Last Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 26 October 2014 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Last Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 26 October 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

High Mass & Baptism of Sophia Grace Bushby

What’s in a name?

Sophia Grace. Two Christian names which are profoundly Christian.

  • Sophia, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, the divine wisdom;
  • Grace, the grace of God to which we owe our creation, redemption and all the blessings of this life; the grace, the loving-kindness, the overwhelming generosity of God which calls from us grace in return, gratitude for God’s gifts,  for the gift of this child, graciousness towards others.

Where is wisdom to be found; Wisdom to order our lives, our families, our communities aright?

Psalm 1, which we sang this morning, is not just the first of the psalms, it also serves as a preface for the whole Psalter: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.”   It points us to the Law of God as the source of our flourishing and fruitfulness, our prosperity and well-being.

Imagine then, that we take this advice seriously and begin to read the Law of the Lord, the Torah – those first five books attributed to Moses. We should bear in mind that Torah means “instruction” – not just law. It is not merely prohibitions to stop us doing wrong things but wisdom to form us in the good life. 

We start reading. We get through Genesis with its stories of the creation of world and humankind; of human folly and sin, of the patriarchs – those forebears in faith.  We read of Joseph in Egypt and then the Hebrews in bondage there; Moses sent to rescue them, their escape and wilderness wanderings until they come to the promised land. 

And then, then we hit the Book of Leviticus and come slowly to a halt – it’s like switching from a historical novel to a legal text book, or one of those manuals the clergy have to tell them how to conduct liturgy – the kind of book you expect the clergy to have read but don’t need to yourself. Indeed it’s probably better if most lay people don’t read them, lest it create that unhealthy obsession, not unknown in churches like ours, with salvation by choreography.

This is the stage at which many people who set off to read the Bible from cover to cover give up the struggle.  It is worth remembering that the Bible is not a book, but a collection, a library of books, which need to be read in different ways.  For example, we read the Psalter every day, we read other books at particular times of the year.  We read some passages in relation to others – as we see today in Old Testament reading and gospel.

But if we give up in despair or boredom a few chapters in to Leviticus, we miss something vitally important.

Leviticus can be seen as the most important book in Old Testament – the centre of the Torah. Its central theme is found in God’s admonition to Moses, calling the people to become holy, “for I the Lord your God and holy.”  And at its centre, after a great list of rules, we find the “Golden Rule:” “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Leviticus has two Codes: the “Priestly Code” and the “Holiness Code.”  Both seek harmony in nature and society by mapping out codes of conduct to govern daily activities.

The “Priestly Code” governs the worship of the Temple, the offering of sacrifices and distinctions between pure and impure.  Behind these is a concern for the holiness of God; both his utter difference from creatures, and his moral purity.  But this holy and other God is also one who graciously provides means, rituals, to enable sinful human beings to walk in fellowship with one who is pure.

Then there is the Holiness Code: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.”    This seeks to extend the holiness that priests experienced in the Temple to the daily lives of the people.  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel.” Activities within the temple had been ordered by divine law, so that worship and sacrifice were conducted correctly and purity observed. Activities in the whole of life should be ordered to this end too.  The call to holiness is extended from the priesthood to all people. They are called to act, think, and live holy lives patterned on the character of God whose holiness demands to be reflected in human beings.   This consecration to God is to be displayed by the whole nation in every walk and area of life: family, community affairs, farming, commerce, and worship. 

So this holy living includes justice-making.  For Leviticus this is about more than individual acts of kindness – although it is not about less than them.

Love of neighbour means creating the social, economic, and religious conditions in which all persons may thrive and share more fully in community life.  The call to holiness is defined primarily not in relation to cult and temple but rather to life in community, an invitation to inclusive wholeness, in which “you shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour.”  This echoes the Ten Commandments, but with a twist: love of neighbour comes before love of God; horizontal duties are placed before vertical ones.

If the call to holiness is all-embracing, what is it?

What does living a holy life require? 

These were as much live questions in the time of Jesus, as they are now.  In today’s Gospel we have an encounter between Jesus and a group of Pharisees, lay people dedicated to the fullest possible observance of the law – that extension of temple holiness to all.  Jesus had a reputation for transgressing the law in the cause of love.  This led to questions about his orthodoxy, so he is asked by one of them, a lawyer, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  This was a question often debated at the time. There were those who thought that each one of the 613 commands in the law was equally important – there could be no ranking of them.  Others thought that it was the command to love God.

Jesus responds by coupling together love of God and love of neighbour.

1. Love of God; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Words from the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One,” words recited daily by every devout Jew then and now.  “This,” says Jesus, “is the greatest and first commandment. ”

2. Love of Neighbour. “The second is like it, namely this, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  The “Golden Rule” of Leviticus. Holiness is not just about the vertical: our individual relations with the divine. There is also the horizontal: our relationships with others. Jesus declared this commandment not to be just “similar” but to be of the same importance as the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.”

For Jesus, the dual command is the key to interpreting the whole of scripture; the law and the prophets too. Jesus radically unites the two commandments.  To love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind (that is, with one’s whole being and life-energy) cannot be separated from an active love of those whom God loves, in the way God loves them, that is, with a love that is compassionate and extends even to the hostile.  Jesus does not set aside other commandments of the Torah, but as he shows in the Sermon on the Mount, he makes love the key for interpreting all its other requirements.

So can we forget Leviticus then? Or does it still have something to say to us today? Is there still wisdom in the law?

1. Although the Temple priesthood and sacrifices have disappeared, the spiritual truth they represent remains constant.  God is still absolutely other and holy and that should influence how we approach his presence.  It must signal the divine separateness from sin and help call the followers of God to be holy.   God is holy and our sinfulness offends against that holiness we are called to share.  But God’s mercy is available to those who are penitent. The one sacrifice which has taken away the sins of the world has been offered by Jesus Christ and we celebrate that in the Eucharist.  In the sacraments, God provides the means or grace which enable sinful human beings to live in communion with him, to grow in holiness.  Those means of grace, this Eucharist, should shape the whole of our lives, not just a narrowly spiritual bit.

2. Leviticus also includes laws to order society. Just as legal experts today read old cases to discern abiding principles, so readers of Leviticus can find that impartiality in the administration of justice, fairness in the treatment of the poor, provision for the unemployed and immigrants, and scrupulous honesty in business dealings are demanded as the minimum standard for people who are called to be holy as their Lord is holy.

3. It provides rules for family life and our most intimate relationships. The rules we make for these may not be the same in a society gradually being emancipated from patriarchal, male-dominated attitudes, but a society in which family life has in many cases disintegrated, in which people struggle to make stable relationships, surely needs to acknowledge the need for some rules. As Pope Francis has suggested, and as many a parish priest knows, these rules may best be seen as representing an ideal to which people can move with God’s grace, rather than a law which condemns once and for all those who fail to live up to its standards.

Which of us would say, living in these times, that we cannot learn wisdom from this is we are to build a world in which the graciousness of God is reflected in human graciousness?