On Cruelty

Sunday 25th May 2014
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St Peter's, Woodmancote
Job 14:1-2; 14:7-15; 19:23-27

At the Reformation, when the Church of England - as opposed to the Church in England - was born out of state necessity in the shape of King Henry VIII's perceived need for a son, made a nonsense of by the long and successful reign of Queen Elizabeth I, what would have struck church-goers most forcibly was not the change in the words of the Mass from Latin to English, nor the stripping away of ritual, nor the marriage of clergy, nor even the iconoclastic vandalism of the King's Commissioners; no, what would have struck them most forcibly, above all else, was the excision from the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549, as part of the Protestant prohibition, of prayers for the dead

At the beginning of Christianity, Saint Paul and the Evangelists were, above all, focused on the imminence of the end of time, of the last judgment, but as all those died who had known Jesus - his followers and his Evangelists - the focus shifted from looking forward to looking back, to remembering Christ and his followers; and it was not long before the Church formulated ideas about saints, particularly Martyrs, and their entry into the divine presence in what, for shorthand, we will call heaven. Which, in turn, raised the question about how to deal with post Baptismal sin. This problem was solved for the Western Church at the Council of Chalon-sur-Saone (644-655) when it adopted the earlier Celtic practice of bishops setting tariffs for sins. A natural development of this strategy was that when people died, their family and friends could work out and work off their outstanding tariffs for them, thus liberating them from purgatory into heaven and, in turn, this led to the purchase of indulgences instead of actually working off the tariff; and this is one of the presenting issues which set off Martin Luther's German Reformation and, in turn, it accounts for the extreme hostility of the compilers of the first BCP to prayers for the dead.

I have given this account at some length because it tells us a great deal about ourselves. Ever since humankind developed the worship of something outside itself, this has been inextricably bound up with the after-life. The fundamental question is: what happens to me? And the required answer is: do the right things and the divine will see you right.

Which brings us, not surprisingly, to the question of what the right things are. For most of Christian history we have simply ignored what we have been told in the Bible. That collection of books has one, simple, common, message, below which all the rest is footnotes, and that message is that we must worship God; that is the yardstick by which we will be judged. We must worship God because that is the purpose for which we were created as creatures.

Job understands this. In spite of the pious advice of his supposed 'comforters' Job knows that there is no bargaining with God; there is no sense of Christian tariff penance whereby you wipe away the sin through a given act. Job knows that you worship; and worship; and worship; full stop.

If we talk to Christians about the Bible, or about Christianity and, even more so, if we talk to non-Christians, hardly any will attest to the centrality of worship, and why would they in a church whose attendance at worship is so lax? What we are likely to hear is a horrible mush of half-baked ideas about ethics. It isn't that the Bible has nothing to say about ethics, it's just that to think of the Bible fundamentally as an ethical manual is the same as believing that The Daily Express or The Sun tells us all we need to know as responsible democrats about the world we live in.

And in spite of some difficult passages in the letters of Saint Paul which have led some people to depict him, quite incorrectly, as a vengeful moralist, his main point in our reading from 1 Thessalonians precisely sums up his attitude to creatureliness; if we have faith in God and perform our creaturely duties towards God, we will be re-united with God.

In this period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost we are constantly reminded of the Resurrection of Jesus, his conquest of death, and how that guarantees our own conquest of death, but in spite of this, in spite of our advantage of living after the Resurrection, Job's declaration: "I know that my Redeemer liveth" seems a great deal more clear-cut than what we tell ourselves. In spite of his suffering, Job was in communion with God in a way that we find hard to imagine, let alone achieve. And yet, we have every advantage: we know of the Incarnation of Jesus, of his teaching and mighty acts, of his passion and death, of his Resurrection and Ascension. We know in terms which Job could not have imagined, what God promised in Jesus, what promises have been kept; and what we are promised for the future. We are even told by Jesus that he will not ask anything of us for which he will not give us strength; and yet, and yet, our Christianity is becoming defensive and internalised. We are losing the simple habit of saying Alleluia from the Easter Vigil up until Pentecost. We are more comfortable with a religion that isn't so proud of itself, that keeps everything in perspective, that favours the ecclesiological stiff upper lip.

But I honestly don't see how we can keep the Resurrection of Jesus and his promise to us of resurrection in perspective; it's way beyond anything else that will ever present itself to us. We have no business trying to tame salvation and put it into perspective. It is an unimaginable gift.

Now you will have noticed that I have referred more than once to the imagination; and it's a commonplace of theology that human language is inadequate to deal with God; well, if that's true, we had much better go off the deep end than reduce God to our own limited experience. The reason that Christianity is declining in Western Europe is that we have stopped spreading the good news and have, instead, spread a great deal of largely groundless, usually self-congratulatory, moralising. The world out there knows it falls short; it doesn't need us to tell it; but what the world wants from us is comfort and hope; and it is cruelly wrong of us to withhold it, just as the Protestants were wrong to withhold the comfort of praying for the dead which, in reality, is praying for ourselves.