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The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor Nova Scotia, July 11th,  AD 2004

“Art thou the troubler of Israel”


How wonderfully and prophetically do our lessons speak to the religious confusions and conflicts of our world and day!


Religion is, to be sure, a great inconvenience and often greatly resented. How much more so in a culture which prizes convenience and comfort above all else? Hostility against religion is not new, but it is certainly a feature of our times. And no doubt, it will only get worse. You only have to contemplate the turmoil in the Middle East and the exasperation in the United Nations and throughout the Western democracies with the state of Israel, an exasperation which borders, at times, on anti-semitism, to see hostility against religion or to note the fulminations in the media, particularly of the left-leaning variety, against so-called Christian fundamentalism whenever any sort of religious viewpoint is alluded to with respect to domestic or foreign policy.


On another level of consideration, there is rightly considerable disquietude with a kind of Christian triumphalism which thinks to do the right thing in relation to Islamic countries and which claims to respect the religion of Islam but seems incapable of understanding the distinctives of either Islam or the very Christianity which historically and constitutionally undergirds its own forms of political and social life. The consequence is continuing conflict about the place of religion in the so-called atheism of the modern secular state which claims a tolerance through indifference but is increasingly coercive against religion with respect to political and social policies. Traditional Christian morality has no voice and no hearing in our contemporary culture. Religion, in short, is inconvenient at best and downright annoying and objectionable at worst. Why?


Because religion does not easily accommodate itself to the political, social and economic agendas of our world and day. In fact, it seems to get in the way. Whether directly or indirectly, religion is often blamed for many of the forms of social, political and economic unrest in the global community. How shall we understand this conflict and opposition? By seeing it, really, as a conflict of religious outlooks. Religion makes demands. But what religion and what demands and how are competing and conflicting demands to be resolved?


First of all, we need to see that the so-called secular culture of the western democracies, having thrown off or at least standing in denial of their Christian principles without which they are not thinkable, constitutes simply another form of religion, namely, the religion of secular atheism. But to begin to think atheism means to recognize that it owes the possibility of its very being to Christianity. To put it in another way, there are no atheists in the ancient world. Atheism only becomes a possibility through Christianity – through the possibility of not accepting the Incarnation there lies the possibility of the rejection of the idea of God altogether as being in any way necessary for the living out of one’s life.


But hostility against religion needs to be more closely defined. The hostility is not really with the various forms of nature religion or their spurious modern counterparts in the so-called “new-age” spiritualities of the self that proliferate in our contemporary market culture. No. The problem is with the great revealed religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, precisely because each in their own way, hold to a transcendent principle, the God who cannot be reduced to the phenomenal world of sense and experience but stands above and beyond the world as its source and creator.


The differences between the three have entirely to do with the form of the relationship between God and the community of believers in the world. For all three we might say, however, there is a forsaking of the world by being bound to God, through the Law in the case of Israel, through the Love of God in the Incarnate Logos or Word of God in the case of Christianity, and through the authoritative but inscrutable Will of Allah in the case of Islam. To put in another way, and one that suggests the possibilities of a dialogue and a conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims, all three are religions of the Word; the Word of God as Law, the Word of God as Love, the Word of God as Will. There are enormous and important differences between the three but, not surprisingly, all three are inconvenient from the standpoint of the religion of the secular state which eschews any transcendent principle and thereby any sense of the limitations to its own authority. The state, in a way, is God.


And therein lies the conflict. Once you have a hold of the idea of a transcendent principle, it alters your relation to the world. There can be no easy accommodation. Revealed religion is a great troubler to the secular state, the secular state, that is to say, that has forgotten or denied its sacred origins. For here, too, lies an important qualification. Just as we can really only talk about atheism by way of reference to Christianity, so too, the very idea of a secular state is largely a western Christian development arising out of the distinction within the Latin and Christian west between the respective realms of the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the temporal, both of which are seen as Christian. The further paradox is that out of that distinction in its more modern forms, beginning in the seventeenth century, arises the principle of religious toleration within and between Christian states and by extension between cultures. By toleration here, I mean, a principle established in law and not merely an attitude or feeling towards the one who is seen as the other. Such a principled view, though, it seems to me, has its roots in the spiritual distinctives of the three great revealed religions of the world.


The lesson from The First Book of Kings brings out the conflict between religions within Israel. Of course, the point of the story of the encounter and test-match between King Ahab and the prophet Elijah is that there is no contest. The transcendent God of Israel wins hands down, as it were, in this stars-wars-like contest. God cannot be compared to the gods of our imaginations; in this view, the Baals of the older nature religions to which Ahab and Israel have turned by turning away from the God who has revealed himself in the Law and the Prophets, the God, too, by the way, who has revealed himself as the God of all peoples through the mission of Israel to the nations of the world. That larger dimension of Israel’s true character is something which the prophets will emphasize precisely against a privatized view of God, a God for Israel exclusively, as it were.


Elijah represents an early but essential form of the prophetic ministry, a form which is always necessary for all revealed religions. The essential idea of prophecy is not about predicting the future but always about recalling the fundamental insight which defines the religion. That means making clearly and, indeed, forcibly, the distinction between the gods of this world and the God of all creation. Initially, from the standpoint of the practical life of the people of Israel, Elijah seems to be “the troubler of Israel”, precisely because he reminds Israel of the uncomfortable truths which define Israel over and against every and any immediate and pressing, practical and political concerns.


The lesson from The Book of the Acts of the Apostles shows the conflict between early Christianity and the pagan cults of late Antiquity, in this story, the cult of the many-breasted Diana of the Ephesians. As with the story from The First Book of Kings, there is really no conflict – the cult of the city is seen primarily as an economic interest and is really being mocked for its crassness. Once again, though, a clear distinction is being made; once again, through a form of conflict. The real concern from the standpoint of the Roman authorities is about keeping the peace. It shows clearly and unambiguously the kind of world from which Christianity ultimately emerges. It shows the unavoidable conflict between the gods of this world and the God who the Creator and the Redeemer of the world, the God who engages our world without being collapsed into it.


These two lessons uphold the primacy of the principle of the transcendent. A choice has to be made. There can be no compromises. There can be no fudging of the basic distinction between God and the world, a distinction which arises from the principle of revelation itself. But does this mean that the only relation that revealed religion has to the world is that of opposition and conflict? The Eucharistic lessons for today, the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, suggest something more. The epistle argues for a mode of behaviour in the world that is rooted in Christ, in other words, it argues for a form of charity grounded in the charity of God. “Be of one mind”, it says, on essential matters of faith, it seems to suggest, and live peaceably and honestly in the world, “sanctifying Christ as Lord in your hearts”. In other words, the religious bond or relation to Christ, which has a certain spiritual inwardness, nonetheless governs our outward actions.


The further illustration of this is given in the gospel which is about the call of Simon Peter and others to become fishers of men. But it begins with the story of the people “pressing upon Jesus to hear the Word of God”. In other words, there is a yearning in our souls for something more than the goods and services of the world. Indeed, like the fishermen, James and John and Simon Peter, we may find that “we have toiled all the night long and have taken nothing”. The question is whether we will hear the Word of Christ and act “according to thy word”, being in this world but not of it, because we have “fors[aken] all and followed him”. In so doing we have a way of being in the midst of the confusions and the conflicts of the world without being collapsed into them or being defined by them.


It means holding to the fundamental principles of the Faith and, often, in the face of enormous pressures to compromise and, essentially, to worship the false gods of economic determinism and hedonistic self-determination; the cult of Great Diana of the Ephesians lives on! The point of the gospel story, as a kind of illustration of the epistle, is that it shows how the world can be gathered back to God. “Nevertheless, at thy word, I will let down the net”. Living in accord with the principles of the Christian faith gives us a way of engaging our world and our culture with a view to recovering the deeper spiritual desires and yearnings present in it, bringing everything home to Christ, not by coercion but by charity, the charity that is rooted and grounded in the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ. That love cannot be compromised or denied without betraying ourselves and our culture.


The religion that troubles the world and ourselves is also the religion that settles us upon the high things of God, the things of salvation, the things that last and truly satisfy.


“Art thou the troubler of Israel”