By Andrew Nunn
“Have you washed your hands?” “Did you put the seat down?” “Did you wipe your feet?” “Have you combed your hair?” “Did you say your prayers?” Perhaps mums have to be on to boys more than they do with girls, but as I remember it we were constantly being nudged, reminded, told to do various things as we were growing up.
There were plenty of rules around that we had to obey and there was little point questioning them, even though the natural tendency for children is to ask the question “Why?” in that plaintive tone, every time you’re told to do something. “Why do we have to do these things? Other people’s mums don’t make them do them.” “Well, whilst ever you’re living in this house, under my roof that’s what you’ll do.” Perhaps it’s all done by negotiation in modern families and as ever I’m just showing my age!
There’s an advert currently running on TV in which a little lad is being stopped from doing all the things he naturally wants to do — bouncing on the beds in a showroom, touching a glass cabinet in a museum, jumping into a puddle. The only place where he can exercise his freedom, his free will, the only place of liberation from this regime of the wagging finger and the oppressive no, is under those golden arches as he’s ordering a big Mac!
Not that I’m by inclination much of a rule-breaker. I suppose I was what you’d call “a good boy,” never bringing trouble home — well, we’d been told not too — and never really getting into bother, and that’s been the shape of my life. And so being given a structure of rules in which to live is not something that I find particularly burdensome — until, that is, the rules are clearly wrong and then that causes me enormous problems. My inclination is to keep the rules, but every bone in my body and every instinct I have as a Christian tells me that the rules are wrong.
The readings for this Eucharist ask us to pay attention to this whole business of the rules and how we relate to them, the law and how we keep it.
The Jews saw the giving to them of a rule book as a gift from God and a sign of his favor. There was no other people as fortunate as them, they were told, to be given a pattern for living, living out their faith and living as a community.
There was little that there wasn’t a rule for — what you ate, how you dressed, how you built your home, how you related to your neighbor and to the stranger who arrives in your community, how you harvest and what you leave unharvested, how you live, how you die. And in the Jewish community people continue to work out what this set of rules means for contemporary living.
I love the way in which if you’re in Israel and in a hotel on the Sabbath there’ll be Shabbat lifts which stop automatically on every floor so you don’t have to call them or press the button for which floor you want to go to. The lift does the work so that you don’t have to on the Sabbath.
Of course coming down from the holy mountain holding the tablets of the law, Moses hadn’t presumably envisaged that lifts might cause a problem for very orthodox Jews, but there’s a way of making the laws apply!
But Jesus is a challenge to the law-keepers because he appears to live differently with law — he seems to play fast and loose with it. His disciples don’t seem to wash their hands; they pick grains of wheat on the Sabbath and eat them; they mix with the wrong people on the wrong days and it all seems to violate what’s been so clearly set down, given by God, the very thing that makes them a special, holy, blessed, chosen people.
As followers of Jesus, as the church, we’ve a difficult relationship with the law. Some of us love the rules, some of the time, when it suits us; some can be very legalistic, doing the job of the Jewish scholars for them; some have no truck with rules and want to live a life of freedom in Christ — liberal, libertarian even, seemingly lawless in which everything is judged in a culturally relativist way.
The debates on homosexuality in the church, our attitudes to equal marriage for instance, are a case in point. There are those who can point to very clear rules in Scripture which forbid same-sex relationships and those who can point to verses which celebrate freedom and love and acceptance and inclusion; some find freedom in the law and the rules, some find them stultifying and the route to death rather than life.
The Letter of St James is a fascinating book. In the debates about the direction of travel of the Labour Party and as votes are being cast for a new leader, there’s a clear — to me — socialist agenda in this letter which points out as obviously as it’s possible to do that God is concerned for social justice and that with God there’s a clear option for the poor. But in the passage that we heard as the second reading there’s something else as well — a boiling down of all the laws and of what religion for us means. The writer says that it’s all very simple
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It’s the simplest of rule books. Religion, the writer is saying, is concerned with two things. The first is about how we treat those who are on the margins, those least able to help themselves, identified in this instance as orphans and widows. We can easily translate that for ourselves as we look across the channel to the “jungle” in Calais, as we look in our communities at those being left behind in our society.
As I’ve said before, the quality of a society is judged in how it treats its weakest members — and so will we be. So the first rule that we’re called to live by is how we treat other people.
But the second rule sounds odd and seems to fit uncomfortably with the first. There’s been something of a tradition in Christianity that’s painted the world as a bad, an evil place in which the flesh is bad and the spirit is good. Escaping the world, keeping pure, untouched by what goes on around us, was in many periods of our history the way to achieve perfection.
But I don’t think that this is what the writer of the letter is calling on us to do – in fact if it was it’d be against what Jesus shows us to be the authentic way of living. Jesus immersed himself in his society, in the community in which he was set. That, after all, is what incarnation is about: taking human flesh, being as we are, but — and this is what the writer is really on about — as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “without sin.”
And that’s the challenge. How do we live up to our neck in it without being lost in it, the it being contemporary life? How do we live not as separated from but integrated in the world in which we’re set, the world of which we’re part, the world to which we’re called? How do we live authentically Christlike lives without being lost?
It calls for rules, what we might call a Rule of Life. You set your own rules, your own pattern for your daily living, the scaffolding, the structure that’ll provide pegs in the sand for your tabernacling in the desert. And the rules that you focus on will help you to pray and give and live and worship and be the person that God has called you to be, authentically you, authentically Christlike, in the world but not always of the world, immersed in the world but not drowning.
You set the rules and you keep them.
As a community this autumn we’re going to begin thinking about how we live and the liberating rules by which we live, as a community, as individuals. But you don’t have to wait for then. You can think for yourselves and I can think for myself and in the meantime God will feed us with love, in the meantime God, who both makes and breaks rules, will break the bread of his own life and feed you to sustain you, to sustain me, as rule-makers, as rule-keeps and, when it’s necessary, rule-breakers.
The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn is dean of Southwark Cathedral, London.