GODLY ETHICS

Sermon delivered on the 20th Sunday after Trinity, the 29th October 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands).
Scriptures: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18     1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8     S. Matthew 22: 34-46

1 Thess 2:4 "Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please men but to please God, who tests our hearts."

This is a sermon with three starting points, which I will set out in turn and then trust that in the body of the sermon the three strands will become woven together in our minds as the Lord directs.

GODLY MORALITY
An Anglican cleric some eighteen years ago wrote a book called "Godless Morality", with the sub-title "Keeping Religion out of Ethics". His theme was that the study of ethics (or the rightness or wrongness of behaviour) ought to be separated from one's understanding and apprehension of God. He considered that the two things had no vital connection, and indeed that an understanding of ethics was bound to be distorted by a belief in the Christian God. While I think I can understand why the cleric concerned might take such a position, and to go into that here would be an unnecessary diversion, the truth seems to me that all the writings of the New Testament demonstrate a clear connection between the things that are believed and the things that ought to be done. St. Paul habitually connects the two together with some such phrase as: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, etc." And St. Anselm's great phrase we may remember was "Credo ut intelligam" - I believe so that I may understand. That understanding will include one's manner of life, or behaving, inevitably it seems to me. Perhaps Bishop Holloway, the cleric concerned, was rightly named, for when all is said and done, his way does seem to be a hollow way. Is it not the atheistic-humanistic world-view that says that God is not needed for our ethics and morality? Rather, as St. Paul says to the church in today's text, when we speak, it is not to please men, but to please God, who tests our hearts.

TITHING
My second starting-point has been supplied by our treasurer on various occasions, who has compared the Anglican attitude towards tithing with the practice of some other churches who emphasise it heavily. There is certainly no doubt in my heart that the Jewish and Biblical practice of tithing one's income and giving the tenth to what stands as the specific witness to God's work is a practice that is approved by God. The experience of many of us who tithe, after not tithing, is that first, the discipline of it makes us give more than we did before; secondly, that there may be faith involved, because we might not see how that outflow of funds is going to be sustained, but thirdly, that somehow if we do not give in to our fears but are determined, the adjustment is made and one's personal finances even may begin after a while to get better. Nevertheless the practice of tithing is left, I believe correctly, to the conscience of members and is never made a condition of membership. Each one is just asked to consider whether he is bearing his fair share of responsibility, since others in the fellowship will be tithing. Inevitably with the continuation of the hope and impetus both towards expansion and towards an increase of the pastoral team, we will recognise that the financial responsibility to be shared out among us will not any time soon be decreasing, however much praise and thanks we give to God that so far we have met the current demands without serious debt; except, as St. Paul would say, the debt we owe to love one another. So then, let what we do as well as what we speak please God, rather than men: God, who tests our hearts.

CHRISTIAN SABBATH-KEEPING
And then the third starting-point to this sermon is supplied by the fact that every month, and occasionally more often, we rehearse the Ten Commandments rather than using our Lord’s Summary of the Law as given in today's Gospel. Also, the complete passage today in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus is described in one of my study bibles as “a fine blending of cultic requirements and ethical obligations as expressed classically in the Ten Commandments.” We recognise in the Commandments when we take them on board, so to speak, with the words, "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law", some solemn and serious obligations, and to make these solemn declarations gives a very distinctive atmosphere to the whole service. But do we mean what we say? My wife once said that for her the 4th Commandment about the Sabbath day was the most problematic one. This was not because the "Sabbath" concept is applied to Sunday rather than to Saturday, as in the Old Testament, but because for the whole day our households and everyone in them are told to do no manner of work. Am I praying honestly, she asked, when I pray, "Incline my heart to keep this law"?

Granted that my wife may be seen to take after Martha a bit more than Mary, it's still a very good question. Sundays for a great many of us will not approximate very well to a workless day. But there are some other considerations. The prayer "Incline my heart", first, reminds us that we need God's help even to begin to take some steps towards keeping His commandments. We are asking for God's gracious help in setting our steps in the right directions, and not condemning ourselves by focussing on considerable and weighty failure. Secondly, the prayer is a prayer for the healing of the heart: "Lord, incline our hearts ...": we are not just asking God to help us to obey the law externally like those Jewish people who avoid pressing elevator buttons on the Sabbath. Article 7 of our 39 Articles instructs us that “the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, [does] not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet ... no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” In the New Covenant the heart, the centre of our being, is called upon to be set right with God, and then the external things will with God’s guidance take their course. Thirdly, there is in the total Biblical witness, much more to the Sabbath than the negative aspect of abstention from work on a particular day. Sabbath is also associated with joy, with religious activity, and especially with the Sabbath rest, which in Christian terms is understood as consummation and satisfaction. Yes, our hearts do need to be "inclined" and instructed not so much to keep this law in the old way, as to keep Sabbath as Christ shows us in the new way. For from Him we receive the true Sabbath rest and refreshment. The Son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath.

So I believe that the reason for Jesus in our Gospel passage today lobbing into the discussion with the Pharisees the issue of who the Messiah was, had to do with getting to the basics of where the grace to live an ethical life must really come from. It must come from the One whom even David calls "Lord".

INCLINE OUR HEARTS”
Godly morality is the disposition of our hearts before the one true and holy, vital and reigning God who sent His Son to incline our hearts towards His own kingly rule. Then, as S. Paul declared to the Thessalonians, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please men but to please God, who tests our hearts.” And indeed our hearts are quite often tested in various ways. The Lord never promised us an easy ride through life. In a world of technology, which I usually do enjoy figuring out, my "test" may be to be so distracted with figuring something out that I can easily forget that there are people out there that need to be attended to. Other people's "tests" can be to get so annoyed or disappointed with someone with whom they feel they ought to be in fellowship, that they withdraw from the way they have lived their life formerly and live quietly within some shell or perhaps seek out a new lifestyle with a different set of people. Yet to withdraw from or abandon people in that way is not victory in any Christian way, but a score for the devil. So God does "test our hearts" in different ways, so that we can check on whether we are deciding to please God or please man, including oneself. However, if our hearts are so inclined by Him, we will begin to understand and do His bidding in the multiform arena of our life that calls for morality in every sphere: we will take on our portions of responsibility for the setting forth of His kingly rule through Jesus joyfully and gladly, and we will begin to receive from the Lord the true Sabbath rest and refreshment. May indeed our hearts be so inclined by Him, that the joy of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may be with us all, evermore.