Trinity 9 14.8.22 Lincoln Cathedral
Luke 12: 50,51
50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
I don’t know about you, but I am a strong believer in discrimination. I strongly believe that discriminating between people is a good thing. Over the years I have had four operations in hospital, and I was very keen that those choosing my various surgeons discriminated in favour of those who knew about parathyroid glands or where to screw the screws in to strengthen my dodgy ankles. I didn’t care if they were black, white or brown, female or male, gay or straight. I wanted them to be chosen because they knew about my conditions, rather than because they were related to the boss or went to the same school or supported the same football team. I am entirely against unfair, irrelevant discrimination but a relevant, appropriate discrimination is, in these cases, a good thing.
It’s just a bit of a language thing but it does irritate me when people talk about discrimination being bad, when what is bad is unfair and irrelevant discrimination. Without discrimination that is appropriate life would be very random and dangerous. That is because a key aspect of discrimination is judgement.
I think that’s one of the reasons that what Jesus talks about in our Gospel today is so hard to hear. It is often assumed that Jesus is about us all living together in loveliness and harmony. But it is very clear from these hard sayings that, as followers of Jesus, we will have to make hard choices, to judge what is right and what not, to discriminate in favour of what we judge to be the ethical, theologically justifiable and loving thing to do. That may well divide us one from another, ourselves as the Christian community from those around us, or those who understand what our faith demands in one way and those who see, for example, what the Bible says in a different way. And that is painful.
Often over my many years working in and with churches, there’s a difficult balance between discriminating in favour of the faithful thing to do and unity, keeping people together because that’s what Jesus prayed for in those long discourses in John’s Gospel. This often ends up, particularly in an English culture, with us being nice. Someone in our Christian community is consistently bullying or disrespectful but no one feels they should tackle them because we’re supposed to be nice. No, we’re supposed to be loving, just and humble. If that bullying behaviour goes on unchallenged, then the damage it is doing to actual people, to the mission of the church and to the fellowship continues and probably gets worse. When and how to tackle it is a difficult judgement and needs to be done with both a sense of humility and a sense of justice.
The recent Lambeth Conference has been an example of this. The experience of those who attended was of a rich, busy event full of invigorating interactions and a range of key subjects. From the outside it looked like it was dominated by the sexuality debate, which apparently it wasn’t, although it was a fair old elephant in the room. On this, what happened seemed to be a remarkable step in a particular direction. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as host, established a new principle about the whole question of whether Anglican churches should conduct equal or same sex marriages. He said this:
For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
In saying this with some authority, the Archbishop is encouraging a novel plurality within the Anglican community where people and provinces with different understandings co-exist. The overriding principle is unity.
However, as one of the younger members of diocesan staff I work with said to me, what this continues to allow and endorse is the damage to the mental and physical health, even the life, not to mention the basic rights, of those at the wrong end of unfair discrimination on account of who they are. I hope it is not too gloomy for me to say but I suspect the division Jesus predicts has not been avoided. It is a judgement we have to make — do we tolerate the potential and actual damage to support our unity or do we face the possible rifts?
So, how as Christians are we supposed to get to this judgement, this discrimination to find what our faith is calling us to?
The classic answer and I think a very helpful, robust and sustainable way to approach this is the lively, ongoing interaction between the Bible, the tradition, that is, what we believe and have believed over the years in the Churches, and reason, the application of our brain power and our interpretation of our experience as people living in the 21st Century. In a recent article a Sri Lankan writer, Savitri Hensman, talks about the valid interpretation and application of Scripture in the life and ethics of the Christian community [requiring] a willingness to listen and learn widely, and a shared commitment to a Gospel of loving transformation realised in the flesh, not in texts and arguments alone. It’s a community thing, in which scriptures, our inheritance of theology and ethics in the churches, and reason are in constant conversation, none of them independent. And our conclusions have to be reached with massive humility. As Brenda Watson, in a short book called Towards Sound Interpretation of Scripture, in 2003 puts it, ‘Can any of us – Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, traditionalist or radical, liberal or evangelical, or by whatever label we wish to be known — claim to have a God-like understanding which rules out the possibility for further correction or enlightenment?’
In our Gospel reading Jesus talks about the baptism he will have to go through. Most commentators think this refers to the suffering and death he has to go through to achieve his mission. So, the difficulty and stress is not just ours. Jesus has gone through it in the biggest way before us. And this is as a result of his judgement, his integration of the Scriptures, how he understands what God has been doing over the centuries and how he interprets the present as he says at the end of this morning’s Gospel, so that he sees it as inevitable that his bias to the poor, weak and marginalised will bring him into a catastrophic division with the authorities.
As a society, in this country and across the world we are facing huge decisions about, for example, how to distribute our wealth and resources in response to the massive, current pressures which question how those who are poorest in our society, and not particularly poor at that, are going to survive through the present economic conditions. I am not convinced that much of what we hear from those vying for leadership resonates with Jesus’ care and compassion for those here and across the world who are always at the wrong end of economic policy decisions. They need, amongst others, a Christian community who can help them see what right judgements, what right discriminations, need to be made, if we are going to be a community which faithfully follows the example Jesus set.
Let us commit ourselves to the work of faithful judgement and discrimination and its consequences so that it will not be possible for Jesus to say to us, as he did to his audience in today’s gospel, ‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’