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Sermon: Choral Evensong - 22 February 2015

Jonathan Gough
Sunday 22nd February 2015
Choral Evensong
Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7
Romans 5: 12-19
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It has been a busy time for bishops in the media in the last couple of weeks.  Among various forays into the press, two particularly stand out.  One has been the publication by the House of Bishops of the Church of England of a Pastoral Letter in preparation for the General Election, entitled Who is my Neighbour?  I have to receive a copy of this letter, but I have been able to download it from the internet, which perhaps shows how contemporary the House of Bishops has become.  At fifty-six pages it is long for a letter – longer certainly than any surviving epistles of St Paul, and I dare not imagine how many tweets it would take to bring the reasoned argument home.  It is worth reading – as normal the reaction from press and politicians has varied from the thoughtful to the knee-jerk, but as the dust settles I trust that a consensus will emerge that here are Christian pastors and teachers affirming the doctrines of human responsibility and solidarity, of the special preference for the poor and the ineradicable dignity of each human, who should be seen as an end rather than means, as a person rather than merely a consumer.

Another bishop who has been on the television and radio is Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church, a monk of St Bishoi monastery near Cairo, and for the last few years a general bishop with a tremendous youth ministry to the Coptic community in this country.   Following the murder of a number of Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS, he has been frequently interviewed and has responded consistently to this appalling violence not with bitterness and anger, but with moderation, wisdom and Christian hope, again affirming the human dignity of all involved.

Which brings us to the readings this evening.  From Genesis, part of the story of the Fall of Adam:  the man and the woman were placed in the Garden of Eden, to till it and keep it, able to eat from every tree except one.  But they did, and many sermons could be preached about the nature of sin, of grasping for knowledge – and thus power and status – which they (which we) should not have, and how that over-reaching pride wreaks havoc not only on ourselves but on all around us.  We do not have to look very far for the results of sin: the murder and mayhem of disordered humanity is presented to us on the news every day. One could reflect on the serpent as deceiver, the nature of temptation as illusory, corrupting and humiliating.  But today, the First Sunday in Lent, the reading is placed for our meditation alongside a passage from the fifth chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Here we are plunged deep into St Paul’s understanding of the mystery of salvation, as we read him drawing the parallel between the disobedience of Adam, and the obedience of Christ.

When hearing this part of the epistle, our second reading, I imagine the Apostle not sitting quietly, constructing a deliberate argument, but rather pacing up and down, dictating at a furious speed to his scribe.  St Paul was clearly excited about this theological insight he was drawing, so excited that his phrases trip over one another. Adam was created sinless, in the image of God, and yet by his act he fell into sin, and sullied all humanity by his disobedience.  So men and women cannot by their own effort or choice escape that sinfulness, that distortion of the divine image of God, that tendency to corruption, destruction, and ultimately to death.  But now that costly disobedience has been redeemed by the still more costly obedience of the perfect man, Jesus Christ.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

This idea may seem somewhat remote, almost a flight of theological imagination by a scholar in love with his own creativity.  But actually it is pivotal, and that is why this Sunday, at the beginning of Lent, it is placed before us.  It is a necessary aspect of our understanding of the incarnation.  We could look at it this way: some people in their prayers and their reading of scriptures focus on the humanity of Jesus: his compassion, his wisdom and moral teaching. Others from the same sources concentrate on the other-worldly Christ, the Son of God who by a wonderful mystery was born on earth and who could not be contained by death.  Both aspects are good and truthful, but by itself each is not enough.  To see Jesus as the most perfect human, whose will was perfectly aligned with the will of God in a kind of moral union does not do justice to the act of God in incarnation, and thus in redemption.  It leaves the Eternal God separate and uncommitted, and puts our understanding of the Trinity in some confusion.  On the other hand, to think of Christ as human only in appearance, without a nature like ours subject to fear and temptation, is to empty the self-sacrificial death of much of its effort and pain. The effect of sin, its distortion of the divine image, its destruction and alienation, could only be overcome by the free willingness of the Word made flesh, fully human and fully divine.

John Henry Newman put it most neatly in his poem of judgement, The Dream of Gerontius:

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame
A second Adam to the fight,
And to the rescue came.

O wisest love, that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.

These verses are frequently sung as the hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height, which is splendid, but by the nature of hymnody the various tunes are regular the mood constrained.  In the setting by Edward Elgar, the chorus of angels sing these words with pain and exaltation:

That he who smote in man for man the foe
The double agony in man for man should undergo
O wisest love!

All this was done for us, and at the beginning of Lent the invitation is to ask of ourselves what our response can be.  For there must be a response.  The briefest scriptural summary of salvation that given by St Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” – you can hear the next words coming – “and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation.”  It is good to hear and receive the words of mercy, but we need to live them out.  It is good to meditate on the obedience of Christ, that overcame the disorder of Creation, but we need to make that salvific discipleship our own. To ask ourselves who is my neighbour, who within my own community and nation, and who is my neighbour across the world, is a good place to start.