Jonathan Andrew's Sermon, 12 February 2017


Ecclesiasticus 15:15-end; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

The Church isn’t terribly good at talking about sin these days.  This particularly came home to me this morning.  As is my usual practice, at the 8 o’clock Holy Communion, I used the traditional form of Collect set for this Sunday based on the Book of Common Prayer.  Let me read it to you now - and ladies, please remember that in Tudor English ‘men’ was an inclusive term – in stressing our universal sinfulness, it means you too:


O almighty God,

who alone canst order

the unruly wills and affections of sinful men:

grant unto thy people that they may love

the thing which thou commandest

and desire that which thou dost promise,

that so, among the sundry and manifold

changes of the world,

our hearts may surely there be ?xed

where true joys are to be found …

through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord.


But somehow, in the short-form modern language Collect we’ve just heard at this 10 o’clock service the emphasis has changed.  We now have:


Eternal God,

whose Son went among the crowds

and brought healing with his touch:

help us to show his love,

in your Church as we gather together,

and by our lives as they are transformed

into the image of Christ our Lord.


The stress now is on how Christ’s love and healing gently lead to our transformation, rather than any struggle with our own darker side – those “unruly wills and affections” of which the old service spoke.  And that seems to fit the mood of the times which is much more comfortable with Jesus the gentle prophet of love, who we sometimes like to think came to supersede the Old Testament, rather than with the strong leader who came to reinforce it.  But unfortunately, that soft interpretation is not what Matthew’s gospel tells us.  In last week’s gospel, Jesus said:


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”


And then, just in case we’ve missed the point, Jesus proceeds to look at some of those Old Testament commandments and say, not that they need to overturned, but that they need to be taken even more seriously - not overturned, but intensified.  And so this week we’ve heard the prohibition of murder extended to cover all sorts of anger, the prohibition of adultery extended to cover secret lust, the prohibition of false witness extended to cover any form of gratuitous oath taking.  Jesus is raising the bar, and raising it so high that none of us with any sense of honesty can feel comfortable that we’ve come anywhere near meeting his standards.


And so we must ask ourselves how we respond to these challenging words.  Do we take them at face value, and risk being so judgmental that we end up excluding just about everyone (including ourselves, if we can bear to be that honest) from the Kingdom of God, or do we deny that this was really what Jesus said, and retreat to a morality based on consensus – ‘if people find it difficult to obey the rules, then change the rules’.  This split between so called conservatives and liberals is without doubt the most significant source of disagreement within and between the churches at the present time.  If one were to caricature it, on the one hand, the conservative might be accused of wanting to hold onto a set of certainties based on the historical teachings of the church, or a particular way of reading Scripture, irrespective of experience in the ‘real world’ while, on the other hand, the liberal might be seen as wanting to celebrate and accommodate to a changing world, preferring easy consensus to revealed truth.


So where does Jesus fall in all of this?  Is he, as implied by today’s gospel a religious conservative, or is he actually a revolutionary rule-breaker?  Or is this the wrong question - is Jesus perhaps beyond party labels?  Is his reach more universal, his loyalties less selective, his embrace much wider?  Today we’ve heard him upholding ideal behaviour because, as Ben Sirach says in our first reading, that is the way that leads to richness of life, and not to death.  But throughout the gospels we read of Jesus walking alongside those of us (indeed all of us sinners) who’ve failed. 


So, we’re all sinners, we’ve all failed in the past, and we’ll probably fail in the future.  But, although we are sinners, we are beloved and redeemed sinners – we’re not alone.  Jesus knows the consequences of sin, he knows about separation from God, because he’s experienced it for us, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up on us - he’s there as we try and try again, with words of encouragement and unlimited mercy. 


So perhaps, as we start turning our minds towards Lent, today would be a good time to start to prepare ourselves for a bit of a progress check on our Christian journey.  Our Lent Home Groups this year are intended to help us do just that.  Nothing complicated this year, no whizzy videos or shiny books – just four weeks of space and time, some straightforward Bible studies, and some gently probing questions which we can each use to think about where we are on our Christian journey:


  • In the first week, we’ll think about God’s presence – where we feel his call, and possibly where we experience his absence.
  • In the second week, we’ll explore what difference being Jesus’ followers really makes in our lives.  Perhaps picking up on some of the thoughts I’ve shared with you this morning - are we living up to gospel standards, the values of the age to come, or are we simply following the herd? 
  • In week three, we’ll start thinking about what all this means for us in community, as members of the church, and 
  • In week four, we’ll reflect on our Christian calling into the world, to participate in the renewal of all creation. 

I’m sure that for many of us this will be ground well-trodden, but this doesn’t mean that joining a Lent Home Group will be time wasted.  I sometimes feel that the Christian life is a bit like a carpenter’s drill.  The annual cycle goes round and round like the drill, but with every turn it goes that bit deeper.  Let’s see how deep we get this year!


Because there will be an important fifth week in our programme which is aimed to turn at least some of this prayer, study and reflection into action – as we think about what we’ve learned about ourselves and about God, in that final week we’ll ask his guidance as we as a church community set our priorities for the coming years – as Paul put it in his Letter to the Corinthians, as God’s servants, working together.