Sermon for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany – Year C 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
“Christian politics – Shared Life”
“we must understand that we are responsible of the sins of the whole world”
These words of St Seraphim must sound I think very strange to us, yet I think that they guide us into the way of Life in the way of Jesus Christ.
I’d like to suggest that they sound strange to us in some considerable part because we are Urban people. It may be that we live or have lived in rural areas, yet they way of how we live is increasingly homogeneous – perhaps this is why we make such a thing of diversity. And one of the key aspects of life in urban areas is its anonymity. We are surrounded by people yet our lives are not known well to them. Loneliness is far more an Urban than a rural phenomenon. One is, as they say never more alone than in a crowd. It is far more difficult to understand life as something we share in in real terms in a city – Yet now, more than half the world’s population lives in cities and cities are the centres of the media and commerce, all those things which so influence our lives, for good or ill.
Perhaps it is true that those of us who live lives shaped by an Urban environment have less sense of the way in which our lives impact on one another. And it is this interconnection of Life, that we call Love, which when it is broken we call sin. Sin is the fracturing of the bonds that join us – it is primarily relational, yet the majority of Urban people do not experience life as one of deep interconnections with those amongst whom we live, and so do not perceive its brokenness except perhaps through what they see in the papers or on TV screens, it doesn’t appear clear to us, our bonds with strangers
There are fewer and fewer places globally which are truly rural, and have not become urban in their way of living even if they are rural in location. Yet, still I think that these words of St Seraphim would be better understood by someone who had experienced life in a rural community – they might be denied, but their denial would be accompanied by shame, for the truth of them would confront you every day.
On of the gifts of my own life has been to spend about half of it living in rural contexts, and even though true rural life has all but disappeared, aspects of it still reveal themselves.
You could not live in a rural community and not share in life with others. An edit was public. Although only about 10% of folk in the village went to church regularly, when Sarah too the children to the local school she was told, ‘Oh. we know you’ve arrived’ As of course they would know if anyone else new had moved into the neighbourhood. your very presence had a discernible impact. Relationships rippled and reformed as people came to live there, and it was apparent.
Whilst we might speak of the need to build community in an Urban context, Community is a given in a rural context. Your neighbour was not some abstract person, but a particular person, the people with whom you had to share in life. You were to some extent dependent on those amongst whom you lived, and your life was part of the life of the whole community. The Community had a story of anyone who had been in the house you now were foolish enough to call your own.
The Community had a story, and it could not be discovered by the aggregation of lots of individual stories, something which is actually an overwhelming thing – too much. No you discovered the story of rural community by living there, by allowing your story become part of the whole – for in living together, going to the same school, working the same land, going perhaps to the same church (rural areas not afflicted as we are with a paralysing choice of places of worship), your lives were and to some degree still are lived together – and if one had any sensitivity you saw how your life affected things – perhaps even challenging The Story of the Community. The words of another old saint come to mind, you knew that in a meaningful sense, a visible sense, ‘your life is with your brother’.
Everything was public in a way it isn’t in towns and cities. You would go to this or that or the other village event, and it was the same people there. Life was lived amongst the people you had often known since childhood. Not least if you went to church – the whole community knew. It was a public act, not a private hidden one as in the city. you didn’t have to tell anyone you went to church. It was of course why the charge of hypocrisy was such a simple one, for apart from your church going, all your dirty washing was on public display.
One marker of this shared life for me as a Vicar was funerals. It was rare for there to be as few as 100 people present; all farming funerals would pack the church out. I still remember two funerals I conducted within three months, one of a couple of cousins killed In a road accident, another of a mother of six who had died of Cancer at the age of 49 – 750 people came. Apart from major Cathedral celebrations I have never known such large gatherings for worship. Life was shared in celebration and tragedy . . . and therefore inevitably in sin . . .
And sometimes that sin was manifested even in the church – a family split over this or that – the village took sides according to their stronger friendship bonds, and so at a church event, church may have been full – half the village sat with one side of the family on one side of the church and half on the other – but they were all there. For the division was a shared experience. No one was neutral – not even the Vicar. To be neutral would not to be part of it – to deny my role in the brokenness which was publicly displayed.
You cannot belong to a community and not be responsible for its sin. (There is something here about the sad retreat to ‘professionalism’ amongst increasingly mobile clergy)
And yet we live in a world where ‘I am not responsible’ is perhaps the most common, unspoken mantra. This has become easier to say. For example, ‘The Welfare State’ means ‘someone else’ will look after my neighbour. Yes, there is some sort of safety net in place, but social security is now an abstract technological thing impersonal thing, as anyone who has to struggle to find help from WINZ will readily testify. The state is not a person, even if the state servant has a human face, they play a role according to rules and training. The ethic of Love has nothing to do with it.
It isn’t Social, and very often as we know it is far from secure. Now that isn’t to say that ‘things were better back then’, people could ignore their neighbour then as now, but it wasn’t hidden. It was out there. If a family was without food and nothing done, everyone knew, everyone bore the shame of it. It was clear that “we were responsible for the sins of the whole world” or at least the world as we knew it. ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you’ – St Paul’s words of rebuke are of course are written into an urban situation, the vast metropolis of Corinth – twice the size of modern Dunedin . . .
Today’s gospel will no doubt be used by many as a rallying cry for what is called ‘social justice’ – a call to be involved in ‘politics’. Our problem though is that we have largely lost sight of the meaning of politics, and justice, because we have lost sight of the meaning of social – of a shared existence. In an urbanised world, Social Justice has no face – it is a matter of fixing systems – it has nothing to do with Love of neighbour, for the neighbour is an anonymous person.
Christian politics is simply a matter of how I love those people with whom I share my life, politics being at root the matter of how we live together – not in an abstract sense, but in face to face reality.
Urban living, especially if one has sufficient financial resources to meet one’s basic needs, for food, clothing, warmth, and shelter, leads to a sense of Independence, and the deep truth of our utter interdependence on one another, and thus how we experience our responsibility for one another is increasingly no more than a thought, our active perception got it, highly atrophied . . .
The idea that we are in some mysterious way responsible for the sins of the whole community, indeed of the whole world seems at least odd, if not absurd – after all, if we just work a bit harder to fix the system . . . if those people or those people stopped behaving as they do . . . but we only understand things in these terms because we do now Know ourselves to be part of the whole, we do not recognise the sins of others as our own . . . It was the Pharisee who stood apart and said ‘I thank thee Lord that I am not like other men’. The Pharisee who did not identify himself with the sins of others -the Pharisee of course who went to the Temple, in the city of Jerusalem to pray . . . (The publican or tax-collector of course, knew he was a sinner because everyone told him that . . .)
Standing apart, in judgement is to separate yourself out from the Community. To be part of a community is to share in its joy and its sorrow, its glory and its shame. Briefly one might speak of splits within the wider church. To apprehend this with anything other than deep pain, shame and sorrow, is a failure to understand that our life is Life together, for it is the Life of Jesus. We are the body of Christ – and there is no deeper rejection of our faith than not to recognise one another or say we have no need of one another, or to set ourselves apart from one another – for it is denial of the very life of the one who reuses to do any of these things, that seeks to draw us into one. That we love one another
And so, Jesus comes to Nazareth. Jesus’ ministry is played out largely in rural areas, and he is part of this rural community. For thirty or so years Nazareth is pretty much all he has known, and Nazareth knows him, or thinks they do. He is known as Joseph’s boy, although no doubt that was perhaps a bit of a slur.
But he definitely is part of the story of Nazareth, and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day ‘He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.’ And the words he speaks are not easy words – we cut it off slightly as usual – he has some pretty hard words to say – BUT he says them after being part of that community for 30 years . . . He Knows the community, he has known its joys and sorrows and its sin . . . he does not speak as one standing apart
Why is Isaiah declaring this? Why are God’s people in such a state – because they have abandoned life with God! And God has come in Jesus to identify with them in their brokenness that they might again share in His Life
Jesus who comes into the world and who identifies himself with the World in Love in reality, and thus as St Paul tells us ‘Became Sin for our sake’ So very deep is the identification of Jesus with us, that the one who has no Sin, refuses to stand apart in Judgement, but takes our human condition upon himself. He is under no illusion. To be human is to be identified with the Sin of humanity.
Jesus identifies himself with those who will crucify him. How different to our politics of ‘them and us’. He shares his life with those who reject him, and so draws all into one. We are the body of Christ – we were baptised together into one body. We meet in his name and our Life together is to share in his Peace, won on the cross. It is a community in which we confess our sins to one another and so find healing, for the acceptance of Christ we find none another. It is the place it al becomes real.
Jesus is our pattern, Jesus is our Life, Jesus is our politics. and takes upon himself the sins of the whole world.