The Eighth Sunday after Trinity


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O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things…
Romans 8:12-17
Matthew 7:15-21

At first sight the Gospel appears to be optimistic, declaring: “by their fruits ye will know them”; after all, there is no such thing as a discovered con-man because if he is discovered he is no longer conning. So of one thing we can be certain, if we are to detect dishonesty we must either be very lucky or highly skilled.

This was an acute problem in the middle of the 16th Century when the established religion of England lurched from Henrican mercurial Catholicism to Edwardian Puritanism and back to Marian Catholicism before settling uneasily into the Elizabethan pragmatism which is our heritage. In seeking to discern the divine will, it was often difficult to know whether the discernment was genuinely religious or merely political; just to quote one telling phrase from J. W. Allen (Political Thought in The 16th Century): “Church lands made stout Protestants.” Today we suffer from a rather different problem, instead of having to judge the sincerity of a spiritual guide in a political context, we have to judge in a dizzyingly pluralist context. People make and re-make themselves so that they become collections of experiences and aspirations, a kind of psychological bricolage. Consequently, they have the capacity to re-engineer themselves as circumstances change, playing on our unwillingness to challenge and our short memories. At the time of Jesus the uncertainty of pantheism, resembling our contemporary condition, was prevalent although it was not of much concern to the Jews, but the steady bifurcation of Christianity from classical Judaism caused tensions which are an important background element to Matthew’s Gospel. We know from 1 Corinthians 1:11-12 that there were at least four competing factions (Paul, Apollos, Peter and Christ) and Matthew probably knew of these and some additional variants.

Our customary response to the warning against ravening wolves is to cite obvious threats such as consumerism, spiritualism and secularism but their very obviousness ought to reduce the their threat. Much more pernicious from a Christian perspective are fanaticism, Narcissism and individualism which reduce the mysterious span of the Christian experience to such statements as: “The Lord has told me to reform our accountancy system”, declared by a missionary in West Africa. This may sound absurd but, particularly in ‘born again’ circles, it is common to attribute to “The Lord” a decision which is, and should be, pragmatically secular. False prophesy uses sacred authority for an opinion or a course of action as a way of spiritually blackmailing opponents, or people with a different outlook, into submission or uniformity. Although the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways, nobody in the 16th Century supposed that religious decisions had anything to do with principle, let alone God. In our own day it is quite customary for ‘Church politics’ to determine where we officially stand but the authorities find it hard to resist invoking the Holy Spirit in their aid.

If, then, there is a weakness in the extract from Romans, it is that Paul sees the issues as far too clear cut. We are either flesh or spirit, adopted children of Christ or not; and he makes these distinctions in the power of The Spirit. At least the evidence tells us that Paul was not as certain of this as these statements suggest—elsewhere in Romans he depicts God’s purposes realised through Jesus as cosmic rather than particular—but the irreversible damage has been done such that some authoritarian Christians, faced with contradictions between the Gospel reports of what Jesus said and the letters of Paul, frequently choose the latter.

Together, the Readings present us with a warning. Authoritarian Christianity might just be tolerable if it were not for the inevitable existence of false prophets, for power in the hands of the unscrupulous is immensely dangerous. Given the inevitability of falsehood we would be wise to be deeply suspicious of authoritarianism which runs counter to the teaching and behaviour of Jesus and we would need to find a very particular reason to tolerate it. Until recently this warning might have seemed redundant in a Church of England which observed the mutual tolerance of necessity from its founding 400 years ago but fundamentalist theological domination is back in vogue, naturally supported in every detail by the aforesaid Holy Spirit. Paul’s over-riding message of the centrality of love in which we must all be united is obscured by a myriad of more proscriptive statements which is why confining one’s Biblical access to Sunday reading, or quoting fragments of text selectively, is fatally misleading.

Having pointed out the dangers, it is only fair to note, however, that the intention of the combined effect of the Readings is to tell us that it is easy to distinguish good from bad, truth from falsehood and, by implication, those who will be saved from those who will not. How far we can agree with this is both a matter of theological inclination and temperament on the ne hand and a matter of our general outlook and experience of life on the other but, in view of the way in which people of strong opinions generally behave, it might be as well to be sceptical. There have been too many occasions when we have known them by their fruits but too late; we would be better off knowing them by their seeds.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. How confident are you of judging people on the basis of an initial encounter?
  2. Discuss the apparent conflict in Romans between Paul’s pleas for unity and love and his plethora of moral proscriptions
  3. Compare the kinds of false prophets confronting Jesus and Matthew with the false prophets of today
  4. How should traditional Anglicanism react to particularist tendencies?
  5. Is the idea that the meaning of the Bible is clear enough to justify authoritarian pronouncements a recursively self-referential proposition or the true foundation of a Scriptural Church?

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