SERMON: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 12 March 2017

I want to think with you this morning about faithful, committed, same sex relationships. As some of you will know there have been ‘shared conversations’ on this issue in the Church of England for a few years now. Out of these shared conversations, the House of Bishops recently brought to the General Synod of the Church of England a report that took a largely cautious and traditional line on same sex relationships. The General Synod voted, and while the House of Bishops was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very much in favour of their own report, the House of Laity supported it (though not nearly to the same extent) but the House of Clergy voted marginally against. And so General Synod did not take note of it – the tone and stance that the report contained did not persuade the Synod that it provided a way forward.

Where should we begin here at St Mary’s?

There are a number of understandings on this issue that are sincerely held by Christians and which I’m sure are present here today. Equally there are probably many of us who find ourselves pulled in different directions and feel quite conflicted on this question. So what I want to offer this morning is where I’m coming from – not on the specific question of gay marriage as such, but on the more general question of faithful, committed, same sex relationships.

Within me there are four voices reflecting four dimensions to what I hold dear as a Christian.

The first voice comes from the Bible. Scripture offers us God’s pattern for human flourishing. Are same sex relationships explicitly excluded? In the Old Testament the texts that have any bearing on such relationships are largely from the book of Leviticus and in the New Testament from the letters of Saint Paul.

But faithful, committed same sex relationships were not around in the same way in biblical times as they are today. Our context is different. The book of Leviticus contains many laws that are disregarded by Christians and the Bible is probably even clearer about divorce, usury and the role of women than it is about such relationships. Yet the Church of England, and many other denominations along with it, has found a way to accommodate a different position than is obviously contained in the Bible on these issues – why not on the issue of same sex relationships?

The second voice within me would prefer to talk about something else! Not because same sex relationships are difficult to talk about but because there are more important issues to address. The major issues of today are climate change, poverty, war, migration – the list is huge and urgent but the issue of same sex relationships is not on the list. We never mention the issue in our intercessions week by week – why? Because it’s not a kingdom priority.

Same sex relationships are not mentioned in the gospels and there are only a handful of references to it in the whole Bible. What is important according to the prophet Micah, is to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

However when I listen to this voice within me, what it lacks is any serious engagement with the subject of same sex relationships at all – and that’s a weakness! Not only is this voice within me keen to change the subject, but it also implies that I shouldn’t be having the conversation in the first place. And by the subject not being on my list, what it means is that the discussions in the Church of England are being settled by others who do have it on their list!

A third voice that I take seriously focuses on the impact on people’s lives that flows from the Church’s position – ‘Can’t you see what the Church is doing to people?’ this voice asks me.

I’m not surprised that it was the House of Clergy in General Synod that wouldn’t take note of the House of Bishop’s report – they are the ones in pastoral ministry! This pastoral approach voices a deeply held conviction – that key to living the Christian life is compassion. As we heard read on Ash Wednesday, to the woman caught in the act of adultery, Jesus asked ‘Has no one condemned you?’ And when she replied, ‘No one, sir’ he then said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

However this concern for the individual has somehow to be held in the context of a concern for the whole, and by the whole I mean not only the whole body of Christians today but down the centuries too. Perhaps this pastoral voice can too easily be confused with contemporary English liberalism that has little to do with the Gospel Christ came to bring! As one writer has asked: ‘Are privacy and tolerance really enough, or is it time to articulate a more constructive view, and does that mean celibacy, gay marriage or some redefinition of sacred friendship?’

It’s an important question – but to be looked at another day!

The last voice within me that I want to articulate this morning is that no matter how you dress this up, this is a straightforward issue of discrimination. The Church of England has had to face the issue of whether women can be ordained as priests and bishops, and now it has to come to a mind on faithful, committed same sex relationships.

Contrast the difficulty and pain we have as a Church in broadening our vision, deepening our understanding and changing our practice with the opening sermon that Jesus gave in Luke’s gospel on his return to Nazareth. It’s sometimes referred to as the Nazareth manifesto. In it Jesus defined his mission as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, summing it all up as proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. It’s a big, inclusive vision.

Saint Paul too had a big, inclusive vision in which there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

And this morning’s gospel is perhaps about the same thing.

Nicodemus was a deeply religious man, a Pharisee. He was well respected and a member of General Synod, the Jewish Sanhedrin. In the conversation that John’s gospel gives us between Nicodemus and Jesus, time and again Nicodemus is invited to have his eyes opened to a broader vision and a deeper understanding from the one he comes with. Nicodemus resists, wants to talk about whether you can be born from your mother’s womb a second time and asks Jesus how these things can be? It’s difficult for him.

Yet later on in John’s gospel Nicodemus defends Jesus, arguing that Jesus must not be condemned without first being heard (7.50). And after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus’ body, bringing the necessary spices with him to give him a decent burial (19.39). Something has shifted within him.

What about ourselves?

When is it right to let go of an aspect of the Christian tradition as we have known it, and embrace a different, perhaps deeper understanding? How do we know when it is not just the spirit of the age but God’s Spirit, inviting us to open our eyes to a broader vision than the one we’ve been living with?

These are never easy questions to answer – as Nicodemus found, as the Church of England finds, as we each find.

We have to hold together both halves of the last sentence from this morning’s gospel. Yes, the second half talks about the world being saved – but in the first half we heard Jesus say to Nicodemus:
‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.’