The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity


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O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee;…
Ephesians 4:17-32
Matthew 9:1-8

If only the distinction between the behaviour of believers and non believers was as clear cut as Paul implies. He draws a stark contrast between the ways of the Gentiles and believers, using the metaphor of the “old man” and the “new man” to show how radical is the break between the bad behaviour of the unbeliever and the virtue of the convert. Much as we, from a Christian standpoint, like this to be true, we should ask ourselves whether Christians behave markedly differently from everybody else. What actually distinguishes us is our ambition to please God and our acceptance, neatly summed up in the Collect, that without God we cannot please Him.

This is a strange kind of love which appears to base our ability to love God on our dependency on Him but that way of looking at things springs from our proper desire to love each other reciprocally as equals. In our divine relationship the reciprocity is asymmetrical and there is no question of equality and, therefore, no danger of dependency in the ordinary sense in which unequal relationships damage self esteem and lead to the destruction of love through the exercise of power. Our relationship with God is not one of dependency in the human sense because we are categorically different, being creatures of the Creator. Yet in one way our relationship with God is strikingly similar to our closest human relationships in that both result from deliberate and often painful and hesitant choice. We do not and cannot love easily or simply because love is not like that and so we can learn about heavenly love from the way we understand human love and vice versa. What we learn from our love of God is our inability to survive autonomously and what we learn from human love is the ability to make choices which generate intensity.

One of love’s chief enemies is abstraction, reducing it to sets of rules which are generally held to hold true, and this is as dangerous to divine as to earthly love as it tends to result in a conservative view of reality, ruling out serendipity and radically altered states of perceiving and being. This innate conservatism explains why the religious leaders found it so difficult to come to terms with Jesus. Their grievance operated at two separate but related levels: first, and fundamentally, Jesus was claiming a right to forgive sins which they could not accept; but, secondly, and more important from their perspective, though less radical, Jesus was changing the way that sins were forgiven by eliminating the whole of the Deuteronomical tradition. He claimed to have found a way of forgiving sins that cut out animal sacrifice and the Levitical monopoly. Sad to say, after the founding of the Church and Paul’s mission, it was not long before there was a new priestly monopoly with its tendency to accumulate all kinds of heterogeneous baggage that, over time, became fused into a pretence of human logic and divine fiat.

The man who was sick had faith not a theory—as long as he was cured he did not mind how—which raises questions about the nature of theology. One of its purposes which arises from the fundamental human capacity is the search for patterns, for coherent meaning in apparent chaos. As scientists admit, the problem arises when we think we are being objective when we are actually imposing patterns on the evidence. This is the shortcoming from which the Reading from Ephesians suffers. Paul’s argument about believers and Gentiles is not only a crude generalisation it is also based on a rag-bag of assertions which oscillate between reality and aspiration; one minute he is saying how we are, the next how we should be. As we have noted, the evidence is by no means clear cut and we should always be wary of being led by an ecclesiastical ‘closed shop’ into seeing apartness where it does not exist. Distinction usually leads to the tribal tendency to build inwardly focused support mechanisms, to define otherness in a hostile way and, in consequence, to make identity defensive and defined by negatives; we apparently know what it is not to be British but find it hard to say what it is. There were good historical reasons why the Jews were internally focused but Jesus, and Paul for that matter, were supposed to have changed all that. Underlying much of what Matthew writes is the question of what it means to be a Christian community, a church, and we need to ask that question with the man of faith in mind: if our human purpose is to acknowledge our creation in love that we might love God and our neighbour, what role does the Church play? If part of the answer is that we create a corporate identity, how far does that need to be definitional, in our specific case, Credal? And how far dare we extend our inclusiveness before our identity, our differentiation, our sense of ourselves as a community, is lost? Exploring this last question practically involves a high level of personal and corporate risk; to which Judaism at the time of Jesus was strongly averse. We need to ask ourselves whether we are radically different, whether we want a relationship with God which has the same potential, at a different level, for surprise and discovery that we prize in our most intimate human relationships.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. To what extent is the opening proposition in the Collect a paradox or a symbiosis?
  2. What can we learn from divine love about human love and vice versa?
  3. How far is the liturgy and practice of the Church Systematic and/or accidental?
  4. Is it true that religious believers behave better than non-believers and does this matter?
  5. tell the story of the healing from the perspective of the sick man.

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