Is our church a place of sanctuary or a place from which to flee?

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Luke 18:9-14]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

From the latter part of our gospel reading this morning, which of the two might also have prayed these very words that came from Psalm 19:14 – the Pharisee or the Tax collector? From all we know of Jesus’ life and ministry, the answer seems obvious – it was the tax-collector who was more worthy in God’s sight than the Pharisee. Indeed, Jesus even said as much:

I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other. [v14]

But the obviousness of that answer had certainly not been obvious during Jesus’ lifetime to many who then held positions of authority. That is why Jesus had to keep restating in so many different ways the redemptive hope that he offered to the humble in heart, not to those filled with hubris.

Listen again to the words that each of these two who prayed from our gospel reading; the Pharisee had said:

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. [v12]

The tax-collector had simply implored:

God, be merciful to me, a sinner! [v13]

There is so much to be reflected upon in these two very different prayers which were said at the same time and in the same place of worship. The idea of prayer, the concept of guilt, the attitude of humility, the tension of rejection versus acceptance – each is so profoundly touched upon in this brief incident with its two short prayers, that a sermon could be preached about each.

First to prayer. John Climachus, the early church father, abbot of Mount Sinai monastery in the seventh century wrote this about prayer:

Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God. [Step 28 – On Prayer]

While John Bunyan wrote:

A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received is a mighty prayer in the Spirit of God. It prevails with Him unspeakably. 

Themes of humanity seeking reconciliation with God leading to worldly communion, and of mercy at the heart of prayer come to mind. Neither appeared in the prayer of the Pharisee; however, they were implicit in that of the tax-collector.

Then to the concept of guilt – by his own words clearly the Pharisee presumed himself to be guilt-free surrounded by others who were, by his own labelling, the very embodiment of guilt. The tax-collector, on the other hand, did not assign guilt to others, he wore it upon himself. His was the perception of a guilt felt before the throne of God, not before the opinion of others. The disciples did not understand this different understanding of guilt when Jesus told them this parable; but it would later play out with awful effect. In the lead up to the crucifixion the Pharisees labelled the Son of Man as more guilty than any other miscreant in society; hours later one of those miscreants would cry out to Jesus:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom [Luke 23:42]

And be told in response:

 Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” [Luke 23:43]

Thus it would be a thief, not a pharisee, who would become the first to receive the salvation of Jesus.

Now to humility: the Pharisee so filled with pride, the tax-collector wretched in his humility. Even to call the words of the Pharisee prayer seems odd, for there was no praise of God, just self-praise; no intercession, just absolute self-assurance; no petitioning for others, just labelling them. The tax-collector on the other hand realised those beautiful words of Rabbi Eliezer that often stand above the entry portals of synagogues –  (da lifne me atta omdim)– ‘know before whom you stand’; the tax-collector knew that there, in the synagogue, he stood before the God of Eternity and so he knew that he could do nothing other than plead for mercy. Through Christ, we know that God before whom we stand is a god of love and mercy.

Finally, the theme of rejection versus acceptance. The Pharisee rejected others yet was certain God accepted him; the tax-collector simply accepted God, rejected nobody, just pleaded not to be divinely rejected. The tax-collector had sought sanctuary in a synagogue, a place from which the Pharisee sought to expel people.  

In this contest of rejection versus acceptance, where do we stand?

My understanding of what is the Anglican approach has deepened enormously over the years. Initially I had a lowest common denominator perception of it – a sense that almost anything was acceptable in Anglicanism and therefore I could find a comfortable place for my own faith without any fear of rejection. Not for nothing has the Anglican Church sometimes been referred to as the ‘Church of on the other hand.’

However, I came to realise that I had seriously underestimated Anglicanism’s great gifts to the Church. The words of Richard Hooker, arguably the first Anglican theologian spoke to me with profound impact:

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5,8,2).

Here Hooker was describing what we now refer to as the three legs of Anglicanism – Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Scripture the most important but understood through lenses of reason and tradition; and because they both can have distinctly individual interpretations, so too could be the way Scripture might be seen through them. Thus Richard Hooker anticipated the great diversity of opinion which would develop within Anglicanism. This diversity is not of itself a weakness; rather it and the capacity to appreciate its worth have the power to be great gifts which are not shared by most other denominations.

The comedian Emo Philips wrote a joke over thirty years ago that has been voted the best religious joke of all time:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

How very un-Anglican, we are very comfortable with accepting diverse views within our communion aren’t we? Or are we all? Just this past week, we have seen a senior Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Australia telling those who did not accept currently defined doctrine to leave the church. I know this shocked many of us, with a number having very articulately expressed their deep concern about such doctrinal chauvinism – people such as our own Dean, Frank Nelson, Rev Matthew Anstey and Rev Peter Balabanski.

This weekend has been the annual Synod of the Diocese of Adelaide; yesterday there were some motions dealing with LGBTIQ+ issues with one in particular inviting ‘some form of liturgical and pastoral recognition of (such) people (and their) relationships.’ After an extensive debate on this controversial proposition, involving strong views by both sides and some uncertain ones in the middle, discussion on the motion was abandoned to be revisited another time.

However, during the debate, which had become polarised, Dean Frank quoted from Capetown Archbishop Thabo Makgoba in relation to similar debates in South Africa:

We need to respect our differences and we won’t do that if we put one another in boxes and become entrenched in them. We can do this by adopting a new Anglican via media, a middle way which bridges the divide.  (from Faith & Courage: praying with Mandela, P199)

The issue is to find a via media that is Holy Spirit-inspired rather than just some via mediocre. The answer requires that we not simply seek hollow, undemanding compromises between polarised positions; but for each of us, when we confront such difficult issues, not just to open our minds and hearts to each other but to the Holy Spirit and do that through a collective encounter of both prayer and discussion.  

The Apostle Paul wrote in Corinthians:

For now we see through a glass darkly [1 Cor 13:12]

And went on to say that the time was coming when we would see God face to face. That great apostle, quite literally a key founder of the earthly church, acknowledged the limits to his own understanding. The truth is that each of us sees through the glass darkly; equally significantly, we each see differently through this dark glass. None of us, by ourselves or by others of like mind, can discern absolute truth through our own reading of Scripture, our own reasoning or our own understanding of tradition. We need the understandings of others to be brought to a shared space between us – a Grace Space where we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit in our discussions.

Which brings us back to this very Anglican process of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. In times past this process has enabled the church to interrogate not only the times in which we have ever lived but also the church itself. In terms of the times in which we have lived, such a process has contributed to a humanising of humanity – the abolition of slavery and gender equality grew from processes led more by church than either state or secular society. There is a necessary partner, however, to this process of humanising humanity, namely the interrogation by the church of itself. In this complementary process, the church has had constantly to seek a divinity beyond what it has understood through its earthly structures, perceptions and interpretations. It has had to humble itself in order to discern divine doctrine rather than humanly-maintained credos. Historically that meant it eventually understood that slavery and gender inequality were not biblical; what may it mean in future?

That internal process by which the Anglican Church may interrogate itself to find new biblical understanding must be done with grace and love. In his address to Synod yesterday, Archbishop Geoff Smith spoke precisely about this when he said:

Christian unity is not about a collection of the like-minded. Unity doesn’t mean we always agree or have perfect peace among us. Unity is about staying together and working together for the glory of God … Unity is an expression of God’s self-giving love for the other, seen first in the life and ministry of Jesus and called forth in his disciples. Christian unity is a reflection of the reality of God the Holy Trinity in relationship and love. Unity is the call of Christ. Diversity is a gift from God.

At the end of Synod yesterday, during our closing time of worship, we sang James Quinn’s beautiful hymn based upon the prayer attributed to Francis of Assissi’s ‘Instrument of thy peace’. The first two verses spoke to me with great power in the light of our discussions earlier in the afternoon – let me close by saying them now:

Lord, make us servants of your peace:
Where there is hate, may we sow love;
Where there is hurt, may we forgive;
Where there is strife, may we make one.

Where all is doubt, may we sow faith;
Where all is gloom, may we sow hope;
Where all is night, may we sow light;
Where all is tears, may we sow joy.

For these words to be sung by us, we must surely pray like the tax-collector rather than the Pharisee so that grace may be ours to be sowers of love, faith, hope, light and joy.