Sunday 4th March 2018
The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Exodus 5.1-6.1
Philippians 3.4b-14

I want to begin with a personal confession: I have never committed any act which could possibly justify the terrible suffering and death of Jesus. I find the notion that even the sum total of all my infractions justified the crucifixion totally preposterous. And yet, our hymnals and pious books are filled with references to this idea which began with Paul who, for all his strengths as our ground breaking theologian, gave his understanding of the death and Resurrection of Jesus a fatally individual turn.

For the first thousand years of Christianity Paul's personal perspective was relatively unimportant because it was commonly held that the whole Church, which constituted the Body of Christ, had been collectively saved by the death of Jesus, drawing on the collective liberation, regardless of individual conduct, of the People of Israel the beginning of which is narrated in our First Reading.

But in the 11th Century, with the first stirrings of the Renaissance, theologians began to consider the relationship between individuals and the Cross. This, in turn, accounts for the late Medieval obsession with a route to Heaven via purgatory and the construction of the massive system of chantry masses and indulgences. It is ironic, then, that in properly reacting to this piece of clerical self-serving heresy, Luther should have boosted the idea of individualised salvation by emphasising passages such as our Reading from Philippians. Luther had a profound, perhaps even a disturbed, sense of his own sinfulness which drove him to the conclusion, self-serving but probably genuine, that he could only be saved from damnation by the death of Jesus on the Cross. And so, to this day, we have been travelling down an ever steeper slope into what I would call salvific narcissism.

One of the hallmarks of this way of seeing is the self-denigration, rampant in both Paul and Luther, which puts us at odds with God's creation. In our passage Paul dismisses all earthly things as "rubbish" or "dung". No doubt we have tarnished that creation, no entity so massive and varied could ever survive our exercise of free will without tarnish; that, after all, is the whole point of free will; in order to love freely we are at constant risk of freely choosing to be selfish; but, for all the tarnish, this world is still God's beautiful creation.

And this is the clue to understanding The Cross: in order to redeem us from the consequences of God-created free will, with all its harm as well as its good, God's Son died to redeem our imperfection, not yours nor mine, but humanity's imperfection. This was the moment in human history when, to use a physics image, our entropy, our tendency towards disintegration, was brought to an end.

This is not to say that in the course of dying for humanity Jesus did not die for us as individuals - clearly each one of us is part of the collective humanity that has been saved - but the cosmic significance of the death of Jesus has far wider consequences than our own, individual, largely minor, moral lapses. Tom Wright calls Good Friday "The Day the Revolution Began" because, he says, that is how the followers of Jesus came to understand the event not as something personal to themselves but something that was irreversibly global built, as I said earlier, on the foundations of Exodus.

This broader notion of the significance of the death of Jesus has three major consequences: the first thing to say is that if we look at our world it will not be difficult to agree that most of the world's sin is collective, not individual, and that there is much more sin of omission than commission. And no amount of agonising about our personal salvation can obscure this.

In the second place, Paul in this passage, and Luther, are both dangerously close to fatalism and to a form of moral incompetence. Fortunately, Paul frequently goes to the opposite extreme, being so prescriptive about personal and collective behaviour that he lapses into the judgmental; but in our own day the turn to the personal, from the 11th Century, via the Renaissance, Reformation, and Romanticism, has gone largely unchecked, particularly in the more Evangelical parts of Western Christianity. The one counter to this tendency has been the emergence since the end of the 19th Century of Catholic Social Teaching based on the idea of the promotion of the Common Good; and it may well be that the division between Catholic collectivism and Protestant individualism now constitutes a wider divide in western Christianity than any other doctrinal or moral issue.

And, finally, this personal model of salvation tends all too easily to lead to a rules-based structure which excludes those we consider not to be worthy of salvation; it is not insignificant that the 16th Century Reformers spent a good deal of their energy and vituperation  over the matter of who were "The Elect".

To put this into a wider context, the Western obsession with The Cross is not shared by the Orthodox Churches which see the Crucifixion as a necessary precondition to the Resurrection. This outlook is much more likely to generate a message of Good News to the world whereas our concentration on personal sinfulness tends to obscure the good news almost completely.

I want to end by saying something obvious which is not often said explicitly enough: for all his many strengths as a teacher, Paul is by no means consistent - it would be amazing if he was, being asked to answer so many fundamental questions in a nascent religious movement - but, even more to the point, for all his flaws, he was an unconditional follower of Jesus, a point which our Reading forcefully underlines; and that is what we must be. We must not fall into the trap of worshipping Paul at the expense of Jesus and when they disagree, as Christians we should always opt for Jesus.