Our Vicar, Revd Graham Hunter, preached at Choral Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral on Sunday 11th July. The text of his sermon is below:
Bible Reading: Romans 15:14-29
14 I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. 15 Nevertheless, on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ. 20 Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,
‘Those who have never been told of him shall see,
and those who have never heard of him shall understand.’
22 This is the reason that I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24 when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while. 25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; 26 for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things. 28 So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain; 29 and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
In 2019, historian Tom Holland published a remarkable book entitled ‘Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind’. Although the author approaches his subject as both a historian and an atheist, he argues in the book, that the very air we breathe in the western world is profoundly Christian. A concern for the poor, for justice, for care of the ill, elderly or vulnerable, he traces to the peculiar concern for all people that has been a characteristic of Christianity through the ages.
The man we know as St Paul, to whose memory this Cathedral is dedicated, is a central character in the story of how this strange new religious movement from 1st century Palestine spread to bear such influence on our world. And in our bible reading this afternoon, we come to see something of how St Paul believed himself to be compelled to spread the good news of Christianity across the known world to all peoples - and indeed, not just to all people, but to all of people, that is, to the whole of people.
And two aspects of what St Paul’s writes to the Christians in Rome two thousand years ago might resonate with us still today.
Firstly, Paul is concerned for all people to be included within the saving work of God in Christ. He describes himself as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God’. Paul was Jewish, and 2nd Temple Judaism in the 1st century was a pretty solidly sectarian pursuit. Jewish identity was ethnic and local. There were possibilities for the inclusion of God-fearing Gentiles – but given they involved circumcision, temple sacrifice, and observance of peculiar customs and laws, as well as demanding that converts shun all the exciting mystery cults and temple-orgies of polytheistic Roman religion, it wasn’t that attractive an option to most Roman citizens.
And yet Paul describes himself as performing a ‘priestly service’ in proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Priests in the Temple offered animals in sacrifice to atone for sins, and yet here is St Paul claiming to bring in all the gentile – non-Jewish – nations of the world to encounter the holiness and splendour of God. And no need for them to sacrifice animals, for in Jesus God has made the ultimate self-sacrifice to end the temple sacrifices.
Extraordinarily, Paul is inciting all people to experience the forgiveness of God in Christ, the reconciliation to God through Christ, and the transforming power of the kingdom of God established by Christ. And this without condition or merit. This gift is for all people in all times and all places – it’s even for us here today here at St Paul’s in London.
But secondly, St Paul doesn’t just want ‘all people’ to experience the liberating love of the gospel, he also wants this gospel ‘fully proclaimed’ – proclaimed in full. Not just to all people without condition or merit, but also that the gospel be proclaimed with its full scope and power to the whole of people’s lives. For St Paul, to ‘fully proclaim’ seems to have involved bringing good news of Jesus to the three aspects of human existence that he believed constituted every human person. What then are the parts that make up a whole person?
What is a full human person? Are we principally thinking things? Sentient beings? Minds on sticks? Or are we basically animal? Belonging to the kingdom of beasts led by instinct and natural lusts? What does it mean to say that a human is made in the image of God if God is Spirit but we have flesh? What are the elements that constitute our humanity? What is Paul’s anthropology? What are the humans to which he has ‘fully proclaimed the good news of Christ’?
These anthropological questions of the human condition are struggled with in every age. Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks:
‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’
Hamlet appreciates the range of human attributes: reason, faculties, form and motion, action and apprehension. Like angels, the beauty of the world, and the finest of all animals. And yet elsewhere in the play, Hamlet will yearn to ‘shrug off this mortal coil’, as though his body were a hindrance to pure existence.
Conflicting opinions persist today regarding the essence of human identity and existence. Recent debates about the law regarding abortion have raised again the question of what we regard as having the full range of rights and dignities conferred in our society upon human persons. And this has reminded us that the debates around beginning and end of life concerns - abortion and euthanasia - often hinge on a determination about the parts of a person which are most important.
The tragedy of losing a person’s sense of story and memory to dementia can leave the sense that the ‘person is no longer there’, as though bodily existence without mind and memory is meaningless. Conversely, others with full mental faculties but severe physical disability have asserted their cognitive rights over their bodily form with a visit to a Swiss clinic.
At the risk of simplifying, we might also note that debates range over what it is that determines sex and gender differentiation - is it chromosome and genitalia, or some reflective, cognitive sense of self to be asserted over and against the ‘mortal coil’?
Our society has in every age struggled to hold together body and mind, physical and mental, flesh and reason. And I wonder perhaps whether it is this binary division of the human self which results in polarisation? Perhaps if we were to introduce a third element - the human spirit - we may find a more dynamic relationship and bond between the parts of a person.
In this, I think the writings of St Paul in the bible may be instructive. For Paul seems to believe in a tripartite self - that is to say that a human person consists of body, mind and spirit.
Indeed, on three occasions in his letter - and only three - he uses the Greek word ‘metamorphose’, transform, to describe the transformation of the human person to be conformed to the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ. On one occasion, in Romans 12, he speaks of our being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’; on another, in Philippians 3, he claims that God will ‘transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body’; and in 1 Cor 3, he writes that we are being ‘transformed into [God’s] image’ and that this image is the Lord who is the Spirit.
Body, mind and spirit - three parts of a person to whom the good news must be proclaimed so that we can experience his liberating, healing and transforming power.
There’s a hint of the same in the passage we heard read today. Paul talks of what God has accomplished in his mission to the Gentiles ‘by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God’.
Word and deed, and the power of signs. Persuasive speech to appeal to the mind; practical demonstration of God’s love to appeal to our bodies; and powerful signs to speak to our spirit of the work of God.
It is our heads, our hands and our hearts that are to be converted to Christ. Christianity is never merely an intellectual faith. Our former Bishop of London used to say, ‘we do not think ourselves into Christian life; we live ourselves into Christian life’. And as much as Christian life is ‘a way of life’, a distinctive set of practises, virtues and habits, it is also about a new object of love and desire - our hearts as well as our hands must be converted.
Jesus said that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He is the way for our hands and our bodies to follow; he is the truth for our minds and heads to comprehend; he is the life for our hearts and spirit to love and to long for.