The Revd Brutus Green
A 20th Century conductor, not our Robert, once said, “Try everything once except incest and folk dancing” - which rather makes you think he had tried everything. It’s a popular sentiment these days for our rather permissive society. Not so common a philosophy in the Bible, though. Our Old Testament reading and epistle reminded us of God flooding the world because of its great sinfulness. The lament of the psalm was for God to ‘remember not the sins of my youth’, the Gospel gives Jesus’ first words as ‘the Kingdom of God has come near, repent’.
The language of sin doesn’t really resonate with people now, though. Sure we make mistakes, sometimes we’re a bit selfish, and there are plenty of other people who are willfully mean. Then we could probably line up some historical figures who were actually evil: Pharaoh from The Prince of Egypt, Hitler and Stalin of course, Nick Griffin, Rupert Murdoch, David Hasslehoff, I’m sure you can think of more. But we think of our own judgements and actions less in terms of sin. That would seem archaic. Perhaps if we commit some tangible act or crime we might think of it as sin - murder, adultery, theft - but then we can sometimes go weeks without accomplishing these.
So maybe we should drop the language of sin altogether. After all most sinners have grown up in broken homes, or had poor educations, or society has not given them the breaks that would have made them model citizens; or they have a defective gene or a mental disorder; or they have fallen into bad company, or have a different culture with different morals. In fact, human beings are all so different, isn’t calling someone sinful really just being judgmental? My sin is your virtue…
It’s perhaps not surprising that given this brouhaha over personal responsibility, God’s usual recourse in the Old Testament is to punish an entire nation, sometimes the whole world, like in the Great Flood. What this should tell us, though, that sin is not so much a personal failure as a structural problem. To believe the world is fallen does not require the historical certainty of scantily clad gardeners in Eden, the demonization of snakes, or the eroticizing of apples. The fall is a reality present around us and within us - the sickness unto death. The social ills which a short walk through London will expose; the secret thoughts of our hearts which we dare not expose to the world.
On the other hand, in this first appearance of Jesus in today’s Gospel, we have the proclamation that ‘the Kingdom of God has come near’. If the kingdom means anything it means an absence or an escape from sin, so we seem to have this double situation where on the one hand we’re clearly still a part of an imperfect world, and, on the other, another world has been made present, a world somehow divorced from the fallen, corruptible world.
The best illustration of these two worlds is the crucifixion - because, depending on your perspective, the cross is a victory either for sin or for love. For the fallen world, the cross is the victory of sin because it shows how violence wins. Jesus is executed. The force of power triumphantly asserts itself. As has been seen recently in North Africa and the Middle East, the hierarchical order of power maintains its own position - the weak, despite their numbers, and despite their ethical higher ground, are crushed.
In the terms of the kingdom, however, the cross is also the victory of love. It is the demonstration of perfect self-offering, complete vulnerability, a love that gives of itself even unto death. Similar sacrifices continue to be made in Tibet, in Syria - sacrifices that do not flinch from the victory of sin, but testify that the victory of love achieved in these situations is greater - that the victory of love’s sacrifice eclipses the victory of sin’s violence.
It may well be that nothing changes in Syria or Tibet or elsewhere. Are these sacrifices then in vain? Do we judge an act of love by the consequences and results it produces? If we do then we have by another way submitted to the world of power - we are still operating under sin, because love has become a form of manipulation rather than a different way. The point of the cross was not that in the end Pontius Pilate or the Jewish authorities were forced out and had to admit they’d made a mistake, but rather that it expressed a different set of values, which were true. If your life is oriented towards power then the cross is an embarrassment, a total defeat. The cross only makes any sense if you start from the way of the kingdom - that love triumphs over all things, including death, just by being love.
So we have two ways of seeing the world. If we cling to the world of sin, we see it as a conflict of various powers in which we must assert ourselves, become dominant, use force to achieve our goals, to fulfill our needs. This is the way of seeing the world that Jesus tells us to repent of. This is the world under judgement that gets its come-uppance in the flood. Then there is the way of seeing the world that Jesus proclaims is at hand, the Kingdom of God. This is the way of seeing the world in terms of love - that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things; that is patient and kind; the love that gives of itself even unto death.
I’ve been reading Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters recently which are poems all addressed to his wife, Sylvia Plath, written after her death. Together they’re a quite amazing record of the emotional complexity involved in love and grief. I was particularly struck by one in which he remembers a trip when she got food poisoning and became very ill. His initial reaction was to be a good nurse, making soup and doing everything he can for her. Then he writes:
As I paused
Between your mouthfuls, I stared at the readings
On your dials. Your cry jammed so hard
Over into the red of catastrophe
Left no space for worse. And I thought
How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?
And I recoiled, just a little,
Just for balance, just for symmetry,
Into sceptical patience, a little.
If it can be borne, why make so much of it?
'Come on, now,' I soothed. 'Don't be so scared.
It's only a bug, don't let it run away with you.'
What I was really saying was: 'Stop crying wolf.'
… Then the blank thought
Of the anaesthesia that helps creatures
Under the polar ice, and the callous
That eases overwhelmed doctors. A twisting thought
Of the overload of dilemma, the white-out,
That brings baffled planarian worms to a standstill
Where they curl up and die.
You were overloaded. I said nothing.
I said nothing. The stone man made soup.
The burning woman drank it.
Again we have two ways of seeing the world. Hughes can respond to the evident need in love - to nurse, to care for, to trust. But is he being taken advantage of? A trace of scepticism, the overload of caring too much, the sheer effort of continuous loving, easily becomes overwhelming and we can find ourselves withdrawing from the painful trials of love.
We have all been in situations where we have been caring for, helping out, people when it has occurred to us that we are actually under more pressure, our situation is objectively more difficult - it might be our partner, our children, our parents, our friends. The force of resentment can be powerful at these times, and sometimes it is right and we do need to walk away or challenge those who are making demands of us.
But the cross read as the victory of love is also an inspiration that actually this unrecognized self-giving is the highest calling of humanity and the closest we are able to get to God.
I have tried to suggest to you that there are two basic ways of seeing the world. Through the eyes of the fallen world, we look to ourselves, we see victory in the employment of power, as far as we are able to achieve our will we are successful. The cross is the victory of the strong. But Jesus says ‘the Kingdom of God has come near, repent’. It is an invitation to see the world differently. It is to say that violence and power do not determine what is of value and success. It is to trust and not be sceptical; to put others before ourselves. It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross; to see the cross as a victory over sin, the victory of love giving itself for the world.