The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:  

s040g11  Sunday 7  20/2/2011

‘what reward do you have?’  Matthew 5.46

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

It is, of course, easy to personalise this gospel, and make it an impossible goal for OTHERS to achieve.   It is more fundamental to put these ideals against the corporate church and ask, does the church live up to this ideal?   In our relationships with others who do not worship like us, believe like us and live like us, does the church embody these ideals?   Not in the slightest.   We only greet (religiously) our brothers and sisters, and in doing so what more are we doing than others?’

The church avoids the impact of this by glossing over the words: ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ thinking that they alone escape being lumped into the mass of ordinary humanity.

And what reward is there anyway?   To be: ‘children of your Father in heaven’?   Well the words about the righteous and the unrighteous being treated equally immediately follow, so even if there were some who were not like us, they would be treated the same.   So there is no personal reward!    The suggestion that ‘christians’ go to a heaven where others are excluded must be illusory if God treats all children equally.   If there is a heaven it includes all, except those who exclude themselves because others are included.   And people in this category are most likely to be the religious and the devout, like those who had Jesus killed so long ago.

And time and again, scripture teaches us that there is no reward.   The essence of the book of Job is that a charitable and devout life didn’t necessarily lead to a blessed life where nothing bad ever happened to the person.   The whole history of the ancient people of God was that their unmerited faith was no guarantee against invasion, occupation and exile.   Even Jesus’ ‘sinless’ life was no guarantee that he would live ‘happily ever after’.  

For personal reward and personal blessedness imply personal power and personal precedence over others, and no matter how much we call upon the name of the Lord, Jesus or the Holy Spirit, we will never be given such power over others.  The reason we are not given personal precedence over others is that this is essentially selfish.   A ‘god’ who measured his or her own self-worth by the number and enthusiasm of divine devotees has some serious personality issues and needs to see a good psychiatrist!   We will not be given power over others because we are called to be like others, we are called to be incarnated into humanity, we are called to love others.  

And the directions to ‘not resist an evildoer’, to ‘turn the other’ cheek, ‘give your cloak’, ‘go also the second mile’ and to not ‘refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you’ shows us how unselfish we are called to be.   The essence of our religion is spiritual unselfishness not spiritual selfishness.   We are called to share, not just out of our material well-being, but our spiritual hope, which implies that our faith includes hope for people other than ‘christians’.

A perfect father or mother doesn’t have favourites among their children.   There is nothing any of their children can do to make that change.   It doesn’t matter how much a child is devoted to their parents, or how much they go their own way in the world - the perfect parent still loves the child.   God doesn’t just love those who love God in return!

So if God does this perfectly, our devotion to God is entirely immaterial to God’s love for us and for all.   Whatever name we call God, or choose not to, but live lives of charity and integrity, God loves all equally.

But what then comes of coming to Church?   Well, to thank God for who God really is, rather than the idol we make ‘god’ into.   And if we think that the church is languishing, then it is probably because our theology has meant that others do not find ‘their’ God here.   People will not come and worship a ‘god’ who doesn’t love them unhesitatingly, indiscriminately and without expectation.   If the ‘god’ we portray (by our own actions) doesn’t accept others unhesitatingly, indiscriminately and without expectations, then they know enough of scripture and they know enough of God to reject this counterfeit.  

But, of course, there is a reward, that of knowing that the world is a more caring place because of our care - that people, and more importantly, churches, are beginning to accept others without hesitation, without discrimination, and without expectation.   The reward is that the world is a more loving place, a happier place, a place where the resources of this earth are shared rather than hoarded.   A place were spiritual resources are shared rather than hoarded.

I have been reflecting recently how the ‘goal-posts’ have moved.   In times past the goal was to have a self sufficient parish where there was sufficient for an appropriate stipend for the minister and his (as it usually was) associated costs.   Then the building and vicarage had to be fully paid for, with money over for annual maintenance.   Finally there was money to give to the wider church and the needs of the community.   Interestingly, the Anglican system we inherited from England, the churches were ancient and the ministry costs came from the church commissioners.   Parishes in the colonies have had a hard time trying to measure up to the perceived standards of the ‘father / mother land’.   Behind all this was the weekly communion movement.   The ‘high church’ version of this began in the Oxford Movement (c 1840) which encouraged Anglicans to receive the holy communion frequently.   In 1905 Pope Pius X urged Catholics likewise.   (Was it a case of: ‘Anything you can do I can do better’?)    However Wikipedia tells me ‘the movement could not be regarded as a movement until the collection of essays entitled "The Parish Communion" (which) was published in 1937. ..   Even though the movement is held to have originated between the wars, it only lost its Anglo-catholic connotations and started to gain popular momentum in the sixties.’

All this, of course, necessitated a priest and a church building.   The emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy meant that inter-communion with other christians was ruled out.   But it all proved too hard.

In the face of this difficulty, the goal posts moved.   The ecumenical movement (from 1910) was born out of necessity.   But another solution was the ordination of local ministers who would work voluntarily, celebrating the sacraments and pastoring the congregation.   The first meant that something of what counted as distinctively ‘Anglican’ was lost.   The second resulted in a loss of formal theological education and Anglican formation.   But at least the second was able to restrict worship to that contained in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (or it’s local incarnation.)   Neither of these have found much traction and lay led services began - in the charismatic movement and things like ‘messy church’.  Again the goal posts have moved and now we are content to have people worshipping however which way.   Some people who have studied hard to be locally ordained clergy and some who have studied hard to be diocesan clergy have found themselves sidelined.

The goal still seems to get people to come to church, and I begin to wonder if we now should consider accepting that the goal posts were in the wrong position right from the beginning.   I wonder if our real goal should be that our churches are noted for accepting others without hesitation, without discrimination, and without expectation.   Somehow the emphasis of our mission needs to shift from getting people into the pews to acknowledging the spirituality of others elsewhere.

If our spirituality is define and restrict who are considered our brothers and sisters - good, straight, white Angloceltic males who are baptised, communicant and tithing Anglicans - then Jesus words are surely directed towards us who consider ourselves his disciples - it you greet only these ‘what more are you doing than others’!   And these are the words of Jesus, not some long-haired hippy radical communist :-)

Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"