A polished version of this morning’s sermon
In our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning St Paul writes of the importance of building upon good foundations, and then goes on to talk about what it is to be an ‘expert’ or ‘master builder’. This gives me the excuse I needed to talk about the Lego movie, which I took my boys to see last weekend, and which they are now pressing me to take them to again. The movie tells the story of Emmet, who is just your average Lego person, and who refers to the Lego instructions every moment of the day – to learn what to do when he gets up, when he goes to work, when he has coffee and so on. The arc of the movie is all about him becoming a ‘master builder’, someone who doesn’t just follow instructions but is able to be creative and new. Someone who can take the instructions for what they are but not be restricted by them.
I see the Lego movie as a good example of where our Christian heritage appears anonymously in popular culture. St Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 3): “Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
This is a commonplace within Christian culture. Our gospel reading this morning is a perfect example of the way in which Jesus pushes beyond a simple legal framework. Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard it said…I say unto you”. You have heard ‘do not murder’, I say when you are angry in your heart, it is as bad. You have heard ‘do not commit adultery’, I say when you lust in your heart, it is as bad. Jesus is pushing for a change of heart, a metanoia, one where consideration of the Law is simply the starting point for our journey into God, not the end.
There are wider issues at stake as well. When St Paul talks about ‘the works of the Law’ he is not referring to a legalistic righteousness; rather, he is talking about the cultural boundary markers which specify who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Where the Hebrew community of the time rested in a sense of identity that was bounded by things like circumcision, food laws and sabbath observance, for Paul these were overtaken by our identity in Christ. Hence in Galatians Paul famously writes that in Christ we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. What this does – and Jesus lives out this teaching before Paul codifies it, when he spends his time with the sinners and tells them that they will enter heaven before the religious teachers – what this does is establish a new form of social organisation.
Rather than a group being defined by the exclusion of the ‘other’ – in other words, all the lego parts that don’t fit, that aren’t given a role in the instructions – now there is an identity formed by the sinless victim, Jesus himself. We each come to Jesus and find identity with him on the basis of our redeemed sinfulness. There is no righteous group passing judgement on another ‘less’ righteous. This is the working out of the fundamental law that the measure that we give shall be the measure that we receive. We are all sinners. We either live by a spirit of judgement and condemnation, or we live by a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. One is a spirit of domination and slavery, the other, as St Paul writes, is freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
As Christians, therefore, we are called to be on guard not to allow legalism, an emphasis upon certain particular actions, to define our identity but rather to recognise the humanity and ‘God-lovedness’ of the Other. To not to be legalistic, but to pursue the right Spirit and allow that humility and compassion to guide our choices; and to rejoice in the freedom from legalism that being guided by the Spirit can bring. After all, Jesus told us that we have the keys of the kingdom, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. In other words, it is not an antinomian distaste for a little book of Lego instructions that drives us. Instead, it is the liberty that comes from being a master builder. Everything is permitted, but not everything is edifying. The church community as a whole, commissioned in our baptism, has the authority and responsibility to pursue the free life of the Spirit, a Spirit that is known by the fruits of love, peace, joy and grace and so on.
This is what I believe the gospel to be, and I do not believe that I am alone in such an understanding.
So, having said all that, it may be possible to explain why I feel the need to have something of a rant. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has just issued a statement about gay marriage, and so far as I can tell the presiding spirit of the statement is in direct contradiction to the faith.
For those whose lives mercifully spare them from having to read such things, I will give a very rapid summary. The letter is addressed ‘to the clergy and people of the Church of England’, which is why it is right to discuss it with you this morning. Three key points:
it’s OK for a Christian gay couple to get married, so long as it is not in church – that couple can still be baptised and receive communion, and are full members of the body of Christ;
it’s not OK for a gay clergy person to get married, because clergy have to show higher moral standards;
clergy are forbidden from conducting gay weddings, also forbidden from conducting services of blessing for gay civil partnerships, but are encouraged to offer other things. In other words – I can invite a gay couple who have been married to have some prayers of thanksgiving said in church, I can bless them as individuals, I can pray for their future together, but I cannot invite them to be blessed as a couple. Despite the fact that the statement recognises that they can be admitted to communion. Obviously the House of Bishops consider a prayer of blessing to be more theologically significant than reception of communion.
In this debate, there are some consistent positions possible, and there are some creative positions possible. Sadly this House of Bishops statement is neither creative nor consistent.
EITHER – the church still thinks an active homosexual relationship is sinful, in which case we stick by established teachings, and the consequence of that is, logically, to disbar married gay couples from baptism and communion, due to their unrepentant sinfulness. The trouble with that is that almost nobody in this country is seriously suggesting it, and it runs very much counter to the warm words which the Bishops speak about homosexual relationships; OR they could say, we now accept that God is working through the culture, we have been in error and now see the light – and so fully buy into the changes that the government legislation enacts; OR they could say, we are working through these issues. There are still many conversations to be had around nature of marriage, but we no longer see homosexuality as necessarily sinful. Therefore, as a sign of our good faith, we are accepting blessings for civil partnerships and setting up some new liturgy for clergy to use.
The Bishops don’t choose any of the consistent or creative possibilities, they simply continue to fudge the situation. Why? And what is being held constant? It’s certainly not a strict reading of the Bible, for that would entail a much stricter approach to divorce than these Bishops have accepted, as Jesus discusses this morning. No, this is simply a political document. Sadly, the interests of this Church in England continue to be sacrificed to the altar of the ‘worldwide Anglican Communion’. This statement is quite clearly driven by placing interests of parts of the established churches in Africa ahead of the gay people in this country and abroad.
The real heart of the problem is the ‘us and them’ mentality, in other words, a form of destructive legalism which is used to ground a sense of identity. There is an official viewpoint which asks whether ‘Others’ meet certain standards or not, which says that some things are OK for some members of the Body of Christ but not for others. I am increasingly of the view that we will only be able to make progress on this issue when those speaking from positions of authority recognise that as the Body of Christ we are both queer and straight in the same way that we are male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek – in other words, we will only be able to make progress when our gay bishops feel safe enough to ‘come out’, when the Spirit that sets free from legalistic demands is able to act and guide our House of Bishops.
Let us remember that Jesus had this to say about homosexuality…
Whereas he had this to say about those in positions of religious authority: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
It is a sadness to reach the conclusion that this statement from our House of Bishops is utterly bankrupt theologically. It is mealy-mouthed and meretricious nonsense, a document driven by political considerations, designed to try and keep the different parts of the communion together, when most of the communion has already moved on, and moved on in different directions. It is a locking of the stable door after the horse has bolted. Elvis has left the building…
When did we become the Pharisees? When did we get so appallingly useless at what we do that the Lego movie is a better guide to Christian truth than official statements from our own House of Bishops?
We as the people of the new covenant are called into a relationship of freedom, led by the Spirit in which we can enjoy a relationship of non-condemnation and forgiveness, founding our identity on Christ alone. Perhaps the only fitting conclusion comes from this morning’s gospel: