The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity


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O God, our refuge and strength…
Philippians 3:17-21
Matthew 22:15-22

In spite of a relentless struggle throughout the history of Christianity carried on by such theological giants as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Calvin, Gnosticism is alive and well (cf Shakespeare & Rayment-Pickard). The struggle was commenced by St. Paul but it is sometimes difficult to see this because of his lapses into what looks like Gnosticism’s defining propositions: that the spiritual and physical are separate and that the former is superior to the latter. It is difficult to read a phrase like “vile bodies” without drawing the wrong conclusion. The root of Paul’s problem is what we would now call a “category error”. He compares our bodies with Christ’s risen and ascended body to our disadvantage but we would say that the two phenomena cannot be compared at all, that the comparison is therefore meaningless. Nonetheless, the Gnostic tradition continues to divide and to rank the spiritual and physical on the basis of this error, ignoring the confirmatory conclusion of each major act of creation in Genesis which describes it as “good”, culminating in the creation of humanity which is characterised as “very good”. Of course there is a difference between the creator and the created but it is not a relationship of inferiority and superiority; we would not, for example, describe the Mona Lisa as inferior to Leonardo da Vinci. to understand the point more fully we should remember that Gnosticism was a neo-Platonist phenomenon in which everything physical was regarded as an imperfect representation of a perfect archetype. The Christian response in witness and mission is to acknowledge that we are imperfect but to affirm our freedom to love by being what we are, human and therefore an indissoluble union of the physical and the divine whose perfect pattern was Our Saviour Jesus Christ.

We might say that the struggle actually began with Jesus who was called upon by the Pharisees to denigrate earthly powers. for reasons both of prudence and principle Jesus was not prepared to satisfy His critics; He confirmed the propriety of different things; as we would say, “horses for courses”.

How can we account for Gnosticism’s persistent attraction? One explanation is that a traditional tendency to dissect creation so that groups give themselves the power to include and exclude—a chronic clerical tendency—has been reinforced by a breakdown in every kind of apparent stability: economics, politics, entertainment, social mores and Christian witness are no longer continually evolving phenomena with the occasional discontinuous eruption, they all present themselves in a state of headlong fragmentation so that contemporary commentators frequently say that what matters is not a product (what a phenomenon creates or articulates) but a process (how a phenomenon behaves). This ‘post modernist’ way of looking (or, rather, innumerable ways of looking) is intensely threatening to people who need to know where they are, where they belong and who does not belong. The position of gay people in society, therefore, is properly characterised merely as the ‘presenting issue’; if it were not this it would be some other phenomenon which would manifest the aggressive response of the insecure. Although this issue may be significant in itself it is minor compared with the emerging tendency to wish to divide creation along racial or religious lines. To call for the Church to be inclusive is not, on this basis, a liberal, ‘politically correct’ fetish but a fundamental Christian principle decreed by the Creator, manifested in the Redeemer and confirmed by the Sanctifier.

Jesus’ attitude to the civil power was generous in the context of Roman occupation, much more generous than most of us manage (cf. The Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity). Here we exercise a different kind of dualism in which we rank ourselves above politics instead of seeing politics as a direct representation of our aspirations or lack of them. Our mantra is that politicians are dishonest but our question should be how honest are we about politics. Our instinctive dualism is summed up in the nostrum that religion and politics do not mix which is simply an embellishment of the Pharisaic trap. Our worry is that political disagreement may spill over into religious disagreement; but so it should. Perhaps for most of us the political outlook comes first but as Christians the different ways we understand our witness should be the starting points for creative discussion which should then feed into our politics.

Looking wider, the distinction which Jesus makes may no longer be so clear cut. In His time politics was about such basic issues as taxation and security where a safe distinction could be made but in an age where the civil power needs to legislate in profoundly ethical areas such as the definition of life, the nature of properly constituted relationships, the balance between parents and teachers in the rearing of children and the balance between justice within a generation and between generations, Christians, individually and collectively, need to ask difficult questions about the relationship between themselves and the civil powers. To dismiss them simply as unprincipled, heartless or unchristian is an inadequate. Frequently the ‘presenting issue’ in this discussion is disestablishment but the more important issue is how we can live as Christians in a democracy without betraying Our Lord through compromise or dogmatism, by saying respectively that there are no lines or that the lines are immutable. In the final analysis, however, we should never forget that rendering to Caesar is, in effect, rendering to ourselves; for we are Caesar now.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What does Genesis mean when it says that God found creation to be “good”?
  2. How do you account for the persistence of Gnostic tendencies within Christianity?
  3. Is politics an honourable profession and, if not, how would you improve it?
  4. What are the pros and cons of disestablishing the Church of England?
  5. How do you understand the maxim “render unto Caesar” in the context of debates about ethical legislation?

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