Sunday 21 May - Easter 6 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: 6 of Easter EP; Galatians 1. 11-24; 2. 11-21

This year is the anniversary of two of the greatest upheavals in European history: the hundredth anniversary of the Revolution ignited in Russia by Vladimir Lenin, and the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation ignited in Germany by Martin Luther. How do we today look back on the Russian Revolution and the European Reformation?  Perhaps we regard the Reformation more favourably than the Revolution. The terrible memories of what happened in Russia after 1917 are too recent to be ignored:  civil war, dictatorship, mass deportations, the gulags, and eventually the collapse of the USSR. Today, the Russian Revolution may seem like an enormous historical mistake, a tragic human catastrophe. Yet to see it as such may be to forget not only the often inhumane and repressive conditions in Czarist Russia that spawned the Revolution, but also the high ideals of human solidarity that inspired many ordinary Russians to support it, even in the darkest days of Stalinism.

And if we regard the European Reformation of five hundred years ago more favourably, that in turn may be to forget what followed it - the slaughter of the Peasants War and of the Wars of Religion which ended in the peoples of Europe being divided, often bitterly, between many different Protestant and Catholic loyalties. Again, we can point to the abuses and corruptions of the Church which called for Reformation, and also to the high ideals of Reformers who longed to return to the simplicities of the gospel and the Bible in language ordinary people could understand: but the human cost was high, not just in martyrdoms on all sides, but also, as kings and nobles seized the resources of the Church, in the dissolution not just of the monasteries but also of social solidarity.

Might Luther or Lenin have acted differently, if they had known the long-term consequences of their actions – eventually in the disintegration first of Christendom and then of the Soviet Union? And for that matter, might a similar question perhaps be asked of St Paul, especially in the light of what we heard in our two readings tonight from his letter to the Galatians? Let me just outline the historical background to that question.  

By the middle of the first century, more and more members of the early Christian churches in Asia Minor were not Jews but Gentiles, Greeks and others converted to Christian faith, frequently through the missionary activities of Paul himself: but these Christian churches were still often regarded as a version of Judaism, the Jewish religion; and Judaism at this time also was a missionary religion, to which Gentiles might convert if they adopted the Jewish Law and its practices such as circumcision, and purity and dietary observances. The problem addressed by Paul in his letter was that some Jewish members of the Galatian churches were insisting that Gentile converts to Christian faith similarly must adopt the Law and practices of Judaism; and if they did not do this, the Jewish Christians could not eat with them, because that would make them impure.  Paul however strongly believed that Gentile converts were not required to adopt these Jewish practices: Gentile converts, he taught, became ‘children of God’ and ‘heirs of the promise’, simply through their faith in Christ; and to reinforce this message Paul told the Galatians what had happened when he debated this same issue with the other leaders of the Church, including St Peter and James the brother of Jesus, first in Jerusalem and later in Antioch in Syria.

The crux of Paul’s story is his encounter with Peter (here called Cephas) in Antioch. ‘But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction’.  Peter’s silence before Paul admits that he is in the wrong. Poor St Peter: the simple Galilean fisherman is intellectually and morally felled by the inexorable logic of the learned former Pharisee. Yet Peter also can take comfort – comfort from the encouragement his story has given to countless Christians in despair over their own failures to measure up to the faith they professed. If Peter, his failures and denials during Jesus’ lifetime long past, and now well on the way to being celebrated as St Peter, the rock on which Christ’s church is built, is still even at this late stage, a shaky, even a shoogly rock – well then, in the everlasting mercy and love of God, there is hope for us yet.

And Paul, of course, elsewhere provides similar encouragement: if even Paul could say ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ [Rom 7.19], then again there is hope for us also. But before we leave Paul’s story of his confrontation with Peter, let’s not forget that this story is being told by Paul. The same events, Paul’s journeys to Jerusalem and discussions with Peter and the other church leaders, are also recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, but rather differently. There, Paul plays a less prominent part and Peter tells the others that it is he, Peter, whom God has chosen to ‘be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers’.  It is Peter also who declares that ‘I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God’: the Gentile converts need not follow Jewish Law and rituals, but simply abstain from what was forbidden under God’s earlier covenant with all peoples, made through Noah after the flood.

Peter seems here to have been searching for some kind of compromise which could prevent the clean break with Judaism that Paul’s policy perhaps inevitably entailed. In the end, of course, it was not just Paul and those Christians who thought like him who contributed to the split: Jewish traditionalists also played their part.  But the problem for the Jews was that it was Christians who eventually inherited the disintegrating Roman Empire, and then began to sow the seeds of centuries of Jewish suffering in Christian and post-Christian Europe.

So, might St Paul have acted differently, had he known the long-term consequences of Christianity’s break with Judaism – up to and including the holocaust?  In today’s ecumenical climate, we rightly emphasise the more we have in common than divides us, and it is tempting to imagine how many sorrows might have been avoided if Peter had managed to hold Christianity and Judaism together. Yet if that had happened, would other peoples, including ourselves, have ever heard the good news of Judaism’s deepest secrets, translated in the life, death, resurrection of the Jew, Jesus Christ? 

But perhaps that is to miss the main point. Speaking of Christian faith, St Paul observed that ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels’ [2 Cor4. 7]. That observation applies as much to the limitations of the language and concepts in which the faith can be expressed, as to the human fallibility of those who express it. Even in the New Testament, as I’ve been suggesting, we discover different ways of drawing out the meaning and implications of the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Christ, different ways that often are difficult and sometimes impossible to reconcile with one another.

The same is true of Christian traditions over the centuries. It’s not that what we find in them is not true: but if we try to fit all we find to be true into a coherent and consistent overall expression of the whole truth, either of two things follow: either we cannot get to a coherent and consistent overall expression of the whole truth; or, if we think we have got to it, we thereby exclude the perspectives of many other Christians who see the truth in different ways; and historically of course, that has led to division and disintegration within Christianity, and at worst the persecution of other Christians as heretics.

But none of that perhaps should surprise us, either psychologically or theologically. Psychologically we know whatever we know, by attending to the world in either of two different ways: either in ways, like those of pragmatic common sense and science, that are detached and analytic; or in ways that are involved, intuitive and imaginative.

In seeking truth, we need to value both ways: but the truths of faith, like the truths of our personal relationships, are best discovered in ways that are involved, intuitive and imaginative; and if we try to fit those truths together into a coherent and consistent overall expression of the whole truth, our very need to be coherent and consistent means that we need to think in detached and analytic ways – and these detached and analytic ways of thinking can teach us no more about God than about our personal relationships.

And so it is also theologically: the 19th century Scottish novelist and theologian George MacDonald wrote that ‘The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God’.  If that is true, if our human imagination is made in the image of the imagination of the true and loving source of all that is, then, if we try to use our imagination honestly and lovingly, use it in the way it is intended to be used, we will, I believe, be given deeper moments of insight into the deepest mysteries of life - even though these are mysteries that in this life we can never fully understand or fit together.