26th May 2024 10.30am – Trinity – Eucharist

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The Readings

Romans 8.12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 3.1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Scripture Quotations are from: New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon
By The Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings.

In 1934, an American theologian called Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote a book about
human behaviour. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that people could
be very moral, very ethical, in their personal lives, but sometimes behave
quite differently when they were part of a social group – groups like
businesses or trade unions or churches.

This was because – to put it simply – individuals could decide to act
unselfishly, but social groups found that more difficult. An individual could
decide to be loving to their partner, kind to their children – even teenagers –
and generous to their friends and neighbours.

But if, say, you were running a business, you had to make the business
viable; you could find yourself taking decisions that impacted badly on those
you employed – paying rubbish wages, having little regard to their well-being,
that sort of thing.

So Niebuhr spoke about individual morality and social morality and called his
book Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Remembering what Niebuhr wrote was the only way I could make sense of
the behaviour of some of those we have been hearing about recently in two
great scandals that have shaken our country: the scandal of contaminated
blood in the NHS and the scandal of IT failures in the Post Office.

In the first of these, men and women, and even children, who needed, for
example, blood transfusions, had been given blood products in the 1980s and
1990s which came from America. The blood had been donated by prisoners
and drug users and was infected with HIV and Hepatitis C and passed on,
therefore, to patients in this country.

Many people knew about this: the company that supplied the products, those
who received and administered it here, doctors and consultants, and so on.
Yet no one told the patients and no one said, Stop, this is wrong.

Similarly with the Post Office scandal. For years, sub-postmasters and
mistresses had been using for their financial transactions an IT system that
was flawed. A random fault made money disappear from their accounts. It
looked as if they were stealing it.

They had signed contracts to say they would be responsible for any losses so
they had to find the missing money or face prosecution. Many were ruined,
Some went to prison. At least one committed suicide. Many people in the
Post Office knew about the faults, but no one told the sub-postmasters and
no one said, Stop, this is wrong.

I have no doubt that many of those who made bad decisions or kept quiet in
both scandals - contaminated blood and the Post Office IT – were, in their
personal lives good people. They were loving, they looked out for their
neighbours, they helped old people over the road and gave to charity. But in
their social groups – businesses, parts of the NHS, the Post Office – they
made decisions that had fearful consequences for others and they couldn’t

We tend to think of sin as something highly individualistic - bad behaviour by
bad individuals. If you want to rid the world of sin, therefore, you need to
make bad people into good ones. What Reinhold Niebuhr realised was that
this was only ever part of the story – because even good people can make
bad decisions when they are part of a social group.

And sometimes those bad collective decisions can spring from motives that
are not unworthy. I dare say those who allowed infected blood to be used
persuaded themselves that this was better than having nothing to offer the
patients at all. I don’t know.

The Post Office managers and bosses didn’t want the reputation of the Post
Office damaged by having to admit publicly that there were faults in their IT
system. Because that could have brought the business crashing down. They
wanted to protect the business and its reputation.

But those worthy motives became unworthy as soon as innocent people
began to suffer and pay the price for collective decisions.

Niebuhr was a Christian theologian who understood from his reading of the
New Testament that sin could be social as well as individualistic; that even
good people could be led astray when they acted as part of a social group.
Once you understand that, you understand also why Christians have to be
wary of becoming too judgemental – because unless we keep our Christian
wits about us, any of us is capable of being influenced by collective behaviour
– because we all belong to some sort of social group – family, church, work,
community group: they all tend to act in their own self interests – they all tend
to act selfishly.

So we must keep in mind those words from today’s gospel: For God sent the
Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be
saved through him.

We need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to deliver us from evil - all evil –
and that includes the evil that even good people can do when part of a social




The Prayers

We come boldly to the throne of grace,
praying to the almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
for mercy and grace.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Father of heaven, whose love profound
a ransom for our souls has found:
We pray for the world, created by your love,
for its nations and governments.
Extend to them your peace, pardoning love, mercy and grace.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Almighty Son, incarnate Word,
our Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, Lord:
We pray for the Church, created for your glory,
for its ministry to reflect those works of yours.
Extend to us your salvation, growth, mercy and grace.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Eternal Spirit, by whose breath
the soul is raised from sin and death:
We pray for families and individuals, created in your image,
for the lonely, the bereaved, the sick and the dying.
Breathe on them the breath of life
and bring them to your mercy and grace.
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Thrice holy! Father, Spirit, Son,
Mysterious Godhead, Three in One:
We pray for ourselves,
for your Church, for all whom we remember before you.
Bring us all to bow before your throne in heaven,
to receive life and pardon, mercy and grace for all eternity,
Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is used here is copyright (c) 2010 The Archbishops' Council