St Paul, and Mark Twain on nudity

HOMILY

Preached Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Lent 2018

in the Chapel of the Resurrection, Pusey House, Oxford

 Readings: Psalm 37, Exodus 15.27-16.35 & Ephesians 4.17-30

“But the salvation of the righteous cometh of the Lord, who is also their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall stand by them, and save them, he shall deliver them from the ungodly, and shall save them, because they put their trust in him”. (Psalm 37.40-41)

In the name of the Father + and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. AMEN.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society”. We do not know if Mark Twain had Paul in mind when he wrote this passage, but the use of the imagery of clothes to symbolise the change from the old man to the new is certainly striking. I read somewhere that in the early Church, the candidates for baptism would take of their old clothes before the baptism, thus symbolising that they are leaving their old life behind. Once out of the watery grave in which they had been immersed, they put on new clothes, to symbolise that they had become new humans in God.

True to form, with this being Lent, there is a lot on lasciviousness, deceitful lusts and the like in the text, but I would suggest that we can actually look at the text from another angle, my KJV Bible has as the heading of the page “Exhortations to unity, holiness and love” – which somehow sounds a bit more appealing.

In the earlier parts of this letter (for those of us whose minds have wandered during Evensong over the past few days), Paul is talking about the great privileges of the new Christians, and, as is rather obvious, we are now in the part where he instructs them to walk in the way of the Lord (something that seems to be his favourite pastime….).

It is very easy for us to look at the readings from Ephesians today as a moral checklist,

  • Don’t lie
  • Don’t go to bed angry
  • Don’t steal
  • If you are inclined towards theft, work with your hands instead
  • Don’t say non-edifying things

If we do that I think that we are doing ourselves a disservice (regardless of my slightly OCD fascination with lists, and the fact that each and every thing on this list is good and commendable). I don’t think that Paul’s intention when writing this letter was to provide a tick-box exercise, a form that basically says, “Jump high for Jesus and he will love you. If you jump higher, he will love you more”.

I would like to propose that this is not a “to do”-list, but rather a description how someone who has put upon himself the new man looks like. What someone who has been transformed by Jesus looks like. What someone who truly had become a new human in God looks like.

St Augustine writes, in his De Quantitate Animae:

Therefore, although here one thing led us to another, still I do like to spend some time on a discussion which serves to teach the soul the lesson that it must not fall back on the senses any more than necessity demands; but it should rather retire into itself, away from the senses, and become a child of God again.  This is what it means to become a new man by putting off the old.  To undertake this is absolutely necessary because of the neglect of God’s law: Sacred Scripture contains no greater truth, none more profound. 

I would like to say more about this point and tie myself down while I am, as it were, laying down the law to you, so that my one and only concern might be to render an account of myself to myself, to whom I am above all responsible, and thus to become to God, as Horace says, like “a slave who is his master’s friend.”  This is an achievement that is utterly impossible unless we remake ourselves in His image, the image He committed to our care as something most precious and dear, when He gave us to ourselves so constituted that nothing can take precedence to us save He Himself.

But to my mind this calls for action than which is none more laborious, none that is more akin to inaction, for it is such as the soul cannot begin or complete except with the help of Him to whom it yields itself.  Hence it is that man’s reformation is dependent on the mercy of him to whose goodness and power he owes his formation.

So, then, we can see that we are dependent on the mercy of God. God, to whose goodness and power we owe our formation. God, without whom we cannot take off the old man and put on the new. God, who shall deliver us from the ungodly, and save us, because we put our trust in him, who has made us new men.

“But the salvation of the righteous cometh of the Lord, who is also their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall stand by them, and save them, he shall deliver them from the ungodly, and shall save them, because they put their trust in him”.

In the name of the Father +, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. AMEN.

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About Petter

Demi-Norwegian Swede in Oxford. Rather churchy type.
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