Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 16th March 2014
16 March 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
'One of the most popular and loved introductions to the concept of faith ever written' - this is how the book, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, has been described – a book which has sold millions of copies worldwide.
During this month in my sermons at Matins I’m offering some reflections on just five of the many books written by Lewis, who’s now memorialized here in Poets' Corner.
So far we’ve looked at Surprised by Joy and The Screwtape letters; and on the final two Sundays we shall look at A Grief Observed and the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Today we consider what Lewis had to say in Mere Christianity.
This book was originally broadcast as a series of talks on the radio during the Second World War. I was given it to read when I was 17, when I first felt that God was calling me to ordained ministry, and at the time it made a tremendous impact on me – it was certainly the best book I’d ever read about the Christian faith.
It’s been an interesting experience reading it again forty years later.
There are now things in the book which are very dated, for example, his attitude towards women, and his views on marriage and on human sexuality. Yet there are other parts of the book which make as much sense in the twenty-first century as when he first wrote it in the 1940s.
So let’s take a very brief look at the themes running through this book, hear some direct quotations and think about what they might be saying to us today.
The book begins by looking at the subject of morality and Lewis argues very convincingly that we all have within us a sense of right and wrong and yet we fail to practice the kind of behaviour we expect from other people.
He says, 'Human beings all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it…. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.'
He goes on from here to ask the question – if this is so, what lies behind this instinct for right and wrong; and draws the conclusion that God is behind it all and that Christianity in particular offers hope to our predicament as human beings.
The next section of the book focusses in more detail on what Christians believe.
Christianity says Lewis, has a number of important things in common with other faiths and yet it is distinct – and of course its distinctiveness is the place of Jesus Christ.
Human beings he says, misused their God-given freewill and so evil entered the world, but God continued to desire that human beings would be re-united with him. He therefore, in the words of Lewis, 'Landed in enemy-occupied territory' in order to set things right between himself and humankind.
At this point Lewis doesn’t try to explain how Christ’s life, death and resurrection achieved this reconciliation – he in fact says that there are no adequate words to explain it. Instead he says,
'A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that his death washed out our sins, and that by dying he disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity'.
Lewis moves on from what is the essence of Christian belief to our response to God. The first is the need for repentance and to open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness.
However, he then devotes the longest section of the book to Christian behaviour.
As he talks about Christian behaviour he says that moral laws are not there to stop us from enjoying ourselves but are necessary in order to maintain fair play between people and to create harmony within each of us.
He talks in some detail about the cardinal virtues of prudence – using our intelligence; temperance – making the appropriate use of the material things in our world; justice – being fair, honest and acting with integrity; and fortitude – and this he says is about having 'the guts to do what is right'.
He does spend some time talking about the way in which he believed sexual appetite had become perverted amongst some in the society of his day. In the following quote he uses food as an analogy; this particular passage giving us a glimpse of the way he tends to write.
He says, 'You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sexual instinct amongst us.'
However, he also makes the point in Mere Christianity that sex and chastity are not the most important things for a Christian to focus on.
He says rather, that the great sin is that of pride – in the sense of wanting to be better than others, of putting people down and having an over enjoyment of power – all of which he says leads to enmity with people and with God and to a kind of spiritual cancer.
He concludes this part of book by saying very clearly that Christianity is not first and foremost about morality; much more important are the gifts of about faith, hope and love.
The final section of the book takes us on to the subject of the Trinity, in which he explores how the 'Three Personal God' is beyond personality – but that would be a sermon for another time.
So what might we today take away from this little book written around seventy years ago?
In the previous two weeks, Surprised by Joy and The Screwtape letters have encouraged up to reflect upon our journey through life and the people who’ve accompanied us on the way and to think in particular about human weakness and the temptations which come our way.
Mere Christianity challenges us to think about what we believe, and in particular, what we believe about Jesus.
As we continue our journey through Lent and draw closer to the events of Holy Week we might begin to reflect on our understanding of his passion, death and resurrection and ask ourselves are we ready and willing to be drawn into his personality and in the words of St Paul, to be changed from glory to glory.