THE BASIS OF ETHICS
Sermon delivered on the Twelfth Sunday After Trinity the 23rd August 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18 Ephes 6: 10-20 S. John 6: 56-69
Ephesians 6: 13 “Therefore take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
We learn from the news every day that we are under attack: terrorists wage war upon innocent people, among whom we count ourselves, so then we too are engaged in a war against terror. The benign tropical climate of our region also, we learn, takes on nasty aspects and turns to attack us from time to time, especially at this time of the year. We rightly respond to such possible attacks by heightened preparedness. Times come in a person’s life, too, when he or she is attacked by diseases or discomforts of various sorts. In the midst of a family argument a man and a woman may consider they are being attacked by their loved one, and sometimes too we are attacked by the forgetfulness or perhaps the condemnation of our own minds. A church congregation and its priest are not immune from some small misunderstanding that can develop, without healing by wise and godly counsel, into a major rift. For many people, their workplace is not a very happy one, and they feel threatened. It may seem to us that we have lots of opportunity in life, but we just can’t seem to get things right. And then, for many, the blame game takes over.
Taken as a whole, the Scripture readings today suggest that in this life we cannot realistically hope for an elimination of such attacks. They will always come in one form or another; it is part of our life as fallen human beings in a fallen world. God’s Word shows us, however, that there is a way of dealing with this circumstance that we as the baptised people of God are called to engage in. You may have guessed that the way I am talking about has to do with a vital relationship with God.
There are of course many other ways of dealing with attacks. Increasingly, governments are referring to the legal status of their actions under legislation of a human rights nature when they answer their attackers. The theory is that human rights legislation will have a universal legitimacy, which will be agreed to by all, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or animist. There are many signs however, that this is a utopian theory without adequate substance. What we believe about the rights and wrongs of a situation will be affected, sometimes radically, by our religious belief and in particular, by our theology or, equally, by our anti-theology.
Human rights legislation is in the modern era often thought to be the sole reference point for considering right and wrong. A politician said some years ago that those objecting to the then new seven-year rollover policy - and I think he was referring to those for whom the policy began to affect directly only after about two years of its introduction - would have no case, because their work permit documents had always clearly stated they had no guarantee of success in any applications for renewal. He was right about that I believe from a human rights legislative standpoint. But the question for many people really is, not whether they have a case under human rights legislation, but whether a wrong has been perpetrated upon them. If you believe that legislation defines whether or not a wrong has been done, then of course you may have to agree that no wrong has been done by a Government that adheres to the law pertaining to the case. If you believe, however, that what is right and what is wrong is ultimately revealed to us from a Source other than ourselves, then we are free to think that even if they have no case under legislation, a wrong still may have been perpetrated upon them. It is incumbent especially on Christian believers to try to influence the powers-that-be, not merely toward the legally acceptable, but toward doing the right thing.
Having a real understanding of what is the right thing in such cases and I suppose in all cases is dependent upon what we believe at the deepest levels. The people who caused planes to crash into the Twin Towers believed that what they were doing was right. We believe that all such acts are wrong. Why would we believe that at the deepest level? Not so much because of any international agreements or international law, but because our consciences agree with what is revealed to us by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament lesson the great leader Joshua challenges the people of Israel concerning their deepest levels of belief. Do they vitally believe, he asks, in the God of their fathers, who brought them from bondage to freedom and did great signs and preserved them? Or will they depart from that belief and adopt the beliefs of the fathers earlier than Abraham, or perhaps the gods of the land of Egypt in which they were enslaved, or even perhaps the gods of the Canaanite and Amorite areas in which they had settled? At no time, was it ever suggested that these were alternatively valid manifestations of the God who had delivered them. Because of this distinction, already there was a huge difference between the way of life of the Israelite peoples and those that surrounded them. It was obvious that if the Israelites succumbed to the very great pressures of the local belief-systems, their way of life would be swamped by their neighbours also. Such warnings were delivered repeatedly by the Old Testament prophets. And in our own time such things are very little different. The attack on the whole Western way of life has increased and become focussed. We will not withstand such attacks by means of careless legislation or by strange religions. Generations of Israelites succumbed often to the lure of such things, so that at least we might be warned by their experience.
“The whole armour of God” about which St. Paul spoke and told our forefathers and us to put on, was a reference to places in the Old Testament where it is said that God Himself put on His armour and fought for His people. In the New Covenant we have become privileged to be members of the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Lord, the Son of God. So the armour of God is not what He has dispensed to us to wear separately from Him. If we wear it and use it, it is He who wearing and using it, for His purposes in this world. It is used defensively and offensively, the shield of faith and the sword of the Word of God, for example. This is a picture of a vital identification at the deepest level between the Lord and His people, and between commitment and action.
Let us not be fooled to think that we can win the battle without that vital identification. The words of Jesus in the Gospel once again remind us of it. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Now will we “go away” from this identification, will we say that all religions are much the same, or that all that we really need is better laws? Let us take to heart the words of the apostle S. Peter. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” he asked.”You have the words of eternal life.” Amen to that. He certainly does have the words of eternal life, and no other.