Christian Ethics

Sunday 19th October 2008
Year A, The Last Sunday after Trinity
John The Baptist, Clayton
Isaiah 45: 1-7

It's all so neat and tidy having one God, so much nicer than having to put up with all those Olympian squabbles we had to learn about at school; you just never know where you are with all those egotistical Greek deities, demanding sacrifice and making free with your women! I must say I felt similarly when I went to India with its astounding variety of Gods which I found attractive in the first instance but after a while I hankered after my old, neat and tidy monotheism except, of course for the Christian variant of the Holy Trinity.

As Christians we trace our monotheism directly from the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob; and we tend to talk about Jewish monotheism as a given, as something that The Chosen People adhered to from the start; but this is just not so. The history of the Jews from Abraham to Jesus was one of turning away and turning back and as they, like us, were only too human, they tended to turn away when times were good and turn back when times became difficult; so we can expect a revival of religion any day now! This was Isaiah's problem or, to be more precise, Isaiah III's problem; you see the Book of Isaiah is actually in three pieces which span the whole period of Jewish history before, during and perhaps even after the exile in Babylon. This third part of Isaiah, written at the end of the Exile tends to be optimistic and it is the part Christians most like to read as it points towards the idea of a Messiah; but in our reading today Isaiah III's optimism is tempered with a warning; things will go wrong again unless the children of Israel stick steadfastly to their one true God and, by implication he is saying, that if they do not do this, there will be trouble; big trouble; bad trouble.

Today, because we are so, so sophisticated and so bound up in a philosophical idea of God, the neat and tidy God, the fix-it-all God, we would not dream of making a direct connection between our own behaviour and what might befall us; we do not think, as some American Christians think, that our earthly well being is a direct reflection of our faithfulness, neither do we tend to think that the people who contract serious illnesses or suffer from natural disasters have in some way incurred the wrath of God. Taking my own case, for example, Jewish law did not allow a disabled person to be a priest because it was thought that the disability was the result of a fundamental moral flaw. There are many reasons why we have changed our mind about this: we know much more than did the Jews about medicine and meteorology; our notions of social justice are very different from those of the ancient world; but the main reason is, of course, that we are children of the New Testament, the New Covenant; we are Easter Children.

How, then, do we connect our ethics with our Christian belief? One, rather simplistic answer, is that Christians are in some way morally superior to others - I remember being told at my convent school that if we behaved well people would know that we were Christians - but that cannot be true as we all know highly ethical non believers.

Let me paraphrase a discussion by Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, on the subject of Christian ethics in his recent book The Re-Enchantment of Morality:

"Christians recognise God as the source of goodness and beauty. We respond in the words of Mother Theresa, by 'Doing something beautiful for god'; likewise, we want to respond to goodness with goodness, a response to God's disclosure in Jesus. We are a divine image called to grow into a divine likeness. ... For a Christian there is a recognition of God not only as creator but of making himself accessible to us in Jesus, through whom we know his heart and mind insofar as we can know this in human terms. (p41). ... The Christian ethic is therefore quite unequivocally a theological ethic, seeking to respond to the disclosure of God in Jesus. (p42). ... Like Thomas A Kempis, we imitate Jesus, like Bonhoeffer we follow him; keeping close to Jesus makes us more like him as the result of grace; thus God dwells in us. The Christian ethic is obedience to God's will. Love is at the heart of a Christian ethic. It is practised not only in conscience but within prayer. ... I would define Christian ethics as the study of the implications of God's saving disclosure in Jesus in decision-making and action" (p55).

Let me repeat that final phrase for us to consider: "The study of the implications of God's saving disclosure in Jesus in decision-making and action." What this says  to us is that we must make ethical decisions in the light of the salvation granted to us, as a free and universal gift, by Jesus.

Now, as I remarked earlier, people tend to turn back to God when things are going badly, having drifted away when things are going well; and we need to ask ourselves whether that is the case with us? Did we rejoice as house prices rose without any effort on our part? Did we cash in when building societies and insurance companies turned themselves from mutuals into publicly owned companies? Did we accept without public challenge the transformation of greed from one of the seven deadly sins into a publicly acclaimed virtue? And now, as the economic storm clouds roll in what was once such a blue sky, are we calling for more regulation? Do we think that the problem is somewhere else, with bankers and brokers totally disconnected from us? And do we think that the problems created by the greed of these disembodied people can be handled by the Government or regulators? In other words, has none of this public grasping got anything to do with us? And have we noticed while we have been saddened by the sight of bankers losing their jobs that this is only a down-stream consequence of labourers losing their homes?

In a nutshell, then, did we respond to the unlimited bounty of creation, to the unlimited goodness of God, to the kenotic sacrifice of Jesus and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit with equal generosity in the good times; and now, are we going to turn back to God, to increase our generosity, because times are harder?

It seems to me that there are three thoughts which we should take away: first, God will honour us whenever we turn back and so although there would be something highly admirable in sticking with God when times are good, we just have to own up; secondly, we have to re-connect our individual behaviour with what happens to our society because bankers and brokers grew up among us and it was us who bought their tempting, fragile products for a quick gain in the ever more frenetic game of pass the financial parcel; thirdly, and equally, we are part of the solution as well as part of the problem and there is no escape in wishing that somebody else would do something about it. Even if "they" do, we still have the Christian delight of responding to Jesus. Our ethics are not the conditional ethics of contract, admirable though these are; our devotion to Jesus, our imitation of him, our pilgrimage in his wake, should be unconditional. We have become obsessed with numbers, with counting and discounting, when we should be totally fixated by the Cross and the response it requires of us; we are all forgiven but we are also all responsible.