Before coming to St. Mary’s 6 years ago I spent three years in theological training. Most people who train for ordination do so full time at theological college. For me, the need to continue earning a living meant that I had to do my training part time, while holding down a very full time job. There were lots of disadvantages to this arrangement with stress not least among them, but there was one big advantage which I wouldn’t have forgone for anything. Doing study part time means that you mix with all sorts of people from all sorts of church backgrounds. This is in contrast to full time theological college which caters only for people of the same background.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that we had a crazy mix of people – from low church, charistmatic evangelicals who would speak in tongues and wave their arms around at the drop of a hat, to the highest of high church anglo-catholics who could debate for hours the right way to cense the altar. On social issues we had the hard-line conservatives who were very concerned about homosexuality and women bishops, and liberals of a diametrically different view. And then, of course, we had all points between these various positions.
You might think, given the church’s divisions, that this would have been a recipe for disaster. In fact the opposite was the case. It was common for the strongest friendships to form across the doctrinal divides. As a result, we learnt to respect not just each other but our different traditions as well. More than that, it encouraged us to see the weaknesses and pitfalls of our own traditions, as well as their strengths.
Take, as an example, the biggest fault-line in the Church of England, namely that between conservative evangelicals and liberal anglo-catholics like us. To put it very crudely, if you are a conservative evangelical you talk a lot about sin and judgement, and if a liberal anglo-catholic you talk a great deal about love and mercy. As I said, there are strengths and weaknesses in both positions.
The more you emphasise sin for instance, the more uncomfortable and judgemental things become and you begin to enter the realm of the hell-fire preacher. Listening to our gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist appears as the poster boy for hell-fire preachers. Just listen to him again as he lets fly at some of those coming to him for baptism:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?….Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”
Goodness! It’s hardly the sort of thing that you hear from the pulpit of St. Mary’s every Sunday, is it?
The problem though, with an unrelenting focus on human sinfulness is that it leaves us feeling hopeless, like so many miserable worms. Either that or it drives us into a frenzy of good works done out of fear rather than love. Taken to extremes, the unrelenting focus on sin that the conservative evangelicals tend towards makes it seem like it’s sin that controls the world, whereas the bible tells us very clearly it’s God.
But what about the other side of the coin? The more liberal branches of Christianity like our own are more hopeful and optimistic about humanity thanks to their emphasis on God’s love and mercy. After all, if God loves us there must be something good and lovable about us, mustn’t there? But again, taken to extremes this position tends to minimise – even trivialise – the impact of sin, even to the extent of making us blind to it.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, many asked how it was that German churches had not opposed the Nazis. Some indeed, had even collaborated with them, although there were others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s church, that took a brave and defiant stance. The answer that Karl Barth, regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the 20th century gave, and that many – even in the liberal churches agree with – is that German Christianity had, over the centuries, come to emphasise human goodness far too much and had thereby invested too much hope in it. The result was that it was blind to evil when confronted with it in Nazi form.
As Ruth Lampard said last week, the whole point about Advent is that we open our eyes to sin and our need of salvation. Advent is, in other words, a wake-up call and I had a wake-up moment last weekend. I was sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper when I came across an article about the work of the low pay commission. It contained a number of stories about the working poor, including one hospital worker who has not had a holiday in years and whose only hope of buying a turkey for Christmas is to save up supermarket vouchers over the year. People like her were telling the Low Pay Commission that raising the minimum wage from just £6.31 to £6.50 would make an appreciable difference to them. That’s an increase of just 19p per hour. A few pages later I read that the financial rewards given to the highest paid City workers rose by one third in 2012. At the time, I tutted to myself about the unfairness of all this and went on munching my toast. It was only later that weekend that I read today’s gospel passage that I fell to wondering what John the Baptist would have made of all this and I suddenly felt the injustice of it in the most visceral way – I felt really angry.
But of course, it’s no use pointing the finger at the bankers and saying it’s all their fault. They are but members of a society – as are we – that has a rottenness about it. It’s a rottenness that values the acquisition of money and possessions above the demands of fairness and decency that would see the poor enjoying the basics of life. And it is, of course, a grotesque irony that this acquisitiveness should reach its zenith at Christmas time, witness the people injured in the crush to snap up discounted goods just over a week ago as British retailers copied the US idea of “Black Friday”, a day at the end of November on which stores aggressively discount goods so as to encourage people to go out and spend.
But saying all this, who am I to talk as I plan, yet again – and apparently against my will – to spend large sums of money on “stuff” this Christmas that my family really don’t need and probably won’t enjoy that much?
Now, I am sorry to sound like a kill-joy, but John the Baptist wasn’t the cheeriest of fellows and when you start to look at the world as he is likely to have done, it looks a pretty awful place. It wasn’t his job to make us feel happy and good. Rather, what he was doing was to alert us to the wickedness of the world so that we might “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, and so prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. In other words, seen purely on his own, John the Baptist makes no sense at all. As he was the first to say, he was but Jesus’ precursor.
But what we find in Jesus is not just mercy personified, in contrast, as it were, to John’s fiery attachment to justice. Rather, in Jesus we find both justice and mercy perfectly combined. And this, of course, is why he can seem so baffling, so very hard to pin down. On the one hand, we have the merciful Jesus who welcomes everyone, especially the downtrodden, the outcast and the irreligious, who heals the afflicted and gives courage to the faint-hearted. On the other we have the Jesus who can speak just as harshly as John – of how he brings not peace but division, of the need to be ready for the last days and impending judgement, and who, in his final act before being captured and executed, overturns the money lenders’ tables in the temple in a violent act of righteous fury.
So how is it that justice and mercy come together in God? I think this is best understood in terms of parenthood. As parents, we have a clear sense of what is right for our children, consequently nothing can grieve us more than seeing them go off the rails – or even the threat of it. But for all that, however much they madden us and cause us dismay, nothing can ever stop us loving them and forgiving them. For that very reason, there can be no greater joy in life than seeing them learn the error of their ways and return to us. Such, of course, was the substance of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, that wonderful word picture of the true nature of his Father.
The challenge of the Christian life is, therefore, regardless of our church tradition, to hold the competing demands of justice and mercy in equal tension. To be simultaneously aware of the sinfulness and rottenness of the world and the judgement it calls forth on the one hand, and the love and forgiveness that is forever offered us on the other. For without the first we are blind to sin and have no spur to action, but without the second, fallen creatures that we are, there is, quite simply, no hope.