David Walker's Sermon - 12th February 2017
I can’t remember a time when the news was as relentless, compulsive and depressing all at the same time. A couple of items from the last month.
One of President Trump’s first actions was to appoint Neil Gorusch to the US Supreme Court. Gorusch is an originalist, which means he believes that the role of the Supreme Court is to preserve the constitution as it was created by the Founding Fathers in 1781. I think his originalism also extends to his understanding of the Bible too and that, like over 60% of Americans he believes the creation stories to be literal truth.
Prior to that at Trump’s inauguration Dr Robert Jeffress had preached a sermon using as his text Nehemiah, the one chosen by God to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem and restore the city to its former glory.
‘When I think of you, President elect Trump. I am reminded of another great leader God chose thousands of years ago in Israel.’ He went on ‘...neither a politician nor a priest. Instead a builder whose name was Nehemiah. And the first step of rebuilding the nation was the building of a great wall... to protect its citizens from enemy attack. You see, God is not against building walls’.
In the case of orginalism is it reasonable to expect a document written in 1781 to literally meet all the requirements of the 21st century? And what then does that say for an originalist interpretation of the Bible, an even older document?
Was Jeffress’ sermon beautiful, creative and relevant or highly selective and, as the Church Times calls it, dredging ‘the profundities of grovel’? You decide.
The much more important question that this throws up for us is how we understand this most ancient of documents, the Bible, and what authority we assign to it.
The Bible is a vast and diverse set of ancient books which provide us with the basic truths we need to work out how we should live as human beings and how we should relate to God, but it is not simple and straightforward. It has never been and never can be a simple set of rules. It is often contradictory and it was written by people who lived much differently to how we live today. How we read it can get us into all kinds of a mess.
One approach is to regard the Bible as the unchangeable and definitive account of how God intends things to be. Another is to view it as a living document that leads us through the Holy Spirit into understandings that ring true with its original content but don’t unquestioningly replicate it. We can have two views of scripture.
We can read it literally and commit to one interpretation of it for all time, that what was said to us two thousand years ago and more is exactly what is being said to us today, no adjustments, no changes to reflect changes in space or time, society, culture or technology, therefore an unchangeable and definitive account of how God intends things to be.
Or we can take the view that scripture contains important, essential truths that we must be constantly searching out, refining, thinking about and reflecting on, and finding new means and ways of applying to our lives today, that it is a living document that will always lead us through the Holy Spirit into new understandings.
Do we believe that God, through the Bible, has had the last word, the final revelation, that all else is fixed for eternity? Or do we believe, as Trinitarians, in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue God’s word in all our lives and into all our futures?
Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields, has said that for him this dichotomy presents us with the greatest ideological challenge of our day, the question of whether authority lies with tradition or with relevance.
Today’s readings actually mirror these same issues.
In Deuteronomy we hear Moses transmitting the word of God to the Jewish people, setting before them their choices and exhorting them to choose life and to choose the Lord God through keeping his commandments, decrees and ordnances. This is the Law of Moses which is the bedrock of Judaism.
The passage from Matthew is part of the much longer Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus addresses the question of discipleship. This is a new question for a new situation, a new time. And Jesus is sets out the requirements for those who would follow him, those who would embrace a radically new lifestyle, who would choose an alternative, counter-cultural way of living.
In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus made it clear that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. What Jesus very calculatedly does is re-present the law and the Holy Scriptures to make them relevant to his time, his circumstances, his purposes. He shows that the law must be made appropriate to its time for it to be fulfilled. Most importantly Jesus preaches that life in the kingdom of heaven is the antithesis of a legal code, and goes far beyond a mechanical compliance with the regulatory norms handed down through the ages. This is new and Jesus needs people to understand how new it is.
He takes the essential elements of the Law of Moses and not only confirms them but adds to them. It is not enough not to murder or commit adultery or swear falsely, you mustn’t even be angry or insult your brother or sister, or have lustful thoughts, or even swear at all. These are the requirements of the new kingdom.
Jesus himself takes scripture and makes it relevant to his day and to him. He has respect for scripture but is not afraid to update the message to suit the requirements of a new situation. He respects the tradition but makes it relevant.
What about this message? Many of us will find it very hard. Are we to take it literally?
The context in which this was written may help. Matthew was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. And he was fighting a losing battle to get across an unwelcome message within a Judaism that was highly regulated and strictly controlled. Matthew, as distinct from the other gospels, stresses Jesus’ Jewishness, but also points to his distinctiveness. He wants the Jews to understand that this is something different. One third of what Matthew is saying here is not even to be found in any of the other gospels, each of which have different focuses. This is not written specifically for us today.
So, it’s about context, understanding, interpretation. It’s also about knowing that what is being said here is contradicted in the other gospels, is contradicted by St Paul, and is contradicted even by Matthew himself later in his gospel. We must read it in this way – otherwise we can easily be deterred. We can easily fall into saying, yes I understand but that’s too much, that’s too hard. I can never be that good. But as Jesus says himself, elsewhere, no-one can be good. Only God is good.
We need to view this passage in the knowledge and understanding that we have of Jesus from all the Gospels and from the writings of St Paul. But it doesn’t always work like that and we can bump up against all the difficulties of understanding authority, cherry picking and literalism.
The problem, of course, comes when the different approaches to understanding come into conflict. We hope and pray that today we can talk about those different approaches without falling out too badly but it is such differences that have caused the great schisms, the basis of the reformation, the divide that still exists between the denominations.
Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus is not easy. It can be confusing. It can seem impossibly hard. There is no simple blueprint for us to meet every circumstance of our lives, to help us in our every decision. And context and relevance can be decisive.
We are constantly being faced with new situations, new developments, new ways of being, living in the world, and we need to be able to extract the essence of what we can from the Bible. We are living in a society that is more secular, more materialistic than ever before. And this presents the church with new challenges that must be faced.
We have finally, in the main, accepted women as priests and bishops, as being equal to men, but only after a long and hard struggle and much opposition based on fixed interpretations of the Bible. The struggle was at times acrimonious and hurtful. Even now acceptance is not total.
These are the battles that turn people away from the church - when they see us arguing, being less than welcoming, acting in ways that seem not to be Christ-like.
Next week the General Synod will be debating, but not deciding upon, same sex relationships and the position of LGBTI people within the church.
And the battle lines are drawn in the same way as they have been drawn for decades if not centuries – the issue is the authority of scripture and the way in which the church translates that into doctrine. The clash between tradition and relevance, between the definitive, unchanging word and the living faith that can adapt to a changing world.
After a long and expensive consultative process of Shared Conversations the House of Bishops has produced a report which has basically opted for no significant change in doctrine and to remain with traditional teaching on homosexuality for the moment.
Feelings are strong on both sides of the argument and I fear that the Shared Conversations have not managed to defuse them. Their aim was to find a way to disagree gracefully but I cannot see that that is about to happen.
We must hope and pray that the church is not torn apart by this issue. It may feel remote to most of us here in Barnard Castle. But it’s not remote for those in long term homosexual relationships who feel they are not welcomed by the church, not treated on equal terms. And it’s not remote for the faithful Christians who live by and are saved by the Word and who fear for the salvation of those they perceive to ignore it.
I know what I believe but I don’t want to evangelise my beliefs, certainly not at the expense of others. I want there to be an end to this ceaseless argument. I want us as Christians to agree on what we can, and to disagree in grace and with respect for others on what we can’t. And I want us all to concentrate on what is most important and what should be at the forefront of all our hearts and minds, which is our belief in Jesus Christ, in the God who loves all of us, who finds love in human relationships and desires for us to find love in our relationships with all our fellow human beings.
So we pray for the whole church, for us here today, for the General Synod, for all those in authority within the church, for hearts and minds guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, that we may all shine a light of hope and love in this world. Through Jesus, who is our saviour and companion.