In the depths of the Book of Common Prayer (do check this when you get home) there is a little Order of Service which we tend not to use any more. And my guess is that the vast majority of those who profess to love of the Book of Common Prayer have never even heard of it. It`s called The Commination. It`s otherwise known as `Denouncing God`s anger and judgements against sinners`.
In the midst of the Commination are these words:
Cursed is he that curseth his father or mother.
Cursed is he that maketh the blind to go out of his way.
Cursed is he that perverteth the judgement of the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.
Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly.
Cursed is he that lieth with his neighbour’s wife.
(there`s even one for when you have a housing dispute
Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s land-mark. … and so on and so forth.
It`s great stuff…. But of course it`s hardly the kind of language we tend to use nowadays. And perhaps that`s because we like to think of ourselves as a bit more sophisticated. When all`s said and done we like to think we`ve advanced beyond all of that. After all this is a seventeenth century document and I mean this kind of language just presses all manner of buttons associated with bigotry and religious hatred doesn`t it?.
But I rather think we`re missing a trick. No, I want to suggest this morning that because we`ve taken to ourselves some rather misguided notions of what we call `tolerance` and we`ve accepted the deceit that all truth is relative (that is; it doesn`t matter what you believe as long as you`re sincere)
And this then allows us to simply ignore or dismiss documents like this as simply the product of a very dark and ignorant time and consequently we miss out on what they are really trying to teach us. And the problem is that we start to treat our Scriptures in the same kind of way. They no longer stand as the prime arbiter for faith and living because when we come to a passage such as the one we heard this morning… the opening verses of Paul`s Letter to the Galatian Church ……we simply conclude that Paul is up to the same kind of game. We read these few verses and we easily think Paul is indulging in the same kind of ignorant, bigoted and unsophisticated view of the world that well, gives religion a bad name….
But that I`m suggesting, is a grave mistake. No, this is a Letter which begins with the most intense passion; so much so that unlike his other letters, Paul dispenses with the usual pleasantries involving warm greetings and the rest and simply says: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ”.
And then he nails the point… “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” In fact twice we hear Paul say “Let that one be accursed!” …and it sounds just like his own version of the Commination doesn`t it?
So my questions are, “If this isn`t simply a matter of unsophisticated bigotry… then what`s going on? What place can such inflammatory language as `cursing` possibly have in the life of faith?”
Well, the basic issue which Paul is wrestling with in this letter is, “On what terms could Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) be admitted into the Christian fellowship?” You see while Paul had been away from Galatia some Christians with a Jewish background had turned up and told the new Gentile converts that in order to be proper Christians they had had to be circumcised….. and (much to their relief you might think!) Paul is writing to say “No”.
Now cutting the long story short, what we`re dealing with here is what we call `heresy`. (Interestingly another word don`t use anymore….!) But it`s a word that means “To choose” ….and it virtually always involves taking one element of the faith and getting it out of perspective. Heresy is often a short-cut… So for example, one tell-tale sign of a heresy is that reduces faith to what WE find more acceptable or accommodating.
We might think I might think of the heresy of regarding Jesus as simply `a really good man` rather than the Son of God as a case in point. You see you don`t have to wrestle with that… you`ve allowed him to fit in with your own picture of the world and brought him down to manageable terms.
Now, of course we`re not in the business of burning or persecuting heretics these days but what the presence of the Commination… and what Paul`s really intemperate language in the Letter point out is that we have to be willing to say as our forebears did that “Here`s something that`s wrong….. this is not the truth that God has revealed”. “Here`s a choice that doesn`t do justice to who God is and what he`s done….” And this is what Paul is driving at… The principle reason that Paul gets so `shirty` is that heresy… wrong belief about God diminishes the lives of believers … because what you believe about God shapes the way you will live.
Again, the reason for Paul`s anger is that if you tell a lie about God you will end up living a lie; and Paul was concerned to ensure that his infant Christian community would not be founded on lies and an inadequate and diminished vision of God… but on the truth. He knew that if he didn`t sort this out their diminished view of God would begin to shape their view of themselves, how they related to one another and how they interacted with the community in which they were set. It`s rather, as I`ve said to you endlessly, “You become what you worship”.
But behind all of this, and part of the problem I think, is that we`re not used to what we might call a certain `seriousness` in faith.
On the one hand I wonder whether we`re not sure if God is entirely serious. That might sound odd but I mean if your understanding of God cannot embrace those places in Scripture where he demonstrates his seriousness, and his entirely justified `righteous` anger at the behaviour of his people and the mess of his world…. then it seems to me we`re already in a rather anaemic place.
And if, as I`m again often pointing out, we`re inclined never to sit before the cross on Good Friday but in good `monopoly fashion` to go directly to Easter Day…. then you`ll never have a faith even remotely able to address the moments when we are outraged by suffering and simply ask “Why?”
And then on the other hand, I think we`re also a little unsure of what it might look like for US to get serious about God. I mean we`re so formed by the values of the culture around us; which encourage us to make ourselves and our own self-interest the final arbiter in all things ….that we can`t conceive of adopting the attitude of, say for instance the Centurion whom we heard about in our Gospel Reading.
But why is he commended by Christ?…. Because he has an almost instinctive realisation that faith means coming under an authority greater than oneself. And this is the point that Paul goes on to make to the Galatians isn`t it? I mean, somewhat sarcastically he says, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ”. (Galatians 1.10)
Just how he calls himself the `servant` of Christ Jesus. Again, it`s not really a word we would regularly use about ourselves…. But for example, how would it be if you were to begin each day using Mary`s Prayer, “He am I, the servant of the Lord… let it be with me according to your Word”? How would that look?
But then notice, Paul also sees himself as what he calls a `Servant` of the Gospel message: He tells the Church in Ephesus, “Of this gospel I have become a servant” (Ephesians 3.7) And he tells us this morning “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”. (Galatians 1.12)
And this gets to the heart of it. I mean the bottom line is that Paul knows he has been entrusted with something… (and so have we!). Paul has been entrusted with something and he gets very shirty when others miss-represent it and twist it to meet their own ends.
You see. Putting it simply; we don`t get to make this up for ourselves ……the Christian faith is not a pick and choose menu; it`s a truth entrusted to us… and the truth of what God has done in Christ matters. This is a matter of life and death…. Because lies about God diminish lives; a wrong understanding of God imprisons people in guilt and cripples them with anxiety and fear. Right Worship matters because it forms who you are becoming.
We mustn`t be too coy about the Commination and all this intemperate language. The truth about God is worth celebrating but lies about God are worth getting steamed up about and these are days when we need to pray for the grace to recognise the difference.