Sermons from St Faith's

Love Thy Neighbour

FrNeil Kelley, September 4th, 2011

Avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love. Romans 13:8

No. St. Paul wasn’t talking about the fact we at St. Faith’s owe nearly £30K to the Diocese! St Paul was telling the early Christians in Rome to avoid getting into debt. Sensible advice we might think in any age, though mortgages and student loans would be difficult to avoid for many young (and not so young) people in Britain today. At the end of last year The Daily Mail reported that a record 140,000 people were declared insolvent during 2010 and debts look set to continue to rise until 2012! 

But St Paul makes an exception, the debt of mutual love. He encourages the Christians in Rome to love each other, for that way they fulfil the law. Here St Paul picks up and reiterates one of the great innovations of Jesus' teaching -- to love God and to love our neighbour as oneself. The law of the Old Testament is long and contains over 600 commandments in it. Hardly bedtime reading! But, and this seems to have been one of the big questions in Jesus' time, is it all equally important?

Jesus answered this big and apparently much discussed question. He taught that the law could be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbour as oneself. St Paul clearly knew this and argues here in his letter to the Romans that the commandments of old, not committing adultery, not killing, not coveting, are all covered by this one new commandment. This allowed St Paul and the early Christian communities to accept the insight that the various commandments of the Jewish Scriptures are not all equally important.

In recent decades, capital punishment is an issue that has been a topic of Christian reflection. Last month the Guardian newspaper wrote about a call for a parliamentary debate on the death penalty topping the government's new e-petition initiative, and polls indicated that over 50% of Britons favour its restoration. There is quite a lot of capital punishment in the Old Testament, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that capital punishment is rarely, if ever, absolutely necessary these days.
Sometimes people understand and dismiss Christianity as primarily a moral code, a list of do's and don'ts. A list of “thou shalt not”s!. The media often seems to delight in this misunderstanding, especially when there is a debate involving sexual misbehaviour.

In contrast to this attempt to reduce Christianity to a moral code, it is so very important to remember that Christianity is primarily about love, love of God and love of neighbour.

St Paul encourages the Roman Christians to love their neighbours. They will do this differently. Some will eat meat and some will be vegetarians by choice. Some will fast, others won't. Some will be strong in faith, others will have failings. In modern terms, there will be different patterns of life, diverse spiritualities and many tensions within the community. Sounds like many Church of England parishes to me! But they are united in one church as all have put on the Lord Jesus Christ and all are called to a common pilgrim way of love of God and love of neighbour.

All this sounds wonderful. Today's gospel passage gives us a warning. Some patterns of behaviour are wrong and cannot be tolerated within the community. If, after repeated warning, someone persists in some serious wrong, then they are to be treated like a pagan or a tax-collector -- in other words, they are no longer to be treated as one of the Christian community. Such a person has failed in some serious way to love their neighbour, and has failed to repent. The Church of England’s service book – the Book of Common Prayer – gives clear direction that those in a serious state of sin should not present themselves at the Lord’s Table to receive Holy Communion until they have received Absolution.

Today's passage from Matthew's Gospel is part of a long discourse of Jesus about the Church, particularly about forgiveness. What does it mean to be a member of the Church? Are there rules of behaviour? Can wrong-doers remain members of the Church? Perhaps the issue which most challenges and tests the answer to that last question in our day is the sadly all-too regular issue of convicted paedophiles in Christian communities, and, regrettably that is challenged even more when such convicted paedophiles are priests. We cannot hide away from the damage this has done to the Universal Church, and closer to home to the Church in Ireland for example.

Who can be forgiven? I guess only God knows the true answer to that dilemma. It is somehow hinted at in the words of the absolution at mass “Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent....”

The gospel does not give us a comprehensive list of such serious wrongs. Perhaps we should be grateful for that! Each generation will reflect differently but sins of violence against others, and the systematic exploiting of other people, neglect of justice and abuse of power will surely feature. So will sins of deliberately neglecting the needs of others for food, shelter or care. These are total failures to love our neighbour as oneself. There will always be conflict in our world. And so there will always be conflict in the Church as it passes through this sinful world. As GK Chesterton says, the Church is not an oasis of peace in this world of conflict, but a place of conflict in a world of false peace. Jesus instructs the Church on how to deal with this conflict. And the authority Jesus gives Peter and his brothers is an authority to bind and to loose. That authority to forgive sins is handed on to every priest at the ordination. Let us pledge at this mass to orientate our life to love of God and love of neighbour, with the help of God's grace.

Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent.... If that is God’s way, who are we to do otherwise?

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