St Bride's: Sermons

A glass half full?

John 5: 1-9

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After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

A glass half full?
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Are you a pessimist or an optimist? By which I mean have you got a high view of human nature or a low view of human nature? Are we all miserable sinners or angels in disguise? If you are an optimist you would go straight to Genesis 1: 26 and point out that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We share with God the capacity of mind, a capacity to think and reason, and that gives us the ability to make choices, to choose between good and evil and, some of the time at any rate, to choose the good. We are, as the Psalmist says, little lower than the angels.

If you are a pessimist you would nod sadly and say yes... but. Human beings are certainly made in the image of God but they have made a total mess of things. You would point to the story of The Fall in Genesis 3 as a metaphor that tries to explain this capacity to mess things up. One of the consequences of The Fall is that human reason is now hopelessly corrupted. We are so trapped in sin that we have lost the freedom to choose between good and evil: left to our own devices we will always misbehave. Have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

Those are the two opposite views of human nature and there are many shades in between. Pelagius, a monk of the fifth century was a pessimistic optimist. He taught that Christians have to fight to overcome sin but that we still have the resources needed to make free moral choices. With a bit of effort we can behave properly.

Dream on, replies pessimistic St Augustine of Hippo, also in the 5th century. He believed that the catastrophic consequences of the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden have made us all corrupt, locked into a sinful tradition. Human beings can't behave properly: the only way to behave properly is through moral regeneration, and that is the work of God, through grace. Only God has the power to set us free.

Oh dear! And Martin Luther took this further still and argued that we can only be put right by the direct action of God: to use theological language we are 'justified by faith not by works.' Yes justification leads to good works, but they are God's good works, not our own.

And John Calvin, a little later, took all this even further still, arguing that all good woks, even done by Christians, are intrinsically evil; indeed that some people are predestined to evil and some to grace. God is sovereign and omnipotent, and humanity is damaged, corrupted, by sin, but not a total disaster. The wound is deep, but the grace of God is deeper still. You and I can therefore co-operate with the transforming power of the Spirit to become good and moral beings. So the good life is on the agenda again - because of a unique partnership between God and us.

Look at what happens in our Gospel story today. Jesus confronts a man who has been paralysed for 38 years. And he asks the man an extraordinary question 'Do you want to be healed?' The man dodges the question with the reply 'I have no-one to help me.' It's the response of victim mode: he's got stuck in a rut, it's someone else's fault, he can't change. Has he perhaps made a lifestyle choice, living comfortably off the charity of others? Jesus says to him,in effect, co-operate with me, with what God can do, and healing and change are possible. Allow God into our brokenness, and newness of life can be yours.

It could be argued that this dilemma - can I be good and how can I be good? What stops me from being good? - is the fundamental question that the Church exists to answer. A modern writer Francis Spufford has written movingly about this in 'unapologetic' - At a very low point in his life he is sitting in a café having messed up his relationship with his wife - and listening to the adagio from Mozart's clarinet concerto; and he found the music speaking to him. What it said was 'Everything you have done wrong, you have done wrong: and yet...' He felt that the clarinet concerto sounded the way mercy would sound. We have an almost infinite capacity to mess things up but Jesus gives us the promise that things can be mended as he does in our Gospel reading, He can overwhelm sinfulness with grace, a forgiveness we cannot earn. And the Church is the all too imperfect attempt to perpetuate that unlimited generosity of God in the world: to be a channel by which 'mending' enters the world, to the degree that we allow the Spirit of God to shine through our lives and actions.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Are you on the side of Pelagius and Aquinas, or Augustine and Luther? Or even Calvin?

Well, I am a realistic optimist. I come down on the side of Aquinas - that God in his love and mercy invites us into partnership with him.

As we examine our lives and open ourselves to God, so we allow His grace to get to work within us, to transform our nature by His Grace. And the Christian Church - places such as St Bride's - offers 'the hush in which we can bear to find out what we're like' and also what we can become and to know that whatever that is we are accepted.

Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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