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Vices and Virtues

Third Sunday of Easter: 22nd April, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out." (Acts 3:19)

Everyone is talking about it at the moment; the topic is electric. I was walking to a meeting last week behind two businessmen who were deep in conversation about the impending parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse by clergy. With a clerical collar around my neck I began to feel rather exposed. Was that a suspicious look that was hurled my way from those two as I walked past the café, or was it just one of the glances one gets in a busy street? It was very tempting to slip off the plastic and go incognito; but I decided to hold my ground.

Vice is as tragic and damaging as it has always has been. Its poisonous ripples travel far beyond the individual realm of perpetrator and victim. As the body of Christ, as members of society, we are all implicated in vice. That's why it is such a big issue. But there is a truth here that is not being written about in the papers or talked about on the television. There is an antidote to vice beyond the State Parliament level. It is something that we all have access to and all have a duty to participate in. On Thursday evening Bishop Philip reminded us all of it: virtue.

There is a beautiful little book in Middle English entitled The Book of Vices and Virtues, a manual of moral instruction translated from the thirteenth-century French text La Somme le roi originally composed in the thirteenth century by Frère Laurent, confessor to King Philip the Bold (1245-1285). It contains sage advice for all of us as we grapple with wrong doing at both a personal and a corporate level. It lays out instructions for confession, for example suggesting that: 'be schrift-fadre [. . .] schal juge be amendes of be euel dede, as in fastyng, or in almesse doynge, or in biddynges of goode bedes.' Which roughly translated means: 'the confessor shall judge how the person may make amends for an evil deed, such as in fasting, or giving alms, or saying prayers.

The structure of confession laid out here goes back even further to one of the greatest of Christian preachers, 'golden mouth' himself, John Chrysostom (347-407) Archbishop of Constantinople. Like all great spiritual leaders he had a deep understanding of the human psyche alongside his faith in God. He noted that when we do wrong we do so in three ways: in our heart, in our mouth and in our deeds. Any sin starts in our heart or our secret thoughts. If we think these thoughts often enough, they start manifesting or coming out of our mouths, even if only in private. Once this has taken place it is much easier for our thoughts and words to take root and turn into damaging actions.

Heart – mouth – deeds; and the damage is done. But the good news is it can be amended if we have the will to do so, and the mending follows the same three-fold pattern: heart, mouth and deeds. 'Fastyng' or detachment is a good place to start; self-discipline, letting go of bad habits, a realigning of our inner life. 'Biddynges of goode bedes' then deepens our healing. Through our regular devotions and saying of prayers we build positive new things in that empty space. The bad habits are replaced by life-giving routines. But alongside this inner work we need also to be proactive; deeds must manifest as well as words. We need to get out there and do good: 'almesse doing', giving of alms, helping at the Lazarus Centre, visiting the sick, supporting overseas missions, getting more involved in church.

In today's gospel the Risen Christ shocks the grieving disciples: 'they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost . . .. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations"' (Luke 24).

Luke's Jesus makes it quite clear: this message of repentance and forgiveness is not just for ourselves. Confession, the turning away from vice and the building up of virtue, is much more than a private spiritual discipline. This is an evangelistic imperative. Once we have practiced and mastered the spiritual and psychological methods for the mending of sin and vice we are called to proclaim them far and wide.

The language we are using here is the language of faith and of theology. As Anglo-Catholics we should be familiar with the discipline of confession, albeit in more modern forms than that of Father Laurent and John Crysostom. It is up to each one of us to take up this discipline for ourselves, and the team of priests at St Peter's will gladly journey with you if you ask us.

But there is a very significant new thing happening in the scientific world at present that we need to be aware of. Psychologists as well as theologians are now studying the healing properties of the virtues. Big research dollars are being poured into studies on forgiveness, gratitude, courage and love. The ancient wisdom of the faith traditions is coming under the scientists' microscope.

This gives us a golden evangelistic opportunity and a new way to respond to Jesus' great commission: that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. Over the coming weeks I will be delivering a sermon series on contemporary conversations between faith and positive psychology. Suggested readings will be placed on the web site and books available through the St Peter's bookshop for those who would like to dig deeper.

So, over these 50 days of Easter, may we deepen our own devotional disciplines and seek ways to proclaim Christ's love to our neighbour. Amen.


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