St Bride's: Sermons

Blitzed Out?

John 2: 13-22

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13 And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:

15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables;

16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.

17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.

18 Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?

19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?

21 But he spake of the temple of his body.

22 When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

Blitzed Out?

The interior of St Bride's Church on 4th December 1940, just 25 days before it was bombed.

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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A few days ago, in the office here, we were looking at some old photographs of the interior of this church in the days before it was bombed on the night of the 29th December 1940.  And it was fascinating to see how different it looked from the St Bride's we see around us today.  There were wooden galleries up on either side: rows of box pews in front of me; a large wooden pulpit to my right.  

And behind me, on either side of the altar here were two large matching wooden plaques - one headed Exodus; the other 'Chapter 20' - displaying the words of the Ten Commandments.  These 'Decalogue Boards', as they are called, are often found in 17th and 18th century churches, because a Canon of the Church of England in 1602 had directed that "The Ten Commandments be set upon the East-end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same..."

So before that fateful night in 1940, every time your predecessors in the faith here attended services at St Bride's they did so with the full text of the Ten Commandments literally staring them in the face.  There was no escape!  The message to your forebears, as they sat in their box pews facing them, could hardly have been clearer.

After St Bride's was destroyed during the Blitz, the decision was taken not simply to replicate what had been here before, but rather to respond more creatively to the opportunity of restoring the church.  And many of the features of the old church interior were felt to have had their day - including the two Decalogue Boards.

Now I have no doubt that the loss of the Ten Commandments from our church primarily reflected a change in the style of church interiors.  But I can't help wondering whether it also signaled another kind of shift that was starting to happen - which was a lowering of their profile in the religious life of the nation.  Certainly by the time I was teaching Christian Ethics to ordination students in the 1990s, I had the dickens of a job getting some of them to engage with the Ten Commandments at all, let alone to recognize their importance.  "They are so negative", one of my students complained: "They are all about what you mustn't do.  We need something much more positive than that these days."

Now it is certainly true that, if you look at them closely, the Ten Commandments are a much more time-bound, and more limited code, than people often realise - because they are addressed to a very specific class of individual.  The Old Testament scholar John Barton asks us to reflect on who this is: it is clearly a person who has a house, a wife, and servants, and so has his neighbour.  He is an individual who is competent to give evidence in court ... He has a father and mother who need to be looked after.  'He is, in short, a free adult male of the property-owning class, with a household and an extended family...' In other words, this particular moral code is addressed to a very specific sector of a profoundly patriarchal model of society - a model that has effectively vanished from modern Western European culture.

But having said that, that does not necessarily mean that the Ten Commandments have outlived their usefulness.  Far from it.  Indeed, I can't help feeling that part of the problem that we have with them these days is that we tend to start reading them in the wrong place.

You see, it seems to me that the most helpful place to start is not, in fact, where the Decalogue Boards tend to start - which is with the first of the commandments: 'Thou shalt have none other Gods but me'.  Rather you need to start with the sentence that comes immediately beforehand, which is:  "I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

Because that reminder of what God has done in liberating his people from slavery, alerts us to the fact that the Ten Commandments are not simply any old set of rules that God saw fit to impose upon his chosen nation.  Rather, they are a charter for a newly-freed people; a people that previously had known nothing but slavery; they are guidelines to enable them to live in freedom, and to help ensure that they do not fall into slavery again.

Seen from this perspective - as a warning against the things that can enslave us - the Ten Commandments do begin to read rather differently, and do indeed have a voice that can continue to speak to us today.  

'Thou shalt have no other gods before me':   As we are all aware, human beings can end up worshipping a whole range of things other than God: wealth, power, success, influence, celebrity - such things can easily become obsessions, and in the process, distort our priorities, wreck our relationships, and end up eroding our basic humanity.  And I suspect that we have all encountered individuals who have ended up being enslaved by them.

'Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do'.  Since living here in Fleet Street, I have been genuinely startled to observe the hours kept by so many of the business executives in the firms around us: I see people sitting at their desks far into the night, not merely from Monday to Friday, but also at weekends.  Does that represent their freedom of choice?  Or is it simply another form of slavery?

And then there is the burden that can come when one gets caught up in a tangled web of deceit - whether through bearing false witness or through infidelity.  There is the slavery that comes from being consumed by covetousness.  And so on and so forth.

In the Lent Course that we have been running on Sunday afternoons, we have been reflecting on the story of the Exodus, which begins with the charge to Moses to lead his people out of slavery.  Interestingly enough, Scripture tells us that initially the Israelites did not want to hear that promise of freedom, because their spirit was broken - and it is indeed the case that sometimes it is easier to remain enslaved than to summon the energy and the courage to break free.  Which has led us to consider what it is that keeps us in chains.  And it seems to me that the Ten Commandments are quite a useful starting point from which to begin that process of self-reflection.

As human beings we are sadly adept at corrupting and distorting those things that are intended to give us life - including the things that are of God.  A faith that was once about liberation and human flourishing can, over time, become narrow-minded and moralistic.  Worship that was once focused on the praise of God's glory, can degenerate into arguments about the 'right' and 'wrong' ways of doing things.  Communities of Christians, once committed to the Gospel and to acts of loving service, can become inward-looking, unfriendly to outsiders and riven by internal dissent.  The need to make money can obscure the need to remain true to the Gospel.  Even with the best of intentions, we can all too easily become enslaved to the wrong kinds of ideals, and so lose touch with the call of the living God.

So perhaps it is little wonder that Jesus, when he saw the precincts of the Temple filled with money changers and market stalls, reacted with rage, overturning their tables and driving them out, saying: "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise".  

Because disordered priorities separate us from God.  And if we are separated from God, then we are no longer truly free.  

Amen

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