s063o99 Somerton Park Sunday 30 a 24/10/99
"you shall not ... bear a grudge ..." Lev 19.18
I point out the undercurrent of antagonism between Jesus and the religious authorities, which underlines these chapters in Matthew and bursts into some full-blown "immoderate" language by Jesus in the middle of chapter 23 of Matthew. We were told last week that Jesus was aware of the malice behind the question. Today we are told that the question the lawyer asked was "to test him" and next week we have two portions of Matthew chapter 23, which (thankfully) omit the most strident criticism Jesus expressed to the religious establishment of his day.
I chose as my text the injunction in the first reading: "you shall not ... bear a grudge ..." because it is an example of the fact that we most often look at commandments as things to do, or not to do. I suspect that the weekly recitation of the 10 commandments as part of the old traditional service encouraged this view. And without commending the breaking of the commandments, what does one do when one has found one is a transgressor (and St Paul is quite plain that we actually all fall into this category - Romans 3.23, 5.12)? It makes no difference if we replace the 10 commandments with the two great commandments that form the first part of our gospel reading for today. While on the surface the commands to love look "nicer" and easier to fulfil, of course in some ways they are infinitely harder to keep. I mean, at least one knows if one has stolen or committed adultery. But how does one know if one has loved God and our neighbour sufficiently to say with confidence that we have fulfilled the commandment to love?
My thoughts are not meant to be academic. How does a victim of rape love the perpetrator of the crime? Are they welcome to be a member of this congregation if they don't? What would happen if the perpetrator of the crime publicly and abjectly repented, made what restitution possible and wanted also to be a part of this congregation, but the victim could not find it in their heart to forgive? Who do we admit into our fellowship or do we exclude one or other?
But there is a more fundamental question. If we love God and love neighbour because we have to - if we risk eternal damnation if we don't, it simply isn't love. The command to love is self defeating. Love flows unbidden and unforced or it simply isn't love - end of story. Even to ask anyone to love is to make it impossible for he or she to do so, by the very act of asking. Of course psychologically to want revenge is to destroy a part of one's soul. "To forgive" is good advise, but, returning to our victim of rape, it may mean that freely loving may be less possible, even if it was never particularly probable, because it hasn't been given freely.
I confess considerable discomfort when the brother of the nurse Yvonne Gilford, murdered in Saudi Arabia allegedly by the English co-worker, was expected (by some) to pardon his sister's alleged killer.
Love can only be given freely - it cannot be demanded, expected or asked for. None of the disciples asked Jesus to love them - they were much more interested in Jesus doing what they wanted. When he suggested that he would be killed for them they were horrified.
Do Christians love one another or their neighbour? If the evidence of the gospel accounts can be taken as any standard, the religious authorities had their difficulties, and I suspect we are no better, myself as much as anyone else. Do Christians love their neighbours any better than others? Jesus seemed to have as much difficulties with the disciples as with anyone. The accounts of the early Church in the New Testament seem to bear a remarkable resemblance with the Church of today with their faction fighting. One has only to look at the first chapters of St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians to get a picture of Church life then - and it is precious little different now in some places.
Do we as Christians try harder? I don't know about that either. One of the interesting things is that so often the ordinary "run of the mill" atheist or agnostic (if there is any such person) is in fact just as likely to respond to requests for help as the committed Christian. I know of no one who would not prefer to live a life of love rather than a life of climbing over others to reach the top; and yet so often it seems it is the latter which happens, and people are hurt.
As I look at this congregation and all the things you do (and you do lots of loving things) you do them as much because you are human beings, than because you are Christians. The difficulty is not whether we are charitable, but knowing when charity is appropriate or when our charity will only be abused. And I am no oracle, able to discern that any better than anyone else here. Faced with a real need and the ability to respond, few would demur.
It is all very well to hear Jesus say: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" as the soldiers are crucifying him, but I wonder if this is not in fact an inhuman demand to place on anyone else. Does Jesus demand this from us? I have little doubt that I personally couldn't echo these words in a similar situation.
The command to love has in some senses been mollified by the Collect for the day, asking God to pour into our "hearts your greatest gift of love". He we begin to recognise that we are all in the same boat, none of us have managed to live "by the book", and indeed few of us actually would want to do so.
We can but turn to God, asking for mercy when we cannot forgive.
For all the pious thoughts of the Catechism, in listing those things which are requisite for those coming to the Holy Communion, to: "examine themselves to see if they truly repent of their sins, and that they firmly intend to lead a new life. They must have a living faith in God's mercy through Christ with a thankful remembrance of his death and resurrection, and they much be in charity with all (people)." (AAPB p 547) One could be excused for wondering if anyone is ever likely to fulfil all of these requirements and especially the last.
I can still remember the first time I received the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was in fact by accident, well before I was confirmed, and we hadn't been attending church regularly before that. I thought we were leaving (we were in an unfamiliar church during a long and unfamiliar service), and it was somewhat to my chagrin that instead of finding a door to exit near the end of the altar rails, everyone knelt down to receive the Holy Communion. In those days one only went to the Communion rail to receive the Holy Communion. There was none of this blessing of children that we think has been around for ever, so I just stuck up my hands like everyone else, hoping to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was probably a worse sin (for an Anglican) that a register was not filled in or a certificate issued :-) So much for preparation, repentance, faith and charity! Still God did not strike me dead.
We cannot ask God to bless our throttling the person who owes us a trifle, even though we sometimes feel like doing so. At least I suppose Christians are "sincere". Well I am not sure about that either.
We come to the sacrament of Holy Communion because we are sinners, and God seems to love sinners, since God made so many of us. We come to the sacrament of Holy Communion, because Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, just like you and I.
This is one of the reasons I find it so difficult to join this or that bandwagon - no matter how worthy that bandwagon. Inevitably someone (else - of course) is cast in the role of opponent, the recalcitrant, the enemy. The world is full of people who do not live up to my expectations, indeed I do not live up to my own expectations either. There is no "bottom line" - all are welcome. All contributions are acceptable.
In the end to "love one another" and to "love our neighbour" is no different, for there is no difference between our neighbour and one another. We are, everyone of us, just plain ordinary sinners, whether we and they are inside or outside what we conceive the Church to be. And we love best when we acknowledge the basic fact of life that no one is better or worse than anyone else - that we are all the same - and all equally in need of the merciful kindness of the Lord.
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