s002e01 Lockleys Advent 2 9/12/01
"May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Rom 15.5
What lovely words, what a lovely blessing! What a lovely picture of God! God is a God who encourages steadfastly, not one who is a barely concealed ogre ready to whip us into line whenever we overstep the mark.
And the purpose of this steadfast encouragement is that we live in harmony with one another. This is what the whole gospel is about. For all we might talk about the doctrines of the Church, using words like "atonement", "redemption" and "salvation", we do well to remember that theology, like every other science, only uses big words to "explain" realities which are obvious to anyone who cares to look. Sometimes the big words can trap us into thinking that the purposes of God are far too lofty or mysterious for mere mortals like us to comprehend. No - the simple fact is that on the scale of things, the most important thing is that we live in harmony with one another.
Thinking about science using big words, I recall once phoning the Chaplain at what was the Hillcrest Psychiatric Hospital, a long time ago. A person with whom I had pastoral contact had been described as a "socio-pathic" personality, and as I had never heard this term before and had no idea what it meant, I phoned an "expert". His reply was that it was the same as saying a car had an engine with four cylinders ... What he meant by that was this person was a normal functioning person and who should be taken as such and not reduced to a category of disease. The scientific name for this person's personality did not do the whole person justice. The person was not just a walking disease! The person did indeed have some personal difficulties in his relationships, but that was obvious to all who knew him, and it didn't help him in the slightest that there was a scientific name for those difficulties. The old saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words - and even a thousand words, scientific or mundane, will never be adequate to give a person who is blind an accurate picture in his or her head of a simple leaf, let alone another human being. You may be interested to know that my sermons are usually about 1700 words long, yet week by week it seems I find some new angle which inspires another 1700.
The New English Bible calls St Paul's letter to the Romans - "the Gospel according to Paul". And the sum total of this gospel is that we are to live in harmony with one another. It is delightful to be in a congregation where you do get on with one another, for this is indeed the fulfilling of the law.
We may not all believe in God, we may not all call God by an orthodox name, we may all worship God in different ways - all of these things are secondary. The main thing that God wants for us to do - is to live together in harmony.
This conclusion, for all I state it so boldly, could be challenged. So St Paul says: "Who knows the mind of the Lord?" but immediately qualifies this by adding "Who has been his councillor?" Rom 11.34 God, being the God of the whole universe, has the welfare of all creation in mind, whereas we as humans have the inevitable tendency to want God to favour us. We cannot get God to do our will at the expense of someone else.
Indeed I suspect that the importance of the fact that "God is one" is not because God is somehow offended by heretical descriptions of the heavenly personage, but that we can be assured that God is stedfast in this encouragement, and not fickle. One has only to read the stories of the Greek and Roman pantheon and realise the dreadful state humanity would be in with gods competing against one another. One can end up by thinking that these gods are more concerned for their own welfare and prestige than they are for the human condition. The God I worship is always concerned - first and foremost, for the human condition, and there can be no greater demonstration of this than in the incarnation of Jesus.
A second quotation is when Jesus says, "Do not think I have come to bring peace, but a sword ..." (Matthew 10.34) Now this witnesses to the fact that the religious authorities were and are not likely to allow their authority over others to be diminished in the slightest. The issues are one of very "life or death" and they were prepared to kill Jesus rather than allow him to mix with others. I sometimes wonder when I hear people saying things like making Christianity "relevant". Our faith, your faith, my faith as well as other people's faith, might be largely heretical, we may not be able to articulate what it really is or what it means to us - but don't you dare try to take it away or change it! The concept that the religious authorities had - that God blessed the religious and the rest of humanity were damned - was the reason they had Jesus killed - because Jesus accepted other people's offerings and not just their own.
Again, one has only to reflect on the lengths God had to go to get Paul and Peter to accept others, to realise that my words about the religious authorities are never particularly directed to those of the Jewish faith. It is the constant temptation of all theologies.
I was reading Ecclesiastes chapter 7 for morning prayer recently, where the writer ends: "This alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes." (29) It called me to question whether this actually denies the doctrine of original sin? I think it is time for me to recall the words of the psalm: "I do not busy myself in great matters: or in things too wonderful for me." Psalm 131.2 APBA p 364
But the words about living in harmony are not just about us creating a caring Christian community, the words tell us that our living harmoniously with others extends to those outside. Paul talks about God's mercy extending to the Gentiles - in fact of course much of St Paul's letter to the Romans is about reconciling theologically his sadness that his own people, the Jews, had largely rejected the ministry of Jesus, and their leaders had put Jesus to death. He also had to reconcile the fact that Gentiles were acknowledging Jesus, in dynamics remarkably similar to the fact that the poor, ordinary "people of the land" welcomed Jesus and invited him into their homes and their lives - to the immense chagrin of the authorities.
So St Paul says: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Ro 15:7) and that is without preconditions, without putting people down, or putting them "in their place".
I think it can be concluded that the phrase "in accordance with Christ Jesus" does not mean that we are obliged only to live in harmony with "Christians" and we can put preconditions on our friendships with others - more particularly that others must "accept Christ". Jesus went out and lived in harmony with others - he actively sought out people to live in harmony with - that was what his life was all about - and it was precisely this that put him at such odds with the religious authorities. So our following of Jesus, is likewise us, not becoming a clique of like minded individuals who have nothing to argue about because we all think the same, but likewise actively seeking out others with whom to live in harmony. No one is ever likely to live in harmony with anyone else if they put preconditions on their friendship.
And indeed as we actually do follow Jesus and do this, we will find the truth of the words, that we will: "together ... with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" because we would all be glorifying God for the same reason, that God and others accepted us all as we are ... There would be no stronger voices or weaker voices, each and every person would contribute to the harmony ... Indeed of course, as with any harmony, it is not fully complete while the contribution of anyone is missing. This is a further reason that we are sent out ... to complete the harmony.
We might be tempted to think that John the Baptist was not a good role model for the words of St Paul. He called the nation to repentance - which initially seems to expect people to change their lifestyles. This seems quite the opposite of accepting people as they are. But if we look again at the words of the gospel, and just who it is who he calls "a brood of vipers" - it is quite clearly the Scribes and the Pharisees - the religious authorities - not the people of the land who flocked to him. So John the Baptist is actually much closer to the mission of Jesus than he is allied to the Essenes, the rigourous sect from which the Dead Sea Scrolls originate.
May I end by repeating that your witness shows that this is in fact quite possible to do. It is actually possible that Anglicans can live together in harmony, and you can reach out and live in harmony in this community. I need ask you to do no more than this. I can explain some of the big words if you really want me to - I always keep my "Dictionary of Christian Theology" handy - but let no one deceive you that being able to use big words in conversation makes a person a better Christian ...
I have been enjoying studying the science of Victimology this last semester, and the theories and the big words do give people a language in which to think and talk about such matters. But the lecturer made it quite plain that the most important thing he hoped we would get out of the course was not a "pass" at the end, or how adroitly we can explain the big words, but how we are enabled to relate sympathetically to victims of crime. This seems a particularly healthy attitude.
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