Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 April 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I need to begin with a brief translation anorak moment; in our second lesson from 1 Corinthians we heard a rare example of mistranslation in the New Revised Standard Version. We heard, ‘do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?’ Modern bread-making takes yeast for granted, but it was foreign to the kitchens of the ancient world. So the older and more obscure-sounding translation, ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ is required.
In ancient times, instead of yeast, a small piece of dough was held over from one week’s baking to the next. By then it was fermenting, and so could cause fermentation in a new lot of dough, causing it to rise in the heat. This was a useful practice, but not hygienic, since dirt and disease could be passed on from week to week. In light of this, once a year the Jews would break the chain and begin all over again with fresh, unleavened dough. Hence the influence of a small amount of material carried over from the past was eradicated and a new beginning took place. [Anthony Thiselton, commentary on 1 Corinthians]
You can grasp immediately how much more apt an image this is for Paul’s argument (the same is true in Mark’s gospel, where you will remember Jesus speaking of the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’, similarly mistranslated as ‘yeast’ in nearly all modern translations). Left-over dough used as leaven makes a coherent image: something old infecting what should be new and healthful. Yeast doesn’t do that.
I suppose the pressing question is what, precisely, we are to regard as poisonous leaven. I’ll come back to that in a moment. First, a quick look back at the origins of this image in the original passover story. The lectionary has made the link for us with the passage in Exodus. If you were listening carefully you might have noticed something odd about that story. The Israelites are in mortal danger from the Egyptians, about to flee as refugees. At this moment, God chooses to give them some liturgical instructions about how, in the future, they are to commemorate what is about to happen, this urgent and dangerous escape. In this of all pulpits I had better not disdain rubrical instructions for liturgy, but one senses that the Israelites might not, just then, have been preoccupied by church services (there are actually three more verses about the eating of unleavened bread which our lectionary mercifully omitted).
So this is an aetiology, a story of origins, to explain to later readers and hearers why the cultic practice of eating unleavened bread at a certain festival has arisen. Aetiology is first cousin to popular etymology in ancient literature. The writer of Exodus knows that his people keep a strict rule of abstaining from yeast for one week. The rule (which, we have seen, has health benefits) has become a religious observance. Now the writer finds (or creates) a moment in the defining story of the Jewish people, the escape from Egypt, to ‘explain’ the custom. So we get a suitably religious origin for a venerable cultic custom.
I hope dwelling on that for a moment has reinforced the phrase ‘leaven of malice and wickedness’ in your mental lexicon and expunged the yeast: it helps that we hear it in the Easter anthems, and this Sunday’s collect. Once we realize that the leaven is not, like the mustard seed, merely a symbol of something small which has a large effect (for which yeast would do just as well), but that it is something which may have a deleterious effect, then we can make more sense of it.
Examining Paul’s thought here raises a fundamental question about how we use scripture. We didn’t hear the context this evening. These verses are part of a longer section of the letter about what we would regard as technical incest: a member of the church in Corinth is pursuing a relationship with his father’s wife (presumably a step-mother rather than a mother, but a relationship equally prohibited by Leviticus). Paul’s repeated rhetorical flourishes about freedom from the Law (necessary to him to show what the cross of Christ has achieved for both Jew and Gentile) have left some hearers, especially non-Jewish hearers, with an ambiguous message about the Law. Some, then as later, have understood him to be saying that the Law is all bunk. Paul is not saying that, but what is he saying?
Some have tied themselves in knots to prove that Paul had an entirely consistent and systematic attitude to the Law. That really is a waste of time. Paul is working this out as he goes along. We read beautiful and well-loved passages like this evening’s in isolation, but they are, of course, extracted from letters in which he is responding to pastoral situations.
You’ll have noticed that Pope Francis is getting himself into very similar territory at the moment. He never says that received church teaching is wrong, but he applies interpretations which are designed to include rather than exclude, while seeking not to break the core values. If a recent report is to be believed he has just re-stated, on the hoof, the church’s pastoral practice on communion for divorced people. He received a letter six months ago from an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man: she remains a faithful Catholic but has been refused communion by her priest for 19 years. Pope Francis, as he often does, chose to reply by phoning her. He announced himself as ‘Fr Bergoglio’, and told her that she should be receiving communion, allegedly remarking that some priests are more papist than the pope. I imagine we will hear more of this story, not least from Vatican officials who will claim that he didn’t say it, or that he meant something else.
Paul’s letters are very often written into similar pastoral situations, real life events which have led him to reinterpret, sometimes radically, our relationship with the Law. But that does not mean that he writes the Law off, any more than Jesus did before him. And in this passage he condemns a behaviour simply on the basis of the Law. He believes that even a single instance of this behaviour can infect the whole body. Hence the leaven-image.
There are two issues here, closely bound together in these few verses. One is how we have used that scripture, without its context, tonight: we heard no mention of the racy story behind it, just the theological principle which it prompts him to articulate. The other issue is how the ethical precepts of scripture are to be treated: we have plenty of non-theoretical examples to hand in the areas of gender and sexuality today. This evening I want to raise those questions, rather than debate or answer them, but I hope you will think further about them.
The very familiar passage which we heard urges us to integrate our lives, our everyday behaviour, with the cross and resurrection of Christ. That is primary theology. Paul says that no part of our lives is exempt from examination in the light of the cross – but not only the cross, the point at which some get stuck. This is the cross viewed, as it should always be, through the prism of Easter – our Christian Passover through which there is a clear future hope of something new, indeed a self completely renewed. We can’t change the failure, the suffering, the humiliation, the bereavement that is past. But shining the Easter light of truth on it reminds us that the freedom it guarantees is a release rather than a license. It’s about forgiveness. That does require a change of heart and, sometimes, a change of behaviour.
This seems to be well-understood by Pope Francis. Then we come to the awkward question of precisely which behaviours are in need of forgiveness. We know that list will differ, from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church to our own personal list. And in truth all of those lists will differ from Paul’s, whose catalogue of sins seems to have differed at different stages in his life. We may always usefully refer to Jesus’ summary of the commandments in the law of love as a yardstick. Many times the church has behaved as though this or that sin was unforgivable: but there is only one unforgivable sin in Jesus’ lexicon, that against the Holy Spirit, the sin of ascribing to evil something that comes from God, precisely a sin of ‘malice and wickedness’.
Paul’s deeper point, unchanged by context or the passage of time, is about connectedness, rather than a particular issue. When church members are going wrong and the wrong is boasted about, he says, the whole body is compromised. Clerical abuse and its effects on the church are an obvious example in our time. See the film Calvary if you want to get an Irish perspective on that. This was, I would argue, an instance of what he calls boasting about the sin, in that fear and concern for outward appearances trumped truth. Paul’s theological point is about coherence and consistency – within the body, and in individual members. We will all fail at this, but forgiveness awaits those who conscientiously and sincerely make the attempt at the core of their lives.
Our public stance on other issues is equally scandalous to the world, and on some we are doubtless as wrong as our ancestors have been. But in my experience the world is surprisingly tolerant of our awkward edges so long as we are generous. Pope Francis gets that. If we can only get across to the world the message of true freedom – forgiveness rather than license – as the core of the gospel, we might connect a little better with those who are puzzled by Christianity. Forgiveness, not sin, is the good news.