Preached by Canon Roland Riem, using Ephesians 4.25-5.2, at the Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12th August 2012, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.
Morality, economics and theology – in our mind’s eye perhaps three separate boxes into which we put vastly differing ideas.
We expect theology to be about God – what he is like; how he relates to his creation; what sort of plans he has for its future. But precisely because it’s about God, we expect its ideas and concepts to be rather immaterial – for, as the Bible tells us, ‘God is spirit’. Theology might just provide some insights into a higher realm, but it won’t actually change anything.
Economics is what we hear about on the news day by day, about the movement of goods around the globe, the rise and fall of companies, banks, corporations and about jobs coming and going. We don’t expect that we can do very much about all this; we can approve or disapprove of what we hear on the news, but we can do very little to affect these capricious economic forces.
Morality, on the other hand, does seem to be a bit more under our control. It’s about the values we hold that give us a sense of who we are and help us to choose well. But perhaps we don’t think morality can achieve very much. I may think litter is an abomination, but, looking around the Outer Close on a summer’s day, it doesn’t appear that many others share my view!
Holding theology, economics and morality apart leaves us feeling powerless. God’s in his heaven all’s right, or wrong, with the world, which runs in its own merry way because of forces like global markets. We hear what we hear on the news and are free to plough our own small path according to our own moral lights; but we have very little to bring to the party. We simply aren’t that important.
However, why should we hold all these areas apart? In the first reading we heard from Ephesians, theology, economics and morality are bound together in one message and the result is something powerful. What we hear about has no easy name, and if we called it ‘church’ we’d all think of something far too domesticated. This holy people, this army, his family of saints can be, and should be, an effective instrument of transformation and indeed a sign of what all decent, human society should be like.
Let’s start with theology in this body. How is God engaged in this community? He is deeply invested in its future. The saints have been set apart for final redemption, to be part of God’s new creation. When they go wrong his spirit grieves over them: the disruption of community life caused by sin is an injury to his own body.
Perhaps we are used to the OT idea of God’s being angered by sin, but here God is saddened or hurt by it. God is not out there as a distant spirit. As we say frequently in worship, ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’ He is committed to bringing about new creation in and through us. Our wrongdoing wounds his body.
And this community has a strong, local economy. The saints are members of one another. We might call it a co-operative. If any member has a surplus from his honest labour, then this is something to share with the needy. There’s no place in the community for ill-gotten gain. Thieves are welcome to join this family, but they must give up stealing. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s be clear about these politics: the arrangement is neither right- nor left-wing; it assumes that people will take responsibility for their prosperity (right-wing) and (left-wing) it also assumes that those who are needy must be helped by others. It is not party politics, but the economy of the household of God.
And the way this local economy is run is part-and-parcel of the way in which relationships are ordered in the body. They are lived under God. His example is set before them in Christ.
Christian morality, as we might call it, is life lived under God, as his beloved children. Therefore it can never be a private, internalised affair – something to get us by and give us a sense of our own basic decency. As we have seen, it has an economic element, but it has a relational element too. It does matter how we treat one another. It matters that our relationships should be characterised by truth.
‘Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’, the letter says. There’s no room in that vision to deceit. Many lies are told for the sake of self-protection and self-preservation, but thus is a revolutionary ethic. How many people do you know who are totally straightforward in how they are with others, without being unkind? They are a joy to know and work with, because you know where you are with them.
So there we have it: theology, economics and morality coming together in one body, one household, one family – that’s the vision which the Ephesian saints are being presented. They are being reminded of the way in which their small community can be alive in Christ and light up the world. And it might inspire us, too.
Our vision of the church can often seem quite anaemic: somewhere we go on Sundays; an institution worth our support. But we are members of Christ’s body, joined to all that God in Christ is doing to rescue his creation. To see this is to live in a new world.
In just a moment I’ll be behind the altar and you’ll remain in front of it, but together we are being drawn by the Spirit even deeper into the work of Christ. Through sharing this meal together we are united in one body by the one bread. As he gives himself totally to us, we find our pattern of living for one another generously and honestly in an economy of love.
Perhaps you have never heard of TINA. It’s a political slogan used to suggest that however bad things may be in the system we are in ‘there is no alternative’. Whatever we see happening on our news there is no alternative; we have no opportunity or responsibility to change the world.
Jesus Christ did not believe this and the saints who have followed him have never believed it either. The alternative to the way things are is given here in this worship – the way things are here; gathered around what God is doing to save his creation, gathered together as members of one another, saying and singing truthful words.
Our politics and our morality should flow from what we are doing now. There is an alternative to living without power, and it is living together in the power of the Spirit in the pattern of his Son Jesus.
If Christianity is dwindling in the West it is because it is seen not to be sufficiently mystical – it fails to provide an inward journey of personal transformation – and not sufficiently practical – it fails to provide the tools for social transformation. May the Lord forgive our blindness to how he can change and use us! As G K Chesterton famously said, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.’
All I would add is that if we hide it here in worship, we shall not find it at all. We start living in his new creation in the breaking of the bread. May God, then, open our eyes to what we are doing at this Eucharist, and help us to live it, powerfully, as one body.