The Sixth Sunday after Trinity


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


O God, who hast prepared for them that love Thee such good things…
Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 5:20-26

One of the aspects of criminal justice that most puzzles people is the balance it strikes between motive and outcome. While the layman might want three motorists who have killed a pedestrian to be given identical sentences (usually the severest available, regardless of the evidence), the justice system recognises that the first was driving dangerously while over the legal limit for alcohol, the second was in a hurry and was a little distracted and drove carelessly while the third struck a man who emerged from behind a stationary vehicle and walked straight into the path of a car. While the distinction between the first two and the third is readily recognised, that between the first two often is not. This is the kind of distinction which Jesus is trying to draw between his kind of righteousness and that of the Pharisees; he says that motive matters. To continue with our motoring illustrations, Jesus says that if we are determined to run somebody over but she gets out of the way that is morally as bad as succeeding because it is the intention that counts. Further, whenever we transgress but do not reconcile ourselves immediately to our victim we will suffer the great punishment of being ‘denied heaven’.

These kind of encouragements in the Gospel which imperfect humanity needs are set against the most condensed and emphatic account of Paul’s theology of Baptism and Resurrection. The ideas are so familiar that they are easy to gloss over without due attention: because we were baptised into Jesus’ death we will rise again because He rose. This is an interlocking two-part statement of immense weight which makes nonsense of debates in the 16th Century and today about the relative merits of the Crucifixion and Resurrection as focal points for belief. Without the Crucifixion there would be no Resurrection and without the Resurrection the Crucifixion would say nothing to us. The first point is relatively clear but the second seems more difficult to hammer home as there are some Christians who genuinely believe that the act of Atonement in the Crucifixion is not a necessary but a sufficient precondition for the Christian life. If that were the case then why did Jesus not immediately ascend to the Father after His death? The ‘answer’ is that the bridge between the divine and the human which the incarnation initiated could only be completed by a promise so concretely expressed by the divine being of Jesus that it could be grasped by humanity. Carl Rahner, (Foundations of Christian Faith) talks about the Resurrection as the “irreversible offer” of salvation, a kind of under-writing of what was promised in the Incarnation and secured in the Crucifixion (my own formulations).

Yet as we contemplate the prospect of rising in glory we have to admit that Paul’s “old man”, so needful of the advice in Matthew, is ever present; theology is one thing, life quite another; and that is the ambivalence in which Christians live as testimony of the nexus between the human and divine which is what gives Christianity its peculiar tension, its triumph and remorse. Given what is ‘on offer’ in Paul it would seem churlish not to take absolutely seriously the advice in Matthew. We are being offered so much in exchange for so little and all that we have to do is use the resources which we have been given to make proper choices in our relationships with God and our neighbour. So why is this so difficult?

The usual, glib answer is that we are sinners and therefore doomed to fail. This, to venture briefly into philosophy, is a profoundly Platonic idea which compares human phenomena unfavourably with ‘spiritual’ or other-worldly Archetypes which are perfect, thus dooming all earthly things to imperfection. This idea has had much more influence on European thought than its Aristotelian oppose which turns Plato on its head by saying that human achievement lies in creating phenomena where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. This latter position does not deny human imperfection but it helps us to see ourselves more constructively. Theologically, we might say that imperfection, rather than being something to be regretted, to be compared unfavourably with perfection, is the defining quality of humanity because it is only in a state of imperfection that we are free to choose, to exercise our free will to love rather than not to love. Set in the context of post Reformation, neo-Platonic Lutheran Protestantism, this is a rather anti intuitive concept to grasp but the alternative, first clearly advanced by St. Augustine, another neo-Platonist, encapsulated in the concept of Original Sin is that although we do have free we are born with a moral handicap and, even in the bosom of the Church, live in a permanent state of ‘chasing the game’. Some would argue that this difference of approach is profoundly theological but it might be a matter of psychology and temperament. Luther was a pessimist with low self-esteem who, to a certain extent, found that Paul’s view of righteousness chimed in with his own private needs; it is easy to entangle the two. Instead of trying to bully or coax each other into accepting one outlook or the other we would be much better off according respect to those whose outlook differs from our own.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Consider the relationship between motive and outcome in civil justice
  2. Consider the contrast between Plato and Aristotle on the subject of perfection
  3. How do you react to the idea that imperfection is a necessary precondition for the exercise of free will?
  4. Is there any sense in which the theological debate between atonement-centred and Resurrection-centred Christianity is useful?
  5. Can you see a link between atonement-centred Christianity and original sin?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)