Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: On not missing the future

05 February 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Fourth Sunday before Lent
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 58. 1-9a; Matthew 5. 13-20

Whatever our views of the man, we may just be able to agree that we have reached peak Trump for the time being – so here are some words of another president of the United States:  those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. That was John F Kennedy speaking in Frankfurt just five months before his assassination. His future was cut tragically short, but his words have a resonance in relation to the Gospel reading we have just heard, and I’ll be returning to them throughout my sermon.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from the first section of the Sermon on the Mount. In the tradition of all Jewish teachers, or rabbis, Jesus has his followers gathered around him as he begins to expound his understanding of the Jewish Law. Judaism has always had a much more subtle and common-sense attitude to the interpretation and application of its legal system than has usually been appreciated. Disputes between legal authorities in Judaism are vigorous and rigorous – and in Jesus’s time often ended up in rabbinic assemblies where, as in our supreme court, the majority view prevailed. The importance of this principle is well illustrated by a story told in the Talmud, the great body of rabbinic teaching on the Jewish Law. The rabbis were gathered in an assembly on one occasion and all those present except one were agreed on a particular legal interpretation. The dissenter, Rabbi Eliezer, was absolutely unyielding. He caused a carob tree to uproot itself and a stream to flow uphill in order to prove that he was right. Eventually he pleaded for the bat kol, the heavenly voice, to support him. The assembled rabbis listened as a voice from heaven declared, ‘End your dispute. Eliezer’s interpretation is the correct one’. After a moment’s silence the president of the assembly stood up and said, ‘The Law is no longer in heaven. It has been given to us and it contains the instruction that we follow the majority opinion. Therefore we take no notice even of the heavenly voice’.  In other words, the rabbis took seriously their responsibility to grapple with the Law and to make it a practical guide for contemporary, daily living. They understood that looking to the past was not sufficient: people needed guidance for the present. To that extent the rabbis might be said to have heeded half of John F Kennedy’s warning:  those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

Jesus’s teaching seems to have differed from that of his contemporaries by the extent it took account, as it were, of the other half of Kennedy‘s warning as well.  Jesus’s teaching is relentlessly orientated towards the future. It transcends not only the past but also the present. The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, which we are to understand as meaning the coming reign of God, recurs three times in today’s Gospel passage. Matthew helps us to see that Jesus is passionate about ensuring his followers do not miss the future because they are concentrating too much on the past – or indeed the present.  Matthew helps us to see that Jesus is not simply one among the rabbis of his time, debating, reflecting on, and refining his understanding of the Law of God in order to help people grapple with the complexities of the present. Jesus actually fulfils, he completes, the Law of God in his own person. In his life and teaching, and then through his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus collapses our present into God’s future, offering and opening up the path to true righteousness before God. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow this path to the future.

Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

I do not doubt that the complexities of our present times feel overwhelming to many.  Institutions such as the European Union or the United Nations were founded precisely to help the post second world war generation not only to face the complexities of their own time but also to look with confidence to the future. Now confidence in those very institutions is draining away, as the UK electorate has amply demonstrated. Our own Church of England seems institutionally lost in the complexities of the present as well. Fearful of losing one group of people, it alienates others. Nearly fifty percent of those training for ordination are women, yet the Church of England continues to recommend the appointment of diocesan bishops who will not ordain women; it produces episcopal reports on marriage that are full of warm words but deny many members of their worshipping communities the opportunity to affirm their commitment to one another before God. If the Church is looking only to manage the complexities of the present, how can it possibly also offer hope and confidence in the future to those whom we seek to inspire with the message of the Gospel?  How can the Church be salt and light?

The answer lies in each of us, because of course we are the Church. We cannot separate ourselves from the institution and absolve ourselves of responsibility for its actions.  We have to be ‘the activity of God in the world’ as one writer has put it. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light. Through Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension we have been given the gift of a true foretaste of the world as God created it to be. Such a foretaste immunises any temptation to retreat to the past; such a foretaste helps us to place the complexities of the present in context; and such a foretaste gives us no excuse for missing the future, the God-shaped future of the kingdom of heaven.