Sermon for Fourth Sunday before Lent High Mass Sunday 5 February 2017
4th Sunday before Lent
Sermon preached by Fr Barry Orford
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them … whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:17, 19)
The words of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew; and they are possibly the most problematic words of Jesus to appear in any gospel. Actually, they’re found only in Matthew. They raise a host of issues which I’d much rather avoid; but I mustn’t, because this passage is important in the light of a situation which we’re facing in the Church now.
Just to be clear, the law which is spoken of here was that accumulation of rules which was to be observed by faithful Jews. The disquieting question is this: did Our Lord really intend that his own followers should continue to be bound by those laws? According to Matthew, the answer is seemingly yes, which is pretty bad news for Christians right back to the earliest days of the Church.
But there’s the problem. The Church has not felt bound by Jewish law; even more, Jesus’s own conduct and teaching seem in flat contradiction to what we’ve heard in Matthew. It was Jesus’s refusal to stick to the letter of the law which made him enemies who decided that he must be got rid of.
How do we square these things? And the answer is, I’m not sure we can. The vital point is to ask why Matthew gives us these words. It seems likely that he was writing at a time when a major division was appearing between the earliest Christians, the majority of them Jewish. The division was between those who insisted that the Jewish law was binding upon Christians, and those who held that it was not, and certainly not binding upon Gentiles who became followers of Christ. And let’s remember that it was the second position which prevailed. Matthew, it appears, was writing for Jewish Christians, and wanted to assure them that the law was not simply to be jettisoned, hence the words he gives to Our Lord, though where he found them isn’t clear.
All four gospels show Jesus speaking respectfully of everything that was good in the Jewish law. Yet his words and his actions show him willing to step over the boundaries of the law when it got in the way of a greater law. That greater law was seen in him – the law that the love and mercy of God are for all people, not just an orthodox group. Remember his anger at those who said that Sabbath rules were more important than human needs; and he launched a broadside at religious conformists who were willing to frustrate God’s plans in order to keep their laws.
Let me say again, the first Christians chose to follow Our Lord’s example, not a received rule book. Think of St Peter, another person of orthodox Jewish background, who became willing to step over its boundaries by going to eat with Gentiles. Why? Because his experience showed him that the Spirit of God in Christ is all-embracing. We know that this caused him discomfort, but he had to bow to the reality of what God was doing with the Gentiles, rather than to laws which set limits to God’s actions.
And what of St Paul? You couldn’t be more orthodox a Jew than he was, but his experience of the power of the living Christ meant that he was compelled to step over the boundaries of the law which had meant so much to him. Had he not done that, most likely we wouldn’t be here. In his letters, his view of the law is rather ambiguous, dictated by specific situations he was writing to meet, but there’s no question that he was adamant that our freedom as people of God comes to us through Christ, not through keeping an older law. As Christians we’re called to see all former laws and traditions through the lens of the Risen Christ. When we look at them, we must ask, do these embody the spirit of Christ?
Many of you will have realized why it was necessary this morning to look at these issues. Unless you’ve spent the last week living in an igloo, you’ll know that the bishops of the Church of England have just issued a statement on same-sex relationships, particularly in the context of marriage. Basically, it has said that the Church is not changing its present approach to the matter. It’s not surprising that this has already provoked a lot of disappointment and hurt and anger among those who were hoping for some change. Actually, it’s not a wholly negative statement, but it does fail to grasp that today there are many more people, even in Church, who trust their experience of what same-sex relationships look like, rather than trusting received dogmas about them.
It’s not my concern here to discuss the statement in detail. What is important is that we should be aware of the issues which surround it, especially since it will be discussed soon in General Synod.
It becomes clear that in this matter we are replaying the situation which faced the early Christians. Are we bound by an existing received law, or are we being urged by the Spirit of Christ to step over the boundaries? There are, as you’d expect, those who want no change at all from the letter of the law, and they tend to defend their position by an appeal to “biblical teaching.” But as we’ve seen, the teaching of the scriptures is nothing like so clear and uniform as some people want to think, and it’s coloured by the circumstances in which the biblical writers thought and wrote. Equally, there are those who insist that we are bound by tradition. But once again, that was not the path taken by the early Christians, however much they valued what was best in the tradition.
A voice which will certainly be heard in Synod is that which says that it’s not our job to change our doctrines and practices to fit in with contemporary opinion. There’s truth in that, but not the whole truth. Increased knowledge of our world and our human nature will force us to revise many previously held opinions; and from the start the Church has been changing and adapting what it has received. Change and adaptation are hallmarks of a living organism.
For example, for centuries the Church felt bound by Our Lord’s words which apparently forbid remarriage after divorce; yet the Anglican and Orthodox churches, along with the free churches, have moved from that position. (A point which I believe the bishops’ statement sidesteps.) Let me add that Our Lord’s reported words on this matter are perhaps not quite so straightforward in meaning as might at first appear, another reason for treating scripture with care.
Looking at our present situation, I’m struck by its similarities with not only the early Church, but with the campaign to abolish slavery. There were those at that time who said, rightly, that slavery is accepted by the scriptures, so it was permissible. The abolitionists realized they couldn’t argue their case from scripture, so they had to turn to their experience. It was that which showed them the inhumanity and anti-Christian character of slavery, rather than anything in the Bible, or in tradition.
What should concern all of us when the bishops’ Statement comes to Synod – and afterwards – is not the repetition of tired and often ill-founded arguments. Rather, we need to look at the spirit in which discussion is conducted. Feelings will be running high, and when that’s mixed with a desire in some quarters for scoring political advantage, you have potentially a toxic mix. What is needed is attention to a question which will probably not be raised in Synod. With any official Church policy, we need to ask, “who is actually benefitting from this policy?” Whose lives are being enriched by it? Who is being drawn closer to the love of God and humanity by it? If the answer in each case is “probably nobody”, then the policy cannot be of God, no matter what scriptural or traditional arguments are advanced in its defence. The bishops ask for a change in the tone in which the Church speaks of same-sex relationships. This question would be a change of tone.
As our Lord knew, a story can challenge us and warn us more than any arguments, so let me finish with a story. Years ago, in the East, there was a very wise teacher. One day, the teacher was sitting with his disciples, and he was told that a visiting bishop would like to meet him. He welcomed the bishop, who raised questions of religion. “The trouble with religion,” said the teacher, “is that it can make people cruel.” The bishop was offended and stalked off. The disciples asked their teacher, “what did you mean by saying that religion can make people cruel?” He replied, “religion can make people cruel, because in defence of their religious laws and principles they can become willing to sacrifice other people.”