Sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany – Year B – 2014. “Responsibilities before Rights”

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Epiphany – Year B – 2014

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Life together – Responsibilities – not Rights

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to anyone by whom they come!
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

On more than one occasion, I’ve come close to being killed in the Scottish mountains, but it was probably the first occasion that sticks most forcibly in my mind. In the days long before OSH I was part of a school party climbing in the Cuillin Hills – the most technically demanding ‘walking’ territory in the UK. It was just Easter and large parts of the hill were covered in snow and ice. On a day with no views, our guide had led us to the highest point on the Island, the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, and we had just begun to descend by ‘The Great Stone Chute’ – a 1000’ scree filled gully, that was on this occasion full of snow in the upper reaches. The previous day, with a couple of friends we’d climbed such a gully and so I had few if any fears . . .


Only two of us in the party were wearing crampons. So everyone else dutifully took their axes and started the very slow and laborious business of kicking steps in order to descend. I was one of the two with crampons. I had no idea how to use them, but it seemed straightforward enough, after all they dug well into the ice and my friend with the other set also thought so, as he (somewhat more experienced than I) set off at a fair trot down the gully. I wasn’t sure. But it was too tempting . . . so I set off after him, and after about three of four paces slipped. Covered in waterproof gear as I was, this was for about three or four seconds a far more fun way to descend, until I realised that I was accelerating at an alarming rate. I’m not sure how far I fell. All I know is that something in my head kicked in – In my minds eye, I saw the instruction manual I’d read on Ice axe breaking (I kid you not! This WAS before OSH 🙂 ), and performed a perfect self arrest. Our guide when he got down to me, was I guess mighty relieved, not least as he told me later because as a member of the mountain rescue team, he’d recovered the body of a man from that same place just the previous week, who’d been unable to stop . . .

And of course, reading St Paul’s junctures regarding eating meat ‘sacrificed to idols’, this incident leapt to mind . . . OK, so I might need to fill in one or two gaps 🙂

Right at the beginning of our shared story, in the early chapters of Genesis, a question is asked which reveals the depths of our human predicament. Cain asks God, ‘Am I my brothers keeper?’ In the time of Jesus, human’s being rather sophisticated and advanced in their deceits, the question has evolved, progressed, and it is now – ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Cain’s question can be rephrased, ‘Am I responsible for the life of my brother?’. The question of the Rabbis, foolishly assuming we all know the answer to the first question in ‘Yes of course you are!’ sought to evade responsibility by asking ‘Yes. But Who counts as my brother? my neighbour?’ This was how rabbis worked. You asked a question and they answered with a question. It’s something we find Jesus doing all the time. At least they accepted in principle that one bore responsibility for the life of their brother . . . which is perhaps more than can be said for our age.

Back to that cold mountain. First thing to note. No-one suggested that my friend was careless of MY safety when he, with far greater experience and knowledge started almost to run down the gully . . . it must be said that my method of descent was somewhat faster ultimately 🙂 This in itself was somewhat of an indictment of the day as the first rule of mountaineering is that we do need to look out for the other. If for example you are roped together crossing a sharp ridge and our companion falls to one side of the ridge, you must throw yourself off the other side, thereby saving both of your lives . . .

The questions – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Who is my neighbour?’ are indicative of our desire, having freed ourselves from God, to disconnect ourselves from one another. We most certainly don’t really consider the metaphor of a party of people roped together along a treacherous ridge to be a metaphor for life in general, let alone the life of the church.

But let us say we take as Truth, that we Are responsible for the physical aspects of the lives of one another. That we shall have to give an account of our feeding of those who are hungry, etc. Surely we’re not responsible for the state of their souls???

As I said last week, The Protestant Reformation, though in many regards well intended, was an exercise in thrashing around in the dark and did as much if not more harm than good, thus is the effect of most if not all human attempts to ‘put things right’. One of the big negatives was that it gave the impression that this Salvation Life was in essence a matter of individual beliefs, not Shared Life in and through which we are Saved, that is ‘caught up into the Life of God through Jesus Christ’. And of course, because it became a matter of belief, it was disembodied and the idea of a Soul became less and less significant.

We know how it is with souls in this day and age. We kind of assume we’ve got one, but our interest in them goes little further than posts on Facebook regarding the likelihood that animals have them as well. The idea that it is something which we should attend to – seems somewhat alien (after all, how many have been brought up in the church being taught how to attend to the sate of their soul??). The idea that we are as responsible for the state of another’s Soul!

My long term Spiritual Director was an immensely wise woman. One of the very first to be ordained a priest in the Church of England. One day talking about her own experience, she recounted her latest session with her own Spiritual Director, another woman. Christine, in discussing the trials and tribulations of parish life had said, ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for their Salvation!!’ To which her Director came back to her quick as a flash ‘Whatever gave you that idea!!!’

Paul, unlike us, does not understand the human condition in individualistic terms. He knows that his life is with his brother. That we are all mutually and totally interdependent. This is why he is so strong in his letter to the church in Corinth on their factionalism – on their lack of sacrificial love for one another – their lack of concern for one another that they will happily make sure they are well fed and take no heed to their brother or sister who is not. And those who have no concern for the effect their actions has on the soul of the other. The Corinthians were so full of their own self importance, this message of freedom in Christ, that they imagined they were free to live utterly as they saw fit – without any thought for the soul of their brother.

As we come to it, we meet the matter of meat sacrificed to idols where Paul sets out the problem. For a devout Jew, and indeed for other God fearers, idols were to be fled! and to eat meat sacrificed to them . . . was to participate in the life of the idol. But Paul had come with this message of freedom in Christ, telling them that idols were nothing at all. And so SOME amongst the Corinthians happily ate meat even though they knew it had been used in these pagan sacrifices. And one suspects rather mocked ‘the weaker brethren’ who had doubts. Some ate with a clear conscience, but others, could not, but were being persuaded to . . . and St Paul once more, as last week shocks us. LAst week he said ‘Why not rather be wronged? If you take offence you have already lost!!’ This week he tells the Corinthians – you who are so Wise in your own eyes, You must restrain yourselves for the sake of the conscience of the other. If you are genuinely so knowledgeable, then you know that Humility is the path that you must walk, self denial for the sake of the weaker brethren. True Knowledge is revealed in laying down our lives for one another

Listen once more – I paraphrase
“Since some have become so used to thinking about idols as real,  until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8“Food will not bring us close to God.” {You say} [It is true] We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. [As Jesus our Lord said – Woe to any who give such occasion!!] 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? {They are not fully persuaded, so they partake in what they still think of as sinful action, because you are so bold} And then his language is strong “So because you are so determined to do it Your way, because you are puffed up with your knowledge, those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  And, when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

And if we find this a strange way to think, perhaps it is because we have lost sight of our own souls, and those of those amongst whom we live. Paul puts it so very strongly, If by my eating meat, my brother’s conscience is defiled, I will never eat meat again.

Which brings us finally to the consecration of Bishop Phillip North as Suffragan bishop in what would have been my Diocese back in England. Most if not all of us are aware of the consecration this week of Rev Libby Lane, the first female bishop in the Church of England. A joyous occasion and I with many others am delighted – not least my friend Dave whom we’ve met on screen, and who will soon have the joy of the inevitable ‘first pastoral interview’ with his new bishop 🙂 BUT there are still some who cannot in good conscience accept this – and so the Archbishop of York who has presided at Libby’s consecration, has asked that none of the Bishops who laid hands on her lay hands on Philip North, for I assume, the sake of his conscience. Sentamu did this I understand without consulting Fr north,, whom I know is a most godly and gentle man – for which he is being excoriated. And before we all leap to our Knowledgeable barricades in defence of The Truth – screaming ‘to hell with his conscience’, as some do over this and other matters in the church, let us pause.

Really? To hell with his conscience? Surely this can only be said by someone whose conscience has been itself killed off? As I said, we think nothing of our souls in this day. For those who say, his conscience doesn’t come into it, surely you would not yourself go against YOUR conscience??? ‘Ah!! one replies – but in this I am right!! I AM RIGHT!
As St Paul says, knowledge puffeth up . . . and so the blogosphere is full of indignation. St Paul says, those who claim to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge – that is the knowledge of their own soul that leads them into the path of humble love . . . Paul himself is convinced in his own mind that eating meat sacrificed to an idol in not a sin, but for the sake of those who do not possess that knowledge he is prepared never to eat meat again, so seriously does he take his responsibility for the soul, that is the eternal life of his brother. He knows what Jesus says about those who lead little ones, the weak, into sin. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck – probably crying as they went.YES, BUT I WAS RIGHT!!!

My friends knowledge of how to use crampons had almost led to my death, as I, silencing the voice that said, that doesn’t look safe, set off in pursuit – killing off the small voice, nearly killed me. When we begin to understand a little the sinful motions of our own heart, we also learn great gentleness with those with whom we disagree, even if seriously.

St Paul once more – finally with a helpful test. He says of conscience I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Our hope in truth is not that we are Right but that God is. As I once said, perhaps the most frightening moment of my life was not falling down a mountain, but when my spiritual director carefully helped me to confess that ‘I would prefer that I am right and God is wrong’. It was as if the earth had opened up under me.

It is a sign of our plight that this is true of so many . . . ‘I wouldn’t want to worship a God who didn’t tell me how right I am’

Lord have mercy on us all

Through the Bible in a Year – August 2

The scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ch 21-24; Acts 17; Psalm 118

As Paul walks through Athens he notices how religious they are, to the point of as it were hedging their bets. He finds an altar to ‘an unknown god’.

Let us ask ourselves, are we too hedging our bets in the matter of belief? Is our life like Athens full of idols to which we pay great devotion, whilst paying lip service to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?