SERMON PREACHED AT
St FRANCIS’ CHURCH, BATCHELOR (NT)
SUNDAY, September 16th 2012
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 24 / SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF PENTECOST)
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 7.26 – 8.1
I have been re-reading, in recent weeks, a masterful history of the development of ideas in the Reformation era. I believe that this is one of the most painful eras in Christian history The proliferation of Christian denominations and cults that has splintered outwards ever since is simply a tragic scar on the credibility of our gospel witness. Without going into a history lesson, yes there were some matters that that the Catholic Church had corrupted into a sorry distortion of gospel truth. Unfortunately, though, the Reformers were soon doing as much if not more damage to the proclamation of the gospel. Within ten or fifteen years of Luther’s original acts of rebellion many within Roman Catholicism were fighting from within to reform its excesses, while holding on to the unity that has never again been attained. Oh that we could set back the clock so that we could retain the integrity that some of the catholic reformers sought. I thjink of barel;y known figures today, such as wise reforming moderates, the likes of a Jean Charlier de Gerson or the later Girolamo Seripando, struggling to maintain theological integrity within Catholicism without resorting to schism, and dying, like Jesus, with no hint whether their struggle would bear fruit. These, along with the better know Desiderius Erasmus, brutally treated by Luther, are the ones who strike me as the heroes of faith-integrity in the Reformation era. All ultimately were on the losing side, as better known names such as Luther, Calvin and even Henry VIII drove a wedge into the heart of the Christian unity for which, John tells us, Jesus prayed in the garden. It was a tragic time, and it is not surprising that many felt the end of the world was nigh.
I make no secret then of my wish that it had never happened. While historical accident led me to Anglicanism, I stand firmly in the shoes of movements within Anglicanism that claim constantly its Catholic heritage, and, while the more extreme English Reformers might turn in their grave, I believe the Oxford Movement within the Anglicanism of the nineteenth century was one of our finest moments and greatest gifts. I thank God for the centrality of the eucharist that was a direct result of that movement, bringing this feast of Jesus back to the centre of most Anglican Christian experience. Other side-effects were reclamation of the importance of the epistles of James and even the deutero-canonical Wisdom of Solomon, deeply resented by the Reformers because they did not suit their decentralization of the institutions of faith.
The Reformers’ personal piety emphasis opened the floodgates that led to the ‘me and my mate Jesus’ spirituality that has so dominated Protestantism ever since. It was the Reformers, not the Catholics that yearned to throw out these tricky books, because they did not suit them, despite their claims as Reformers to emphasize the centrality of Scripture. And no wonder they wanted to cast these books to outer darkness … the epistle of James made it through their misguided censorship in the end because they believed it to have been written by the brother of Jesus. There are all sorts of ironies in the Reformers’ reluctant acceptance of the book, and indeed of their entire relationship to the question of ‘canon’, but perhaps that thought must await another time and place. In the end, thank God it got through, and thank God that, with the Book of Wisdom, it can play a part in the liturgies of the twenty first century.
Because, in this century, it is not a pious ‘me and my personal saviour’ spirituality that will touch lives with the redeeming love of Jesus, but a love that binds up the broken hearted, proclaims liberty to the oppressed (not least those currently being sent to the government’s latest draconian refugee ‘solution’), proclaims sight to the blind. ‘Was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road’, wrote James, to the horror of Martin Luther who, for all his strengths, was determined to make salvation a pietistic, personal matter. How can people see Jesus when we represent a church so wrapped up in personal salvation and piety that we show no compassion for the broken, or when our own obsession with eternal life (whatever that is) drowns out concern for those whose present life is a living hell? It’s not altogether an either/or, I confess, but as I listen to the heartcries of those around me there is no doubt that many people reject Jesus – it seems – because of the self-obsession of his most vocal followers.
Which leads me to the Wisdom of Solomon. The Anglican founders marginalised this book as one to be used ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’, and not for the establishment of doctrine. I accept that while I deplore it, but the line becomes blurred at this point. How can we not see the great wisdom of God and the works of the Spirit of God in holy men and women far outside the confines and boundaries of Christianity? Confronted by a Fred Hollows, an Aung San Suu Kyi, a Steve Biko or a Mahatma Ghandi who cannot see the work of the Spirit of God? Flawed, indeed, but what great saint was not? We might add others: Allen R Schindler, a gay sailor beaten to death by fellow marines in a Nagasaki toilet, or Vincent Lingiari, the aboriginal activist who fought for the rights of Aboriginal workers at Wave Hill. Flawed, but individuals through whom the one I would call the Spirit of God was powerfully at work for justice and compassion: the Spirit who is ‘a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness’.
It may come as a surprise in many circles, but Jesus did not say ‘those who want to follow me, confess me as Lord and rejoice in their own personal salvation’, but ‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. We would be on dangerous ground if we limited the work of the Spirit of God to the often too-cosy in-crowd of Christian believers: ‘not all who cry ‘Lord, Lord’, said Jesus. He rebukes his number one follower, Peter, for failing to see the phenomenal reach, even to degradation and death far beyond the confines of religion, that is the way of the Cross. God will not be confined to the neat and tidy expectations of our comfort zones, but is the one who breaks boundaries and is revealed wherever there is justice, compassion, and the values of immeasurable, life-surrendering love. The onus is on us as a Christian community to look deeply at ourselves to find out whether we are, truly, on the side of that love.