Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
14th Oct 2018
Sermon for 20th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10.18, 19.
Our Gospel reminds us that we like the disciples before us, are not only to understand or ‘see’ the Christian message but also respond to it in person. We are being called into a deeper relationship with God and ourselves and our world and this is not to be ignored or set aside distractedly. It is God and not ourselves who initiates that movement of faith which brings us closer to the Kingdom.
To begin the new millennium in London, in 2000, a landmark exhibition was staged at the National Gallery. The coming third millennium provided the opportunity for a celebration of Christian time, and the title of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ showed ways of seeing and realising the centuries old Christian witness through its best paintings.
The first of these paintings shown was to be was a startling and unusual one. It was a Spanish picture, painted in around 1630 by Francisco de Zurburan and depicting a lamb trussed and placed on a slab. The title of the painting, ‘Lamb of God’ or ‘Agnus Dei’ told you what you needed to know about the subject, whilst the lamb you saw had a halo above its head. The image of the lamb is moved the audience because it appealed directly to their sense of compassion.
Christian paintings have been important in helping us to understand some deep and complex theological truths. The Mona Lisa, The Light of the World, The Last Supper, The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…These images are generous. They give us the time and the space and allow our imagination to rest upon them and to feel them. They help to make difficult truths real and understandable for us. Words cannot convey the meaning that images can. And so what might seem a pathetically simple image, of a lamb bound and ready for slaughter (or sacrifice?) becomes one that speaks of a deep sense of mortality and of loss, but here bound inevitably to the life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Zurburan’s gaze and his intention is unrelenting and searching. It echoes the words of the Old Testament Reading from Isaiah, who spoke about a Messiah who would be a sacrificial lamb.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53: 7-8)
Jesus is for ever the Lamb of God. We sing about every week in church at the Agnus Dei.
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi….” ”Lamb of god, who takes away the sins of the world….”
We have another ‘Lamb of God’ image in our stained glass window in this church, designed and made by Martin Travers in 1920. He created this image three hundred years after Zurburan and yet the message is still rather similar. Travers has the Christ in poor majesty wearing an amber coloured cloak and carrying a lantern, the light of the world, and this time the lamb is carried on his own shoulders. The lamb Jesus bears as the good shepherd also alludes to the lamb of sacrifice. His cloak is riven with thorns and nails. The Christ wears a crown of thorns, his hands bear the stigmata or wounds and a single tear appears out of the corner of his eye.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows? Isaiah 53.4
Today’s Gospel message is that it is not sufficient just to ‘see’ salvation. It also has to be acted upon. In our Gospel reading the paintings and their meaning are given owe a necessary debt to Christ’s teaching for a discipleship which is sacrificial. We understand this in terms of servanthood and service. If the saving death is sacrificial then the Christian action is also sacrificial. It is a radical message because it reverses accepted notions of status and rank. It calls us out of ourselves and toward the other. The rich young man goes away shocked and then depressed because though he obeys every bit of the law Jesus suddenly challenges him to sell all his possessions. We do not know whether he did so, only that he went away from Jesus disconsolate. It is by the way of self-giving that we lose ourselves to find ourselves. It is by costly self-giving that lives are transformed into God’s likeness. It is by these means that the Christian Church becomes Christian at all. Here is a twentieth century interpretation of these words by Dr Martin Luther-King:
“He (Jesus) transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favouritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared. Prepared to serve. ( Amen)
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.
The Church of Christ in the new third millenium must proclaim this ‘new definition of greatness’. But so that this proclamation doesn’t become two dimensional it must be a true proclamation which is continually informed and enriched and enlivened by that Christian vision of the Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who has known suffering and who is therefore able to contain it, transform it and bring it to its true fruition through forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of the self and the soul. The Church is to be one of the vital places where this service of self-giving is to be seen and known and trusted. It is the visible reminder of the Christian salvation at work, alive and active in those, like you and I, who have seen salvation and have now been called to act upon it, but not in our strength or will alone, but by God’s grace and through his mercy.