Anglican Church of Canada
Lent V, March 22, 2015
I wanted to begin this morning with the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, because that’s what first caught my imagination. Specifically with the promise it contains, the promise of the new covenant – a covenant where God’s law will no longer be something imposed upon us from beyond ourselves, something we will have to be taught, and then make the effort to live out in our lives. It will be written on our hearts, it will be part of who we are, it will be second nature to us. We will live the law of God not by the efforts of our will, but automatically, easily, freely.
Well I say, bring it on! Bring on the end of moral struggles, of self-denial, of backslidings, of guilt and repentance. Bring on the end of that human condition that St Paul talks about:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . .For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Bring on the freedom of being at one with ourselves.
In a sense this is what happens when we grow up. Think of the last time you spent any time with a toddler. There are all kinds of bizarre things they are likely to do. A toddler might think it natural and fun to throw food around, for example. And the poor harried adult has to try to prevent this: to restrain the child, to try to train it, to lay down rules and try to get the child to understand and respect them. Now, I would venture to guess that throwing food is not something most of us do anymore. Not only do we not do it, but more importantly, we don’t even want to throw food any more. We don’t need a rule or an authority figure to tell us not to, because we have internalized this law. It is written on our hearts. It has become part of who we are, and we are at one with ourselves on the food-throwing issue. We’re not even tempted anymore.
And so it is with many, many things. The training we underwent as children has become part of who we are. It has shaped not only our behaviour, but also our desires. We may envy our neighbour their new car, but we have no desire to steal it. We may joke about slapping the annoying person at the next table in a restaurant, but we aren’t seriously tempted. We don’t really need a law to keep us from committing murder. In a thousand ways, growing up has been a process of internalizing laws, of making them part of who we are.
It works beautifully – until it doesn’t. Because no matter how old we are, no matter how far along we are in this process of growing up, there will still always be areas where we are not there yet, where we do not easily and naturally want what we know is right, where doing the right thing is still a matter of effort, and we still keep falling down and disappointing ourselves. We may have overcome the temptation to throw food, but new challenges and new temptations come along at different stages of our lives. As we grow older and hopefully wiser, as we grow in self-awareness, we notice things about ourselves we would like to change, and just don’t seem to be able to. And then there are areas of our lives – different for each one of us – where we may feel ourselves somehow fundamentally broken, still a frightened and confused child inside who needs an adult to tell us what to do. And we long for the healing that Jeremiah’s prophesy promises, we long to be at one with ourselves, we long to finish growing up: to have what we know in our head to be right written also on our hearts, and to find the freedom that that brings.
As Christians, it is the example of Jesus especially that continues to challenge us. Because he is the reason we are here. As much as it is a matter of habit, and of seeing our friends, and of thinking it may be good for us, at the root each one of us is here today because we have fallen in love with Jesus. And having fallen in love with him, we want to be more like him. That may sound crazy – Jesus after all was the son of God, and we are mere mortals – but we know that it is right nonetheless. One of the reasons Jesus came to be among us was to show us what a truly grown-up, truly free human life can look like.
Jesus shows us a life fully governed by love. Now we know about love. We experience it and we live it; sometimes we love greatly. But it is love also that brings us up against our limits: the limits of our own self-centredness. We know in our heads that all human beings are equally, that we are all equally precious in God’s sight. That is the theory, that is what we want to believe and practice. In real life, however, we continue to make distinctions. Because we can’t get out of our own heads, there is always ourselves, and then there is everyone else. We try to live love, and again and again our own needs come first. Or sometimes we turn it on its head, and think ourselves worse than others – just another way of getting stuck in our heads. It is that first and great commandment, the one that Jesus taught us, that seems to be the most difficult to grow up into and make fully our own: to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbour as ourselves. That is the commandment we really need to have written on our hearts.
I read a book recently that has got me thinking about how we are shaped as Christians. [James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 2009] It is a book about Christian education, I suppose, and about liturgy. The author asks some hard and interesting questions about our assumptions about Christian education, about what makes a Christian. He points out that our ideas have been shaped by what our culture thinks about education in general, and that that has been shaped by our assumptions about who we are as human beings. In the modern Western world, we have come to think of human beings as fundamentally thinking creatures. What we think makes us who we are. And so education becomes a matter of teaching people what to think, of putting ideas into our heads. We have adopted this approach in the church, and seem to share the assumption that what makes us Christians is the things we think, and that we become Christians by learning Christian ideas.
Now ideas are important, no argument. But the point this book makes is that they are not everything, and maybe not even the main thing. This is because we are not simply thinking creatures. In the traditional Christian understanding we are much more complex beings than that, with a head and a heart. It is not our capacity to think that makes us truly human, but our capacity to love: to love one another with respect and care; to love God; to love what is good and beautiful and true. That is what we are on earth to do. And so Christian education is not a matter just of cultivating our heads, but our hearts; it is about shaping our desires, not just our ideas. It is about taking the law and writing it in our hearts. There is an old-fashioned word for this, one we maybe ought to begin to use again. It is called formation.
The things that form us, that shape our hearts and desires, are not concepts and facts and arguments. They are two things: stories and rituals. We are shaped by the stories we hear, because they shape our imagination. We enter into them with heart and mind and emotions; we are stirred and inspired and carried along by the fate of the characters in the stories, and in so doing our desires are shaped. We learn what to hope for and what to love. This is true of all stories: the stories we read to our children, the stories we watch for entertainment, and the stories we read and share in this place. And then there is ritual: the habits of regular, formal behaviour we go through, as though we were actors acting out a script. There are rituals in the world as well: at the bank, at the Tim Horton’s drive-through window, at the gym. And then there are the rituals we act out here with one another, week after week, as we gather and greet one another and share the peace; as we listen to and wrestle with the words of our tradition; as we confess our shortcomings and receive assurance; as we bring the needs of the world before God and before our own hearts; as we gather at the table to be fed. These are formative practices: they shape our understanding of ourselves and the world, yes, but they also shape our imagination and our desires, they shape the things we love instinctively and aspire to. They write the covenant in our hearts.
And nowhere more so than at this time of year, as we draw near to those terrible and wonderful events that are the core of our Christian story. I say this in the Holy Week/Easter newsletter: Holy Week is such a wonderful opportunity to let ourselves be formed anew in the Christian story, to let our hearts be broken a bit, yes, but also healed and shaped and strengthened. Next Sunday we will reenact the procession of palms, and hear the passion story read. On Wednesday in Holy Week we are trying something a little different, gathering at All Saints to read through the gospel of Mark; hearing for once the whole story of Jesus in the oldest and most original version, getting as close to him as possible. On Maundy Thursday we gather at Holy Trinity for a meal that will remind us of Jesus final meal with his disciples, and then watch with him in the garden. On Good Friday we stand at the foot of the cross. And on Easter Sunday we celebrate the promise of the love that has overcome death and violence. I urge you to come out for as many of these events as you possibly can, to take this opportunity to hear and enact the story, to allow yourself to be moved and shaped by it, to write Christ’s selfless love on your hearts.