SERMON – EVENSONG AND BENEDICTION – SUNDAY 05 FEB.2017 – SMAA, CHRISTCHURCH
AMOS 2: 4 – 16 EPHESIANS 4: 17 32
The Prophet Amos, in our first lesson this evening, warns Israel of its decadence and depravity that can only lead to disaster. Having been rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, the leaders of the people have taken advantage of their subjects by robbing them of their rightful possessions, by unjust taxation and other means of extortion that lead to injustice and new forms of slavery. This was not what God had in mind for his chosen people, the Jews.
In the New Testament Lesson, from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he warns the people of Ephesus that their lifestyle – despite the teaching and example of the prophets of old and the Christian teachers who had brought them the freedom of the Gospel – their lives were not being lived in the true Spirit of Christ, to whom they had been joined by their Baptism. Speaking mainly to those of the Greco-Roman community who had already converted to the life of Christ; Paul warns them not to become backsliders in their living out of the consequences of their faith. Their old pagan way of life had been rejected once, and they needed to make sure that they did not return to it.
The theme of this passage in chapter 4 of Paul’s Letter has been given the title of ‘The New Life in Christ’ – indicating the difference that should accompany those who have accepted the discipleship of Jesus in their everyday lives. And what does Paul’s instructions here have to do with us, in the twenty-first century of the Christian era? How should it impact on our lives – the lives of us who have come together this evening to learn of the Christ who is present in the Blessed Sacrament we focus on in our worship at Benediction?
One important area of our lives, an area that affects all of us, even though we find it difficult to talk about, is the disposition of our human sexual affections. In fact, the Anglican Church around the world is fraught with tensions on how best to utilize this natural gift in our most intimate relationships. The Church teaches that the proper place to exercise this precious gift is within the bonds of Holy Matrimony – between one man and one woman – for the purpose of propagation of the species. However, most adults realize that things are not quite as simple as the Church would have them be on this matter. For instance, divorce has become a real challenge in the life of the Church, affecting not only the faithful laity but also the clergy, and even some bishops; whose married life has turned out to be no longer bearable, for many different reasons, so that the only reasonable course is for both parties to be set free from a situation of mutual destruction of one another in a continuing struggle for co-existence. The Church now recognizes that there is such a thing as the need to dissolve a marriage that no longer has any redeeming features and is virtually deprived of love.
The realisation that there is a minority of people who are unable to sustain an intimate opposite-sex relationship has, for some time now, been recognised by both the civil authorities and parts of the Western Church – most notably in North America – in the provision by the State of, firstly, Civil Partnerships and, secondly, of ‘Equal Marriage’ for two people of the same gender who are faithful to one another and seek to live together in the bonds of a legally recognised relationship of fidelity and commitment to one another.. The problem for the Church is now; how do we relate to such people who want to dedicate their lives together as a couple – even though they have no ability to produce their own children. Does such a relationship come under the category of the equivalence of an infertile heterosexual marriage? Or should it be totally banned, as being contrary to what some Christians consider against Biblical Tradition; the will of God and the authority of the Church?
The Church of England, recognising the need to abandon its former dismissal of the phenomenon of homosexuality – as a legitimate and wholesome way of life for a minority of human beings – no longer forbidden as either anti-social or intrinsically evil – has spent the last year engaged in what they have been pleased to call ‘ Conversation on Human Sexuality’, with a view to finding out how best to meet the needs of those people in the Church who have elected to live together in legal same-sex relationships akin to heterosexual marriage – a situation now perfectly legal and above-board for a minority of couples. In view of the British Government’s approval of ‘Equal Marriage’ provisions for such relationships, the Bishops have issued a statement that, although the doctrine of marriage has not been changed, they now recommend further study on the best way to provide some sort of policy of recognising such relationships, without actually endorsing them as necessarily consonant with what the Bishops consider to be the greater good of the Church and its teaching authority.
I might say, here, that this cautious approach on the part of the C. of E. Bishops, seems to me and to many other Anglicans, to be not what is needed in the Anglican Communion at this time – when the Anglican Churches of the United States and Canada have accepted the legal situation of Equal Marriage, and have decided to honour such couples in their own congregations by allowing the liturgical Blessing of such faithful committed relationships in their Churches. Our Church in New Zealand will be looking at some such provision at our General Synod in 2018.
When we look again at Paul’s Letter, although it contains warnings about sexual misconduct, it obviously has to be seen in the context of the time in which it was given – a time of Greco-Roman laxity on matters of sexual expression – where homosexual, as well as heterosexual prostitution, was rife, and there was no understanding of monogamous and faithful same-sex relationships. Furthermore, the context of heterosexual activity was open to behaviour that was not in accord with what might be considered as conducive to the constraints of Christian Marriage. If Paul were alive today, his teaching might be more in accordance with modern scientific understanding of the phenomenon of Same-Sex relationships which – like those of the predominant heterosexual norm – are best placed within the setting of a faithful, monogamous commitment, free from the dangers of promiscuity, that otherwise might threaten both the civil; and the religious sense of propriety.
It has long been acknowledged that the Bible needs to be read and understood in the context in which the various parts of it were written and understood by the people for whom it was written. Certainly, the Old Testament shibboleths about refraining from the use of certain types of food and clothing were meant for that particular time and place. Some of Saint Paul’s teaching has to be understood in the light of his own Jewish background and culture – needing to be translated for its particular relevance to the social and scientific discoveries of our own time and situation. And it is in this light that we need, constantly, to be aware of how Jesus, himself, met the particular situation of his own day and age – noting his amazing openness to the specific needs and special circumstances of the individuals who came across his path in the outworking of the Gospel as He, Himself, interpreted it. His outreach to the ordinary people who came to him for the extraordinary ministry that was His to give, in loving forgiveness and mercy to the outcast and poor; was often the cause of consternation to the Scribes and Pharisees, whose insistence on judgement by the religious laws of the day was often condemned by Jesus as being outside of the tenets of the love and mercy of the God they affected to serve.
The prophetic call to The People of God – whether in the Old or the New Testaments of the Bible, has always leaned towards to the extension of Justice and Mercy – rather than punishment and enforcement of the Law. When Jesus was asked to explain the meaning of the Jewish Law, he simplified its application in the declaration of the basic call: To love God with all one’s heart and mind and soul; and then, to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. His New Commandment – “To love one another as I have loved you”, can only be interpreted as a commandment to Love without limits – in the way that Jesus Himself gave his own life, in order that love may prevail in a world where selfishness, self-fulfilment, and self-regard is the watchword. True love is that which regard the good of the other as paramount. And the Antiphon on Maundy Thursday, when the Church considers the words of Jesus to his disciples as he washed their feet at the last Supper, says it all: “Where charity and love are, there is God”.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand