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Title: Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Readings: 1 Samuel 3. 1–20; 1 Corinthians 14. 12–20
Date: 28 January 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – Septuagesima (BCP)
Shortly before the voters in Iowa took to the polls, a political video appeared on YouTube and has been widely circulated. Showing photos of Donald Trump from throughout his life, a lofty voice proclaims that, “On June 14th, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker… so God gave us Trump.”
Whether or not Mr Trump proves to be victorious in the election this coming November, there is no doubt, that despite his multiple marriages, his complex relationship with what most of us would call ‘truth’, and allegations of behaviour which would appear to be far from standards championed in the pages of the Bible, Trump is beloved of American fundamentalist Christians, whose significance as part of the US electorate cannot be understated.
While British politics has tended not to make messianic claims for its leaders, that does not mean that fundamentalism, if not of a religious kind, is entirely absent from our own political system. Some would argue that it was a particular kind of economic fundamentalism that brought about the notoriety and the downfall of the remarkably brief administration of Liz Truss.
And even if political life in Britain is not touched by the kind of religious extremism and fundamentalism that is pervasive in the United States, our church life certainly is, as is manifest around the evermore increasingly divisive debates around human sexuality, and whether or not any kind of prayers can be uttered in the buildings of the Church of England for those who are in same-sex partnerships.
But the hard truth is that the current debates and divisions in the church are not, really, about human sexuality. While that may be the presenting issue, at the heart of this deep and acrimonious division is what St Paul, in our second reading, calls ‘the power to interpret’, and about the manner in which we understand the authority of sacred Scripture.
For in that reading we just heard, Paul is concerned about a deep division in the Corinthian community around the question of authority within the church, as manifested in the ‘spiritual gift’ of speaking in tongues.
Now this is a charism or a blessing which has never been part of my own spiritual tradition, and it is not one to which I am very drawn. But I fully recognise that for some people it is a valuable and beautiful part of their prayer life. But in Corinth, those who possessed this gift were using it as a basis to claim a particular authority in the church community in a manner which could not be sustain any intellectual challenge or discussion, and which was therefore being destructive to the life of the church. Which is why, as the great apostle says with some force, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others… than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
And, in a manner analogous to the situation in the Corinthian church, many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth, the early chapters of 1 Samuel also show us the need to allow an intellectually and spiritually honest approach to encountering God to triumph.
For the young Samuel has a night-time encounter with the word of the Lord. God shares with him his deep unhappiness with the corruption of the temple over which Eli and his two sons have presided. But with the coming of Samuel, who, unlike his guardian’s family, is possessed of intellectual honesty in his faith, God announces that he intends to act – to act in a manner which will build up the people of God and not diminish them.
In short, our readings this evening alert us to the dangers created by those whose claims of authority, especially religious authority, are based on fundamentalisms that cannot be subject to challenge by what Paul calls ‘the mind’ as well by ‘the spirit’. And those dangers are increasingly visible across the face of the world.
Professor James Walters, the Director of the Faith Centre at the London School of Economics, wrote an article earlier this month about the place of religion in the current conflict in the Middle East. He says:
What I have seen on numerous trips to Israel and Palestine is an intensification of powerful religious imaginaries that are simply not understood or taken seriously in the West. Liberals talk about a two-state solution…The Right talks about terrorism in terms reminiscent of the disastrous post-9/11 interventions…the Left has adopted a lens of racism and colonialism that continually fails to encompass the complexities of what is happening.
[But, asks Professor Walters], who will talk about religion? Who will open a Bible and discover that land and statehood are not purely secular concepts but embedded in Judeo-Christian history? Who will read of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Qur’an and learn of Jerusalem’s profound significance to the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims? Who will actually pay attention to what people on the ground are saying about God and the promises they believe God has made to them? These will be the people who break through this miserable, hate-fuelled conflict that no side is able to win.
The state of God’s world and the state of God’s church demand a religious literacy and integrity that is sadly lacking, both within and beyond the confines of the Church of God. The desire for what Paul called ‘spiritual gifts’ – and, more importantly, the perceived authority which those who possess such gifts so often claim – this desire can bring with it the danger of division, of distrust, of dehumanization, and of downright hatred and violence.
Eli, the keeper of God’s temple in Shiloh, for all his failings, was gracious enough to advise the young Samuel that when he heard God calling in the night, he should reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. Both in many stories in the pages of the Bible, let alone in the centuries of history that have succeeded it, we find the opposite sentiment, as people make unfounded claims of authority that say, in essence, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking’.
Paul saw the dangers of this in the setting of the Corinthian church, but his words speak across cultures, ethnicities, faith communities, let alone across history. For we – the people of God – we are called to build up the church and not tear it apart. And that’s not because the Church of God has a value intrinsic to itself – it is because we who are the church, our vocation is to try and help build up the world, which is so good at tearing itself apart with fundamentalist ideologies, whether economic, political or religious.
And so, when it comes to matters of faith, let alone matters of politics, economics or any other global concern, do not let Paul’s plea be ignored when you open your Bible, your news website or paper, your bank statement, your school report, or anything else which impacts and relates to your life in God’s world and God’s church: Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. Amen.
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