The Theology of Pleasure

Sunday 16th November 2008
Year A, The Third Sunday before Advent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Matthew 25:14-30

Most of us are reaching that time in our lives when we begin to look back, wishing we had done things differently, wishing we had taken that job or married that boy or been less authoritarian with our children or been more careful in our friendships. We are beginning to think about the reckoning; and today's Gospel pushes us in that direction. Matthew's vision of virtue and sin has had an enormous influence on the way that we see God, Christianity and ourselves. We are all preparing for the final reckoning which will determine whether we are to go to heaven, enjoy everlasting life, be saved, whatever term you care to use.

In Matthew's vision we live in a world of fear and calculation: we are kind to each other not because it is a pleasure to be kind but in order to avoid divine punishment and to rack up a few more ethical gold stars so that our book is duly complete when we are greeted by St. Peter at the pearly gates. That view, reinforced by the peculiar circumstances of St. Paul and St. Augustine, has warped the Church of Christ down to our own day. Most people, when they think of "Christians" do not think of our initial description by pagans, reported by Tertullian: "see how these Christians love one another"; they are more likely to think of some ranting clergyman preaching against the wickedness of human beings, usually in connection with sex.

Most of us have been brought up with this warped view of Christianity and it is really very difficult to escape from it, which explains a good deal of the general indifference and even hostility to Christianity; why would anyone want to be part of a religious movement that spends all its time telling other people what to do and, much more emphatically, what not to do. When we see church attendance declining, we only have ourselves to blame. Yes, there may be something in the theories that people don't want to commit themselves, that materialism has supplanted altruism, that Christianity is too demanding; but if our faith in Jesus Christ can be so easily conquered we really only have two choices: we can blame the legacy of Jesus or blame ourselves.

Let me now give you a positive vision. God our Creator made us in love so that we might give him pleasure by choosing to love; Jesus our Redeemer, was given to us in love so that we might, through our Incarnational Perception, better recognise the meaning of love and follow it in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Now here is the real shock, so brace yourselves. Our fundamental nature is to love; we are, in the words of Sebastian Moore, "wired for love". but let us not get carried away - well, not quite yet - we can't go on with this celebratory binge, we have to acknowledge that we fail in our purpose of love, we fail all the time. Which is why Jesus died for us, not to wipe the slate clean in some Deus Ex Machina gesture of supernatural accountancy but to reaffirm God's love in spite of our imperfection, the imperfection in which we were necessarily created; because if we were perfect we would not have the faculty to choose.

Now brace yourselves for a further shock. Not only is it in our nature to love which in turn means that we are not the fundamentally corrupt beings identified by Paul, Augustine, Luther and others, we are, as loving creatures, to live out our desires for, in Sebastian Moore's intriguing phrase: "Desire is love trying to happen." And so, my conclusion is that in whatever time we have left we should take every opportunity we can to live our lives to the full.

Behind our understanding of the story of the Talents, however, there lies another fundamental theological misapprehension from which we all suffer if we are not careful. God who, remember, created us in love, is portrayed as a bank manager, identical to an earthly bank manager, and who will be portrayed next week as a judge who divides sheep from goats on the basis of how we behave. We need to ask ourselves two fundamental questions: first, why would a God who is love and created us in love arrange matters in such a way that some of us will end up out of love or, to use vulgar theological parlance, in hell; secondly, whatever makes us think that God is likely to behave in such a paltry way as we need to behave to establish and preserve order in civil society? In other words, if we want to line up the morality and mores of the Old Testament and some of the New Testament alongside what Jesus said and did, what emerges is a wondrously radical Jesus who wanted to do away with that cycle in the Old Covenant of faithfulness and reward, unfaithfulness and punishment.

So how can St. Paul, St. Augustine and great Reforming figures like Martin Luther be so wrong? To get towards an answer we have to think about the difference between doctrine and theology. What we are used to in our comfortable church is reciting doctrine as we did a few minutes ago in The Creed. Although no two of us will agree precisely what the words mean, we have a set of words that we can recite together which unites us; but doctrine is the consolidation that happens after centuries of something much more tortured which is theological discernment; doctrine is rather similar to the parliamentary legislation which comes hundreds of years after philosophical speculation on how society should be run. But theology involves risk and the authors of the New Testament, inspired by The Spirit within, with Incarnational Perception, were doing their best to work out what the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus meant both in the context of the Old Covenant of Judaism and in terms of its own individual characteristics; and they were followed by centuries of theologians who tried to refine in human language metaphors for trying to come to grips with the mystery that is God.

So here is the final shock. We are all called upon by God in Jesus to be theologians. We can't leave theology to somebody else. We can't hope that Rowan Williams and Sebastian Moore will do all our risk taking for us, hand us some revised doctrine on a plate and let us get on with our placid, liturgical lives. The reason we were created in love was so that we could respond to God and, as Christians, to remind us of some of the words I used by Richard Harries last time I was here, we are responding to the disclosure of God in Jesus. Listening to God and responding involves us in risk taking. Theology is rather like athletics where the best either achieve breakthrough or breakdown, the two being only a hair's breadth or a split second apart. Our purpose in life is to push ourselves towards an understanding of God by listening and responding; the Bible, Church doctrine and structures and worship such as this only justify themselves if they help us to come to terms with God.

It is only when we begin to take theology seriously as the body of Christ that other people will take us seriously. If we continue to think of the Last Judgment instead of the ultimate and complete love of God we will betray ourselves and the Body of Christ; it is time for us to abandon greed and fear, judgment and power, and a pernicious form of moral blackmail, and live in love and joy so that people will note how we love one another; and wish to join us.