Sermon for St Mary Magdalen, Oxford
I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
…and I believe in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I also believe in life on Mars. Or somewhere else in the Universe; it just seems silly to think that a place so big and old could be empty but for Earth.
…and I believe in democracy. Most of the time; except when the majority disagrees with me. And in freedom of speech. Almost always; except when people are racist and stuff. I also believe in washing my hands before meals. Because there are germs literally everywhere. I guess this means I also believe in germs.
But I digress.
I believe in one God, the Father. And in one Lord Jesus Christ. And in the Holy Spirit, worshipped and glorified with aforementioned Father and Son.
And while God is certainly rather unlike a germ or democracy or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is less obvious whether or not my believing in God and germs and democracy and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics amount to the same kind of human activity. On the face of it, they all seem to involve agreeing that some claim is true: “God exists”; “There are germs literally everywhere”; “Democracy is a rather good idea”; “The Copenhagen interpretation is the best available explanation of the formal mathematics of quantum mechanics”. At the same time, however, it seems equally obvious that at least in the case of God, there is more to believing than simply assigning positive truth value to some proposition. Belief is more than just a mental state.
A man with two son tells them each to do some chores. One refuses perfunctorily, but then thinks twice and does as his father requested. The other obsequiously agrees, but then does not follow through. Which one, Jesus asks, does his father’s will? The answer is obvious, and indeed, the chief priests and elders knowingly respond that it is the first child who is, despite his initial petulance, the obedient one. At first glance then, this is a parable about the relationship between words and deeds, and the priority of the latter. Talk is cheap, Jesus implies, and hypocrisy is bad. Or, as business-types might say: always under-promise and over-deliver.
This initial impression is problematized, however, when we get to what Jesus says directly to his interlocutors. His accusation is not simply that their actions failed to match up with their words—as in the case of the second son in this parable—but that they did not believe John the Baptist. In contrast, the publicans and prostitutes did believe, which is supposed to remind us of the first son who utters rebellion, but then later behaves obediently. Thus, for St. Matthew’s Jesus, true believing is bound up with right action. Belief is more than just a mental state, and certainly more than empty words.
Repent and believe. The refrain of this parable is developed over and over again in the rest of St. Matthew’s ethical teaching, not least in the moral rigour of the Sermon on the Mount. To repent in St. Matthew’s sense of the word means much more than to feel remorse over some action; rather, it is to undergo a deep change in disposition, a change in heart and mind. Repentance involves more than experiencing negative emotions and a change in our opinions; but it is also more than simply a matter of changing our outward behaviours. Recall the famous “But I say to you” passages, in which Jesus cites some legal injunction and then attempts to get underneath and go beyond it:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not kill”; but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone on looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
And so forth.
We must not hear wrongly, as people are prone to do. Repentance involves more than feelings of remorse or changes of opinion; repentance goes beyond behavioural modification. “More than” and “beyond” are the operative phrases here. In these and other passages, what Matthew is emphatically not saying is that our actions don’t matter, only our intentions. After all, St. Matthew’s is the gospel of “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it]”; and the gospel of “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; and the gospel of “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
But if the costly discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount is an important aspect of what it means to “repent and believe”, so is the other thread that runs through the gospel. Not once, but twice, St. Matthew cites the same line from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Difficult as Christian discipleship may be, it is not costliness but compassion that St. Matthew’s Jesus demands. And, of course, this mercy that is expected of us derives from God’s own mercy toward us: the God who when asked for mercy—as Jesus often is in St. Matthew’s gospel—supplies it abundantly, giving sight to the blind, health to the sick, and freedom to the possessed; the God who who forgives the debt of ten thousand talents; the God who has come to call not the righteous but sinners. Time and again, the counterpoint to St. Matthew’s apparent moral pedantry is his insistence on God’s mercy, which is itself the power that enables us to live godly lives.
We believe in one God:
The Father Almighty.
The Lord Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit.
That is to say that we think the sentences of the Creed are true, which is not to say that we think they are comprehensible, these truths mysterious and glorious in equal measure. And it is also to say that we pledge allegiance to live the topsy-turvy life that Jesus carved out for us on, of all things, a Roman cross. The “I believe” in the Creed shares the grammar of the “I will” in the wedding liturgy. The Creed is, as philosophers say, “performative”. But this performance has us dressed in more than the heroism of lofty moral ideals, but also reckless, child-like trust. To believe is therefore finally to trust in a God who is ever for us and for our salvation; ever self-emptying; ever obedient even to the point of death at our hands and for our sake. To believe is to trust that God’s mercy—God’s indefatigable love for the world—is the interpretive key to how we should live, including how we should fail, as we inevitably will, to live the kind of perfect life Jesus demands. We are, all of us publicans and prostitutes and Pharisees, to cry—with the blind and sick and possessed—“Lord, have mercy upon us”. And God will.