Sermon by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff for May 22, 2022, the Sixth Sunday of Easter

From today’s Gospel Chapter: If ye love me ye will keep my commandments. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — AMEN.

May I first express my thanks to all those who have so kindly facilitated my visit and the invitation to preach. It is a pleasure to be back at the Church of the Advent.

It has to be said that there is never a dull Sunday here at the Advent — in all manner of ways … and today we do not merely have the three Masses of the morning, but we no less than TWO Rogation Sunday Processions that take us out into the big wide world beyond the West Doors. And that is because today is Rogation Sunday.

The word Rogation goes all the way back to the Latin Rogareto ask / to beseech, and it is still in use in modern English in the form of “Interrogation”.

In Ancient Rome cognate words had wide use in the legal system, but of more interest to us is that the Christian festival of Rogation seems to have been first held at a time which enabled it to supplant an earlier pagan Roman festival called the Robigalia. This consisted of a procession from Rome to a point outside the city, where a dog and a sheep were sacrificed to save the crops from blight (known in Latin as <em”>robigo, “wheat rust”). According to a later Christian document of Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great), the Christian festival was established as an annual event in the Christian calendar by the year 598. The Christian procession in Rome followed the same route as the pagan procession for a certain distance but then returned to St. Peter’s Basilica, where the Mass of the day was celebrated. Nonetheless there was some degree of continuity insofar as the Christian ceremony was one beseeching God for protection from calamities and for a good harvest.

Over time the observance spread across the Western Church and the Rogation Days comprise the three days preceding Ascension Day, especially devoted to asking for God’s blessing on agriculture and in more recent times general commerce and industry as well.And in Britain especially (but also in one or two parishes here), the associated mediaeval tradition of “beating the bounds” of the parish is observed at this time, with a procession, prayers and a sharing of hope in God‘s goodness to nourish every endeavour conducive to the flourishing of the area comprised of the parish. Hence  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week are known as the “Rogation Days,” days for fasting and prayer, leading up to Thursday which is the feast of the Ascension, which falls on the 40th day after Easter (when Easter Sunday is counted as the 1st day).

Such are the rewarding details of the Church Calendar.

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But fundamentally here on the spiritual level is that Rogation invites us all to come together for the common good of seeking God’s blessing – in this particular place and parish. All of which brings us very sharply to the massive CHALLENGE that is posed to us all by today’s reading from the Epistle of James.

His rebuke to the Christian community he addresses  provides the material for our fourth Sunday in our series reflecting upon that Epistle, and the words for today are certainly forceful! To quote:

What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you?….
Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?…
You covet and you cannot obtain — so you fight and wage war…
You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?…
Submit yourselves therefore to God. 
Resist the devil and he will flee from you….
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you ….
Purify your hearts, you men of double mind ….
Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.
Do not speak evil against one another.

These warnings and reproofs are powerful — indeed almost shocking in their sharpness. They bring to a cautionary climax the gradually mounting rhetorical intensity of this Epistle, as it moves over the course of only four chapters, from stressing — in the opening the value of trials and temptations as we learn with perseverance to overcome and resist them.

We have been challenged to be doers and not just hearers of the Word. And last week we were warned to bridle our tongues from saying wrong and evil things. And in today’s chapters the warnings reach a crescendo before — as we shall see next week — we are called finally to take to our knees in prayer.

Amidst the intensity and drama of all this it makes sense to explore something of the context into which James was writing. The dating and authorship of the Epistle are all subject to much debate, but one compelling case can be made to think of the letter as being earlier than the 3rd Century (as many have suggested) and indeed going all the way back to the time of James the brother of Christ — whom it seems only became a follower of Jesus after his Resurrection. If this time and framing is correct and the Epistle was written before AD 62, the year James was likely martyred (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1 and Eusebius II.23.1–18), it speaks to a time of great upheaval and danger and speaks to Jewish converts to Christianity especially. The decade from AD 50 onward had seen the rise of much turmoil and violence in Roman Judea, as Jews became more and more frustrated with corruption, injustice, and poverty. This turmoil continued into the 60s, and about  four years before James was killed. War broke out with Rome a war which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem and a subsequent diaspora of its people.

This makes it very fitting that the epistle makes such exhortations: 

–to relieve and care for the poor in practical ways (James 1:26–27; 2:1–4; 2:14–19; 5:1–6), 
—to stand up for the downtrodden (James 2:1–4; 5:1–6) and 
— not to be “like the world” in the way one responds to evil in the world (James 1:26–27; 2:11; 3:13–18; 4:1–10). 

Moreover:

—the mere secular wisdom of this world is sharply rejected as having no normative value for Christians 
—people are exhorted to adopt a higher heavenly wisdom, which includes peacemaking and the pursuit of righteousness in holy living (James 3:13–18).[55]

Placed in such a context of upheaval and confusion, the epistle emerges as a very real letter with an urgent purpose: namely to encourage Christian Jews not to revert to violence in their response to injustice and poverty, but to stay focused on doing the good, staying holy and to embrace the wisdom of God and Christ and not that of the intolerant pagan world surrounding the early Christians of that time.

Times when the regular world is against us are always a special danger to us, but we must not stoop to the ways of that secular world ourselves.

Yet for all the drama of its historical context, the Epistle has also a dramatic theological perspective as well. For here, while salvation is by faith alone, nonetheless here, true faith never is alone for — for, as the author of James reminds us, faith shows itself to be alive by deeds that flow from it; deeds of love which express the believer’s trust in, and thanks to God for 

–the free gift of salvation by faith in Jesus 
–and the new life (and view of the world) this makes possible.

Indeed it is only within this world view —which Jesus Christ uniquely made possible by his once for all sacrifice — that we can most fully and authentically seek the good of all others, which is the common goal to which we invite all to share that will be made manifest as the fully redeemed world — to which Christ opened the way — comes to realization.

That is all part of the ultimate good (summum bonum) which is God himself (my computer always wants to correct Summum bonum to summer bonus, much as Professors Fiddes and Swinburne to Fiddles and Swindler).

Such then is the grandeur of the underlying theological vision which informs the Epistle of James, but we who read and receive it are all too human too in our failings, and it stands as a firm reminder that we are called to do better.

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I remember seeing some while ago a caricature which showed two parishioners in a thinly attended church service glaring darkly at each other in the most hostile manner, redolent of deep and mutual suspicion. Meanwhile, in the background, the preacher is proclaiming from the pulpit, “The Devil is in our very midst”! That clearly explained their mutual suspicion!

The reading we have heard today from the epistle of James speaks to just such unchristian failings and suspicions. Sinful as it is, however, conflict within the Christian church is very sadly as old as the church itself. Remember the words of St Paul to the members of the church in Corinth (Chapter 3):

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ.You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. For we are fellow workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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Yet when it comes to conflict: while we Anglicans have been sadly prone to it in recent times, we also have heritage from our history that should enable us to address internal conflict in ways others do not. Let us for example think back to the Master of the Temple Church — Richard Hooker. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he created a uniquely Anglican theological approach marked by what one scholar has rightly called a “gracious, conciliatory spirit unusual in the theological debates of the day.” (Richard Schmidt, Definitive Anglican: Richard Hooker 1554-1600, 8)

Fully aware that he was “on dangerous ground in terms of the intellectual orthodoxy of his day, (D. MacCulloch, The Reformation, p. 507), “Hooker carefully resisted the urge to fight fire with fire, to consign to hell those who would certainly mark his place there. In an age when people were more than willing not only to die for their brand of faith but also to kill for it as well, (The Challenge of Definition: Conflict and Concord in Anglicanism, C. K. Robertson in Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2009, Vol. 78, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 373-392: “he translated many of the confusing destructive conflicts into … a pragmatic and tolerant middle way between the tempting dogmatisms of his day.”

Philip B. Secor, Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism 1999, p xiii), “Hooker’s example of letting go of one’s own supposed infallibility of opinion in order to learn from and be open to others would be (among his lasting gifts to Anglicanism) . . . and its defining mark.” 

How did he do this? To take one example of his theological method, Hooker drew upon “the weight of collective past experience  (and theological reflection in the Church) and the exercise of God-given reason,” to balance the extreme emphasis of other Reformation leaders’ (supposedly) complete reliance on Scripture alone.” (Secor) 

Sola scriptura might have become the watchword for (much of)  the Continent, but in the English church it was made clear that scripture itself requires interpretation, and this was deemed essential. This was not a criticism of Holy Writ but rather a comment about how to approach it with the eyes of faith informed by reason and theological reflection. As Hooker himself stated, <“We do not add reason as a supplement of any man therein but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yields.” (Laws, vol. Ill, chapter 8, section 10) 

The classical Anglican approach to scripture would thus avoid the dangerous extremes of either complete individual interpretation without any consultation with the wider teaching of the church from earliest times)  or blind obedience to the interpretive dictates of a charismatic preacher or indeed overbearing magisterium. Still less did it defer to the charismatic claims of mere contemporary and secular society which the Epistle of James enjoins us to reject — such as is the ever growing present temptation today. After all this last supposed source overtly seeks to stand outside the Christian tradition. (And as such it cannot appropriately be seen as an authoritative source genuinely integral within it!) 

By contrast, the witness of the early church has especial weight, for Anglicans such as Hooker have always upheld the teachings of the early councils of the undivided church in particular. To quote Hooker again, who despite being a clear realist about the Eucharist, carefully explained his hesitancy to analyze too much the manner of how this occurs by saying: “Let it be enough for me as I present myself at the Lord’s Table to know what I receive there from him, without researching or probing the manner in which Christ performs this work”. (Laws, V.67, 12) 

In all this there is a delicate balance which every generation has to recover anew between the written Word of God, the teachings thereof as summarized in the Creeds, and early Church Councils, as well as  our Anglican formularies of the Prayer Book Tradition — together with the light to be shone upon all this by the God-given reason that is ours. 

Such a balance is delicate,  but it is what has come to be the unique way of Anglicanism. This is a tradition that is not without a certain complexity as well as breadth of view and indeed inclusivity, and as such it is one that requires a certain self-discipline when it comes to those with whom we disagree. 

We humans cannot all affirm everything, and that just a fact entailed by our capacity to experience true and actual meaning.

AND YET…

It is the case that there has been an important history in Anglicanism of being able to live with differences of view — as was seen through the nineteenth-century disputes about the exact understanding of the Eucharist and matters of liturgy. Again with in the Church of England itself there has been a long standing commitment in recent decades on all sides to recognize the twin integrities of those who do and those who do not accept the ordination of women in the ministry. In the English church neither “side” in these matters can seek to remove the other. This means that these views are held side by side — challenging as that may be — yet struggling through that enables the Church of England to continue and to go forward in its ministry. This very fact has been explored with new attention in the current church-wide initiative in the UK upon human sexuality called Living in Love and Faith. This process has required an express commitment on the part of all participants to work together, which is again of a parallel character, mindful of the Vincentian tradition which ultimately has to say that over time in the life of the church of the ages that which affects all should be resolved by all  if it is to be fully received in the end. 

This is not an easy path nor is it cost free, but individual sacrifice of our egos for the greater good is part of our calling as Christians. AND REMEMBER this  does not call for abandonment of commitment to upholding truth and the deposit of saving faith as the church has received and taught it over the millennia. At times of great tension and stress these lessons of history are things we do well to ponder as they point not only to the difficulties that have beset the Church worldwide over the centuries, as also to the challenges specific to the multiple sources of the Anglican Way, but also to the capacity of the Church to survive — as indeed our Lord has assured us it will — till the end of time.

The question in the book of Micah has often been posed rhetorically — in the expectation of a negative reply, namely, Can two walk together except they be agreed? I suggest that within the limits of our history the correct answer for Anglicans has to be “yes they can, within the historic bonds of the Anglican identity and heritage.”

And in the words of our Anthem today Ubi Caritas et amor Deus ibi est, “Where love and charity are found there is God.”

Which brings us back to the last Dominical words I quoted from today’s Gospel at the outset:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: 
not as the world giveth, give I unto you. 
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

AMEN.