Sermon for Palm Sunday – Choral Evensong Sunday 29 March 2015
PALM SUNDAY, 2015 EVENSONG
Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
On Sunday evenings this Lent, we have been engaged in collective self-examination using the series of questions addressed in the Baptismal Commission, to candidates, and to us when we renew our Baptism vows at Easter.
Tonight we come to the last of these – appropriately enough on Palm Sunday – when Christ enters Jerusalem and is hailed as king – a title which he goes to on radically redefine in the week that follows.
This morning, I pointed to the contrast between Pilate and Jesus, but also that between Jesus and the expectations of many of his fellow-Jews. He would not turn out to be the kind of Messiah-Liberator for which they longed.
Western Christianity has often imagined that the crowds got it wrong, because they were wanting a this-worldly freedom, when Jesus was really offering spiritual freedom, a kingdom after death not one in this world.
We had an example of this recently when the Bishops of the Church of England issued a Pastoral Letter to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015, the Times, a newspaper which has sacked its religious affairs correspondent and is now clearly suffering from a severe case of theological deficit, wrote that the business of the Church is “the soothing and the saving of troubled souls.”
But Palm Sunday makes a different point. Psalm 72 speaks of the king who brings justice and peace, from sea to sea and away to the ends of the earth. He makes the poor his priority; he puts into practice the justice of God himself, and so he brings the peace of God himself.
Well, the soothing and saving of troubled souls is certainly part of the business of the Church, and I along with thousands of other priests, and countless lay people, not to mention bishops, spend a good deal of time and energy doing it. I think it fair to say that we know a good deal more about it and do much more of it than most journalists.
But it is not the whole of the Church’s business. The Times described the Bishops’ letter as “unsolicited.” Well, Mr. Murdoch and his editor may not have solicited it, but what they have missed in their theological ignorance is that the duties of a bishop include the teaching of the faith to their people – and this faith includes our responsibilities as citizens.
The Bishops are not telling us who to vote for, but they are giving us some guidance about what we need to consider when we vote. They are encouraging us not only to vote but to get involved in political debate and action; not in spite of being Christians but because we are Christians. They want people to get involved in the conversation. This is a piece of public theology – the beginning of a debate, not its end.
They are seeking to stimulate a fresher debate about the nature of our common life: the relationship between central and local, statutory and voluntary, welfare and enterprise. They do this at a time of increasing economic and social division; of alienation from political life and from community and social life in general among so many. We are increasingly a “society of strangers” rather than a “community of communities.”
The letter speaks of a civil society as a rich, vital network of “intermediate” institutions that nurture the essential public virtues of solidarity, mutuality, neighbourliness, trust and a sense of place. These are required to sustain any healthy society, economy and polity, but they are increasingly undermined by our culture of individualism, consumerism and rootlessness. The fabric of intermediate local and voluntary organisations which enriches and strengthens civic society has been undermined by both the monopolistic power of the state, under parties of both left and right, and by the individualism promoted by consumer capitalism. These things matter because they undermine the very nature of our society. It cannot flourish, we cannot prosper, when they dominate.
The bishops are doing this at a time when there is something of a collapse of confidence in our political system and institutions in general. Numbers voting in general elections are falling steadily. Those taking part in local elections are a minority of those entitled to vote. Membership of political parties, with the exception of the SNP – is also in massive decline – and their age profile makes the Church look quite sprightly. The reputation of our elected representatives has taken a battering from expenses and cash for access scandals. Even though not all, or even a majority, are tainted by this, mud, as the clergy know only too well, sticks.
This is not the occasion for a lecture on the many and various forms which Church-State relations have taken down the centuries. One of those is the peculiar form of establishment in England – often seen as a source of privilege – but more importantly as a responsibility for the life of the nation. We see that responsibility being exercised by our Archbishops for example – as one who has been involved in trying to clear up the mess which is our banking sector, and the other campaigns for a decent “living wage” so that people are not abandoned to “working poverty.”
The two bishops who have been chiefly responsible for this letter are not clerics whom the media have turned to for instant comments on any issue. They are both hard working members of the Upper House who care deeply about the common good of our nation.
If “establishment” gives us a responsibility to society in this land, so too does being part of the Catholic Church. The word “catholic” comes from the “whole.”
We are to recognise that the world is God’s creation and that he loves it. Christianity is not an escapist or world-denying faith. That is something which being an established Church reminds us of – why establishment can be uncomfortable – it is something being the Catholic Church – concerned for the whole reminds us of too. Being catholic is not about some religious bit of life, but about the whole of life. That whole life – not just some fraction – is under Christ’s authority.
So, as we “acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society” we are to pray for the world and its leaders.
Part of that acknowledgement of Christ is the recognition of the reality of sin which affects all human institutions: so that the state which we must rely on to provide services which are beyond the resources of individuals or communities, can become oppressive or even totalitarian. Markets whose impressive effectiveness in distribution the bishops recognise, can if not directed to the common good, entrench inequality and undermine the conditions for their own survival.
We pray for the world and its peace. We pray for leaders because of the onerous responsibilities placed on them. We pray for them, as I have said more than once, not because we like them or approve of some or all of their policies, but because we recognise the difficulty of their task – politics is the art of the possible – but sometimes things seem well-nigh impossible and events as Harold MacMillan said often overtake the best intentions and plans of our elected representatives.
But the bishops make clear that our responsibility to society involves of necessity a seeking for justice and peace. These are not two separate things. There can be no peace without justice. A peace which is founded on injustice – whether a legal system which discriminates against the weak and marginal, or an economic system which condemns people to exclusion and poverty – is no peace at all. The preferential option for the weak and the poor is not an optional extra for Christians – as Pope Francis and our own Archbishops remind us. In speaking as he does, the Pope is not saying anything that his predecessors have not already said – but he is perhaps saying it more plainly and forcefully.