Sunday, 22 November 2015

Choose your weapon carefully

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
22/11/2015 11.00am 

Listen to this sermon here

Ephesians 6.10-20
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.  19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,  20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

1 Samuel 17.33-40  Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth."  34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock,  35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.  36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God."  37 David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!"  38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail.  39 David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them.  40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

Choose your weapon carefully, they say,
            because if you get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

We live in a time of intense debate
            about what the appropriate arsenal of weapons should be
                        for combatting the various perceived threats we face
                        at both national and international levels.

From the renewal of Trident, and investment in large scale traditional weaponry;
            to armed unmanned aerial devices, or ‘drones’ as they are more often known;
            to increased surveillance and monitoring of the population’s online communications.

The Cold War may have ended,
            and we may no longer have boots on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan,
            but war itself remains steadfastly on our national agenda,
                        even if often euphemized as ‘national security’,
            and the arms industry remains one of the great economic drivers
                        of our national wealth and international standing.

To which I would say: let us choose our weapons carefully,
            because if we get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And it’s not as if we in the Western world
            have never made any mistakes before on this one…
There is a very clear line of argument that traces the rise of Islamic State
            to the instability that followed the second Gulf War,
                        which was triggered in turn by the rise of Al Qaida,
                        which in turn was triggered by Western interventionism,
            and so on all the way back to the early 20th Century land divisions in the Middle East,
                        as the failing Ottoman Empire gave way
                        to the imperial aspirations of Britain and France…

We have chosen many weapons in the past,
            from political power to military might to economic endeavor,
            and they have not always served us well.
They may have seemed very attractive at the time,
            offering quick wins and ready returns,
            but the long term cost has been catastrophic.

As the young David discovered in our Old Testament reading,
            sometimes even armour fit for a king
            is not the right tool to use when fighting giants.
Goliath knew very well how to defend himself against a show of strength.
            He had been a warrior from his youth (17.33)
                        and could put up a convincing fight against anyone
                        who took him on on his terms.

David’s fabled success against the powerful giant
            was due to his willingness to change the rules of the game,
            his refusal to play by Goliath’s rules.

Instead of tooling up with weapons and armour
            in an ancient version of the arms race,
            David changed the game, changed his weapon, and fought a different battle.

As I have said; choose your weapon carefully,
            because if you get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And in choosing your weapon, it also helps to know your enemy.

It’s all too easy to pick the wrong target, to fixate on the wrong adversary,
            and to simply and mistakenly perpetuate cycles of violence
                        rather than acting to end them.

Did you see the article published last month by Lydia Wilson
            detailing her interviewing of an imprisoned ISIS fighter in Iraq?[1]
The young man was facing the death penalty
            for planting four car bombs in Kirkuk, killing scores of people.
By one reading of the situation, he is the enemy.
            Certainly he has committed terrible atrocities and will be punished for them.

But what Lydia Wilson discovered
            was that he was also a 26 year old from a large family,
                        reasonably well educated,
            and committed to working hard to support his family
                        in the difficult economic conditions of post-Allied-invasion Iraq.
He was woefully ignorant about the details of Islam,
            and was fighting what he perceived to be the enemy
            because he wanted a better future for his family.

Is he the enemy?
            Or is he just another victim,
                        perpetuating in his life the cycles of violence
                        to which he has become enslaved?
Wilson concludes:

            ‘This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life,
                        but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives;
                        the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs,
            which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal and land based too.”

While he will certainly pay for his crimes,
            his execution will not stop the violence,
            because ultimately he is not the enemy.
He is not the right target.

As the writer of Ephesians puts it:
our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (6.12)

Executing a misguided, deceived, and angry young man will not stop ISIS.
            Russian and French led air strikes in Syria
                        will not stop another terrorist attack
                        against a Western capital city or a Russian airliner.
Because every ISIS militant killed in northern Syria
            will have a brother or a cousin ready to step into his place.

our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (6.12)

The theologian Walter Wink,
            who I’ve quoted before and will, I’m sure, quote again,
wrote a book that was published in, rather fittingly, 1984,
            called ‘Naming the Powers’,
and in this book he offered a way of reading this key verse from Ephesians 6
            which I’ve found very helpful over the years,
                        as I’ve sought to puzzle out what a Christian response
                        to issues of war and violence might be.

He starts by inviting us to consider the various powers
            that exist both in our world, and in the world of the first century,
                        at the time Ephesians was written.

The idea here is that there are powers at work in the world
            which are beyond any specific manifestation of them.
So, when we look at a particular expression of power,
            we are actually only seeing the physical form that that power has taken
                        in our time and place,
            and we are not seeing the power itself as it truly is.

An analogy here would be for us to look at the soldiers on the ground
                        fighting a particular battle,
            and to not realise that what lies behind the foot-soldier
                        is a whole chain of command,
                        going right up to the General issuing the orders to fight
                        from the security of his tactical command station.

However, Ephesians says that it doesn’t stop at the General,
            and that there are other less tangible, but no less real,
            systems of control and domination that lie beyond the General,
                        to which he (and it usually is a he) is answerable,
                        whether he knows it or not.

And just as killing one soldier doesn’t stop the army,
            neither does executing the general stop the war.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden
            did not remove the threat of terrorism from our streets.
The killing of Mohammed Emwazi
            will not stop radicalized militants executing hostages.
Because we struggle “not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So what do these cosmic powers, these spiritual forces of evil, look like?
            And what are we to do in the face of them?

To put it another way;
            how can we know our enemy
            so that we can choose the right weapons for the fight?

Well, the first thing I think we need to recognize
            is that these forces can be terribly prosaic,
                        they are awfully normal, they are dreadfully banal,
            they are appallingly commonplace, they are horrifically routine,
                        and they are shockingly mundane.

What I mean by this is that they are terrible, awful,
            dreadful, appalling, horrific, and shocking;
but they are also prosaic, normal,
            banal, commonplace, routine, and mundane.

And it is in their seeming inoffensiveness
            that that their great offence lies.

If the dark powers stalked our streets clothed in blood and gore,
            we would know them as our enemy.
But they come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7.15),
            and all too often we greet them as a friend,
            ignoring their presence in our midst until they turn on us and devour us.

I have in my study a first edition of C.S. Lewis’s 1942 classic ‘The Screwtape Letters’,
            and in the preface he suggests
                        that there are two equal and opposite errors
                        we can make about these forces of evil.
            One is to disbelieve in their existence,
                        whilst the other is believe,
                        and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
            The powers, he says, are equally pleased by both errors.

So what do these cosmic powers, these spiritual forces of evil, look like?

In a sense, the answer is very straightforward:
            they look like anything which takes our focus away
            from the God of love revealed in Jesus and made known to us by his Spirit.
Anything which lures humans into the root sin of idolatry
            is a power taking shape in our midst.

Walter Wink suggests that we need to look
            not for corrupted individuals or personified demons,
            but at structural power “invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals”.[2]

He says that “it is the cumulative totalizing effect
            of all these taken together
            that creates the sense of bondage to a ‘dominion of darkness’
                        presided over by higher powers.”[3]

When these powerful institutions, laws, traditions and rituals pull together,
            they collude to create the spirit of empire,
                        which seeks to take for itself
                        the allegiance and worship of the people of the earth,
            seducing them into idolatry
                        and opening the gates to hell on earth.

At the time Ephesians was written,
            the cosmic powers of darkness
                        had clothed themselves in the Roman Empire,
            with its divine emperors and institutionalized idolatry,
                        with its military might and economic excesses.

But in different times, and in different places,
            the spirit of empire keeps recurring in human history,
            like a mighty beast who, when it loses its head,
                        simply grows another in its place,
                        as the writer of the book of Revelation so vividly imagined it (Rev 13.13).

And where is this spirit of empire in our time?
            Where are the current expressions of organized idolatrous power?
            Where do institutions, laws, traditions and rituals
                        collude to create hell on earth?

Well, the desire to create an Islamic caliphate
            based on an extreme, violent, and totalizing reading of the Koran is certainly one.
But just as Christianity doesn’t inevitably lead to the crusades or the inquisition,
            so it is important for us to remember
            that Islam doesn’t inevitably lead to the Islamic State.

And when we encounter a crusade, an inquisition, or a caliphate,
            we need to recognise that these are recurring expressions
                        of the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            deceiving people and nations
                        into committing horrendous acts of violence in the name of God;
            and we need to recognize that in them,
                        evil stalks our world and the path to hell opens before us.

But it’s not just them over there, or even us in days long past.

There are expressions of power in our own culture
            which lure us into atrocity,
            even as we believe ourselves to be standing on the side of right.
Our society has many “legitimations, seats of authority,
            hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions”,[4]
                        which deceive us into evil
                        every bit as readily as the young man in Iraq was deceived into his atrocities.

I’m afraid there is no moral high ground here.
            All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23).
                        All of us need salvation.
                        All of us need rescuing.

The enemy is not just over there, or out there.
            The enemy lies in the heart of each fallen human soul.

We may not be able to solve the world’s problems by lunchtime,
            but if we do not address our own innate tendency to idolatry,
                        our own capacity for retributive action,
                        our own desire to privilege ‘me and mine’ ahead of the other,
            we will never be in a position
                        to stand firm in the wider battles that lie before us,
            because we will be fighting the wrong enemy.

It is no coincidence that when Jesus was asked
            to summarise the law and the prophets
                        he started with the command to love God, and God alone,
                        and then followed this with the injunction to love our neighbour
                                    as we love ourselves (Mk 12.31).

Have no other gods, and love the other.

This is the real battle, and it begins in each of us, and among us.
            Because who we are in the battle ground of our souls
                        will affect the way we engage the battle on our streets and beyond our shores.

So, let us choose our weapons carefully,
            because if we get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And here Ephesians offers us a radical re-visioning
            of what it means to be a soldier for Christ.
The famous ‘armour of God’ passage
            takes each part of the traditional Roman legionnaires’ dress in turn,
                        re-imagining them as weapons fit for fighting
                        the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There is no place in Ephesians’ understanding of the battle before us
            for weapons of human destruction,
            whether they be offensive or defensive.

Each part of the armour is transformed,
            much as the guns from Mozambique have been transformed
                        into the our beautiful violinist.

We cannot sidestep the challenge Ephesians presents
            to our addiction to weapons of violence
            by claiming that the list of elements of armour are primarily defensive;
any more than we can sidestep the lethally offensive capability of Trident
            by claiming it is a defensive necessity.

The point from Ephesians is clear:
            the only armour we need,
            the only effective weapons we have at our disposal,
                        are truth, righteousness, peace,
                                    faith, salvation, the world of God, and prayer.

The only way in which we can win the battle
            against the Goliaths that dominate our world
                        is if we strip off the armour of Saul,
                        discarding the weapons of might and power.

We will not win this fight with guns and bombs.
            We will not win this fight with drones and aerial bombardment.
            We will not win this fight with a renewed nuclear arsenal.
These are the wrong weapons,
            and they take us to engage the wrong enemy.

The only battle that matters
            is the one that rages in each human soul: in me, in you,
                        in the young man on the streets of Iraq, or Paris, or London.

It is the battle for what it means to be human.
            It is the battle to love our enemies;
            It is the battle to learn how to both love God and the other
                        without having to choose between them.
            It is the battle against idolatry,
                        when idolatry is understood to be anything
                        that displaces the God of love from the centre of the cosmos.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
            against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

It is only when we clothe ourselves in the armour of God,
            that we are able to stand firm against the wiles of the devil.
And the only weapons worth carrying are truth, righteousness,
            peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer.

[2] Naming the Powers, p.85.
[3] p.85.
[4] p.85.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Encouragement from the past for small churches…

Obituary of Mrs Sarah Benning who died in 1809 at age 96.   When she died, she had been a member of the Baptist Church of Christ meeting at New Mill near Tringfor 70 years.   Comment on the church: ‘In the early part of Mrs Benning’s religious profession the congregation was very small, rarely exceeding 20 people; and even these dwindled away, so that the place was shut up, and the grass grew upon the unoccupied way. But afterwards, 15 persons were added to them and they were formed into a regular church…’


‘Obituary of Mrs Sarah Benning’, The Baptist MagazineVol I, London, 1809, p. 328.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Remember, Remember

Remembrance Sunday Sermon 
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
8/11/15 11.00am Service

You can listen to this sermon here

Ephesians 4.25-5.5 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,  27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,  32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,  2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints.  4 Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.  5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
         gunpowder, treason, and plot…’

Do you remember?

Our Violinist remembers…

If you haven’t met our Violinist before,
         he is made from decommissioned weapons
         from the civil war in Mozambique.

I bet he remembers…

Each year, on Remembrance Sunday,
         the United Kingdom stops, and pauses,
         and remembers  those who have made what is often called,
                  ‘the great sacrifice’.

And there are plenty of other euphemisms that we might use this day as well:
         We may say that we remember those who have ‘given their all for others’,
         that we remember those who have ‘paid the ultimate price for our freedom’,
         that we remember those who have ‘laid down their futures for our future’.

And all the while we avoid actually saying
         what it is that we are remembering;
which is the bloody and violent deaths
         of countless young people
         killed in the service of their country’s national interest,
         many of them conscripted.

We find ourselves using the passive voice, rather than the active,
         and so we say that we remember those who have died in war,
                  as if it’s all something of an unfortunate accident,
         rather than that we remember those who have been killed
                  because they were put in front of machines
                  designed to end human life as efficiently as possible.

And so we’re back to ‘sacrifice’ again,
         and to ‘the great sacrifice’ that we remember on this day.

And suddenly, in my mind, it stops being such a euphemism,
         because of course a sacrifice, in biblical terms at least,
         is where a life is taken with specific intent.

The animal, whether it be human or otherwise,
         is rendered helpless, stretched out on the altar,
         and the knife is put in so that the life is taken,
         and the blood flows out, over the altar, and onto the ground.

And, in biblical times,
         the sacrifice of a living creature had a specific purpose.
It was to remove the guilt of sin
         from the person or people offering the sacrifice.

Someone or something else pays the price for our wrongdoing,
         so we don’t have to.

I sin, and another pays,
         that’s the transaction of sacrifice.

And that same transaction underlies
         the military sacrifices of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,
         every bit as much as it did those of the millennia before Christ.

The tendency to require another to pay the price
         for our collective sin and guilt,
         is a recurring feature of human society,
and we are no more immune to this
         than any generation that has gone before us.

We still send our armed forces on ‘offensive’ missions,
         we still ask young men and women to die in our name
         for the protection of the society that we privilege and profit from.

And we still call it ‘sacrifice’.
         And we might be right.

Did anybody watch Dr Who last night?
         If you didn’t, and you want the most superb exploration
         of the ethics of warfare, sacrifice, and forgiveness,
                  aimed at a childhood audience
         you can do no better than last night’s episode.[1]

Let’s listen again to what this morning’s reading from Ephesians
         says about sacrifice.

5.1-2 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We are to be imitators of God,
         we are to live in love as Christ lived in love,
         and we are to understand that love, in which we live, in terms of sacrifice.

The writer of Ephesians clearly here has in view here
         the Jewish system of sacrificial offering;
         where the carcass of the freshly-slaughtered animal was burned,
         causing the fragrant smell of cooking meat to rise to the heavens.
         A ‘fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’, the writer tells us…

And in place of an animal, he offers us an image of Jesus,
         slaughtered like a lamb on the altar of human sin.

But there’s a crucial difference here,
         which is that Ephesians sees the sacrifice of Jesus
         as an act freely chosen by Jesus.

Here, as elsewhere in the New Testament,
         the language of sacrifice is transformed,
                  from the Jewish sacrificial system understanding of it
         to an emphasis that Jesus gave himself as the sacrifice.
There is no reference made to any demand from God that he do so,
         he is not the unwilling sacrifice of the lamb laid out on the altar,
         or the person conscripted and send to fight.

In contrast to the human tendency
         to make sacrificial victims on the altar of our own guilt and self-interest,
we meet in Jesus the novel notion of loving self-sacrifice,
         we meet the one who takes upon himself the mantle of a slave,
         and offers himself that others might live.

And in a world where the demand is constantly
         for others to die that we might live,
and on a day where we remember the ‘great sacrifice’
         that our society has required of so many,
we have never needed more
         a way out of the spiral of sacrificial scapegoating
         than we need it today.

‘Imitate God’, ‘live in love’, what does this mean?

What does it mean for us to live in love, as Christ loved us
         and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God?

What does it mean for us to learn to move, in our lives,
         away from the seductive comfort
         of asking another to pay the price for our guilt and sin?

Well, thankfully, the writer of Ephesians doesn’t leave us hanging,
         and he surrounds his theological command to live in love,
         with some of the most practical commands in the letter.

This is not just ‘up there’ as a big idea,
         this earths itself here-and-now, today, in who we are now,
                  and who we will be over lunch,
                  and who we will be this afternoon, and tomorrow.

Because it all begins with how we respond to sin.

Because if we can come to terms with our own sinfulness,
         we can begin to learn to live differently in the light of it.

Ephesians makes it very clear that following the path of Christ
         is not about obeying a long list
                  of ‘that shalt not’ commands.
Christianity is not a sin-avoidance strategy,
         because as Judaism had already proved, that didn’t work,
         and needed a sacrificial system to deal with human failures to keep rules.

And yet, the irony is that  Christians have often chosen
         to see Christianity as a rule-based religion
         with commands to be kept if one is to avoid sin,
                  or broken if one is falling into sin.

Rather than abandoning a rules-based approach to dealing with human sin,
         all too often Christianity has simply re-clothed
                  the Jewish Law in Christian clothing,
         and then carried on as if nothing changed at the sacrificial death of Christ.

The Christian obsession with the threat of Hell in the hereafter
         has become for many the motivating factor
                  for ethical behaviour in the here and now,
while salvation has become for so many primarily about obedience
         to a system of behaviour
         which the church takes it upon itself to enforce

By this understanding, (which is all too common, I think, in our churches),
         if you want to belong to the church
                  you have to not only believe the right things
                  but you also have to behave in the right way
with the result that the church comes to understand itself
         as the community of those who are, on the whole, getting it right,
         because we kick out those who aren’t, or don’t let them in.
And we define ourselves over and against those outside the church
         who become, in our minds at least, those who are busy getting it wrong.

And so an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality develops,
         which gives us the mechanism for scapegoating them,
                  and condemning them to eternal torment
         whilst we congratulate ourselves on having escaped it.

In other words, we develop a theology which requires those beyond the faith,
         or those who have fallen away from the true faith,
         to pay the price for our own human failings.
They pay the price to assuage us of our guilt,
         and absolve us of our responsibility.

Do you remember the old ‘wayside pulpit’:
         ‘Which part of Thou Shalt Not don’t you understand?’
         plastered on the front of a church!

By that understanding, the church becomes those
         who do understand what ‘thou shalt not means’        
                  and they become those who, at least in public,
                  are seen to obey the commandments.

It is a troubling fact that for many people beyond the church
         the sin-obsessed, sanctimonious,
                  and self-absorbed attitude of many Christians
         is the first thing that comes to mind
                  when they think of Christianity

And the inference of a slogan such as
         ‘Which part of Thou Shalt Not don’t you understand?’
                  is that the church has it right
                           whilst everyone else has it wrong
         and that those inside the church are the saints
                  whilst those beyond the church are the sinners

And so the message that the church sends
         about the good news of the gospel of Jesus
gets reduced to a mantra of:
         ‘Do this, don’t do that,
                  and avoid the other
                  or there’ll be trouble’

And so the perception is reinforced of Christians
         as people who are always going on
                  about sin, sex, and suchlike
         whilst having no fun at all themselves along the way.

Does the way we behave actually matter?
         And how does that relate to what we ask other people to do
                  when we get it wrong?

For many, the starting point in such a discussion
         may be the ‘ten commandments’ of Judaism
which, according to the Exodus story,
         were given to Moses on Mount Sinai,
and came to form the basis of the Jewish law, or the Torah.

There are many churches
         which have the ten commandments
         lavishly reproduced on their walls,
and generations of Christians
         have grown up learning them by heart.

As we saw last week, however, the question
         over whether the ten commandments are actually binding
                  on those who are followers of Jesus
         is far from settled;

and it’s certainly possible to make a compelling case
         that the defining feature of Christian discipleship
                  is not so much about obedience to the ancient Jewish law code
         as it is about obedience
                  to the inner prompting of the Spirit of Christ

As the author of our passage this morning from Ephesians put it
         when talking about right and wrong behaviour:

Ephesians 4:30  do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.

The image here is of a stamp,
         which marks something indelibly:

And the idea is that those who are ‘in Christ’
         are marked with a stamp, or a seal,
                  which is the holy character of the Spirit of Christ at work within them.

By this understanding, the sign of our belonging to Christ
         is the activity in our lives of the Spirit of Christ in our lives,
         drawing and shaping and moulding us
                  into the likeness of Christ.

And this understanding of Christian ethical behaviour
         as deriving from the activity of the Spirit of Christ within us,
         rather than from our slavish obedience to a list of ten commandments,
is important to bear in mind
         when we consider issues of sin and morality.

Because on the one hand,
         this move away from a comprehensive list of ‘dos and don’ts’
                  may seem a profoundly threatening move,
         as it can appear to leave the door open
                  for all sorts of moral and ethical ambiguities,
                  and yes it does.

But on the other hand,
         it releases those who are ‘in Christ’
                  from the burden of meticulous law-keeping
                           in order to secure their salvation,
         and it frees them to discover life lived in Christ
                  as a positive outworking of the call of Christ
                  to follow him and to be his people.

The great German theologian of the second world war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
         who took a stand against Hitler and was ultimately executed
         for his stand against the tyranny of the Nazi regime,
put it like this:

·      ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will’

You see, all of this theology I’ve been doing
         begins to earth itself when we have to ask
                  ‘how are we going to behave?’

How are we going to behave when we have to live in a world
         where people are asked to fight and die on our behalf
What are we going to do, how are we going to respond,
         in this complex world where people are today dying for us?

·      ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will’

I’m not one to particularly point at the USofA, but I will…
         What are we to make of Christianity when it is more obsessed
                  with a president’s personal life
                  than it is with his foreign policy?

·      ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will’

… said Bonhoeffer, in the midst of the second world war.

All too often Christians have spent their lives and efforts
         in seeking to cautiously avoid sin,
whilst missing the call to courageously and actively
         engage in doing God’s will.

For too long, and for too many,
         the starting point has been that of right behaviour,
and those who have been the gatekeepers of our churches
         have made personal morality paramount
         and excluded those who do not match their definition of it.

And in doing so they have missed the radical call of God
         to follow him into the world
                  as risk-takers for the kingdom of God,
         accepting and welcoming those
                  whom others would exclude,
         and embracing those whom others revile.

Which is all very inspiring,
         and from the point of view of many Christians,
                  all very radical.

But, I can almost hear some of you wondering,
         does this mean that ethical behaviour isn’t important?
Does this mean that we can forget about morality?
         Is Simon saying that sin doesn’t matter?

Well, no, I’m not saying that. At all.

I do think ethical behaviour is important,
         and I don’t think we can disregard morality,
                  and yes, sin really does matter, very very much.

But not in the way that Christians have often understood it.

You see, the call to live lives
         in obedience to the ethic of the Spirit of Christ,
rather than in obedience
         to a list of commandments,
is not a call to abandon ethics.

It is an invitation to re-think the basis
         on which we will take our ethical decisions in our lives,
         this morning, over lunch, this afternoon, and tomorrow.

If we start with a list,
         and measure our life, or worse, someone else’s life,
                  against that list,
         then it’s quite easy to see where the faults are
                  and it’s also quite easy to see where the sins are.

I haven’t murdered anyone, so ‘tick’
I haven’t committed adultery, so ‘tick’
I haven’t lusted after my neighbour’s ox, so ‘tick’
and so on…

However, this tick-box approach to personal morality
         can mask a more insidious complicity with sinfulness
that runs far deeper than the surface actions
         which feature in such lists of behaviour.

I may not have murdered anyone,
         but that doesn’t mean I am free from complicity
                  in those global systems which sustain my western lifestyle
                  at mortal cost to the poor and disadvantaged
                           around the world.

I may not have murdered anyone,
         but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a young man, or a young woman,
                  out there right now, murdering in my name,
                  and doing so in order that I might benefit;
         paying the sacrifice, maybe the ‘ultimate sacrifice’,
                  that I might have my freedom.

I may not have committed adultery,
         but I am part of a society where women are trafficked and abused
                  to feed the insatiable demands of the so-called sex industry

I may not have lusted after my neighbour’s ox,
         but I am part of a society where greed and envy are normative,
         where the pornographic objectification of women is normalised,
         where keeping-up-with-the-Joneses is our national past-time,
         and where competitive consumerism is rampant.

And along with everyone else,
         I seek to rid myself of my guilt, and my complicity in all of this,
                  by offloading it onto others,
         asking them to pay the price for my sins.

Who I am, and how I behave, does indeed matter. Very much.
         But this is far more than a statement about personal morality,
                  motivated by a fear of eternal punishment,
         or a desire to condemn others that I might be free.

The injunction, ‘don’t do that or you’ll go to Hell’,
         gives way in Christ to a recognition that it is our actions
                  which can cause Hell to come into being in our midst.

Sin, by this understanding,
         becomes less about ‘me’ and my personal ethics,
and more about ‘us’
         and the ethics of our lives lived together before God.

And this isn’t to say that what I do doesn’t matter,
         of course it does,
but the basis on which it matters
         is not so much a battle against Hell hereafter,
         as it is the battle Hell here and now.

There are many places I could point to around the world
         where Hell is happening at this moment.
And there are many ways that I could understand my life,
         as having caused that, and condemned people to it.

Sin, when understood in this way,
         takes account of the effect our actions have
         on those with whom we are called to share this planet.

As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez put it:

·      ‘Sin is evident in oppressive structures.’
·      ‘Sin is the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation.’
·      ‘Sin demands a radical liberation,
which in turn necessarily implies a political liberation.’
-         Gustavo Gutierrez

The battle against sin involves politics.

So our writer of Ephesians lists sins:
         lying, anger, stealing and evil talk.
They’re exposed          with a consistent emphasis on how they affect
         the way people live in relation to others

Ephesians lists the sins of bitterness, wrath,
         power struggles, slander and malice,
and these are contrasted with the command to be kind to one another
         showing again that those sins which distort human relationships
         or demean and disempower another person
                  are those which are worthy of special mention.

By the same token, fornication, impurity, greed,
         obscene and vulgar talk, drunkenness and debauchery
are all presented in the context
         of the way in which they disrupt the in-breaking Kingdom of God,
         and unsettle the dawning of justice, and righteousness, and peace.

But interestingly, the antidote that Ephesians offers to these sins
         isn’t a command to just try harder to avoid them.
Rather, it is an encouragement to allow the Spirit of Christ
         to bring into being the behaviours
                  that result from having been baptised into Christ.

The naming of sin,
         and the exposing of its effects,
doesn’t lead simply to a renewal of effort to avoid them,
         something which, as those of us who have tried
                  to keep a few new years resolutions will know,
         is doomed to failure.

Rather, the naming of sin,
         and the exposing of its effects,
casts us back on the Spirit of Christ,
         who alone has the power to stamp us
         with the seal of the character of Christ.

Those who have been baptised into Christ
         have already identified with him in death and resurrection,
just as Jesus himself identified with us
         in the frail flesh of our sinful humanity.

And as Christ entered our reality of sin as liberator,
         blazing the path from slavery to freedom,
         from death to new life.
So those who have named Jesus as Lord,
         and have been baptised into his name,
in turn become the agents of liberation
         to others who are still enslaved
         by the destructive effects of sin.

We become the peacemakers;
         we become the heralds of the dawning kingdom of God;
         we become those who will not be complicit with the systems
                  that seek to ensnare us, and drag us into the world
                  of sin and Hell-on-earth.

And it has long seemed to me that the root cause of sin
         is the human attempt to possess for ourselves
         that which should only be given to God.

Or, to give it its theological term, idolatry.

Whenever we humans seek to place ourselves
         at the centre of the universe,
whenever we make gods for or of ourselves,
         or those things which are dear to us,
                  we lose our sense of relatedness to the one true God
                  who is Lord of all,
whenever this happens,
         Hell and destruction are never far behind.

Whenever humans seek to place our own efforts, achievements or desires
         at the centre of our world
we open the path to misery once more.

From Flanders’ fields to the shores of Syria,
         it is human sin that places and keeps people in Hell,
requiring of them the ultimate sacrifice
         for the sake of those of us who wish to carry on living at ease.

And so by this understanding,
         the baptismal confession ‘Jesus is Lord’
         becomes the most powerful, restorative and liberating statement
                  that it is possible for a human being to utter.

Because to name Jesus as Lord, crucified for our forgiveness,
         is to relegate all other claims on our allegiance
                  to their rightful place.
When Jesus is proclaimed as Lord, offered as a sacrifice for our sinfulness,
         his Spirit stamps us once more with the holy character of Christ,
and calls and equips us for the task of liberation
         as we join with him in challenging those sinful structures in our world
                  which promote oppression, injustice and exploitation.

And as we name Jesus as Lord
         we speak into being a world where sin is rendered powerless
         and where the kingdom values of
                  righteousness and peace
                  and compassion and kindness
         are released into our midst.

The good confession that Jesus is Lord
         brings that which was in darkness out into the light
                  and robs it of its power
         releasing those who speak it to be children of light.

As the writer to the Ephesians puts it:

‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,
         and live in love,
         as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
         a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Eph 5.1)

[1] The Zygon Invasion.