Frightening Freedom

Frightening Freedom

Third Sunday of Lent. Fr Colin Carr preaches on the risks of an unpossessive faith.

The ten commandments are part of a story, a story of slaves being set free and learning — or not learning — to live like free people.

Quite often, during their time in the wilderness, the people of Israel complained — about the food or the lack of it, about the water or the lack of it, about the threats from enemies, real or imagined. And often the complaint ended with the cry, “Things were better for us in Egypt.”

For those who wanted a comfortable and settled life, God had done them no favours by calling them out of slavery in Egypt and into a challenging freedom.

A slave doesn’t have a story — only routines dictated by someone else. To be a free person is to have the chance to make decisions, to grow, to fail, to flourish. There’s more room in the wilderness, and more risk. But the wilderness itself is only a stage of a journey: a journey to a promised land, to a place which you possess and where you live in relationship with God and with others.

And in that word “possess” lurks a problem. What you possess can come to possess you. You can be persuaded to part with lots of money to ensure (or should that be insure?) that you don’t part with your possessions.

Possessions can breed paranoia. The ten commandments are about freedom from that kind of paranoia: they tell us where our worship should be directed — not to the work of our own hands; and they tell us how to live with others in a non-possessive way.

As they’re written in our first reading today, they’re directed at male property-owners, but even those male property-owners are told how not to regard others as their chattels — at least, not all the time.

The Bible as a whole tells us a bigger story than that of the escape from Egypt: it tells of a liberation which includes all people and, we are beginning to realise, a new kind of relationship between us and the natural world.

Now I’m not about to suggest that Jesus’s violent behaviour in the Temple was an act of animal liberation: that would be to make him a 21st Century figure, which he wasn’t. But it was in a strange way an act of liberation: the way John tells the story it was not just an act of protest at commercialism or the presence of animals in the temple precincts.

John’s Gospel is forever seeing a deeper meaning in the acts and words of Jesus. From the conversation that follows his disruptive activity we see that he is envisaging the destruction of the temple. He is following in a long tradition of prophets who warned against putting their trust in the temple, or treating it as “their” religious home.

People can become possessive of their religion, their church; it can get mixed up with their ethnic identity, sometimes with murderous results. No temple, no site in which we express our understanding of God, is permanent.

We Dominicans, for example, aren’t indispensable in God’s scheme of things: if we say “God would never allow the Dominicans to die” the answer — given by a previous Dominican Provincial to a particular group of Dominicans who had said just that — is, “Well, he let his Son die, didn’t he?”

And that Son, speaking apparently about the temple, said that if it was destroyed, it would be rebuilt in three days. Clearly John expects his readers to know the end of the story even at this early stage of it, and he sets the scene even now for the climax of his Gospel. His body, which is the site for our understanding of God, becomes the sanctuary by being given away, by undergoing the destructive forces of human possessiveness.

The sign of God’s presence, the wisdom which we all seek, is found in the Cross of Christ, in the Body which is given away and therefore becomes the indestructible sanctuary, the meeting-place of God and humanity.

We do not possess our faith. If we realise that, and manage to live without possessiveness, we might just find that our faith possesses us, and allows us to live a joyful and risky story.

Readings: Exo 20:1-17 | 1 Cor 1:22-25 | John 2:13-25

fr. Colin Carr lives in the Priory of St Michael the Archangel, Cambridge.