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 https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/sunday-morning-8-november-2015-remembrance-sundaymp3#t=32:58

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. http://bbc.in/1PUaSLo

No comments: