Sunday 16th February – Rosie Addis
Edinburgh folk have never set foot inside St John’s, but if you asked them about us they would say we are the place with the murals.
On Monday I had the pleasure of looking through several scrapbooks, detailing some of the past murals, which began in 1982. Over the years there have been pictures deploring apartheid, Trident, food poverty, the widening of the gap between rich and poor – both worldwide and also here in the UK. The most recent one was designed by the Youth of the Scottish Episcopal Church, asking for more of a say in decision making.
But some might ask – what gives you the right to point out political, social, and economic injustice when you’re part of the problem? Aren’t you just being hypocritical?
How should we respond to that criticism? What do we have to say? Especially as we step firmly back from aligning ourselves to congregations who might use phrases such as ‘Bible-believing’ or ‘Christ-centred’ to describe themselves. Do we just come out of it as wishy-washy liberals who talk about love in some generic form? And aren’t we Bible believing? Aren’t we Christ-centred? And can we be those things without feeling apologetic or ashamed?
I have listened to a lot of exegetical sermons. Ones where the preacher painfully goes through each line and makes little concession to the fact that these writings were created in a very different culture and time. And I’m reminded of what Oliver O’Donovan, an ethical theologian and member of St Mary’s Cathedral once said – “interpreters who think they can determine the proper ethical application of the Bible solely through more sophisticated exegesis are like people who believe that they can fly if only they flap their arms hard enough.”
So it would seem that perhaps I should just quit now. Except that I know that these writings are God-given, and beautiful, and although they sometimes seem difficult to understand, they not only provide a framework for my Christian life, but have a power that still brings freedom and mercy and joy. But we need to understand the lens through which we read them. We need a framework in which to make sense of the underlying message, the Gospel – the good news of Jesus. And then our ethical decision-making can be made within that framework.
So this morning we have a passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Each author of every poem, historical saga, letter, and Gospel came with an aim in mind. And for Matthew, who was writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, the main aim is point to this Jesus as the fulfilment of the Jewish Law. The one who holds all authority in heaven and earth. The lens through which we need to begin to see the world in order to start to experience how God is breaking in – this new Kingdom way of living, that includes everyone and transcends empires and rulers.
And to see through this new Jesus lens involves being taught, becoming disciples. It’s not something that will settle on us like stardust. It’s something in which we need to actively participate. Jesus is the teacher, the Church is the community who is taught, but then puts those teachings into practice. A few chapters later on from our passage today we are told – “you will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:20). This is where we get our boldness from. One that can stand up to injustice and point out inequality.
Jesus takes the Old Testament teachings and shows the underlying intent behind them.
So in this passage this morning, there is a long list of ‘you have heard it said…. But I say…’ And the ‘you have heard it said’ seems at first to relate to the actual Jewish writings. But if you look more closely, Jesus isn’t directly quoting the Old Testament Law. Instead he is using how its applied in that community at that time. And he seems to lay down impossible standards. It’s not just about not killing someone or taking another man’s possession (his wife) – committing adultery. No, this is about your thoughts and attitudes that are going through your head.
You might say, well at least the Old Testament Law took a pragmatic view of human behaviour. It only went by action and then gave men a way out if they needed it – like permitting a certificate of divorce. Isn’t that a more realistic way of keeping a community together? Don’t ask and don’t tell?
I mean, we know that within our community here at St Johns we all hold differing opinions and have been forced to put those into action in how we voted – on Scottish Independence, the election, Brexit. Surely it would be easier just to keep quiet? In letting an artist paint a giant mural at the side of the church we are taking a stand in saying what we think, and shouting it to everyone. What are we thinking of?
And to make it worse, later on in today’s chapter, Matthew has Jesus saying in v48 that we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. A tall order indeed!
But, there is something here with Jesus that wasn’t there in the Old Testament. Or rather, not so explicitly. There is mercy.
Matthew’s Gospel sets up an amazing tension between discipline, right behaviour, standards of living on the one hand and radical mercy on the other. This new community – the followers of Jesus – are called to be perfect, to be holy, to point towards God through the way they live and behave. Forget the holy leaders of the day – the scribes and the pharisees. This is beyond following rules. This is about an inner change, a change of heart. To treat others as all being made in God’s image. And to show mercy, recognising our humanness and all that entails. The ten commandments are not discarded, but when asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus answers in chapter 22 of Matthew’s Gospel that the Law can now be summarised in two sentences – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.
Mercy and love.
And that, Matthew says, is how others will know that God’s Kingdom has broken in and is spreading out.
So yes, we should keep on pointing out inequalities, injustices, things that need to be changed. Our own hypocrisy. And that includes painting huge pictures outside our church. We don’t have any special insight into how to solve the world’s inequalities and injustices, but we have Hope.
Extravagant love, generous mercy, outrageous Hope. Everything we do should reflect that. And of course embedded in who we are is the Eucharist, which shows in a symbolic way who God is – extravagant love, generous mercy, and outrageous Hope.
We need speak out because we are not fatalistic. We should show God’s love, mercy and Hope through our actions.
We need to be bold, and joyous, and generous.
Conversely, if we act but without an underlying attitude of radical love and mercy, then we are not speaking as the church, as God’s people. We are simply a club, a social gathering of try-hards.
And see that – that’s the hard part…. Holding the tension between rigour and mercy. But that is what we are called to do, as Bible-believing, Christ-centred, people of Hope.
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