Lydia and Her Ladies

Sunday 1st May 2016
Year C, The Sixth Sunday of Easter
St Luke's, Brighton
Parish Eucharist
Acts 16.9-15
Revelation 21.10; 21.22-27; 22.1-5
John 5.1-9

Even though there are almost eight weeks to go before the European Union Referendum vote, the squabbling, which passes for debate, has taken on a decidedly superficial tone. From both sides, all that we hear are disputes about economic advantage and disadvantage as if the whole of life revolves around money. There is hardly any discussion about whether staying or leaving will be good for our own peace, European peace or the peace of the world; and, from the humanitarian and Christian standpoint, there is no discussion of what would be best for asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants who are all lumped together and who are usually blamed for their misfortunes and frequently characterised as potential terrorists. Indeed, when most of us talk about a refugee crisis, we mean our crisis, not the crisis of the desperate dispossessed.

These are relevant thoughts for today because our reading from Acts describes the introduction of the Gospel into Europe by Paul; and in spite of our many collective, political shortcomings, culminating in the Nazi atrocities, Europe has been a Christian continent for 2000 years, characterised by Christian aspirations, uplifted by Christian worship, adorned with Christian culture. The European Union started out as the Coal and Steel Community, a purely economic entity to render Germany and France totally interdependent and incapable of fighting each other but it was almost inevitable that social concerns, from the environment to labour laws, would find a place; and we forget this to our shame.

Our Reading from Revelation underlines the point; the religion of The Temple, the physical, is replaced by something much more profound; and we could argue that this shift is one of the most important characteristics of the transformation from the Old to the New Testament, that the Temple with its animal sacrifices is merely a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus which is for the world, not just for the Jews, which brings us back to Paul's mission to Lydia.

Which leaves us with the passage from the Gospel of John where it is all too easy to be hard on the poor man who can't get into the pool. He's grumpy and if I were in his situation I would be grumpy after 38 years lying by the healing pool, unhealed. He wants Jesus to perform a miracle and, when he does, the cured man can't instantly cast off his years of resentment. One only hopes that his good fortune sank in later.

Now there's a platitude just waiting to pop out, which is that our good fortune, compared with the cured man, is limitless and that we are apt to take it for granted but that concerns me less today than the point I made earlier about reducing everything to economics and to economic advantage; and I want to make three points which aren't, necessarily very spiritual:

The first is that the rich are much better at being selfish than the poor, so we might as well not bother trying to compete. We are never going to win in the endless skirmishes, so we might as well do the right thing;

My second point is that, more often than not, where we do gain advantage, where we obtain human rights, fair reward for labour, or a measure of social attention, is when we work together rather than competing against each other. One characteristic of the rich is that they know when to compete for advantage and when to suspend their competition to unite and wring more advantages out of the system; but

Thirdly, and most important, we need to ground our religious life in economics. There was a fashion, when I was a child, which involved spiritualising Jesus so that he was hardly a human being at all but was, rather, an other-worldly mystic; it simply didn't suit the religious establishment to see Jesus as an economic radical: the Roman Catholics were frightened that the faithful would confuse loyalty to the Pope with loyalty to Marx; and the established Church of England was simply worried that the faithful would be anti-establishment. But if we read the Gospels from scratch, so to speak, without any of the baggage we have picked up from teachers with vested interests, we will see that passages, such as the Sermon on the Plain in Luke Chapter Six, are socio-economically radical. What Jesus is saying, repeatedly, is that we can't be simultaneously faithful and selfish. We know this when we think about it but we simply don't think about it enough. WE have been conditioned to separate our political from our religious behaviour. We have bought into the atheist agenda that religion is private and not public. We have forgotten that one reading of the Lord's Prayer is not that we beg for forgiveness of sins but of debts, that the people who listened to Jesus were crippled by the pincer movement of secular Roman taxation and the Temple tax; we forget the crippling effect of one failed harvest and how that threw people into debt; and we forget, too, the Jewish requirements for the remission of debt which were more generous than any Christian legislation on the same subject.

And so, when we come to vote, let us think first of the least well off, of the asylum seeker and the refugee; what kind of European Union will be best for them? One with us in it or out of it? And will people on low wages get better protection inside the European Union or out of it? Do we, as a nation, have the self-discipline to act properly under our own direction, or do we need a little supervisory help from an external body? And, perhaps as important as anything, although hardly even discussed during this campaign, is the essence of a Christian Europe collaborative or competitive.

And, to reduce it all to its essence, what message was Saint Paul bringing to Lydia and her ladies?