Pentecost 2: Freedom and order

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Readings: Isaiah 65.1-9, Galatians 3. 23-29, Luke 8.26-39

All of you are one in Christ Jesus.

I had an interesting chat with someone over coffee last week, considering the change that occurs between the Gospel and Acts.  In one sense there’s a very direct continuity. Both are written by Luke, and Acts deliberately runs parallel to the Gospel with Paul following a pattern of the life and ministry of Jesus. But what we’re dealing with in Acts is the setting up of an institution. Jesus is always personal – he’s always forgiving, he embodies the human, the compassionate side of teaching. He doesn’t lay down laws but looks to the spirit of them: ‘Man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for Man.’

The early church is starting to put boundaries up. Different boundaries to the Jewish faith, but the reforming Spirit of Jesus is solidifying because of the need to hold the various churches together and establish common ground. It’s a tension between freedom and order.

Now this will bother some people. For some the revelation of God is Jesus. He’s what Christianity is about and in him can be found the real thing: spirituality and not religion. The Church for them is always just one step away from being the Pharisees, the bad guys. You too can have your own personal Jesus –  the spontaneous, intuitive, human feeling for the deep things.

But for others Jesus seems anarchic, dangerously liberal: Because without boundaries we don’t know where we are. Jesus lets off the adulterous woman, despite the evidence, he goes easy on the tax collectors who oppress the people, he obeys law only when it suits him: they don’t fast, they don’t keep sabbath, where will this end? Would Jesus forgive murderers, abusers, war criminals, NAZIs?

Even in this service it’s the contrast between the personal introspection of a hymn like “Be Still” and the creed that always follows the sermon, ensuring that despite the preacher we’re all still orthodox. Freedom and order.

This impulse runs throughout the Bible. Today’s Old Testament reading is bringing the people back to orthodox worship from ‘following their own devices’. There is the threat of punishment for iniquity, and the first five books of the Bible, known as the Law, set the parameters by which God’s people should live.

But at the wedding here yesterday we had a familiar reading from the Song of Songs; a book in which there’s no mention of God at all. But even more strikingly for an apparently religious love poem, there’s no mention of marriage. And in a world that is all about male desire, probably around 300 years before Christ, we have this voice:

I am dark but desirable, O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar, like Solomon’s curtains.
Do not look on me for being dark, for the sun has glared on me…
Tell me, whom I love so, where you pasture your flock at noon,
lest I go straying after the flocks of your companions.

Her skin is tanned through working outside, like the tents of Kedar, a tribe who still to this day coat their tents in black goats skins, meaning she is a peasant. Like Britain till quite recently ladies of the court would not be getting a tan. You may have seen all the many hats this week at Ascot. So for all the moral conservativism of the Bible we have these poems, featuring a young peasant girl extolling the pleasures of love, seemingly without a thought for marriage or God. It’s frequently read allegorically, but on its own terms, in its freedom, spontaneity, its humanity, it’s a surprising addition to the Bible.  A reminder that for all the Law imposes order on our desire, passion will demand its freedom.

St Paul is the person in whom order and freedom meet. Some of Paul’s more conservative views still haunt the church. He’s fighting a battle of credibility for his new churches. They’re under existential threat and the worst of Christian persecutions is still to come. The last thing he needs is for his churches to be undermined by accusations of immorality and libertinism, or of being revolutionaries or anarchists – The danger of Christianity being swept into a political movement has been a reality since they tried to make Jesus king, or like the Gerasenes in today’s Gospel are terrified by this act of power and demand he leave. While Christianity might take a view, St Paul is more interested in the souls of men and women than their political liberty. So Paul wants his new Christians to be morally impeccable and socially acceptable in order to spread the Gospel.

But this message is radical. Our New Testament reading gave us one aspect: ‘Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law… There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. Imagine hearing that for the first time as a slave. As a woman who has hardly left her house and been passed without question from parents to husband.

There’s an empowerment here, a freedom that will drive Christian Europe to the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, of tolerance and democracy. But always held in tension with the need for order. So Paul is frequently dealing with churches which have heard his message of freedom, but are outdoing each other in proving how free they are. Famously the Corinthians prove what sophisticated Christians they are by blaspheming and sleeping with members of their family. You can imagine his despair!

St Augustine summarized it best with his aphorism: “Love, and do what you want.” It sounds simple and easy, but the trick is in the simple word ‘Love’. For Augustine is telling you to Love like God loves, like Jesus loves, in that way that serves others and is careless of the self, and then do what you like. Which is to say, order your desires to want what God wants. Love – and do what you want.

Perhaps the most significant shift that Paul is describing here is the shift from justice to mercy. ‘The law is our disciplinarian’, we are told so ‘before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law’. The law being the instrument of justice. I think even from the time we’re children we develop this really strong sense of justice. It’s all that stamping of feet, screaming “it’s not fair”.

St Paul is here saying that by the law, by justice, none of us would really pass muster. We are all too human. But God’s love has been revealed to us as mercy and freedom. So as Shakespeare’s Portia says to Shylock:

That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

And the same is true in our everyday relationships. If you’re getting worked up about whose turn it is to do the washing up, to get up early with the child, you’re going to end up in serious arguments. Keeping score in relationships leads to resentment. And if your partner’s thrown wine all over the sofa and got three parking tickets, the neighbours are complaining and the police have been called, you’re not going to resolve the situation by working out whose fault it is. It is mercy not justice that makes life possible: forgiveness, not fairness. Generosity not balance.

Our lives, our relationships require a certain order. Loss of order leads to self-indulgence or exploitation. But the Gospel is a message about the freedom of love. That as God has gone beyond order and the law, so should we find that freedom to love, to give and forgive. Amen.