A Farewell Sermon
Given on Sunday 19th February 2012 at The Abbey by Revd Dr. Alistair Stewart
In one of my recent research reports to the parish, I remarked that Origen, from the third century, was the first systematic theologian. Somebody suggested that this honour should probably have gone to Paul. However, I did not say that Origen was the first theologian, but the first systematic theologian. Paul was a very unsystematic theologian, and his theological ideas have to be unpicked from his correspondence, which takes place with various of the congregations which he founded, and with which he had continued dealings. It is as well that Paul never underwent any kind of ministry review of the kind we all undertake nowadays, for the correspondence with the Corinthians (and not just that with the Corinthians) tells a sorry story of misunderstanding and confusion.
In the second letter to the Corinthians he is dealing with his failure to come to Corinth when he said that he would. In the meantime there are people at Corinth whom the Corinthians rather prefer, but who do not seem to have the same message that Paul had, which leads Paul to justify his mission and his approach in a way which, to our ears, seems rather boastful and imperious, but which was more likely to commend itself to hearers in the first century.
Paul contrasts the message of life with that of the law, by way of suggesting that the message conveyed by those who encourage people to keep elements of the Jewish law, as his opponents did, are missing the point. The message of the law, he says, was glorious, so that Moses would put a veil over his face. How much more glorious, he says, is the law of life. The veil which covers the law is removed by Christ, whereas, he says, there are those who continue to read the law still veiled. Moreover, he then notes, there are those for whom the Gospel is veiled. This is really an aside, as his main theme is the task of proclamation which is his, and for which he was called by God. However, in this aside he asks why it is that the Gospel is veiled to some, and suggests that the ruler of the present age has so blinded these people that they simply cannot see the glory. There were two ages, this present age and that which was to come; this was an assumption which he held in common with many other Jews at the time. The present age is not yet fully under the rule of God, whereas in the age to come the triumph of Christ will be final. In this present age the spiritual rulers who hold sway have blinded the eyes of some so that they simply cannot see the glory of Christ. And in a world in which every street had its temple to some pagan god or other, and in which every association or club was dedicated to some pagan deity, and in which the city would regularly gather for public sacrifice, it looked as though the spiritual rulers were very much in charge of this present age.
It is in the midst of this aside that he makes sure that we do not lose sight of his main theme, namely the task of the proclamation of the Gospel and the rewards that it brings. “… they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” This, the lordship of Christ, is the centre of the Gospel, the glory, for which Paul endured so much, not the least constant disappointment, under which disappointment nonetheless he did not lose heart, because of the glory which he knew was at the heart of his message. And yet, because Paul is not systematic, it is hardly a statement which is self-explanatory. “Jesus is Lord” may be the acclamation which marks a Christian, but it does not interpret itself.
In the first instance it is an affirmation of the triumph of Christ in the resurrection, which denotes the triumph of God in him over the same hostile powers which even now are blinding potential hearers from perceiving the glory of God. Thus this age, which is passing, is already condemned. However, perhaps more significantly in the context of Paul’s mission to gentile churches, it meant principally a repudiation of other Lords, other Gods, other masters. Again, recall that these early Christians were surrounded by temples of the Gods of the Greek world, and not just temples and local shrines, but frequently by a very public manifestation of the civic religion, with processions and public sacrifices, which were meant to draw the communities together in the worship of common deities. Again recall that every club, every trades association from fishermen to crocodile mummifiers, is under the protection of some other god, and so to accept on the basis of Paul’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord is to turn away from all of that, to leave your club, and your union and your role in the city, a move which might well have involved turning away from sources of social and even economic support, as the trades associations would operate as hardship funds and the towns as local charities. Small wonder these gods blinded the eyes of some to the glory of Christ.
Renunciation still stands at the base of conversion. I know a number of you who have tried to bring members of your family or spouses to faith and have met disappointment. Although there are some who would lose their social support system were they to confess Christ, I think more often there is a different false glory which blinds people to the glory of Christ, which is that of our own independence and cleverness. Confessing the Lordship of Christ really is a matter of first renouncing everything which stands in the way of that, even if what stands in the way is confidence in our abilities and a fear of change.
Lest I sound as though I am in danger of preaching to the converted, I clarify that I am speaking of conversion as a means of encouraging you to convert others, to bear witness, by pointing out what stands in the way. And I am offering encouragement to those of you who have been disappointed by pointing out what you were up against, namely the difficulty of renunciation.
For some of us the journey of renunciation is long in the past. Some of us never made that journey, being raised as Christians. Some of us find that it is a journey which we must for ever make anew. I am one of these latter, and it is for people like us that Lent is made. Originally it was a time in which those coming to Christ might undertake the necessary renunciations to find their dependence on Christ rather than on their own social support networks. For us all now it is a chance to find out what stands in the way of our fuller knowledge of Christ, and to renounce false gods and false selves once again to gain, or regain, the lordship of Christ in our lives.