Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 2nd September
2 September 2012 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
A real difficulty for anyone engaged in making judgements about Christian ethics,or about what is and what is not acceptable in the life of the Church, is that for us Christians, the defining moment of what it is to encounter holiness and saving love at work, was found 2000 years ago as an outcast naked man, tortured, strung up to die like a common criminal in the fierce middle eastern heat, bled and suffocated to death on a rocky outpost outside the walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem – cast out, and considered ritually unclean by his co-religionists; this is holiness. The undefended territory of God – viscerally alive, viscerally dying. Christ’s crucifixion stands in judgement on all our moralising, our sneering hastily concluded verdicts on other peoples’ lifestyles, positive decisions, or even their mistakes. In our busy pursuit of ethical rightness, how often we get it wrong. On that first Good Friday, just before Passover in the year AD33, the intense and most lifechanging extreme holiness was located not in the temple, with its ritual sacrifices and proper observant practices, but on that hill outside the city as the outcast God-man breathed his last, and as from his exhausted body this unclean outcast breathed his Holy Spirit onto his terrified, broken followers.
What are we to make of this, perhaps rather shocking truth? Holiness is, at least in strong part for Christians, about our proximity to that which is considered unclean. The Gospel reading we have just heard is about how the followers of Jesus should approach created reality. The disciples were eating without washing their hands – not here a taboo over personal hygiene (although parts of the Jewish Law may have originated because of that), but rather a ritual impurity. For the Pharisees, eating the wrong food, associating with the wrong people, being with the wrong people at the wrong time could risk one’s own ritual purity, and therefore the ability to offer sacrifices in the Temple. It is not that Jesus completely rejects all this – he has doubtless, to some extent, been brought up with it – but Jesus gives it given a thoroughly new context, and set of priorities. What about your hearts, he says? You have become blinded by your own hypocrisy – the ordering of pots, pans, food: what about the ordering of your heart?
The relationship between cleanliness and uncleanliness is one which is complex (and compromised) throughout the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In Exodus at the Burning Bush, Moses is told to remove his shoes because the ground on which he treads is Holy Ground; a revelation from the Lord makes it clear that it should only be the High Priest, properly attired, who should enter into the Temple’s Holy of Holies once a year. In some parts of the Old Testament it appears that forms of ethnic cleansing are encouraged for the sake of the integrity and purity of the twelve tribes of Israel; whilst throughout the prophets again and again we hear that the outcasts will be gathered in, the broken healed, the wolf lie down with the lamb, and the foreigner welcomed into the land. Jesus’ teaching is largely rooted in this “prophetic” stream of the tradition, which has at its heart the vista of God’s future, the culmination of time when all shall be gathered into a new Kingdom. But the point is that in Jesus own ministry, in his death, resurrection and ascension, this future kingdom is now. Wherever Jesus is, wherever Jesus acts, we see this effervescent promise of a healed future breaking in and reshaping reality, where the outcast are brought right into the centre. So, in the New Testament, we see his mother having given birth before her marriage to Joseph, the infant Jesus is worshipped by the outcast shepherds, he eats with prostitutues and tax collectors, picks corn on the Sabbath, refuses to stone a woman for adultery, heals those considered ritually unclean, allows his feet to be anointed by a woman who perhaps has some so-called loose morals, and tells stories not about good and righteous religious leaders, but instead about the hated Samaritans and those who know their own need of God.
What then, about the washing? About the being “made clean”? It is one of the supreme and beautiful ironies of God’s providence and of the Christian faith, that baptism (an act necessarily involving water) as St Paul teaches us, is an immersion into Christ’s death. You don’t tend to hear that preached at christening services! But it is absolutely central. Our baptism is our being made clean through our proximity to the uniquely revivifying act of Christ’s death and resurrection. The deep waters of death and the new waters of life gushing together as one. That is the only washing we need, and because it is the only washing we need, it can be done only once: the unrepeatability of baptism is because it is firstly something God does, rather than we do. The shocking thing is that in this sense we are not in charge of our own cleanliness, our own “rightness” before God. Rather we are enfolded into God’s holiness, by his action in our baptism, and at that, for eternity.
What, then, of sin? Do we not need to be concerned about how we act, about, when necessary holding others to account? Jesus’ teaching hardly ducks the point. He tells his listeners, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” This teaching helps to remind us of what sin is. Sin is not fundamentally something we nibble at – deciding to take a bite here and there – the overripe image of the apple on the tree in the mythical garden of Eden has perhaps encouraged us too readily to think in this way. Creation, though entirely willed by God, redeemed and destined for glory, is also fallen. I remember an Irish priest friend who recalled hearing confessions in a rural parish many years ago, when a person came into the confessional and said, “Bless me Father for I have sinned. I have no sins.” But the problem is, we do. It’s not just the little selfish actions, the occasional jealousies. It’s a little more fundamental than this. Our hearts, a lot of the time, are not in perfect relationship with the light of Christ. To commit sin isn’t just actively doing something wrong, or selfish, or violent – sin is often more nebulous than this: Martin Luther, in the sixteenth century coined the remarkable definition of sin as incurvatus in se est. Literally, a double-turning-in on oneself. A turning in so thoroughly that selfishness, self-obsession, dim regard for God or other people, or even for oneself, become the pattern. These mis-shapings of life and time come from the heart because humanity is fallen, even in a world where the Eternal Word constantly calls us to life. We’re all prone to these mis-shapings – mostly not in an extreme way, but prone to them we are. The poet John Donne understands this so well, as he writes
“Batter my heart three person’d God, for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrowmee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
So, dealing with this, becomes about how we allow God to wrestle with the problem, and to shape our hearts. And that brings us back to baptism, back to the Cross. The human heart is something out of which such beautiful goodness, such wonder , such liberty can come – but it needs refurbishing with the love of Christ if it is to reach that real potential. It needs to know the power of the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, to be sustained by this power in the Eucharist, to be stretched and exercised regularly in patterns of self-giving, un-selfish love and peace.
We’re not often worried now about pots and pans, cups, bronze kettles. But all our own moralising about other people, other lifestyles, can be a very useful avoidance tactic to avoid concentrating on our own hearts, on those patterns which need the subtle but genuine redemption offered by the outcast criminal, the God-man, hanging on the cross, outside the city walls.