Knowledge & Power

Sunday 13th February 2005
Year A, The First Sunday of Lent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The hierarchy of readers is so rigid in the world famous Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons with Carols from King's College, Cambridge, that a young choir boy always reads the First Lesson, substantially the same as our First Reading today, about Adam and Eve, including that acutely embarrassing passage about nakedness and all that palaver with the fig leaves. Every year I feel sorry for the poor boy and every year I am irritated by the author's single example of the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The nakedness of Adam and Eve casts a long and ugly shadow down the ages so that that famous metaphorical Martian would say, if he landed on earth, that we are a church obsessed with sexual matters.

This, in one sense, is hardly surprising. Humankind's greatest sustained urge is to guarantee the survival of our race which is why the Old Testament in particular is crammed with genealogies, fertility stories, promises of unfathomable fecundity and exhortations to go forth and multiply. The Gospels are strangely reticent on this subject - and I will come back to this point later - but St. Paul, like many a celibate since, has very strong views on sexual matters.

Now there is no doubt that any community which wishes to discipline itself in obedience to the will of God must see, in following its conscience, that such a strong force unchecked can cause damage. We see this all around us in feelings of failure, unrequited passion, aching regret, blighted hope, fractured trust and heartless lust; it inhabits all our artistic endeavours from the sublimation of Dante to the titillation of Page Three. There cannot be many of us who can look back and say that our past is unblemished in this area where the animal and the intellectual, the calculating and the emotional so critically meet. Because mating is fundamentally competitive we can't help being interested in other people, particularly as we now live in an age of mass communication and supposed celebrity; and because society prizes pleasure highly, it is hardly surprising that the advent of contraception has caused a sexual revolution.

I certainly don't want to belittle the importance of self discipline nor to diminish the real pain when we do not respect the relationships we have voluntarily established; but, reading this passage from Genesis again, I can only regret that in concentrating on the sexual angle we are missing the point.

What God is trying to convey in this parable of Adam and Eve is that knowledge of good and evil is an extremely dangerous form of knowledge. It is dangerous because it is not ours; to have such knowledge poisons everything we do. Knowledge of good and evil belongs only to God and when we usurp God, trouble is inevitable.

And the usual form that trouble takes is the unwarranted exercise of spiritual and moral power by people who claim to know what God wants from us, what God judges to be good and evil, as if God simply applied some mechanistic rules without being able to see into each person's heart. Nowhere is that tendency more marked than in organised religion and in no sphere is it more marked than in sexual matters. As our sexual urge is the strongest, sustained urge that most of us have, it has been the aim down the ages of male clerics in particular to make rules for our sexual conduct. The Old Testament was almost entirely written by male clerics and St. Paul, though not a formal cleric, might be characterised as such. It is, then, interesting that Jesus, who is far and away our best guide to what God wants (if indeed He can be said to want anything other than our love), is almost completely silent on this subject (incidentally, in today's Gospel, Jesus is not sexually tempted). And that reticence fits into a context of non judgmental love. It is quite wrong to say, as some people do, that God will only love us if we behave in a certain way; God's love, as lived and taught by Jesus, incarnate as god and man, is absolutely unconditional. What power does, what the knowledge of good and evil does, is to lead  us into a chronic state of blasphemy where we keep telling each other what God wants and what God will do if He doesn't get his own way. And when we behave in this way we are not in Christ's Church, we are trying to imprison Him in our church.

I have no doubt that some of those who oppose the ordination and the consecration of women genuinely believe that they are obeying God's will but I don't see how they can know. Likewise, there are many who genuinely believe that homosexuality is evil but, again, I don't see how they can know. And this week, thousands of people have told us what God wants the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Parker Bowles to do; but, still, I don't see how they can know.

Clearly the Biblical authors had strong views on a huge number of moral and ethical issues but to say that such views were God's views then or now is a startling proposition because it puts God into the hands of human legislators.

What we are required to do, according to Jesus, is to be self critical, to exercise our consciences, to be true to ourselves, to do as we would be done by, to try again when we go astray. We are not to judge others for judgment belongs to God but we are to be generous and we are to forgive unconditionally. Now observing a set of rules is much easier than this generosity, particularly if you are one of the people who sets and interprets the rules but showing this generosity is what we are required to do by Jesus; and no matter what your doubts might be about the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts of what Jesus said when he was hear on earth, they are the nearest we will ever get to knowing what God wants of us.

I would not want any of us to think that what I have said makes a nonsense of earthly law and justice; societies must protect themselves from people who break just laws but what they must not do is claim that they are doing what God wants. And I hope we all take seriously the exercise of conscience informed by deep thought, exercised within the corporate framework of the Christian church because in the last resort there is no such thing as Christian ethics in the sense of a God-given ethical code; what we must do is behave in a way which our conscience tells us is appropriate for a creature in a loving relationship with our creator; and where there is a doubt over God's will (if he has one, which I doubt), as there must be in almost everything, then the obligation must surely be to act in the way, as far as we can tell, in which Jesus would have acted. It's easy to smile in a knowing way at Bishop Lindsay's "What would Jesus do?" bracelet but much more difficult to follow the maxim.

From this general principle I would draw out the following points: As Jesus was the essence of humility and powerlessness, so should the Church be humble and deeply suspicious of power. As Jesus worked among sinners and appointed St. Peter, very clearly a sinful man to lead the Church, where there is a doubt between inclusion and exclusion the Church should be inclusive; and as Jesus refused to judge so the Church should refuse to judge.

At the heart of our experience of faith there is a deep mystery. We do not know why we are; we do not know why there is something rather than nothing; and the answer we give to these questions is God; and the impetus for His creation we call love. God in his own godliness loves us and we in our own humanity were made to live Him; it is his business to be divine and it is our business to be human. Because we refuse to stop eating, over and over again, of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we continue to misunderstand God's purpose and our own. Serious as many of our sins may be, and not least our sexual sins, by far the greatest sin is to behave as if we were God and to presume his will as if he were human.

So at the beginning of Lent when we are encouraging each other, building each other up, to turn to God, let us bear in mind the cause of our undoing; it is the tree that matters, not the fig leaves.