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

s182g10   Sunday 15  11/7/2010

‘wanting to justify himself’  Luke 10.29

Recently I have been thinking about ‘concupiscence’ - that desire of the flesh that is so frequently spoken about in the New Testament.   Last week I spoke about it in terms of coveting that which belongs to God, in the same vein as the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, considered the offerings of ordinary people to God to really belong to them.   They died for their presumption.

The trouble is that ‘concupiscence’ is most often thought of as sexual licentiousness - and it is here that the debates over sexuality rage within the church.   But it should be immediately pointed out that this is no new thing.   The woman caught in the very act of adultery was hauled before Jesus for judgement.  

The word for the desire of the flesh, in Greek, is epithumia, which is translated in the Vulgate, the ancient Latin Bible, as ‘concupiscence’.   But it is not necessarily sexual, nor indeed is it necessarily bad.   Jesus himself uses the word in the passage ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’  (Luke 22.15) and Paul says: ‘my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’ (Philippians 1.23) and ‘we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face’ (1 Thessalonians 2.17).

Now the trouble with our preoccupation with when and with whom people might be intimate, is that Jesus actually doesn’t speak about this of his own volition at all.   As I pointed out earlier, Jesus is asked to rule on the woman caught in adultery, and naturally he is asked about marriage and divorce, but it is not of primary interest to him.   He talks about the kingdom of God and associates with precisely the opposite persons that one would expect, the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners - those most likely to be charged with concupiscence if that were really what Jesus intended.   Indeed such was his reputation that in all probability the woman caught in adultery was deliberately brought before Jesus to point out the sort of people with whom he associated.   If Jesus was actually on about sexual intimacy, he would have been made high priest, not crucified!

This lawyer wanted to justify himself and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to suspect that Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan was the reply to answer this justification.   For both the priest and the Levite would have considered themselves justified in passing by the injured man.   It was not that they couldn’t be bothered or were afraid that the man might be faking it and turn on them.   Their religion demanded that they pass by on the other side.   The man was a foreigner, in all likelihood dead.   They would have incurred ritual uncleanness had they touched the man.   Both the priest and the Levite believed that their own salvation would be jeopardised had they stepped in to assist the person.   Their ‘desire of the flesh’ was to remain ritually pure ‘for God’.

Now those who have remained sexually pure often consider that they are justified in condemning all those who aren’t - of passing them by ‘on the other side’.   Their ‘concupiscence’ is all dressed up in religious orthodoxy.   I want to suggest that the ordinary ‘run of the mill’ person knows the will of God and recognises lack of charity for what it is and the ease at which ‘good church people’ justify ‘passing by on the other side’ by focussing on other peoples’ sexual intimacy.

This story tells us that ‘concupiscence’ can be as much about what we don’t do as what we do do.   The ‘desire of the flesh’ for the priest and the Levite was to remain undefiled and they did this by doing nothing.  

Jesus, on the other hand, commands us to get our hands dirty, which is the essence of incarnation.   Jesus himself says that God alone is good.   We don’t covet God’s goodness and purity - we are called to get our hands dirty, helping others.

Now my contention is that Jesus’ message was ALL about us getting our hands dirty, getting involved in the affairs of the world, helping whoever we can whenever we can, and that Jesus’ message was NOTHING about when and with whom we may be intimate.   If the later was the case, if Jesus’ message was all about when and with whom people might be intimate, then for the life of me, I can only repeat that I see no reason why he would have been crucified by those whose message was essentially the same.

Now the reason parts of the church focus so strongly on when and with whom others may be intimate is that it diverts attention from the real message of the gospel, which condemns THEM for their concupiscence, for their steadfast refusal to get their own hands dirty in helping others for the sake of God.

A week ago (29/6/2010) I heard Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori speak on ‘Science and Religion - your context or mine?’   The thrust of her talk was to bring religion and science into relationship, to bridge the gulf that has been artificially dug between the two.   One of the questions following her talk was about hearing the current scientific theories in the context of the church.   And to me this pointed out another gulf of concupiscence, that we so sanctify the words of scripture that we wouldn’t pollute them with consideration of other, more modern, theories, which, if we base ourselves solely on what the Bible says, we must consider are necessarily wrong.   I suspect that the creation stories themselves (nb plural) were the scientific explanation of our existence, those long years ago - though they focus not on the process of events (the first two accounts cannot be historically reconciled) but the relationship of the divine and the human, humanity with itself and humanity with creation - vital questions even today.

The sin of concupiscence is again a sin of omission, a failure to value the perceptions of another, lest they pollute the ‘truth’.   The failure to recognise the validity of the ordination of women is another sin of concupiscence, a sin of omission, a failure to recognise the validity of the ministry of another.   Women might pollute the sacred episcopal succession!

The real question for me is the limits of the church.   Was the Samaritan who was charitable to the Jew a part of the church?   So also; are the scientific discussions about the creation part of the church and her worship of God or essentially separate from it?

In the course of my preparation for this sermon I listed out the passages in the NT that have epithumia in them, really of course for my own study.   In the process of this I find it especially interesting to read again Romans 1.24- 2.1 ‘Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!   Amen.  For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.   Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.   And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.   Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.   They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.  Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.’   Perhaps the point becomes clearer if I link the two passages, that the priest and the Levite committed a shameless act by passing by on the other side.   It was quite true - they believe they were right, justified - they didn’t need to feel any shame.   They cared passionately about those with whom they had fellowship - I am not, of course suggesting sexual passion, but passion nevertheless, lest they themselves become polluted by association.

And I think of the ‘old boys’ networks’ that bedevil many societies.   I have experienced a number of these, both political and religious.   Of course St Paul was in one of these himself, a leading exponent, prior to his trip to Damascus.   And I think of the church and the old boys’ networks - networks of power - like GAFCON - though certainly not limited to this.   Again, the conservatives fail to see that these networks of power are essentially identical to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, in both their intend and their methods.  Their failure to see is deliberate, and their dismissal of those who express their intimate affections with others of the same gender another way to manifest their righteousness by ‘passing by on the other side’.

Jesus, by the parable of the Good Samaritan, completely overturned this conception of concupiscence and demands acknowledgement of and compassion for all people as the principle mark of true religion. 

NOTHING justifies any deviation from this.

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