The Tenth Sunday after Trinity


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Let Thy merciful ears, O Lord, be open…
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Luke 19:41-47a

If we are not careful, time plays tricks and we re-write history by accident. The chronological sequence in today’s Readings begins with Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the South, climbing steadily towards it until he sees its skyline, dominated by the impressive and beautiful Herodian Temple at the South-East corner. His followers encourage him to stop and look. In Luke this works at two levels: first, there is the centrality of the Temple in Judaism which is one of the motifs which runs through Luke/Acts; secondly, there is the sclerotic, law-bound Temple establishment which represents opposition to Jesus’ revolutionary message of love and personal commitment. The last of the Prophets is looking upon a way of worship which stood in opposition to them even before a permanent site was found for the Ark of the Covenant. Part of that opposition was created by the Temple’s never-ending need for cash for building projects and repairs which in turn led to financial transactions between the people and the Priesthood in addition to the traditional priestly portion of animal sacrifice. Symbolically Jesus, acting as a prophet, attacks the Temple trade as an act of protest against the whole paraphernalia of ritual and graft which would have appealed particularly to 16th Century Reformers who drew parallels between the Pharisees and the Papacy and believed that their simple ways were the ways of Jesus Himself.

The mid 16th Century Reformers would also have been in sympathy with Paul’s dilemma in a nascent church which was forced to embrace both the priestly and prophetic traditions. They looked back with reverence to a time when each person established a relationship with God without the intermediary encumbrance of the (Roman) Church and while they were not naive enough to believe that the primitive church could be replicated in Tudor England, they thought that access to the Bible and more austere church practice would go some way to realising early simplicity. Yet the price that the Reformation had to pay for Biblical autonomy was a degree of religious radicalism that not even the most robust political settlement could embrace. Today we would probably regard as paradoxical a Church which was rigidly ecclesiologically conformist and Scripturally libertarian but it was not an issue which seriously worried either the secular or spiritual authorities who reserved the right to limit freedom whenever it threatened stability, a position which Paul appears to adopt in the latter part of 1 Corinthians. He values all gifts and all points of view but his over-riding concern from the opening attack on schism (1 Corinthians 1:11-18) is that the Church should live in unity, defined not by statute but by mutual love.

Between Jesus’ sighting of the Temple and his cleansing act there is a ‘fast forward’ to the destruction of the Temple and its form of worship. To an extent for which he is given no credit because the victim in his sights was Jesus, Caiaphas (John 11:49-50) was right when he considered the death of one man as a fair price to pay for religious stability. It was this very failure of the Temple establishment successfully to detach itself from religious/political insurrection which led to its eradication.

The questions for us from these Readings are both profound and immediate. First, although we manage reasonably well to contain the priestly and the prophetic within the Church, we are less successful at achieving a balance between uniformity and liberty. Why should the governance of the Church be ever more weighty as its numbers decline; and why should the transformation from a conforming to an affirming Church induce more rather than less governance? Might it be that there are many in positions of church leadership who would prefer conforming to affirming? Secondly, what price are we paying for placing external conformity above the integrity of personal commitment? Are we really insisting that nobody is capable of a personal commitment to Jesus unless their public, ascertainable behaviour conforms to an imposed standard of uniformity? Thirdly, what are the chances of survival of any institution which exalts style over substance? This is not a distinction which the Pharisees would have understood because for them the style, how they did things, was the substance of what they did. We do not know better but we necessarily know differently. Having broken away from a (partly caricatured) Roman Tyranny it seems odd that we should be in danger of establishing our own home grown variety in the shape of an Anglican Covenant.

Luke’s final sentence is significant. One of the shortcomings of Temple religion was the priority of ritual over understanding which the Rabbinical Diaspora was to correct. Paul looks at the problem from the other extreme when he wishes to give priority to teaching and prophesy over the self realisation of speaking in tongues. The Reformation, based on scholarship, was to promote education and preaching as its core values. Today, in spite of the rhetoric, in spite of what we say we want in schools for our children, we live our lives in a paradoxical welter of irrational assertion and prejudice and ever more minute regulation which make a nonsense of a society which contains more university graduates than at any time in our history. If most church congregations only knew as much about the contents of their Bibles as they do about their professions, society would be much less in danger of physical and social collapse.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Consider the friction between priests and prophets in the Old Testament
  2. Is it fair to say that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was an attack on materialism?
  3. What are the criteria for establishing an appropriate balance between liberty and uniformity in a church context?
  4. Discuss the dangers of Biblical access without teaching
  5. Imagine a church where people care as much about the Bible as about their professions.

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