Lent & Easter 2. The Law, the Command and the Freedom

We are under the covenant and so we settled. We are members of a robust and confident society, culture and nation. And we are on the move, following Abraham, who is following Christ. We alternate between being settled, and being nomads. In Lent and Passion week we are on the move, in file behind our Lord, and he is taking us with him through the very darkest places. Noah and Abraham, obedient to God’s call, stood up, left their communities and cultures and walked out into unknown, and so became the founders of a new society,  Israel. We are amongst their heirs; we worship their God.

But why should we worship God? Or rather, why should we worship this God rather than some other?

In the second week of Lent the Old Testament lesson is this from Exodus chapter 20:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

The gods are the powers-that-be. They are forces – whether of nature, or political and ideological, or institutions, governments, and tyrants or some combination of these.

Out of the house of slavery I called you. This commandment, to worship this and not some other God, is the basis of all British history. The British were once in the house of slavery, of war and revenge. The gospel came to British tribes, and was nearly lost again as they were driven out by pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, who then made their home here and were converted by British missionaries; and were later nearly overcome by further pagan Viking invaders, who settled were also converted by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. The arrival of Christianity reconciles warring tribes and creates a single unified nation; it teaches us not to idolise our kings or state power, and so no totalitarian state has taken hold here. This process is never over. The gospel is not Britain’s in perpetuity. The justice and peace that make possible the existence of a nation are the gift of God, not the achievement of this nation or its permanent possession.

The word of the Lord to Abraham was ‘Come’, ‘Walk before me’. This word is now spelled out in these ten words.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. 

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet what is your neighbour’s. 

These commandments are the Ten Freedoms, or ten ways of spelling out what freedom is. Do not fear or revere any creature, however light, however dark, however familiar, however cosmic.  Acknowledge only that they are creatures, and fellow-creatures. Do not prostitute yourself to other masters, or to your own impulses, or avoid the truth, or give way to envy or attempt to seize what is not given to you. Do not let your own weaknesses become your master. Follow the Lord and grow up into the full estate of man, and so into responsibility and freedom.

The law does not describe all that is desirable. It gives us only these indications of what is not good. It is not a narrow code; it is not a vast to-do list; we are not to be punished for every deviation from it.  Almost everything is possible, and almost everything may be explored. We are invited to be free in the good company of God and this freedom can be learned through a long apprenticeship lived out in this Christian communion.  Those who take on the discipline of discipleship learn to be free and consenting members of the Church, and, as a by-product they learn how to be consenting and serving members of a nation.

This nation is the by-product of the experience of British Christians over fourteen centuries.  Through this discipleship we learn to participate in our own government, for all governance is an extension of our own intrinsic self­-government.  As a result of it we are governed by consent: without this long experience of self-control through Christian discipleship there is no political consent and so no political freedom, no Magna Carta, no Bill of Rights, none of the covenants of international law and human rights achieved in the twentieth century.

The difference between the legal and the moral is one of the gifts of this Christian teaching. The individual does not have to act in any particular state-approved way. In other words, secularity is a by-product of the gospel, so it is not achieved by wrestling against the gospel. Secularity does not mean the state reducing the influence of the Church; it means that the gospel enables the self-government of Christians and, at one remove, of all other citizens expressed through whatever institutions best enable that local and national self-government.

The individual doesn’t have to prove anything, which gives us the presumption of innocence. If there is any doubt about this innocence, a court has to produce proof, which is examined in public by the public, each of whom knows that a court of law might one day make the same charge against him. Each of us stands in the public assembly, before our contemporaries and equals. Christians insist that we all question and examine one another, and that all are examined by the truth. We are judged by our peers, friends and rivals. And we must judge ourselves, and ask ourselves, one another and even those we do not like, how we are doing? We should acknowledge that our forebears and our successors may also judge us. How are we doing as individuals, as governors of ourselves, and so as a nation. And how is our national government doing?

Our legal tradition has been taken up all around the world. Some, like the Americans, are even more aware of it than we are, and have written it down in explicit principles, a constitution. But it is not the case that once a society reaches such a point that it has this for all time: freedom is not passed down with our DNA. It requires as much constant practice as piano playing. Freedom is not defended by libertinism, but by painful questions, hard debate, public admission of truth, confession, repentance, penitence and quiet seeking and waiting for forgiveness.

Freedom with responsibility is a high calling; the temptation to delegate that freedom is strong. Every political power, which does not give clear public acknowledgement of its own limits, tends to grow. It takes on more responsibilities, become over-ambitious, decreasingly self-aware, and left unchallenged, becomes all-controlling.

The ‘non-religious’ are self-deceiving. They are deeply religious. They are the adherents of a cult without a name. Their religion presents itself simply as a superior morality, but it is held with such conviction, in its fervour erecting new idols and demanding that we acknowledge them too. The fans of freedom paradoxically want to use law and coercion to make its morality binding on the rest of us.  Same Sex marriage is one of these cases, as we shall see.

Christian thankfulness has given way to agendas driven by resentment. Our leaders are not believers in the gospel-given call to freedom and responsibility through discipleship. They would rather release us from the burden of responsibility.  Their mission creep turns us from citizens and participants into viewers, consumers and dependents. Anxious Britain demands instant solutions and regulation. The state has assumed a power of attorney over us, and regards us as its wards, and a stream of new laws attempts to mould the morality of the population. But excessive legislation has no more effectiveness than magic incantation. So the last four or five generations of English have directed their worship to a god who does not admit to being a god at all. We may hope that the ark of civil society will continue to sail serenely on, but this is a hope of truly religious proportions. For the state that wants to relieve us from the burden of responsibility is attempting to make itself our saviour.

The state that wants to change our morals will not bear criticism patiently. The electorate of 2015, is not responsible only to itself. We cannot simply demand More-of-the-Same; we cannot simply say, ‘Do not threaten my standard of living’. This electorate is responsible to the next. But we have been borrowing from the next generation, in order to enjoy ourselves now. Our welfare state has become rapacious in its demands on future tax-payers. It is our children and grandchildren who have to vindicate the decisions of our generation. Each generation has to allow the next to judge it, and that judgment is about how far we managed a good, honest and confident society and a stable and sustainable living standard and way of life. Our grandchildren will decide whether we made things easy for them, or whether we have left them fewer opportunities than we received. It is harder to dodge these sort of questions in Lent than at other times of year.

So for example, for the last twenty years I have judged, each time I make a purchase, that no supplier in this country is as good as any supplier in China. My every purchase has represented the implicit judgment that China is better than the UK. As a result, I now find that almost no one in the UK has the money to buy the products that I now want to sell them, and so, bound by my own judgements, I am stuck.

In a single century we guzzled a long way through the fossil fuels that made the costs of transport and of manufacturing in plastic negligible. We became globalists, able to fly in any product from any labour force across the world, never worrying about the hollowing out of our own industries. No one knows whether the cheap energy is here to stay and whether this globalisation and disappearance of locality will continue.

You know that every farmer has to stop his animals from eating everything now. You withhold supplies so that you will have feed to take them through the winter. To the extent to which we are prudent and save, giving acknowledgement of the needs of the future, is the extent to which we are not simply animals, but future-oriented humans. That’s all there is to farming, to house-holding, or to governing a nation. The present is not the only time and this generation is not the only generation. Christians are long-termists, who have to stand in the way of the destructive triumph of the Short-Term.

Who dares say that the future will be just as easy as the present? If my economic decisions have run down my own people, who will extricate me and them from the consequences of my short-termism? Who will save us, and how?

The Church – that is, you and I –  must say that this present generation is not the ultimate authority. We Christians have to stand surety and attorney for future generations, and so to stand against this, our own, generation. Of course to them it looks as though Christians are uniquely awkward, old-fashioned or deliberately obstructive, and so they attempt to ridicule us out of public life. But generations past and future will be our judges. They will decide whether or not we acted with proper authority.  The Lord stands guarantor for them.

Like every other generation, this generation puts Jesus on trial.  The Church, and all previous generations of Christians, and the whole cast of English history are in the dock with him. And our moral guardians find them morally deficient and so guilty.  Our leaders are in a revolt against all previous generations; they are experiencing a nausea against everything that made us what we are. They are caught up in a great unhappiness that expresses itself as hatred of everything that made us who we are. We Christians cannot share it.  Instead we have to say that the leaders of a nation who stop listening to the Church and deride the source of our political culture, are driven by their own unhappiness. They are set on inflicting their unhappiness on the rest of us, and want to coerce us into it, though of course even that would not bring happiness to them.

Jesus is on trial. And yet, it is us who are on trial. Jesus is simply presenting the ongoing trial of man by man. For he is on trial as us. Jesus stands where we stand, alongside us and in our place.  When we usurp what is reserved to future generations we threaten them, and because he has promised to do so, God intervenes on their behalf. This is what turns God’s coming to man into a confrontation. The conflict between man’s out-of-control present and the dwindling hopes of the future is a clash between man and man. Is mankind – the responsible being who lives together with his fellows in love and freedom – simply an impossibility? Will the whole experiment of mankind end in disaster, as Satan believes?

The passion and the cross are this terrible collision between man out of control and God, for own man’s sake intervening to make whole everything that man had shredded. The collision between the present and the future is taken and made harmless by the good timely action of the Father and the Son working together. Everything that mankind tears up and trashes, the Son picks up again, and the Father gathers it up from him into an undivided cloth, and so we and all creation are sustained with their eternal life.

All Lent is a long spelling out of the passion and the trial of Jesus. Because we are on trial, Jesus has put himself on trial before us. How will we judge him? Will we decide that it is impossible this man is man-with-God and God-with-man?

We are answerable to others. Our most vocal contemporaries may believe that that they are not answerable to us or to anyone. But we must assure them that they are. We may not allow them to become little despots. This present generation cannot be the source of its own authority; our media opinion-formers cannot be the source of their own authority, the state cannot be the source of its own authority. We judge one another, and we are not at all merciful judges. Each of us stands under judgment and condemnation. We stand under the judgment and the condemnation of our contemporaries and of the next and future generations.  Who will speak for us, and who will rescue us from the impasse that we have caused?

When we come to Church we watch this enormous drama taking place before our eyes. We are able to follow it in miniature in this space. It is as though that altar is the screen and this space before it is the stage on which the whole drama of our salvation becomes visible. We make this obvious at Christmas by setting out the crib scene so everyone can see the figures involved in this nativity. We make an Easter garden, and we process around the stations of the cross. All this is a making visible-and-audible in miniature of the man-making work of God in the world. That altar and this transept are small stages, to allow our neighbours to see and hear, and this town is a small stage to allow England to see and hear how, in his mercy, we may share God’s life and so become human.

We not only watch and listen to this drama of salvation, but we reply and sing and follow it on our feet. As we become practised in faith we see each scene as it is read in the lesson each. In faith we see Noah, Abraham and Moses following the Lord. And we follow the Lord as he enters Jerusalem and hands himself over to the manic powers of the unhappy world; we wait on the Mount of Olives, outside the Council of the Sanhedrin, and we look on at Golgotha, and again in the garden. Just as we watch any weekend evening television drama, we hear and watch this drama here and we sing and make our petitions and responses. But we do not remain the same through this watching; whatever we look at or listen to changes us and slowly conform us to itself. Through this watching and waiting here, we are being conformed, and transformed, to join this heavenly society, this holy communion.

In the second week of Lent we hear this from the Gospel of Mark:

Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of man will be ashamed.

This ‘shame’ is not embarrassment so much as the belief that the gospel is simply baggage and an encumbrance. But the gospel will not hold us back. The gospel is the only thing propelling us forward. British society has always been pleased to take the yoke of the gospel off a while, in order to deal with its own more pressing matters. And yet enough of us Brits have been converted, and allowed that yoke to do its work, and these Christians have taken the rest along with them, and have been the salt that has preserved this nation and spread its Christian culture of openness and fairness around the globe.

Nations are always starting to break up into antagonistic groups and are reconciled and held together by the reconciliatory effect of Christians. But there comes a moment when that ark has too many passengers and not enough crew; it loses way and, as any vessel that is not maintained, it starts to break up. This is what happens when there are not enough Christians around to enable the political nation to find its way. Our society has decided that there is a quicker cheaper way to happiness than promised through Christian discipleship. It believes each of us can find happiness through isolation, without the demands of others, without parents or of children, and so without older or younger voices with their experiences from the past framing their questions about the future.  Since it is ultimately God who insists on setting all these people and demands before us, we attempt to isolate ourselves from him.

Our society is not in good health. Arteries clogged, circulation blocked, no organ functioning as it should, it suffers minor strokes, which are left undiagnosed and untreated. It is unable to go far without collapsing on the roadside. It has no idea what to try next, though its denial about its situation is as fierce as ever. It is undergoing its own passion, and its own kind of Lent; but it has no source of hope, so there is no Easter ahead, so it is stuck in a numb and awful kind of passion.

The Christian Gospel sets out the biggest and most ambitious view of who we may be. It gives us the huge figure of the free man. He is free but it must be said that he makes steps towards freedom as long as he consents to be disciplined by this discipleship. He is a willing Son, who learns obedience through what he undergoes, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, and so, able to govern himself, is also able to lead others. So it is the gospel that authors this ambitious figure of the modern individual, who is a citizen, but is also much more than any nation can make him. It gives us our ability to choose for ourselves and to be free of masters. This huge hope created for our identity only makes sense when each individual is formed by the discipline of Christian discipleship with the companionship of Christian life. Without them, it is cruelly unachievable.  Christianity is the foundation of modern political culture, and sole means of its continuation.

The world is made up of just two nations – the more or less cheerful, and the more or less cheerless. Those who follow Christ are the cheerful. But they must travel through an unhappy nation, tormented by the memory of an identity too big for it. Sometimes our gladness draws them out of their self-preoccupation, sometimes it makes them more adamantly miserable than ever and determined to take it out on us. The worst favour we can do them is to let their unhappiness rub off on us. So we Christians celebrate the victory of Christ, and give thanks for this victory that redeems mankind and establishes that we may grow up into this enormously high status. But we celebrate this victory as we make our way through the world – and this is our way of the cross.  Running the gauntlet of their unhappiness, we make our way through a crowd that is pushing back at us, deriding this hope and attempting to divert us from it. And whether the world we travel through is at any moment welcoming, indifferent or enraged is hard to predict, as we see on Palm Sunday, when the Lord enters his capital to the acclaim of one crowd and then through the fury of another crowd, or even the same crowd, a short time later.

This Church and its services train us for public life and discipleship outside this Church. In this nave we learn and practise our new life together, so that the public trial of the Christian life can be played out now before the British people who need it.

Follow this Lord only. Give up all others. Walk on into responsibility and freedom. The most confident societies in the world have emerged from this commandment and they prosper as they continue to hear it. But ahead of them they have a long walk through a hostile and frightened world. This is our passion. Christ shares it, follows it through the end, and now walks it through again with us just so that, with him, we can get through it. Nonetheless, this passion is ours. Get ready.