Sermon for Evensong on the third Sunday of Epiphany 22nd of January 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-12

I said when I welcomed everyone at the beginning of the service, this is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s particularly nice to have Father Jonathan and some of our friends from Sacred Heart here to worship with us. That of course goes for all our friends from all the other churches, but today I have a particular thing to discuss with our Roman friends.

This morning I preached on Christian unity and tried to reconcile our modern tendency, to elevate our tastes and our wish to be able to choose, with the clear biblical imperative that we should all be one in Christ Jesus.

Tonight I want to be more specific in touching on the fact that this week is not only the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but also that we are beginning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or to be more precise, the 500th anniversary, on 31st October, of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses protesting against various practices in the then Roman Catholic Church; in particular, the sale of ‘indulgences’ in order to shorten one’s time in ‘purgatory’.

In those days, the belief was that, after death, your soul went into a halfway house, purgatory, where it was tested and purified so as to eradicate from it any traces of sin. This could be a lengthy and painful process, which you could shorten by buying indulgences. Without going into the theology involved in Martin Luther’s challenge, I would just point out that this dispute about indulgences was the beginning of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches which are subsequently described as Protestant.

What I am interested in tonight is to some extent influenced by our first lesson from Ecclesiastes, the famous lesson about time, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to get, and a time to lose, and so on. Everything in its season and a season for everything

As some of you may know, I was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford. The College has been in the news recently because it has become the subject of protests by a movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, started originally in South Africa, protesting against memorials to Cecil Rhodes, who, as well as founding the famous Rhodes scholarships, and paying for the building of Rhodes House, where the Rhodes Scholars could meet, gave to my old college, Oriel, enough money to fund the building of a new Rhodes Building which was finished before the First World War and which has just been subject to a complete refurbishment including the building of a new additional top floor with very splendid penthouses for students looking over the rooftops towards the dreaming spires of Oxford.

On the side of the building which faces the High Street there is a large statue of Cecil Rhodes, and the protesters have been demanding that the statue be removed, just as a similar statue in Cape Town has been removed as a result of their protest. The protesters have argued that Cecil Rhodes exploited his workers in his diamond mines, that he had been a racist and colonialist of the worst type, and he should not be remembered favourably in any way.

This has prompted a huge amount of soul-searching in the governing body of the College, who have in their turn consulted the old boys like me – and the old girls; this consultation taking the form of a seminar which took place recently with three distinguished academic speakers and open discussion aimed at placing the heritage of Cecil Rhodes in the appropriate ‘context’.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed that, with the exception of one speaker, none of the discussion concerned the moral question whether or not it was acceptable to judge people by contemporary standards when, at the time they were active, moral judgement would have viewed them differently. Or, if even then Cecil Rhodes was a bad man, was it a good thing to accept gifts, albeit generous ones, from such a bad man?

Then having regard to our lesson today, what difference does time make? If at that time the gifts were made, Cecil Rhodes was not a bad man, according to the standards prevalent at the time, what difference does it make that in time that perception may have changed?

Those sort of perceptions seem to me to affect our view of the Reformation as well. There is a statement from our two archbishops, Justin and John Sentamu, about the Reformation, celebrating the good things that have come from it, the proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible for people to read in their own languages, and the recognition that lay people are called to serve God in addition to those who are ordained. This is an echo of Calvin’s idea of the priesthood of all believers.

At the same time the archbishops express regret, and acknowledge that the time of the Reformation was a time of violence and strife between the Christian people on either side of the Reformation process, all claiming to know the same Lord.

We have been using tonight – as we do every Sunday at St Mary’s at 6 – the Book of Common Prayer, which was originally written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It was – and still is – the finest expression of reformed theology in the English language. Even so Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic seven years later. The turmoil in the English Church did not really subside until nearly 100 years later. The prayer book which we are using is the 1662 edition.

The Reformation in England claimed many lives. England had see-sawed between Henry VIII’s version of Protestantism, which really was Catholicism minus the Pope, (because of his inconvenient objections to Henry’s desire to obtain a divorce), to the Catholicism of Mary, back to Protestantism under Elizabeth and so on. Until after the Civil War and the death of Charles I, under the reign of Cromwell and the Puritans, extreme Protestants; England had lived out the Reformation for over 100 years. It was a live issue, and unfortunately, an extremely violent time. The poor Roman Catholics suffered a lot.

There has always been a paradox in the area of religious belief and tolerance of other people’s beliefs. Jesus preached a message exclusively of love and caring for one’s neighbour. But at the same time he foresaw that divisions would be caused by his gospel. Matthew 10:34f: ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ But he told them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.

Unfortunately his followers did not listen, because for them, for someone not to believe what they regarded as being fundamental and true, was sacrilege, blasphemy and had to be completely eradicated, even by killing the person who had expressed the unacceptable view.

Is very difficult for us to understand why people should have been horribly killed like this, for example by being burned at the stake; but of course we do see the same sort of religious violence today, this time between Muslims and other religions including our own, in the Middle East. Converting from the Muslim religion to another religion is regarded in many Islamic countries as a capital offence.

Does Ecclesiastes have anything to say about this? Is it a recipe for moral relativism? It seems to say that at different times, the same thing is both good and bad. We see the same issue in the context of safeguarding and sexual misconduct. Those of us who grew up in the swinging 60s were frankly not terribly shocked by what rock musicians got up to after concerts with adoring groupies.

But now it is recognised that there was a great inequality of bargaining power, if I can put it that way, and great scope for glamorous individuals, usually men, in effect to coerce impressionable young girls. What is it that makes things right and wrong? What is it that makes things right at one time and wrong at another?

I think that among the various Christians here in Cobham there is more that unites us than divides us. We are all looking to follow Jesus’s message of love and care for our neighbours, and that is the standard which we seek to apply to our conduct. Not everything is what it seems at first. Apparently the first student to win a Rhodes Scholarship was a black African.

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