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A mortified society

Trinity 8 BCP

29 July 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

We are reminded in today’s collect of God’s never failing providence (that is, his all-seeing and all-knowing loving care for us), and of his gracious ordering of all things in heaven and earth. This word ‘providence’ means literally ‘seeing in advance’ or ‘looking ahead’. God looks after all things. It is for us to bring our lives in accordance with his will, and to share his work in ordering things on earth.

We each have a God-given conscience, and the former Cardinal, Basil Hume, was adroit in being loyal to some of the more difficult teachings of the Catholic Church by reminding people that in the end we must follow our conscience. The inclination of the conscience is to nudge us toward the good. But with so many habits and attitudes in the free moral market place (or should I say moral free market place?) – so many different life styles…how can we distinguish the good from the bad? How is our conscience to be informed, both on a personal level and in the collective sense?

Today’s Gospel and Epistle concern ways of discriminating and choosing the life of the Spirit, and not being in debt to our flesh. The passage from St. Matthew, which is part of Jesus’ teaching during the Sermon on the Mount, gives a warning for us to know the right direction…and be able to distinguish it from all the false, or lesser ways, that might be appear good, but in fact are deceptive. ‘Beware of false prophets,’ says Jesus, ‘which come to you in sheep’s clothing…all plausibly and beautifully wrapped up, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’. Test them by their fruits. Judge them by their actions…by the way they do the will of the Father in bringing in the kingdom.

Then the Epistle teaches us that we must ‘mortify’ the deeds of the body…literally putting them to death. We need the help of God’s Holy Spirit. It isn’t possible to live after the flesh, and at the same time live after the Spirit.

Our bodies and our minds must be changed in all their various habits and propensities. St. Paul writes we must mortify the deeds of the body, and turn and hold on to the Spirit…a reordering or turning to Christ.

Bishop Charles Gore’s comments on today’s epistle are worth quoting:

‘If ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Mortification is absolutely necessary, and at every stage of the Christian life. It is the carrying into effect, in detail, of the fundamental law of our new life – the law which the baptismal ritual was intended to teach – life by means of death. For the body had gained the upper hand…therefore the reinvigorated spirit must … make its government felt, and the physical tendencies must be checked, pruned, cut back. This is the Christian circumcision. And as Christ was first born, then circumcised the eighth day; so each new birth in Christ must be followed by a like circumcision of the luxuriance of animal appetites.’

(Charles Gore: from his commentary on Romans, London 1899)

Today’s readings therefore give all of us a personal agenda to discern the good, and mortify the flesh, but what about our lives together as a society? How is society’s collective conscience informed?

Many here will have grown up within a mostly Christian culture in which we can trace the way that our consciences, our moral instincts, and habits of life have been formed and shaped by Christian values. Marriage was a permanent union for life in most cases…innocent life was seen as sacred… drugs were hardly even heard about. We lived in a society that stopped work on Sunday to thank God for his blessings and shared fellowship together at the Sunday table. This has now past or is changing. Divorce is easy…and abortion is accessible. I remember the headlines some years ago now, when the Cardinal reminded people that this country could no longer be described as a Christian one. He was speaking from a pro-life standpoint, and we have in our own Archbishop one who appears much less woolly in his thinking on these issues than his immediate predecessors. However the changes in society aren’t all about easy divorce or accessible abortion. Drugs are not only talked about…but a large percentage of young people now think nothing about giving them a go. And the greedy pursuit of money beyond needs, though a successful pursuit in many cases, comes at a huge cost, for some, of becoming a victim…being consumed, gobbled up oneself, by commerce. Think how such a society forms the conscience.

The 10 commandments were given for the Epistle just this last Friday and strictly speaking ought to form part of the celebration of Holy Communion. It is easy to forget just how strong is the focus on keeping the Sabbath-day. It is the longest of the ten commandments in terms of numbers of words and details. My last parish was in Stamford Hill – the dominant community being strict Hasidic Jews who observed the Sabbath religiously. (Children waiting for others to press the button at traffic lights etc.) This might go too far for most of us maybe – but I repeat, how is a society’s conscience formed if we do not even stop to thank God on a Sunday? It seems a small mortification to aim for.

I came across these recent comments from a priest who used to be on the staff of Pusey House in Oxford when I was a student: ‘The society in which the post-war generation was raised was the moral and ethical remains of two thousand years of Christian civilization. We have now spent almost that whole capital. And now our only hope lies in returning to that Christian vine from which we have cut ourselves off. Our hope is to be so firmly grafted into Christ by love, that we will daily grow up in his religion and be nourished by nothing except his goodness’ (W. Hankey)

The providence of God never fails, and indeed he ‘ordereth all things in heaven and earth’, but it is for us to reorder our own lives, and contribute to the reordering of society – putting away all hurtful things, and seeking those things which be ultimately profitable for us.
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