Sunday 17th September 2017
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Ezekiel 20.1-8; 20.33-44
Acts 20.17-37

Coming back from holiday last week, I reminded myself that a quarter of a century ago when money was tight, work as a self-employed consultant was precarious and email had not been properly established, there was always a point on the way home from holiday when fear took a grip. We had had our fun and now we were coming back to bank statements and bills; one year I came home to discover that my primary freelance contract had crashed because of a change in Government policy.

The passage from Acts about Paul's farewell to the Ephesians is infinitely worse, a heart stopping turning point where the inevitable has to be faced. Yes, Paul has, in his own words, been persecuted by Jews and Gentiles and he has had a hard time and it has hardly been fun but he has been his own boss. And now, not even the customarily emollient author of Acts - let us call him Luke - can hide the truth. Paul has been summoned by the Elders of the Church in Jerusalem to give an account of his teaching, to celebrate Pentecost and to re-affirm his commitment to Judaism. The fact that the story takes a sharp turn leading to his arrest and commitment to Rome should not hide the reality of his farewell to the Ephesians; he will have to knuckle under or break away.

The seriousness of this crisis in the career of Paul has largely been obscured by subsequent events: the conservative founder Church of Jerusalem was more or less wiped out in 70 AD, a decade after our Reading's events, survived by a dwindling band of Ebionites or "poor ones", who disappeared from history in the 2nd Century; and, in the tradition of the Apostles who wrote nothing down, the Church at Jerusalem left no texts whereas Paul left his letters.

Time and again, from the very beginning when Paul claims to be equal to the Apostles, he chances his arm, relying upon his personal experience of Jesus and his openness to the Holy Spirit; he takes risks with his mission, with his theology, with his followers and with his life. With Paul there are no half measures.

It is strange, then, that since the Reformation Paul has become the icon of Evangelical Conservatism, standing for individual righteousness and salvation, subservience to authority and a refusal to contemplate change. Paul, the most spontaneous and creative theologian the Church has ever produced, is reduced to a set of glib formulae.

So let us test some of the statements attributed to Paul against what we know of his mission:

What Paul feared as he departed from his beloved Ephesus was a re-opening of the Schism which had been grudgingly averted ten years before at the Council of Jerusalem. As Jesus had died for the Church it was paramount that that Church should remain one; and this explains much of the horror of Schism during the next thousand years of Christian history. The wonder is not that the schism between Greek and Latin Christianity came so quickly but that it actually took over 250 years from 797 to 1054 The Greeks were  theologically correct but the Papacy was strategically correct, a situation replicated at the Reformation where Luther's theology was a necessary corrective but the price paid in schism was inordinately high. And this leads to the major lesson of Christian history in the matter of Church unity:

At every point, no article of theology, of the human attempt to find words to describe God, is worth disunity; there is simply no point in arguing about metaphors; in their nature they are both alluring and provisional. Neither different understandings of the Eucharist nor the Cross, our two points of unity which have become causes of division, are important enough to justify schism. And I should add here that we would feel much worse than we do about our situation if we remembered that for the first thousand years of Christianity it was The Church on earth which was the Body of Christ, not the bread and wine consecrated at the altar. The role of the Eucharist as a sacred mystery grew stronger alongside individual piety and the notion that salvation was somehow a personal transaction with Jesus; in both cases the individualist seeds of the Reformation and later Romanticism were sown in the early Renaissance.

And we should not fool ourselves with observations about the virtue of diversity, that we are somehow better off now than we were before the Great Schism and the Reformation; we are not.

I say all this because if we want to save The Church from obscurity, not for its own sake but for the sake of Christ's mission of spreading the Good News, then we do not have much time left; it is not only the dreaded annual October Registration statistics on church-going that I am thinking of but the energy that is being squandered on objectively trivial sexual issues where verses from the Bible are being tossed about like hand grenades. The split that faced Paul as he left Ephesus for Jerusalem was potentially much worse than anything we face but for a man of such definite views he turned out to be the epitome of humility, doing everything that the Jerusalem Elders asked. It is not so easy today to bow to a constituted authority as it was for Paul; in a post Reformation world we have nobody between us and the Holy Spirit to call upon; and the consequence of this situation is that people may understand what the Spirit is telling them in very different ways; the danger is in that situation that we hear what we want to hear.