Beyond Systems Lies Life

March 4, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using John 2.13-22, at Eucharist on Sunday 4th March 2018, the Third Sunday of Lent.

The Cathedral Chapter, the cathedral’s executive, have been much exercised lately by the report of the Cathedrals Working Group. It was set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the financial meltdowns at both Peterborough and Exeter Cathedrals. The Church of England is worried that without improvements to their governance, finance and management, cathedrals will be at risk of failing.

We have just been consulted before the revised report is handed over to the Archbishops’ Council for discussion, and it’s fair to say that the responses, while welcoming of many positive aspects of the Report, have been quite robust.

One of the biggest questions is whether the existing system of governance is fit-for-purpose but has just been poorly operated or whether it needs to be replaced by something considerably different. The report argues that reformation is necessary.

At Winchester we have made the old system work because we have good people, as a result of which we’ve been able to carry out our Great Works, 14 construction projects, a Bible conservation project and now  the conservation of nine extra windows, which is what’s giving an interesting northerly breeze inside the cathedral at present!

Any reasonable system can be made to work by competent people. No system is fail-safe.

The system in the Temple in Jerusalem was a well-oiled machine. In the Outer Court, outside the holiest part of the Temple complex, you could change your Roman money, which had the portrait of the emperor on it and which was therefore not suitable for religious transactions, for suitable coinage (a small commission was charged). And of course you would also need something to sacrifice in the Temple itself – sheep and cattle if you had means and doves if you were poor. No wonder a trade sprang up outside the holy Temple to supply these sacrificial animals to pilgrims on site.

The system worked well enough. So it must have been a shock when Jesus came, overturned the money-changers’ tables, and with an improvised whip herded the animal traders and their livestock out of the courtyard, rebuking those selling the doves with the words, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place.’

From a contemporary perspective we are likely to hear Jesus’ words and actions as an attack on the commercialisation of religion, but there’s something much deeper going on here about the system itself. Is it capable of being operated more honestly or does the whole system need changing?

It is apparent that Jesus thought that the system was corrupt. In this conviction Jesus stood in a long tradition of prophets who confronted unjust priestly and kingly power. The New Testament is full of Jesus’s critique of those whose supposed concern for others was actually a cloak for self-interest. What Jesus was doing in the outer Temple was upsetting its business and therefore the profitable, comfortable world of the people in power. Naturally by his actions he made himself their enemy.

But this story doesn’t end with Jesus antagonising the Temple authorities; it continues with him arguing with ‘the Jews’ – which is how St John talks about all those among his own people who refused to receive his revelation. They want to know why he thinks he has the authority to undermine the Temple’s worship. And He replies by saying in effect that He himself is the Temple.

St John is good enough to explain that what Jesus meant by this only became clear to his disciples after his resurrection, when his body was raised after three days, having been torn down on the cross. What happened to his body then fitted with his prophecy here, that he could rebuild the Temple after three days. Till this happened, what Jesus said must have seemed both strange and antagonistic to those who were claiming access to God under the old system.

Access is very much the topic of the moment, after the weather! Our Prime Minister has just set out the Government’s vision for access for a trade agreement which allows as much ‘frictionless trade’ with the EU as possible, while setting us outside the single market and therefore making us able to gain independent access to the world market. We want to play by new rules that allow us to take back control of our borders and laws while making us ultimately more prosperous.

Only time will tell whether it’s possible to negotiate a rather square circle or a rather circular square which allows us to be both global and European; but the system we commit to will determine the type of access we have.

Our gospel story proclaims that Christian faith entails belief in one system alone: we have access to God the Father only through the body of Jesus, rather than through any socio-economic system. When Jesus cast out the traders he was making this point.  And when we today come to take the bread and the wine at this Eucharist, we too are making the same point, that our only means of access to God is through Christ’s body and blood. We cannot say that any particular socio-economic arrangement is better than any other when it comes to meeting God; what counts is that we meet God in and through Jesus.

Having said that, let us notice the spirit in which we come together: no-one has privileged access to God through Jesus, there are no recognised distinctions between us; we come together not seeking to protect ourselves from each other but as sisters and brothers, fellow-beneficiaries of the benefits of Christ’s passion; and we come knowing that the way to receive these benefits is by we ourselves sharing the pattern of his life as servants of all.

This is the spirit we need as we enter into negotiations about our future trading arrangements. They are not in themselves going to lead us into prosperity. Systems and structures, laws and regulations cannot bring life. It is only people working together, serving each other, sharing goods for fair and just reward, who can be bearers of life to one another.

The process of Brexit has been proving deeply divisive within Britain and causing much heartache beyond our shores. To find a way forward we need to avoid narrow self-interest and be prepared to allow concessions without branding those who make them in good faith as ‘traitors’.

We live in times when no system of government or administration seems very stable, which is why we need to see Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple for what it is. The cleansing is an enacted parable of where to find life: not on the tables of monetary exchange, not in the exchange of goods, but in a new deal where Christ clears the way for God to be among his people. It demands from us worship in spirit in truth and a life of charity towards others.

We cannot see where we will end with Brexit. Where we do end may not be the end for long. The United Kingdom itself may have a limited shelf life. No-one can be a prophet of these outcomes.

But what we can know is that the values and zeal we bring into negotiations both in and outside Europe will affect the direction of travel, and that it matters as much how we proceed as where we shall supposedly arrive in two or twenty years’ time, because we live by the spirit of Jesus Christ and he is the Way to life.

Lent reminds us that this way, this journey, is crucial. It involves God stripping away our false reliance on worldly systems of access, in order to bring us, with and through Christ alone, into his house for ever. And paradoxically this is the perspective which may be most helpful to us in our present political predicament.