(Sermon 12 Dec 21)
Précis – a talk on the two themes coming down through Christian belief and how/why it is ‘love’ that comes from Jesus and not ‘sin’.
At the gardening group session immediately after my last talk I carried out the threat of testing people on what they could remember. The answer could be summed up in this phrase: not a scooby 😂 For the sake of the Gardening Group 😀😀😀 what I said last time was that there’s critical mistranslation in the Latin version of the original Greek word translated as ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ across the whole of the New Testament – and that the Latin misunderstanding has continued right the way into all subsequent translations. So when Jesus says “believe in me” he’s actually saying ‘have commitment & loyalty to what I’m saying; and when Paul says “have faith” he means the same. It is NOT believing that I AM or he IS something. The existence of this mistranslation is incontrovertible DESPITE almost every preacher this year majoring in on the English word ‘faith’ rather than its original meaning! My conclusion last time was that we have a doing faith rather than a thinking one; and that our role should be to follow the story of the loaves & fishes and multiply the Love of God to the everybody and everything in God’s creation.
The week after I spoke Stella shared an interesting ideas in HER talk. She suggested that if we take the most popular metaphors about God used in the Bible, and concentrate on just one, we limit our focus. SHE was referring particularly to prayer; but the same thought applies throughout our Christian lives. For example the readings today all concentrate on royal or powerful images – because that is the apex of the world Zephariah, Luke & Paul lived in. Jesus’ parables concentrate more on shepherding metaphors because that was the world in which HE lived – sheep and fish. Together these metaphors are like seeing different sides of a pyramid. There is however one crucial element to that pyramid and it’s something we take for granted. It’s what I suggest is the core to the pyramid and is the word that Jesus HIMSELF always uses about God – his ‘FATHER’. Understanding God as father, rather than as mighty king or stern judge, tells us which of the two dominant strands within Christianity comes from Jesus and which doesn’t.
Jesus’s ministry was one of love. When asked which was THE most important commandment he said “love the Lord your God” AND “love your neighbour”. Not two commandments but facets of ONE commandment. His words, actions and parables have love running through them; and identifying God as father tells us that the relationship is loving rather than judgmental.
What Jesus is NOT about is sin. Jesus rarely mentions sin and only really uses the word in connection with healing. As he says, it’s easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ than ‘just get up and walk’. Besides ‘sin’ actually meant ‘failing’ or ‘falling short’ of the law at Jesus’ time. It had none of the dark, twisted connotations later ascribed to Augustine. THAT aspect of sin comes from a brilliant man examining his own frailties in the light of a breakdown and of civilisation crumbling around him – followed by 1000 years of bigotry & ignorance.
Historians postulate an axial age between 800 and 200BC in which spiritual & transcendental understanding came into civilisations across the Globe with people like Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha and Jeremiah. It also the time when compassion became a defining factor in the major religions of the world. You have to wonder therefore how a Christian faith, predicated on love as it’s central tenant, could turn AWAY from love and TOWARDS a concentration on sin; because there’s no doubt: we went from ‘doing love’ to ‘thinking sin’.
The origins of this divergence are tragic and are rooted in the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The two dominant schools of thought at the time followed Rabbis Hillel and Gamaliel. Hillel is said to have considered “love of his fellow man” the kernel of Jewish teaching; and some of his quoted sayings are incredibly close to things Jesus said 20 years later: which makes Hillel almost certainly an influence. In fact given that they overlapped by 14 or 16 years one even wonders whether it wasn’t Hillel the 12 year old Jesus was listening to and debating with when his parents had to go back and find him in the temple in the early part of Luke’s gospel. On the other side of the coin Paul is recorded in Acts ch22 as ‘sitting at the feet’ of Gamaliel, whose approach called upon everyone to live by the law of the priests – a sort of ‘priesthood of all believers 1500 years before Luther’. This meant that Paul thought in terms of law even after his conversion. Here straightaway is Jesus’ love versus Paul’s law; and of course law means some people failing or missing the mark, so sin.
Take Paul’s words out of context, from letters written in response to local situations, at a time where he was manically crisscrossing the Mediterranean world to make a reality of the new faith and when the second coming was expected imminently; add the fact that Paul isn’t really interested in what Jesus SAID compared to what the forgiveness for his own sin of persecuting the church represented by the Damascus experience MEANT; go forward again 300 years to the brilliant Augustine of Hippo ruminating on his own personal failures and coming up with his theory of original sin transmitted though sex & women; go back to Nicea in 325AD where the Roman empire embraces Christianity only 20 years after Diocletian tried to stamp it out and in so doing strips out the radical social agenda in favour of a purely spiritual faith; add in a soupçon of men THINKING ‘sin & structure’ rather than women ‘DOING caring & love’ as Christianity goes from insurgence to mainstream; and you get quite possibly one of the greatest Volte-faces in religious history. The tragedy being that Jesus’ & Hillel’s love was taken over from the inside by Gamaliel’s law & sin.
For a 1000 years love seems to have been largely forgotten in practice. Thank God it re-emerged mainstream with people like the Quakers of the 17C, and btw one of the major families, the Beaufoy Quakers, are buried in our churchyard; then with evangelicals like Wilberforce behind the abolition of slavery, Shaftesbury in the fight for better working condition & Elizabeth Fry on penal reform; with the great Quaker industrialists of the 19C like the Cadburys; with philanthropists like James Darlington whose homage to his wife is our glorious west window; with the Methodists whose political influence later led to the welfare state and with other rare organisations setting out to love fellow human beings across the globe before the 20C; and again thank God for the Mother Theresas of the world and those compassionate people who set up the great aid agencies of the 20C. THEY all kept alive the flame of the love of God to all Creation after a time when the rest of our Faith seemed more intent on battering seven bells out of other denominations and of finding sin and fault with our fellow man. For centuries the Quakers and those who followed were dangerous radicals; but by the light of Jesus and the Kingdom of God THEY and not the rest of us got it right.
For my money a God outside time set a process going 13.7 billion years ago, starting with a Big Bang & using the process of Evolution, in the hope, aspiration, plan that self-aware species would evolve capable of loving each other. We are the only such species of whom can be said to be made in the image of God we know of; but there maybe more out there. The question we need to think about is whether we should follow the words and example of Jesus himself or whether we should follow what well intentioned people THOUGHT it all meant? Love versus sin. For me it’s clear. I have a commitment & loyalty to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words I believe in the God of Love.
That is where the sermon I wrote a few months ago was going to end. As some of you know I’ve been keep note of the lengths of sermons we’ve been getting, of which the shortest was the wonderful Harvest sermon at 6 mins and the longest was 36 mins: my talks normally come in at just sub 8 mins btw; however, something has been niggling at me ever since I finished this so you’ll have to forgive this add on.Everything I’ve said so far is historically and textually accurate, and, despite hearing about the medieval theology of sacrifice and sin, week after week, it is a justifiable conclusion. I’m now going beyond that and float an idea to stir up your grey cells. I suggest that the only benefit in dwelling on your own failure, or sin, or your own personal relationship with God, or indeed my own pet interest of theology, is if it empowers us to contribute actually to MAKING this world a better place. If it doesn’t it’s a distraction or a displacement activity. St Paul’s sense of sin after his earlier persecution of the early church became the driving force in spreading that nascent church and on strengthening the roots so that it could survive until Jesus came again. We need to do likewise and let every little thing we do contribute to the Kingdom of God.