Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 September 2012 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 September 2012

A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Solemn Evensong & Benediction on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2 September 2012

Readings: Exodus 12. 21-27; Matthew 4.23 – 5.20

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’  (Mathew 5. 17)

These words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel take us to the centre of a very acute problem for Christians and for people generally: What is the relationship between the old and the new? As each day passes, with each new day how do we remain faithful to the best of the past without losing opportunities for growth, development, fulfilment?

Christianity did not start as a new religion. Jesus Christ did not come from nowhere. He may have come down from heaven but he wasn’t out of the blue. Jesus was a Jew. He had a Jewish mother. Behind him lay centuries of recorded history, reflection and theology and before that years of unwritten human experience creating the ground for what the Jews would become with stories and rituals and traditions. Much of what the Jews were at the time of Jesus we find in what we call the Old Testament. Here we find the Law and the Prophets

Law: There are 613 laws in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Some of these have a hallowed place in our tradition such as the Ten Commandments. Many we’ve forgotten about. Looking back, what the church came to teach was new – setting aside things like the Jewish dietary codes. If you were at mass this morning you would have heard an edited section from Mark’s Gospel about a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about what defiles. Is it what goes into a person or what comes out? Is it food or is it our destructive thoughts and desires that lead us into all manner of foolishness? Jesus declared that it is what comes out of a person that defiles not what goes in. In his gospel Mark makes the aside (edited out this morning) ‘Thus (Jesus) declared all foods clean’ (7. 19)

But such breaks with the past were themselves part of an unfolding pattern. Law was a serious business for the Jews but what the Hebrews who became the Israelites who became the Jews had learned over many years was that however hard individuals and communities try to adhere to the Law, Law never delivers the desired result. What was desired was a society consistent with God’s will, a place where justice peace and flourishes. But over and again it didn’t happen and it was the prophets who challenged the law enforcers, the kings and the priests. The shepherds turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. No wonder the people were lead astray and the Law had no effect

So in this sense what Jesus taught and what the church developed was not new. The church would see itself as the New Israel and it was ‘Israel’, not Ephraim or Moab or another neighbouring state. The Jesus who delivers the Sermon on the Mount that we heard this evening and from which my text comes is the one who (according to Matthew) was taken for safekeeping to Egypt and then returned to start his life in Nazareth. Egypt: the place where Joseph had been taken as captive and yet had turned the tables through his dream wisdom to become its leader under Pharaoh; Egypt the place from which Moses had delivered the people from slavery. The mount: the high place with all its resonances of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Nazareth: the city of David. Matthew of all the writers of the New Testament is the keenest to show that Jesus has roots and that those roots are authentic. Jesus is the new Moses and the Son of David. Who Jesus is and what Jesus does is grounded in the best of the past

What was best in the past is what the Law and the Prophets were pointing to: righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ is a word that sits uneasily to our ears. We’ve all known ‘righteousness’ people and they’re hard to live with. To call someone ‘self-righteous’ is damning. It also has its amusing side. The story is told (its probably apocryphal but it has a ring of truth) about General Montgomery (no shrinking violet, he) giving a pep talk to his troops. He included a quote from the bible and prefaced it with: ‘As God once said (and in my opinion, rightly) …’ But the word ‘righteous’ appears over again through the bible. Its what God is and what people should be. God is upright, just, straight, innocent, true, sincere. If we are made in the image of God then that is what we should be, too

But we aren’t. And we aren’t because of the ‘old’: the old ‘us’; the ‘old Adam’; the ‘same old’ that becomes ingrained with habits that lead us away from our roots, our true ‘old’/original self. I was back in the States recently and went to one of my favourite haunts, the Harvard Bookshop in Boston. Its one of the best book shops in the world. You can browse and drink coffee to your heart’s content. There was an enormous display of books on the management of change. Everyone promises us change (presumably for the better) yet no one seems able to deliver. People are resistant to change. We don’t like it especially if it applies to us. According to one book, out of every seven people who’s told that they will die unless they change their smoking, drinking or lifestyle habits, only one will follow the doctor’s advice. Most people it seems prefer to die. We like the old even when its killing us

And perhaps that explains the New Testament’s and the church’s ambivalence over this question of ‘the old and the new’ and how the one becomes the other. On the one hand Jesus is new: ‘”I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” he says according to John at the Last Supper as he washes his disciple’s feet (13. 34). But the Old Testament, the religious and cultural deposit from which Jesus sprang was full of love. ‘Hear, O Israel, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and you shall love your neighbour as yourself (Deut 6. 4).’ It wasn’t Jesus who first said that, it comes from Deuteronomy, that great book of the Law. But the newness comes in the sinking of the well to a lower level, beneath the tension between the Law and the Prophets to the water table of righteousness, the place from which justice flows and peace is like a river. Jesus is Ground-breaking-God. He is forever new: always fulfilling – filling people up when they are empty; making those internal wastelands bloom; making us whole and holy

So how are we with old and new? What’s with our ‘law and prophets’ and how we felt when we got up this morning? Is our past finding its fulfilment in us as we come to the end of the day (and perhaps a day that is in the evening of our lives) or is our past simply having its way with us, leaving us unfulfilled, dissipated and empty? If we’re flagging then it may be time to return to the blessings – beatitudes not platitudes – words that disclose God’s righteousness. The world empties us as we mourn, hunger, thirst, find ourselves persecuted and reviled. Yet the Christ who knew all that, who wept at Lazarus’s tomb and went to the cross, discloses something at the foundation of creation mediated through the Jewish tradition that fulfils us in a way that none other can. He is the one in whom old and new are woven together seamlessly

Sermon preached by Fr. Gerald Beauchamp