God is now

Sunday 19th March 2023
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Micah 7
James 5

One of the traps that we can easily fall into when reading the Bible is misunderstanding the nature of time.

In the Old Testament, in today’s Reading from Micah, we are strictly in linear time: there is, as is so often the case, a bad period but then everything will come right. The prophets, with the possible exception of Isaiah, are not really sure how it will come right: there are hints of a new David sent to restore his people, there is a glimpse of a life after earthly death but it is not very specific and there is the more normal hope that wretched earthly misery will be alleviated and there will be food and wine a-plenty and dancing in the streets.

In the New Testament in most instances the time is compressed. From the moment that Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is “at hand”, many of his followers, particularly shortly after his death, took this to mean that the end of earthly time was near when faithfulness to the saving mission of Jesus would be rewarded with almost immediate heavenly life, with a share of the heavenly banquet in the company of Jesus.

Yet there was another understanding of time in the New Testament which lived uneasily with the imminently eschatological which I have just mentioned and that was the idea, primarily in Paul, that as post-resurrection people we are always living in a new time where the sin of Adam has been redeemed, where all the old anxiety is at an end, where we live viscerally in the presence of God. Life isn’t about waiting for something better, it is about living with God now.

In that respect I am particularly touched by what James says near the end of our Reading: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” 

The reason I like this passage particularly is that it is so, so not the Church of England. We are a people who largely keep our sins to ourselves and would not want to be forgiven by anybody, not even, in most cases, by a priest. We are transactional but strictly at a business level. We keep our church running as a going concern, as a social enterprise, as a centre of excellence, as a place of decorum, but not as a forgiving and prayerful community. Of course we make intercessions, as I will at the end of this sermon, but they will be properly restrained. When I say all this I am far from expecting people to openly declare their sins in the midst of the congregation, to break down and beg tearful forgiveness; it isn’t that dramatic. But I do think that in the terribly difficult world in which we live there should be a bit more give in the system, a time and place for sorrowing and lament. We all know that individually and collectively, actively and passively -  mostly collectively and passively – we have not done what we should have done in our world but what we mostly do is to keep our sorrow bottled up so that we have to handle it ourselves; often, even in families, we do not share our sorrow. We have transferred the stiff upper lip of the public civic figure to our moral sphere.

It is primarily for these reasons that I believe that the constant use of the term “sin” is both deeply unhelpful and profoundly counterproductive. For all our high living and high moral stance we are fundamentally sufferers. In the past decade we have learned by direct experience, rather than history, what it is like to live alongside people who have no moral sense, who appear to regret nothing: there is no lie too great, no repetition too blatant. But we know that such moral callousness is an exception; there is an undertow of sadness in most lives, of opportunities lost, of wrong turns taken, of warnings noticed but ignored.

And I say for us, as sufferers, rather than as sinners, we should be here for one another in Christ in a much more pliant way, being one with another in our troubles, neither underplaying how we feel nor taking our expression of feeling to excess; there is a subtle but vital difference on the one hand between frankness and self-indulgence and on the other between restraint and suppression.

During the past six months I have been writing a dissertation on the history of the teachings of the Church of England on same sex relationships; and what has struck me most forcibly is the pain caused by rigidity, by our reliance on doctrine and ethical argument. I am not saying that the church should not have doctrine and should not make ethical arguments but I do say that these tools have their severe limitations and that Jesus would certainly have found both our doctrinal and our ethical arguments more than  little arid.

Ultimately, we may be supported by doctrine and ethics but we will only be a living community to the extent that we consciously exercise empathy, and imagination of otherness and a capacity for solidarity with each other regardless of the different kinds of suffering and shortcomings with which each of us has to live.

God is with us in his wonderful creation, in the life and teaching of Jesus, and in the power of the holy spirit. Our life with God is not in the future, it is now. The future is perfection but the present is the time of the great pilgrimage of discipleship.