Revd. Judith Walker-Hutchinson - 8th March 2015
Passages: Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22
I wonder how many of you enjoyed the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? I know David and I certainly did, but we didn’t need any convincing, we had already enjoyed both of the novels and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s excellent London stage production. But not everyone is a fan. Prof David Starkey with his usual ‘tactful’ turn of phrase, has called Mantel’s interpretation of the story of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, “a deliberate perversion of fact.” Even the milder mannered Simon Schama has considerable issues with it, he believes that far from the depiction of Cromwell as a “much-maligned, misunderstood, pragmatist from the school of hard knocks...” that his own research has shown Cromwell to be in fact “a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror, cooked the evidence and extracted confessions by torture...”
Hilary Mantel of course makes no pretence that her story is anything other than a fictional interpretation of history, but then perhaps its fair to say history is a fictional interpretation of history.
What is the alternative?
Prof. Starkey describes himself as “a massive believer in fact”. It’s an easy statement to make, but the facts, the ‘truth’ as Pilate unforgettably discerned, is rarely that clear, or absolute. I’m an accountant by profession and the old joke is that if you ask an accountant what is 2+2, she or he will answer you “What would you like it to be?”.
We are human, and being human either deliberately or inadvertently we filter the evidence according to our limited knowledge and understanding and our personal desires. One of the many difficulties of being a priest and a preacher, is that just as with history, theology is open to interpretation. There are the David Starkey’s of the theological world who believe the answer is to stick to the ‘facts’, in the case of Christian theology, the strict literal interpretation of the biblical narrative. The problem for the priest/preacher is that doing so throws up its own difficulties, no more starkly, more timely demonstrated than by today’s first reading. What simpler more concise bedrock of our faith could there be than the Ten Commandments? So let’s read the opening of our first reading again…
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.
You and I are Anglicans, we are beneficiaries of that unique interpretation of the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII’s break with Rome, perfected by Elizabeth I, a middle way if you like, of all that was seen to be good of Roman Catholicism and the biblical literalism of the European Protestants. Scripture - yes; Tradition- yes, but also Reason - a reasonable interpretation of Scripture and Tradition, making it relevant to time and context. In short a sort of theological genius. Accepting this heritage we cannot be blind to the fact that we also inherit other less savoury aspects of Anglican history, one being the result of the literal interpretation of this, the first of the Ten Commandments by the Reformers. The God given instruction not to worship, or even to make, an idol, led to the 16th century Protestant iconoclasm, the destruction, in the name of belief, of statues and images in churches and cathedrals the terrible result of which is still evident in many of our church buildings today. We know that such wanton destruction of art, of history, of heritage and of what we now openly accept today as a way of enriching our faith, was terrible to the point of being sacrilegious. And it happened throughout Protestant Europe.
How horribly, ironically sad then that as a race, humanity has been unable to learn the lessons of history and that our news this week has been full of the terrible images of IS bulldozers attacking the ancient irreplaceable Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq. A war crime, a travesty against human enrichment, an erasing of cultural history which like the Protestant iconoclasm will not be righted even beyond the third and fourth generations of those who follow. No clearer lesson could there be of human idiocy, human evil, human fallibility in the name of belief, and of the care we need to take when we seek to convince others of our own viewpoint.
No matter how sincere our conviction, how deep our belief, it is perhaps the words of the other Cromwell, Oliver rather than Thomas, that we all should bear on our hearts. In the 17th century that Cromwell wrote to the synod of the Church of Scotland:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.
Surely a pertinent challenge to leaders and preachers of whatever stripe throughout the ages.
There may be many challenges but there are also many blessings in being a priest; one of the greatest is being alongside the dying. That might seem an odd thing to say, but as difficult as it may be I have come to understand that it is in death that we really see the one truth we can be sure of - God’s love for humanity. But death has become the last great taboo in our society.
We are (at least socially) comfortable talking about money, sex and politics in the kind of detail my grandparents and even my parents come to that, would have found excruciatingly embarrassing but if you ask people how they want to die, if they talk about it at all they invariably say that they want to go quickly, preferably in their sleep. Whilst on one hand that’s perfectly understandable, on the other its also an expression of the fact that most of us want death to visit unexpectedly so that we do not have to think about it too much, and we most certainly don’t want to talk about it.
But we began Lent by being reminded that we are all dying.
The Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes is accompanied with these words
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It is in this reawakened consciousness of death that we are asked to re-examine our lives, asked through our frailty, our mortality to our re-discover our humanity.
And here in our gospel reading from John we are alongside Jesus as he squarely faces his own mortality. This passage begins to turn us towards the cross and to journeying with Jesus as he faces death.
The passage is surprisingly early in John’s gospel; it follows immediately on from the wedding at Cana, where by turning water into wine Jesus performs the first public sign of his divinity. John deliberately places the first revelation of Jesus as the divine, immortal Son of God, back to back with a sign of the incarnate Son of God, mortal man among men.
Because here in this painfully relevant Biblical passage we see Jesus conscious of his limited time and angry, really humanly angry, at the traders and at the dealers who had rigged the scales and the deals to exploit the weak and the ignorant. The powerful putting greed ahead of the common good. Unlike us, Jesus will not stand by and tolerate injustice. He doesn’t just do the British thing, doffing his hat saying
‘I say would you mind awfully moving along, this is not really the place.’ That’s not his approach. What he does is a real challenge to the image of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ with which we were all indoctrinated at Sunday School. He makes a whip, violently driving them out, throwing aside their tables and scattering their ill gotten gains all over the place.
I love this real earthy, muscular image of Christianity. It’s a gift with which to counter those who think of our faith as weak, wet, ineffectual and irrelevant.
And the truth of its message runs much deeper than his being justifiably cross at their trading in the house of God. When his right to lay down the rules in the Temple is challenged Jesus replies
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
Those who challenge him think this is utterly ridiculous,
Rebuild it in three days – we’ve been on 46 years and it’s still not finished!
But of course we know now the Temple, like Nimrud will be irrevocably destroyed, but Jesus is not talking about the building; he is talking about his body. John is teaching us that Jesus carries out his mission on earth in the full knowledge that whether he reasons and teaches or kicks and screams, they will not understand -
and in their human fallibility and their foolishness they will not realise the truth, until they have murdered it.
The truth, the one indestructible truth, the love of God, the light of the world, is not in bricks and mortar, not in anything of human construction, but in Him. The love of God is incarnate in front of their eyes and they are too stupid to see it.
Jesus was angry not just because the temple had turned into a market place but because in spite of his presence among them the people had failed to see the one thing of real permanent value and change their behaviour accordingly. And so it is now unless we make it otherwise.
I said that this real earthy, muscular image of Christianity is a gift with which to counter those who think of our faith as weak, wet, ineffectual and irrelevant. It is also a gift with which to counter those at the extremes of faith, even of our own faith. But it’s only a gift if we are seen to live out our faith as Jesus taught us. For too long we have tended to understand Anglicanism as a middle way, as a sort of meek, mild, ineffectual fudge that upsets nobody - that is not what it looked like to Cromwell and never what it was intended to be.
Now I’m not suggesting that next time you go into Barclays you start throwing the chairs and tables around, but I am suggesting that in the knowledge that we have a limited time in which to make a difference; that we are foolish and inadequate and we will never really understand God; we do need to re-examine how we live out our faith in the world, to be the faithful and reasonable presence of God in the world today, showing forth the one truth we can always be sure of, God’s unfathomable love for humanity.