Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, July 23rd,
There’s a significant choice for a preacher in today’s readings. How we choose depends on how we think God views humanity. I could trash humanity, us, or I could make us all blush!
Isaiah writes: ‘I am the first and the last’ and thus puts us humans in our place. ‘Have I not told you from of old?’ God the impatient teacher: here’s a good opportunity to make people feel bad about bad Bible habits.
In Romans we have a somewhat insensitive God: ‘don’t worry’ – the sufferings of the present are nothing compared with the pie in the sky ahead of you. Put your head down, grin and bear it! And Matthew’s parable of the wheat and the weeds growing in the same field invites the preacher to terrify a congregation with hellfire and the gnashing of teeth. And the preacher’s eye sparkle as he or she goes on about sin, often in a surprisingly informed way!
On the other hand: ‘Who is like me? ... Come on, get to know me', says God. The image of the ‘groaning creation’ in Romans tells us that creation is pregnant with possibility. Let’s see what we can do. We’re full of promise. Even the wheat and weeds growing together positively declares that the wheat can grow; good is discovered even in the midst of evil.
As to whether this works in practice, I wonder. Have you ever seen a garden which has been left to God’s horticultural methods?
There are many images of God in the Bible: angry, impatient, vengeful, demanding, judgemental, threatening in the extreme. Yes, there are many images of God in the Bible: patient, healing, trusting, passionate, embracing, creative and indeed loving. Sometimes we preachers speak of one image one week and next week there’s another. Or sometimes we preachers stick on one side or the other, afraid to budge from our comfort zone.
None of this should surprise us. After all, there are times when children are objectionable and other times when we now they’re wonderful. Isaiah chapter 40 onwards is fantastic. God had chided te children of Israel, now he awakens the Hebrew people from their weeping by the waters of Babylon. They’d lost much: land, friends, family, hope. They’d lost their trust in God; lived a non-existence, as though God was buried in the ransacked Jerusalem. Babylon was seen as punishment from God forewarned by prophets like Amos and Micah when the people had forgotten about God’s justice.
From Isaiah they discover something of the bigness of God, his holiness. They rediscover the saving God, rehearsing the stories about the escape from the slave camps of the Pharaohs. They rediscover God not merely as condemning but inviting them to participate with him as a light to the nations. Gradually hope enters their hearts; they feel afresh the close companionship of the once very distant, absent God.
Sometimes Paul despaired of congregations emerging around the Mediterranean, yet in the letter to Rome he wrote of the creating God. Although he sees the wrongs, the faults and the evil in life, he also speaks of the whole creation as being pregnant with possibility. ‘The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only creation but ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ Pregnant with possibility, but definitely not the finished item, that’s the realism of Paul.
Is Paul negative about the Romans? Is Isaiah a cup half full or half empty kind of guy? God gets angry with us’ God is passionate about us, God reaches out to us. The themes of evil and sinfulness are alongside themes of passion, forgiveness and hope.
We need both. The western church has been very deeply influenced by the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo, who articulated the doctrine of ‘original sin’. This doctrine found its way into the Nicene Creed. It emphasises that Jesus was ‘begotten, not made’ and ‘of one Being with the Father.’ For Augustine and his followers (mainly the western church) it was essential that Jesus had not inherited the ‘sickness of Adam’, original sin. Augustine taught that Adam (and to a lesser extent Eve) had fixed human nature, which meant that from the very beginning every baby is born sinful. Everyone therefore inherits this nature from Adam, according to Augustine, by every subsequent human being.
As the 4th century AD ended and the 5th century began, he articulates this doctrine that human beings are of nature sinful. For him it’s fixed in our DNA. Of course, this didn’t come out of the blue; there were such tendencies in Christian thinking among people before Augustine. But also there were those before him who didn’t exhibit such theological tendencies and those around him who argued vehemently against him (such as a monk from the British Isles named Pelagius, a so-called heretic).
And through the centuries since this question of the nature of human beings has been at the centre of debate, some have taken Augustine’s theory further to the realms of ‘double predestination’ and beyond. Yet this notion of original sin doesn’t come from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Bible, nor did it develop in the centuries immediately after Jesus’ life The question is the age old one about evil in a world emanating from a good God. Augustine tried to solve the question by putting Adam on the line. The choice between a ‘sermon of hell, fire and brimstone’ and a ‘sermon on human life being pregnant with possibility’ is not an either/or choice. It must always be a both/and sermon.
The Bible is fantastically negative about humanity and fantastically valuing and positive about humanity, us. Augustine’s theory tips us to one side of a fence that is remarkably challenging to sit on! Jesus was angry, livid when he turned over the tables of the traders in the temple. Here was condemnation. And yet he looked on people and saw so much possibility in them. The prejudgements of his time meant nothing to him. Female, children, prostitute, foreigner, tax collector, those living alternative lifestyles and those deemed unclean because of illness – none of these were condemned as ontologically sinful by God, but pregnant with possibility.Naivety was not his way, neither was a fundamental denial of the goodness that God in the Genesis stories announced about the life he had made.
So – sorry! I can’t thump the pulpit and tell you we’re all sinners with no hope and there’s nothing to be done. I can’t tell you that we are the best folk since sliced bread. We are each on a journey to express something of the God we meet along life’s way. Sometimes we’ll succeed, and the healthy mind and heart knows that the reverse is also true.
But there is always tomorrow, always tomorrow to which we adjust and are called. God has not given up or consigned us to the council dump.
Thanks be to God!