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The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 3 June 2018 – Matins 11.30am
Deuteronomy 5:1-21 Acts 21:17-39a
Listening to the radio yesterday morning, I heard Ian McEwan, the acclaimed novelist, speaking from the Hay Literary Festival. By the way, if you haven’t read his latest novel, Nutshell, I can thoroughly recommend it; it’s an absolute hoot! Anyway, McEwan was responding to the observation that sales of novels are seriously declining at the moment. He’d been asked whether people were less inclined to read these days and, if so, why that might be. Although he conceded that attention spans are perhaps shorter than they used to be, and that the attraction of film and television was strong – indeed, several of his own novels have been adapted for the cinema – he argued passionately that the novel remains a wonderful medium for exploring consciousness, human relationships and the interaction between human beings and the world as a whole.
Now I could almost certainly guarantee that having been presented with today’s two Biblical readings, your first reaction isn’t likely to have been that they’d make great novels, TV or film! In the first, from the book Deuteronomy, we heard a recitation of the Mosaic Law, recognisable as a version of the Ten Commandments, and in the second, Paul’s portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles as kicking up a stink during a visit to Jerusalem, the geographical and spiritual centre of the Jewish Faith. Acts purports to be history, and so isn’t intended to be read as a work of fiction. But it could so easily be turned into an historical novel or adapted for the cinema as a biopic, or for the television as a biographical drama, along the lines of something like A Very English Affair, based on particular historical events in the life of the former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, the last episode of which is to be screened this evening. Acts has all the ingredients necessary for a gripping drama.
For starters, take Paul himself. He was a highly complex and controversial character: intelligent, opinionated, abrasive and fearless. He was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. Raised as a strictly observant, zealous Jew, convinced that the Law had to be adhered to rigidly, he was the primary motivator of the persecution of the first Christians. But then, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, he was stopped in his tracks by an encounter with the Risen Christ, which utterly changed his life. No longer believing that obedience to the Law was capable by itself of leading to salvation, he began to preach a gospel of grace, to be appropriated by faith, a gospel that wasn’t for Jews alone but for Gentiles as well. Much of the drama of Acts arises out of the impact of this monumental shift in Paul’s experience, thinking and action.
In today’s reading, he’s depicted as going to meet the leaders of the Jerusalem Church to tell them of the work that, as Acts puts it, God had been doing among the Gentiles through his ministry. The Apostles are clearly impressed and heartened but they’re also quite savvy. Stories of Paul’s alleged abandonment of the Jewish Faith had been circulating, with the result that there was huge potential for conflict among the Jews in Jerusalem. Jewish nationalism was on the rise at the time, in much the same way that populist movements are springing up in our own day all around the world. So the Apostles advised Paul to present his legitimacy to the Jewish population by submitting himself to the Jewish custom of shaving his head in accordance with the Law as part of a rite of purification.
But then rumours begin to be circulated. It’s alleged that Paul’s taken Gentiles with him into the temple, something that, if true, brought with it the death penalty. The author of Acts refutes this allegation, but the mob’s incited and feelings run high, to the extent that the crowd’s on the verge of lynching him. Just at the last moment, though, the tribune comes to the rescue and allows Paul to speak under the protection of Roman soldiers.
Now today’s reading ended at this point; we didn’t hear what Paul had to say. If you want to know, you could come back next week and hear how the story continues! Or, of course, you could read it yourself. Suffice to say that Paul presents his impeccable credentials as an observant Jew, recounts his experience on the Damascus Road, and has his Jewish audience in the palm of his hand right until the last moment when he mentions the G-word – Gentiles – and then all hell’s let loose. The crowd gets whipped up into a frenzy and demands that Paul be done away with. It’s only when the centurion hears that Paul’s a Roman citizen that he realises that he really does have to protect him under law, and whisks Paul away to safety.
If I’ve done nothing else, I hope I’ve demonstrated that the Acts of the Apostles can be quite exciting! But that’s not really enough for a sermon, so what’s the point I want to make? It hinges on the suggestion that a false allegation is made against Paul: that he took Gentiles into the Temple, whereas, in fact, the author of Acts denies that this was so. The whole sequence of events unfolds on the basis of rumour, innuendo and hearsay. We know from our daily lives just how damaging these things can be.
And this brings me to the passage read from Deuteronomy. One of the commandments relates to just this: ‘Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour’ (5:20). Now this could mean specifically perjury or simply lying more generally. The important thing is that it implies an overwhelming concern for truth, and justice for one’s neighbour. Jesus would later summarise the whole Law by saying that we should love God and our neighbour as our self, and that there was no commandment greater than these. In other words, love of God and neighbour is lived out in practising justice towards our fellow human beings.
We’re all far too quick to make judgments about others. We do so without patiently seeking to establish facts, without really wanting to get to the truth of the matter, and we jump to conclusions when we don’t have the full picture. We’ve always known this about certain parts of the press and the media but social media now makes it possible for something to go viral, whether it’s been established to be true or false. And once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to reel it in. The world thrives on rumour, innuendo and hearsay.
So what’s to be done? Three things. First, don’t assume that what you hear or read is unequivocally true. Check it out first. Acknowledge that there’ll almost certainly be another dimension to the story.
Second, be cautious and restrained in how you speak, especially of others. Don’t perpetuate rumours and hearsay, don’t jump to conclusions and assume that something’s true just because someone’s told you. Put yourself in your neighbour’s shoes and ask what justice requires in a given situation.
Third, and this is perhaps the most important point of all, introduce into the whole of your life the practice of pausing. When you’re under pressure, when you’re put on the spot, take your time, take a few deep breaths before speaking or responding. This is where meditation can help. It allows us to sit lightly to all the stuff that arises in the mind, all the internal dramas that serve to give us a sense of self. This ‘self’, though, so often clouds and distorts our vision. It’s only by letting it go that clarity begins to emerge and we can see things for what they truly are.
One person who practises and models this to perfection is Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. When he was interviewed on the radio some years ago – it was, I think, on something like Radio 4’s Today programme – he was asked a very tricky question, and he clearly knew that whatever he said was likely to incriminate him with one group or another. So with extraordinary presence of mind he simply said that he needed to take a few moments before answering. There followed about 10 seconds of silence, something that broadcasters loathe and dread, because it’s what they call dead air. But he just paused and his silence spoke volumes.
We can also do that, for it’s when we step aside, it’s when we choose a kind of inaction, that God can act. Paul himself knew this, for after his experience on the Damascus Road he disappeared into the obscurity of the Arabian Desert, not just for a few seconds but for three years, so that in that silent space he could begin to discern what God was asking of him, to see from God’s perspective. Jesus, too, understood the value of pausing, of silence, of inaction, for when a woman supposedly caught in the very act of committing adultery was brought to him by a baying mob, he simply knelt down on the ground and doodled in the sand before speaking: ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone’. When God’s given that kind of space, clarity and truth can begin to emerge, grace can come into play, and the most unexpected and surprising things can happen.
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