FFC51CEC-7413-42F0-BAE5-6E554435EB6DSermon for Evensong on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

(Exodus 2:23-3:10;) Hebrews 13:1-15

‘NEVER CEASE TO LOVE your fellow-Christians. Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it.

Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world’. [Hebrews 13:1-2, NEB]

As well as the lovely angel reference, this is good advice for Christians about how to live a good life. Jesus’ two great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is that second commandment that our lesson from Hebrews is all about. Do as you would be done by, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule. It’s so familiar that nobody would really challenge it as a recipe for a peaceful and harmonious life. But I think it’s worth just pausing to look at it in more detail.

The examples in Hebrews are encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of various other people. People in prison and people who are being maltreated in one way or another: what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be in prison?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in the context of learning how to do the right or the good thing in life, isn’t just an exercise in sympathy or empathy – you know, ‘I feel your pain’. Saying that, after all, doesn’t really mean anything, because you can’t feel another person’s pain.

Never mind pain. You can’t actually perceive exactly what that other person perceives, either. When I was younger, my mother had a Mini, which, because it was the swinging 60s, was a very fetching shade of pale yellow. It was called ‘Fiesta Yellow’ by the manufacturers. But an awful lot of our friends thought that the car was light green. One person’s Fiesta Yellow is another person’s light green. I have a picture of the car on my phone if you want to inspect it afterwards and see which colour you think it is.

You can’t feel another person’s pain, but you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to have something or other done to you. You know that you would not want to be hurt; and what Jesus is saying is that therefore you should not want to hurt anyone else. And, following St Francis of Assisi, you might extend that principle to all God’s creatures. Do as you would be done by. What if you were a cow? How do you feel about roast beef?

We rapidly stumble across the same sort of issues that we encounter in the context of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]. Jesus seems to be putting forward counsels of perfection, things which you can’t actually carry out perfectly in practice.

It raises issues with the Ten Commandments (which, after all, are all summed up in the two great commandments.) ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example. So we have all the elaborate legal and philosophical theory which has created the concept of the ‘just war’, effectively putting two moral principles against each other and making one take precedence over the other. The idea is that in certain circumstances justice may be served by making war where there is no alternative, for example where a country has to act in self-defence. In the ‘just war’ theory, the principle of upholding justice between nations, international law, is regarded as more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

Jesus, however, did not talk about ‘just wars’. He did talk about loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’, and therefore not wanting to harm your neighbour, without any ifs or buts; without any exceptions.

This idea of sympathy, feeling with somebody, which is what the word literally means, clearly has paradoxical implications. You can’t get inside somebody else’s head. We are all separate individuals: except, perhaps, if you are Jesus himself. We say that Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin. He suffered for us.

It is relatively straightforward for us to be able to say this, but really difficult to know what it really means. You might say that it is really a sacred mystery. Jesus entered into our world, our personality, our souls. And, according to some theologians, he took upon himself the burden of our sin and suffered for us. But again, it is difficult to make literal sense of that. What is the sin that Jesus took upon himself? Sin is usually defined as whatever it is that separates you from God, so it seems odd that Jesus, who was God, could take upon himself things which were anti-God.

There are, of course, examples from history of people making heroic sacrifices in order to save other people. We have just, in the church’s calendar, remembered a brave Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Second World War in Auschwitz. The Nazis were executing people in the camp, in reprisal for a breakout attempt, and they had selected 10 prisoners at random. Father Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the prisoners selected. He had heard the prisoner crying out that he would never see his wife and family again. That’s why father Maximilian stepped forward and said he would take his place, so that now he would be able to see his family again. The Reverend Father’s sacrifice saved the family. But it’s not clear that what Jesus did, by suffering on the cross, actually falls into this category.

Perhaps it was more a way of his demonstrating the ultimate expression of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Jesus knew that people are crucified, symbolically and actually. People suffer, and he entered into their suffering; he endured the same kind of suffering. He was like a leader who leads from the front. There is nothing that he asks his army to do that he won’t himself do. It means that Jesus, God, is in us, is with us, alongside us at every step of our life.

The God with us gives us a challenge – the Christian challenge. Do we really try to handle others as we ourselves would like to be handled: to give to them, to take away from them, to build them up, or to do things that hurt them; do we do that, always thinking at the same time what it would feel like if it was happening to us?

That’s today’s message. It’s deceptively simple, but it is absolutely revolutionary for our lives. So let us give it more than a second thought. Think about what your neighbour will feel if I do what I do to him – or her.

Advertisements