THE FALLING AND THE RAISING OF MAN
Sermon delivered on the First Sunday After Trinity the 7th June 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Genesis 3: 8-15 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1 S. Mark 3: 20-end
2 Cor 5: 1: “We know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
As we invest our minds and activities into various efforts to raise a house of God in the form of a new church building, it is perhaps good to be reminded by S. Paul’s words that the biblical meaning of “house” often goes beyond the sort of thing we have in mind. It is good to remember, for instance, that when King David desired to build a house for God to dwell in, a temple, he was directed to postpone his efforts. David was then assured that the Lord would make of him a “House”, and the initial impetus to build a temple in Jerusalem would become the duty of David’s immediate heir.
Now, in the letter to the Corinthians that we read from today, S. Paul compared things that are seen with the things that are unseen while we are on earth in the present age, and declares that the things that are seen are transient, while the things that we do not, or do not yet see are really the things that are eternal. In the last verse that we read today, S. Paul writes of the structure of our body as the “tent that is our earthly home”. A tent, like the tabernacle of the children of God in the Old Testament while they wandered in the wilderness, and in the initial stages of their more or less fixed abode in the Promised Land, was something that moved around with them, something that did not denote fixity or permanence. At any time its stakes might be removed and it would be on the move again to somewhere else. And here, S. Paul writes of the possibility of even the destruction of the tent that is our earthly home, but compares that with something more permanent, “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” So we do not lose heart, he implies, over the facts of the advancing frailties of age, old wounds and illness - a thought that seems to be very applicable to Dr. Barnaby's session after church today on the handling of a person with dementia when a hurricane threatens. "Though our outer self" he admits, "is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day."
In different ways, the Scripture provides models of how we might understand the phenomena about which St. Paul as a man of the New Covenant says we should not and need not lose heart. For instance, Why do we have to die one day? Involved in the Scriptural account of this issue, and connected with our first lesson today, is the fact of disobedience. Adam, the Man, and the archetype of the human race, was disobedient to the express command of God, because he carelessly followed the opposing path that was presented to him by those around him, and did not have the fortitude to "Just say No", as the advertisements discouraging illicit drugs in our own time used to say. Many a soul languishes in our prisons because they knew what they were supposed not to do, but did not have the fortitude when the choice came, just to say No, and not to do it. Many too who are outside the prisons languish with regrets in a mental prison of their own making because of their lack of mental fortitude over some misstep of their life: a condition that perhaps touches many of us here in one way or another. But when we become weighed down in this way, we have the great boon of St. Paul's words about not losing heart after all. In spite of whatever consequences to us follow from such missteps, whether they be our own, or whether they be of Man in his corporate nature as the child of Adam, we as the children of the New Covenant are not bound by the manifest signs of dying that are within us and around us. Such signs might be of the destiny of our outer self, so to speak, but in Christ, the destiny of our inward self is the opposite, and so, as S. Paul says, "our inner self is being renewed day by day."
The whole Bible can be seen as the drama of God's mighty rescue attempt of mankind, irreversibly touched as it is by the frailties of sin and its consequences. Let us consider the meaning of Old Testament and New Testament in the description of the two major parts of the Bible. In the King James Version, where Jesus speaks of the new covenant in His blood, and where S. Paul uses the same words too, the word "covenant" is rendered "testament". So when we speak of the Old Testament lesson and the New Testament lesson, we are really speaking of writings from God's "Old Covenant" and His "New Covenant". The Bible, then, is all about God making covenants of one description or another with human beings, and the purpose of these covenants has always been to bring people back out of mankind's fallen condition. The whole biblical story can be considered to be the Falling and the Rising of Man, man’s rising being effected by the intervening grace of God.
Today's Gospel is the rather electric account from S. Mark of an early episode in Jesus' Galilean ministry. It is as if the ministry of Jesus bursts in unexpectedly to a rather sleepy Galilee, with great powers of healing, cleansing from demons, and the implications at least of huge claims surrounding Jesus Himself, who while preserving something of a mystery about who He was, called himself "the Son of Man", seemingly in reference to the apocalyptic figure written about in the book of Daniel. And so, under such circumstances, though it seems rather shocking to us, it was not surprising that Jesus' own family are recorded as going out to capture Him, because to them He seemed to have gone out of his mind. At the same time we read of the religious authorities of Jerusalem taking concerned note of what was going on. As the account of Jesus' ministry continues, we see a process of the family becoming believers in Him, in contrast to being those that were just concerned and anxious for Him, while at the same time we see the regression of the religious authorities of that time to a state of mortal enmity.
The reality of this ministry of Jesus was that of the climactic breaking in of God's rescue plan, for which the Old Testament in its entirety had been the preparation. Certainly the atmosphere of the Gospel account that was read today gives a feel of the climactic nature of Jesus' actions, as evidenced also by the degree of reaction to them from the crowds, from Jesus' own family and from the Jerusalem authorities. From S. Paul’s vantage point and from ours, we now see how the rescue plan came to its ultimate climax in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and in the formation of the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit, who was sent down upon men and women in a special way on and after the Feast of Pentecost following the Ascension. And so we know that we live in the New Testament age still, and that as S. Paul said, we, as those of the Way, need not and should not lose heart, in that even “if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”