Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 23 July 2017, Trinity 6, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 23 July 2017, Trinity 6, United Benefice of Holland Park

I wonder what you have made of today’s Gospel reading about the wheat and the weeds. Its pretty scary stuff:
The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Pretty brutal stuff here! The American revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards would love this sort of passage. On 8 July 8 1741, he preached a famous sermon call ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’.

I think he got his theology completely wrong. It’s got to start and end with love… ‘God so loved the world… that he gave his Son Jesus Christ’. The Gospel is not based on fear. And God’s love cannot be restricted to a chosen few, whilst the others are cast in to the fiery furnace.

The paintings of the terrors of Hell on the walls of medieval churches are much more interesting than the paintings of rather static groups of singing angels in heaven. But the doctrine of eternal hell is a non-biblical later church invention that can only exist when metaphors of great spiritual depth are turned into literal descriptions of unbearable sadism. This is a piece of Christian re-thinking that we can do without, and that flatly contradicts the gospel of the limitless love of God (Keith Ward, THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTENDOM, 15 December 2005)

So hearing the Gospel passage today, we mustn’t go away thinking that we Christians here in church on Sunday are the pure wheat. We are the special chosen ones who are on God’s side, we are the ones who will inherit the kingdom, who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God. And others (be they non-believers, Buddhists, Muslims and so on) are the weeds who will be, as the Gospel puts it, ‘pulled up and burned in the fire’ at harvest time. That’s a crass interpretation of this passage. It’s a rather repulsive view but it’s a particular interpretation which I spent much of my life believing.

What we learn from Scripture is that God’s love is generous, it’s expansive. It reaches to the very darkest and lowest places of existence and into the very darkest parts – the weeds, if you like – of our lives. That’s the message we need to draw from this passage. It’s not us and them. The binary perspective likes to make such distinctions. But the tares, the darkness, is not ‘out there’ in other people, other religions, other groups. This parable is a challenge for ourselves, to look with clarity on those tares within our own lives.

But what about judgment. The Bible clearly speaks about judgement and I don’t think that we should ignore or redact those uncomfortable passages in scripture. But the sort of ‘judgement’ is not one where we are in the hands of an angry God. Along with atheists, I don’t believe in that sort of God, who seems to take great delight in punishing viciously those who mess up.

I think the sort of judgement the Bible describes is one that is profoundly relational. It is the sort of judgement that is restorative, the sort of judgement that heals. It’s the sort of judgement where we are in the hands of a loving and compassionate heavenly father and where we are restored completely to relationship with him, and where we become the people God originally intended us to be. It's beautifully depicted in the prodical son story. The judgement of the faith is one of embrace, and of having a party to celebrate a restoration of relationship.

The scope of God’s embrace widens even beyond humanity by including all creation. The eastern Orthodox tradition reminds us that Jesus is the pantocrator — the lord not just of people but of all things seen and unseen. The scale and scope of this future hope includes not only each person and every nation but, as our epistle reading puts it, ‘the whole creation’ (Romans 8:12–25).
There's an expansive logic to the Christian good news. God ‘created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ (Colossians 1:16). He will ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’ (Colossians 1:20). He will sum up or bring together ‘all things in heaven and on earth’ (Ephesians 1:10).

In sum, what we may know from the symphony of Scripture is that nothing and nobody exists outside the presence of God’s infinite grace and perfect love.

What I think today’s passages are saying is that ultimately, one day, God will destroy all of the works of darkness. And we rightly long for the day when death and injustice and corruption and violence will be destroyed and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

In the meantime we see suffering on a cosmic scale – we often feel overwhelmed when turning on the news to hear about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, of the abuse of children and elderly, or when we hear about or corruption, or discrimination. We long for the day when God’s kingdom will be on earth as it is in heaven. We are encouraged to believe that a time will come when God will not be distant, but fully present.

And in the meantime, we are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom, and to start by doing some weeding, digging up the weeds from our lives that threatening to entangle us. We are invited to live a life that can stride confidently into the gap – angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning. Where we can clearly see the distance between what should be and what is we work to lift to close that gap. To be individually and as a community signs of God’s reign.

And we pray for the day when death and injustice and corruption and violence will be destroyed and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

Revd Dr James Heard

Holland Park Benefice