On Love and Corruption

Sunday 16th November 2008
Year A, The Third Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Zephaniah 1:7; 1:12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

One of the popular phrases that most irritates me is that: "Sentiment in the market was" so-and-so; I don't like my money being managed on the basis of sentiment; I would prefer the management to be rational; but it isn't. Markets are driven, we are told, by greed and fear and after a long period of greed we are in the midst of a period of fear. These are not pleasant emotions and for this reason I find all of today's readings theologically challenging because although they deal with fear and greed in various proportions they all say that we ought to behave ourselves or we will all come to a sticky end.

It seems to me that three major strands of thought have emerged from this way of thinking, particularly from the unique vision of Matthew: first, the religion of love has been transformed into a religion of fear; secondly, the use of fear is closely linked with the use of power; thirdly, the use of fear and power to codify behaviour has suppressed our fundamental human purpose.

Let me deal with each of these ideas in turn. First, the Church of love has become the church of fear. This is important because our ethical stance, how we treat each other, should be, in the words of Richard Harries, a response to God's disclosure of himself in Jesus. In other words, we respond to God's love not out of fear but out of love.

Secondly, this use of fear easily leads to the use of power. Ever since I can remember I have been told by those with power over me that if I do not do this or that something bad will happen to me. Can there be anything quite so perverse as Ministers of the Christian religion blackmailing the faithful into behaving in a certain way? I must say I find it difficult to align the idea of blackmail with the image of the good shepherd.

Thirdly, we were created to choose to love God, to give pleasure to him and to each other; and the idea of God as a master or judge subverts the primacy of love by attributing to God the paltry role of judging us in the way that we might judge each other.

Let me, then, open out our discussion by introducing the astounding theology of Sebastian Moore who says the following:

"A.N. Wilson said Jesus would have been against the church; wrong; he is. ... Jesus is the man of passion, and we have made him the enemy of passion, in his name we have canonised suffering. ... (Good Friday) is a day not to mourn the pleasure we have taken but the life we have not chosen. ... We are wired for loving ... Our most ambitious desire, as Marshall Rosenberg blessedly saw and said, is to be the cause of joy in another. ... Altruism is pernicious ... because it implies that it is against our selfish nature. ... So the concern of saving grace is to get us loving. ... Original sin is our anti-desire ... the root of un-loving. Radical desire, trying to be love and most often failing is a far better description of the human condition than goodness marred by original sin. ... Resistance to desire is the root of all our troubles. ... Sin is fear of desire ... fear of life, fear of growth and change, fear of process, hunger for the eternal status quo." [i]

In short, Moore tells us that Jesus is more important than St. Augustine, something the great Father of the Church readily acknowledges in every line of his writing but which was not observed by his followers, a fate which he shares with St. Paul. Paul, cut to the quick by his persecution of the early church for which Jesus upbraided him in a vision and Augustine, mortified by his youthful sexual excesses, held peculiarly negative views of themselves. They then made the mistake of transforming their personal experience into a generalisation about humanity; and their followers took this further by editing out all the subordinate clauses and qualifications and leaving us as sinful humanity.

We could think of Christianity as the struggle between those who think that we were made to love and those who think we are fundamentally corrupt. Sebastian Moore, a Roman Catholic, teaches in a long tradition going back to St. Thomas Aquinas which asserts the fundamental goodness of humanity, created in love to choose to love. He therefore takes issue with the great Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, whose objection to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was that humanity was so fundamentally corrupt that it could not take part in its own salvation, as it assuredly did in the person of Mary.

Now all this theology is important because we are not called upon simply to be doctrinally sound Christians. We are called upon to become attuned to what Carl Rahner calls "God's Self communication" and to respond to it; and that means taking risks; theology is simply a formalised way of taking the risk of being in communication with god and it is always going to drive us into extreme territory, like athletes who either break through or break down; but the point about our relationship with God is that when we break down we are given the grace to bounce back.

It is only when we begin to frame a constructive discipleship of Jesus that we see how radical he is. The  Old Testament, exemplified in today's terrible reading from Zephania, is an account of faithfulness rewarded and unfaithfulness punished and St. Paul the Jew, in today's passage from 1 Thessalonians, could not escape from this; and St. Augustine the prisoner for so long of his own lust, could not believe that he would not be punished unless he changed his ways; but Jesus the Jew turned the world upside down simply by being there, God made man, which makes such a nonsense of the theology of human corruption that the early Church had to wrestle with the problem of Christ's human nature.

So the question for us is: are we going to follow Jesus or are we going to stick with greed and fear; being good simply because it will put us among the sheep rather than the goats (that we will hear about in next week's Gospel) and earn us a place in heaven? Do we think that we are altruistic because we are driven by duty against our selfish natures, or do we think that we are primarily driven by love which fails?

Or, to put it another way, is this life an ante room to eternity where we are driven by fear or are we living in the Kingdom of God on earth where we are driven by love?

[i] Moore, Sebastian; Contagion of Jesus, Darton, L&T (10.2007)