Sermon : Advent 3, 2012
It has been a busy day for my radio voice.
Earlier in the week I was phoned and asked to take part in the BBC Lancashire Drivetime programme, talking about the government’s latest pronouncement on Equal Marriage (which isn’t that equal at all, if you happen to be a member of the Church of England). As I was busy when the programme went out, I was interviewed a few hours ahead of time, and just as the news had been released – so I had to think very quickly on my feet and come up with something which was an appropriate comment for their programme; not something so dramatic that people would be distracted from their driving home and drive into a ditch – but interesting enough that they wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. It must have been reasonably interesting as I was phoned up the following day, and invited to go on national radio, Radio 2, no less, to be interviewed by Jeremy Vine , again on the Equal Marriage legislation.
The point I was trying to make in this interview, was that – in my view – a small number of people with a very conservative theological position are keen to ensure that women have a submissive role in the church and in society. In the case for the ordination of women as bishops, they object to a woman having headship over men; they believe that it is a woman’s role to submit to men in authority, so a position of leadership is incompatible with their sex. On the ordination of women as bishops, it is my view that it is the Church’s task to discern those whom God is calling to serve as a bishop (as well as priest and deacon) in the Church. And the Calling Spirit of God is not subject to any gender apartheid, and can call men and women to any role be it exalted or be it humble.
In the discussion on Equal Marriage, the conservative position (as recently articulated by the Archbishop of Sydney) believes that in a marriage, the wife should submit to her husband, for a marriage requires that essential complementarity between a dominant male and a submissive female. I would argue that marriage is an equal partnership made up of a loving couple who desire to bring all that they are into a relationship of commitment and trust, faithfulness and love. That is certainly what I teach when I prepare couples for weddings here, and I have to say, I have never had criticism that I have omitted any theology which suggests that the bride should submit to the groom in the marriage ceremony. (In some cases, one would be forgiven from assuming that the opposite dynamic were true!)
In the second radio interview, I was pitted against another clergyman (he would hate it if I called him a priest; despite it being in the Book of Common Prayer, it is a term he hates) and – as is the way in such things, the producers wanted us to be as adversarial as possible, and we were prompted to be as forthright as we could be. But I do hate these media-staged jousting tournaments, where we are supposed to keep attacking until someone falls off their horse (as it were).
But there are strong views which are held as a result of our theological convictions, and our beliefs. And in different times in different places, they may all be right – for despite our disagreements, we hold that the core essentials of our faith which we share are more important than the issues which divide us. And this is the fact which makes these discussions bearable – it would be a very rare and extreme case when we would have to conclude that the person arguing against us is not at all a Christian. For me to say that, they would have to deny the existence of God, or the divinity of Christ, or the power of the Holy Spirit.
And it is not new in Christian tradition to discover strongly differing views. Disagreement and discord has been a constant throughout the two millennia of the Christian era.
St Paul was travelling the known world preaching (and defining!) the Gospel of Jesus Christ shortly after the death of Jesus, and from his writing we are already aware of divisions in the church. We know that in Philippi, there were arguments and dissention, as well as a lot of external pressure for Christians to renounce their faith. Paul himself had been imprisoned there. But for a church founded by Paul himself to be riven by disagreement and division was a great sadness for him. So in his letter to the Church in Philippi (we know it as the letter to the Philippians) he seeks to build them up in faith, to inspire them to end their divisions, and to focus on God. Indeed, in the two verses directly before our reading today, he appeals directly to Euodia and Syntache to be reconciled to each other.
So when we hear this reading, in our own church, riven by its sad divisions, we have to hear Paul’s words as addressed to ourselves. But even though Paul’s words are written from prison, on his way to Rome and martyrdom, they are not tough, uncompromising words – but they are gentle, calm and coaxing. “Do not worry about anything!” (‘Be careful for nothing’ in the words which Purcell set in the famous “Bell anthem” setting of these words.) “For the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.
So he commends the church to focus on God, to “rejoice in the Lord always” and to be gentle in all things.
The “Rejoice in the Lord always” theme of his writing has a very clear link to the Old Testament reading from the prophet Zephaniah – another text we hear sung more often than read: “Rejoice greatly” as set by Handel in “Messiah”. Here the prophet is dispelling the fear of impending disaster by calling people to repent and return to the pure worship of God, which had been diluted by the wives and entourage of King Solomon. Hope that the fortunes of Israel will be restored, and enemies vanquished brings great comfort to the hearers of this prophecy.
And our Gospel reading for today – which begins so unpromisingly “You brood of vipers!” is a clear teaching of the great forerunner, John the Baptist, who is our focus today, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. He gives clear advice to tax-collectors as well as to soldiers, as to how to live their lives in faithfulness to God, whilst maintaining professions which were highly sought for the power it gave to extort money from the people.
His call to repentance was in preparation for the coming of the new Messiah – but his own way of preparing for the Messiah was to confront power without fear – as in his famous condemnation of King Herod – over a marriage.
The opinions then and now about who can marry whom will continue to rage. Because they are important.
But even more important than these arguments is the faith that unites us, and the fact that we disagree about some of these issues must never stop us from being a Church and focussing on things of paramount importance to our faith. And even though I have strong views on matters such as the ordination of women as bishops, and equal marriage, and don’t hesitate to express those views – I will continue to defend the right of people who have opposing views to express them too. For the Inclusive Christian Community here is big enough to hold a diversity of views on all manner of subjects.
But we must be united in the First Order issues, such as:
How we seek to worship God and live our lives in faithfulness
How we entrust to God our hopes and fears in regular and constant prayer?
How we seek to bring God’s joy and peace to the whole world?
How we can be active in God’s name in our world today?
How we respond in the name of the Church to the terrible acts of violence of which humans are capable – or the oppression of a nation by a government or oppressive regime?
I give the last words to Paul from the Epistle:
“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.