Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 25th Sep 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

It all started the moment we left the womb, and I see no sign of it letting up before we die. Demands on us. Burdens. Pressures. From birth, the biological demands to survive; then the social demands of peer pressure: to be good at things, to succeed, be popular; pressures of social media demand we even change our own identity to impress others; parents and teachers pile on the pressure with demands to be responsible, good citizens, professionally successful; church and conscience make moral demands to be virtuous. Through it all, if we’re believers, we sense demands of God Himself: demands for self-sacrifice, demands (it seems) for spiritual perfection. And of course it’s all impossible. It’s impossible to meet all these demands, reach all these horizons. For philosopher Karl Jaspers this impossibility is the tragedy of the human condition: our eyes always see further than our hand can reach…

And the trouble is, religion can all too easily make it worse. This was the focus of Jesus’s anger in our second reading: he is railing against the religious teachers who ‘load people with burdens’ by their religious demands (and then do not lift a finger to help). It was partly the hypocrisy of it which riled him. But also simply this fact that some religion in itself just crushes vulnerable people with its demands: by rules that extort money from the poor on the pretext they are giving to God; by rules about keeping holy days which override both common sense and compassion; and by counsels of perfection which can only leave us feeling guilty and inadequate.

We’re not all consumed with angst about this of course: it depends on our temperament. Some agonize; others can sit pretty loose to it. Neither temperament is a virtue or vice in itself. It’s just the way we are. But however much or little we feel it, the fact of it remains: the fact of failure and its pressure is still there.

So how do we cope? A sense of proportion and humour can help. We just need to remember we are only human. I saw this recently, pinned up in an office where the demands of the workplace had clearly gone over the top: ‘all targets met; all clients satisfied; all staff keen and motivated; all reports dispatched; all pigs fed and ready to fly’ (for non English speakers puzzled by flying pigs, please ask later!).

But we can’t always shrug off these pressures just with a laugh. Especially if we have an anxious temperament. What we also need is to get behind the rules and demands of religion, and dig down to the deeper well-springs of true faith: we need to grasp again St Paul’s insights—revived 1500 years later by Martin Luther—about grace.

It’s not that they denied the reality of these demands. In fact, in Christ they actually saw a call to perfection even more demanding than the rules they’d previously known: they saw the perfection of total self-giving love, for our neighbour, even for our enemy—an unattainable demand which did indeed drive Paul almost to despair: ‘I cannot do this thing I want’; and drove the anxious Luther too to his knees in his monk’s cell to lament what he called ‘the bondage of his will’ which prevented him from ever attaining this perfection. But, critically, what they also grasped was that the heart of this perfect divine love in Christ was not just a demand on us to be likewise: this love was also a gift to us; a grace; a limitless generosity.

That didn’t mean striving for the good can simply be set aside—any more than we should give up trying to be efficient in the office. It wasn’t the revelation that we can fall short without scruple, settle into sin without a struggle, sin more so that grace may abound more; simply trade away God’s demands against his kindness. Neither the fact of the demands nor their pressure will go away like that (nor should they, because God’s real demands—what Jesus calls the weightier matters of the law like love and justice—are not arbitrary like some rules: they’re important, they’re for our flourishing). But it was the revelation that, as we strive for them, even though we may fail, the burden of that failure is removed—by this grace. A grace made possible because, when Christ uniquely did reach perfection, he did it not alone but with us and for us, mysteriously incorporating our failed efforts into his perfect effort. And so if we just have enough humility to accept that, the burden does slip away: ‘come unto me, you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’. And that’s how we’re set free: free from the paralysis of failure; free to keep striving but with faith and hope not with heavy heart. Like Wesley’s hymn proclaimed: ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee!’

Next year the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revival of this deepest dynamic of faith will be marked worldwide, not least here in this Abbey Church. It needs celebrating. Too often it’s been obscured by the mistaken assumption that this doctrine of grace belonged only to one side of the divide of that disastrous political, social and religious conflict which ensued in the Reformation period, so needs to be downplayed for the sake of peace. Whereas in fact it’s now wholeheartedly agreed by both Catholics and Protestants, so it should be a uniting not dividing doctrine.

It’s also been obscured by recent theological scholarship which has emphasized other true meanings of grace: grace not just as a divine generosity for our personal shortcomings but also as the divine generosity which includes Jews, Gentiles and all kinds of people equally in the kingdom, without privileging any one ethnic group. Which is entirely right. But of course that theological expansion of its meaning to embrace political inclusiveness shouldn’t exclude its liberating personal meaning too: this power to help free us from being crippled by failure and guilt; this power to lighten the burden of demands, rather than just load them up.

So it should be celebrated! Grace is one of the greatest gifts of the Gospel of Christ. It is why life, even with its impossible demands, is not ultimately just tragedy…

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