I am your lover whom you will betray
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
25 March 2012, 00:00 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
25 March 2012
I am your lover whom you will betray
The Church of England – oh how I love it ...but then sometimes I really do wonder which planet we as the CofE live on!
The world around us is busy changing and discussing matters of political and social development – and then we are asked what we think as a Christian Church and we don’t know what to say!
Instead, individuals and lobby groups let the press and other enquirers know their minds but the church family as a concerted whole is caught wrong-footed and almost completely speechless.
Now I know we are a broad and loose church compared with the Roman Catholic Church but nevertheless we are a ‘national church’, established in this land and our voice in parliament and in our own General Synod should enable us to give some coherence to our way of leading and serving the country as Christ’s people.
Since the recent proposal by the government to legislate for ‘equal marriage’ the term now used for same-sex marriage, there has been enormous media coverage.
As the Church, we knew this was coming but we have spent little or no time considering marriage, its Christian understanding and how it might or might not develop in the face of social and legal change.
Perhaps we assume that everybody knows what marriage is ...yet practice and behaviour today clearly shows that we don’t.
Today we enter Passiontide – the defining heart of Christianity and the crucible in which humanity is re-imagined and redeemed.
Here is the love that cancels all sin;
here is the law that lives in hearts and not on stone;
here is the love that judges and redeems;
here is the love which in its utter darkness is the watershed of a glory that brings in a new and eternal order.
We sing the words of Isaac Watts as we ‘survey the wondrous cross’:
Love so amazing, so divine
demands my life, my soul, my all.
If God and his love are so amazing, we must be able to say something to people when love searches us out and asks for a response and understanding in terms of society and the life of faith.
Since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, it is not unreasonable that people will want some vision and guidance from the Church as to how gay love and lives are to be accepted and incorporated into a Christian interpretation of society and the meaning of a common life.
So what is marriage in the light of Jesus Christ and his passion?
Does the suffering and death of God in Jesus re-make our world and the way that men and women are inspired, changed and redeemed?
It is these questions which I wish to address at the foot of the cross and I pray that we might talk and consider the challenges of the contemporary world.
In considering equal marriage, there are so many things to revisit and consider but first of all to recognise that marriage has not been invented by religion.
So what is marriage?
Certainly it is a relationship and an institution that has evolved
and for Christianity it is interpreted in a distinctive way.
Dictionaries will provide us with a definition and encyclopaedias will regale us with a spectrum of examples through history as well across the world today.
The state sees it primarily in legal and societal terms with judicial responsibilities, property rights and social status.
Governments therefore can change civil marriage in its definition and its practice.
In this way, the Christian Church has to ask whether the proposed introduction of same-sex or equal marriage in this country changes the seminal values of a society founded on Judaeo-Christian principles.
Yet the Christian vision and practice of marriage has also changed and evolved over 200 years and even recently women’s emancipation and the social emergence and dominance of the nuclear family have changed the way that we see the role of husband and wife.
The more you look at love and marriage, then the more complicated it becomes!!
I believe then that Church needs to do some work here and discern what the primary hallmarks of marriage are.
Let us start with natural law, which in moral terms leads us to see values and systems that are an intrinsic part of the created order and our humanity.
Using this, theologians have seen marriage as a complementarity and union based on opposites; male and female, man and woman, and from this quite naturally procreation flows.
Through the pages of the Bible though, we see this natural law expression of marriage lead to polygamy and the view of a woman as a patriarchal chattel – a view not commonly held in Britain today.
Another seminal concept within Judaism and Christianity is covenant, and the way that it has developed in terms of an understanding of God with humanity and also between people.
From covenant we get faith and trust and relationship: key attributes of a Christian interpretation of marriage.
And then there is sin: the falling short of God’s love and life and law, and the ensuing separation and alienation from him
In codifying sin in morality and law, sex has played a powerful and almost overwhelming part.
For all the liberation of the last 40 or 50 years, sex is still in many ways regarded as naughty and dirty.
From an early age, people are given the idea that sex is in some way shameful, and we in northern Europe have much greater problems in the integration and healthy celebration of intimacy within our social lives.
Now, many of the laws of Exodus and Leviticus are to do with the relationship of personal and public health with holiness.
Dietary and sexual codes were essential for survival in hot, hostile and sparsely populated lands.
This holistic approach is challenged by a repeated tendency for human beings to see life and its meaning in a dualistic way:
flesh and spirit; body and soul; this world and the next.
Jesus said a number of things about marriage: that the union reflected that of God with his creation and his people; that the covenant that bound a man and a woman together was sacred and indissoluble in this life unless broken by the unfaithfulness of adultery.
Moreover, when practitioners of the law started to question Jesus about the details of re-marriage and heaven, he clearly stated that heaven is beyond our imagining and that a new order and a new life await us in that state of being.
So marriage is special; it fulfils and completes individuals and enhances and strengthens society; marriage is a social blessing in the care and mutual society of two people and their children, and a sign in the world of the love and union between God and his creation.
It was on the cross that Jesus fully showed his love and that of the eternal Father: that God’s love is utterly self-giving, self-denying and whose glory is found through the mystery of sacrifice, suffering and death.
The new order of heaven is born and reflected in that process and for Christians, the sacraments of the Church bestow the power and spiritual energies of the Kingdom to those who share in them.
Marriage or Holy Matrimony is such a sacrament: it involves the union of two people who through covenantal vows become one flesh, an indissoluble entity in this life - and from this flows blessing, creativity and the joy of love.
Marriage therefore is a sign of heaven and of our pilgrimage to that state of bliss.
Does Calvary make it bigger and more open to us than was previously possible under the Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant?
In our world where divorce, remarriage, single parent families and feral behaviour are accepted as characteristics of 21st century Britain, what has the Church, and particularly the Church of England, to say to people who want to live not just in a civil relationship but a sacramental one?
The Church’s track record is not a very encouraging one: we are tolerant in some ways but unwilling to show that openness in courage, vision and passion.
On this Passion Sunday we need the energy of Christ’s dying love to re-inspire and re-invigorate us in proclaiming and living out the Gospel.
We must also ask our theologians, scholars and teachers, our bishops, clergy and readers to lead us in study, discussion and debate.
And soon, very soon, we have to decide how we can fulfil our role as the national church of this land in burning with a life-affirming ministry that welcomes people into the belongingness and identity of love in community.
Of course we must be faithful to the tradition and the scriptures, but above all we must kneel at the foot of the cross and dare to look on the crucified one.
Please take the card with the Charles Causley poem and the 17th century crucifix home to remind you always to do just that.
I am the Great Sun
From a Normandy crucifix of 1632
I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain but you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay.
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
I am your lover whom you will betray.
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but if you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.