Gospel Truth?

Pentecost – 2015

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who has entrusted us with God’s very word. Amen.

Occasionally I watch an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s: “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, Miss Fisher is apparently an independently wealthy woman turned private detective. Phryne (yes, that is her name) has a personal assistant named Dotty. Dotty, under Phryne’s tutelage, assists her employer in the art of detection. Both women are unusually independent and intrepid for their time and place and both take risks that even today some of us would consider foolish. One of the on-going sub-plots is a growing affection between Dotty and a junior Police Officer, Hugh. Like most men, then and now, Hugh is protective of Dotty and would prefer that she keep herself out of danger.

When I caught up with the show last week I discovered that Dotty and Hugh are engaged. Dotty is a practicing Roman Catholic so Hugh needs to adopt Catholicism before they can be married in the Catholic Church. At first, Hugh is hesitant, but his enthusiasm grows when he discovers that a Catholic wife must obey her husband. (Remember it is the 1920’s!) Having clarified with the priest that he has understood this aspect of the faith correctly, Hugh becomes much more engaged in the process. An obedient wife, he thinks, will have to take his concerns and his cautions seriously, an obedient Dotty will stop taking risks and stop engaging in amateur sleuthing.

Unfortunately for Hugh, Dotty is not to be so easily restrained. In a private conversation with the priest, she happens to mention that Protestantism has a lot to offer – implying that if the priest insists on her obedience, she will leave his congregation for another. Poor Hugh is completely nonplussed when, at their next meeting, the priest points out that of course, times have changed, and that in the modern world one needn’t take the obedience clause absolutely literally!

I don’t have to tell you that in the Anglican tradition many things that were once held to be sacrosanct have been softened or even abandoned. It is almost impossible to believe that only fifty years ago people who were divorced could not be remarried in an Anglican church, children of parents who were unmarried were refused baptism and women were not admitted to holy orders. The debates that accompanied these changes were often fierce and uncompromising because those who opposed change found support for their position in the Bible and were unable to see things any other way.

It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “gospel truth” but the reality is vastly different. What was “true” four thousand years ago for a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe cannot always be applied in a digital, technological twenty first century world. No one today would take all of the Old Testament literally. Medical science has come to the conclusion that circumcision can be detrimental rather than beneficial. The development of refrigeration means that the health risks of eating shellfish have been significantly reduced and I think that I am safe in saying that none of us believes that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.

Even Jesus did not seem to think that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were immutable. Where the Old Testament counselled: “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” Jesus taught “love your enemy”. Where teh Old Testament demanded “an eye for an eye”, Jesus said: “Do not resist an evildoer”. Where the Old Testament allowed divorce and remarriage Jesus claimed this to be adultery[1]. Just as Jesus did not feel utterly bound by the Old Testament, later New Testament writers did not feel obliged to follow absolutely the teaching of earlier writers. Colossians and Ephesians, then the Pastoral letters seriously altered Jesus’ and Paul’s inclusive view of the role of women. And over time societal values change. Both Jesus and Paul took slavery for granted, something that we find abhorrent today.

It is impossible (when human writers are concerned) to be completely dispassionate and not to allow one’s own views to permeate what is written. It is equally impossible to imagine that someone writing four or even two thousand years ago could envisage and therefore write comprehensively for a situation so far removed from their times as ours. Our scriptures – Old and New – have a great deal to say about love, forgiveness and compassion and about the care for the weak and vulnerable, but they have nothing to say about climate change, genetic modification or IVF. On many of the issues of our time, we are left to our own devices. Rightly or wrongly God expects us to work through the ethical issues of such things as stem cell research and to come up with answers that are right and just. Rightly or wrongly God has given us responsibility to determine how far we should take genetic engineering and other medical advances.

Because nothing stays the same and few things are true for all time, God has given us minds to use and hearts to feel. Far more importantly God has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. Three years were not nearly enough for Jesus to prepare the disciples and thus the church for every possible eventuality. He does not leave them/us unresourced but promises to send the Spirit who then, as now will guide them/us in all truth.

God who sent Jesus, Jesus the sent one, and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent empower us (the church) to think and act as God the Trinity would act. It is an awesome responsibility and one that requires of us a union with God – Father, Son and Spirit – such that their mind is our mind and that decisions that we make are in accord with decisions that they would have us make. In a complex and ever-changing environment, God has entrusted us not only with God’s word, but also with the power and the resources to interpret that word across time and space.

History has shown that time and again we have abused that trust, yet God has not withdrawn it. In our time and place let us demonstrate that we are worthy of God’s confidence and whatever the cost, let us give ourselves entirely to God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit so that all our decisions are wise, compassionate and just and consistent with God’s desires for us and for the world.

[1] Albeit to protect women from arbitrary abandonment.

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