Sermon at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 19 July
19 July 2009 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
Earlier this week one of my colleagues circulated to us all a copy of an article in the Guardian by Karen Armstrong, an ex-Roman Catholic nun who now writes extensively on religious matters and who, among other things, encourages positive relations between different religions. The essential point in her article is that today many people have a distorted view of what constitutes religious truth. They, or perhaps even we, see it too much in terms of propositions about such matters as historical truth that the ‘believer’ is supposed to ‘believe’, rather than an approach to living that is rooted in the religious tradition of which we are a part.
She spoke of there being in the pre-modern world two ways of attaining truth, one she called ‘logos’, the way of science and reason, and the other she called ‘mythos’ which she describes as ‘an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.’ And she said that today, in our more scientific world, some think that ‘logos’ is the only way to know anything real, and that we can therefore dismiss ‘mythos’ because their visions cannot be proved rationally as much of it lies beyond the reach of empirical sense data. She is not sure that way of thinking is wholly sensible.
Now personally I believe she is on to something important there. For if you take the really big questions of living, is there any meaning in this life, is there any purpose that can provide a structure of psychologically healthy living, what is good and what is bad, almost any answers to those sorts of questions depend not on scientific knowledge, or even on detailed historical knowledge where it is available, but on ways of looking at the world, religious or otherwise, that go beyond the knowledge of pure facts, to beliefs, to values, to visions of how things are or could be. We do still need ‘mythos’ as well as ‘logos’ in today’s world.
And that brings us to the epistle for today. The Epistle to the Ephesians is one of the boldest statements of Christian faith in the New Testament, where the author claims that Christ makes known the purposes of God. Whether that author was St Paul or not is much debated by New Testament scholars, but that question need not detain is now. But in the passage we heard this morning the author talks of Jesus Christ breaking down ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ that lay between Jews and Gentiles.
Now there are two views of what that wall might be. Some see it as referring to the physical wall that existed in the Temple in Jerusalem between the Court of the Gentiles, where people of all nations were allowed, and the Temple itself, where only Jews were allowed; others though see it as the psychological wall that was created by the existence of the Jewish law, or system for ensuring ritual purity, that really separated many Jewish people from their Gentile neighbours. And the author is making the very bold statement that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and particularly what was shown by his death, broke down that wall and made for a new way of Jew and Gentile to be together in the emerging Christian Church.
Now clearly, apart from the historical fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are in the world of what Karen Armstrong calls ‘mythos’. We are talking about pictures and visions that enable us to make sense of things rather than talking about simple scientific facts. And what the author of Ephesians is saying, and what Christianity has continued to say thereafter, is that the death of Jesus opens up a way into the knowledge of God that really can change things and change the way we relate to those who are different from ourselves. For what we see on Calvary is Jesus showing us in the most remarkable way what God is like. Calvary is, if you like, a window into the heart and soul of God and we can see that God suffers for us, that he wants above all to reconcile us with himself and with one another, and the way into that is not by the rigid adherence to a legal framework of ritual law, but the simple acceptance of God’s generosity and grace in breaking down that wall of hostility, and probably other walls of hostility, by sacrifice and by grace alone.
Now of course how exactly that works has been a matter of huge theological debate over the years, and I suppose it is a sad comment on what the church can sometimes do that it can make even that act of generosity on God’s part an battle ground over which Christians fight for their so-called ‘right interpretation.’ But the point about that vision is that it is not something that can be scientifically demonstrated, and certainly not rationally proved, - but it can be lived. To live as though we are forgiven and accepted by that which is at the heart of the universe, to live in the understanding that sacrifice and pain and dreadful suffering has been endured for us, and to live with others in the understanding that they too have been loved and forgiven by that same God, that is potentially transforming as a way of being not just in our relations with God but in our relations with one another as well. And that, I believe, is a very large part of what being a Christian is all about.
One of the perennial dangers of religion, any religion but including some expressions of Christianity, is that it can all too easily become tribal. We and people like us form a church that stands over against the rest of the world. But I venture to suggest that is not what real Christianity is about. It is in fact about being accepting of others, about being forgiving and generous, it is about breaking down walls of hostility, but we do that not in our own strength and wisdom, but because God has done it for us. If we all really believed that and acted upon it perhaps we could make some small step in changing the world.