Sunday, 26 June 2016

Sermon for Trinity 5, 26 June 2016

Before I preach today, I think it's important to say something about what has happened with regard to the referendum.

We need to acknowledge that the last few days have seen the most important political decision for our nation in my lifetime and probably yours too. As many of you will know, my convictions were and still are that staying in the European Union was the better choice for the United Kingdom, and for the international community. I know a number of you, like me, are shocked and concerned at such an outcome. Others will be of the opposite opinion as we gather today. Whichever way we voted, we have yet to see what the future may hold, or indeed who will lead us into it.

I'm not going to say any more personally on that, as I don't think it would be helpful, so I'm going to read the joint statement issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on Friday. Our service today also includes prayers and a litany published by the Church of England in the aftermath of the vote.

The Statement

On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union.

The outcome of this referendum has been determined by the people of this country. It is now the responsibility of the Government, with the support of Parliament, to take full account of the outcome of the referendum, and, in the light of this, decide upon the next steps. This morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a framework for when this process might formally begin.

The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.

As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.

As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.

Archbishop Justin Welby and Archbishop John Sentamu

[opening prayer]

Sermon: Galatians 5:1,13-25

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest letters. We can’t be certain, but there’s a reasonable consensus that it was written by 50AD, and possibly as little as 15 years after Paul’s conversion. It’s written in a brusque, quite aggressive style, as Paul shows the enthusiasm and zeal of a relatively new convert and communicator, eager to convey how meeting with the risen Christ has fundamentally changed his understanding of all the traditions and rituals he had kept to in the past.

The central message has been for Paul to convey to his readers that they should not feel bound by the Jewish rules that had applied to him before he met with Christ. Following Jesus is not about adopting a set of laws and rules, and then adding on Jesus; it’s a whole new and free way of relating to God directly through him. However, some people had been pressurising the Galatians to do precisely that, and adopt Jewish religious practice as a precondition of Christian conversion. Paul has some pretty harsh words for those trying to influence in this way, and warns the Galatians to reject them.

That’s what the first sentence we have here is all about. Christ has set us free from those requirements of religious ritual and practise, so there’s no need to go along with those who teach otherwise. That’s what the yoke of slavery is – the religious duties of the old era that didn’t even work in connecting people to God and giving them a living faith.

Now, if you say to a bunch of people that they are free from rules and regulations, you can immediately see the potential risks. It can lead to chaos, potentially placing people in great danger. For example, if I thought that I am set free from the rules and regulations of the highway code, I could infringe them in ways that don’t place anyone at huge risk. For example travelling at 41mph in a 40 limit breaks the rules, but is unlikely to expose me or anyone else to great danger. However, if I drove on the right instead of the left, it could cause a fatal accident.

So Paul is well aware that giving free reign to the people he’s writing to could be disastrous, without further advice. This chapter is that advice. By the way, the Church of England set readings omit verses 2-12, perhaps for taste and decency as they cover circumcision and castration! Anyway, our focus is on 13 onwards, with verse 1 provided to add come context.

Freedom is a gift, Paul is saying, which we should steward well. The key to that is "love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). That word love in the original is the Bible’s special word for love – agape – sacrificial committed love. The love expressed by Jesus on the cross, prepared to put all self-interest at stake for the well-being of another, not just emotion or simple friendship. This is the expectation he has for the Christian community. To reinforce the point, Paul says “become slaves to one another” – a memorable way of putting it, picking up on his earlier argument, which was all about slavery and freedom.

The opposite of living in a community of selfless committed love is, of course, a collection of people pursuing their own competing and conflicting self-interests. Paul cautions the Galatians that taking that path will consume them – destroy them (v15).

Paul refers to these two ways of life – love and selfishness – as spirit and flesh. The next section spells those out. Now this can sometimes look like a long puritanical naughty list, but they actually connect with what he has said earlier about living together bound by love. So sexual immorality – translated here as fornication - damages families, marriages, and communities, and undermines mutual trust. Idolatry and sorcery – religious and occult practices that take people away from being committed to Christ – questions loyalties, disrupts community and questions the authority of Jesus.

You may notice dissension and faction in that list (v 20) – quite topical to say the least. That isn’t about honest disagreement. The New Testament is full of profound disagreements between people of sincerely held but conflicting views. We see it in the life of Jesus, when he confronts the Pharisees and other religious leaders. We also see it in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, especially when the leaders are debating precisely this issue about the role of Jewish laws and regulations.

Here again the original words have more depth in their meaning. Perhaps a better word for our day would be fragmentation. If a Christian community fragments, it is destructive. Finding ways to disagree well will be the key for the Church to maintain its life. We know that in the Church of England over profoundly held opposing views on issues such as the ordination of women and our understanding of same-sex relationships. The latter being something that the Church of England is very much engaged with at this time, along with other Anglican churches throughout the world. Perhaps disagreeing well is what the wider community needs right now as we come to terms with the result.

Likewise the word for faction in the original Greek has the same root as the English word heresy. It carries with it a sense, not just of disagreeing or disliking views, but of things becoming more personal. There have been shameful times in the church’s history when heretics were thrown out of the community, or even tortured and executed. So it’s about when passion about an issue turns into personal abuse about the holder of the view. That’s one we’ve all fallen for at some time in our lives, I’m sure, perhaps even over the last few days.

Time prevents us going through them all in detail. Meanwhile, the contrast is what the Holy Spirit brings: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That's a sermon for another day, so I'll only a brief comment now.

Notice how they contrast with the previous list. These are all qualities that build community and build each other up. Love and generosity are the opposite of self-interest. You don’t need laws to regulate them, and in nurturing these qualities within ourselves and in others, all the evils of the previous list would be prevented, without the need for the application of preventative law.

Freedom is not a free-for-all. Paul is telling us that God has set us free – free from the obligations of religious law, from the slavery of ritual, and from fear of getting it wrong. But he has not given us licence to do exactly as we please, because it's not about us or what we want. Instead he has given us the ultimate example of love in the person of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we may follow in his way, not simply in our words, liturgies or prayers; but in our lives, attitudes and actions.

Mike Peatman, Rector of Morecambe Parish Church

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