A New Future

Sunday 6th June 2021
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Jeremiah 6.16-21
Romans 9.1-13

The past is a creature of the present. History is not an objective account, no matter how hard we try, seen in its own terms, a way of imagining how things were seen by those who lived before us. It is the past seen through the eyes of who we are now. Nowhere is this more obvious at present than the way we are coming to terms with the history of slavery. Those who have come to understand themselves as hereditary victims of slavery want the record put straight while those who have learned to live with what they were taught, from a white imperial perspective, resent what seems to them to be interference with their heritage. And so we become involved with what is, in the grand scheme of things, a marginal, though not insignificant, argument about statues and about the way in which our people acquired their wealth and built their own grand houses and performed acts of philanthropy without involving themselves in the deadly arithmetic of oppression. We shall never know whether such people wrestled with their consciences and whether, in founding charitable institutions or building concert halls, they ever thought of how many lives each brick had cost. It is easy for us to apply our contemporary values to their behaviour and find them seriously wanting but it is also too easy for us to think that they knew no better and forgive them their faults for the sake of the good they did among us.

The history of religion is not fundamentally different. We are apt to be theological about the hundreds of victims killed in the 16th Century for holding Christian beliefs different from those of their persecutors. I was brought up with the history of Roman Catholic martyrs in the Tudor age and no doubt many of my contemporaries of the reformed and Protestant traditions were brought up on Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Well, we say to ourselves, thank God that is all a long way back in the past and we are free of it.

But there are times when we need to be free of the convictions of the past, not the memory of it. Jeremiah was a prophet who looked back at a history of idolatry and indifference and wanted his people to repent. Paul was at the beginning of what he saw as a new era of salvation and wanted the Chosen People to abandon their old loyalties. Jeremiah would not want to destroy the community memory of the Chosen People in their sacred writings and Paul never thought of abandoning the Scriptures in order to make a new start. Both were, in the classic sense, not asking people to abandon history at all, merely asking them to learn from it.

In that sense, there is no such thing as a new start. Like the historians I described at the beginning, our reformers ask us to see the past differently. But what does the re-telling of Jeremiah and Paul say to us?

Jeremiah is the easier case. The history of alternating Covenant and idolatry is so ingrained in the Jewish tradition that there can be no dispute; but Paul's use of history to engineer a new beginning is fraught with problems, about what to keep and what to discard, about how this new post Resurrection Covenant is a complete break from all previous Covenants. He is saying that the history is contextual not definitive, that his hearers must come to terms with discontinuity.

Christians have had an admirable reluctance to engineer discontinuity in their quest for the truth about Christ. In every era of reform, the call has gone out that the changes proposed are not innovations at all but are simply the restoration of a past more golden age.

As I look at us now, however, I wonder whether continuity will be enough because after two thousand years the grip of the past is so great that it does not inform our future but robs us of it. Yet that is in itself misleading. Our past, as we see it, stretches back into the mists of ecclesiological time but one way of seeing ourselves is surely to do what our predecessors have done and look for the clue to the restoration of better times. I have in mind here two ideas which, in the light of our long Church history, look somewhat mad: the idea of the Royal Priesthood in 1 Peter; and the holding of goods in common in Acts; and, behind them, the profoundly other-worldly attitude of Jesus to human existence where we were urged to stop being over-prudential, over-protective and look to God for our well-being, a prescription which would not go down at all well with our Bank Manager but, then, the purpose of being a Christian is not to please such a worthy.

If we try to look at our Christian past without the assumptions of our Christian present, we will see that it is possible to look to the golden age of the very early Church but that this involves frightening discontinuities, but I do not think we have any choice in the matter. If we are to further Christ's mission to proclaim the Good News, there is very little point in equating that news with the ecclesiological settlement under which we live. It is not so much the superficial contrast between the Bishop's Palace and the slum as between the deeper problem which that represents, the vast chasm between the comfortable People of God and the uncomfortable rest. How shall we proclaim the Good News to the poor and then retreat back behind our hedges or, worse, our gated communities?

If we are to be liberated from our past or, to use a theological term, if we are to repent, to turn away from our old ways towards new ways, Jeremiah and Paul are a guide to the process but not the substance. In their ages the imperative under alien rulers was private holiness and communal worship; but in our age the private and the communal is no answer to the worldly and the global. If we are to be, as we were meant to be, the Royal Priesthood then we will have to be humbler, simpler, less prudent, more vulnerable people.