Sermon delivered on the 5th Sunday in Lent the 13th March 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 43: 16 - 21     Philippians 3: 4b - 14     S. John 12: 1 - 8

Phil 3:8 “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

The subject of whether it is right to seek to convert an adherent of one religion to another, and particularly to Christianity is one on which there has been considerable discussion and debate. Cayman's own Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities reflects the longstanding European Convention on Human Rights Article Nine on Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion. This states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and that this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. The European Convention article, however, goes on to say, as indeed such a law must, that freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This provision is also reflected in section 10 of our constitution. It seems that in a number of countries that limitation is now being applied to an extent and in a manner that was not originally intended by the Convention, particularly in the context of teaching about the nature of marriage. In the Western world the nature of marriage has until recently been imbued with the concepts of Christian holy matrimony, but to teach this as a norm in the present day seems widely to be considered to be restricted by the enhanced version of the prescribed limitations of the Convention, and therefore to be avoided. Such a state of affairs is naturally gravely difficult for a Christian pastoral marriage counsellor whose efforts could be restricted by laws following this interpretation. In the end it boils down to the very restriction on the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief that was intended to be protected by the Convention in the first place. Frighteningly, a magistrate in Britain, Richard Page, has recently been removed from office by the Lord Chancellor because he expressed the belief that children are best placed with a mother and a father.

There is indeed a group in the United States called the United Religions Initiative, whose members hold that religious evangelism is an evil. One of the directors of this group said that there should be a universal declaration of rights not to be converted to another religion. It can hardly be argued, however, that the United Religions Initiative does not itself seek to convert others to its own point of view, which increasingly has the characteristics of a religion. So while this kind of outlook is popular with today’s media and opinion-formers, it seems impossible for it to be logically self-consistent, and in practice it has been proved to bring about less tolerance rather than more, because to forbid promoting a desirable change of spirit and heart and conviction and behaviour is highly intolerant. And such a change of spirit is at the root of Christian faith. Our first lesson from Isaiah 43 portrays the Lord saying, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The new thing that the Lord will do is compared with the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt through the Red Sea, and at least one aspect of the new thing that the Lord will do is to bring the people of Israel to a state of faithfulness to Him. “ I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring,” the Lord says. “They shall spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say ‘I am the Lord’s’, another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s’, and surname himself by the name of Israel.” (Isaiah 44:3ff). Such a change of heart could not rightly be denied.

And then, look at St Paul in our second lesson today, who looks at his own heritage as a rigorously trained Pharisee, a truly orthodox Jew speaking in the language of Jews, as he might have said, and then declares that all such advantages in the eyes of his people, are to be counted as refuse, or in the words of the Authorised Version, as dung, that he might win Christ and be found in Him. St Paul was pointing out, as he often did, that people who were trying to teach the new Gentile Christians that they had to be circumcised, that they had to come into the Jewish Covenant and adhere to the Jewish law, were wrong. It was the new divinely created humanity, the being born by water and the Spirit involving and producing a change of heart that was needed, not an outward conformity. It was Christ who had given Paul the change of heart, and it was in Christ now that the new Christians could grow in spiritual maturity, not by going back to what St Paul called the dead works of the law. There was nothing in the old Jewish religious system, and indeed there never has been anything in any religious system, Jewish or Gentile, that can substitute for the new spirit that gaining Christ and being found in Him brings about. Indeed there is nothing comparable in any religious system to the knowledge of Christ and the power of His resurrection and the communion of His sufferings. These unique realities bring about a unique change of heart and spirit, a unique motivation to the love of God and the love of man. There is much in the modern and postmodern outlook that would not only deny such a change, but would deny the rightness, the good taste, the sanity and now, as we have seen, the legality of proclaiming that there is such a change to be engaged in. But this is a claim that we are bound to make and stick to as strongly as the early Christians did who stuck to the claim that the gods the world then sacrificed to were no gods. There is a change to be engaged in, and it is only this change that can ultimately rescue the world.

Finally, let us spend a moment or two where our Gospel today directs us to, in the town of Bethany that Jesus felt comfortable in, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, whom S. John reminds us He had raised from the dead. We see the contrast between the defectively motivated and the truly motivated, in the characters of Judas Iscariot and Mary. This was Mary of Bethany, the dreamier of the two sisters, as the other sister Martha probably thought of her, but as Jesus perceived, the sister that was more sensitive to His mind and more determined to stick closely to His mind. In a spontaneous and spirit-led act that defied the conventions of her time, this respected family member let loose her hair in public, anointed His feet with a costly ointment and used her hair to wipe them. It was an unmistakable response of intense personal devotion to Him, costly not only in terms of the ointment, but also in terms of what others might think of her. The criticism began immediately from the defectively motivated Judas, over the ointment. He said the ointment might have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus knew that it was the sort of devotion that Mary had shown to Him that was in the end going to benefit the poor, rather than any money that Judas collected, and in the eyes of Jesus, Mary’s act was a sort of acknowledgement of His impending Passion, an anointing in advance for His burial.

Nothing can substitute for the motivating power of the love that Christ inspires in a person, whether that person be Mary of Bethany, St Paul, or you or me. It is this unique change of heart and spirit that has the power to rescue us and ultimately, through the children of God, the poor, the vulnerable of all sorts, and the whole creation. We are responsible, then, not to let the doctrines and ideologies of our time deny to anybody the possibility of the deep, radical and enduring change that Jesus Christ holds out for him. Today is the beginning of Passiontide, the last and climactic part of Lent. Let the Passion of our dear Lord kindle once again within us the desire and affinity for that unique and unquenchable love of His in which we were baptised and recreated, and by which one day we will see Him as He is.