Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Homelessness

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

6 September 2020 

Acts 3.1-10  


My thesis for this morning is this:

I think that the least interesting thing about someone who is homeless

is the fact that they are homeless.


There is so much more to a person

than where they sleep at night, 

or how much money they have available to spend.


And yet, the irony is that for most people who live without stable housing,

this is the defining aspect of their lives

particularly in terms of their interactions with others.


And as we come to the end of our short series looking at justice issues,

in which we’ve considered 

a Christian approach to rethinking the benefits system,

the importance of ecological justice, 

and the welcoming of refugees,

today we’re going to be thinking about homelessness,

and what a Christian approach to this might be.


The scene which Luke paints for us 

in our reading this morning from the book of Acts 

is as contemporary as it is ancient. 


It could be any street, in any city, in any country. 

From Bloomsbury to Bangalore, 

the picture is as familiar as it is troubling. 


A man has placed himself on the pavement at a busy intersection, 

and is begging for money. 


And if you have walked the streets of London over the years, 

you will be no stranger to those who sit and beg. 

Whether they present you with a disability 

or a note written on a piece of cardboard, 

the message, the request, is constant: 

‘Please can I have some money?’ 


And I wonder, what do you do? 

Do you walk on by, 

ignoring the person to the best of your ability, 

pretending not to have noticed them? 

Do you, perhaps, genuinely not notice them, 

having become so habituated to their presence 

that it is indeed possible to pass by unseeing. 

Do you mutter a prayer for them? 

Do you give them some money? 

Do you make eye contact and offer an apology, 

or perhaps more accurately 

an expression of sorrow for their condition, 

before moving on ? 

Do you offer to buy them a coffee, 

or a sandwich? 

Do you stop for a conversation, 

to try and find out more about their circumstances? 


I have done all of these things, and more. 

And what breaks my heart 

is that I genuinely don’t know 

if any of it has actually made any difference.


And it was no different in the first century, 

with our anonymous friend sitting outside the Temple in Jerusalem, 

strategically positioned in prime location 

by the gate called ‘Beautiful’.


In a scene with disturbing similarities to street theatre,

he had carefully positioned himself 

to contrast his own deformed body

with the soaring sublime architecture of the Temple,

carefully constructing the scene 

to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash) 

from those entering the temple 


The sight poses a troubling question to those passing by:

how could a person with their eyes turned to God 

ignore the plight of one of God’s suffering children? 


I’m sure that many of those who came to the temple 

gave to the beggar at the gate, 

believing that by doing so, 

they were offering to this unfortunate man 

a tangible expression of the care that God had for him. 


There was a strand of ancient thought 

that regarded misfortune in life as a curse from God. 

As if, in some way, a person deserved their deficiency. 


In our sermons earlier this year from the Book of Job

we saw how that ancient text 

challenged this way of looking at things.


But here, in the scene before the Temple,

we find an ancient echo 

of the more contemporary debates we often hear 

around the deserving or undeserving poor.


Those who enjoyed power, wealth, and health in the ancient world

believed that they had received these things 

as a deserved gift from God.

And this left those from whom such benefits had been withheld 

to fill the role of undeserving scrounger.


And so it is that Peter utters his famous line, 

‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you.’


And on such a sentence the world turns upside down. 


In this simple statement from Peter, the basic transaction 

which lay at the root of the Jewish Temple system was subverted. 


The beggar knew how it was supposed to work, 

the worshippers knew how it was supposed to work, 

the temple officials knew how it was supposed to work. 


The Temple system represented middle class religion, 

and was primarily populated by those who had money. 


The moneyed worshippers’ job was to give alms to the poor; 

whilst the job of the poor was to receive the handouts. 


It was a tried and tested system, and everyone felt better in the process. 


The small acts of kindness, 

directed towards an undeserving (or even culpable) poor, 

appeased the conscience of the rich, 

and kept the poor in a state of dependency and disempowerment.


It was a system of mutual meeting of needs,

but one which was ultimately powerless to effect genuine change.


It was into this context that Peter and John 

conducted their transgressive act against this system of inequality 

that everyone had become complicit in. 


They didn’t give alms to the beggar. 

They didn’t give him silver, or gold, or even a few copper coins. 

They refused the transaction of handing over money 

in exchange for a temporarily salved conscience. 


Rather, Peter looked the beggar in the eye, 

and reached out a hand to him to lift him up. 


This is deeply subversive stuff, 

because it challenges all the implicit and unspoken assumptions 

about the way the world works. 


In most societies, including our own,

the poor are not to be lifted up, 

they are not to be looked upon as equals. 

They are to be ignored, vilified, 

blamed, stigmatized, and done unto. 


If you don’t believe me, just read the newspapers.


In the first century, they were there to provide the ‘weak’ 

to the temple system’s ‘strong’,

and I don’t think it’s so different in our world today.


The thing is, if Peter and John had simply given money to the man, 

they would have become complicit in the very system 

that was keeping him in his poverty. 


But they didn’t give him money,

they took a different, dare I say more Christ-like path, 

which challenged the system 

and opened the door to transformation.


Doing this was not without its consequences; 

and the traumatic events of the next three chapters in Acts 

all arise from this specific incident 

of healing of a lame man in the Temple grounds. 


If you take action to subvert systems of control, 

you distort the imbalances of power 

on which our hierarchical religious institutions 

and stratified societal structures are built. 

And those powers will always fight back, 

seeking to close down the transgressive power of raising up someone 

whose ‘place’ in life has been predetermined as disadvantaged. 


And so Peter and John were arrested and put on trial. 


And, dare I say, so it will be with us also. 


Let’s bring this story up to date, and hear it speak to our world. 


Have you noticed that our church, here at Bloomsbury, has a Beautiful doorway? 


Our beautiful gateway, with its Normanesque arch, 

has always marked the entrance to a building 

from which the church has ministered to the poor and the disadvantaged. 


Our historically strategic location,

on the boundary between the wealth and privilege of Bloomsbury, 

and the grinding poverty of the St Giles Slums, 

speaks of a commitment from the very beginning 

to reach out into the diverse communities around the church.


The congregation of Bloomsbury has always sought 

to bring wealth and poverty together 

in ways that are genuinely transformational,

and which challenge the transactional basis

of much of what is classed as charitable giving.


At its best, here at Bloomsbury,

this has never just been about giving to the poor.


Bloomsbury is a church where, from its founding day, 

we have sought to reach out and touch, 

where we have extended the hand of friendship to raise people up,

where we do not stand on our dignity.


And so we have a proud history of effective engagement

with those who are homeless and disadvantaged.


Did you know that even during lockdown we have been active,

working with other churches through London Citizens,

to campaign for the reopening of toilets in the West End, 

and for better sanitary provision for those still living on the streets.


We are currently in the early stages of conversations

about ways in which better mental health support 

can be offered to those who live with homelessness.


The thing is, the best way of offering the love of Christ 

to those on the streets is changing:

no longer do the homeless go hungry unless we feed them,

and there are better equipped agencies than us ensuring people get food.


So as we consider our future engagement with those who live without housing,

my challenge today is for us to start thinking differently

about how we might reach out to them in the name of Christ.


Here’s a thought:

What if we stopped inviting people to queue for food?


We already do less of this on a Sunday than we used to,

but pre-lockdown there were still queues outside our gate

as people were stood in line to come to the Evening Centre.


If you offer something for nothing,

it’s not hard to get a queue to form.


The question is, is it the right thing to do?


I wonder what it might mean, instead, 

for us to take people by the hand and lift them up, as Peter did, 

so that they no longer need to queue for bread?


What would it mean for us to look people in the eye 

and see the person behind the circumstance?


What if we could discover 

that the least interesting thing about a homeless person

is that they are homeless.


Lockdown has forced us to stop many of our engagements with the homeless,

from those who still came to lunch on Sundays

to the Evening Centre,

to the Choir with No Name.


And it is quite likely that some, if not all, of these

will be unable to restart within the foreseeable future.


So instead, let’s ask the question 

of what it is that we can do, before God, 

that is genuinely transformational for the needs of our city.


Let’s ask what the needs are, 

and be prepared to listen to those 

who might tell us that the genuine needs 

are not what we think they are.


Let’s be prepared to let go of our own programs and structures, 

and instead construct new systems 

built on relationships that are genuinely transformational.


Peter said, ‘silver and gold have I none, but this I give you’. 


It doesn’t have to be about giving alms, providing food, 

or offering a service that users can access. 


It can be about creating a place of refuge, 

of safety, of friendship, of creativity.

Where each person who comes is known and valued 

as a person loved and unique in God’s sight;

where we take them by the hand and raise them up.


Transformation is God’s responsibility, not ours. 

We are not the ones who do the miracle. 


We just have to be prepared to look the person in the eye, 

and to reach out our hand in openness and trust, 

to see the individual behind the circumstance. 


This is a risky task, and it’s dangerous because it’s disruptive. 

It messes with our systems, 

and plays havoc with our expectations, 

every bit as much as Peter and John’s actions 

outside the Beautiful Gate to the Temple 

subverted the systems that the Temple had in place 

to ensure the poor got enough money 

to tide them over until tomorrow.


But I suspect that in the example of Peter and John

we find a model for our own future engagement with the homeless,

where we resist the seductions of superficial solutions

such as throwing money and resources at the problem,

and instead we invest in relationships and holistic engagement,

making ourselves vulnerable

and responding creatively to the needs of the city.


Bloomsbury’s ministry to the homeless is not finished, far from it,

but it will have to change, to evolve, as the needs of the city evolve.

But in that change we will discover the rich resources of scripture

calling us into paths of transformation

not just for those we are ministering to,

but for ourselves as well.


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Universal Basic Income and the Benefit of the Doubt

A Sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

16th August 2020


Exodus 16.12-21, 31

Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/universal-basic-income

A few weeks ago I posted a link

            about Universal Basic Income on my social media stream,

and a friend who I respect came back to me

            with an interesting response:

They said that they are not sure that UBI is ‘biblical’.

 

Their point was that the human experience of God’s provision

            should be matched by a corresponding expectation

            that people will undertake work in response;

and that the biblical injunction to stewardship

            negates an economy based on the ‘free gift’ of money.

 

This approach certainly has a long tradition

            within Western Christianity and Western Society,

with the influence of the Protestant Work Ethic

            embedding in our collective consciousness

            an emphasis on hard work, discipline, and frugality.

 

The German economic philosopher Max Weber,

            who coined the phrase ‘Protestant Work Ethic’

            in the early years of the twentieth century,

traced the origins of European capitalism to the Protestant Reformation,

            when the break from Christendom enshrined in the popular mind-set

                        a religious mandate for secular labour,

            as people were expected to ‘work out their salvation with fear and trembling’

                        (Philippians 2.12-13).[1]

 

Well, comments from a number of sources within the mainstream denominations

            suggest that my friend is not alone,

and it seems that there is a substantial suspicion

            about whether UBI is something

            that can be supported from a Christian perspective.

 

Many Christians react against the idea

            that people who have done nothing to deserve it

            might end up getting something for nothing.

 

So I thought it might be interesting this week,

            in the first of our short series looking at justice issues,

to explore a biblical model

            that might support the concept of a Universal Basic Income,

            and I want to offer two key concepts for our consideration.

 

On the one hand we have the wilderness experience of the Israelites

            as they fled slavery in Egypt on their way to the promised land;

and on the other hand we have the words of Jesus.

 

Deuteronomy 8.3  [The LORD your God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

 

Matthew 4:1-4  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

 

Matthew 6.9-11  “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread.”

 

The daily reality for many people in our country

            is that the prayer for daily bread

            has a level of anxiety to it that is easily lost

                        on those who have enough resources in hand

                        to feed ourselves for the foreseeable future.

 

This is not easily a middle-class prayer.

 

However, for many of those in First Century Palestine,

            to whom Jesus first taught this prayer,

uncertainty about their future ability to feed themselves

            was a part of their day by day existence.

 

It was only the rich and the wealthy

            whose future was assured.

For everyone else,

            the only certainties were death and Roman taxes.

 

The first century had no welfare state, no minimum wage, certainly no Living Wage;

            there was no trades union movement,

            no standardized terms and conditions of employment.

If you got ill, or lost your job,

            the step from feeding your family to destitution

            was startlingly small.

 

And it was to disciples facing uncertain futures

            that Jesus taught the prayer:

            ‘Give us, this day, our daily bread’.

 

There is an urgent simplicity to it when it’s heard in a subsistence context,

            but I wonder if this is where its first challenge to us,

                        in all the complexities of our Western Capitalist lives,

            might come from.

 

We too live in a society of huge disparities of income and security.

            Some struggle to not eat too much,

                        while others struggle to know where our next meal is coming from.

            Some struggle to know how to wisely invest their resources,

                        rightly asking ethical questions of our bankers and pension funds;

            while others don’t have enough income for even today’s needs

                        let alone the needs of an imagined future retirement.

 

So what might the stark simplicity of a prayer for daily bread,

            say to a world where investment banks and food banks sit side by side?

 

Well, to me, it says that something has gone wrong.

 

Unchecked and unchallenged,

            global capitalism causes vast suffering across the world,

            and colludes in ecological destruction on an unprecedented scale.

 

And I want to suggest that the challenge to this spiral of misery is right here,

            in our little verse from the Lord’s Prayer:

            ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

 

If people, if we, can learn to focus not on what can be acquired,

            but simply on what is needed,

we discover not only a revolutionary concept

            but an antidote to individualism.

 

What if we were to decide, personally and communally,

            that enough is just that, enough?

What if we rejected the idea that the ever increasing acquisition of resources

            is not an endless quest never reaching a conclusion?

 

Firstly, it would release resources for others,

            but secondly it would begin to release us

            from the continual pressure to acquire wealth, status, and success.

 

If we ask for, and receive, our daily bread,

            then we have enough for today.

 

Jesus is disconcertingly ambivalent about tomorrow:

 

Luke 12.29-31

Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.

 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.

 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

 

This was the lesson that the Israelites of ancient times had to learn

            in the story of the manna in the wilderness,

            which is clearly in the background to Jesus’ words in his prayer.

 

If they collected too much, and tried to keep more than they needed,

            it went rotten by the next day,

                        except on the sixth day when they had to collect enough for two days,

                        so they could rest from their labour on the seventh day.

 

So what if, rather than worrying about the question

            of what this mysterious manna actually was,

we simply take this ancient story at face value

            as a parable of idealized economics?

 

Here we have a story which speaks of simple living,

            where enough is enough,

            where unnecessary accumulation is pointless,

            where rest is sanctified,

            and where people can be content

                        and stop complaining about their lot in life

                        because they - simply - have - enough.

 

The question of what we think we’re asking for

            when we pray for our daily bread

            is of course an important one.

 

Is it just a prayer for food,

            or is it for shelter, warmth, security,

                        love, self-determination, mobility,

                                    a car, a private jet…?

Where do we draw the line?

 

Studies have shown that there comes a point,

            and it is lower than you would think,

            beyond which additional wealth does not lead to additional happiness.[2]

 

The temptation to excess is ever before us,

            just as it was before Jesus in his own experience in the wilderness.

He didn’t wake up every morning of his 40 day Lenten fast in the desert

            to find fresh manna waiting for him.

He starved.

            And then he was tempted to use his divine power

                        to command stones to become bread for him to eat;

            and in his reply to the tempter he quoted words from Deuteronomy,

                        originally written to reflect the Israelite experience

                        of 40 years wandering in the wilderness,

                                    sustained by the daily bread of heaven.

 

This passage Jesus quotes

            tells us that the lesson of the manna from heaven

            is not that God meets all your needs and invites you to a life of luxury;

but rather it is that abundant life

            is not found in the abundance of a person’s possessions,

                        or even in the abundance of the food they consume,

            but in obedience to every word that comes from the mouth of God.

 

The discipline of praying, each day, for daily bread

            is not some ritual to get God to give us what we think we need;

that kind of prayer has more in common with magical incantations

            than it does the articulations of the longings of a humble heart.

 

No, we pray for daily bread

            for the same reasons the Israelites gathered manna:

to learn obedience to God who guides us

            into works of goodness, humility, and charity.

 

The prayer for daily bread, you see, is not about me, or even about us,

            lest we think that God especially favours us by answering our cry for food.

 

Rather, it’s a prayer that takes us into solidarity with those who lack,

            and which drives us into action to see the hungry fed,

                        the poor raised up,

                        and the impoverished released from the snares of debt.

 

It is a prayer that takes us into good works of transformative action.

            It certainly did for the early Christians,

            as the book of James makes clear:

 

James 2:15-17  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 

            16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,"

                        and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 

            17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

 

And similarly in the book of Acts we read:

 

Acts 6:1  Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number,

            the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews

            because their widows were being neglected

            in the daily distribution of food.

 

And I wonder, in our complex, interconnected, globalised capitalist world,

            what such good works might look like for us?

 

What would it look like if our commitment to good works

            led us to a commitment to good work,

where we become advocates for good employment practices

            where people are paid a fair living wage,

            and receive paid holiday, sickness benefits, and maternity cover?

 

What would it look like for our prayer for daily bread

            to include a commitment to alleviating food poverty?

 

And so we come to the idea of a universal basic income

            as an alternative to the current cruelties of our social security system;

A universal basic income would mean that every individual

            would receive sufficient to live with dignity,

            and they would receive this as a gift of grace, unconditionally.

 

The hungry in our city are not primarily those we see begging on the streets.

            These may be the most visible,

                        but the vast majority of those

                        who are malnourished in our city are behind closed doors,

            and they include the young and the elderly,

                        and parents skipping meals so their children can eat.

 

What, I wonder, does a prayer for daily bread mean to them?

            And how might we be part of the answer to that prayer?

 

The first Lord’s supper was the celebration of the Passover meal.

            The story of the manna was there before the disciples

                        that evening in the upper room;

            and Jesus, while they were eating, took a loaf of bread,

                        and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples,

                        and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." (Matthew 26.26).

 

Elsewhere, in John’s gospel,

            we read that Jesus described himself as the bread of life,

            saying that whoever comes to him will never by hungry (John 6.35).

 

And in Paul’s story of the Lord’s supper in his letter to the Corinthians,

            he records Jesus as saying that

            ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,

                        you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.26).

 

The Communion meal of bread and wine is the meal of sharing,

            it is the meal of accountability,

            the meal of sacrifice,

            the meal of abundance,

            the meal of life.

 

And as the body of Christ share bread,

            we find the answer to our prayer for daily bread

            taking shape in our lives and in our midst.

 

It is as we share the bread of Christ’s broken body,

            that we discover together what it is to be obedient

            to every word that comes from the mouth of God.

 

It is as we eat bread together, that we find ourselves motivated

            to good works in our world,

            to share with those who have less than we do,

            to lift up those who are weighed down by poverty,

            and to offer all that we have to the service of the one

                        who calls us to newness of life.

 

It is as we break bread, and eat together,

            that we discover the answer to the prayer

            that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

 

Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come, your will be done

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Amen



[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, original lectures given 1904-5.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/money-happiness-how-much-earnings-income-needed-study-perdue-university-indiana-gallup-world-poll-a8218086.html 

Monday, 27 July 2020

It’s Not Fair

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 August 2020


2 Corinthians 8.1-15

Listen to this sermon here: 

I wonder, do you think life is fair? 

In fact, I’ll put that a bit more strongly: 
do you think life should be fair? 

I can remember that when I was a child I once complained to my Dad, 
shouting, ‘It’s not fair!’, 
and he replied, 
‘No one ever said life was going to be fair, Simon’. 

And of course he was right, no one had ever made me that promise. 
I just had some innate expectation that it would be, 
and like all of us, I had to learn the painful lesson 
that if we expect fairness in life, 
we are in for a disappointment. 
Sometimes bad and lazy people prosper, 
while good and industrious people don’t. 
That’s life.

But, I ask again, should it be this way? 
That’s the million dollar question.

In our passage for this morning,
Paul makes a link between the universal human ideal of fairness
and the theological concept of grace,
and he does so as part of an intensely practical discussion
about money.

One of the great things about Paul’s letters
is that they are always grounded in the real world.

Sometimes, theologians can be accused of going off on flights of fancy,
arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin,
or some other such abstract and obtuse subject.

Well, not with Paul.
His theology is always grounded in reality,
and is being worked out ‘on-the-hoof’ to address the problems and difficulties
of those in the churches he was responsible for.

The background to the chapter we are looking at today
lay in a famine that had affected the nation of Israel in the mid-to-late 40s.
The situation facing the Christian believers in Jerusalem
was already financially precarious before this,
with them having broken with Judaism, 
making them particularly vulnerable to the double whammy 
of Jewish and Roman taxation, 
and an already precarious economy;
but then the famine was catastrophic for them.

Paul and Barnabas had already made an initial famine-relief visit to Jerusalem in 46CE
to deliver a gift of money from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30),
and Paul spent much of the next decade 
trying to persuade people in the churches he planted in Asia Minor 
to send ongoing financial support to the Jerusalem church.

And this is what we meet in 2 Corinthians, written in 55CE,
where he is trying once again to persuade the Corinthians
to be generous with their money.

And it is in this context that Paul inter-twines 
the concepts of grace and fairness.

The word ‘grace’, which in Greek is the word ‘charis’
appears five times in the first few verses of chapter 8,
although different Bible versions variously translate it as 
‘grace’, ‘blessing’, ‘generosity’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘favour’.

It’s clearly a word with what translators would call,
‘a wide semantic range’.

So what does Paul mean, when he speaks of:
  • the grace of God (v.1)
  • or, the grace of taking part in the relief of the saints (v.4)
  • or, this act of grace (vv.6, 7)
  • or, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.9)?
Well, on the one hand, he is portraying
grace is something spiritual that originates with God 
and is made known through Jesus; 
but on the other hand 
it is something practical that humans can and should participate in, 
such as contributing generously to an appeal for money.

And for Paul, these two aspects of grace, 
the divine and the human, the spiritual and the practical, 
are inextricably linked. 
You can’t have one without the other.

And yet, for many Christians, grace has lost its practical side,
and has become instead a solely theological concept.

When Liz and I were children at our respective Sunday Schools,
we were both, independently, taught a backronym definition of Grace:

God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense

Or, to spell it out slightly more fully,
Grace is the mechanism 
whereby the sacrifice of Christ on the cross
opens the path for sinful humans to receive the riches of God.

And, widespread though this kind of theology is,
I have something of a problem with it.

Because grace is not a mechanism;
and neither is it a transactional process,
where Christ pays the price for our sin so we don’t have to.

A transactional and mechanistic understanding of grace
is built on a transactional and mechanistic understanding of the cross;
and this is problematic, 
because it makes grace something that God does,
rather than something for humans to participate in;
and it makes the cross the focus of God’s legalistic anger
rather than an expression of God’s gracious love.

In Paul’s theology, the notion of grace 
is consistently opposed to the language of the law,
with Paul arguing that the gospel of grace that has been revealed in Christ
has fulfilled the law that was revealed through Moses.

And yet, for many of us, our understanding of fairness 
is still built on a mechanistic or legalistic framework.

We believe that if this happens, then that should follow,
or that if we do this, then we deserve that,
and so on.

And when we don’t get the outcome we believe we deserve,
we end up either echoing our childhood cries of, ‘It’s not fair, Daddy!’,
or descending into cynicism and resignation.

Much of the language of rights 
is built on a mechanistic understanding of fairness,
with certain ‘inalienable rights’ being inherent to humanity
with any violation of these a crime against that humanity.

However, the history of human rights 
has shown that such so-called ‘inalienable rights’
are always, in the end, culturally determined and open for debate.

I’m reminded of something Dawn said in a sermon at Bloomsbury a while back,
when she asserted that instead of speaking of our rights,
we should start talking about our responsibilities.

I guess it all begins with the ten commandments,
at least for the Judeo-Christian tradition 
that has dominated the Western world for the last two millennia.

And we might think that these are pretty straightforward,
until it comes to actually applying them.

After all, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ seems fairly definite,
until you start discussing just war theory.

‘Honour thy father and mother’ is fine,
until you have an abusive of inadequate parent.

Of course, the Jews of the first century and before knew this perfectly well,
and the Jewish tradition of midrash emerged 
to help people interpret the law for their own context and situation.

So when Paul, trained as a Jewish Pharisee, pits law against grace,
he knows that he is taking the axe to the root 
of everything that seems fair and right for many of his readers.

From a human perspective,
fairness is the fair application of the law,
it is the just outworking of a person’s rights,
it is the protection of the individual by the community.

But Paul is offering a different perspective,
one built on the life and example of Jesus,
rather than on the law of Moses.

And Paul calls this perspective ‘grace’,
originating through God’s revelation in Jesus
and finding its outworking in the lives of those whom it touches.

An example of this from the teachings of Jesus
is found in what are known as his ‘antithesis teachings’.
You know the ones,
where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it was said, this, but I say to you, that’.

In Matthew chapter 5 we find several of these, including:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (Matthew 5.38-39)

Here Jesus is quoting from the books of the Jewish Law, 
specifically Leviticus 24.19-20, which reads:
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return:
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; 
the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

From a legal perspective, if you want to extract revenge,
you have the right to inflict back the injury sustained,
but no more.
This is an injunction against overkill,
preventing a vendetta in exchange for a slight.

But Jesus makes is clear that whilst this may be your legal right,
it is not the gracious response.

Grace forgives, and endures, and meets hatred with love,
grace undermines law, and does so outrageously.

I’ve been watching the American House of Cards recently on Netflix,
and no spoilers please because I’m only half way through.

But in it, the American President makes a speech
in which he is arguing for a ‘back to work’ programme for America,
and he says the following:

We have been crippled by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, 
by welfare, by entitlements. 
And that is the root of the problem; entitlements.  
Let me be clear: you are entitled to nothing. 
You are entitled to nothing.

And strangely, I think Paul would agree with this conclusion,
but for completely the opposite reason.

Any language of entitlement, or fairness, 
that is predicated on a legalistic framework,
is only ever going to be, at best, a partial answer.

Because life isn’t fair, 
we have no inalienable rights,
and we are entitled to nothing.

But this is, for Paul, merely the bad news
that paves the way for the good news of the gospel of Christ.

Because where law has failed,
grace can triumph.

So to return to the question of the collection 
for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem.

A legalistic approach to financial redistribution in favour of the poor
would look like a series of transactions 
whereby people give because they must,
or in such a way as to retain control over how the money is used.

We are well used to systems like this:
we pay our taxes, 
and the welfare state provides housing for those in poverty;
we make donations to charities or food banks,
and they offer food or other support to those in need on our behalf.

But this is not the basis of Paul’s appeal for money.
He is casting it as a system of grace,
where money is given freely and with generosity.
As we have graciously received the riches of God’s grace,
so we should grace-fully share those blessings with others.

The grace we receive from God, it seems,
only has meaning when we pass it on.

And this is because grace is never individual,
it is always communal.
It is never transactional, it is always relational.

And so what about us?
What are we to take from this in terms of our own lives,
our own discipleship?

Well, let’s start with money.
Not all, but many of those listening to this sermon today,
are people with, at least in global terms, a significant level of wealth.

Firstly, I want to say that this is nothing to be ashamed of.
For too long, Christians have focussed on guilt-inducing theologies of wealth,
which have simply paralysed us into inaction.
So, hear this: if you, like me, have some financial stability and a roof over your head,
thank God for it and be grateful.

But, secondly, we also need to hear that what we have 
is not ours to do with as we will,
and no legalistic or mechanistic system of giving can get us off the hook.

We are called to generosity, to faithfulness in giving,
and to joining with Christ in the calling to grace-filled living.

And part of this, I believe, is to explore ways of giving
that allow us to surrender our control over that which we have given.

And this takes us back to Paul’s prioritising of community, 
and away from the temptations to individualism.

So, for example, when we give to the work of God through our local church,
we are consciously surrendering the decisions on how that money will be spent
to those with whom we are in fellowship in Christ.

We don’t decide to withdraw our giving 
if we disagree with some of the decisions that the community takes.
Because it’s about trust, and love, and forgiveness, and grace;
and such as these will free us from our addiction to legalism,
and our enslavement to individualism.

Grace calls us to reciprocity,
to realising that however much we may have, 
we always have needs that others can meet,
just as others have needs that we can meet in turn.

Grace calls us to action 
in the cause of those whose lives are intertwined with ours.

Grace calls us to play our part in bringing the kingdom of God to reality
in our world, and our time.

Next week we’ll be beginning a new short series 
looking at issues of justice that affect our lives: 
economic justice, welcoming the stranger, 
climate justice, and homelessness. 

Paul’s theology of fairness and grace,
that we have been exploring today,
is the foundation for our practical engagement in the world,
as we become those through whom the grace of God is made known
to those who are currently living with inequality, injustice, and exclusion.

And what we will discover,
is that as we are agents of God’s grace to others,
we become, in turn, recipients of God’s grace to us from them.

This is the fairness of God’s grace.