welby’s decision that we should review church memorials and the depiction of Jesus as white. All of these letters from typical white middle class church people, like myself, were in one way or another critical of these recommendations. I thought to myself, ‘How very like the situation of Jesus, when he was so often criticised by the strict law-abiding Pharisees and religious leaders, because of his freer approach to God and people.’ They accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, by contrast with his cousin, John the Baptist, an ascetic, whom they accused of being ‘demon possessed’. ‘You can’t win’ was in one sense true then and now. I say in one sense because actually the Christian Gospel is very positive and we do win, perhaps slowly step by step as we seek to proclaim in word and deed the Gospel, the good News of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
- Racist. Are we as Christians free of racism? Is the Church institutionally racist whatever that may mean? What about Society as a whole? Probably as a country we are less racist, more welcoming of other people than many other countries. But many of us are inheritors of a white supremacy of the British Empire. We have progressed from the days of the 18th and 19th centuries of the slave trade between West Africa and America including particularly the West Indies, with slavery in the sugar plantations. In the 19th Century it required great courage and perseverance by men like William Wilberforce to get Acts through Parliament, with for example all the bishops in the House of Lords voting against his bill for the abolition of slavery. There is though, a natural tendency to seek to maintain the status quo, not to rock the boat and to be critical or adopt a hostile attitude to those who are different from ourselves. It begins with childhood, in which, for example, the boy with red hair is teased. Someone speaking to me recently about a situation involving an elderly and sick person being supported by a neighbour said something like, “He is a black man but he has been so helpful.” I said “Why the ‘but’?” Implicit in that ‘but’ is that in general black people are unhelpful or worse. It was said by a person who one would say, and I know that person well, is completely unracist, but revealing a subconscious attitude. Why should we always depict Jesus as ‘white’? Most countries and cultures have historically depicted Jesus as being similar to their own culture and race. He was of course of a Middle Eastern mother and culture. It may well be that in our multicultural society we should depict Jesus in a variety of ways.
I find it quite striking that after several hundred years of ‘lockdown’ the early Christian Church emerged quite rapidly into the marvellous freedom of the Spirit through the Christian Gospel. Admittedly the eleven apostles had had a good preparation from a leader who ran counter, not to the basic law of the Hebrew Bible but to the detailed interpretations of the religious leaders down the period of several hundred years before the Christian Era. Last Monday was the festival of St Peter and St Paul, with at Morning Prayer a reading from Acts 11 in which Peter relates to the church at Jerusalem how he had visited, preached to, and baptised, the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his household. Initially the Jerusalem Christians were critical of Peter for entering a gentile house and eating with a gentile household. All credit though, to these Christians that when they heard how the gentiles had very evidently received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they praised God. Subsequently the decree of Council of Jerusalem stating the conditions to be applied to Gentile Christians, ensured that the Christian Church would become an open, independent, worldwide movement not just a small Jewish sect of Messianic Christians.
- Paul’s Struggles. The Apostle Paul with his strict Pharisaic upbringing at times struggled personally with the tension between law and Christian freedom. We find this tension exemplified in today’s reading from his letter to the Church at Rome. The Christian is free from obedience to the law as a way of pleasing God and being accepted by God, for we are accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done for us, his atoning sacrifice. The basic moral law of the Old Covenant is important as a way for Society to live in peace and harmony. As an electrical engineer I am well aware that electrical power is both a great blessing but has to be treated with great respect, otherwise it can be a source of great harm and even death. Last Tuesday when I went, with my colleague Simon, to visit St Clement’s Church Old Romney following a lightning strike a few days before, that did much damage to the electrical installation in the Church and a neighbouring house, we were very careful to check that the electrical circuits were completely dead and isolated before we proceeded with our investigation. Moral laws, like electrical regulations are there for our safety and wellbeing, not as burdensome restrictions. Article 7 of the 39 articles of religion, to be found in the book of Common Prayer, says this about the Old Testament. “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth, yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience to the Commandments which are called Moral.”
- Conclusion. The Church will emerge from lockdown with perhaps a new vision, a vision of strengthening of community bonds, of reviewing how we express our worship and how we reach out to people outside the Church with the glorious gospel of freedom and grace within which there is a full recognition and value of all races and colour and of full fellowship with and recognition of the gifts of Christians of all races and colours. May the Archbishop of Canterbury, the new Archbishop of York and all our bishops give us a strong Spirit-inspired leadership, as we seek to deepen our faith in freedom and concern for all peoples.
1184 words Christopher Miles