After the heat of Governing Body, I came home and realised that I still had a sermon to prepare for the following Sunday. I reached for the lectionary and on the pages were readings that spoke truth into the situation I had just come from. I couldn’t deny that God was moving and thus started the preparation for one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever preached. It’s here for those who are interested.
Focus Texts: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
The two New Testament readings this morning are of particular relevance to me personally as I reflect on the meeting of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales over the last few days. We are a Church that claims to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, bearing witness to the faith passed down through the ages and regarding scripture as our supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. Not only do we hold to these things (at least on paper) but we also hold to the 2000 year tradition of the church to help and guide us in our understanding of scripture, and we draw on it to help us when we are faced with new social, moral, ethical or theological challenges.
This is not a new thing in the Church. Throughout the millennia, the Church has found itself in hot water time and time again as it goes against the grain of society and purposefully decides to maintain the faith as received and to commit itself once again to the authority of Christ as found in the pages of scripture.
In 318 AD there was a man called Arius who was a priest, but he led a movement that said Jesus was just a man. His ideas gained traction and eventually, this teaching became so powerful that pretty much every church leader in Eastern Christendom believed it. Those who said otherwise were so few in number that they managed to fit into a tiny little boat with someone called Athanasius, who was a bishop. Leaving everything behind for the sake of the Truth, they sailed up the river Nile into exile.
Today, in the Church in Wales, there is a movement which argues that we can change Jesus’ words and that we can deny the plain meaning they hold as we read them in the gospels; in the particular instance of our time, it is those words recorded in Matthew 19: 5-6 where Jesus, none other than God himself and a torah-abiding Jew reaffirms and refines the Jewish definition of marriage, that it is to be understood to be between one man and one woman exclusively.
If we subject ourselves to this movement, we do it on an understanding that Jesus is just a man, limited in power and understanding, and confined and restricted to his own time and place – in his case, first century Palestine. That first century Palestine, however, was a culture in which there were various opinions on marriage and what it means for our relationships, just like ours. Jesus teaching on marriage was just as hard then as it is to read and swallow now – maybe even harder.
We now live in the (supposedly) much more advanced twenty first century, and the current movement of our time suggests that we have outgrown Jesus’ teaching, and that we are therefore entitled to swap and “enhance” them with our own thoughts and teachings, as best serves and conforms to the current socio-political and cultural norms. This would be fine except for the difficulty being that Jesus claims to be far more than a man. He says that to see him is to see God. He says that he and the Father are one. He claims that he himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that no one can come to the Father but by him. He repeatedly refers to himself as the “I AM”. He claims to have authority and power beyond human capability. He asks us to tell him who we think he is in our Gospel reading this morning. Who do you say Jesus is this morning?
If Jesus and every word he speaks, is not the totality of Truth then he cannot be the Way or the Life either. He is a sham and we should pity ourselves for ever buying in to the Christian faith. The claim by the liberal movement is a concentrated effort to promote a revision of Jesus’ words to say what we want them to say, rather than what they so plainly mean, and is a pointed accusation that Jesus is not divine, but just a man.
This liberal movement in the Church in Wales is teaching Arianism and it’s packaged in a way which makes it seem right and just to believe in.
Going back to the early followers of Arius, they maintained a stronghold which starved the church for 60 years. But after those 60 years of spiritual starvation, Athanasius, the bishop who led the small, faithful band would triumph. He lived to see the Nicene Creed confirmed, and penned what we now know as the Athanasian Creed, part of which says this…
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
This is the faith of the Church. Jesus’ words are not to be changed at our convenience or because it would make our Christian lives easier in our modern age. We cannot stand in judgement over his words because it is by his words that we are judged and are held to account. Is it not St. James’ who warns us that not all should be teachers because they are judged more strictly for the teaching they peddle?
Brothers and sisters, Arianism is back, disguised as a presenting issue, and that is the redefinition of Christian marriage in the Church. The parallels between our situation and the little church history lesson I have just given are remarkable. The entire society of Athanasius’ day sided with Arius: there wasn’t one part of society that his ideas didn’t touch or influence. Once that influence took hold, the power it generated and authority that came from it was used to attack Athanasius. Athanasius was a high ranking official in the empire. He was ordered submit to the spirit of the age, and was commanded to serve the teaching of the Arian church, but he refused. His resolve that Christ was the King and Lord of his life would not allow him to succumb to false teaching.
It was at that point when Athanasius fled up the Nile, pursued by those wishing to harm and silence him. He was forced out of the Church which he loved and served, only taking the clothes on his back and became an exile in the West. Whilst in exile, he continued to fight from afar, building up the church by ordaining ministers who were faithful, writing theology to be distributed amongst the remnant, all the while battling his failing health.
In the Church in Wales, we now face the start of a process whereby the movement I speak of will try and change canon law to allow for Same Sex Marriages in the Church in Wales. I am more than aware of the pastoral complexities this campaign presents us with; we all know and love our LGBT friends and family members, and as a minister, I want to include and welcome all into the churches that I lead. I myself have many friends who are part of the LGBT community and on a personal level I understand how it is extremely hard to restrict the criteria of marriage to being between one man and one woman. Only God knows how much I wish that I could decide who is allowed to marry, because if it were down to me, things would be different. It’s not down to me, however, and if we are to take Jesus at his word, Christian marriage is what Jesus says it is. He only refers to marriage in the context of being between a man and a woman, and his supposed “silence” on the matter of homosexuality does not mean a condoning of same sex marriage; especially so when Jesus is so outspoken about other issues.
I would defend the cause that the LGBT community must be free to enter civil partnerships and that they must feel protected by the state and enjoy the civil benefits that committing to a person brings. But for me, to go even further and widen the definition of Christian marriage that Jesus gives us in the New Testament is to go too far.
The passage from James this morning reminds us that in our conversations, we must watch our tongue and speak graciously as we speak words of truth in love. And yet, chapter three of James’ letter starts with a warning that teachers of the scriptures will be judged more strictly because of the importance of teaching the truth. For me personally, it’s a tough challenge to hold these two things in tension, especially in the context of Governing Body, which is by nature adversarial.
Finally, as we turn back to the Gospel, Jesus ends with a very stark warning; Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
May God give us grace to speak truth in love, wisdom beyond our humanity, courage to stand firm, and discernment to know the will and purpose of God in our very challenging and uncertain times.