s101e00 Somerton Park 2/4/00 Lent 4 Mothering Sunday
"by grace you have been saved through faith ... for good works" Ephesians 2 .8,10
Some time ago, (son) Timothy asked me if I had had to study the Hebrew language when I was in Theological College. I replied that I had only had to do Greek. My primary interest has always been in the New Testament, which is just as well, as I really think Hebrew would be beyond me. However today I would just like to know a smattering of Hebrew, for I wondered, as I read the Old Testament reading - which were worse - the people who "spoke against God and ... Moses" or the "poisonous serpents" who "bit the people, so that many ... died". Indeed I think the text would only have to have a "then" deleted and they could be identical. The people who complained could be the serpents God sent ...
For when I looked at the first part of the epistle reading, I focussed on the words "children of wrath" (verse 3). And I wonder why I have always assumed that the wrath was God's? I always assumed that these words were saying that unredeemed children will incur the wrath of God, if not now, in the time to come.
However I have realised that it could as easily be that the "wrath" was from humanity. "Wrath" is of course one of the chief passions of the flesh, it infects all of humanity. And somehow I wonder if we excuse our own wrath, by attributing wrath also to God? Of course God's wrath would always be justified, because God is God and we are such miserable sinners. Wrath on our part would never be justified however, unless we were reflecting God's wrath.
No, if the description of the complainers in the Old Testament reading are anything to go by, these are angry people, determined to blame everyone else for their own unhappiness. How easy it is to blame politicians, doctors, clergy, spouses, gay people or whoever, for making people unhappy. It is always someone else ... My unhappiness could not actually be my own fault ??? And so these "children of wrath" bite other people ... The wrath of God does not come before humanities' wrath towards one another. Indeed it is humanities' wrath towards other humans which alone excites God's wrath.
The bronze serpent that Moses made was called the "Nehushtan" and was venerated until the time of King Hezekiah, who cut it in pieces (2 Kings 18.4). It is the central symbol of the medical profession to this day. I have always thought it was a curious thing for God to have done, to get Moses to make this serpent, when one of the 10 commandments specifically forbad the making of any image. It would be hard for someone so cured by looking at the image made by God's own representative, to not be tempted to worship it ... King Hezekiah obviously thought so.
The Cross of course is our Nehushtan. When we look at the Cross of our Lord and Saviour, we remember that Christ has died for us and for all, despite the bites of the "children of wrath" around us. The Cross saves us from the venom, from the complaints.
I have, of course, deliberately used as my text both the sentence about grace and salvation and faith, with St Paul's words, so soon afterwards, about good works.
It is not a "good work" to condemn others in the name of God because they don't "believe" in precisely "our" terms, even if we can quote the Bible when we do so. We are not "saved" to remain "children of wrath" towards those who disagree with us on religious or moral grounds. It does not matter what excuse we put up for being angry with another, our wrath toward our fellow human being will incur God's wrath on ourselves. One does not need grace to quote the Bible at those who are different from us, either to put them down or to get them to change. One needs grace to accept people for who they are, especially when they differ from us.
So the difficulty I have with those who MISquote John 3.16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" is because they assume it means: "those who don't believe are condemned to eternal damnation". I'm not sure those who quote this passage with such "gay abandon" (if you will excuse the expression) actually believe in the Jesus that God gave. They might indeed believe in the Old Testament, and some verses of the Bible concerned with moral laws especially those concerned with sexual behaviour. But I am not sure they believe in the Jesus who God gave to the whole world - to sit down and eat with sinners - and be crucified by the religious authorities for doing so. Perhaps the people, who quote John 3.16, the moral laws of the Old Testament, all the while singing "What a friend I have in Jesus" - are actually the unredeemed and condemn themselves to a life of unhappiness. Blaming everyone else for their unhappiness, they bite at others.
It leads me to ask the question - who is a believer and what do we believe?
"Salvation", I am lead to understand comes from the Hebrew word which means "spacious". Spaciousness means the ability for many people to "fit in". Indeed the "gate" might be "narrow" but it is wider than just one person. We may find we are bidden to enter with a sinner with whom Jesus sat down and ate, someone who never darkened the doors of the Church.
The question is real: "Who is condemned?" Who condemns themselves to the results of their own wrath?
We are told that "No one may boast ..." and I expect this means even of being a Christian. In the last couple of sermons I have made much of the fact that God does things we don't expect, things we don't ask for, indeed things we believe quite beyond the realms of possibility. Of course the Cross falls into all of these three categories. The last thing we would expect God to do would be to die for everyone, as well as ourselves. None of us asked God to do this for us or for others - we simply wouldn't want to be indebted to anyone else, let alone God, in such a way. The Cross of our Lord and Saviour, for us and for all people is quite beyond the realms of possibility - and yet there it is, already done for us and for all people. We have nothing to boast about, because we didn't expect it, didn't ask for it, indeed we never considered the Cross and resurrection to be within the realms of possibility.
We should not be surprised to find that the words are as true as in the time St Paul wrote them: "people loved darkness ..." People have not changed, people still blame others for what they perceive as their misfortune. People enjoy biting others, they enjoy the darkness.
Nothing will not change until they all look to the Nehushtan, the Cross, and see that Jesus hung there for others as they are, and not just themselves as they are.
The old dichotomy of faith verses works - Catholic verses Protestant - cannot be sustained. Our faith is that God loves others, therefore if others do not come into the equation, both our faith and our works are condemned ever to be deficient.
Accepting others, to use the final words of St Paul in the reading for today, is our "way of life" - it is our way of faith and the work that our faith inspires.
Today within the Anglican Communion we celebrate Mothering Sunday, and this day we celebrate the love of God who loves like a mother loves her child - as he or she is - not as the child lives up to expectations. The love of a mother for a child is always centred on the "other" rather than the "self", and in this, it shows us the truest paradigm of God's love for us and for all.
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