Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 10
August 30, 2011, 9:42 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 28th August 2011

Last Sunday I spoke to you about St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we continue to read it this week. Those of you who were here then may recall that I spoke about St Paul’s use of the word “body” to indicate our individual human nature in its fullness, and also the Christian community in its complexity and unity. Both are “organisms”, living entities composed of many elements, but animated by a single spirit.

This week we explore with him just what this single animating spirit is. “Let love be genuine.” The spirit that should animate the body of Christ is genuine love. The Greek word translated genuine is literally “not hypocritical”, not playing a part. The word for love is agape, not romantic or erotic love, but the kind of love that binds families and communities together, where each member is concerned for the happiness and welfare of all the rest.

We can ask about any human community or group, “What sort of spirit has it got?” A school, a football team, an office, an amateur dramatic society- it does not take long for a visitor to detect that spirit. It can be characterised in various ways: enthusiastic or lack-lustre, co-operative or competitive, generous or mean-spirited. It is more than just the sum total of the individuals, because you can tell whether a particular person has got it or not. You can identify those who “don’t fit in”.

It is this spirit, whatever it may be, that gives life and character to the body, whatever it may be. And the spirit that should enliven and characterise a Christian community is love. In the early Church this was the feature that struck outsiders: “See how these Christians love one another.” In later generations, alas, this remark was often made sarcastically. The onlooker knew what spirit ought to mark the Christian group, what spirit was professed by the Christian group, and did not see it there. Love is not always genuine.

As I said last week, St Paul had not yet visited the Christian community of Rome, but he certainly knew what problems he had encountered in Corinth and elsewhere. The test of genuine love, as opposed to just talk, is what you see in practice. In the rest of this passage he illustrates what he means.

“Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” That means, in the first place, having a clear perception of what good and evil are, what is and what is not acceptable. We should spontaneously recoil from what is bad (that is the literal meaning of the word translated “hate”), and cling hard to what is good. There is no room for ambiguity in our personal standard. But rejection of bad standards must never be an excuse for failing to care about and love even those who fall short. “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.” Don’t let the chilliness of others diminish your own warmth. The reason for this, of course, is that the source of our inner warmth of love is in God, specifically in the Holy Spirit which is the Love of God, the Love which is God, and which comes to us through Christ.

“Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” If we look too closely, too critically, at our fellow Christians (and even more at those who reject our faith) we may be tempted to flag a little, to lose heart. We have to focus on the fact that we are serving the Lord, that he is truly present in even the most unprepossessing of our neighbours (we are all ultimately made in his image, however obscured)- if we remember that, then we can ask him to maintain our zeal, to keep us on fire.

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” Hope relates to good things expected, patience relates to unpleasant things in the present. There is a dynamic tension between those two virtues. Hope is the “poor relation” of faith and charity, I sometimes think, rather overlooked and neglected. But hope brings joy, a foretaste of what God promises us hereafter. We should be patient, certainly, but only in the perspective of eternity can we actually rejoice in some of the things that happen to us. What keeps us going is the never-ending dialogue with God that we call prayer. Without that, we will be hopeless indeed.

St Paul goes on with a list of practical advice: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Saints and strangers can be understood as including everybody, believer or unbeliever. “Saints” for St Paul just meant church members; in those days, they would never be “strangers”. Nowadays, it isn’t so simple; how often, in conversation with someone you have just met, do you find that they are a churchgoer? Or at least, have real questions to ask about Christianity. I offer the following aphorism, “Within every sinner (or stranger) there is a saint struggling to get out.”

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” This is simply to love our enemies, as our Lord taught us. Again, if we can manage to see the potential saint, the face of Christ, in everyone, it will be easier to bless and not curse. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We must cultivate sensitivity to others, producing a smile even when we don’t feel like it, offering comfort to those who are down, even when we are down ourselves.

“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” What good advice! If only we could follow it! “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” We must be better than the standards the world expects, never content to say, “But everyone else does it.” “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Paul is realistic. He knows that sometimes it isn’t possible, sometimes it does not depend on us: but if there is enmity, it mustn’t start with us, and we must not make it worse. It is so easy to make things worse, so hard to bite our tongues. God is Judge, utterly fair and unbiased. Leave it to him. Rather, “overcome evil with good.”

The Spirit of Christ is quite unlike the spirit of the world, the Spirit of the Age. I am reading a new biography of G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown but of much more besides. Chesterton was a great lover of the common man, of ordinary people in their extraordinary ordinariness (as he might have put it). In this he was unlike many of the great intellectuals of his day, who are revered as more substantial and “progressive” thinkers. Here is a quote from one of Chesterton’s contemporaries: “Extermination must be put on a scientific basis… If we desire a certain sort of civilization and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.” Can you guess who that was? Some leading Nazi, perhaps?

Another writer advocated the sterilisation of the “vicious, helpless and pauper masses”, and genocide for black, brown and yellow people. Who was that? Some European fascist? Well, the first piece was from George Bernard Shaw, the second from H.G. Wells, two of the great “liberal” and “progressive” British writers of their day, who turned their noses up at Chesterton. The point I am making is precisely not that Shaw and Wells were as bad as Hitler. They were decent but in some respects rather silly men, carried away by “the Spirit of the Age”, their Age. When some of the things they had proposed in order to shock the respectable were actually put into practice in Germany a few years later, they were appalled.

For St Paul (and for Chesterton) human beings- all human beings- are children of God, created for an eternal destiny. They are not simply fallen angels, they are even more emphatically not just apes who have risen in the world through the blind forces of Evolution. Each of us is known by God and loved by God. We are a family, a community, a living Body animated by the Spirit of God. This is not airy-fairy theory, it is fact. We give it expression by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and so on. Even to those we don’t like or who don’t like us. We should constantly ask ourselves how well we measure up to the standard St Paul sets before us.

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