Sermon at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 11 June 2023 (First Sunday after Trinity)
By the Revd Canon Nick Brown
Faith inhabiting ritual
The last weeks and months have seen the unfolding story of how the unknowable nature of God who is creator becomes a part of our story through the incarnation of the creative Word of God in the person of Jesus, how the love of God becomes real to us in the passion, suffering and triumphant resurrection of Christ, and how we can be touched by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. We now find ourselves entering that part of the Christian year where we have the chance to reflect on how this knowledge of God in our lives can shape who we are – both us as individuals and us as the Church, striving to be the body of Christ. One of the key challenges in this is how we let the Spirit shape our lives, and how we negotiate our individual understandings of what our faith means within the wider body of Christ.
Some of our recent readings an morning and evening prayer have highlighted a tension between fulfilling the requirements of ritual acts and having a lively faith that is animated by the Holy Spirit. Typical of this was a reading at evensong this week were Jesus used the example of ritual handwashing to highlight that it was what is in our hearts that matters more than external observance of ritual acts without thinking. (In this context, and for the sake, among others of our choristers, I am sure that Jesus was not recommending that we deliberately go and eat with filthy hands – but rather that our outward actions need to be matched by the inner movement of our heart!) However, there is a key problem that arises in listening to our hearts – there are many cases where individuals discern in their hearts different understandings of how they are called to shape their lives. Often these sit comfortably alongside others – but from time to time there can be radical conflicts as people feel that God is calling them in different directions.
Managing these differences between the personal understanding of God’s calling and the corporate living out of that calling with others creates a tension that, since the earliest times has led to division and pain within a body that should be characterised by a unity in God’s love. This has been most evident in the Churches and denominations of the Reformation – which have seen splinters and divisions as people with different views on Christian life have cut themselves off from the wider body of Christ.
Another tendency that I am sure was not intended by Jesus is his teaching is an interpretation of some of his teaching about institutional religion taken, by some, as a rejection of institutional religion itself. There are many examples of people who have taken Jesus call to live life from the heart – to pay attention to the inner spiritual life – as a call to reject the external, ritual acts of religion. One such passage – where some people interpret Jesus teaching as a validation of individual discernment over ritual law, is that reading about the washing of the hands from Friday evening. However, in readings such as our Gospel today, we are given a different and richer indication of what this means. In that reading we heard of the radical welcome given to people who were often rejected by institutional religion – that Christ’s table is one for the conversion of those in need of love, rather than a place for those who think they are already pure. As well as the literal welcome of the ‘tax collectors and sinners’, this passage Is balanced with an example of Jesus’ affirming the importance of faith – it is the faith of the leader of the synagogue that leads to healing of his daughter, and this is contrasted against those who go through the ritual acts of mourning without the faithful hope that leads to transformation and the healing of the daughter.
In these stories it is not a simple either/or, but a both/and. Jesus encourages all people to open their hearts in faith so that they can experience inner transformation. But he also affirms the place of ritual and institutional religion as a means to share this faithful response to the transforming power of God’slove. It is not that long ago that one of our gospel readings included the incident where Christ healed ten lepers and, having gone to give thanks to the priest, only one reciprocated the gift of healing by giving thanks to Christ himself. It is important to note that Jesus not only brought about healing, but mandated those who had been healed to give thanks in the community of faith – not just as individuals. And it is only after this corporate act of giving thanks that Jesus commends the faithful response of the one who returned to him. We also need to remember that, whilst criticising faults and failures within the institutions of his time, Jesus was faithful to the ritual of the Temple and participated in the life of the Synagogue. This should lead us not to reject the trappings of ritual and institutional religion – but to inhabit them with faithful hearts that are open to the grace of God, and the change in our own hearts this might bring about.
Another view on this can be found in the history of our own religious culture. I have recently been reading some books on the religious, political and cultural effects of the Civil War and Protectorate, and one of the points that was made in a couple of the books was the way that the corporate living together of society became more and more difficult as people’s beliefs
became more and more individual. After the pressures to conform to a ever narrowing view of religious practice in the years that led to the civil war, the freedom to worship and practice faith as any individual wished brought different, but equally challenging problems. Resolving this is something that has never been achieved, and the division of Christians in our own nation is a sign of the work that remains for us to do. The dangers of overly personalising religion – of valuing the individual over the corporate were shown to be just as damaging to the body of Christ as the constraint of rigid ritual practice.
Surely the way for us to tread is signalled to us by our belief in a God who we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each of these persons has particular characteristics and charisms that are
bound together by the love of God that is central to the life of the Trinity. It is this love, overflowing into our lives that can transform our hearts and souls. But as we are open to the power of that love, we need to listen to others, indeed to love others, who seem to hear and understand God’s voice in very different ways – to be bound together by the love of God more strongly than divided by the differences of our understanding. For the one thing that we know is that the love of God is deeper than we can fathom – but it should draw us together, rather than push us apart. Anything else speaks more of our lack of humility, a belief that we have the answers, rather than having a dependence on God.
So let us worship together, pray together, study together, but above all be bound together by the love of God – not pushed apart by a lack of humility. Let us seek the physician of our souls – and not think that we can heal ourselves.
O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our
prayers and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no
good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in the keeping of
your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus
Christ our Lord