THE GOSPEL REMEDY

Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday after Trinity the 12th June 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England in the Cayman Islands in the service of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: 2 Sam 11:26 - 12:10,13-15     Galatians 2:15-21     S. John 3: 1-8

Galatians 2:16 S. Paul says: “Even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.”

THE JEWISH SCHOOLS
Our Lord came into the world with a radically different revelation of God from what was being taught in the Jewish schools of His day. The schools taught that your adherence or otherwise to the laws of God and to the teachers' interpretations of those laws determined wholly what sort of position you found yourself in on a scale with "sinner" at one end and "righteous person" at the other end. They taught that if you were at the "righteous" end of the scale, God loved you, but if you were at the "sinner" end, God rejected you. If you wanted God to love you, your business in life was to climb up the scale as well as you could. And it should be made clear from the outset that there is a most positive thing to be said about all this: for here there is a clear link between religion and ethics. Our Lord Himself taught this clear link too in such parables as the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment, or the Rich Man and Lazarus

RELIGION AND ETHICS
A study of comparative religions shows that religion as such does not necessarily make this link: however, the people of Israel proclaimed that God truly was righteous and required men and women to live in righteousness too. The people of Israel should rightly be honoured for having been granted this revelation to bring to the world. The connection between religion and ethics and morality historically lies at the heart of western civilisation, because it was taken up into Christianity. We recall too that Jesus said He had not come to destroy the Law, but to bring it up to new standards. Accordingly, in my own student days it was a wonder to me how it was that the culturally ancient religious concepts of the divine, from say Persia or Greece, could apparently be lacking in morality. Didn't religion and morality naturally fit together? I thought. Yet we see, in today's climate of thought also, the ethics of the day and our Christian heritage being separated. The West's sources of ethics are increasingly quoted as in socially agreed codes and laws of conduct, the “international standards”, and the result of this is that the older theologically based ethic is more and more being subverted and ignored. "Thus saith the Lord!" has given way to "Thus saith the law of man!" In addition to this, it is becoming the standard ideological fare of today's media commentary to consider the ethics of Christianity and its sources, regardless of their position at the very heart and foundation of western civilisation, to be fundamentally flawed.

GOD THE LOVER
So yes, the prophets and law-givers of Israel firmly linked righteousness and religion. So the Pharisaic schools of Jesus' time said that the divine would approach and approve the humanity that could display its righteousness according to the Law. But, contrasting with this, the message of Jesus and the apostles was that the divine, through the mystery of grace, approached humanity to court it from its unrighteousness, and make of it a spotless Bride. The Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus taught so often, was like a marriage banquet, and to that banquet God called those who saw themselves at the bad end of the scale. He called sinners to repentance. He approved those who came in repentance and gratitude that sinners though they had demonstrated themselves to be, He was receiving and forgiving them.


FORGIVENESS AND THE THEOLOGICALLY BASED ETHIC
Nicodemus, who features in the baptism Gospel, characterised by Jesus as a teacher of Israel, was a product of one of the schools of the day, and was described by S. John as “a man of the Pharisees.” From his conversation with Jesus by night, we infer that this man of the Pharisees held Jesus in high respect; a respect he felt that this fellow-teacher had earned by the “signs”, or miracles, that accompanied his teaching. Still, the fact that he had come to Jesus in this rather hidden way, in the dark of the night, suggests that up to that point there was a reservation in his approach. He could have been aware that there was building up in his Pharisee colleagues an antipathy towards Jesus, in spite of, or perhaps because of the signs that he himself acknowledged. He was not yet ready to cast his lot in with this very unusual Rabbi with his quite unusual set of followers, and did not at this stage want to be tarred with the same brush that his own religious or academic colleagues were preparing for Jesus. Perhaps there are a few Nicodemuses among us here, intelligent, well-schooled, even good, but like Nicodemus, not quite ready to receive the idea that to be a true follower of the true Jesus there must be a starting over, a casting off of the dark night of personal reservation, and indeed a casting off of some of our cherished ideas, habits and teachings, for the sake of this starting over with Jesus. Does not Holy Baptism, after all, declare the starting over with Jesus? And so, without any further ado over the praise Nicodemus has just verbally heaped upon Him, Jesus cuts to the quick. To see the Kingdom of God – and it is that Kingdom that the Presence of Jesus declares whether by day or by night – we must, He said, be born again, be born new from above.

For God comes to save at the beginning of a process, and not just when we have already become good. It is the fact that He has received and forgiven us that gives us the hope and the love for Him that helps us to choose against sin subsequently. We have begun to see ourselves as His sons and daughters, and so to start to live out a theologically based ethic.

DAVID'S BETRAYAL OF THE LORD
Now the Old Testament does not shrink from telling of the unrighteousness of the righteous man David. David may have sung in the words of Psalm 7, "My shield is in God, who saves the upright in heart," but the tale that is told of him in our Old Testament lesson today is a sad and ugly one. First there is the selfish violation by a man of power of the marriage of one of his faithful soldiers. Then having committed adultery with the man's wife he was unable to conceal the consequences of his act except by arranging for the soldier's death in battle – at the cost of other men’s lives as well. Now in David we have already seen a heroic faithfulness to the Lord, but this episode occurs during a subsequent low point in his life. This is the man who slew the giant in the Lord's name, the man that was chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel, the man that for religious reasons was so respectful to King Saul, and the one who after Saul's death had brought Jerusalem into the united kingdom of the twelve tribes, and so the story of his goodness and his mighty exploits can go on. Yet now this failure, beginning to set in train many domestic troubles, reveals that the David of great exploits was also the David that on this occasion, in the words of the prophet Nathan, "despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in His sight."

THE GOSPEL REMEDY
Clearly, David's earlier exploits of faithfulness to the Lord had not guaranteed to him automatic spiritual health. Righteous David could also come to say with horror and repentance, "I have sinned against the Lord." And no matter what we might be able to point to with satisfaction in our own past, we are all potentially or actually at the sinner end of the scale. This is something we must admit to if we want to receive and continue to receive the Lord's gracious approach to us. In thought, word or deed we have terribly fallen short of the glory of God. Yet our Gospel is that when we own this we are not rejected. Our remedy is to believe in Christ Jesus, as St. Paul proclaims in our second lesson today, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by our own goodness. Even a mature Christian must believe as if he were no further on in his Christian life than he was when he first believed. He is as much in need of God's grace as he has ever been. "O wretched man that I am!", as the Apostle exclaimed as a mature believer.

THE LORD COURTS AND INVITES US
But as such, the Lord courts us still by His grace and invites us to the heavenly banquet, thus helping us on always in the present age in the new way of combating sin. Let us respond in faith to His enduring love, let the unbaptised come to the water, and let the new Man and the new life prevail among us!

BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS

1. If God has "courted" us to Him, how can we best follow this example in our approach to those outside the Church?
2. "I want to be baptised one day, but I need to turn my life around first". Comment.
3. What is the pastoral approach to one who says he "was a Christian, but is a backslider"?