All Saints Margaret Street | Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 8 September 2013

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 8 September 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

TRINITY 15     2013   HIGH MASS 

We are being filmed this morning for a documentary about the place of the Bible in the life of the Church, so let us pay attention to those passages which the Church has appointed for us to hear this Sunday.

The first thing we should take note of is that the Bible is not one book but a collection of books, a library amassed over a period of centuries, written in and to different contexts, to meet different situations. It is easy to forget this when, thanks to the invention of printing, or we have all the books of the Bible in one volume we can carry around with us, or now on some electronic device.

  • The first of our readings has Moses addressing the people of Israel in the wilderness.
  • In the second, Paul is writing to a particular individual about another – unusual for him who normally writes to churches.
  • In the Gospel, Luke shows us Jesus speaking to the crowds who are following him.

Moses setting before the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land, the law of God, the law of love of God and of neighbour, which is to guide and govern their relationships with each. It used to be assumed that the first five books of what we call the Old Testament were written by Moses; although there was always the puzzle about how Moses records his own death at the end of Deuteronomy!

Scholars came to recognise that Deuteronomy as we have it was written a good deal later; using materials drawn from the tradition of Israel. It was written for a people who had already reached the Promised Land and had been settled there a long time.  In the face of its many temptations to worship false gods, they had fallen away from the keeping of the law of God.  They sought to recall the people to their first love and loyalty; to a time during their desert wanderings when the choices between good and evil, true and false worship, life and death were clearer. It was a call to renewal, to reformation at a time when the very life of the nation was under threat of extinction, and would have to survive exile. There have been times in the life of the Church when such calls have had to be made and which have often found their inspiration in Scripture.

Deuteronomy has perhaps too straightforward a connection between obedience to God’s Law and prosperity in this life. Other books in the Old Testament would be written to question this – like the Book of Job.  Yet, while Job is correct to say that fidelity to the law of God does not mean some automatic reward, we know that the rule of law does generally contribute to the common good; the flouting of that law, or its abuse or manipulation for the benefit of a few over the many, demonstrates negatively the truth of this. If we read our newspapers or watch television, we see the consequences of the absence of law and respect for its rule.

What we should know too is that we need to work on the keeping of the law at all times. We cannot simply assume that because we have the law, things will be all right. Law has to adapt to new situations: our laws of privacy for example have to adapt, say to deal with press intrusion and with government surveillance of our emails and phone calls. How do we decide what is in the public interest and what is necessary for our common security?

The rule of law requires too the means of administering and, when necessary, enforcing it: courts and lawyers, police and prisons.  It requires a recognition that human agencies are fallible and get things wrong. They are also sinful, and through laziness or corruption fail to serve justice.

The rule of law also requires a willingness, and more than a passive one on our part, to obey those laws, and to see that they are obeyed, to see that people receive justice, even when it is embarrassing or inconvenient to governments or one or other sector of society, or even to ourselves.

Let’s now give our attention to the Gospel.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. His ministry is attracting crowds of folk who follow on behind. In worldly terms, things are going well. If you are starting a new movement, then you want people on your side, surely.  But suddenly, Jesus turns and addresses these would-be followers about the reality of being his disciples: what the title of the English translation of one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books would call, ‘The Cost of Discipleship.”

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Hard even harsh words – certainly not comforting ones. Even if we take into account Jesus’ use of the Jewish technique of exaggeration. 

He is saying to them that the way to Jerusalem is one which will lead to confrontation with the powers that be in church as well as state: to death and rejection.  Fidelity to him might cost them everything – including their closest relations in a culture where loyalty to family was paramount and where our notion of freedom of choice was unknown. 

Bonhoeffer’s book began its life as addresses to seminarians training to be pastors in the illegal Confessing Church in Nazi Germany.  He speaks of the choice between a comfortable conformity with the world and discipleship.  He tells them that discipleship, carrying the cross, is not just putting up with life’s burdens and inconveniences; it is to suffer for Christ’s sake. It involves not just pain and death – but shame and rejection – rejection by the world, society, family and friends. It is not a noble death but a shameful one.

When couples come to see me about getting married, I think they are sometimes surprised when I point out to them that the Marriage Service is not very romantic about  marriage but speaks plainly and realistically about what it involves:  “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…”  Or when young men or women come to see me about their sense of vocation to the priesthood, and I don’t immediately leap up and down with enthusiasm, but spell out something of the personal cost, to them, and to their loved ones. Some of that cost is exacted, not by obvious enemies, but by those who are our fellow-believers.

Paul addresses Philemon, one fellow-believer in Christ, about Onesimus, another. The Letter of Philemon is unique among the genuine letters of Paul in being addressed to an individual, although it is clear that the letter is not meant to be a totally private one but it would probably be shared around, read aloud to others in the church which met in his house. We think of letters as private but this was not always the case then and sometimes now.

My father-in-law is in hospital at the moment, and when we got back from holiday my wife and daughter set off to Durham to visit him. As I had to be here, I wrote him a letter, hoping to both make up for my absence and to provide some spiritual encouragement.  I gather he has been reading it out to his visitors – perhaps it worked!

Paul writes about the case of Onesimus, a run-away slave belonging to Philemon, who has fled to Paul for support.

From our point in history, with the advantage of hindsight, it may surprise us that Paul does not condemn slavery outright as something incompatible with Christianity. He merely appeals to Philemon to act in a particular way in this case.  Was it, as some have suggested, that he was expecting the world and slavery to end imminently? Was it that the scale of the institution of slavery and the power of the Roman empire was so great that the adherents of a still small religious movement were in no position to do more than advise that Christians should release their slaves?

But in Paul’s argumentation, there is a point of revolutionary significance.  Onesimus, although still a slave in legal terms, is also now a brother, one of the baptised, a Christian.  So in the most profound terms he and Philemon are equals.

This is something which eventually, after an unconscionable length of time, to our shame, the Church would come to terms with, kicking and struggling sometimes.  We have just been keeping the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s address at the great march on Washington as part of the Civil Rights Movement. That speech in fact turned into a sermon, because King was first and last a preacher of the Gospel.

When I was training for the priesthood, in more comfortable and safer circumstances than Bonhoeffer’s seminarians, we had to pass an exam called “Use of the Bible.”  It was jokingly known as “Abuse of the Bible.”  But only half-jokingly: for the Bible has been abused over the centuries to justify the enslavement of people because of the colour of their skin, Apartheid in South Africa, the persecution of the Jews, the oppression of women, and so on.  

The Bible can be abused, but it retains an explosive quality, a revolutionary power, an untameable force, which can take us by surprise and make us better than we were before.  We find that it is not so much we who read the scriptures, but the scriptures which read and challenge us to choose life and not death as the disciples of the one who died that we might live.