Reflections and readings, St. Andrew’s Ealing 11th March 2018, Revd. Sue McCoan
Part 1: The Good Life
I wonder if any of you remember back to the 1970s, and to the TV sitcom, The Good Life? It featured a youngish couple, Tom and Barbara Good, played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal, who had decided to leave the rat race and become self-sufficient. They turn their South London suburban garden into a mini-farm, growing their own vegetables, keeping chickens and a goat, even pigs at one point, making their bread and trying to live as simply as possible.
All this is to the bewilderment and amusement of their next-door neighbours, Jerry and Margot Leadbetter, played by Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. Jerry and Margot have a very different idea of a good life – nice house, big car, fine dining and generally enjoying the good things in life. The two couples are friends – they like each other – but Margo will never understand why anyone should choose to grow vegetables in the mud when one can get perfectly good ones at Sainsbury’s. Tom and Barbara, for their part, have chosen their lifestyle on principle and, even though they have hardly any money and things are always going wrong, they are determined to make it work and happy in their choice.
The title, ‘The Good Life’, is a play on their name, Tom and Barbara Good, but also a comment on the fact that both couples obviously think that theirs is the really good life.
I’m saying all this, because I want to say, God wants us to live a good life. And if I had started off by saying that, we might all think, oh, we know what that means: it means we have to behave ourselves. We have to be kind to others and not finish off the biscuits when nobody’s looking.
We do need to do all those things – even the biscuits bit – but the good life that God wants for us is so much more than being on our best behaviour. It’s more like the goodness of Tom and Barbara, that comes out of living with principle and integrity, a congruence between what we believe and what we do, so that there is wholeness in our being as well as in our actions.
We have three readings today to help us think about this further. The first is from Exodus, and it is the giving of the Ten Commandments, the basic rules of good living. Remember these were given to a people who had just come out of slavery, where every day was a fight for sheer survival – and on their way to becoming a settled people with established communities. God is telling them how to live in community.
Bible reading: Exodus 20:1-17
The first 4 commandments are about putting God at the centre of life; the last 6 are about community relationships. It is a framework for good living as God’s people, that still holds good today.
Part 2: A good clear-out
So God gives the Ten Commandments as a framework, a basis for living as God’s people. And it’s a sound framework. If you took the last 6 commandments, without the first 4, you would have an ethical code that I think the vast majority of people of any faith could sign up to – respect your parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet – even if they didn’t always manage to keep them. It is the first 4 that make the difference to the good life God wants for God’s people. For us, the ethical living is rooted in our relationship to God. God is our one God; have no other gods, or anything else that might take the place of God in our lives; keep God’s name holy, and keep the weekly Sabbath.
This is one part of living the good life as people of God. But note that it is a framework, not a detailed rule book. And the point about frameworks is that you can build all sorts of things onto them.
The people of Israel built many beautiful things onto the framework of the Ten Commandments. They built a whole way of life. They built the tabernacle, then the Temple, to house the tablets on which the commandments were carved. And round the Temple, they built a system of devotions and sacrifices to enable God’s people to express their faith.
And round those devotions and sacrifices they put in a number of practical measures to support pilgrims as they arrived at the Temple.
For instance, if you’re travelling to Jerusalem from a distance, to offer a sacrifice, you’re not going to carry a sheep, still less an ox, all the way from home. So you could buy one there. If you want to pay Temple tax, you can’t use dirty everyday money, so there are stalls to exchange your money for the special Temple money. And so on.
These were all good things in themselves. But you can see that the more structure is built upon a framework, the less of the actual frame remains visible. The support structures in the Temple courtyards were beginning to dominate the place. It’s rather like the way shops and cafes were introduced to airports to serve the needs of passengers; now, if you go to somewhere like Gatwick, you could think you were in a shopping mall – you’re hard put sometimes to find the planes.
The stalls selling animals and changing money had made the temple courtyard more of a market place than a holy place. And this, I suggest, was symbolic of a wider issue of the way the priests and Pharisees were teaching the Jewish faith – they had made a structure of detailed laws and rules, which again were in danger of obscuring the simple framework of the commandments.
Part of the ministry of Jesus was to move people away from the structures, especially the structures that kept some people out of the faith altogether, and move everyone back to the heart of God. The incident we’re about to hear comes in holy week in the other gospels, but John puts it right near the beginning, as a marker of this call back to basics.
Bible reading: John 2:13-22
Jesus sweeps away the traders and money-changers, all the peripheral activities that had grown up and obscured the framework of God’s commandments. A second part of living our good life in God is the readiness to strip away those thoughts and practices which are no longer helpful. Lent may be a time when we take the opportunity to examine our own lives, individually and as a church, and see if there is anything that we have built up and got used to, that is no longer serving us, or that might be getting in the way of our relationship with God.
Part 3: Goodness gracious
Jesus does a shocking thing, in clearing out the Temple courtyard – then follows it up by saying something even more shocking. Tear down this Temple, he says, and I will rebuild it again in three days.
The Jewish authorities are horrified, but for the wrong reasons. They think he is taking about a building project, and giving a ludicrously short estimate. It’s only a very few years since the Temple rebuilding project which had taken 46 years to complete. 3 days is madness. Even Carillion wouldn’t give a quote like that. But Jesus is saying something much more scandalous than this. He is talking of himself as the new Temple. He is the visible presence of God; his own person the place where God resides on earth; he will become the unifying symbol of God’s people. And when the temple of his body is raised again in three days, the faith that had been rooted in one physical location is set free, liberated from the bounds of space and time and that one community, and able through the Spirit to reach across the world.
A third part of thinking about a good life in God is to be prepared for God to something new – something we may never have thought of before; something that may at first seem utterly ridiculous. Our final reading for today reminds that our understanding of Jesus and the cross, which is so familiar to us now, was once seen as absurd by a world that valued strength and victory.
Bible reading: 1 Cor 1:18-25
So we have three things that help us to live the good life in God. We have the framework of the Ten Commandments, rooting our ethical behaviour in our relationship with God; we have the challenge of watching for, and stripping away, those things which are not helpful in that relationship with God; and we have the excitement of God leading us in new directions, and into new ventures, even if those new directions look ridiculous to other people. This is so much more than being on our best behaviour; this is life in all its fullness, the life that Jesus came to bring us. It is our call, and our delight. Thanks be to God.