Sermon for Lent 3 High Mass Sunday 28 February 2016
1 Corinthians 10.13
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.
With that text I like to tell the story of when I went to a large meeting in Westminster Hall for a talk on meditation and silence and prayer and all that sort of thing, and the place was packed with monks and nuns and priests, and rows of well behaved elderly people, just like you. The dreaded question time came round, and people stood up and asked questions which turned into little lectures on what they believed, as they often do. Sitting up in the gallery I could see that a young lady next to me couldn’t stand it a moment longer, and sure enough she went to the edge of the gallery and said very clearly: it’s not that I don’t want to believe in God and all that; it’s just that I don’t like Him.
I want to show you a God you can like. Maybe liking will lead, in the end, to love. When we can love God, we shall know who He is.
Belief isn’t enough. A belief system, knowing the creed, asks nothing from you, except a mild yes or maybe yes. It’s just a place to start. Spreading Christianity isn’t about spreading beliefs, what I believe, what you believe. Christianity is about transformed lives. Transformed people transform others. Lent is about our transformation into Christ’s humanity, so that we too can love God as He loved God.
There is a film being shown here this coming Thursday evening. It is Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St Matthew, a black and white film made in 1964. It’s the best film about Christ ever made. It’s very simple. Using just the actual words from St Matthew’s Gospel, the film shows Jesus moving through rather hostile, bare landscapes, with his little group of friends, and every now and again they stop, and Jesus takes an event or encounter from real life, and He teaches them something new. They are never alone, He is with them. As with the disciples, so with you. Jesus shows us how God works, how God lives. God is faithful in always showing us the truth, the truth about ourselves and the world. God does not impose on us an impossible assault course. Like Jesus in Galilee, God travels with us, respects our strength and our weakness.
In Jesus we see a God who does not, and cannot punish. I think many people find this hard to grasp. The confusion is there in today’s Gospel when a tower falls, because the brickwork is loose, and eighteen people are killed, and everyone says, they must have done something bad for God to punish them like this. Jesus says no, they were no worse or better than the rest of you. You might think that we have progressed a bit since then, and no longer summon up a punishing God. But we do, don’t we? When something dreadful happens in the world, it’s all too easy to say that God will destroy these evil doers, they’ll get what they deserve in the end, but what a mystery it is when evil people do rather well and the just and the well-behaved get a rotten deal in life. I can’t solve this problem for you in a couple of minutes, but I do believe that the answer must lie in the cross behind me and the figure who hangs there, what looks like the ultimate unfair punishment. It is towards that cross, towards the Crucifixion, towards that mystery that we are moving in Lent. God’s power, God’s love, God’s beauty, is shown, not in what happens to that crucified Saviour, not in what is done to him, but in the goodness of the subject, as God undergoes what all of us must undergo, the transformation of our souls, losing our life to find it, He shows us what we need to do.
As our journey through Lent takes us closer to the Passion and Death of Christ, the God who is faithful goes with us. It’s no good saying I’m not up to this, I’m not good enough for this, I hardly dare begin self-examination for fear of what might turn up, I’m stopping. God will stop with us until we are ready to move on. It’s not a race. God does not let us be tested beyond our strength. Yet just because God does not punish, does not mean that anything goes, that he’s a father who can’t say no. Quite the reverse. There’s no cheap grace, and the sooner we find that out the better. Every thought and action comes home to roost eventually. Everything we do and say has consequences. The only difference now is that we can no longer blame everything on the God who is unfair and has abandoned us, because Jesus shows us the opposite, that God is faithful. What we do matters, because we are God’s story in the world today.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that those who died when the tower of Siloam collapsed on them were no different from us, and that all, everyone, needed to repent or perish. It sounds like an ultimatum, but I think there’s a place here for each us to start. We set aside that God who repays evil with evil, violence for sin, and walk instead with a God we can like, a God we can recognise, the God who is faithful, and knows us, and does not test us above our strength.