Sermon: Trinity 6, 26 July 2020, St Mary Magdalene, morning

Reading: Matthew 13.31-33 & 44-52
Preacher: Revd Alan Sykes

Well, we’ve just heard a couple of very rich readings. There’s almost too much meat on the bone for easy digestion. When I thought about this sermon a few days ago, I found it difficult to know where to start but I decided to concentrate on the very end of our gospel reading. Let me remind you how it goes:

And he [Jesus] said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

The new and the old – which brings me, almost logically, to what Lady Bracknell called the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Actually, I’m not going to mention the Revolution’s worst excesses, just one of the minor excesses that it perpetrated.

The revolutionaries wanted to make an entirely fresh start. They wanted to do away with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church, everything that had gone before.

One of their initiatives was to create a new calendar. The months of the year were renamed. Each month was allocated 30 days. Each day was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. All very neat and new. All very revolutionary.

And there was no more numbering of years in the old reactionary Christian manner. So 22nd September 1792AD became the start of revolutionary year one. No more Anno Domini. But none of it really caught on. You can’t just pretend that the past never happened. We are all the product of the past whether we like it or not.

You could perhaps say that the Christian church tried something similar to what the revolutionaries in France had a stab at. After all the Christian calendar begins with the birth of Jesus. A Christian year one.

The birth of Jesus was certainly seen as the beginning of a new era but Christians – most Christians at least – have never thought that what came before was therefore of no importance. On the contrary his Jewish context has always been the key to understanding Jesus. Christianity is essentially a Jewish sect with Jewish roots.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus was some rigid traditionalist who had nothing new to say. While absolutely honouring the tradition, he was always ready to draw out new implications that were latent within it.

In a sense Jesus is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven who draws out from his treasure the old and the new. That surely is our job too – to be trained for the kingdom, to know thoroughly our tradition and then to draw out new implications from within it.

There’s a well-known sentence by Cardinal Newman (now St John Henry Newman) that goes as follows: to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.

I’ve heard those words quoted in several sermons over the years but they’re often, I think, slightly misinterpreted. They are not an invitation to come up with some glistening theological novelty every five minutes. If you know anything about Cardinal Newman, you’ll know that he was very orthodox and took the Church’s inheritance in doctrine and ethics extremely seriously.

He uses the image of a tree – let’s say an oak tree. The acorn is what it is and the mature oak that the acorn grows into is what it is. They may not seem to have much in common. But despite that they are the same organism – just at different stages of development. They share the same DNA. A tree grows in accordance with its DNA but also in reaction to its environment. A tree growing alone in an open field, for instance, would look very different from the same tree growing in dense woodland.

And it’s a broadly similar situation with the Christian faith. Society changes, scientific knowledge changes. Life changes all around us all the time. It always has and it always will. Christian faith, our Christian faith, needs to be in constant dialogue with the world around it – but certainly not, I should add, in subservience to it.

Authentic Christian faith will inevitably develop in response to its environment. That’s a good and necessary thing but it should never lose sight of its own DNA. That DNA is the gospel as given to us through the medium of the Church and the Bible, which is then (one hopes) judiciously and knowledgeably interpreted.

We achieve judicious and knowledgeable interpretation by what Newman rather charmingly calls ‘the lively play of interacting minds’ – not, incidentally, by the shutting down of debate.

So, let me take an example of how the Christian faith can legitimately develop. I’ve chosen an issue of some topicality and controversy – slavery. There were, in my view, two considerations that over the centuries made it difficult for Christians to actively work for its abolition.

Firstly, nowhere in the Bible is slavery explicitly condemned. It seems to be accepted as the way things are. And secondly, as far as I can tell, slavery was throughout recorded history pretty much a universal practice around the world. Wherever they came from and wherever they went, Christians encountered it. For those two reasons, even for Christians, who believed by definition in the universality of human worth, slavery appeared to be, if not desirable, then at least inevitable.

Now, I don’t wish to oversimplify – no doubt things were complex, as things usually are – but it seems to be widely accepted that the Clapham Sect played a pivotal role in slavery’s abolition, the Clapham Sect being a group of evangelical Christians, Including William Wilberforce, who began to campaign for abolition entirely because of their Christian faith.

They came to realise that abolition was infinitely more in accordance with the DNA of the Christian faith than non-abolition. They drew out what was always there inherent in the gospel but which hadn’t been clearly seen before.

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he mentions this scribe who is trained for the kingdom of God. That’s what a Christian’s training is for – to delve ever more deeply into the gospel, to remain utterly faithful to its DNA, and then in lively play with other interacting minds to draw out its implications for our thinking and for our lives.

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