Sermon, 10.30 Parish Eucharist, 2nd June 2013
Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
It’s often said, sometimes in a spirit of criticism, that the bible is full of contradictions to which one can only reply that this is surely the case. Consider, for instance, these two quotes:
“…even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed. ….so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims a gospel to you contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! ….I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves”
“….the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control….If we live by the Spirit let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
The author of the second quote says just what you would expect a saint of the church to say. He comes across as a charming, reasonable, humble man, just the sort of person you would expect to meet at a vicarage tea party, were the vicar to be in the habit of arranging them. By contrast the author of the first quote, which you will have recognised as coming from one of today’s readings, sounds a remarkably intemperate fellow, full of anger and raw emotion. Were you to invite him to the vicarage you might worry for the safety of the china. Remarkably, the two passages were penned not just by the same author – St. Paul – but they appear in the very same letter, that to the Galatians.
Some biblical scholars think it extraordinary that the intemperate aspects of Paul’s letter to the Galatians were not edited out over time precisely because they are so shocking. But as so often in my experience, it’s the hard bits of the bible that are the most interesting and rewarding on careful inspection. In this case, the sheer ferocity of Paul’s words point to the importance of our engaging with and understanding the vital role that emotion plays in our spiritual lives.
It’s important to understand first of all what the dispute to which Paul was referring was about. (By the way, Galatia was a province of Turkey which lay just to the north of the modern day capital Ankara). The young church there had come under the influence of a group of people who were arguing that Christians, as an offshoot of the Jewish religion, had to observe the Jewish law and that, in particular, Christian men had to be circumcised. Understandably, this presented something of a challenge to men who were not Jewish. For Paul this struck at the very heart of the gospel he believed he had received from Jesus. Remember that Paul was himself Jewish and had been a very zealous observer of the Jewish law. By Jesus’ time this had become something extraordinarily onerous, with laws covering minute aspects of everyday life. But suddenly, this highly observant Jew experiences Jesus and realises that he is in receipt of grace. He began to see that however good he was at observing the law – and he was, apparently very good at it – he could never meet God’s standards. There was nothing, ultimately, that could make up for his sinfulness. And yet – this was the key breakthrough – despite this God loved him and forgave him all the same.
In other words, in meeting Jesus, Paul experienced freedom – and he loved it. More than that, he wanted others to experience it too – most particularly the gentiles, the non-Jews who until then he’d regarded with disdain. But now, in receipt of grace, he began to see them as his brothers and sisters. So you can imagine that Paul was horrified – appalled – when he saw the Galatians going back to the old ways and in doing so creating a major obstacle to the gentiles receiving grace.
Now Paul was a man of towering intellect. He had a brilliant brain and had been wonderfully well schooled by rabbis. Elsewhere in his letters you see him making exactly the same case for freedom in grace in measured, scholarly terms. But while Paul did not in any way disavow the importance of reason, of explaining his faith in clear, rational terms to justify it, his faith was nonetheless, at base, a profound, emotional response to God’s call. When he had that strange, entirely personal experience of the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, he didn’t give his intellectual assent to the new faith. He didn’t say: “well, I’ve weighed up all the pros and cons and can see that I need to throw in my lot with these Christians”. To the contrary, his response was a personal one of the gut. All the reasoning came later.
I stress this point because so much of the current debate about faith is a sterile argument about the proof, or lack of it, of God’s existence. Now this is emphatically not to say that we shouldn’t be able to justify our faith as something that is entirely reasonable and I am very happy to do so. It’s just that nothing any of us can ever say can prove, one way of the other, the existence of God. Frances Spufford makes this point very powerfully in his excellent book “Unapologetic”. It’s a book that makes the emotional, rather than the intellectual case for God precisely because, as he says, no-one can be certain that God exists or not because it’s not, as he puts it, “a knowable item” like 2+2=4. And that’s fine because we’d be very odd people indeed if the only emotions we valued were those we could prove by recourse to science or maths. He goes on to say:
“Emotions can certainly be misleading….but are…also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through the much larger domain of stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof…..And religion is just part of that in one sense.”
The problem here for us as people of faith is that we live in a society in which the domain of emotion is regarded as inferior to the domain of fact and that, I think, is why we often feel we have such a hard time of it and why, sometimes, some of us feel – maybe – just a little bit ashamed of having faith.
You see this at work in business life. Talk of the emotional aspect of working life, of values, is often seen as soft and wishy-washy whereas what really matters is “hard evidence” – facts, measures, numbers. To which one can only reply that yes, of course decisions should be based on good evidence, but no amount of fact can ever tell you whether what you are doing is right or worthwhile or important. Such matters are value judgements and values are inherently, inevitably, emotional. You can’t prove a value to be right or wrong however hard you try. There is enormous skill in bringing our thinking, rational side into balance with our values, emotional side and when they work in harmony we begin to become wise.
I work with the casualties of the imbalance between these two sides of our nature all the time. I come across very bright people who are highly successful in their jobs – the numbers stack up, their targets are hit and yet they are unhappy because they’ve lost touch with who they are and what really what matters to them.
It is vital that we make the case for religious faith being an entirely reasonable affair but the extent to which we find it intellectually satisfying is not the point. The real question is that of what emotional need it meets. This is why we have liturgy and ritual: processing, music, chanting, incense, prayer, marking ourselves with the sign of the cross, the eucharist – above all the eucharist – all this is designed to evoke an emotional response in us, to reach deep into our guts where we need healing.
I began to grasp this point about 15 years ago when I was worshipping at St. Michael’s in Highgate. I’d just been licensed to administer the wine at communion and for the first time I went behind the alter rail. Well, I can tell you, the world looks a very different place from there. I suddenly saw in all those people kneeling there a raw need of forgiveness, of grace that was common to all of them rich and poor, successful and struggling, young and old. It was then that I understood the intense emotional reaction – sometimes a real gut-wrenching reaction – that Jesus is so often recorded as having in the gospels when he encounters some need of healing, be it physical, mental or spiritual. And that was one of the experiences that led me to the priesthood because it helped me understand that in the eucharist something vital happens that no words can express, however eloquent.
I’ve often wondered whether Paul ever regretted his intemperate language and apologised to the Galatians for going a bit far. From what we know of him I suspect maybe not. But however shocking we find his language we need to remember that it was his guts and his energy that built the church and without them we very likely wouldn’t be here today. I believe we can learn a lot from his example. Too often, I fear, we appear timid and weak from feeling wrong-footed by those who demand proof of God’s existence, instead of which we should delight in the way our faith nurtures us and answers our deepest needs. But we will only begin to do this when we reconnect with the vital role that emotions play in our faith as in the whole of our lives. Make no mistake: there is much more at stake here than our own personal salvation. As Frances Spufford says, it’s in the quality of the grace that we receive in the eucharist that lies hope for mankind:
“Grace makes us better readers of each other. We don’t know, each of us, what the others need forgiving for, and we never will, but we know they are forgiven, as we were, and for whole moments we manage to see with calm, kind ease. Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.
And then we fail. And we try again, and fail again and go on trying. Always failing, always hoping to fail better, because we know that it is through loving the resistant, muddled, tricky, intricate, fascinating, stained fabric of this world – this only world – that it begins to glint with the possibility of the kingdom.”