THE PRIVILEGES AND OBLIGATIONS OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP
Sermon delivered on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, the 30th August 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Deut 4: 1-2, 6-9 James 1: 17-27 S. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James 1: 17 .Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change
Whenever I do baptismal preparation classes or take an instruction course for Confirmation candidates, I spend time on the first part of the Catechism, which is to be found within our Book of Common Prayer. It is good for introducing people to the ideas of the privileges and obligations of Christian discipleship. For instance, it is explained that in Baptism “I was made” a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” And then it is said in the Catechism that specific promises and vows were made in my name by my Godfathers and Godmothers. As the baptised, therefore, we have been privileged and we have been obligated. This means that in baptism we are made not equal to others, who have not been so privileged and so obligated. We have been set apart, made special, but at the same time this being special marks us out for special responsibility throughout the years of our life.
This whole idea and language of “being special” is regarded with some suspicion in the Western world today. It opens us up to charges such as being discriminatory and prejudicial, because today’s language-forms of the supposedly ideal society speak of equality, non-discrimination, a level playing field and the like. But the language of biblical catholicity is rather different from the language of radical equality that has become part of the world’s lexicon today. In all the lessons today we see demonstrations of this. Probably the closest thing in biblical language to the much despised “inequality” in today’s thought-forms would be “iniquity”. Biblical thought too despises an iniquitous judge or king: one in authority who pushes aside the vulnerable to gain the favour of the influential. Yet throughout the Bible it is acknowledged that people are different, different in character, different in standing, differently endowed and differently blessed. This rich array of distinctions is intended to be a cause for praise and glory to the God of all creation and redemption, rather than any cause for criticism of Him because of a perceived unfairness in His dealings with mankind: we should remember Jesus’ parable of the husbandman and the labourers in the vineyard, as well as the parable of the talents. It is certainly my longstanding contention that the radical equality ideal of today’s thought-forms actually makes human society impossible if it were ever truly practised. A true society must accept an endless spectrum of human distinctions, in which for good cause one person ought to be more highly regarded than another, and in which certain lifestyles for good cause ought to be more highly honoured than others.
St. James says, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The unchanging heavenly Father is to be honoured and praised because of His many and different gifts and endowments. Our Old Testament lesson today declares the great privilege that the children of Israel entered into when they were taught the Lord’s statutes and ordinances. With the privilege, though, came a special responsibility to keep those teachings. “Keep them and do them”, says Moses, “for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?”
The question is never put in the Old Testament whether it was “unfair” of God so to privilege the children of Israel over other peoples with the nearness of its God and the greatness of its law. Such a question does not have to be put: indeed, hand in hand with the privilege comes the special responsibility. The children of Israel are charged with the special task of being the messenger of God to the peoples of the world, and they can only do that by keeping the commandments and obeying the One who gave them. So it is with all God’s gifts and endowments. Whatever these may be, they carry with them special responsibilities towards others who may not have them.
In line with this, St. James says in the New Testament of the heavenly Father, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.” James, by recalling that God brought us forth by the word of truth, is referring to the great gift of our baptismal regeneration, a great endowment and gift from above, but carrying with it a great responsibility, which he describes as being “a kind of first fruits of His creatures.” Our core responsibility as Christians is to be a kind of first-fruits of what God intends to bring about in His new creation. And for that we must first hear the Word of truth but then be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, persevering in its obligations, being the kind of Christians that our Catechism instructs us to be, so that God may receive His full complement of worship from His creation, not from our lips only, but from the lips of those who have in turn been “brought forth” by Him through the Word that they saw being done in us and others who went before.
If we have the great responsibility of being “doers of the Word” then it follows that the Word that we are charged to do must be the true and right Word, and not one that is wrong or badly corrupted. I have no doubt that some like the self-described “prophet” Warren Jeffs of the Fundamental Church of God of Latter Day Saints, who persuaded girls sometimes less than 13 to get married to men who already had several wives, and then was imprisoned, or like Jim Jones and others of various inward-looking sects, some of whom committed a violent suicide, are examples of those who corrupted God’s revelation. But Jesus also in the Gospel severely denounces the teachers of His own time, even those high up and widely followed in the religiously-oriented society of that time and place, for corrupting the true Word of God and handing down traditions formed by men rather than God. He even quoted the prophet Isaiah to describe them: “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Jesus went on to illustrate that the things that defile us are sinful thoughts and acts, not the failure to adhere to the minutiae of some man-made ritual. The important point is that there is such a thing as the right thing and the wrong thing where God’s Word is concerned, and if we are charged to put it into practice we must hear it and understand it right in the first place. Within the fellowship of the Church in the practice of the faith, God has given us many guides to help us to receive and to practise the true Word of God, and Jesus promised too that the Holy Spirit would be sent us to help us in this very thing.
Let us not be fooled either by the loose talk of our time suggesting that all religious language is equally dangerous because some who purport to be religious clearly are dangerous. Our privileges and obligations as those baptised and discipled into the fold of the Son of God are to be sons and daughters of the true Word and not of anything false or misleading. Like the Israelites of old, we are charged to keep God’s Word in our hearts and to persist, with the multiplicity of gifts and talents that God bestows upon His people, in practising it, and through its practice to bring forth for the glory of God and to His praise and worship others out of the world who will themselves be regenerated and faithful to His Word of truth.