Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Second Sunday in Lent. 2016.
Christianity and Politics don’t mix! How many times have we heard this? The Church is like the Tory Party at prayer, I have heard said! The theme of this morning’s sermon is clearly a contentious one. If you have brick bats please may I have them at the end of the service where I will be happy to take them one by one.
I wonder have you ever considered the history which led to your presence here this morning. I want to briefly highlight two. The first regards the Roman Emperor Constantine who in the 4th century effectively rescued the Christian Church from the clutches of persecution and secrecy. Up to this point the church had been the church of the poor and marginalised and had met in the Catacombs. Here was the action of a powerful political leader who promoted Christians to high office, built churches and basilicas and offered reduced taxes to the clergy-brought Christianity out into the open. He instigated the Edict of Milan which led in its turn to the Council of Nicea from whence we receive the Nicene Creed.
The second person of huge political influence was Henry 8th. In an attempt to continue an unbridled life of chasing women he severed links with the Pope and the Catholic Church and created in effect the current Church of England whilst claiming to be its spiritual head. Church becomes wedded to state with all the status and power this brings. I guess we see this clearly as our senior bishops take their places in House of Lords.
Christianity and Politics is a heady mix and a complex relationship. Let’s start with the Bible. In the Old Testament we have a special kind of history we call salvation history; we have stories of how kings, judges, national leaders and prophets encountered their God in the development of the nation of Israel. We hear how the prophets especially stood up for social justice and moral judgements and the lives of the poor, oppressed and marginalised were championed against the might of powerful kings and aggressors.
Moses champions his people in the face of the Egyptian oppressors. We hear Moses and Aaron withdrawing their labour in making bricks for the Egyptians,
“But the King of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron why are taking the people away from their work?’
In other words Moses and Aaron called a strike in refusing to make bricks for the Egyptians.
“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” (Jeremiah 22:13).
“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4).
The constant theme of the prophets is of God who looks favourably upon the weak and the powerless and desires peace, in the face of those who would use their power over others. Following the example of the prophets Jesus of Nazareth engages with the powerless of his day, women, gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor-all of whom, in the political and social environment of first century Palestine, were fully paid up members of the ‘marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed’. Jesus was quick to point out the hypocrisy of those who thought and acted as religious and political elites of his time. In his lament over Jerusalem which we heard read this morning, Jesus reminds the Jews of the role of the prophets, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones who are sent to it!”
What should be the response of the disciple of Jesus in today’s world to the complex and far reaching political issues of our day? There is no one right answer. Each must weigh up the issues involved alongside their revealed faith. Let us briefly look at some principles arising from the gospel.
First. What do we make of economic self-interest?; the Protestant work ethic?; the accumulation of private wealth? We have the troubling parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle and we have the parable of those who work to produce a harvest in the vineyard and their reward-both speaking for a balance between the rights of capital and labour based on mutual respect and legal protection. How is this working out in the UK today? Is the ‘minimum wage’ fair? Is it possible to live on the ‘living wage’? What is the responsibility of a Christian employer? If the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, do we remain passive bystanders or do we make our views known to government? Are the banks and the great multinational companies exercising their power fairly? Anyone who imposes power then has to maintain their position with more imposed power.
Second. We are daily bombarded by images of war on our TV screens. What is the Christian view of violence carried out by the state against other nations? All human life is sacred. When is it or is it ever just to meet out violence against another? I think a reading of the gospels would indicate Jesus as a man on non-violence. The power Jesus talks and lives is a power which is patient and transforms lives from the inside. The problem with a nation imposing their will on another nation by coercion, punishment, threat, money or any other external force is that it leaves a legacy for another generation to clear up. It is certainly efficient and often quick.
Third. How Christian is nationalism? This issue was highlighted this week in the mild spat between Donald Trump and the Pope. The Pope pointed out he thought Donald Trump could not be espousing Christian principles if he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the rest of the US. The mission of Jesus certainly was totally inclusive of all races and peoples, and sought to pull down barriers which divided people from one another. Those who would support the UK’s removal from Europe certainly seem keen on pulling up the drawbridge on arrivals from Europe unless you are rich. Probably there is no doubt that the UK does need a new deal with its membership with Europe, but not at the expense of us becoming an imperial island seeking to assert its dominance over other less well off than our nation.
These are but a few complex questions. I believe it is our responsibility as Christian individuals and as a Church to pray about, reflect, debate and participate in political action which supports the powerless and weak, promotes the peace and well being of all humanity, and seeks to establish Kingdom values seen in the face of the person of Jesus Christ.