Sermon at Evensong Sunday 5 July
5 July 2009 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Dr Richard Major, Mylapore, India
The Second Lesson Romans xiv1-17 (NRSV)
People who attack the Christian way of life do not, on the whole, make a good job of it. (I can’t help feeling I could do a lot better, were I ever to change sides.) For our critics generally allege that the Christian way of life is deadening. They say we are naïve, they suggest we are childish, dull and timid. They make out that a Christian is morally unfree: depriving himself of pleasure by bowing to a silly little list of prohibitions – pinching and impoverishing his own life, and not doing anyone else much good.
That is what our critics tend to say. Such attacks cannot sting very much, because they are so far from reality. They are the opposite of the truth. A much better criticism would be to say, not that Christian life is childish, but that it is painfully adult, and too knowing to be borne. A much better criticism would be to say Christian teaching is so sophisticated as to be almost cynical.
Christianity indeed makes appalling public demands on us, but the most appalling demand of all is that we should know ourselves to be free. We cannot stop being free: we must choose our own excellence of life for ourselves, and yet still be responsible for everyone else. This is not deadening knowledge. It is frightening.
Take that passage we have just heard from the letters of St Paul, for instance, as this afternoon’s second reading. There's nothing here about keeping childish rules or pinching ones private life. St Paul is dismissive about any code of rules. But on the other hand, he pooh-poohs the idea of private morality. There is no privacy, cries St Paul, in the way we live our lives. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not even die to ourselves.
We can’t just submit to a set of rules. There is no set of rules that can make us good. You come to church each Sunday? That is a wise idea: why waste a whole Sunday away from worship? But is regular church-going guaranteed to make you good? Certainly not! You steer away from such lurid crimes as robbery, adultery, fiddling your expense account: excellent. But can such avoidances make you good? Absolutely not! These things merely lay the foundations. The foundations are laid, and now you can begin to build the temple where you propose God should live. What are you to build?
And that is the frightening bit. We humans never escape our liberty, in time or in eternity. You have to chose for yourself what sort of splendour to build from your life; I must decide how I am to press on toward sainthood.
So are we alone in these decisions? Do we decide to make ourselves for ourselves? No indeed! You and I are absolutely free, and yet you and I are absolutely bound up with each other. I see how you live, you watch what I do; and, worst of all, we have to talk to each other. Which is why Paul exclaims with passion in this afternoon’s reading: let us resolve never to put a hindrance in the way of another. If how I live bewilders and insults you, if what you do and say troubles and pains me, then our freedom has been abused.
That is why our freedom is so dangerous. It makes us responsible for ourselves, it makes us responsible for each other. There are a thousand different ways it can go wrong.
And there are a thousand different ways it can go right! There are tens of thousands of ways of being good; there are hundreds of millions of excellent lives. There are as many different ways to be good as there are people.
Being good does not mean obeying a single set of rules. Being good is an art-form. It is the greatest of all the arts: the most creative, and splendid, and perilous.
God has given you an instrument, your life, compared to which a symphony orchestra is crude as a mouth-organ. And He says to you: Play Me music! Do what no one else has ever quite dared before. Be, like me, a creator of what has never before been seen.
So we choose our music. St Paul himself was the sort of Christian we call easy-going, a morla liberal. He’d eat and drink anything at all, he’d talk to anyone about anything: there was nothing he wouldn’t look at or read; he was flexible; he didn’t trouble himself with scruples. I am persuaded in the Lord JESUS that nothing is unclean in itself, he says. But in Paul’s day, as now, there were Christian vegetarians and Christian teetotallers; Christians who honoured the justice of God by undertaking strict laws in their own life; Christians, like St Peter, struck with the magnificence of obedience and command. Paul hewed a different path – but for God’s sake, Paul cries, don’t take my word for it. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Create your own path. Strain your mind and imagination to fashion for yourself a life that is uniquely glorious. Decide what aspect of the divine fullness you want to imitate, and then imitate it.
In this church, as in almost every church, we see all about us, carved out of stone or painted with glass, images of the saints – the heroes of the Christian Faith. And are they much alike? They are not. Some of the saints were ascetics, who honoured God by giving up everything else (proving that the love of God really is the water of life by living on that, and nothing more). But some saints were kings who drank their wine, married their wives, led forth their armies. Some were politicians, who served the God of justice through the intrigues and subtleties of statecraft. Some saints were scholars, who imitated the God of truth tucked away in their libraries. Some saints were thoughtful housewives and some were careless soldiers and some were even jobbing clergymen. Yet each saint exhibited a perfection: a flash of light reflected from the solar blaze of the one God.
There are ten million sorts of heroism, ten million sorts of sainthood. God is too overflowing to be imitated in only one fashion. He bothers to make so many of us so that He might express so many facets of Himself. The supreme ecstasy and the terror of being properly alive – the ecstasy and the terror of trying to be good – is that you reveal to me an aspect of God that I can know in no other way. And I am an eternal revelation to you.
As a teenager, did you go through the phase of pretending that you were living inside a movie? Did you try to make your every gesture beautiful, as if it were being filmed? Did you try to light your cigarette as opulently as Bacall, grin as crookedly as Redford, narrow your eyes as moodily as Clint Eastwood, all for the delight of an imaginary audience?
Well, the Christian faith assures us that our reality is better than that fantasy. We do not live to ourselves, says St Paul, we do not die to ourselves. Christ, Who is a man as well as being God, urges on your human life with more sympathetic fervour than any director. His Blessed Mother and the whole company of triumphant humanity, the wildly diverse saints, watch us and cheer us on more avidly than any movie fans. For they have never seen anything quite like you.
Our individual lives are more important than we dare let ourselves think. Our individual lives are more public than we dare understand. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. Our most secret thoughts colour our manner, and thus seep into the lives of everyone we meet. We are always either nourishing or poisoning each other.
The peculiarly good-humoured way you deal with your daughter’s petulance first thing in the morning, every morning: that lifts her along, that steadies her, that aids her redemption. The sour look of your secretary: that drags you down, that taints your soul (and, incidentally, she is tainting a dozen other souls, too). There is a certain way you have, you and no one else who has ever lived, of smiling through twinges of arthritis: it preaches the Gospel to hordes. You have no idea how many people know that particular smile of yours, and feed on your courage.
So: We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. You and I are terribly at liberty to act our rôle in the world’s comedy and tragedy. You and I are also terribly responsible for each other’s performances. We can exalt each other, we can sabotage each other with every gesture, glance or even thought. We are great artists – in a troupe. Not for one instant can any life be trivial.
Is being human a comfortable predicament, then? No, it is not. But it is magnificent beyond words – its heroic seriousness is past imagining. As we contemplate for a moment the scale of our freedom, we forget the peril and the strain – there is an explosion in the heart that triggers an eruption in the mind – we enter into absolute joy, a rapture of understanding.