St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 4 (09.07.2017)

Tony Dickinson

Yesterday I read a disturbing reflection from Jem Bloomfield, a university lecturer who is also in training as a lay minister. It’s about how the majority of the young people with whom he is in touch regard Christianity. And it doesn’t make for comfortable reading. “Oppressive”, “discriminatory”, “sex-obsessed” – that is how they see Christians. For them the Gospel is not “good news” – and it’s hard to see how it can be. As Jem Bloomfield writes, “a lot of young people seem to view Christianity as a rather mucky-minded business, full of people forever going on about sex and who’s having it with whom… This goes against a common stereotype: that young people are continually thinking about sex, and the Church attempts to direct their thoughts towards higher things. In the general attitudes I can discern among my students, it is the other way around: many of them see churches as unhealthily sex-focused organizations.”

Now, we would probably want to say, quite rightly, that we’re not like that. The problem is that those church leaders who do take a hard, judgemental line have made the running in recent years so effectively that Christians who think as we do are seen by outsiders (and probably a good few insiders as well) as not “proper Christians”, not serious about our faith, unlike the people who believe in “gay conversion therapy” and who think that LGBT people are bound for hell. That group will, I suspect, have been deeply disappointed by the vote in General Synod yesterday.

Such attitudes, it seems to me, are flying in the face of the Gospel, and especially this morning’s Gospel, which reminds us how inclusive Jesus is. He has no time for people who want to play games on their own terms and according to their own rules. He isn’t particular about the company he keeps. That was a frequent source of friction with the Pharisees, who were scandalised at his eating and drinking with tax-collectors and other moral failures, not to mention his friendships with (gasp!) women. Jesus, unlike most of us who follow him, has no hang-ups about what others think, or how they regard him. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Or, as John Henry Newman put it a hundred and fifty years ago, “God knows what he is about.”

There’s a similar sense in our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Christian congregations in Rome. Paul is wrestling with the realisation that he had been one of those “children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another” and that his insistence that everyone should play the game by his rules had seriously damaged the cause of God’s kingdom. He had realised that, as Karen Armstrong writes in her recent book on St Paul, “his zealous obedience to the law had not hastened the coming of the Messiah but had actually impeded it.” So, in that passage which we heard a few minutes ago, Paul is not complaining about his inability to fulfil the law (in other letters he seems to think that he had made a pretty good fist of doing that). No, the “sin that dwells within [him]” is his egotism, what Thomas Merton and others have called “the false self”, the desire to get his own way and assert his status at the expense of others. What Paul is recognising with horror is the way in which he had transformed the law into a way of gaining honour for himself and those who thought like him, over against those who thought or behaved differently.

Paul might be seen, in a manner of speaking, as one of those prisoners in the waterless pit of whom the prophet spoke in our first reading, trapped in the barren dryness of his false self, his false ego, until he was set free by his encounter with the king who had come - “triumphant and victorious”, yes, but also “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. The king who comes to daughter Zion is no imperial monarch, no war-lord imposing his will on the nations by force of arms. Quite the opposite, in fact. Even such simple military technology as chariots, war-horses, and bows and arrows, has no place in his kingdom.

Recognising that takes us back to the second part of this morning’s Gospel, to a passage that has been described as “a Johannine thunderbolt out of synoptic sky”, with its assertion that “no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” But it isn’t so much the Johannine thunderbolt which is our focus as the words of Jesus which surround it.

First, we have the affirmation that God’s revelation comes to “infants” more easily than to “the wise and intelligent”. Jesus tells his hearers that it does not require huge brain-power to enter into relationship with God. In fact, huge brain-power can be a huge impediment. The wise and intelligent often want a relationship with God on their terms – not on God’s. They want a God they can understand, a God who is predictable, a God who behaves according to the rules they set. The “infants”, on the other hand, come to God with nothing more than an attitude of loving trust, a sense that whatever happens, the Lord of heaven and earth is there for them. He doesn’t lay on them rules which they have to keep. He simply is. And, what he is, is love, love that accepts, love that affirms, love that transforms.

In odd moments during the past six months I’ve been working on a piece of translation, turning into English a long article about Martin Luther written by a French historian. Martin Luther was certainly among “the wise and intelligent”. He was a brilliant scholar, a fluent writer, a university teacher. And his attempts to be a model Christian so screwed him up that his mental anguish seriously affected his physical health. He did try to fulfil the law, to live a holy life, as it was understood in the opening decades of the 16th century. And he couldn’t do it. He was heading for a major breakdown when he came to the realisation that what God wanted from him wasn’t perfect behaviour, but complete trust, and that he could let go of all his attempts to be super-holy. That is what “salvation by faith” means, entering into that accepting, affirming, transforming love and letting it work in us rather than trying to impose our own ideas of how it should work. That is the easy yoke of which Jesus speaks at the end of today’s Gospel.

That “easy yoke” is something the Church appears to have forgotten as it too often lays burdens on those who are “different”, in particular as it lays its own hang-ups about sex on the shoulders of LGBT people. Taking seriously the message of reconciliation and repentance at the heart of the Gospel means taking seriously the Christ who, gently and humbly, gives rest to the weary and the burdened. And now to God the Father, who first loved us...