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Life, death, theory and practice

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 25 June 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor.

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Life, death, theory and practice

Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 25th June 2017

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 25 June 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor. Readings Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39


Earlier this morning I read an email which came from this Cathedral’s Marketing Department. In fact it was about filming, but as I happened to be reflecting on this morning’s gospel at the time, I - as they say - went off on one about the prospects of using that passage from Matthew in our corporate marketing. ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’; ‘I have come to set a daughter against her mother….. one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’, and so on. Hardly a message of family values, motherhood and apple pie. And, against a recent background of relentless news stories about suicide attacks by religious fanatics here and around the world, probably the least timely slice of christian marketing might be the last phrase: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will find it’.


Of course, when Jesus spoke, and when Matthew wrote, there was no such background in people’s minds. Christ spoke to a small group of apocalyptically-minded followers as his preaching and healing ministry got under way, and as he invited them to join in; Matthew wrote for a rather introverted group of Jewish Christians whose version of Christianity felt as though it was being squeezed out, on the one hand by the vast numbers of new gentile christians who seemed to have no knowledge of nor interest in the Jewish traditions from which Jesus came, and on the other by the majority of Jews, who considered Christianity of any kind to be a dangerous heresy. In each case, a weak, small and vulnerable group, for whom to believe might credibly be reckoned a matter of life and death.


Well, I might not fancy trying to use Matthew 10.34-39 as marketing material, but it isn’t without its topicality in a week when a national party leader has resigned, claiming that there is no place allowed in national political discourse for those who hold the kind of Christian faith that he holds. Tim Farron’s life may not have been on the line, but he seems to have felt rather persecuted for his evangelical views. He may perhaps console himself with the recollection that if in the relatively good times they called Jesus ‘Beelzebul’, prince of devils, he, and we, might expect to come in for a bit of rough verbal treatment.


At this point, I should warn you that I am about to embark on a tangential ramble away from my main point. I will, I hope, come back at some stage in the next five minutes to something approaching the main path.


I begin by quoting the Imperial German general, Helmuth Graf Von Moltke, who was writing on the art of war: ‘No plan survives the first contact with the enemy’. In other words, theories, plans and strategies are all very well, but reality makes a mess of them, and what is really needed is pragmatism and an ability to think on one’s feet.


Now on the whole, the British have proved a pragmatic people, among whom political theorising has come less naturally than for example among more philosophical peoples such as the French or Germans. There is a thread of distrust of grand schemes and zealotry which can be demonstrated rather easily with recent examples of criticisms levelled at either end of our domestic political spectrum. The current leadership of the Labour Party has been often accused of being doctrinaire Marxists; and the awful disaster of Grenfell Tower has been laid at the door of the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, which stands accused of believing that cost-cutting and deregulation are more important than ensuring what is socially necessary.


Whatever the facts of these things, the implication in each case is clear, and, to coin a word, Moltkian: these theories are foolish and dangerous, and if adhered to, lead to disaster. Well, I’m quite a pragmatic person, but I don’t believe that theories are inherently wrong because they are proved not to work in the infinite and surprising messiness of a world which always proves so different from the mental tidiness of the study or laboratory. Take, for example, the theorising of Karl Marx. He interpreted history with tools deriving from sociology and economics. That approach can throw surprising and sometimes helpful light on historical processes; and I’ve even come across a very stimulating Marxist interpretation of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their settlement of the Promised Land. Theories and philosophies are not always nonsense, even when they are often wrong. Coming a little nearer home, this is the Second Sunday after Trinity: we have embarked on a season named after a Christian doctrine, or theory. In practice, most Christians struggle to make head or tail of this central doctrine, or to find ways either to explain it or to apply it in daily life. But that doesn’t make the doctrine either wrong or useless: while, like all other statements, it fails adequately to describe an infinitely complex reality, it remains profoundly important for us to be called back to the truths it attempts to describe.


I’m going to come back onto the piste now. St Paul could be described as a theorising Christian. He doesn’t spend his letters doing what the gospel writers do, which is to try to record what Jesus said and did, so that readers and hearers can mould our lives on that. Paul based his ministry and his writings on his interpretation of what Jesus was, and is. For him, sin isn’t some list of particular misdemeanours, but a state of being; Christ isn’t particularly some historical figure, so much as the means by which the whole world has been transformed. Matthew records Jesus speaking of faith being a matter of life and death for the persecuted follower; Paul writes of faith as a matter of life and death, believing that Christ’s death has killed off sin, and his resurrection has entered us into a wholly new life.


Theory and practice; belief and reality. These things are in endless dialogue. We live in our place and at our time, not in those of Jesus or Matthew or Paul or the drafters of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is our task today, this coming week, every week, to engage with the faith as we have received it through all these prisms, not discarding them but learning from them; and to do so above all as our Collect puts it, by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love….without which whosoever lives is counted dead.’