Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday of Lent, 21st February 2016
Phil. 3:18-19 – ‘…they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:
Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.’

We had the first of our Lent groups this week. The one that I took part in was at the Catholic Church, Sacred Heart, in their new hall, which is almost as nice as St Mary’s Hall. This year our Lent groups are organised by Churches Together, which is the way it works every second year, and so we are joining together with members of all the other churches in Cobham and Stoke and Oxshott, which gives us an opportunity to compare notes on our various Christian beliefs and look at how we see things from our different points of view.

The course is about being a Christian in a secular world, and the first session offered us a number of instances where Christians might seem to be different, or at odds with, the secular world around them. The topics that the course material suggested we talk about included sex – whether a sex education course was right to suggest that regular sex was just like having five portions of fruit and veg a day: whether one should use condoms, for birth control or to prevent the spread of diseases – and euthanasia, or assisted dying. Issues of life and death.

The talks for the course include contributions from members of different churches. Clifford Longley, the well-known journalist, gives the Roman Catholic point of view, Rachel Lampard, who is a Methodist Local Preacher – which is the same as a Reader in the C of E – is giving the Protestant point of view; Archbishop John Sentamu starts the discussion and Bishop Graham Cray sums up at the end.

The topics were designed to elicit from everyone their various doctrinal differences, to try to get us to air our differences on these important moral questions, as between the various churches. For example, we were talking about abortion and birth control. Does the Catholic view on the point where life begins take precedence over the need, for example, to prevent AIDS or Zika by using condoms? Similar considerations might apply in relation to euthanasia. It depends on your view of the sanctity of human life; how human life works, and to what extent we might be interfering with God’s creation; you might think all these would be relevant considerations.

What was really interesting was that, in a group where there were representatives from St Andrew’s Oxshott, St Andrew’s Cobham, St Mary’s, Sacred Heart, and someone’s daughter, who confessed that she wasn’t currently going to church at all, it was actually quite difficult to get people to disagree. Everybody seemed to agree on a proposition, (which wasn’t in any of the notes), that ‘the church has too many rules’. ‘The church’, in that context, was everyone’s church. It didn’t matter what denomination it was; the suggestion was that all the churches were to some extent too bound by rules.

I thought that was very interesting. It seemed to me that it might be a reflection of something which I have noticed in other contexts, that we do seem to be shy of talking in terms of principles. Our allegiances seem to be determined as much by heredity and culture as by any kind of principled analysis and belief.

The point of this is that principles don’t seem to be that important to people; we are looking at almost tribal allegiances instead, I think. To some extent I think that that is what brings at least some of the Christians in this area together. Indeed I think it may be not just a local effect round here.

It may be that what brings us to church, or to a particular church, is a sense that it is familiar, it is what we’re used to. Our parents went to it: we were christened there, or married there. Our friends go there. Although we say, and sing, a lot of words, in the service, in the liturgy and in the hymns, we don’t necessarily take every word that seriously. 

People often talk about saying the Creed ‘with their fingers crossed’, for example. They mean that there are things we recite which they either don’t really understand, or even don’t actually believe. There are some very deep questions buried in our liturgy. What does it really mean that Jesus died ‘for our sins’? Do we still believe – if we ever did – in ‘substitutionary atonement’ – that somehow Jesus was a kind of ‘scapegoat’, punished in our place by God? How could a loving God do that?

But instead, we might say the Creed, knowing that there are bits of it which we don’t really subscribe to, precisely because it is a kind of membership subscription. We want to identify ourselves as Christians.

But then the question arises, what are the marks of a Christian? What are the basic defining characteristics of a Christian today? How do we mark ourselves off from secular society? Is it what we do or how we behave, or is it what we believe?

We sometimes hear people say that, where going to church is concerned, the process is not to ‘believe and then belong’, but the other way round: to belong and then to believe.

It might indeed be quite a challenge to start with the propositions in the Creed – Virgin Birth, sacrificial death and bodily Resurrection, for instance – if you’d never met any other Christians, and never seen the homely realities of church life. You don’t need theological sophistication in order to join the flower rota.

And indeed, unless you do engage with the theory, with the theology, it’s difficult to see how you could fall out with, or at least differ from, otherChristians in other denominations.

In our group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, the group members didn’t split along denominational lines reflecting the supposed differences between our theological understandings, of what human life and death is, when it starts, and to what extent we can interfere with it: the members of the group didn’t fall into opposing camps over contraception or euthanasia, but rather regretted the fact that our different churches have different ‘rules’.

In one way, that’s great. There is undoubtedly more that unites us than keeps us apart. But is it clear what you need to sign up to, is there a minimum, core requirement, that defines us as Christians as opposed to humanists (who would agree with all aspects of Christian morality), or Moslems, or atheists?

And so we get back to ‘rules’ – or at least principles. ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:..’ But what about contraception, and euthanasia, and gay marriage? My Lent group were seeming to suggest that they were relatively unimportant, just inconvenient ‘rules’ which perhaps the churches would do better without.

Theologians, for example Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century, in his debates with the Puritans, used the ancient Greek Stoics’ term αδιάφορα, ‘indifferent things’, ‘things which make no difference’, to identify ideas or rules which don’t affect the essential truths.

Jesus seemed to be all in favour of keeping things simple. In St Matthew chapter 22 [37-40] he said,

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 

This is the first and great commandment. 

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Immediately he seemed to have cut down the Ten Commandments to two. But remember, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also said,

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Matt. 5:17)

So who is to decide what matters, what is the hallmark of a Christian, and what makes no difference? Which is where we came in. We have to be careful to try to find out what God wants us to do, and to be, and not become like the people St Paul condemned as

‘…enemies of the cross of Christ:

Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.’
I’m looking forward to learning more in the next session of the Lent course. Do come along!