Sermon for Cotham
3 June 2018 Trinity 1
Readings: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Imagine the scene. It’s a lovely summer afternoon. Jesus and his friends are walking through a cornfield, the grain is nearly ripe, almost ready to be harvested. We might think of August but in the Middle East the harvest comes much earlier – so more likely it’s late May. One of the early books written about Jesus, one that didn’t make it into the bible, says that when the group were walking like this Jesus would be in the lead walking hand in hand with Mary Magdalene….. They are a bit hungry so they pick some ears of corn and rub them in their hands to release the grain – and then eat it. As you watch them you see that they are happy and joking. But it happens to be the Sabbath. The day of rest. And there are always people who find reasons to criticize. Now we might call them trolls but then …. Well then it happens to be the people who want to control and believe they are defending God by doing so. You know what they said and Jesus comes back with that wonderful one-liner “The Sabbath was made for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath”.
Like all the best one-liners there’s so much packed into it. We heard Mark’s version of the story to-day. Luke but not Matthew includes the story. But Luke leaves out the one liner. He just quotes what I think might be the voice of the early church “The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath”. Which somehow misses the humanity of the whole story. Ok there are echoes here of the problems that the first Christians had with their Jewish heritage. I mean How much do you have to follow the norms of Judaism if you are to follow Jesus the Jew. And Luke is coming down on the side of the gentile Christians who can see that the norms of Jesus are more important than the norms he inherited as a Jew. But in the process Luke’s missed out on the humanity of what Jesus was saying. That humans need time for rest. That the rules are made for our benefit – we are not to be slaves to the rules. Modern Liberal Jews emphasize the same summary of the law that Jesus used – and they say that the rest of the law is a guide to what Loving God and loving your neighbour means in practice. But they like all Christians are selective about which bits of the Old Testament they actually follow.
The problems that the first Christians had with “the law” have not gone away. Some of us still want to see being a Christian as about having rules and guidelines to follow. That it is primarily a system of morality – and of controls.
But I think that Jesus’ one liner is hinting about another way. It’s hinting about how God works with us. That it’s about how God works with us so that we can grow into the person that God had in mind. It’s about that often quoted comment made by St Irenaeus in the second century – The glory of God is a person become fully human. It’s much more about love than about rules. About God’s love for us and where we discover that love. And when that works we do find ourselves loving our neighbours as ourselves. We do find ourselves responding to difference by asking what the other knows that we don’t know. By wondering what we can learn from the other who is different – be they from a different culture or sexual orientation or dare I say at Cotham? from an evangelical Christian tradition. And we do discover a love for God.
It’s about God being on our side – not God wanting to limit and control. God wanting to encourage us and wanting to be there as we explore different ways of encountering the deep mystery that is God. That doesn’t have a lot to do with dogma, with the long complicated paragraphs, that were meant to define what Christians believe. It has much more to do with all the different ways that encourage imagination. Music may work best for some, poetry or other imaginative writing for others – or the visual arts, or just the wonder of nature in the spring. For God is to be found in the whole of creation.
There is a sense in which the first incarnation was the creation of the universe. When God, the mystery that holds it all in existence took on a physical form. So that in a way you can see God in all of creation. Creation is not a one off event. The whole of the universe is in a continual process of becoming. It works by evolution. It’s not finished, it’s not complete, it’s developing in its own way. We recognize how Jesus chose not to use the way of power and control and in a sense you can see God doing the same with the whole of the universe. And he does the same with us. As one of the early church fathers said God is a God of persuasion, not of compulsion. Yes, God is much more about love than about power. Not that love is an easy option. Because as soon as we are close enough to others for them to matter to us – and for love to be around – there will be all the other feelings that go with it: jealousy, envy, anger – hate: church communities are not immune to these feelings however much we may sometimes pretend they are not there.
But in spite of all the potential for relationships going wrong we do need to part of a community, where there is love, for this growth and development that I think God desires for us to happen. Because it’s not easy and we do need the support of others who are trying to follow the same way.
Now I’ve just got two more things I want to say, that are related to what I have been talking about. First last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, is the day when the church encourages us to focus on the Trinity. Of all Christian doctrines is it the most difficult to make sense of? All I will say about it now is that in the early years of Christianity people found that they experienced God in at least three distinctive ways. And they found that they had to say that the one God was also a sort of group of three. That in God there is a loving community. Of course like all doctrine this is speaking metaphorically: but it somehow echoes what I was trying to say about being part of a community.
And the second thing I wanted to say: When I talk about God being in all things – have you noticed what that implies. It means that there is no difference between what one might call sacred and the rest of life. Everything we do and experience is actually to do with God. Of course there are some activities and places where it is easier to feel that God is. But also we need to be ready to find God in the most unlikely people and places. Now there’s a challenge for you.