Given by John Barratt
20th February 2011
1 Corinthians 3
1 Corinthians 3: 11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”
When the first Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, religious opinions divided people. She firmly told the French Ambassador: “There is only one Jesus Christ. The rest is a dispute over trifles”. Lord Burghley, her principal adviser, listed the “diversities and varieties” that were “breeding nothing but contention” e.g. “Some say the Service and Prayers in the chancel, others in the body of the Church. Some say the same … with a surplice, others without a surplice. The table standeth in the body of the church in some places; in others it standeth in the chancel. … In some it standeth upon a carpet; in others it hath none.”
If we are attracted by what we know about Jesus, how do we make him the foundation for our lives, instead of escaping into contentious “diversities and varieties”? To take inspiration from the wonderful village pantomime, if Jesus’ cross marks the site of treasure, how do we get there and start digging.
Jesus left no written instructions, only his friends’ memories. Written accounts of what these disciples remembered circulated amongst the following generations, and the Bible’s four Gospels represent authoritatively ‘what was handed down by the apostles’. Our east window upholds this tradition – the apostles Matthew and John, with Mark, the apostle Peter’s interpreter in Rome, and Luke, the apostle Paul’s assistant, and Jesus in the centre.
Their Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, but explain why Jesus should be taken seriously. Matthew, who provides most of our Sunday Gospel readings this year, collected Jesus’ challenging teachings into five groups, and at present we are hearing from the group called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. Less than 100 years after Jesus’ death, a philosopher convert called Justin recorded a hostile philosopher who had written: “I am aware that the precepts in your so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no-one can keep them.” Today, our Gospel passage ends with [Matt: 5: 48] “Be perfect, therefore …”. Jesus’ challenges are so extreme that it takes determination to face them squarely.
However, reflect that the Gospels also show Jesus being strongly opposed to those who imposed religious burdens on people. Jesus’ challenges are not empty religious duties, but expose us to the reality which underpins what he called ‘the kingdom of heaven’. Whatever our limited understanding of life might be, it must involve reality, or we really are adrift without a map. Today we listened to an extract from Psalm 119: “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.” This is the basis of Jesus’ challenge to be “perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect”. He calls us to our senses [that is the real meaning of ‘repentance’], to choose a counter-cultural reality that he provokes us to understand and to pursue. And the current version of Middle Eastern conflicts from before the time of Jesus shows just how counter-cultural today’s Gospel passage is.
Three weeks ago we heard the Beatitudes, setting out the happiness of those who humbly persist in recognising painful realities. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus asserting the value of the Law and the Prophets. But law is at best objective guidance; it does not necessarily promote the human liveliness which was the prophets’ and Jesus’ concern. Last week we had some practical examples of Jesus’ deeper examination of the Law. This week Matthew gives us another example, about Retaliation. How should we deal with those who seem, or are, hostile to us.
Through the centuries before Jesus there had been stages in Jewish thinking about retaliation; as I describe them, weigh them up and see where your appreciation of ‘reality’ comes alongside them. Do you agree with a Genesis passage [4:14 and 25], that sevenfold, or another at seventy times sevenfold vengeance is the way to treat opponents. Or do you prefer Deuteronomy [19:16-21] where it says “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This careful returning of injury to the same extent and no more – one eye, not two eyes, for one eye – is a disciplined, civilising change. But by the time of Jesus the rabbis had commuted retaliation to monetary damages and fines, and declared a rule: ‘Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you’. They based this on the Book of Proverbs [25: 21 – 22] which St. Paul cited in his Letter to the Romans [12:19-21]: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, …”. This was intended as a better strategy, shaming the opponent into a change of heart. How do you feel about that?
We have nearly caught up with Jesus! In today’s passage, instead of the old “eye for an eye”, Jesus advises us to turn the cheek, to go the second mile, to love our enemies. As Matthew later records [7:12], Jesus makes the rabbis’ rule more positive: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”. Despite all the things that go wrong in our world, sometimes we can see this realistic, universally wise teaching being put into practice. Recently the Pope and German Lutheran leaders have agreed that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should be celebrated ecumenically. What a tragedy that this should be news, but better late than never! In Egypt, to block further violence, Muslims flocked to Coptic Christmas services which had been threatened by extremists. In Pakistan, the Governor of the Punjab was murdered because, despite knowing the risk, he stood out against the persecution of minorities by fellow Muslims.
You may recall the very personal examples of forgiveness set by the wife of the murdered London headteacher a few years ago, or the campaigning energy of the parents of the murdered teenagers Stephen Lawrence and more recently Jimmy Mirza. One of my schoolteachers was a Jew who had been forced to leave Dusseldorf in the 1930s. In 1944 he overheard some German prisoners-of-war working on a farm, and recognised their Dusseldorf accent. He immediately greeted and befriended them. I recall meeting a woman whose father, husband and two sons had been killed in a recently-ended civil war, and who was volunteering in an orphanage mainly comprising children whose parents had been killed fighting for the other side. “I have to do it” she said “or hatred would eat me up.”
Our own William Law, the 250th anniversary of whose death we will be celebrating this year, wrote [in “A Serious Call to a devout and holy Life”]: “If religion forbids all instances of revenge, without any exception, it is because all revenge is of the nature of poison; … If religion commands an universal charity, to love our neighbour as ourselves, to forgive and pray for all our enemies without any reserve; it is because all degrees of love are degrees of happiness, that strengthen and support the Divine life of the soul.”
Recently Pope Benedict, deploring anti-Christian violence, reflected on the Beatitudes, and said “The Church does not fear poverty, derision or persecution in a society that is often attracted to material wealth and worldly power. … Jesus was willing to be persecuted and despised to the point of being condemned to death.” It is the accurate summary to be expected of such a profound biblical scholar.
Can potential poverty, derision, persecution and death make a desirable, enduring foundation for happiness? Where have you reached in assessing the realism of Jesus’ teaching? Are you prepared to give it a go? We will, of course, need the fresh starts which the Gospel constantly offers, and the encouragement of fellow disciples, as we try to defy prevalent cowardly and selfish attitudes. It’s a tough call, not for a religious elite interested in “diversities and varieties … breeding nothing but contention”, but for the ordinary people whom Jesus loved. This is our opportunity to realise that we are made in the image of God, in whom the reality of perfection rests, and “no one can lay any other foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Let’s take him seriously. We will then find the treasure which neither moth nor rust can corrupt, nor thieves break in and steal!