Salvation for all people? Christ, the Temple and purity.

Sunday 30th January 2011: Candlemas: Trinity College Dublin

Canon Giles Goddard

Malachi 3.3: He will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

There are two kinds of cooking. There’s the kind when you carefully find all the ingredients, neatly prepare them, chop them up and have them all ready; then you carefully follow the recipe book, and with great attention do everything that’s written down; and in the end you produce precisely what you expected, and it’s very delicious.

Or you do what a friend of mine was saying she does last week; you get in from work. You put some oil and garlic in the pan, and you look in the fridge to see what’s there. You chuck it all in, and stir; and in the end you produce something very unexpected. And it’s very delicious.

The two kinds of cooking are not mutually exclusive. You can do either, or both; but what you can’t do is both at the same time. If you’re sticking to a recipe, that’s what you have to do; if you’re trusting to the fridge, you need to be consistent in that too.

Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas. What’s Candlemas about? In many ways, it couldn’t be a more appropriate festival to be keeping as some of the Primates of the Anglican Communion meet near to this chapel - those who decided to attend - because it’s absolutely about the relationship between Jesus the Christ’s followers and Jewish notions of temple purity. It’s about the relationship between the cult and the Christ; between, if you like, the rule of law and the reign of grace. It’s about the difference between sticking to the recipe and trusting to the fridge.

The writer of Luke has conflated various rituals in one story; the ritual of the purification of the mother, of the redemption of the firstborn, and the offering of a child to God. The resonances of these are too many to go into in detail, but clearly there’s an echo of the offering of Samson to God by Hannah, reflected in the Magnificat, the great song of Mary, which reflects Hannah’s song of joy when she leaves Samuel in the Temple.

But this is different. Because the implications of the dedication of Jesus Christ are made clear by Simeon; and in so doing we see the seeds of the end of the Temple cult as a result of Jesus. Previously, the story is telling us, people had to go to the Temple to be purified, to become acceptable to God. But now, Jesus will change all that. “My eyes,” he says, “have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” In other words, Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Gentile; and so the cult no longer stands. And to be clear about that, he goes on to say “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” The transforming power of Christ is foreshadowed in this story, and so it’s entirely appropriate that it’s the major feast between Christmas – the Incarnation – and Easter – the Resurrection.

But why, in that case, is this gospel coupled with the famous reading from Malachi? “And he shall purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (As I prepared this sermon I was listening to Handel’s great setting of these words in the Messiah, premiered not far from here.) Why, if the Gospel reading is about how the temple cult is ended by Jesus, are we also warned that his light will be like a refiner’s fire? If the cult no longer stands, surely the refiner’s fire has been extinguished?

It doesn’t work quite like that; as we learn from the subsequent verses of Malachi. “I will be swift to bear witness against the adulterers, the sorcerers … against those who oppress the hired workers … the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

The book of Malachi was written, probably, in about 480 BC, when the temple was being restored after the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. That’s the time when the third section of the book of Isaiah was being written; and when Ezra and Nehemiah were re-establishing the Temple in Jerusalem, with all the legalism and imposed notions of purity which that implied.

And, guess what, there was a row going on. The row was about who should be in, and who should be out. Who was acceptable to the Lord, and who wasn’t. On the inclusive side – if you’ll allow me that word - Malachi and Isaiah. On the exclusive side – Ezra and Nehemiah.

I refer you, for evidence, to Ezra chapter 10 verse 10; “You have trespassed and married foreign women … now make confession to the Lord … and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the foreign wives.” Not much inclusion there, then. And on the other side, Isaiah 56:6 – “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

No further questions, your honour.

What’s being said, is that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice; that we are called to allow justice to roll down like an ever rolling stream; that, as Malachi says, we must not be those who oppress the widow, the orphan and the alien.

And why is this relevant to today? As we speak, the Primates of the Anglican Communion – the leaders of all the 38 provinces (national churches, mainly) from around the world – are, at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, meeting very near here to engage, debate and discuss matters of common concern in order that they can together bear witness to the love of God in the world expressed through the shared life of the Anglican Communion.

Except they’re not. In fact 22 primates are here, and 15 have decided not to come. For a variety of reasons; some, for health or because of local commitments. 7 cite “recent developments in the Episcopal Church”; notably, the consecration of a lesbian bishop in a relationship in Los Angeles.

How sad. And yet, how predictable. And what a perfect reflection of the situation into which the writer of Malachi is speaking in 480 BC. The meeting was deliberately “agenda-lite” – much time was left by the Archbishop of Canterbury so that there could be proper discussion and consideration of the issues facing the Communion. As a result, some are not coming because, they say, it won’t get anything done. Rather than seeking to understand their fellow Christians, they have chosen to reject the means by which they might grow in love; because somebody else’s understanding of the law and grace of God differs from theirs.

I think we are seeing a change in the life of the Anglican Communion; my hope is that those who influence these things are willing to acknowledge it. There have been great efforts, not least by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the regular frustration of some of us, to enable those who take a traditionalist view of human sexuality to maintain a major role in the life of the Communion. But there must, surely, come a point when we are able to recognise that further attempts to accommodate something close to Calvinism are not going to bear fruit, and that the particular charism of the Anglican Communion - its historic generosity, openness and inclusion – must now be allowed to flourish.

The reasons for the walking apart are complex; but are, in many ways, no different from the issues confronted by Malachi and Third Isaiah in 480 BC. Politics, pollution and primacy. Politics, because there are issues about who has power and how that power is distributed within the Communion. Pollution, because the idea of same-gender relationships are seen by some (especially some of our African colleagues) as something outside their culture and alien despite the fact that it has been, and is, found in every culture and society throughout history.

We’ve seen a tragic and immediate example of that this week. You may have heard that a Ugandan gay activitist, David Kato, was bludgeoned to death in his home in Uganda. His funeral was on Friday. At his funeral, the officiant – who was an Anglican lay reader - ranted against homosexuality. And at the end of the service the villagers refused to bury his coffin. I think it’s important to be clear about this; homophobia kills and any church that preaches intolerance is contributing to the very real and deadly consequences of homophobia.

And, thirdly, primacy, because at issue is the question of by whom, and how, the life of the Communion is to be controlled.

None of these are easy questions. But they will not be solved by a refusal to engage. They certainly won’t be solved by a refusal to allow the love of God to transform the world.

And let’s be hopeful. Half of my present congregation is Ugandan. Half my previous congregation was Nigerian. We lived, work and love together, knowing we have our differences and celebrating what brings us together. Something which happens in churches and cathedrals across the Communion; something to be thankful for.

My own view is this; that two things need to happen to ensure the continued health of the Communion. First, that we need to be clear about the implications of the refusal by some conservative provinces to engage with Communion processes; this Primates Meeting and the Anglican Covenant. The implication is that the processes set in place in an attempt to placate them – the moratoria – are to all intents and purposes defunct, and should be quietly forgotten. Which is not surprising, because they were legalistic responses to a legalistic approach to the Gospel.

Secondly, that having done that we need to find a way out of the absurd stalemate we are in over human sexuality. We need as a Communion to find a way to recognise that there are a great many Anglican and Episcopalian Christians whose faith and life, and the faith and life of those around them, is deeply enriched by their same-sex relationships. That these relationships are undoubtedly blessed and hallowed in the sight of God. A way which recognises differences of opinion; which does not force those who disagree to abandon their beliefs; but which recognises and celebrates the ways in which the love of Jesus is expressed in the world. Here we are in Ireland, close to a living example of what’s possible in extremely complicated issues with flexibility and care. I do not believe that something similar isn’t possible within the Anglican Communion. It’s time to find that way.

To return to where I started; what kind of cooks do we want to be? Where’s our inspiration? In a recipe or in what God has provided for us? Do we want to trust in the spirit or try to define the spirit out of existence? I remember the words of Malachi we heard earlier: I will be swift to bear witness … against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, against the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the Lord. Do we want to live in the temple cult or in the love of God? By law or by grace?

I end by reminding you of that great song of Simeon, in the King James version which we’re celebrating this year:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the sight of all peoples. To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”