A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on July 9, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for address: Romans 7, Matthew 5
When I was small, my sisters and I played a game called lava. The idea was simple. Someone announces that we are in the middle of a volcano and the floor is now made of fiery, molten rock. Sometimes we played out dramatic scenarios where you had to rescue a little sibling, marooned on a coffee table. But even everyday activities like getting to your seat at the dinner table were now life or death encounters as the bubbling, hungry lava licked at our heels. Sofas and chairs, even sideboards and skirting become safe landmasses. Cushions were permissible as moveable islands if you aimed them skilfully and dared hop between them. Once someone laid a line of masking tape that we could use as a tightrope to get between rooms. “Be careful,” we’d cry, “there’s a wave of it about to crash behind you. Jump!” And if you touch the floor, you boiled alive. It was a lot of fun.
The Christianity taught to many children looks a little like this game. Sin is everywhere. It could be stealing a cookie between meals or telling a lie. It could be losing your temper with a sibling or speaking back to a parent. Anything and everything we did had the potential to sin licking around the edges.
The point of Christianity, the point of life, in this model is to avoid sin and the ultimate lava that would follow in the afterlife. In this framework Jesus is primarily understood as a lifeguard who we can call to rescue when we fall, or actively jump, in to sin. We should be grateful to him and try not to need his assistance too much.
As you get older it’s hard to maintain the intensity of this model so it morphs. Most adults become more empowered, and some reject Christianity because of the model they were taught as children. Most of those of us who stick with our faith reduce the list of sins that can tip us in to the lava… We tell ourselves it was understandable that we snapped at our colleague or still hold a grudge against a family member long after they said something rude. We invent our own criteria for what we consider acceptable bending of the rules and what are absolute sins. We talk about the greater good rather than just the good. For many adults in the West, Christian or not, sins are things that other people do, or we don’t do very often.
The challenge with this version of sin, is that we create a gradient between actions that are deemed dangerous and serious to regrettable but forgivable to normal to good. If we are confident enough, we place ourselves at the far end of this and different groups place the same acts at different places on this gradient to do this. In some cultures, a woman uncovering her knees is immodest and in some cultures a woman uncovering her breasts is immodest. Someone leaping in a car to drive up to Scotland from London to be at the bedside of a dying friend may seem noble today but in twenty years it may seem extremely selfish to have driven rather than taken the train with the reduced impact on climate change.
The definition of sin is always made by one group, not for themselves but for another group. Those with more privilege always end up with a system that is easier on them than on those who are already excluded or overlooked. So sin often ends up as a legitimation of a pre-existing oppression.
Historically the adults who face the harsh end of the moral system have been literally infantilised. But over the twentieth century group after group has risen up against this, not just against Christian morality and the work of Victorian missionaries and Catholic nuns. But against secular assumptions of good, even the UN convention on Human Rights or logical philosophies for morality.
This isn’t a new debate. In the first century the Pharisees were heavily criticised for loading moral burdens on those who were less privileged in their society.
In the middle of this debate Jesus does something surprising. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus expands the definition of sin for adults. He starts with, perhaps the most universally held sin: murder and says that the reality of the destruction is not from the final blow alone but from the small everyday acts, the sorts of acts children would be chastised for but the rest of us would rationalise. If you want to live in the Kingdom of Heaven you need to be free from anger, name calling and othering. “These are serious too” he says. He then goes through other examples. What we’re left with, as Christians, is floor of lava with almost no furniture in site to hold our weight.
But Jesus does something even more surprising.
They would all have known the old story. Murder entered humanity not through people who didn’t know each other but through brothers: through Cain and Abel. For whatever reason God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects his brother Cain’s. Cain in a fit of jealousy, lures Abel outside of the settlement and murders him. God questions Cain “Where is your brother?” and Cain’s responds “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. This phrase has echoed down the years. Before we murder, we harbour anger, resentment. We call people names so all we see of them is our name. Before that, we label ourselves as righteous and our brother as unrighteous. Perhaps before all of this, in our heart of hearts, we all say to God “Am I my brother’s keeper?”.
I’m struck by the words of Martin Luther King Jr at the height of the civil rights movement “We remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Perhaps the most destruction to humanity is done not by a tight list of sins but by the phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In our Gospel reading we see Jesus picking up the language of this story. It’s as if God the Father says to God the Son “Where is your brother Cain?” and so God the Son leaves his perfect union within the Trinity and seeks out humanity even those who have something against him.
By drawing on a story that was from the first humans, Jesus says that there is something that was always intended by God. It was always the plan that Jesus would become human. God always planned to become our brother. And by refusing to leave in the face of sin and violence and murder, God has shown absolute commitment to be with us forever. No amount of sin is going to get in the way of that.
So now we are left with a new story, a new game of life. The floor of our lives is not lava but love. God’s love. You can jump all over it.
There is no threat of hell or eternal rejection. God promises to return to make all creation new and fix all that we have broken. There is no lava to fall into, only love.
But does this mean that we now can live with abandonment, selfishly, just as pleases us?
Well in a sense, Yes. There is no threat on humanity to live in a way that shows compassion or truth or beauty. There is no lava to watch out for. You can walk wherever you like and God will still love you. You will still be welcomed into the embrace of God in Eternity. The wrong we do will be reconciled when Jesus returns. You are free to act as you please.
But with this model, power over others is taken out of our hands. All we have are these stories about how God lived in a community with others. Not a list of rules given by God that we can dictate to others as a way to oppress. In fact, others, especially those who are less privileged, may have insights into the life of Jesus that we may not be able to spot from our life experiences alone.
We lose the power that has been wielded in telling others of their sin because the only thing we can do is encourage people to look back at the stories of Jesus and discover what the characteristics of Christ could look like in their situation.
Of course, we need a legal system and laws that are clear for a society to run, we may even need some agreed policies and governance for a community like a church to function, but morality, God’s ultimate definition of good and bad that determine a person’s eternal destiny, cannot be a list of deeds and misdeeds made up by one group of people for another group. If God has embodied human flesh and blood and lived a full human life, can that be reduced to a list? Is there anywhere else Christians can look to see what it means to live a good human life? Can any person have a monopoly on the translation of this to everyone’s life?
We may see people of other faiths who look closer to the characteristics of Christ than the church does at times, we may see atheists who look more like Jesus than Christian leaders do, but fundamentally to be a Christian disciple is to make a decision to orientate our lives around how Jesus lived.
This sounds easy but engaging with a person is actually harder than following a list and avoiding the lava. Paul, with his itinerate life travelling alone between churches and held under house arrest, vulnerably shows us how hard, how painful; this can be for an individual to live out in our New Testament reading.
But there’s more. We don’t have to battle to do this alone. Paul spent his life telling people that Jesus calls his disciples to form groups. We are called to meet regularly with a group of others to explore the practices that would help us to riff around the character of Christ in our everyday lives. Stanley Hauerwas calls these groups Communities of Character, we more often call them Church.
Our actions don’t stop with us. Spending significant time together means that if one person bumps up against your short temper, there will be another person there to help smooth that over and limit the damage.
Our imagination doesn’t stop with us. If you haven’t had the sort of childhood where you were able to see what humility could look like in someone who is privileged, a church should be a place where you see someone do that.
Our identity doesn’t stop with us – we tell stories about what type of community we are. When the pandemic hit, we reminded ourselves of what St Martins has stood for down the decades. We have been a community of ongoing prayer through the Second World War so it became an obvious decision to find a way to keep Morning Prayer going and to bring in a new service of Compline and expand the number of people who would lead services. We have been a community who has committed to be in solidarity with those who find themselves destitute, so it became obvious that we should find a way to continue to do that, even if it meant Richard and a small group of others cooking in Richard’s kitchen.
Our habits don’t stop with us. Every week we collectively go through practices in our Eucharist together that act as a character gym. We are welcomed. We say sorry and make peace with each other. We listen to the stories of God and we gather around a table with anyone who will come to eat with them. This is not just an act in itself. It is also a commitment to living like this on Monday morning when we are dispersed throughout London. St Martins dispersed repeating our shared character habits.
Ultimately the invitation towards holiness or rightness or good-ness or whatever you call it, is not a pressure to avoid sin but an invitation to be near to Jesus and there is a community of character that will help you do that.
Ultimately it is the potential for the character of Jesus that is everywhere and the pockets where that is less present that are rare. The floor isn’t lava it is love. You can jump anywhere you like, all over it if you like.
You don’t have to stick to a tiny list of approved, safe list of activities. You can use your creativity. Improvise on what the character of Jesus looks like for you, in your body, in your situation. It’s as if we are invited to live our lives as fan fiction of the Gospel accounts. Imagine if Jesus walked into your office tomorrow morning. Imagine if Jesus was having that telephone conversation with your family member. What would it sound like? Have a go. See what it turns into. Come back and tell us next Sunday.
And in that everyday moment we can discover a miracle that Christ, our Jesus, the living embodiment of good, didn’t just come 2000 years ago, he is here now, with us, as we do this together.
Who wouldn’t want to live like that?