Archives for posts with tag: early Church

Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday of Easter, 19th April 2015
Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This week I was influenced by two stage plays. On Thursday I went to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’, as a live relay from the National Theatre to the Everyman cinema in Walton-on-Thames. I won’t spoil the play for you, if you haven’t seen it yet: but you won’t be cheated if I tell you that the ‘hard problem’ is the question, if we know how the brain works, as a kind of super-computer, so we know which bits of the brain control different functions, and we know that they do it by switching little electrical currents, the question, what is it to be conscious of something?

Another philosophical problem touched on in the play is the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Why do we often do things which aren’t necessarily in our own interests? If Ned Kelly and I rob a bank, and we are arrested, do I give evidence against Ned? If I do, it may go easier for me. But I probably won’t, out of loyalty to Ned. ‘Honour among thieves,’ even.

In pure evolutionary terms – survival of the fittest – there is no reason for altruism. It would serve my interest best to look after myself. But I may well not do. Why are we often altruistic? This is something that Tom Stoppard looks at in his play. But because it’s a play, and not a philosophy lecture, in the ‘Hard Problem’ the altruistic part is played by a pretty girl, who believes in God and says her prayers every night. The Richard Dawkins part is played by a rather suave Irishman, her tutor, who likes to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur with his female students, and who is an atheist, a materialist.

Imagine these actors transposed into the world immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of a rather dry set of arguments about the way that computers, the way that the most able computer, the human brain, works, and Wittgenstein’s conclusion that ‘of which [we] may not speak, [we] must be silent’ [L.Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1.21], groping towards an understanding of God by reasoning and inference – which must feel like really inadequate tools – instead of that, they would bump into people who claim to have seen a man who has risen from the dead, who is divine, God on earth.

What a contrast! In the Hard Problem, the actors are tied up with questions about how life – and its creator – works, and whether one can infer from that any information about said creator. Is it an algorithm, or God? The early Christians, by contrast, had accepted the momentous news about the presence of God in their lives, as a fact. They were concerned much more with how they should react to that fact, than whether it was a fact. Doubting Thomas had settled that.

Today our Bible themes, in our lessons, deal with the after-effects of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. How did it affect Jesus’ followers – and how should it affect us, even though we are so long after it happened? You might be surprised that there is such an Old Testament emphasis, but this is the train of thought used by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

St Paul, as a leader of the early church, sought to link the new life, which he called ‘being in Christ’, with the Jewish Law, the tradition of the Jews as spiritual ancestors of the Christians. He was ticking off the people in the new young church at Corinth for forgetting the story of the Israelites, and how by obeying and worshipping the one true God the Israelites of the Old Testament had been saved, led out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

He goes through the history of the Israelites, how they ‘ate the same spiritual meat’, manna from heaven, but ‘with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness’. Then comes a moral lesson. ‘Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things’. In St Paul’s letter, if you do the wrong thing, if you break the Commandments, you will come to a sticky end.

Looking at things 2,000 years on, it is perhaps a little bit difficult to bring alive in our minds the excitement of the period after Jesus first appeared to the disciples risen from the dead. Even if their lives hadn’t already been changed by being with Jesus, they certainly were when they became aware of His resurrection.

In the light of that cataclysmic fact, some early Christians thought that, as they were God’s elect, saved, they need not worry about how they behaved. There was no need for them to keep the Jewish Law, to abide by the Ten Commandments, any more. They could do what they liked: they could eat, drink and be merry – because tomorrow they would not die, but have eternal life.

In the Old Testament, Moses was receiving from God His Commandments, rules for a good life in the Promised Land. 700 years later, Jesus came, the Messiah. Surely the old Law had had its day. Jesus had given a new commandment, a commandment simply ‘that ye love one another’. But Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. Instead, His coming was fulfilment of those prophecies, and the Ten Commandments were still valid.

But there is a thread running through Jesus’ teaching, most evident in the Sermon on the Mount, that simply following the letter of the law is not enough: Jesus’ commandment of love involves going the extra mile, doing something extra.

Which brings me round to my second theatrical encounter this week. This one was even more of a ‘virtual’ experience than seeing the Tom Stoppard play by live relay in the local cinema. The second play was one that I read about, in the editorial of a newspaper this Thursday. This is what it said.

‘”The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think,” says the character Stefano in the opening scene of a new play, Lampedusa (in London now …) The work of the young playwright Anders Lustgarten, the title refers to the island where Stefano works rescuing the bodies of those who’d fled from war and disaster in Africa and the Middle East, and found death at sea instead. “They’re overwhelmingly young, the dead,” he observes. “Twenties. Thirty at most. Kids, a lot of them. You have to be to make the journey, I suppose.” The play wants to make its audience ask what kind of society it wants. Within days of its opening last week, 400 people were missing presumed drowned after a wooden fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Its human cargo had all rushed to one side in the hope of rescue. At the start of what is becoming the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season, the question of what sort of society we want to be is a challenge for all Europeans.’ [The Guardian, 16th April 2015 http://gu.com/p/47hb2%5D.

All the commentary on this topic which I’ve read so far concerns itself with how to stop the migrants coming into Europe. Do we set up systems to head them off at the point of original departure, or put up even fiercer barriers at the points of entry?

What would Jesus say? I wonder whether He might point out that it is a matter of luck where we are born. Some are fortunate, and are born in Northern Europe. The majority are born in greater or lesser poverty somewhere else. Is it wrong to try to go where there is a better life? After all, that’s what is celebrated in the Old Testament: the wanderings of the Jewish people, their search for the Promised Land. Just imagine what might be said today if 144,000 people all decided to migrate from a big country into a smaller, more fruitful one. All the talk would be of how to prevent them. Think about it. The population was much smaller then. Think of the effect on their schools and their local services. Much more of an impact than Poles or Romanians might have today.

I think that Jesus might also point out that we are all children of God, wherever we have been born. Rich people are no more deserving than poor. Indeed, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’. (Luke 1:51) or, ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Matt. 16:26). It follows that we should not be concerned about nationality in future – we are all, in a real sense, citizens of the same world. There would be no more immigrants, no more strangers. Our sole concern should be to see that no-one should be hungry and in need.

Remember what the early disciples did – no doubt because they believed that this is what Jesus would have prescribed. ‘..all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’

It’s a challenge. What do we believe Jesus would say? Tom Stoppard’s play made room for God, even in the rational worlds of a business school and a hedge fund: in his play Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten has posed ‘the question of what sort of society we want to be’, ‘at the start of … the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season’.

What sort of society do we want to be? Will Easter make any difference to us? I pray that it will.