Easter 6 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’: Second in the series, 10th May, 2015
Driving home from church last Sunday I caught for the first time a Radio 4 comedy called ‘Dilemma’. Hosted by Sue Perkins, it asks a panel of comedians to consider various outlandish moral questions. It claims to be, ‘The show that puts morality under the magnifying glass and waits for the sun’. I tried to be enjoy it – at least they were talking about morality on prime time radio. But the familiar mockery and banter of the panel left me cold. What seemed particularly odd was the effort to award points for the ‘moral high ground’ to panellists following each facile consideration of an ethical dilemma. Sue Perkins is skilled at distinguishing between biscuits on Bake Off, but her attempts to provide reasons for finding one fatuous comment more ethical than another were pretty woeful. So for instance, in the quick fire round, as a panellist chose between either getting mugged every day on one hand, or living in a bottle bank, on the other, Perkins giggled, ‘that’s the right, very cool, answer.’
Which kind of sums up our contemporary attitude towards morality – if it’s cool, flip, hip, and funny – then it’s right. Or at least OK. Or maybe just the best we can do in this godless day and age. The only reference to any sort of higher power -- such as statistics, science, philosophy or God -- was, rather predictably, an anti-Creationist gag.
I must admit to feeling depressed from time to time about the ways in which our society discusses, or mostly doesn’t discuss, moral and ethical dilemmas. The language of ‘right and wrong’ has almost been erased from our vocabulary. And that’s unprecedented in human history. Even atheists in previous generations have managed to produce rich conversation about virtue and morality, though now we realise they were perhaps more dependent on the prevailing religious air they breathed than they would have acknowledged. Now that that religious story and vocabulary has largely been discarded by opinion formers, we are left without the heroes, and villains, and the patterns and paradigms which these stories once gave to practically all cultures prior to our own. Think of how children learn right and wrong –primarily by learning stories which make a moral point. Bible stories, Aesop’s fables, fairy tale, Greek myths. Last week in CHAOS our children were asked posed various moral dilemmas as they discussed the difference between building their house on the sand, and building their house on the rock. They were being taught how to weigh up difficult decisions, and arrive at a decision that seems rightly related to God above, and the reality of the ground beneath them. Something the wise man in the parable would do.
This is the second in a little mini series of sermons I’m preaching about the key questions which Christianity asks. Last week we talked about the questions which kind of come before we might arrive at faith in God. Questions like, ‘how can I understand the Bible unless I have someone to explain it to me?’ ‘Is the Bible just about those people way back then or Can I find words for me, today, in its pages? And ‘What is there to prevent me from being baptised’. (website)
This morning we look at the big question emerging from a decision to be baptised, or to follow Jesus, and that is ‘how shall we then live?’ This is the million dollar question. The one which lies behind all advice columns, self help books, therapy, life-coaching, and religion. It’s the serious libation upon which the froth of programmes like Radio 4’s Dilemma, floats. Competing answers to this question shape our political discourse, and in the aftermath of one of the most turbulent elections in history, we look at the composition of the new House of Commons, and ask afresh, How shall we then live?
There’s a reading from the 55th Chapter of Isaiah assigned for today, which doesn’t make it onto your crowded pew sheet this morning. But it reminds us that the question of how to find a good way of living has been asked from time immemorial and it always sounds contemporary. ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’ asks Isaiah. When we go shopping for the good life, why do we so often come home with our basket empty?
Biblical writers generally use fairly formal language. But Isaiah starts this passage with the little interjection, ‘Ho’. Ho, he says, which is kind of like saying ‘Oi’: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the water, and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ You’re buying physical stuff says Isaiah, when what you really want is the spiritual food which money cannot buy. So why do you keep shopping?
The key moral insight in the Bible, in Judeo- Christian scripture, is ‘go deeper’. All this shopping, all this concern with how we look, how we come across, all this work for stuff which does not satisfy --- it’s all masking a deeper spiritual hunger and the really essential questions of life.
Over and over, Jesus tries to get across the point that the surface is not very important…. It’s what’s in the heart that matters. You obey all the rules about diet, exercise and etiquette, he tells the religious leaders of his day, but your hearts are deeply unclean. You focus on the hundreds of moral rules which Judaism has constructed, but you forget that at the heart of all these commandments is love. You look for ways to be spiritually impressive, he says to his followers, but really you need to be like this. And he places a young child at the centre of the crowd.
In the gospel we’ve heard read this morning, Jesus goes to the heart of that question about how we should live. There are many commandments which good Jews tried to follow. Jesus says, this is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.
Note the whole sentence, the whole command. He doesn’t say, ‘love one another out of your general store of wonderfulness’. He doesn’t say, ‘love everyone, because you have the stable family support and economic base from which to give to those less fortunate’. Instead Jesus points out that the only way we can fulfil the command to love, is because we first have fulfilled the command to receive the love that God is longing to give us. When Jesus was walking around, listening to his followers, laughing at their bad jokes, cooking them breakfast, sorting them out when they were ill… it was perhaps easier for them to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know’. It’s harder for us now. We have to trust the words of the love which we read in the scripture. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,’ goes the old children’s song. When the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, a man who wrote many many complicated books of theology in dense German, was asked at a lecture what it all boiled down to, he simply sang that song.
Radio 4’s Dilemma, bills itself as the ‘show that holds a magnifying glass to morality, and waits for the sun’. In actual fact, it holds a mirror to moral questions and allows panellists to talk about themselves. Christianity waits for the sun, the Son of God, to shine his love into our lives, so that we can bring that love into every moral situation, viewing it not through our own self obsessions, desires, or spiritual thirst, but with a clarity, and focus born out of deep connection with God.
It’s this ability to go deeper, which enables people, at the end of the day to lay down their lives for others. ‘Greater love hath no man, (says the old King James version I learned)than to lay down his life for his friends.’
How then shall we live? We live in a way that leads to this greater love. We practice day to day, the small acts of laying down our lives, which make us ever more like Jesus, who laid down his life to death, even the horrible death on a cross, to redeem us all. Today there may well be Christians in Iraq or Syria, the few that are left, who face death, even death on a cross. For many have been crucified because they are ‘people of the cross’. We have celebrated another 70th anniversary from the Second World War this week, remembering those who did literally lay down their lives for others. We need to be people prepared to do the same in extenuating circumstances. But our very shallow and morally bereft culture hardly prepares us for this greater love.
Yet every time we manage to put to one side our desires and preoccupations, our mirrors and our digital forays into self-promotion, our entertainments and our fork -- when we drag ourselves out of bed to comfort a crying child, when we turn down a promotion because our spouse and kids really don’t want to move, when we go and spend time with that friend who has dementia, when we take some of that money we’d laid aside for new furniture, and send it to those who have no roof over their head. When we do these things, we know we are walking on that path which takes us to ‘greater love’.
Love doesn’t come out of a vacuum – it’s a responsive thing. It is generated by relationship. That too is a central insight of Christianity, which imagines God as a loving relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a sort of mystical generator of love – as opposed to an old man with a beard -- at the heart of the universe. We love, says scripture, because we are caught up into this Trinitarian love of God, and our response to being so well loved, is that we can really love others. We don’t manufacture the feeling , or the action of love, all on our own.
Here’s a true story, which I invite you to hear as a parable, looking for the deeper meaning. Earlier this week, Rene Marshall, went to her Extend exercise class, in the Kings Cliffe village hall, and stretched out her arms and legs to the soundtrack of ‘I’m in the mood for love, simply because you’re near me, funny but when you’re near me, I’m in the mood for love’. Her mind took her back 70 years, when on VE day, she was in that very same place, Kings Cliffe village hall, dancing in the arms of a soldier, as the American military band played, (you guessed it) ‘I’m in the mood for love’.
The answer to life’s deepest questions and dilemmas is not a set of rules, or a diversionary set of jokes. It’s the love which we extend to others, as we exercise our powers of compassion, and attention, and discretion. And we are able to love simply because he’s near us.