Sunday, May 2, 2010

Easter V - Fr Andrew Davison

The Theological Virtues - Faith, Hope, & Charity.

You may have come across the latest book by Philip Pulman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The title is not something that I like to read out in church, but there you go, that’s what the book is called: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Pulman has the good grace to label his book ‘a story’. I doubt that will prevent it from dragging souls away from God. After all, The Da Vinci Code is only ‘a story’ but it’s turned untold thousands of people away from the Faith. In Pulman’s story there are two brothers: Jesus, a good man, and Christ, a scoundrel. Jesus teaches an ethic of love; Christ complicates things with his overlay of theology and big ideas. Pulman makes his point in an inventive way but his argument has been around for a hundred years and more: Jesus was a good man but his message and example were hijacked by the Gospel writers. They ruined the simple ethical teaching of this rabbi with their theology and its insinuations that Jesus was divine. The main culprit among them, of course, is John.

Except that sometimes the villain is Paul. For other detractors it was Paul who took Jesus, an itinerant teacher, and spoilt his simple ethical message with theological additions. That was AN Wilson’s line, until he recently saw better of it.

These points cross my mind this morning because I read John yesterday, and St Paul. I do not find a simple ethical imperative obscured, as the hostile critics say. If anything, John and Paul concentrate on a message even simpler, even more imperative, than Christ as we find him in the other Gospels.

Does John deflect us from the real Jesus, that simple preacher of love and forgiveness? Here is what he writes for us today: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ It is John, of all New Testament writers, who is obsessed by love – the simple ‘ethical’ message of love – here in this Gospel and throughout his First Letter [There is an argument to be made that the ‘ethics’ of Jesus are so revolutionary that they should not be bracketed with other systems under the world ‘ethics’. I have sympathy for this idea, but I will not pursue it here.]. And Paul devotes a whole chapter to the supremacy of love. His message is strikingly similar to that of Jesus in today’s Gospel from John.

Today’s Gospel passes over all the miracles that the disciples were to perform and says instead that it is love, love supremely, that will distinguish them as Christ’s disciples. [The point is St John Chrysostom’s, as quoted by Aquinas in the Catena Aurea commentary on this passage.] ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’ – not that you perform miracles, although you will, but – ‘if you have love for one another’.

That is so much like Paul: what matters for the Christian is not miracles, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or supernatural insight, or faith to hand our bodies over to be burned, but love [cf. 1 Corinthians 13]. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another: the more excellent way. That means we can certainly agree that Jesus offered his first hearers a message of charity, expressed in words and examples such as they had never heard or seen. But we need not accept that this was soon obscured beneath theology, philosophy and abstraction. Love, charity has been the golden thread running through Christian writings ever since: Paul, John, Augustine, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avilla, and others down to the present day.

The burning flame of charity is everything. And that should cause us to stop in our tracks and search our souls. I have one more sermon left here after this one. In that sermon I can be upbeat and cheerful. That means today I can afford to be tough. What is wrong with the Church of England that we are so lacking in charity? You will think that I refer to the lack of charity in our dealings with one other when we disagree. And yes, I suppose, I do. But more than that, and most of all, I mean why are Anglicans so often content to live middling Christian lives? Why are there so few saints among us?

Christ said ‘I have come to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled’ [cf. Luke 12.49]. That fire is the fire of the Holy Spirit; it is the fire of charity. I look at the Church of England and, with the exception of some evangelicals, it does not seem much like the body of him who came to cast fire upon earth. This should be the cause of profound uneasiness.

The Church of England is making decisions that are deeply unsettling for some of us. I am not, of course, going to address those here. But to those of you who are troubled by them, I want to ask, is it not also troubling that there is so little heroic charity among us, any of us? And to those of us for whom the path the Church is taking is a cause of sorrow only at a remove, in that it distresses others, I ask this: we’re cheerful about what we see as positive developments – should we not, however, be anguished that the Church is not more aflame with charity? I for one cannot be satisfied that the average Roman Catholic I know is ardent, and the average evangelical I know is ardent, but that Anglo-Catholics have hardly been ardent for seventy-five years.

So that is a programme for each of us, and for our church, and for our movement as Anglo-catholics, if we can talk on one movement any longer. It is simply this, to be aflame with the flame of charity. In my first sermon here as tutor in doctrine I said that doctrine matters but most of all we must have charity. And in my penultimate sermon I am saying the same thing.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says that he is going away. He refers to the passion. Given to us today as an Eastertide Gospel, our minds skip ahead to later departure, the Ascension. That can give us hope. The Son ascends to send upon us the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is the charity of God. If what I have said this morning at all chimes with you, then make these days leading up to Pentecost days of prayer that God will pour his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit he has given us.

There may need to be scholarly refutations of Pulman and the rest. That should not be our first priority. What matters is what Jesus lays before us in our Gospel: ‘by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’