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The Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams
First Sunday after Trinity – June 3, 2018
2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 Mark 2: 23- 3:6
Do you remember, during the last election, someone asked Theresa May in an interview what was the naughtiest thing she’d ever done ? (I gather this question is now also put to those who are about to become bishops…) After a slightly surprised pause, Mrs May said that she’d got into trouble as a child for running through fields of wheat near her home. She didn’t say whether she had compounded her crime by doing it on the Sabbath, but I do wonder whether perhaps today’s Gospel was at the back of her mind.
Of course it’s not walking through cornfields on the Sabbath that so upsets the religious authorities about Jesus. It’s not even the fact that he and his good Jewish disciples break the Sabbath by picking corn to eat- technically, that counts as work, so it’s forbidden; but it’s a minor infraction compared with reinterpreting the entire purpose of the law. And that’s what Jesus does here. The Sabbath was made for human beings, he points out: not the other way round. Everyone should have one day of rest per week, to remind us that God is the centre of life rather than ourselves, that we aren’t actually indispensable, and that workaholism isn’t the same as holiness- and yes, I’m preaching to myself here, too. The journalist A.J. Jacobs, in his book A Year of Living Biblically, tries to keep the Sabbath law literally and finds it really hard- not least because you spend so much time worrying about what you can and can’t do that you don’t have much concentration left for God.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He heals a man with a withered arm. What better day than the Sabbath, you might think, to restore someone on the outside edge of society to a full relationship with his community and with God? What better witness could there be to the loving power of God? If the Pharisees object, they will look like monsters: not just inflexible in their interpretation of the law, but actively prolonging suffering for the sake of principle. And they know that. But they can’t be seen to back down. So they say nothing- but they begin to look for an opportunity to accuse Jesus of more than mere words. And sure enough, he gives it to them.
‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’
This is no longer mere rule-breaking. This is a massive ethical and moral escalation. And by posing this particular challenge, Jesus is using his own life as the stake, to force into the open the logical absurdity of a moral absolute. If the things you cannot do on the Sabbath become more central to our understanding of God than the things that demonstrate our freedom and wholeness in God, something has gone seriously wrong with our moral compass; just as it had with the Pharisees. For their response to Jesus was not to confront the logical flaws in a rule-based interpretation of religion which prevent you from healing in the name of God on the wrong day; it was to destroy the person who pointed out their mistaken priorities. The law of God is made to be a framework for our lives, not a straitjacket. We do need structures: we need an agreed ethical and moral code. But the point of it is not the law itself: it is the life which the law makes possible. I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance, promises Jesus in the Gospel of John.
And have it in abundance. For life itself, in the sense of mere existence, isn’t the point either. For much of the last two weeks, much of my pastoral and theological conversation has been taken up with the recent Irish referendum on abortion. A couple of days ago I celebrated Communion at a church in York on the feast of the Visitation. And as we heard the Gospel for that day, two things struck me with equal force. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, both of them unexpectedly pregnant, is the only example I can think of, of a Bible story in which the protagonists are two women, equal in standing, with no male characters making decisions for them or telling them what to do. It is the women’s own voices we hear, with no men narrating events from a male perspective. Theirs is a mutual recognition, a mutual empowering. Women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies and control what happens to them is at the heart of the story. But… so too is the fact that it is the unborn John the Baptist who, moving in his mother’s womb, becomes the first witness to Jesus; and the unborn Jesus whose potential is made tangible in this moment. How to hold these insights together? How to rejoice at what I do, personally, believe to be a good and right decision on the part of the Irish people; and simultaeously recognise the pain of those who profoundly disagree?
This is, as the Roman Catholic theologian Tina Beattie acknlowdged, a moment of extraordinary moral complexity, which deserves to be met not with posturing but with maturity and seriousness. Life and death are huge matters. The fact that we can reflect on their meaning and their purpose is itself a gift. For life is not, in the end, a right. And mere existence is not always to be celebrated, never mind equated with having life in abundance. As Tina Beattie points out, we do nobody any favours if we reduce debates about the beginning of life- or the end, for that matter- to emotive language about murder and killing. Instead, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we want life to mean, what we hope it can mean- and to face the fact that quality of life is as important as existence itself.
Choices are not an end in themselves. They have consequences, and moral maturity means learning to live with them. Laws, whether secular or religious in inspiration, can and do change as our understanding of the human condition changes. God’s will for us, is, unmistakeably, pro-life; but in its fullest, most abundant sense, not in a legalistic one. Male, female, or transgendered, we each of us ‘carry in our bodies the death of Christ’, as the second letter to the Corinthians reminded us this morning. In other words, we are preganant with that death, impronted with it in our very being. But out of that death, let us never forget, came forth life- resurrected, glorious and joyful. The one makes no sense without the other. ‘Death is at work in us, but life in you’.
We were not made for legalistic wrangling, but for the loving purposes of God. Living up to that is difficult, because it requires us to think and act with real moral maturity, and respect the consequences of our choices. No rulebook yet devised has enough nuance to cover ever possible situation: which is why it is so important that we do not treat the Bible, or the Church, as if that’s what they are. Instead they are mirrors, held up to us, to show what life in abundance might look like, and how it might feel to live it.
And if we run through a few cornfields on the way, I really don’t think God’s going to mind too much.
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