The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity


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Keep, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy church…
Galatians 6:11-18
Matthew 6:24-34

What is a church? It is the question at the heart of both Galatians and Matthew’s Gospel; and although the two authors tackle the question in different ways, they agree that it exists because people have made choices. It is not an external phenomenon that has been ‘dropped from heaven’ but is a collection of assenting worshippers.

The choice on which Paul concentrates uses the rather ugly shorthand language of circumcision and its opposite. Those who have chosen the option of the Church have chosen a moral or spiritual circumcision as opposed to the strictly physical circumcision which Jews undergo when they assent to their law-based Covenant. But this is somewhat crude: if we buy in to the dichotomy too comprehensively we will find ourselves thinking that all Jews must have been legalists and all Christians moralists. Even if this was the external distinction (and even that is doubtful), there are too many moralists in the Jewish tradition and too many legalists in the Christian tradition to make this a wholly credible way of looking at things.

Matthew’s vision of church is much more challenging; Jesus says that we must be a community which simply lives from day to day without worrying about what we will eat or wear. I suspect this is as troubling to contemporary Christians as the injunction against divorce and re-marriage, so it is important to understand the context. First, Matthew was writing at a time when Christians thought that the last judgment was very close at hand, something that would happen in their lifetime. This produced the kind of earthly denial which we see in Acts 2:44. Secondly, however, this way of looking at earthly existence is not uniform by any means as we can see in Paul’s great anxiety to show the money-loving Corinthians that he had worked hard at his tent-making and would accept nothing from them. Thirdly, there is a simple paradox in the idea that The Lord will provide for those who do not plan and that is that others, acting on behalf of The Lord, must do the planning, which is the whole point of holding goods in common; theoretically, nobody worries because planning takes care of want.

To argue that we cannot live like the lilies of the field, however, is not to say that we should be selfish. In a world of extreme wealth and poverty it is important that we develop a coherent attitude to our use of worldly goods. This is an area where the personal and the political come into sharp contact and so it is important to be honest with ourselves and careful with those with whom we disagree.

Here are three proposals as a starting point for a discussion, always granting that there are many other starting points: first, that we should only tolerate a difference in income and wealth if that difference is to the advantage of the least well off. Examples would include accumulating capital to invest and hire labour, using wealth to preserve art, acquiring books so that we can instruct others. Secondly, that we should only acquire possessions if they in some way conform to the first rule or if they enhance the spiritual life of ourselves and those we serve. Examples would include using resources to make us more morally sensitive, collecting goods to enhance the community, using goods to broaden the outlook of the community. Thirdly, the conditions in the first two rules may need to be modified in a serious crisis. Examples would include disposing of valued possessions to raise money for famine relief, giving something we value to somebody who needs it more, selling church treasures in a crisis.

It is important to note that the two areas where we have most difficulty—love and money—are precisely those where the ideal seems most difficult to approach. That is why we are urged to seek mutual support by choosing to be part of a church where we will be less lonely when we are trying to make honest choices about love and money. To aspire to the ideals of Jesus as hermits is given to very few of us. This is why the Christian way of life is corporate and why, incidentally, the claim that one can be a Christian but not attend church is highly questionable

Perhaps the most important idea to bear in mind is that of the corrosiveness of anxiety. There is a paradox in the development of civilisation that the better the capacity for storage the more anxious we become. As long as we can store nothing we are forced to behave like the lilies of the field but, as Jesus frequently remarked, barns are powerful symbols of greed and planning. It is these two factors, particularly when they are yoked, which cause anxiety. We might, on that basis, formulate a fourth rule about the ownership of income and wealth: that we should not own anything that makes us anxious. this is both morally positive and personally beneficial, a combination which does not readily present itself when we are trying to do what is right. So often we assume that anxiety is inevitable but it almost always arises not from external factors over which we have no control but from the choices we make. Choice is at the heart of what we are, as individuals and as members of a church.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Is Paul’s characterisation of Jews and Christians unhelpfully crude?
  2. Construct an argument for behaving in the 21st Century like the lilies of the field; or explain why the ideal of the lilies of the field is fanciful
  3. Consider the conflict between spending on the family and spending on the poor
  4. Devise some basic rules about the ownership of income and wealth
  5. What are the root causes of anxiety?

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