Sermon for Easter 4 – Evensong Sunday 7 May 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Ezra 3.1-13; Ephesians 2.11-22
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah – which were originally one – like that of Haggai which we heard from at Evensong last Sunday – deal with the return of the exiles from Babylon – where they had managed to preserve their Jewish faith and identity– the rebuilding of the city walls and of the Temple – and the restoration of its daily worship as the heart of the nation’s life.
In these writings we hear of Ezra giving a public reading of the Law of Moses to the assembled people; and of the Levites explaining it to them. While Nehemiah rebuilt the physical city walls, there was also the building of a spiritual wall around the people of God. The observance of the law of Moses would guard them against the compromises with idolatry and lapses into disobedience which were seen as the cause of the destruction of the city and the exile of its people to Babylon. Obedience to the law and the maximum degree of separation from Gentile nations, including the prohibition of mixed marriages, was the answer. In the temple there was a wall which divided the Court of the Gentiles – where they were allowed – from the rest which they were forbidden to enter on pain of death.
When the Temple was again destroyed after revolt against the Romans in AD70, it was the spiritual wall of distinctive religious practice and obedience to the law – sabbath-keeping and dietary regulations – which would become especially important in the preservation of Jewish identity.
It continues to be so to this day. When we consider the appalling trials to which the Jewish people have been subjected to: on religious grounds by Christians and Muslims; or on the basis of pseudo-scientific racism by the Nazis; and the more subtle forces of assimilation in more tolerant societies – not least “marrying out” – it has been an extraordinarily successful strategy.
The Jews are a particularly long-lasting example of this strategy of communal and religious survival in the face of adversity. There are also Christian communities like the Amish in North America who maintain their identity by separation, distinctive customs, dress and language.
The Letter to the Ephesians also speaks of the distinction between Jew and Gentile – symbolized by circumcision – and of a dividing wall. But this separating wall, made up of the law with its commandments and ordinances has been broken down by Jesus Christ in order “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
As we heard Paul saying in 1 Corinthians last week, Ephesian, too, speaks of a spiritual temple made up of people rather than of stones. This “household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” – this “dwelling place for God” – is a universal one. “…he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in the one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
Ephesians shows a Church which is universal, the Catholic church; a community in which all God’s children are to have a place.
An American writer called Rod Dreher has sparked a discussion in this area with his idea of “The Benedict Option.” He believes that western society is now so hostile to Christianity, that the only option is a quasi-monastic withdrawal from it into separate moral “exclaves.” Only thus can Christian identity be preserved for some future date when a re-Christianization of society might be launched. This is not so much a total withdrawal as a strategic retreat in order to regroup.
The starting point for his idea lies in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He saw western civilization in danger of descending into a new Dark Ages of unreason – as much anti-scientific as anti-religious. Well in an age of “alternative facts;” and contempt for “experts”, we might feel that we are already on the brink of such an age. Just as much of classical learning had been preserved after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West by the monasteries; so the hope for the preservation of scientific knowledge and culture until better times lay in the establishment of the equivalent of Benedictine communities.
Dreher’s understanding of Benedictine monasticism is rather one-sided. True, there was separation and withdrawal; and this was renewed from time to time by reform movements like the Cistercians when the monasteries became too worldly and wealthy, as they tended to do. But separation was never absolute. As well as their ministry of hospitality and the education provided in monastic schools, monks were the principal missionary force in Western and Northern Europe. Gregory the Great sent Augustine to this country from his monastery is Rome. In their turn, monks like Boniface went from this country to northern Europe. And monks went not only as missionaries. Alcuin of York was recruited by Charlemagne to implement his educational policies. Even the austere and silent Cistercians transformed their wilderness refuges by their agricultural practices.
The Scriptural case for “moral exclaves” is often based on 2 Corinthians 6:17 – “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord”, but there are other texts which take the opposite line: God’s people are to be the city built on a hill which cannot be hidden, the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5: 13-16). More broadly, “In the world but not of it,” was clearly the way of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word.
Dreher left the Roman Catholic Church of his upbringing for the Orthodox. Most Orthodox Churches have lived for centuries under the dominance of either Islam or Communism. They have been forced to “keep,” that is both to preserve and to practice, their faith, in separation and secrecy from the mainstream of society. That is not where we are or what we are called to be. Just as much as monastic communities were called to mission, so are we.
He may not have given the right answer for the Church in Western society, but Dreher does raise an important question: How does the Church, especially those churches which have a historic, incarnational commitment to the common good of society, maintain its distinctive identity?
If separation from that society is not the answer – because it deprives us of any real possibility of creative influence – then what degree of distinctiveness is necessary for such an influence to be possible? How is the salt of the earth to keep its savour? How do we preserve our distinctive Christian character so that we are not simply assimilated into the surrounding culture and take on its assumptions and character? What boundaries do we need, for we certainly need some?
If the dividing wall has been broken down, then building another one, even a spiritual one, is not the answer. It is too defensive, too negative, for the missionary purpose of the Church.
Perhaps it is more helpful to think of the Church having blurred, porous edges but a definite core. At that centre, as we heard in Luke’s description of the early Church in Acts at mass today, is being actively “faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). These are vital activities to be practiced by us, not just things we wish to see preserved.
This is about more than writing letters to the BBC defending the broadcasting of Choral Evensong on Radio 3. It is about coming to Evensong in church– and not just to experience a cultural artifact – and it is about praying the Daily Office of the Church – not just on Sundays but from Monday to Saturday as well – and not just leaving the clergy to do it for you. They will be here, doing it day-in-day-out but where will you be, what will you be doing?
It is about more than protesting against the privatization of “Songs of Praise”, it is about “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together” (Colossians 3.16) in the worship of the church.
It is about more than defending “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme: it is about thinking seriously about Christian faith and what it says to our life in the world.
It is not just thinking we need the holy scriptures to understand so much of English and European culture; not just Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, Donne and Herbert, and poets nearer our time: Auden and Eliot, but all those paintings on religious themes in art galleries and museums. It is the experience of hearing and reading scripture, meditating on it, so that it becomes the means by which Jesus encounters us, speaks to us, where he becomes part of our selves: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” (Colossians 3.16).
It is certainly not just purring contentedly that All Saints has preserved choral evensong and high mass, daily mass and benediction – but of coming to them; of attending mass here or elsewhere – of not just coming to Benediction but of spending time in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
These are all things of which the adage, “Use it or lose it” applies. If we don’t do them, they will disappear.
How can we preserve a Christian culture and tradition, its art and architecture, its music and its literature, its ascetic and spiritual practices, without becoming merely antiquarian and eccentric: without being a curious sub-culture; an escapism, no more significant than a historic reenactment society? How are we to be what scripture calls a “peculiar people” without being just plain “peculiar?” Or worse still, how are we to avoid an English Defence League version of Christian Civilization – defined by what it is not and what it is against, rather than what it is and what it is for; what it hates rather than what it loves?
There is a clue in Ephesians: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
We are talking here about an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ the cornerstone, a continuing engagement with the witness of the apostles and prophets; a long-term process – which is what “tradition” really means. It is not a finished article that we possess, something we keep in a safe deposit box – a guarantee that other benighted souls don’t have. It is not something of days of yore, to be enjoyed like a visit to a National Trust property on a bank holiday. It is something we need to love and live and grow in. We need to dig down to its depths, to put down roots so that we might be nourished and fed and “grow together spiritually into the dwelling place of God,” so that the vision of humanity united in the universal Church might become a reality rather than a wistful memory.