Severity and Solidarity

February 9, 2020

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, Vice Dean using Ephesians 4.17-end at Evensong on Sunday 9th February 2020, the Third Sunday before Lent.

For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.

And lest we doubt the severity of God, let’s add the preceding transgressions of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom and Moab: for them, God will not revoke the punishment.

It makes you wonder about the hymn about God’s famously mysterious ways:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

It’s got to be a bit more complicated than God being a velvet fist in an iron glove, or else we would either cower in fear or flee from Him.

So no more from these prophetic oracles, except to notice that Amos is not afraid to name wrong and evil. Our previously permissive culture found this awkward, but how quickly things are changing.

I myself did not bid on e-bay for MP Tracy Brabin’s off-the-shoulder black number, which she wore in Parliament and is now selling to support the girl guides, but clearly her trolls felt that her manner of dress was wrong and told her so. She was quite entitled to call out their ‘everyday sexism’. Women shouldn’t be judged more harshly than men for what they wear. That certainly is wrong.

And preying on children and vulnerable adults is, plainly, evil. We go now to untold lengths to minimise the risk of it, not because someone is standing over us telling us to, but because we know that such abuses are intolerable – not sins only, but crimes which destroy human lives.

Right and wrong, good and evil are polar opposites, even if sometimes we have to work hard to see the choice between them in any particular situation.

So on to the second lesson: Paul is writing to Gentiles who’d found new life in the Christian community. They knew the contrast between their old ways and the new ways of the Christian community, though they needed reminding of the difference in practice.

I was very struck by Dean Catherine saying last week that as a child she imagined people finishing their growing up by about 30, but that now she recognised that growing up was a lifelong process.

I suppose I should not need reminding of this as in my previous role training vicars, the average age of our students was 46 – it was a part-time course mainly for mature students. But our supposition was that over the three years those with us would grow and mature as Christian ministers, not just develop their toolbox of skills and deepen their learning.

Paul believes that wrong and evil actions are caused by ignorance. Ignorance, for him, is not a neutral position. It is wilful ignorance borne from hardness of heart, a determination to shut out goodness and truth, which leads being cut off from God the source of Life, which in turn leads to greed and impurity.

I dare say that we can all recognise this negative dynamic at work in our world. We actively ignore the truth. We make ourselves indifferent to it and then we seek to feed hunger for life elsewhere.

Our desire to amass possessions is a sign that when we turn our backs on God we become more restless. And perhaps even more seriously, the rising performance-anxiety of the young is a sign of our cultural ignorance of what makes for their wellbeing: we’re not doing enough to combat the feed that arrives in their hands telling them what it means to be successful, trendy or popular. These icons of untruth stand unchallenged.

Ignorance is not a resting position and God cannot ignore it if he has our supreme good in mind.

In the Eastern Church ignorance, rather than sin, is seen to be the main problem between God and Humanity. The 4th Century Egyptian theologian Athanasios answered the question why God Became Man with the affirmation that Man and Woman need to be restored to the knowledge and consciousness of God, and the knowledge of what they can become in God.

Let’s, then, set ignorance aside and seek a different way. Rather than abandoning ourselves to dissipating passions, let’s hear the alternative: to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, to clothe ourselves with the new self.

We are not unfamiliar with the idea of identity formation. The presenter Philip Schofield’s public and painful revelations about coming to terms, with his wife and children, about being gay is a secular example of an identity being re-clothed.

But without prejudice to this or any other struggle over gender, nationality, ethnicity and so on, we have to say here that our ultimate identity must rest in Christ. Whatever else we are, we are His, fellow heirs with Him of God’s promises.

And to allow this growth into Christ to happen, Paul tells us, we have to set aside evil – obvious things like theft, but also evil talk, bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice – the sort of things that corrode relationships and damage the human soul, and instead embrace the positively good, being kind, tender-hearted and forgiving of one another.

If this sounds to you like a pull-yourself-together model of development, you’d be wrong. It’s a movement of renewal, of growth into integrity, above all of co-operation between God’s grace and power working in us and our own human will.

Once again, the Eastern Church has had the advantage over the Western in understanding how God changes us. The emphasis in the West, on our fallen human nature and on the priority of divine grace, meant downplaying the role of the human will in our growth – only God can save. In the East, however, they used a wonderful term, ‘synergy’, to emphasise the intertwining of divine and human energies, as happened in the life of the God-Man Jesus and happens still in the life of his Body, the Church.

Progress toward the good is like a dance between us and God, though we are the ones with two left feet and not much of a clue about the steps. And in telling us what to avoid and what to aim for, Paul is encouraging us to see the rough direction of travel, away from evil and toward the good.

But Paul also underlines just how close God is to us in the dancing. The mystic Julian of Norwich said that God was closer to us than our own soul and Paul says, ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption’. The life of the Holy Spirit, imprinted on us through baptism, is what will set our feet straight.

And if you think about it, you’ll notice this inbuilt sense of God’s Spirit working in us. When we pursue what is evil, no matter how rich, popular or successful we become, we end up grieving the goodness, truth and beauty we have lost; we sense a sadness deep in our spirit, where God’s Holy Spirit dwells, grieving.

If we set about being kind and tender-hearted, though, we find inner joy, happiness and consolation, despite the challenges along the way. We’re collaborating with the Holy Spirit who’s spurring us on to Christ-likeness and who rejoices at our efforts.

There is, I believe, still severity in God. He remains implacably opposed to anything destructive of ourselves, our relationships and our planet. He wills our good and salvation absolutely. But what we shall discover as we move towards Lent is that God doesn’t remain on high, warning us. He comes in Christ to bring, to face and to bear the severity of His judgement on us. He joins the dance so that through Him and the Holy Spirit we can conquer evil and grow in goodness and grace.