THE VINDICATION OF THE ELECT

Sermon delivered on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity the 16th October 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the St. Alban's congregation of the Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Genesis 32: 22-31     2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5     S. Luke 18:1-8

S. Luke 18:7,8 "Will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily."

THE BEGINNING OF THE ACCOUNTING FOR OUR APOSTASY?
It may be that when we look back on the 11th September event of 2001, that I am viewing as an event that forms a sort of hinge between the 20th and the 21st centuries, we can see it not as a time of utter blackness when God seems to have been absent, but even as a time that was ordered providentially, though like the Cross of Christ itself, those who instigated it did so from evil motives. It is, for example, a vindication of the thoughts of those who had long been looking at the continued slide on the part of us in the West and our governments from the standards of Christian belief and our ever-increasing attempts to rely on supposedly universal secular standards. Indeed, the great September 11 Rally that took place here in Cayman this year, has very precisely recalled to our people this very theme. When I say a vindication, I do not mean to suggest that people and their governments have undergone any profound mental revolution as a result of either that one terrible day in 2001 or all the suicide missions that have taken place since that day. I am suggesting, though, that many who used to identify the slide from Christian standards as a severe and real problem kept thinking to themselves, "How long is this to go on as if it were unnoticed? One day there must be an accounting for our apostasy." And so, perhaps we will begin to see the hinge-date, the 11th September 2001 as representing the beginning of the accounting. Not only the events of that date, but many of the things that have occurred since then, will remind us that there is no secular utopia after all. We had better look again at disciplines such as theology, which a long time ago was thought of as the queen of the sciences, to make the real sense of our modern lives that we have been seeking elsewhere; for it is in the lack of such a quest that our communities have been unable fully to defend themselves. It was truly heartening to see some nine years later in the extraordinary Chilean mine rescue of 33 who had been trapped far underground since August 8 of that year 2010, the many fruits of technology being combined with and driven by an overt and unashamedly traditional Christian faith on the part seemingly of everybody involved, from the Chilean President down, issuing first in a profound care for those who were in peril and their dependants, and then their release.

PERSISTING EVEN WITHOUT LEVERAGE
The widow in the Lord's parable who kept coming to the unjust judge for vindication reminds me again of the people whose cases came before the Human Rights Commission during the time that I was a Commission member. Many had cried and battered at various administrative doors for what they believed to be their due. In Jesus' parable the widow showed persistence in spite of her poverty and inability to sway the unjust judge by a bribe. She has nothing to force the judge with; she has no leverage at all. Yet she persists, and it is that endurance that wins the day. This is rather different from the modern scene in which if a suppliant fails in one court he will seek the leverage of a higher or perhaps international court. This modern scenario which provides the suppliant with some substantive leverage could not have provided the teaching that Jesus wanted, for the reason that there is no compulsive leverage that anybody can exert upon God. In the words of St. Luke, Jesus’ parable is to encourage the hearers always to pray and not to lose heart. There is no problem, no obstacle that is so large that it's not worth praying about, as the Chileans in 2010 resoundingly affirmed. The teaching of the parable of the unjust judge reflects also the context of the coming of the Son of man. That will be the ultimate vindication of our prayers, and in the prayers that we send up to God, we should be longing for this. Yes, the time taken for this seems long to us, but in comparison with eternity it is a short time. It only depends on one's perspective. Jesus asked, "Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Whether time is long or short depends entirely on the perspective with which one considers it.

PREVAILING WITH GOD AND MAN
In our Old Testament lesson today, we see Jacob preparing for his encounter with his brother Esau, who he fears is going to take revenge for past wrongs. The account of Jacob with Herculean strength wrestling with a man who reveals Himself as the Captain of the Hosts of the Lord comes from ancient roots, reflecting the most ancient of man's memories. Theologically, this is in dramatic form the wrestling of man with God, such as takes place in urgent prayer. Jacob knows that his record so far as Esau is concerned is less than perfect, and he fears what this encounter may bring. Alone with God this flawed man wrestled in prayer and was given the grace and strength not to be overcome by the divine condemnation. He emerged from the experience wounded but blessed, and granted the knowledge that just as he has prevailed with God Himself, so he will prevail with the men he fears also. The wounding of the thigh, considered to be associated with reproductive power, may symbolise the wounding of Jacob's descendant, the Son of God, for our transgressions and those of Jacob himself.

THE ISSUE OF OUR FAITHFULNESS
In our Christian warfare we are like Jacob faced with a tremendous challenge ahead. It is up to us and only us to be Christ's hands and feet in the world. If our society and our world slides further from Christian standards, the big question will be what we did to prevent it. The Lord is not necessarily asking of us success at every point, but He is requiring of us faithfulness. Are we being faithful or are we in truth allowing or indeed encouraging the slide that we deplore?

BATTLE OF THE STANDARDS
Our Christian standards are not only standards of morality, but even more importantly standards of belief, or standards of grace. It is certainly true that Christianity has areas of guidance regarding morality that are not found from secular ideology. Islam also provides areas of guidance about morality that are very different from secular standards. But Islam has nothing in it about the grace of God. Christian faith alone proclaims that there is a Man who is the Son of God, and that there is therefore, in the terms of the Jacob account, a way by which man in spite of his universal flaws may prevail with God. As the Te Deum puts it, "Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. ... When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers." Only Christian faith reveals that God sent His Son to overcome the sharpness of death. Islam, for instance, teaches that Jesus was a prophet and that God has no Son, and that the prophet Jesus did not actually die upon the cross, but that he swooned and was revived. But then if He did not die for us, we cannot be redeemed. If that were true it would put me in a terrible position with God, because I with my flaws could not then prevail over His condemnation. That is the case for those who hold to Islam, and even more seriously for us, that also is the case for those who hold to a secularism that has gone on to replace theological belief in the hearts of a multitude of Western people. European and British ex-Christians, for example, even if they do hold to certain standards of Christian morality, which would in many cases be more than a tenuous claim to make, have slid away from the Christian standards of faith and grace. Not having the guidance of faith and the atoning power of grace, we unsurprisingly see a radical slippage in the standards of morality also.


MAINTENANCE OF THE CHRISTIAN STANDARDS
The second Lesson today from 2 Timothy reminds us that our armoury for maintaining Christian standards of faith and grace are the Scriptures, and also a spirit and heart that will listen and dwell on the things that are true. It is more than a waste of time, but positively dangerous, to drink in the opposite condition that 2 Timothy 4:3 speaks of. "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth and wander into myths." As we have seen, there is an accounting to be had for the condition that results from this. More than ever before, it is necessary for us to know - now - what side we are on in the cosmic story, in this battle for civilisation that is so manifestly being spread out before us.

QUESTIONS

1. If secular "human rights" standards are widely seen as based on Christian morality, can their adoption be seen to be part of a slide to apostasy?

2. What are the distinctive standards of faith and grace that Christian belief ("the gospel") upholds? What effect do they have on morality and why?

3. Identify points in your life where you have "wrestled" in prayer. What did it have to do with forgiveness? What was the outcome?

see theolcomm 23Oct.16.doc