CHRIST THE TRANSFORMER OF RELIGION

Sermon delivered on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany the 5th February 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town, Grand Cayman.

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12     1 Corinthians 2     S. Matthew 5: 13-20

S. Matthew 5: 17 Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets: I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

The people of Jesus’ day rightly marvelled at the authority He demonstrated. Perhaps the way He demonstrated His authority through the power of His miracles is the easier way we can appreciate such a demonstration, even today. We are told that nobody did such works as He did, and people were continually amazed by the healings that he carried out. “He even makes the blind see, and deaf hear”, was a current refrain of those who witnessed such signs. “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the waves obey Him!” say the astonished disciples. St. John records that when He multiplied the loaves and the fishes, the people wanted to carry Him off somewhere, no doubt to some traditional place of consecration, and appoint Him king over them. And yet, His miracles are by no means all that can be said about His authority. Indeed there are many instances when Jesus is shown to desire to downplay such signs. He often told people not to advertise Him by His miracles, and they usually did not understand or appreciate such an instruction and advertised Him anyway. He would not refuse to exercise His power for someone’s benefit, but at the same time there is the suggestion that such signs were frequently a hindrance to a deeper dimension of the revelation of who He was and what His essential purpose was. In the final stages of His ministry before His Passion and dying upon the cross, He avoided any exercise of this aspect of His authority just because, as He said, His time had now come.

Indeed, the amazing medical procedures that are being used today in hospitals and other medical centres would have seemed miraculous to people of Jesus’ time, as they often do to ordinary people today. For instance, it is no longer regarded as beyond the realms of possibility that sooner, rather than later, such apparent miracles as amputated limbs or defective parts of eyes and ears being restored biologically may become part of the standard medical arsenal. And this may be an additional demonstration to us that it is not fundamentally His miracles that distinguish Jesus from others, or which are the king-pin of His authority. It is something else. Let us, then try to take a look at that “something else”, with the help of the Scriptures we have been provided with today.

In the Sermon on the mount, Jesus said that He had not come to "abolish", or in the Authorised King James Version "destroy" the Law and the Prophets, but to "fulfil" them. To this day Jewish people call their Scriptures "The Law, the Prophets and the Writings", terms that mean the three basic divisions of the books which comprise our Old Testament. Of these three, the Law and the Prophets have always been regarded as the most important; so essentially, Jesus was affirming that He had not come to do away with the Scriptures of the Old Testament, or make them of no importance. On the contrary, He was to "fulfil" them. My commentary says of this that "Jesus' gospel of the Kingdom does not replace the Old Testament, but rather fulfils it, as Jesus' life and ministry, coupled with his interpretation, complete and clarify God's intent and meaning in the entire Old Testament." Clearly this goes to the heart of the authority of Jesus, in the way that miracles alone cannot do.

In claiming to "fulfil" the Old Testament, Jesus should certainly provoke anybody who was for any reason unimpressed with Him, but yet who could still think logically, to ask, "Well who in the world do you think you are?" Because that claim of Himself fulfilling the Jewish scriptures was a seriously breathtaking claim. As the late great C.S. Lewis said, it is not logically possible for us to believe that Jesus was a good man and nothing more. If there was "nothing more" to Him, then Jesus would have to be seriously egotistical, and either mad or bad. But if we believe that He was a good man, then the statements He made should compel us to recognise that He was very much more than just a good man. For Him to say that He, His life and ministry was now to be the very measure of the Old Testament compels us to recognise that the authority He wielded in His life and teachings, and, yes, in His miracles too, must be divine. And so we recognise the truth of what old Simeon had said when Jesus was brought into the temple as a baby: "This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed." People must be either very seriously for Him or very seriously opposed to Him, a choice which no logical mind can escape to this day.

One can indeed see a family likeness between Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about fasting and what is said in Isaiah chapter 58, part of which we heard as our Old Testament lesson. Jesus says, Do not fast in order that others may think well of you. It’s what your heavenly Father sees that really counts. (Of course the Father sees what is in the heart, not just what is on the outside.) Isaiah ch. 58 says, Do not fast and at the same time seek only your own pleasure, oppress your workers, “hit with a wicked fist”, and so on. Rather, along with the fasting reverse any injustice that you can, share your bread with the needy, do not deny cover to the homeless, and so on. So indeed, the interpretation of the kind of fasting that God approves that is set out in detail in Isaiah is completely in line with our Lord’s teaching, only His teaching penetrates directly to the root of the matter, by making us ask, “In whatever religious observance I may be carrying out, such as fasting, What does the Father see in my heart?”

At the end of 1 Corinthians ch 2, our Second Lesson today, there is the rather breathtaking assertion made by St. Paul: “But we have the mind of Christ.” Contrary to what perhaps some may think, I don’t think we should be groaning and saying, oh, it’s just St. Paul up to his exaggerations again. It’s impossible, in fact, given the direction of where St. Paul is going in the epistle, to think that St. Paul was implying that Christians in their life on earth had the perfection of the mind of Jesus. Indeed the Corinthian church comes in for some heavy criticism from the apostle over a number of matters, albeit administered with a loving hand, and from the descriptions given, such criticism seems to be well justified even to us. So no, St. Paul was not implying that he, or they, or the church or Christians in general had reached perfection. But I suppose that what he was explaining was that the people of God have been baptised into the new dimension of the mind of Christ. It is not unlike S. John saying in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” And in some ways, this statement in S. John’s Gospel is a key to the whole issue. For what is being said here is about an essential change of relationship. How can “the mind of Christ” begin to percolate into our own human structure if there is not a real relationship between them? For as S. Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him.” A relationship has to start being formed, something perhaps analogous somewhat to the proverbial doctor’s bedside manner, before the patient begins really to understand where the doctor is going with him. And so Dr. Paul, with these trying Corinthian patients, comes to them saying, “Brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” He spoke to them as simply as possible, with the quiet but substantial authority of the Spirit of God.

Religions in general do not necessarily emphasise a real relationship between the divine and the human persons. Of all religions the Old Testament partly does this, especially in the Prophets. In general, religions may emphasise the servitude of the divine by the human. But just as Jesus Himself claimed to fulfil rather than abolish the Law and the Prophets, so we can perhaps agree, it seems to me that Christ also by transformation fulfils all religion, in whatever way it may be expressed before or even without Him – including, indeed the “secular religion” or "new civic religion" of our time. May we as churchmen rely upon Him also to transform and fulfil our own discipleship, our expression of Christianity, so that we walk as His friends, in a true relationship of friendship with Him, and indeed advancing step by step into a true communion and the acquisition of the mind of Christ.