SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU(NAPIER, AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
(16th February) 2014
Readings: Deuteronomy 30.15-20
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
I suggested last week that we cannot and must not drive a theological wedge between Jesus and Paul, between Paul and the gospel writers, and between the gospel writers and Jesus. To do so is wantonly to compartmentalize the story of the people of God, to compartmentalize as it were God’s spiritual guidance, and while if we are to be honest we can’t avoid doing that to some extent, it is best if we avoid doing it unnecessarily. Paul, with some rancour, challenges the people of Corinth (with good reason) to be what he calls a “spiritual people” because they were playing games with the guidance of God: we run the risk of doing the same when we unnecessarily distort the scriptures of our faith into micro-canons that suit our particular taste. I say again: we probably all do it (some of us were wincing this week at the readings from 1 Timothy and from Leviticus that seem somewhat alien and patronising to our post-modern ears). We all do it: Somehow we must seek the grace of God that we may be gracious and discerning in our reading of the sacred texts of faith, wise perhaps as serpents, gentle perhaps as doves.
To read Paul we have again and again the insight, stated baldly in Galatians but undergirding his whole world view, that humanity has fallen short of its divinely instigated potential. Later this would give rise to complex doctrines of the Fall: for now we might just recall that when we turn on the news we are simply not the humanity we ought to be. When we turn on a little bit of self-analysis we will probably discover that we are not the human individuals we ought to be. Ask those who are closest to us whether we have fallen short of human perfection, let alone the glory of God!
I’m neither a fan of bumper stickers, nor of clichés. On the other hand they can point to truths. Driving along a motorway and finding someone cutting into my lane unnecessarily I am I’m afraid I am likely to react in a slightly less generous way than Jesus would – though on the whole I refrain from flipping the finger. Walk past a beautiful woman on the street and I am afraid – don’t tell Anne – I am likely to find myself condemned by the standards of these stern words of Jesus (though not, perhaps, by Thomas Aquinas, who allowed us heterosexual blokes seven seconds of observation before appraisal becomes sin). So far I have not plucked out my eyes, but were I to be what some Christians rather dangerously call a “bible believing Christian”, a fundamentalist, then there is no doubt I should be plucking out mine eyes and chopping off mine limbs incessantly. Funnily enough I find an awful lot of fundamentalists with all limbs and eyes intact. I’m neither a fan of bumper stickers, nor of clichés, but what would Jesus do? Because, sadly, I know it would contrast markedly with my self-serving efforts.
Should we bash ourselves up for our inadequacies? Probably not. Matthew is in all likelihood reacting against those who were abusing Paul’s theology of grace, those who like the Corinthians wanted to use their faith in Jesus to out-hypocrite the hypocrites (and we’ve seen too much of that in churches). Matthew more than any other writer lays down the “more even than the Law” demands of following Jesus. Luke records words of Jesus that suggest the Torah of the Jews will never pass away, but does not go into the gruesome details of lust and murder and legal shenanigans (the last a prohibition often ignored by some of the most casuistic of Christians) that Matthew records. Matthew lays it on the line with heavy hand precisely because he believes that bearers of Christ must strive, however inadequately, for the impossible. Matthew, every bit as well as Paul, knows that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, but as the behavioural pendulum swung wildly Matthew realised that Christians needed to strive – always with the help of God – to strive for the perfection that Jesus had exemplified in his life and teachings.
Will we get there? Sorry folks: no. Not this side of the grave. But the grace and healing that comes from metanoia, from turning and turning again to the forgiveness of God is much easier to receive if we make the effort, no matter how some Christians distort that message into some sort of "earn you way to salvation" message. Will we fall short? Yes. Matthew knew that. Few people attain sainthood in the traditional sense, and the ones that do are precisely those who best know their need for the help of God. We are challenged though – daily – to strive. Choose this day whom you will serve: choose life, that you and your descendants may live. Choose life lived for others, love directed to others (even lane swappers!). Choose to hold fast to what we might call not the “land of God” as Deuteronomy puts it but the state of God-attunedness to which Jesus invites us day after day after day. Hold fast, as the psalmist urges us, eyes fixed on the demands of God. Hold fast … as God holds fast.