The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany


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O God, whose blessed son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil .
1 John 3:1-8
Matthew 24:23-31

Two thousand years of Christianity has challenged our theological imagination to make sense of a doctrine of the Kingdom which was simple and compact until just about the time that the New Testament was completed. Writers like Matthew and Paul were convinced that the arrival of the Kingdom, which involved the end of the physical world and the Last Judgment, was imminent. By the end of the First Century when the author of 1 John was writing doubts began to creep in and the church had to adjust to a world without immediate eschatological resolution. As long as basic astronomy was a mystery there was always room for astrological speculation. Oddly, then, at a time when we know more about the workings of the universe than at any time in history we are just beginning to be uncertain about how long we will survive as a race. From the time of Brahe (1546-1601), Galileo (1564-1642) and Kepler (1571-1630) we became progressively more certain of the age of our planet and how long it was likely to last before the sun imploded but in the early 1970s doubts set in, resulting from human activity, which swung wildly from the “Nuclear Winter” to “Global Warming.” Now we do not know whether we have, through our own excess, tipped the planet critically into irreversible catastrophe or whether our current unusual weather is a blip that can be corrected or which will correct itself. Our uncertainty has given Matthew’s vision new bite.

By the time that Matthew was writing it is clear that the early church had taken such a grip in certain theological circles that people thought its claims were worth contesting or subverting. Matthew’s false prophets were early gnostics (cf The Nativity) and religious eccentrics who could be challenged on well worn ground but our false prophets have proved much more difficult to handle because they are not external but internal. It is all too easy for us to convince ourselves that our consumption is reasonable: that the school run is unavoidable; that the weekend break on a cheap flight is nugatory; that “A little (or not such a little) of what you fancy does you good.” Whatever the scientific opinion on the status of the planet, we are now at least living in a time of uncertainty directly resulting from unbridled Western consumerism.

1 John has half an eye on possible eschatological closure but the purpose of this passage is to explore the relationship between love and the possible emergence of a different, less dramatic, kind of end time from that portrayed in Paul and the Synoptic Gospels. We are, says 1 John, the sons of God and, in a truly wonderful theological breakthrough it continues: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” In heaven we shall be like God if we try to imitate His love. There is no sin in Jesus who “was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin.” There is the catch. We can only hope to try to imitate Jesus because we are the sinners for whose transgressions He, who was pure, was manifested. The Collect echoes the thought but goes on to introduce the essential ingredient of hope which enables us to go on trying to imitate our Saviour.

The Collect concludes with a reference to the end of time when “He shall appear again with power and great glory”, echoing the conclusion of the Gospel which talks of the sounding of the trumpet (Exodus 19). The necessary corollary of 1 John’s “It doth not yet appear what we shall be” is that we do not know what will happen when we are born again outside time and space but the confidence of those who say we do is quite remarkable.

Matthew’s theological statement is one side of the coin but although it points up the contrast between sinners and the pure, 1 John has an element of ‘give’ in it. The 16th Century, forging a theology of atonement out of the ruins of late medieval scholasticism had no time for the subtleties of Aquinas but we who think of ourselves as “Catholic and Reformed” probably see less of a potential conflict between our two New Testament readings than the initial compilers. Perhaps it is a matter of temperament, living in the shadow of a crisis as were Matthew and the author of 1 John and as we are now, whether we opt for the sharp imagery of The Gospel or the gentler speculation of The Epistle but the basic theology, as set out in the Collect, is both reassuring and clear; by the incarnation we have been made the “Sons of God” who may hope to be made: “like unto Him”.

After a long period of doctrinal disputes over a variety of issues, ranging from the efficacy of vestments to the nature of the Eucharist, argued from different perspectives in a context of assurance, the theology of uncertainty is a welcome restorer of perspective and humility. The very certainty of assertion detracts from a proper sense of the mystery of our childhood in God and how our hope has been made possible. The attempts of all three Readings to penetrate that mystery, and the different emphases and language they choose, serve to underline the point that there is no such thing as a completed theological enterprise.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the 1 John and Matthew speculations on Heaven?
  2. Consider the role of theology as an exploration of uncertainty and mystery
  3. Is science any better than theology at achieving certainty?
  4. Is the Church perpetuating the mistakes it made over the astronomical revolution?
  5. Is the idea of consumerism as a false prophet a cliché?

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