The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s171e10 Epiphany 4 31/1/10
love 'does not insist on it's own way' 1 Cor 13.5
I realise that it is nine years since I have preached on this lovely passage from St Paul, so lovely that perhaps its implications have escaped notice.
This is a remarkable passage. God is love, so anything that we might be encouraged to aspire to, God already does perfectly. So God does not insist on God's own way. Or, if there was one kosher way of worshipping God, God wouldn't insist on it.
I'm sure God doesn't mind how often some people genuflect towards the blessed sacrament, but God doesn't insist on this. God doesn't insist on chasubles, thuribles, or candles.
I'm sure God doesn't mind if people base their worship on the Bible, but God doesn't insist on this. Others may equally be accepted basing their worship on the Torah, the Koran, the words of the Buddha or whatever.
I'm sure God doesn't mind if people base their worship on Jesus, the way the truth and the life, but God doesn't insist on this.
I'm sure God doesn't mind if people worship God, calling God 'Allah' or 'Yahweh' or 'Jehovah' or 'the Lord' or whatever, for God doesn't insist on a particular name either.
I'm sure that God doesn't mind people worshipping God as they marvel at creation or conduct research into the world as it is, for the creation is indeed worth marvelling at.
I'm sure God doesn't mind if people worship God by helping their neighbours, seeking to address injustices in society, for this pleases God as much as worship does.
As I reflected on this I thought of the current 'debate' on Anglican Identity. I suppose that the existence of the Anglican Church is rooted in the XXXIVth of the 39 Articles: 'It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times have they been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times and men's manners ..' The subsequent history has seen the Anglican Church impose the 'Book of Common Prayer' and none other except as permitted by lawful authority - to all and sundry. When I was young that was all that was in fact I am quoting the 39 articles from my BCP and Hymns A&MR book given to me by my godfather for my confirmation in 1962. (It is a well-used book :-). I can still remember the shock! horror! when some in the church suggested it needed to be updated. They obviously hadn't read the foundational principles of the book itself.
But such dynamics are not new. Those who prepared the KJV had to overcome opposition (and I commend their 'Preface' for those able to read it) and those who prepared the Revised Standard Version, had to defend the necessity for a new translation with these words in their 'Preface':
'A major reason for revision of the King James Version, which is valid for both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is the change since 1611 in English usage. Many forms of expression have become archaic, while still generally intelligible .. Other words are obsolete and no longer understood by the common reader. The greatest problem, however, is presented by the English words which are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in 1611 and in the King James Version. These words were once accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures; but now, having changed in meaning, they have become misleading. They no longer say what the King James translators meant them to say.' (http://www.bible-researcher.com/rsvpreface.html).
I have had occasion to say that 'no one comes to the Father but by me' most often means 'no one comes to the Father but by the form of worship that I find personally most congenial'. This has two problems. The first is that if God does not insist on God's own way, how can we insist on universal usage of our own form of worship for eternal salvation? And secondly, this automatically implies that God's word of blessing only applies to me, and those who think identically to me, and God's word of condemnation or correction is never addressed to me, or those who think identically to me. This is to fly in the face of the huge amount of scriptural evidence, both from the Old Testament and the New, that God's word is primarily addressed to the 'people of God' to open them up to others. And I have to ask, again, why the church applies these words of love not insisting on it's own way as something that OTHERS have to do personally, blithely ignoring the fact that the CHURCH insists on things only done in her way! The only conclusion is that the Church, when it is acting thus, is not a loving institution!
But I wonder if the fact that God 'does not insist on (God's) own way' can be taken in a wider context than this? If there was one way of living God's way of living then God would not insist on it anyway! If there was one way of loving God's way of loving then God would not insist on it anyway!
The problem each and every religious person has to face is that there are an enormous number of others that worship, live and love differently to him or her. Indeed, of course, because we are all so unique, the reality is that EVERYONE worships, lives and loves differently to me. But the culture of original sin has caused us to so question our own fundamental goodness that we are emotionally obliged to get others to agree with us. As Robin Meyers points out 'If we are never satisfied with our own inherent goodness, then we will never be satisfied with the verdict rendered by others no matter how frequent or exalted. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book 'How good do we have to be?' The answer seems to be: we are never good enough.' ('Saving Jesus from the Church p 112) He says: 'In effect, the church has created the ultimate spiritual franchise, a kind of salvation monopoly. We are pronounced bad by birth and given only one possible cure by the same entity that provided the diagnosis!' (p97).
But when we free ourselves from the RELIGIOUS doctrine of original sin, then we can allow ourselves to be ourselves; and others to be themselves. The doctrine of original sin is a doctrine of self-hatred and what good is it if we love others as we love ourselves, when in fact we hate ourselves? This is a doctrine of death not one of life for our selves and for everyone else!
I wonder if we are courageous enough to read verses 4 to 7 thus: 'God is patient, God is kind, God is not envious or boastful or rude. God does not insist on God's own way. God is not irritable or resentful. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all of us, believes in all of us, hopes for all of us and endures everything for us all'? This picture of God seems polar-opposite to that which would look at each and every human being born as inherently corrupted!
Now you are welcome to choose a god who looks at each and every human being born as inherently corrupted, and I have no doubt that you can find scriptural evidence to suggest that you might be correct. But I believe that I can find a rather more personable God in the very same pages of scripture I'm not quoting the Torah or the Koran though no doubt such a personable God will be found there too.
I am happy to commend this personable God to anyone who will hear. I have no need to insist upon it or impose it upon others. The god who views everyone as inherently evil must be insisted on, it must be imposed from outside, and so this god seems unloving. But a loving God does not insist on God's own way, a loving God has no need to do this.
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