Knowing Where Your Off-Stump Is

Sunday 23rd January 2011
Year A, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 1:17
Matthew 4:12-23

There's nothing quite so transparent as people changing their stance as the result of a changed situation: so, for example, a boy might say when his girlfriend leaves him: "I really didn't like her"; or a person losing their job might say: "I'm glad I was sacked. I was going to leave anyway"; or, most fickle of all, a football fan might simply change teams because the blues are on the slide and the reds are on the rise.

So don't get me wrong. I was extremely hurt when I failed to be re-elected to the General Synod, so what I have to say today isn't a denial of my five years of office, it's a warning!

Of all the world's major religions, Christianity is the one that has been most complicit in political power structures for most of its existence, say from the time of Constantine the Great to the middle of the 19th Century. There is nothing in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism or Islam to compare with the Papacy or even the leaders of other Christian denominations who issue edicts about doctrine and moral behaviour; none of these other religions are short of doctrinal or ethical pronouncements but they are delivered within an organic developmental tradition. And now, even the Church of England, the epitome of a broad church, is acquiring a taste for quasi-papal pronouncement in the form of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant.

It is more than a little ironic that the man in whose name much religious schism has been generated is the man in Christian history most passionately committed to Christian unity around the Cross. In this week of Christian Unity we should remember that Saint Paul's letters contain many inconsistencies and enigmas, not least because he was trying to develop theology under immense pressure, subject to the rigours of time, the outbreak of controversy, the hardships of travel and the sheer difficulty of the material, but he never wavered in his absolute commitment to unity above all else; and we would do well to read 1 Corinthians in the round to see what Paul is saying rather than fastening onto fragments we find convenient for our own purposes.

And why is this so central to Paul? The answer is not because he wants organisational and doctrinal coherence or because this is a good posture against paganism, but because, simply, Paul rejects human wisdom, as he says in today's reading, "Lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." And he also, significantly recognises, that unity is not a matter of hierarchical fixes but an issue for grass roots resolution.

Now imagine a version of Christian history which says that we have been employed in the methodical emptying of the power of the Cross. Imagine that commitment to the person of Christ in individual prayer and corporate solidarity in his Church has been transformed into a set of doctrinal formulae promulgated and imposed by a hierarchy. It doesn't take much imagination, does it? And if Paul's newest converts could become fragmented when they thought that they were on the verge of the end of the world, how easy it is for us to go the same way. That is why the essence of discipleship, as set out in our reading from Matthew is not consistency, orthodoxy, or even good works but is, above all, repentance, turning back to God.

Perhaps the worst aberration in church history was the combining of the idea of repentance, of turning back to God, with penance, with saying sorry for our sins. Even the almost-sin-free need to spend all their lives turning back to God because it is simply so easy to turn away, for the best, as well as for the worst, of reasons. I would not argue that the authorities in the Anglican Communion are not sincere in their wish to serve God when they develop such instruments as the Covenant but this involves turning away from the foolishness of the Cross to the wisdom of the philosopher and the formularies of the lawyer which Paul goes on to scorn in Verse 21 of this opening Chapter.

And this is where I come to my warning which is, as I said, not a denial of church politics. The warning is that we should not turn the whole system upside-down so that the politics become the point instead of being the means of strengthening that corporate part of our Christian life which helps us to be closer to Christ. There are two many people of all denominations and persuasions who make claims on behalf of Christ from the presumptuous to the blasphemous, building on a tradition which started with the Councils of the Byzantine Church and which developed through the Papacy and a diverging array of systematic theologies; the mystery of the Cross demands not uniformity but a wide variety of human understandings. Theology isn't about developing formulae which we then seek to impose on others, it is becoming involved in the dangerously vulnerable encounter with God.

The warning, then, is about perspective. There are good reasons why we struggle to say things about God and why we need to say some things about God which are the same because without that, dialogue becomes impossible; but our troubled and difficult dialogue of and with God ought to be profoundly reflected in our dialogue with each other; and when that dialogue is based on power relationships, then we are in danger of turning ourselves upside down, according a higher priority to human wisdom than to the foolishness of the Cross.

So I do not say desist but I do say beware! As God's creatures we were made to do good, and that means taking risks, but we need to know when we are in danger of going too far. Lord Acton famously said that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" and we may think that such dangers are thought years away from where we are; but we so easily slip into our comfortable mind set, a form of effortless superiority. Good discipleship, to use a cricketing metaphor as I made notes for this sermon in Australia just after our Ashes victory, consists in knowing where our off-stump is and learning how to keep a tight defence; if we play an over ambitious or lazy stroke we are likely to lose it.