Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
5th Aug 2018
Sermon for the 10th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” John 6.51.
“The gifts God gave were to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4.11-12.
The readings speak of what makes Christian Faith so distinctive among the religions of the world with the emphasis on the spiritual and the physical together. Lying at the heart of our belief as Christians is the fact of God, of Jesus becoming human, which we call the Incarnation. Our readings are reflections and proofs of the existence of God and of the way in which God the Father choses to express his purposes in the physical world and in physical ways. The emphasis is upon the human body and its needs as an analogy for the life of the eternal soul that exists within. This is reassuring. Our God is not One who stands aloof from the human situation. Jesus is God become like one of us, and this relationship is vital to the Christian understanding of who God is and how God wishes to communicate to us.
Between 1947 and 1949, Barbara Hepworth produced around 80 coloured drawings (entitless 'The Hospital Drawings') of surgeons at work in an operating theatre. She would spent up to ten hours in theatre, drawing and observing. This period of activity followed the friendship that resulted from the hospitalisation of her daughter with the surgeon who treated her at the Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter, Devon. The drawings were also an expression of celebration for the founding of the brand new National Health Service. .
Barbara Hepworth said: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors”. But on close observation something else was also noticed. Hepworth’s beautiful drawings, depicting medical practitioners, gathered around the patient at different angles, their accurately captured hands, their piercing eyes, and their solemn but purposeful work, operating with great precision, allude to an atmosphere of silent reverence and the Christian sense of the sacramental. The practice of the caring and mending of bodies is felt to be somehow holy. As we think on these things, we may be reminded each day in King’s Cross of how many hundreds of thousands who pass through our streets each day have either obvious and physical or not so obvious and inner pain, or who at least carry around with them the distress of life, whether in the determined faces of those commuters going to work in the morning or perhaps the old man sitting in the park all alone and then the many men and women with little else but the next can of cider or of a drug induced semi-comatose existence way out on the margins.
Our lessons this morning remind us of the close association of the physical body and the eternal soul. Christians will always say that here is no way of understanding our human existence except in the embrace of both. If I am a soul as well as a body, then I no longer speak of the body in purely physical or animal terms, nor do I understand my life to be bound to physical life and death only. Life is not to be considered as linear but dynamic and caught up in eternity. I am not alone but part of a miraculous whole. Jesus speaks of everlasting life both as projected into the future and as shown in the here and now. The numbers of people in parishes across our land used to be accounted not as persons but as souls. The existence of the soul opens up new dimensions for our life’s purpose and its hope. It opens up a relationship of trust with God which is spiritual and physical in its willingness to offer the day to God. Our communion hymns give some expression of this:
Bread of Heav’n on Thee we feed,
For Thy flesh is meat indeed:
Ever may our souls be fed
With this true and living Bread;
Day by day with strength supplied,
Through the life of Him Who died.
This is to speak of what is, for the Christian, life’s true and sustaining principle. Christian Faith sees our human destiny and our life’s worth lying in our interrelatedness and in the binding of all human destinies in the one hope. But this is not just to be a matter of words or a mere formula, but something alive and real, the call to a realignment of human relationships in the likeness of Christ. The Church lives this reality as a Eucharistic community. It shares itself amid the world around it in churches like this one.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache, a First Century Christian Document.
The two abiding references to the human body in the Bible are found, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. The Old Testament eternal reference is the depiction of the people Israel, in the Exodus, a whole nation banished to wander the desert in search of the ‘promised land’. The New Testament reference is to the Christian witnesses as forming ‘The Body of Christ’ who receive the sacrament as we will this morning, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and are called at the same time to live that life and to respond to the very joy and the pain which surrounds us at all times. – “Behold what you are…” as St Augustine put it “become what you receive”.
The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
In Jesus’ name.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
29th Jul 2018
Sermon for the 9th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
People have often felt secure in great numbers and in enclosed spaces. When you visit the Colosseum in Rome its stones speak to you of the terror that was once practised within its great pock-marked walls. As you walk into the amphitheatre it is as though you are walking into the jaws of a great lion. It is a place whose atmosphere eats you up. Beautiful it is not. Intimidating it certainly is. Like it or not, such great amphitheatres, or as we call them now stadiums, tell us something we already know about us – that we are tribal, and we have always needed places of ingathering; places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. But this kind of tribalism is often prey to the emotion of the moment and not to a deeper and more real sense of being together.
What a different scene is represented to us in the Gospel reading this morning, in which the disciples are together in a little boat in a storm and who see Jesus walking on the water and bringing calm. But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. The Gospel writer John understood what we must know to be the case – that in life there is no one place of absolute safety and certainty. The psychoanalyst Jung would often speak of what he called ‘life’s vicissitudes’, as though they were a natural and normal part of the experience of life. We might say that life is not all plain sailing. Things don’t always go smoothly for us. Sometimes we might feel ‘all at sea’. Sometimes life has and does take us into choppy waters. The Old Testament writers experienced these vicissitudes in many ways, and the psalmists in particular sent up their cries and their sighs. “Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord” Psalm 130.1 The psalmist owns an experience of life in which such internal turmoil is deemed natural and inevitable and to be accepted not as a part of something abnormal but as a very predictable and understandable. Jesus recognises this too, and in so many of his encounters he greets us with the words “Peace be with you”.
John sets the figure of the boat amid the storm with finding faith in God amid the storms of life and not apart from them. The boat is a figure for our life together and our need for one another, and the Christ who walks upon the waters is the One who has come to communicate what we have called ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’. In the church we need to begin practising a strong and human understanding of one another which accepts that life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human; and come to a realisation in truer compassion of that which is understandable and forgivable. This must proceed out of inner peace which can only come through prayer and through deeper reflection.
The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity which cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of deep peace. Yesterday I met some ‘Mind the Gap’ Christians who seem so sure of who is a child of God and who isn’t, Theirs is a Christianity that expresses itself so literally that it denies us our freedom to be. The ‘gap’ for them is the one which exists between their kind of believers and their kind of unbelievers. Theirs is a Christianity which must exist as a fortress or super defended battleship, just like the selfish ego ready to defend its territory at variance from the common good all around it. The real gap is the one which exists between a Christianity of the heart and a Christianity of the will. It proceeds out of its own emotional insecurity rather than out of any genuine love for common humanity and its many foibles. The message of the gospel this morning is of the Christ who has come not to deny our own fears or to banish them for good but to recognise them and to meet them. To give peace and to offer understanding and forgiveness, and so to set us on our way.
In the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire there is a Newton and Cowper Museum. And this is a museum dedicated to two hymn-writers who compiled the so-called ‘Olney Hymns’. But they were more than just that. Cowper was descibed by Coleridge as ‘our best modern poet’, and John Newton wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’. He had been a ship’s captain, and was heavily involved in the slave trade. During a storm, the sea was so bad that for the first time in his life he prayed. The storm as it were cracked open his old self and tore it out of him. Christ was revealed to him! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of it.
At the heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctance, vanity and stubbornness; at the heart of all our struggles and doubts and failures there lies God, the God who has made us and who even now seeks for us that reconciliation which is our soul’s true wellspring. The God who in Jesus brings always his strong peace. And so it was for Newton, and the crowning expression of his experience of God as a man born blind is given to us in the words of ‘Amazing Grace’.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And then the sobering words of his friend George Cowper which call for a simple trust in the God who makes things plain:
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
May the God who visited the disciples on the choppy waters of their existence also visit you, to give you that amazing grace which was first realised on the Sea of Galilee and which held the disciples together. For they like we, in and of God, find ourselves, all of us, in the same boat…
He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”. Receive my peace, passing all your understanding. May God’s deep peace inhabit your inmost being.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
15th Jul 2018
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity Year B
Herod feared John , knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.
Mark 6. 20.
At significance points in history the people who have made a lasting difference have been those who have challenged the vice-like grip of tyrants and the empires of will and force. We may name the English saints Thomas à Becket and Thomas More, who both challenged the naked authority of their sovereigns, Henry II and Henry VIII. Then there have been three figures in the twentieth century, who like John the Baptist have proclaimed their message of radical peace from a place of deep conscience and from prison : Mahatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela. Their names will live for ever because of the way in which as single persons with singular consciences and single voices, minds and hearts, they managed to challenge the vast powers ranged against them. They managed to call for for human freedom despite beatings and torture and they won through. Like lions, they held out for the greater dignity of all humankind against the power of the oppressor.
It seems at first strange that we should include John the Baptist among these modern prophets, but he shares with them, or rather I should say they share with him, the vision of a world transformed in the likeness of its Maker. In our first reading from Amos, we learn that Amos is called to the status of prophet from his own job as a herdsman and 'a dresser of sycamore trees’. God raises before Amos a builder’s plumb line before a wall. God, holding the said plumb line, was aware that something was wrong with the society and that it was, as my Cornish father would have put it, ‘out of truth’. Little Amos is called to put it right, and how might Ghandi, Bonhoeffer and Mandela have felt themselves to be so ‘little’ in relation to the titanic struggles to which they were severally bound. But they responded, as did Amos to a deeper call to a more profound response in the longing for a better world.
In today’s Gospel reading, setting out the drama leading to the beheading of John the Baptist, we know that John has been outspoken about King Herod concerning the latter’s marriage to his own sister-in-law, Herodias. John dares to declare openly that this marriage is invalid under the Jewish law. At first it is not Herod but Herodias who wants to have John killed. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. She feels degraded. She knows, as we do, that Herod has an acknowledged respect for the Baptist, knowing him to be ‘righteous and holy’. The ‘dance of death’ that she stages is the one in which she knows her husband’s weaknesses through and through. Her daughter’s dance elicits a promise from the King that he will grant her anything she wants, even up to half his kingdom. He little expects her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. We see the contrast between John’s message of repentance and its call for a set of values which are truthful and morally binding with Herod’s lasciviousness and foolishness. John’s is a costly discipleship of faith and trust and self-sacrifice, Herod’s is attracted to these values and influences, but he is easily seduced. He follows too much ‘the devices and desires’ of his own heart, which have become warped with misuse. His mind is a wayward one and his real person grievously split.
This Gospel reading is a satisfying tale which concerns the ‘goodies and the baddies’ of the Gospel story, but its real meaning hits home when we come to consider the abiding worth, the depth and the integrity of God’s Word set against what St Paul was to call ‘the powers and principalities and rulers of this present darkness”. Paul’s appeal to the faithful was simply to their desire for the truth of things which had revealed itself for him in Jesus Christ. That same appeal to desire that same moral truthfulness is still vastly important.
In our own time, it is not too difficult to name those aspects of our common culture which are spiritually deadening and which do not give life or offer us that true freedom for which John and then the Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died for. People are wandering around our towns and cities ‘on empty’ without actually realising it. However, they, like Herod recognise, perhaps vaguely, that there does exist a body of spiritual and actual truth, but it is not recognised as residing in the Church or in Jesus Christ. Instead it is acknowledged in ways which seem sound but which are in fact diffuse. John’s testimony is the one which ultimately convinces because of its grounding in reality.
I have spent the last week on conference in Liverpool and we were at Anfield Stadium to watch the England v Croatia match. The Club Chaplain gave a very inspiring talk in which we denied the oft quoted Bill Shankley who once said that football was more important than life or death. John Lennon famously declared that the Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus. Both men had immense pulling power and the admiration and even the adulation of the masses. Lennon may have come close to the truth when he penned the song ‘All you Need is Love’. But neither men provides us with the complete picture. Herod’s partial recognition of who John the Baptist really was gives evidence to the fact of a deeper resonance; a more profound meaning. It is that without God we are nothing. God is no tyrant and urges us to come to know Him from the point of view of our desire for the deeper truth which underlies our existence. Note this word desire. God does not exercise duress.His appeal is to that which is already within us.
The story of Herod and John the Baptist and the dance of Herodias’ daughter is a tragedy but a necessary one. For in it, the true nature of things is being established and revealed for all posterity. Paul reminds us in Ephesians that “with all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time”. Ephesians 1. 10. God is to be for the faithful ever 'in our ears and in our eyes', as the manifest presence. It is God who gives life and hope. God’s presence and love is the perpetual challenge to that temptation for us to become that which we are most emphatically not.
When I was in Liverpool I got on a bus that I thought would lead me back to the Hope University Campus. After a long while I went to the driver who with great emphasis told me “You’ve got on the wrong bus!” You have to go back and change – at Penny Lane”. I left the bus full of the joys of Spring and scouse wonderment.
Oh, Penny Lane - like the words of God in scripture.Living words for real life. May you be always in our ears and in our eyes:
Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
24th Jun 2018
Delivered to the Huaxia Chinese Church on Sunday 24th June 2018 at 2 30 pm.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
“We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain” 2 Corinthians 6.1
It’s with real joy that I am here at Holy Cross Church at the special invitation of your own Huaxia Church! It is thrilling for my church members that we are able to express something of God’s love and kindness in our sharing of this place of worship with you. Thank you for asking me to be here now! It is so good to be here together for this time of prayer and praise.
In the Anglican tradition we spend each Sunday looking at three separate pieces of scripture and a part of one psalm. This at first sounds as though we have taken on too much! But we have these scripture readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament and one from the Gospels, and the typical sermon is one which seeks to find a single link between these three readings. Often this is very difficult. But as we read scripture there is no sense in which we are in a hurry for immediate answers and quick and ready responses to what scripture is revealing to us. We read scripture and many of us are familiar with so much of what we read and hear. But we also meditate upon scripture and in this way we come gradually to an understanding of how and in what way it is speaking to us. We take our time for God’s understanding to be given to us so that our own understanding may develop appropriately.
And so I will try to do what I normally do on Sunday mornings, and offer you my understanding of the three pieces of scripture which have been set by my church for today. When Jianbi asked me for a title to this sermon I had already quickly given m scripture passage a first reading and so I said to him. “My title is “God: Our Centre of Gravity”. When I mention gravity I mean that God is the centre of our being ; God is our stability. He is our life’s true meaning and its true purpose. And yet God is also beyond anything I can ever say about Him : he will always be so much more than I can ever imagine Him to be. And because of this I am being called into a relationship with God and with His Son Jesus Christ in profound trust. I have to set all those things I lack against God’s willingness to place his trust in me. The fact that God is more than I can imagine is good news for me because it will stop me from trying to worship him as though he needed me to give him life. Instead, God is who God is and his love for me and this world is without end. I am free only when I can own that my existence is nothing without God.
I am free when I acknowledge him to be the God of my life, my faith and even my partial understanding of him and of my turning away from him. He is always ready to meet me where I am, even and especially when I am doubting or fearing. The Christian calling is the one which would have us be open to the outpouring of his love. Our Christian calling is the one which responds with a joyful ‘Yes!’ to him and of his open hearted love for me. When I say my ‘Yes’ to God I come alive in a way I had not previously thought possible, and God lives in me. It is in this light that St Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians ‘not to accept the grace of God in vain’. ‘Vain’ comes from an English word which can mean either ridiculously arrogant or something which is dead and can have no future. God is come to drive out vanity and to restore us in his true likeness. (2 Corinthians 3.18)
I will look at our readings from back to front and begin with our Gospel reading and end with our Old Testament reading from the Book of Job by way of Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians Chapter 6.
In the Gospel reading from Mark Chapter 4 we have the simple story of Jesus in a boat with his disciples. It is such a simple story that, like children we might rush to a quick and satisfying understanding of it and miss its real meaning. A storm lashes the little boat and the disciples fear being drowned. The sea or deep water was a horror in the minds of the Jewish people, and they likened the limitless seas to ‘Sheol’ or ‘Hell’. We learn that in the storm chaos Jesus is lying asleep in the stern of the boat. The contrast of storm and sleep is very vital to the story and we come to know Jesus as the still centre. He is able as God’s own Son to inhabit God’s peace in its human totality. In one of the Anglican blessings we have the phrase ‘The Peace of God which passes all understanding’. Jesus’ peace, asleep in the boat, lies beyond the storm and the fearful disciples. And yet, as he wakes, he recognises and has pity upon their fear. There is a sharp rebuke however, as he comments upon their lack of faith. They are with the man of deep peace and yet they neither recognise him as such nor of course do they place enough trust in him. The very English translation tells us that Jesus ‘rebuked the storm’ but in reality he performs an exorcism upon the storm and repeats the words he pronounced to the man possessed of demons ‘Be gone, and come out of him!’ ‘Be still!’. And then there is as scripture tells us ‘a dead calm’. We are reminded of the words of Psalm 46 ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. Only learn to be still…
My friends, to go deeper in the life of faith and the acceptance of God’s grace we need to learn to be still. I remember the English exclamation ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!” In reverse we have ‘Don’t just do something; stand there!” Be still and know that I am God. God is the One who has astonished the disciples as they begin slowly to come to a realisation of who their teacher Jesus really is “Who is this” they say “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Beyond the anxieties, the worry, the preoccupations and our vanity; beyond these things, Jesus is able to still the storm in all of us – he is the very eye of the storm; the place of its absolute stillness and its heart. This same stillness he offers us, too, the strength and courage to be, to live life from its true source, and never to neglect such a gift of immense grace, though we often do!
In His Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 6, our second reading, St Paul reminds us that God’s gift to us is of Himself in Jesus Christ. This gift is being given to us in the present, at this very moment, at Holy Cross Church in London on this day and at this time. Paul reminds us that “Now is the acceptable time” just as Jesus in the boat works to still the storm in the ‘now’. God recognises your own fears and yet still calls you, in the now moment, to come to Him. St Paul is simply calling us to the provocative ‘opening wide’ of our hearts. This is hard for us. For perhaps there is so much that has made our hearts more closed up than they should be; we have been hurt, we have some bad memories, we have been let down or betrayed, we have withdrawn and with the withdrawal we have shut our hearts up in very subtle and clever ways, and we are in grief.
It is no longer such an easy a thing to respond to grace when we are so wounded. But St Paul knows this and that people, like you and me, need close human support and encouragement. We need the hearts that trust in the whole business of ‘going through things together’ and of an acceptance that we need one another and that we find God in one another. “As servants of God” he says “we commend ourselves in every way’. He is saying ‘Actually, we are here for the opening of hearts, we are here to express the fullness of our co-creative potential’. This is what the love of God is compelling us to do. And this is no mean task! But its effects, in the life of God’s Holy Spirit, promise transformation.
To sum up, our readings so far remind us that to place our faith and trust in God is to live truthfully. Our final and third reading, following Mark’s Gospel and St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is from the Old Testament Book of Job. This is a great story of a man who is wealthy in every way, and because wealthy thought to be specially favoured by God. But he is to be tested and all his wealth stripped from him, and his family members die, and his wife tells him only to ‘curse his life and die’. The so called ‘Job’s comforters’ are no better, reciting scripture wisdom in a way which is dis-compassionate and automatic. They think that Job’s troubles are a result of past sin, as stock religious response. Job may bemoan his cruel fate but he does not turn away from God, he perseveres, and in our reading from Chapter 38, the climax of the story, God reveals to Job who he really is. God despises ‘words without knowledge’. God challenges Job’s pride “Where were you, Job, he says, when I laid the foundations of the earth?” And yet God’s tone is never vengeful. He does not want Job to die but to live, but not before Job comes to know who God really is – not the God who is partial and has favourites but a God who is above and beyond any human capacity to limit him. Job’s goods and family are eventually restored to him, but not after a mighty personal struggle in which Job comes to see that God is limitless. He is what is real. He can be no other. He is as an English hymn puts it ‘Disposer Supreme and Judge of the Earth’. Job is a hero because he does not curse either God or his fate but acknowledges that God provides for his creation and his creatures without ever withdrawing his presence.
Finally, The Book of Job sets the love of God alongside and apart from the disciples in the boat, the Corinthian Churches and Job and his family. In doing so, God makes his presence known in no uncertain terms. This is for their understanding. God is, after all and amid all the contrary and vain elements our true centre of gravity, our one strong, natural and authentic place of being; our solid grounding and our one hope.
The coming together of our two churches, speaking different languages, and yet united in this one holy place, is a powerful sign of the same God-given gravity which I pray will hold us together in God’s love very powerfully and joyfully in the time to come.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity
17th Jun 2018
Sermon for Trinity 3 Year B
“He did not speak to them except in parables”
There are so many aspects of human life that cannot be put into words. But that has not stopped us from trying! Words can convey so much. But what underlies language is also important. The deeper resonances. When John speaks of Jesus speaking in parables, he is saying something to us that we already know. We love a story, and a story is a very good way of communicating an important truth. Much of the early Christian witness was based on this kind of truth telling or witness. The truth telling was of lives which had found their reason for being in Christ; Gospel.
So many of the bestsellers lists are of books of biography. The word ‘bio’ and ‘graphy’ aiming to combine two contrasting elements - that of life as it is lived; and the setting down of that life graphically, descriptively, in words. When we look at the Gospels we are not looking at the biography of Jesus, even though the Gospels have biographical elements in them, and the four Gospel writers agree on many of the same happenings in the life of Christ. The Gospels are just that, they are ‘gospel’ and the aim of they treat biography as a necessary but secondary consideration. The first consideration is that the Gospel is theology. It tells us about God, and of how we see and experience God in the life of Christ. With this lies also the Gospel as Christian teaching, and Jesus this morning likens the faith of the Christian to the planting of a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, which may grow into a vast tree. This of course is a simple figure of speech, and paints a picture in the mind’s eye. It sets forth the Christian teaching in a way which gives the individual space and scope to imagine and to assimilate. This is not dictation. It is far removed from ‘literal truth’ or ‘fundamental truth’. It does not treat the individual reader or listener as a foil or a dummy. It expects a human response which is unpredictable, like the parable of the rich young man whom Jesus advises to sell all he has. The Gospels do not tell us whether he goes on to do this!
The telling of stories has always been with us and its beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know the Bible to be not one book but many books, and also letters, diaries and eye witness accounts. But mostly the Bible is bound by the story of human salvation as we begin with Genesis and human origins right through to the dream in Revelation of the vision of a heavenly city, a new Jerusalem. ‘It begins in a garden and ends in a city’. But what drew me as a child to the Bible was the way in which good stories are for the growing child as well as the adult a vital part of come to terms with what makes us human and what makes God God - Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the witness of Job, the raising of Lazarus all emerge out of a body of story-telling which provides the scale and the scope for us to imagine these as not just quaint stories. Rather, they communicate in the endless telling and re-telling, the eternal and priceless truths concerning our existence. For the writers and readers of the Bible, they trace the patterning of the history of human salvation. The statue of David in the Accademia gallery in Florence and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre , Paris are works of art which have an everlasting quality. They stand for the truth of our everyday existence as they marry their amazing reality with their understanding of the salvation history of which the Bible speaks. And these works can only be understood when both are realised. They stand for us as ‘real presences’ which communicate a deep truth which has an everlasting quality. No amount of seeing and re-seeing, reading or re-reading can ever exhaust the meaning of what is being conveyed or intended. We see through what has already been provided for us to see.
It became necessary in a recent exhibition of reliquaries and paintings in one London Gallery to state that such and such works of art were loaned from places of worship, Cathedrals and churches, and were therefore not to be solely regarded as art objects, but as objects of veneration. It is in this sense the when Jesus speaks in parables he is communicating in a language which speaks of this world but which also establishes the existence of faith and as that which reaches out beyond itself to find itself. It is part of our knowing and recognising but also it lies beyond this. But this also allows us to understand that we see not only with our eyes or our brains but with deeper instincts.
The Bible can be regarded as just a type of religious text or it can be regarded as The Book of Life. If we choose the former then we relegate the Bible and its teaching to one of those posh volumes, with fake leather binding that you can order in instalments and sit on your shelves trying to look grand, never read, but largely ornamental. If we see the Bible on the other hand as a Book of Life, then there is no limitation. It may speak to us in our own lives and human states as found. Many Christians I know supplement their church going and their prayers for a small booklet which can be easily ordered and which provides for daily readings from the Bible with brief commentaries. Many have discovered by these means that Bible is not relegated to the ‘dry as dust’ section but waters and nourishes and provides a seed-bed into which the mustard seed of our growing and perhaps hesitant faith may find watering and refreshment.
In speaking in parables Jesus is admitting the need for a deeper understanding of the truths of our existence. It was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell who observed that
We live I believe in a world of surfaces.
The speaking in parables provides a way of apprehending what St Paul described as the ‘length, the breadth, the height and the depth’ (Ephesians 3.18) of our existence and to know it through a lifetime’s study and pondering. Jesus is the One who allows someone like TS Eliot to see this as a never ceasing from exploring over a lifetime. This holds for us the promise of finding that place where we started from, the place of our own origin and truth, and of arriving at that place perhaps for the first time. But nonetheless to see the truthful things of God, whether or not embedded in mystery, whether seen through a glass dimly or whether enjoyed in the re-reading of old and worn parables, is for us the implantation of the mustard seed. In faith and intrust we pray that the Creator, the Giver and the Sustainer who is God will provide for the increase.
R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness