No Surgical Strike

Sunday 1st May 2011
Year A, The Second Sunday of Easter
St Giles, Shermanbury
Exodus 12:1-17
1 Corinthians 5:6-8

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!

For almost two months now, military aircraft have been dropping bombs on Libya in an attempt to protect civilians by disabling Libya's military operations. Such an undertaking is always fraught because precision bombing is never going to be precise enough; but in this case, as in the case of assaults on many dictators, the issue is made even more complex by the military use of civilians, including women and children, as human shields. In former days when even the Nazis more or less observed the Geneva Convention, hospitals were marked with a cross to ward off attack; and defendants rarely put a false cross on a military establishment to protect it. Civilians were 'collateral damage' in carpet bombing but not deterrence shields.

No war is clean; but the war in Libya - and more recently in Syria - like many other modern wars, is horribly dirty, where the Libyan forces are attacking the people they ostensibly exist to defend and are actually using them as human shields. No wonder we so quickly lose heart after an initial enthusiasm to use our military in defence of justice and human rights; it all becomes too messy and complicated, and we get bogged down; and if we do nothing we are wrong and if we hit the wrong target we are wrong; and there comes a point when we feel we can do nothing right and that, in spite of our first high ambitions, after Iraq we just want to run away and leave Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, to their own internal disputes.

In our reading from Exodus, customarily the first Reading on Maundy Thursday where it is intended to pre-figure the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Lord is about to perform a military strike on Egypt and he wants to make sure that his own people know exactly where they are. So he issues instructions that they should daub blood on their door posts so that the military strike force, in the form of the angel of death, will pass their houses by and confine their vengeance to the Egyptians. This is the defining moment of the history of the Chosen People where YHWH keeps his promise and displays his might. He has been building up to this through a series of plagues; this is the last, the defining strike for liberation, both terrible and precise.

In our second reading, Paul makes a bit of a meal of his metaphor about yeast and bread and what he says doesn't bear detailed examination. He somehow manages, however, to associate bread without yeast as part of the old and the new Passover; and he identifies Christ as the new Passover lamb that has been sacrificed; and then he urges us to keep the feast.

It is all too easy for us to forget that Paul, in writing his letters, was partly replying to enquiries to precise nature of which we can only guess, and was developing Christian theology, on the hoof, at breakneck speed; and so it is sometimes difficult to untangle his internal awkwardness and apparent contradictions. It looks as if we might render this short second reading as follows:

Get rid of the old ways because you are baptised; and as Christ has been sacrificed for us, we must live in sincerity and truth.

Paul being Paul, goes on to associate disobedience with sexual immorality and a list of other infractions. In other words, if we do not live in this new mode of truth and sincerity, we better watch it. That Old testament Angel of Death might have been temporarily stood down but there is still a precise heavenly view of the conduct of believers in the new Passover which promises the kind of surgical strikes visited on the Egyptians; we are, says Paul, thinking like the Rabbi he was, either on the right side or the wrong side of an issue; He might deprecate the Law in favour of love; and he is pretty clear that only God can judge; but he can never escape from moralising on the basis of appearances, on the basis of what he sees, without knowing what hand his followers were dealt by God and how well they were playing it. In forging his theology, therefore, Paul is beset by a number of strands of thought which are not easily reconciled, represented today in what I might call the theologies of universalism, mercy and punishment.

The point is that our readings, written from different perspectives, are far too simplistic for real life. The war in Libya is a metaphor for our modern age where nothing is clear cut: individual and collective morality cannot be defined by clear lines; civic justice cannot be confused with God's justice; the publican has a better chance than the Pharisee unless you think that everybody has an equal chance.

All that having been said, if we take the Resurrection seriously - and it is surprising how many people who call themselves Christians don't - then the triumph of Christ over sin and death changes everything: as Paul perceives, love supersedes the Law; but, less clearly, through a glass darkly, he sees that the Resurrection frees us from the bind of Adam; but what he does not see is that the implication of these twin perceptions is that our freedom in Christ is to operate our free will in the dispensation of love rather than punishment. If we do our best in the complex world in which we live - and Corinth was as complex then as England is now - then we shall fear nothing.

The trouble is, even clever people who should know better, tend to over-simplify the dilemmas we face in order to score points against those with whom they disagree; we are rapidly passing from an era - I don't want to idealise the 20th Century - of discourse to one of egotistical publishing. We no longer seem to understand otherness when the whole point of being gregarious is to be mutually supportive.

But the Resurrection should not be a focus of disagreement and attempts by Christian factions to condemn or exclude each other. The Resurrection, after  the New Passover, has done away with blood on the door posts and the angel of death. The God of love has triumphed over sin and death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!