Sunday 12 February - Epiphany 6 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Epiphany 6 2017 – Mt 5:21-37

‘Isn't she lovely, "the Mistress"? / With her wide-apart grey-green eyes, / The droop of her lips and, when she smiles, / Her glance of amused surprise?

But why do I call her "the Mistress" / Who know not her way of life? / Because she has more of a cared-for air / Than many a legal wife.

How elegantly she swings along / In the vapoury incense veil; / The angel choir must pause in song / When she kneels at the altar rail.

The parson said that we shouldn't stare / Around when we come to church, / Or the Unknown God we are seeking / May forever elude our search.

But I hope that the preacher will not think / It unorthodox and odd / If I add that I glimpse in "the Mistress" / A hint of the Unknown God.  

+ I usually start a sermon with a text from the Bible, and I haven’t used this poem, ‘Lenten thoughts of a High Anglican’ by John Betjeman, because it is St Valentine’s Day next week, or because Lent is around the corner, or because our more high church brethren are more prone to eye people up in church. It was actually a text from today’s gospel which brought the poem to my mind. Which text?

Jesus said, ‘I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. What is Jesus up to here? Or in the next section, where he prohibits remarriage after divorce? The Scottish Episcopal Church has allowed this since 1980. When the Church of England allowed remarriage of divorcees, a friend at a Roman Catholic school remembered his Head Master saying at assembly, ‘The Church of England has had a vote on the words of Jesus Christ and decided he was wrong’. But is this true? What is Jesus actually saying in this part of his Sermon on the Mount? It looks clear - but is it?

We have just heard four of a series of six ‘antitheses’ where Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ In each case what was said was a commandment from the Law given by God to Moses, like ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘You shall not commit adultery’; and Jesus changes or modifies it. The first point contemporaries would have noted is that Jesus is acting as if he is equal to God. ‘God said this’.. ‘but I teach something different’. So, is this a second set of religious Laws, replacing that given to Moses on Sinai?

Scholars have given many different views, but an answer may be found by looking at what Jesus says before and after the six ‘antitheses’: just before our reading he says ‘I have come not to abolish [the law] but to fulfil it’, and at the end, after telling us to love our enemies, he says ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. I understand this as meaning that these are not ‘antitheses’; Jesus is not giving a New Law in opposition to that of Moses. He is calling his followers to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit; or to go from the formal outside of the law to its inner meaning and social implications. He isn’t abolishing law but, as he does so often in the gospels, he calls us to move beyond legalism to love.

Unless you live on the set of Midsummer Murders, or are forced to sing the hymn ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’, you are unlikely to break the commandment ‘do not murder’. But Jesus reveals the inner attitude of anger which is the root of murder. Who has not experienced this? Which of us has not shouted at someone or slagged them off behind their back? But if we truly love our neighbour, we wouldn’t do this. We are called to purify our hearts.

Adultery is more common than murder but, similarly, Jesus points us away from the external act towards the interior intention. We’ve all been angry and I suspect the same is true of lust. Anger kills people in your heart; lust treats someone as an object of desire, not as a person. Jesus tells us to look to our thoughts and intentions, our attitude to people and how we treat them; but the churches throughout the centuries have turned this into law - into avoiding certain external acts and punishing those who do them. A clue that the churches have been wrong is found in what Jesus says should happen when we fail. We should rip out our eye and chop off our hand for lust and we go to hell if we call someone an ‘idiot’. We would be a congregation of mutilated people destined for burning if Jesus words were to be taken literally. Have you seen the news story about the abuse and flogging associated with the Evangelical youth camps in which the Archbishop of Canterbury grew up? Whatever else caused the abuse, it was the product of bad theology and the wrong way of reading the Bible.

If we don’t chop off hands, pluck out eyes, or beat children, can we at least say Jesus is promulgating a new law by prohibiting remarriage after divorce? He is certainly being much stricter here than his contemporary Jewish teachers, for whom divorce and remarriage was normal. Until recently Western Churches have thought of this as a new law and there is currently a battle in the Roman Catholic Church between the Pope and traditionalists over this very issue. But look at what Jesus does: on lust he is speaking about men lusting after women; if we take it as a law, then women and gay men are allowed to lust. On divorce Jesus is talking about men divorcing (it was usually the men that initiated it) but he also focuses on women as the subject of divorce. Might it be that Jesus is defending women here, in a patriarchal society? In Malachi 2:16, in the Old Testament, God said ‘I hate divorce’, but he is speaking of the covenant between himself and Israel. Perhaps here Jesus is speaking of an ideal of love and fidelity that is as difficult as the other ‘antitheses’ against anger and lust. He is calling us to perfection, not promulgating an unbreakable law.

If Jesus tells us to forgive seventy-seven times and is not telling us to chop off body parts, perhaps our church is right in allowing remarriage after divorce and the churches that don’t allow it are guilty of the legalism Jesus rejected. It is interesting to note that our church’s definition of marriage as a lifelong union ‘between one man and one woman’, which General Synod may remove in June this year, was only added to the canons in 1980 to affirm the idea of lifelong partnership when re-marriage was allowed after divorce. How does the teaching of Jesus we have just been looking at affect our appreciation of same-sex partnerships? I think John Betjeman gives us a clue when, as someone quite aware of the mess we all can make of our lives, gay or straight, he suggests that any person or relationship formed by love gives us ‘A hint of the Unknown God’.