INNOCENCE AND REDEMPTION
Sermon delivered on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, the 4th October 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Genesis 2: 18-24 Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 S. Mark 10: 2-16
Hebrews 1:2 “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.”
It is very touching to see a state of innocence being displayed, and one can see innocence in all sorts of ways. The medieval Church used to promote the idea that there might be a special place for the souls of infants that die unbaptised that is neither heaven nor hell. The origin of the idea may be found in an apparent observed conflict between the innocence of a newborn child and the incontrovertible fact that it is necessary to teach children the social arts, but unnecessary to teach them how to be selfish. What then does Christianity now teach about this matter? Do children begin as innocents, or are we all born in a state of sin, being tainted from conception with original sin? In a paradoxical mystery, it is probably fair to say that it teaches both, and affirms that our children do in early infancy display both innocence and the propensity to sin. The Church observes the Feast of the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem as well as holding a doctrine of Original Sin. It must be said too that innocence can be seen not just in tiny children. I like to see in the some 60 year old Groucho Marx archived television shows the television audience sitting quietly in their seats and clapping at something said by the panellists or contestants, and to compare this innocent and orderly behaviour with all the yelling and sometimes outrageous things being displayed for public consumption today. We can say that the old shows display television’s “age of innocence”, now long gone, though not necessarily, where faith can be applied, entirely beyond recall.
Our Old Testament Lesson today from Genesis 2 is a depiction of the age of innocence for mankind as a whole, and shows a state of innocence as well as order in man’s relationship with cattle and birds and beasts of the field. Finally it shows a state of innocence in the marital relationship between man and woman. We can see how innocence is fundamentally related to order. When innocence is lost, there has been a breach in the intended order of God’s creation. The Preface to the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony in the Prayer Book directs the Priest to remind all present that Holy Matrimony is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency. This is a touching thought, and the traditional dress of the bride underlines the innocence of the institution, and not just of herself. There are, of course other very weighty things said about Matrimony in that Prayer Book Preface.
The first lesson began this morning with God forming every animal from the ground, and bringing them to Adam for him to name. The next verse of Scripture says that among all the animals was found not one to be a suitable helper for him. The animals are not necessarily going to fit into our plans and help us achieve them. My dog never once brought me a garden tool when I wanted him to do so. Yet it is wrong for us just to kill every animal we see for no reason at all. If God has put man in charge of the animal world, as we see here in the Scripture about God bringing the animals to Adam for him to name them, we should be in charge of it knowing that we must give account to God for it. So the Scripture tells us that there is an order in the way it is intended for us to live with the fauna and flora above and below the seas. They are not necessarily going to help us, and we are not necessarily going to be able to tame some of them, but they clearly have a place in God’s scheme of things that we ought to respect. We are responsible to God for maintaining an order in which they and we can live in the same world.
Our lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews this morning focusses on the redeeming and purifying capacity of the Son of God, who made purification for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of the Cross, and being appointed the heir of all things, is crowned with glory and honour and is in expectation of the visible subjection of the whole creation to Himself. In other words, we might say that though the innocence that the creation was made to display and that we need and desire was lost, still by the power of the purification made by Jesus, it is to be restored. By taking our part in this by faith in Jesus’ name, the grace of God who brought about this forthcoming purification and restoration is extended to us one by one. Much of the Gospel today is Jesus’ teaching on marriage, and it therefore befits us in the light of this teaching urgently to consider how we can not only uphold but also restore the innocency of the institution of marriage in our common life. It should also be mentioned that Jesus says elsewhere that the faithfully celibate life too is a sign of the innocency and order of the Kingdom of God. Article 32 of our Thirty-Nine Articles suggests that all Christian men should either marry or abstain from marriage at their own discretion, “as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness” (as the words of the Article put it).
The Church herself has been tempted to downgrade marriage from the pinnacle of human relationships to which Jesus Himself and Christian teaching in general raises it. Those of us who are married should all be engaged in a personal effort to keep our marriages at the highest level of which we are capable, and it is necessary for us to know that God Himself calls us to this effort, because such high levels of relationship do not necessarily occur without it. The Church has traditionally and faithfully taught that marriage is a special calling or vocation, and at every stage of our life there are perspectives and principles we should adopt that will foster its fundamental innocency, and in cases where innocence has been lost or obscured, to help to redeem us from the loss and aid in the restoration. One of the first things to note is that for marriage there is no approved substitute. Jesus says in our Gospel today, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” We will recognise that Jesus here quotes from the passage we read in our first lesson today.
It should not really have to be said that what Jesus Himself taught to be marriage excludes entirely any idea that marriage could be between members of the same sex. Any law that says otherwise is deliberately changing the essential meaning of marriage, and therefore destroying that pinnacle of human relationships to which Jesus Himself and Christian teaching in general has raised it, a pinnacle that up to recent times civilisation has been universally content to acknowledge and protect. But what also needs to be said is that what Jesus taught to be marriage excludes the idea that it could ever be right or a good thing to live together or have sexual relations for a trial period before matrimony. For the becoming “one flesh” is in the context of a man and his wife being joined together by God, and not of a couple that might sometime in the future become man and wife; for Jesus clearly says of this union, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Actually, there is more than enough statistical evidence to show how right the traditional Christian position is. On the whole those who live together before marrying have in some studies a greater likelihood by about 60% of marital breakdown, than those who do not. Without recognising it, the couple that lives together beforehand is already being unfaithful to their projected marriage, and therefore by no means preparing for a faithful marriage. If we are unmarried and want to prepare for a faithful marriage the lesson is clear. Yet the good news for those who may be in the position of recognising that they have gone too far, is that they too by the power of the Holy Spirit may draw back, however hard it seems to do so. They too can begin preparing for their marriage, rather than for marital breakdown. We should recognise the Christian perspective that matrimony, unlike any other social institution that you can name, was instituted in man’s innocency, according to Genesis. Those who have been prepared to be innocent in going into it, can work it better. Because all of us must admit to a lack of innocence in one form or another, in thought or action, we need all the more the grace of God. That grace of God is the good news for everybody unmarried or married, in whatever condition we are in or whatever history our marriages and preparation for them may have had.
We have thought about two very important sides of the order which God desires for His creation, the order of man and animals, and the order of man and woman. But the text of this sermon pointed to a third side of the order that God requires, even more important than the other two. The text, which was taken from our second Scripture reading this morning, said that now ... “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.” It is an even more important side to the order that God wants to see established, that His Son is recognised to be the Head of creation. It was all created by Him and it was all created for Him. We are to relate to Jesus Christ as younger brothers to a Chief, and in the Church as parts of His Body to the Head. And God will not stop either fighting with us or supplying us with His grace, to bring about the order, in all its facets, that He wants us to live in now in preparation for the life to come.