This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 12th February. The texts were: Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. It was one of those sermons which involved struggle and hesitancy before the text - and in relation to life and witness of the church in our own generation.
Having written a chapter for the collection of essays entitled Thinking Again About Marriage theology of marriage has been much on my mind. In view of discussions about marriage and sexuality in the run up to General Synod, what Jesus says about the nature of relationships is felt even more acutely.
As we think about the 'goods of marriage' - and how we bless commitment and faithfulness - we must also have the courage to name and resist any form of abuse; to walk with the vulnerable and broken-hearted. What follows is concerned with recognising the challenge of an ethic rooted in who Jesus is - which is oriented towards fidelity and flourishing. This is mainly wrestling with text - and the cries our hearts.
The musical She Loves Me has enjoyed an acclaimed revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In many ways, it is as sweet as the venue suggests: delightful witty and full of tender romance and old-school elegance.
Set in a parfumerie, it is a play that weaves together three separate love stories: George and Amalia moving from loathing, liking to loving - unaware that they are each others anonymous lonely hearts admirers; the beautiful and skittish Illona who’s seduced and betrayed time and time again; the faithful romantic, Mr Maraczek whose own marital misfortunes takes us beyond comedy to a place of crushing despair.
We can identify with these characters: loneliness, sexual attraction and the longing for companionship; disappointment, misunderstanding, betrayal; errors of judgement, moments of vulnerability, new beginnings.
All the risks and joys of being in relationship - as a couple, business partners, colleagues and friends - are revealed: there are moments of renewed resolved and changes of heart; words of truth are spoken and gestures of forgiveness embraced. In this seemingly frivolous world of perfume, face cream and fancy soap - it seems that a seriousness about faithfulness and integrity triumphs over infidelity.
The call to act faithfully is at the heart of our worship: it is more than a moment of theatrical escapism. In this place, we bring all that we are before God - our shortcomings and hurts, the things we’re thankful for and the burdens that weigh us down.
Honesty about our human nature - expressed in our collect as unruly wills and passions - is met in worship with honesty about the nature of God. The one who created all things, identifies with us in Jesus Christ.
From infancy to his sermon on the mount, from the feeding of the 5000 to his entry into Jerusalem, from his death on the cross to the new life bursting from the tomb, we see the abundant love of God. We are to fix our hearts on this love - which sustains, challenges, heals and consoles.
That love still reaches out to us as we move through the acts and scenes of our liturgy - of gathering, confessing and being forgiven; of hearing and responding to God’s word; the cries of our hearts and our world are offered in prayer and the gift of peace is shared; broken bread and outpoured wine draw us into deeper communion. A communion of faithfulness.
In this drama, we are in Christ. We are his body which is blessed and sent out - dispersed in into our homes, workplaces and communities in the power of the Spirit.
Through the lens of worship we hear Jesus’ teaching as good news. For here, we receive grace to act faithfully - to love what God commands and to desire his promises.
Command and promise aren’t lived out it isolation - we live it together both in our worship and in our lives. We are to act faithfully in accord to a person; not a principle. All that Jesus says is about relationships.
Relationships between friends and colleagues; about relationships of faithfulness and intimacy. The form of repetition stresses again and again that to love what God commands is a matter for the heart not just action.
Jesus sayings are hard. His illustrations sound extreme and bizarre. He stretches language, subverts complacency, reveals the demands of following him. He is describing a way of life, rooted in him; he invites us to take responsibility not just for our actions, but for our motivations. He is describing a community of hope and healing; humility and forgiveness.
As we confront the loving mercy of God in worship, we increase our capacity to reflect on our own emotional responses; to recognise and address our own anger and jealousy before it spills over to impact on others. If we are to be agents of reconciliation, let us seek to resolve grievances we have with others. Jesus deepens our understanding of these obligations.
Our calling as disciples is profoundly relational, not merely about dignity of our outward duties. Our relationships ought to be means of honouring one another in the promises we make. There is a fundamental level of integrity which we are called to uphold - epitomised in truthful speech which does not need to hide behind oaths, but which is about keeping our word.
Jesus is primarily concerned with wholesome and flourishing human relationships - he’s alert to the impact of infidelity in the most intimate of relationships. But, says Jesus, look into your hearts: like anger, lust as a reaction, motivation or intent is also something to be kept in check. It opens us to exploitation, manipulation and potentially reduces others to objects of our unruly wills and passions.
In relation to marriage and divorce, Jesus words are about protecting the vulnerable and giving dignity to the dependent. Setting aside differences in social context, life expectancy and legal understandings of marriage, Jesus is being more radical than it sounds to our ears.
He is restoring - or introducing - a balance of power with the marriage relationship. He’s challenging the practice of dismissing wives lightly. Instead he allows space for the couple to enter into a mutual relationship between helpmates or companions. It's the calling of the church to extend this circle of blessing.
The goods of marriage - fidelity, shared endeavour, fruitfulness, stability, kindness, and care - are a cause of blessing; and a microcosm of the goods of life in Christ. Jesus’ words enable us to appropriately grieve for relationships which break down under the pressure of circumstances or disagreement, and to walk with the broken-hearted, extending hope of new life; his words call us to name exploitation, abuse and bullying - to have the courage to end such cycles and bring release; in him, we are to console the anxious and traumatised.
Jesus teaching flowing from the beatitudes calls us to a pattern of life: together we learn to be a place of blessing - in worship, relationships and tasks. We share all that we are in a diverse community. Regardless of class, health or education, economic or relational status, gender, age or sexuality we are to act faithfully - choosing to fix our hearts on the call to love. As the body of Christ we affirm and encourage one another in that pattern of life.
Paul brings us back to the pragmatic working out of this: he asserts that we are to be guided by the Holy Spirit rather than living by the standards of the world. And yet, the Corinthians, like us, get caught up in their own quarrels and jealousies; they follow their human inclinations in asserting rival loyalties.
We are to heed his advice too: recognising that we are all servants of God, with particular responsibilities within a common purpose. Paul doesn’t invoke personal authority or individual talent; there is no manipulation or coercion of others. Instead he speaks of nourishing one another - recognising that we work together with the free agency of others in love; trusting God for our growth.
May we choose to keep the commandments of love; may we desire God’s promises; in the drama of our lives, may we be serious about faithfulness and integrity. Receiving the bread of life in this Eucharist, we are nourished in faith and love by Christ; we receive his grace that we might be Spirit led, breath by breath, as people of blessing and healing. Amen.
© Julie Gittoes 2017