Rules of Life
Given on Sunday 27th November 2005 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
I am no good, I am no good at all, at New Year's resolutions. I know there is no point in my making them, and I hate the guilt of breaking them. Just one I have kept, more or less, for many years now, and that is to sit down - either on the Christian New Year (which is today, Advent Sunday) or the secular, and re-read the first few pages of a book written in 1937 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at that time desperately trying to sound a wake-up call to German Christians to be aware of what was happening all around them in the Third Reich. How is this for the first words of a first chapter?
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?....
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
I'm no good at New Year's resolutions, no good at all. But I read that first chapter of Bonhoeffer's book every year for three reasons. First, because I believe cheap grace is still the deadly enemy of our church, and of every Christian. Second, because I know that I am often tempted to take the tempting route of easy popularity and half-hearted discipleship by preaching and practising cheap grace myself. Third, because I know in my heart of hearts that in the end cheap grace offers people nothing: no cross, no resurrection, no forgiveness, no hope.
But why be so concerned about that now, with Advent here already and Christmas just around the corner? Surely this is the time for a message of comfort and consolation, of peace and goodwill to all men? Yes, of course - but not if it peddles cheap grace. Not if it teaches us to prefer Christmas to Good Friday and Epiphany to Easter. The poet Steve Turner sees the dangers very clearly:
Christmas is really for the children. Especially for children who like animals, stables, stars and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men, kings in fine robes, humble shepherds and a hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really for the children unless accompanied by a cream-filled egg. It has whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body snatching. It involves politics, God and the sins of the world. It is not good for people of a nervous disposition. They would do better to think on rabbits, chickens and the first snowdrops of spring.
Or they'd do better to wait for a re-run of Christmas without asking too many questions about what Jesus did when he grew up or whether there's any connection.
The great and traditional themes of Advent are heaven and hell, death and judgment. But they are rarely talked of these days, seldom preached about. We are all in such a rush to begin singing about cribs and babies and carolling in frosty air. And so, without really meaning to, we soften and distort the Christian message into a bloodless and boneless notion of a God without wrath bringing men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. And then we wonder why this message cuts so little ice with most people, not realising that it doesn't begin to meet their basic needs and has nothing to say to their anxieties or their fears; nothing of value to offer their hopes and their dreams. The crib without the cross is a tawdry, cut-price, bargain-basement Christianity that is not worth tuppence: shoddy, counterfeit and bogus, and fit only to be rooted-out and thrown away.
I think we all know that in our heart of hearts, because deep-down we know that we are under judgment. We all know that real and authentic living is costly. We all know that there are no joys without sorrows, no laughter without tears, no sunlight without clouds. Just think of this year 2005 that is fast slipping away. I am sure it has brought you many joys and many blessings. 'Count your blessings' my maternal grandmother used to sing, 'name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.' But hasn't 2005 brought you a crop of sins and sorrows as well? Things you thought or said or did and are now utterly ashamed of: hot words, angry words, jealous words, mean-minded actions, nasty little deeds, evil thoughts? You would do anything to have the slate wiped clean. And then along comes the Church and says 'Never mind. We all do it. Forget about it. Don't worry. God is good.' It won't do, will it? It doesn't cleanse the wound of the muck and puss of guilt and remorse and sorrow. Real forgiveness, real healing, needs something more astringent than that. Iodine hurts, it stings, it brings tears to the eyes, but it cleanses, it allows healing and new growth. Would you have the love and forgiveness of God be anything less? Do anything less?
We have been celebrating this year the 1300 th anniversary of the founding of this great church by St Aldhelm as the first cathedral of the South West. It would have been so easy to have turned Sherborne for a few summer weeks into an Anglo-Saxon theme park, to have celebrated and partied, and then moved on. But Aldhelm was a missionary bishop, because he had a passion to preach the Good News of the God who offers everyone, if only they will accept it, the costly grace of his mercy, the costly grace of his forgiveness, the costly grace of his love. It is the grace that cost God everything, the grace that cost God the life of his Son. 'Ye were bought at a price'. And if Aldhelm could preach that 1300 years ago, and more especially if he could 'walk the talk', as kids say these days, how can we do anything less?
'Walk the talk'. I don't go much on modern jargon, and I'm probably already out of date, but those three little words somehow summarise the challenge which has been engaging many of us over recent months - so to fashion our lives that they reflect, they model, they illustrate, they exemplify, the Good News this Abbey Church is about. If you have brought a Rule of Life to offer today, to be dedicated and hallowed in a few minutes' time, it is not a set of resolutions which you will begin to break as soon as you are out of here. It is simply a token, a sign, a pledge, of your offering of yourself, and of your determination to 'walk the talk'. And if you haven't yet produced a Rule for yourself, that doesn't matter provided that you are equally determined to walk the talk too, to journey with your brothers and sisters in Christ by hearing and heading Christ's call and opening your hearts and lives to him. For he is the journey, and he is the journey's end. In that faith we are going to stand in a moment to make the great declaration of belief we call the Creed, and then kneel to rededicate our lives to Christ. For it is only on our knees that we will catch a glimpse of the Christchild. It is only on our knees that we will be able to lose and then find ourselves in the radiance of his smile.