Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 7 Sunday 30 July 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Kings 3.5-12; Psalm 119.129-136; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks the disciples in today’s Gospel. “Yes,” they answer.
“And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasures what is is new and what is old.”
On Thursday evening, I was not in my stall as usual for evening prayer, because, the chairman being away, I had to chair a meeting of the Diocesan Finance Committee. We live for pleasure.
The principal item on the agenda concerned the application of VAT to the letting of newly-built church halls; triggered by a judge’s ruling on a rowing club’s letting of their new hall. As you can probably imagine, to everyone except tax lawyers, this is the kind of question which makes the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, or Our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, the inspiration of Holy Scripture or what St. Paul meant by predestination; or, more topically, the church’s response of trans-gender people, all seem blissfully straightforward.
However, one of our diocesan staff, who is a scribe trained in these matters was able to bring forth from his treasury of taxation knowledge both old and new, a clear and comprehensible exposition of the issues and answer all the questions put to him by members of the committee – so that at the end I was able to say to them: “Have you understood all this?” and they were able to say, with some degree of confidence, “Yes.” And we managed to get the whole business dealt with in an hour. Perhaps we should offer our services to the government for Brexit.
Whether you and I could confidently say the same “Yes” of the passages of scripture we have heard this morning, especially when they have included a dense passage from that densest of New Testament documents, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is another matter.
Matthew clearly thought that this might not be so easy, when he records Jesus as speaking of the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” This is thought by many commentators to be both a self-portrait, like the artist’s signature tucked away in the corner of a painting, and a job description of those who are called to preach and teach the scriptures in succeeding generations in the Church.
Of the four evangelists, Matthew is the one most concerned to root Jesus in the Old Testament. Jesus is to be understood in the context of the old, and the old finds its fulfillment, is to be understood in terms of him. The scriptures of the Old Testament provided the spiritual and theological foundation for Jesus and Paul and the gospel writers. That is why, in its worship, the Church goes on reading the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments together. But as Jesus says repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you.” He brings a sovereign authority over those scriptures and gives them a radical new interpretation. So when he speaks of the scribe who brings out of his treasures things both new and old, Matthew means first of all, Jesus himself, then his own role as an evangelist, then those in succeeding generations who are called to be both disciples and teachers, who are able to unfold the links between the scriptures of the old and new covenants.
The Christian scribe or scholar is defined first of all as a “disciple”, a student, an apprentice. Scholars discipled to Jesus, who is the kingdom in person, never graduate to become independent of him. They are always dependent on the One to whom they are apprenticed, they are his perpetual students, seeking to “understand” Jesus. Christian scribes or teachers are those who every day go to school to the kingdom of heaven, making themselves assiduous followers of the teaching of Jesus.
For Matthew, “understanding” is not just a matter of intellectual comprehension – grasping an argument about taxation – it is a moral one – it involves obedience. Having found the treasure hid in a field or the pearl of great of great price, having heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of the God who is so for us, that no one can separate us from his love, we then have to do something about it – we have to “sell everything,” commit our whole lives to it, make it the great priority in our lives. Obedience involves both listening to and acting upon.
The Church’s scribes or teachers have had to go on doing this as their basic task. They do this not in a vacuum – but in the midst of a variety of cultures and philosophies down the ages. Just as Jesus spoke to his hearers, whether the crowds of his disciples in parables which were both intelligible and yet constantly challenging, and then explained the parables to his disciples in private, so the Church needs to find ways of communicating with the cultures of different ages and places. Those ways must be both arresting and vivid enough to catch and hold the attention, but also deep enough to answer the questions which will inevitably arise in the minds of hearers.
In its formative centuries the Fathers of the Church were concerned about the nature of Christ and what that meant for humankind, but they were also concerned to express the Gospel and the Christian faith in new contexts – that for example of the great philosophies of the classical world. They did not adopt these uncritically – some elements were simply incompatible – but they sought to identify that which was compatible and which would help the proclamation of the gospel.
The same process would be gone through by Thomas Aquinas when the thought of Aristotle was rediscovered in the West; they had been preserved by Muslim scholars in the East. When Aquinas set out to show how this was compatible with Christianity, he was denounced by some as a heretic. The fact that he was using texts which had come from Muslim scholars was enough to arouse suspicion in some quarters. This was long before he became the official theologian of the Roman Catholic Church. In more recent times, Thomas himself has had to be rescued from the attentions of “Thomists.” who had turned what was an intellectually radical venture into a dead letter.
There were those then who rejected this openness, this confidence that the Holy Spirit inspires all truth. There are those now who reject this approach; those who prefer easy and simplistic slogans to difficult and profound thought; those who think that all we need to do is to repeat what has been said in the past.
That is why Anglicanism speaks of the threefold cord of scripture, tradition and reason:
- Scripture which contains all things necessary for salvation – not the same as saying that all things in scripture are necessary for salvation – or that scripture deals with all aspects of human knowledge.
- Tradition – the Church’s ongoing engagement throughout its history with scripture.
- Reason – that divine gift of wisdom for which Solomon prayed.
In the Preface to the Declaration of Assent which all clergy in the Church of England must make when they are appointed to any office, we hear these words:
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?”
That proclamation “afresh in every generation……bringing the grace and truth of Christ” to new generations, involves both the reading of the Holy Scriptures in which the faith is uniquely revealed, which cannot be discarded, and its profession in the catholic creeds. It involves, too, a confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit in calling to mind all that Jesus has said and done and leading us into all truth.
The tragic case of baby Charlie Gard and the way it has been used by forces of unreason, well-meaning perhaps, but often ill-informed and ignorant if not down-right prejudiced, shows us what can happen when we neglect the role of reason and science as divine gifts; when we ignore the Church’s long tradition of moral reflection on complex ethical issues.
No one, certainly no parent, can do anything but sympathize with the terrible anguish of his parents, who cannot have begun to imagine how what St. Paul means by saying that “all things work together for good” applies in the case of their child. `But the simple reality is that without the skill and science of the staff of Great Ormond Street Hospital, baby Charlie would have died much sooner. For politicians and preachers and others to subject them, and the National Health Service, and our judicial system to abuse and even death threats, merely underlines the vital role that reason must play in our decisions and actions.
This is not to say that doctors or judges are infallible and should be left unchallenged. It is to argue that there must be an ongoing moral and intellectual wrestling with complex issues. In that engagement there will be things old: about the sanctity of the life of those made in the image and likeness of God; wisdom about the responsibilities and rights of parents, and the duties of caring professions and the state, which the church will want to contribute to the discussion as leaven in the lump. But these should be said by those who have pondered these issues long and deeply and prayerfully. They are not usually best said through a megaphone or in a tweet.
All this has consequences for both church and society. It raises questions about what we should be prepared to invest in. In the church’s case: Are we willing collectively to spend enough money to have “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven,” priests and pastors, preacher and teachers, who are able to bring out of the treasures of faith things new and old, or do we want clergy on the cheap, rushed through part-time training in the shortest possible time and equipped with little more than a GCSE in Old and New Testaments? Do we want clergy who have to spend so much time on managing the institution that they have no time to study and reflect, to read and pray? This is a question for you: Are you willing to pay for the best or will you settle for the mediocre? And if there are those among you who think that God might be calling you to be a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, then you should say so.
Similar questions face our society: Are we willing to invest in education which is not simply a means to economic productivity, but one which teaches people to reason and debate and decide about issues of the common good? Are we willing to defend and sustain the independence of the judiciary in a world where many would not have it so; where judges are brought under state control or denounced by the media as “enemies of the people?”
If we are not willing to commit resources to enhancing and sustaining the life of both church and civic society, then we might have more money in our pockets but will found ourselves much the poorer in what really matters.