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The Message of Eternal Life

26th Aug 2012


12th Sunday of Trinity Year B

 

“Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life”. John 6.60.

St John’s Gospel is the Gospel which is written for the Church, and which raises practical issues of basic understanding and faith. And this morning’s Gospel Reading confronts us with what John has called ‘the message of eternal life’ and of the challenge of its falling on deaf ears, and the possibility of its being lost. I well remember as a young child on holiday in August taking a new orange ball onto the beach. As I got to the sea’s edge I threw the ball into the sea and swam after it, but the waves soon took it out, and then there was the sad admission of its being irrecoverable. The sea had taken it away from me. It was awful to see it float away, so visible among the blue/grey sea, seemingly quite happy to bob up and down and to be on its way, being carried out on the current, further and further away. And then I imagined that it might arrive in another place and that someone might find it and have it, delighted at the thought of a lovely orange ball having arrived out of the blue. I wondered though, if my voice would be loud enough to say “Would you please give me my ball back?” But it might be received by another as a gift from the sea…

 

As I write about this, over forty years later, I realise both then and now, I am ’hotwired’ to place an imagined and reflective interpretation on what was at base a child’s real loss and a disappointment. And this opens up the meaning of what John calls ‘the message of eternal life’. This is not a phrase, like many phrases in holy scripture, which begets immediate understanding. And so John offers us a clue as to the direction in which we are being taken when he tells us that ‘the flesh has nothing to offer; it is the spirit that gives life’. The difference between life’s brute particulars and the hope which lies in it and yet beyond it. It is the spirit of God which, residing in us, can provide the deeper sea, the broader scope and endless horizon.

 

Thou art a sea without a shore

A sun without a sphere;

Thy time is now and evermore,

Thy place is everywhere

 

This is the challenge of the teaching of Christ for John. It is difficult teaching. The message of Christ is not all ‘sweetness and light’. In John, if there is light, it is the light of Christ, his gaze, which burns into the individual consciousness and which leaves its mark. It is the light which searches us out and knows us. It is akin to what we might call our own self- realisation in the ‘cold light of day’. It is disconcerting and even intolerable. Echoes of Simeon’s words are heard, namely that Jesus is the one in whom ‘the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare’. Jesus is concerned not with exteriors but his gaze is the one which shines a light into the deep places of the heart and mind, and this has left some seekers after God with an all too real sense of their own vulnerability. ‘This is intolerable language’ says one of the followers, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ We must stay in this difficult place if the alternative is to place Christian teaching as nothing more than a kind of romance.

 

And yet the gaze is also the loving gaze, which longs for our spiritual homecoming, for the maintenance of what lies true in us and for what will last. We know we are in need of healing and yet we draw back, all too often defensively. And yet the ‘message of eternal life’ is loving and confiding. It longs to provide for future. John sets up in the Gospel the tension between that which pertains to the flesh (life ‘without’ God) and the spirit (belief and trust in the promises of Christ). There is, in coming to Christian Faith. (we ‘come to faith’ at every moment) the realisation in the words of the Psalmist: ‘Thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down seating and my uprising, thou knowest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139). There is nothing to fear, though we do flee when against our better nature, love’s welcome is all too real and all to revealing.

 

There are many who come to King’s Cross seeking something out. It is the magnetic draw of the station, acting like a magnetic field. The massive inflow and outflow of human traffic speaks of life as connected and yet also strangely impersonal. But contained in the sea of humanity, flowing in and around this place, are the lives of the many with their hopes and dreams, their joys and disappointments, their stresses and their anxieties. And each person in the sea of humanity is a whole life, with its desires and its longings, containing within that life that eternal phrase of Christ about the flesh and the spirit. They know, each one of them, that there is something more to life than the timetable and the getting to the next place and to life’s brute particulars. There is in each person the unspoken prayer which is their hopefulness and their life’s truer purpose, and it is from this place that eternal life receives its human echo, in the words of Peter:

 

“Lord, where shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.”

 

St Augustine of Hippo:

“Therefore, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you were in me; or rather, I would not exist unless I were in you ‘from whom and by whom all things exist….” (Confessions, I.2).

 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Someone said to me this week, I don’t want you to sell me the Christian Faith like an insurance policy. I don’t want you to tell me that Christianity can make me stronger and better than I might be at present. I want to tell me of the Christ who comes to me at my weakest and most vulnerable moments, who is with me when it feels like all others have deserted me…who is my way, my truth and my life. It is in this observation that the message of Christ lies, inviting acceptance of this word and belief in it. In it is implied the already known idea of selling all you have to buy the pearl of great price…”

 

To be like this God, who gives up on no-one, who loves us, not because we are loveable but that we become loveable only because God loves us, God loves us with a love that will not let us go, a love that loved us before we were created, a love that loves us now, a love that will love us forever, world without end. A love that says of each single one of us: "I love you, you are precious and special to me, I love you as if you were the only human being on earth, I love you and there is nothing you can do to make me love you more because I already love you perfectly."



Walking in the Way of Insight

19th Aug 2012


‘Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight’. Proverbs 9.6

 

I was speaking to a member of this congregation yesterday about the Olympic Games legacy. We both agreed that the Games had reminded us of something that we had become more aware. That British dna is now most emphatically diverse and multicultural. It overlay the opening ceremony, which seamlessly set three scenes of life developing one from the other. The first idea was of England as a pastoral idyll - and this soon gave way to a contrasting Industrial England, to the strains of William Blake’s hymn ‘Jerusalem’, which spoke of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and yet also of ‘dark, satanic mills’. The underlying message was of convulsive and inevitable and difficult change. In the second and concluding part of Danny Boyle’s drama lay the everyday tale of a contemporary British scene in which family life is located in and with social diversity. Family members come from backgrounds and origins from other places. Boyle’s message of a Britain with both a familiar and an unexpected culture then gave way to the Games itself, in which ground-breaking history was made by Mo Farah, an exiled Somali Briton cheered on by the crowd as ‘one of us’.

 

Our conversation reflected upon the breathtaking speed with which all this has happened, and within this recent time-span the great identity change happening  for this country. But it must remain true that these reflections are made in relation to the great swell of euphoria which the Games has generated. It will be important simply to note these things but also to check them against the available realities. And how are we to read the signs of the times as members of the Christian Church? What are the sources from which we draw a proper and critical view of the society around us? How does the Church come to understand the radical social changes that have emerged in the past thirty years? 

 

Our reading from Proverbs this morning proffer some clues. Proverbs finds its place in what we call the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. This wisdom is of the kind which has been handed down from generation to generation and whose quality, common sense and beauty has withstood the test of time. And in the lives of my own parents, both hailing from small villages, the handed down village stories, many of them based on real history and fact, were shared for the way in which they had spoken about life and contained lessons for life. Wisdom in scripture was held in the highest esteem, given a feminine gender and enlarged upon in the Book of Wisdom using descriptive and poetic language. In the absence of a Christ figure, the Old Testament people relied upon their own store of wisdom and its sharing was there, as the Prayer Book would have it, ‘to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’. One of the earliest and greatest churches in the world, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, in modern day Istanbul, was once the greatest Christian building in the world. Its mastermind, the Emperor Justinian had cried at the opening of the great church “Glory to God who has found me worthy to complete such a work. Solomon, I have outdone you!” I have only ever understood the quote as a boast before finding the sentence that precedes it, which places Justinian’s proclamation in a new light. It is humbler and more impressive. Wisdom and its daughter ‘humility-after-the-fact’, was doubtless present.

 

The Church must surely be known for its wisdom. It has, unfortunately been popularly depicted as at odds with itself on a whole range of human issues. It has seemed by many to be at odds with its place in a society grown increasingly multicultural and complex; grown expansive and diverse. It has grown in knowledge of a certain kind but not perhaps in wisdom and self-understanding to the same degree. The Anglican Church does not see itself as a dogmatic Church and does not want to take the hard line, but equally is aware that for the Christian Church, there are acknowledged truths about how in in what way life is to be governed without which humanity suffers and the quality of life diminished.  The questions are those concerning what we mean by God. They speak of the deepest kind of authority and of the most profound kind of truth for our times. This is because they speak of our true origins and ultimate destinies. And so our text is timely: ‘Lay aside all immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight’.

 

This must mean for the Church and for us that holy wisdom is actively cultivated. I imagine this to challenge us into realising our identity as Christians as fully dimensional. The dimension so often missing has been the one which has is disciplined to reflect and to pray about our world and all the many issues and difficulties and changes that have been brought about. We are not neutral bystanders as Christians but are deeply implicated and involved in what goes on around us. Where Christ has gone before we follow. He was deeply critical of the society of his day, but this criticism was coming from what Proverbs calls ‘insight’. As Christians we have a distinctive voice. The Collect for today urges us to be ‘partakers of the heavenly treasure’ and that suggests some kind of reflective or contemplative life. It is no good simply to have half-baked personal opinions about life like the ranting taxi-driver. Nor even to stay silent and to pretend no knowledge. It must surely be possible for Church’s like ours to develop a sense of our embracing a Christian view of life which we can put into words, and which carries authority and weight. 

 

The first part of our growth in this Church has been in number and in diversity and of joy in believing. The second must demand something more of us. To begin to make the adventure into the life of prayer and contemplation and to train ourselves to achieve this. This approach will aid us to centre our view of The Church and of Christian teaching, and to ground ourselves as we ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest not just from the point of view of opinions and comments and personal preferences, but from the place of the living presence of God, who discloses himself as Holy Wisdom, ‘hagia sophia’ within our hearts. This is also a training in listening, not only to God in silence and contemplative prayer, but to a listening to ourselves and our own inner voice, and a learning in listening to others, also. As Proverbs suggests, God calls his faithful to lay aside immaturity, which is the existence which does not reflect upon realties, and to walk, perhaps at first painfully slowly, in the way of insight, literally a seeing into those things for which Christ lived and died. This is the ‘bread and butter’ work of a fully vitalised and awakened Church, most aware of its own strong and real identity and most ready to embrace the new understanding and passion which our multicultural identity demands.

On 1st December I invite you to come away and to join our neighbours at St Pancras Church for a Quiet day in which we will begin to explore how we as a church might embrace the contemplative life of prayer. This is the one which will help us to ‘walk in the way of insight’ and to speak from where the Word of God has and will be implanted in our hearts.

 

 



The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

15th Aug 2012


“Why should I be honoured from a visit from the Mother of my Lord?”

One of my earliest memories of a pregnant woman is of my own mother, getting herself ready to leave home for hospital for the birth of my younger brother. I remember that in the hurry there was some sort of cross words between my parents. This was my mother’s fourth pregnancy and I remember her saying to my father “Well, if you feel that way, you can give birth to the next one!” Even while this was going on she was busy applying copious amounts of face make-up, determined, and readying herself for a new birth which was already in the air as nerve-racking and momentous. But remembering all this and watching my parents leave home, she kissing his cheek and leaving a red blob of lipstick on it; my mother leaving for her delivery and my father rushing off to the funeral of his favourite uncle, and my being packed off to a friend’s house; this was been for me a key memory. It represents life and death, loss and gain, and everything else in between all rolled into one. And it was all done wordlessly. When we come to this Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary we honour her as ‘full of grace’. This means that she occupies a unique place in God the Father’s heart and in the plan for human salvation. And this is summed up in our prayer of greeting “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, prayer for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen”.

Mary’s response to God’s trust is of a life given to making Christ embodied and evident. In this morning’s Gospel we witness her greeting of her cousin Elizabeth and the child which leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. This stands for the Church as a key moment in what we might call the ecology of grace. It is the bridging of  the chasm between the womb and the grave. It is in Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth that grace erupts in the responsive kick in Elizabeth’s womb. And that kick is a message that comes suddenly and vividly and yet wordlessly. The wordlessness of this event emits its own kind of invisible gasp. It is God-provided and  ‘full of grace’. A moment of truth. Mary, as theotokos, or bearer of God, partakes of the very nature of God. She re-instates for Jung what Thomas Hardy once called ‘the eternal feminine’, and which for Jung was a necessary co-relative and the corrective to a totally masculinised Godhead. And this was something the people had already known.

The bond that ties us to all to our mother’s womb is more than one of DNA or genes and chromosomes alone. It carries with it a meaning which has been grasped by the ancients and for all time and which speaks of what is life-giving, what lies at the heart of our existence and inseparable from it and what belongs to our essential human nature. The image that people kept in their homes in centuries past was the image of the madonna and child. The feminine being that lies at the heart of the Godhead: there is no God without recourse to an understanding of the eternal feminine, and with that to the image of the Mother.  And on this day it is Mary who as ‘bearer of God’ is the one who, as ‘full of grace’ is the responsive agent of God’s will and whose obedience opens up a new way of life for God’s people; one which, it is suggested, is alive to the possibility of the givenness of God’s grace for us all.

Though we are word-makers and word utterers, the Christian life will find us more and more inhabiting that place which is wordless: ‘a staircase for silence’ in the words of Allan Ecclestone. It has been so important that we learn about human presence : of how we are all of us singular presences. It is often found that the mnost effective communication is that which is expressed non-verbally. Great actors can, like Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’ convey a whole raft of emotional meaning through a simple look of gesture, a movement of the eyes down, a shifting of the body’s angle to the light with the keeping of a taut silence. All these speak to the sensitive soul. And so with Mary’s greeting. It touched a chord. It was felt in Elizabeth’s womb, and already for John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s unborn child, a way was being prepared, and something new and great, something more than this child was coming to birth. And this was done wordlessly. It is on the level of being rather than of doing. “Let it be done according to your will”, says Mary. At the wedding feast at Cana she orders others to do what Jesus says. It is from her being that the Christian Church finds much of its becoming.

One person who startled everyone by his reaction to the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950 was Carl Jung:
The promulgation of the new dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary could, in itself, have been sufficient reason for examining the psychological background. It is interesting to note that, among the many articles published in the Catholic and Protestant press on the declaration of the dogma, there was not one, so far as I could see, which laid anything like proper emphasis on what was undoubtedly the most powerful motive: namely the popular movement and  the psychological need behind it. Essentially, the writers of the articles were satisfied with learned considerations, dogmatic and historical, which have no bearing on the living religious process. But anyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in number over the last few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing. The fact, especially, that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought, for in such cases, the collective unconscious is always at work ...One could have known for a long time that there was a deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as the 'Queen of heaven and Bride at the heavenly court.' For more than a thousand years it has been taken for granted that the Mother of God dwelt there.47
I consider it to be the most important religious event since the Reformation. It is a petra scandali for the unpsychological mind: how can such an unfounded assertion as the bodily reception of the Virgin into heaven be put forward as worthy of belief? But the method which the Pope uses in order to demonstrate the truth of the dogma makes sense to the psychological mind, because it bases itself firstly on the necessary prefigurations, and secondly on a tradition of religious assertions reaching back for more than a thousand years. What outrages the Protestant standpoint in particular is the boundless approximation of the Deipara to the Godhead and, in consequence, the endangered supremacy of Christ, from which Protestantism will not budge. In sticking to this point it has obviously failed to consider that its hymnology is full of references to the 'heavenly bridegroom,' who is now suddenly supposed not to have a bride with equal rights. Or has, perchance, the 'bridegroom,' in true psychologistic manner, been understood as a mere metaphor?48
The dogmatizing of the Assumption does not, however, according to the dogmatic view, mean that Mary has attained the status of goddess, although, as mistress of heaven and mediatrix, she is functionally on a par with Christ, the king and mediator. At any rate her position satisfies a renewed hope for the fulfillment of that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest, the more so the less he sees any possibility of getting rid of it by rational means. It is no wonder, therefore, that the hope, indeed the expectation of divine intervention arises in the collective unconscious and at the same time in the masses. The papal declaration has given comforting expression to that yearning).



The Breaking of the Bread

5th Aug 2012


…and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world. John 6.51.

The Rev’d. Barbara Glasson was given a simple remit. Given by the Methodist Church a small old shop in a derelict part of Central Liverpool she was asked to ‘make something of her situation’ and to create around this unpromising situation a church, or at least a kind of church. As a Methodist minister, she was an experienced pastor, but had always worked within church situations that were essentially formal and predictable ones. Ones like ours that had structure, services, formal duties and a sense of occasion. Now she was pitched into the unknown. But given that this was Liverpool, and lying somewhere close to the heart of Liverpool’s shopping district this was a place where all sorts of wanderers, all kinds of different people passed by. The derelict shop was then refurbished with little money and set up as a meeting place for anyone who passed by and dropped in. Most of them were spiritually homeless and in dire need of ‘The Bread of Life’ of which today’s Gospel speaks. 

It was some time before Barbara realised that what lie at the heart of this kind of informal city church lay a ministry divested of the usual structures. God was to be discovered through human encounter – through the meeting people as and when you found them. But this wasn’t just another ‘drop in’ but a church whose minister was found to be watching and waiting and praying. This was a church whose existence was an ‘inside out’ one. It would wait on the life that would then sustain it and hold it. The centre was to be lived out in prayer and in fellowship supported by an almost invisible superstructure. Just like the Medieval Cathedrals, whose high walls and gigantic interior spaces and beautiful windows were held in place by a whole skeletal structure of flying buttresses which lay outside the interior space. And all through this time she was reaching out and befriending many of those who would not have found a place of belonging in any other way: ex-drug users the single homeless, and a whole range of individuals wanting to stop and to stay. And one day she bought a bread oven and each day she and her followers made bread each day. And the bread was shared over lunch and a few loaves distributed to those who needed them. And it was in the making of the bread that provided the practical outward focus for the establishment of a praying and faithful ‘interior’ church.

Our Gospel from John explores the theme of Jesus as the ‘Bread of Life’ and the source of our sustenance. The drama of John’s Gospel is its underlying theology; especially the one which surrounds Jesus’ identity with the so-called ‘I am’ sayings. The ‘I am’ phrase had previously only been used a way of identifying with God the Father, who could not be directly named. When Jesus proclaims ‘I am the Bread of Life’ he promises the Church a sustenance which had in the past only been given only as manna in the desert, or in this morning’s first lesson as the provision of bread to the people of Moses in the desert (Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15) . Now such sustenance has been given by the Father to the Son. He now is our ‘Bread of life’ and his offering of himself, his ‘flesh’ is given for the life of the world.  In Christ our lives find their true belonging and their sustenance in Him. This is a belonging which derives from its natural life source; God the Creator. And it feeds us and sustains us even when we do not know it.

In contemporary life, many promises are made for the consumer which cannot possibly be satisfied, particularly the buying into the illusion of a life oblivious to its brevity. In this vein a Company Funeral Directors now offers a funeral pre-payment plan entitled ‘Dignity in Destiny Limited’. My mother was shocked to discover that as she ordered a burial plot for my dead father, she had also to face the fact of its providing a second ready-made space for her own remains. Dreadful that in the death of another you come face to face with your own mortality which is shocking in its directness. Barbara Glasson reminds us that “….life dawns on us as we grow in self-awareness. We do not know why we are alive but with every breath we breathe we experience life as a given. Sometimes we are thankful for it and sometimes it scares us witless”. 

If Jesus, ‘The Bread of Life’ is our sustenance, it must be a sustenance that is given ‘just as we are’. And in the middle of how things actually are. Life is not all black and white, ready-made as a kind of pre-planned insurance policy; like the assurance of ‘dignity in destiny limited’ . It contains so much is unpredictable, confusing, difficult to bear and to understand, and containing far less fixity and security than we would wish. It was with this in mind that Barbara advanced the idea of her bread-baking church. The Church which had turned itself inside out was the church which lay open to the elements.

In such a way we at Holy Cross come to receive the Sacrament at this altar. We come simply to be fed and to acknowledge our need of this feeding. In the words of the hymn ‘Bread of Heaven on thee we feed’:

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.

And coming as we do from an Anglo-Catholic tradition we remember that the restoration of the sacramental tradition in the 1850s was purposeful. At its heart lay the embrace of the experience of being fed sacramentally with the body and blood of Christ.  It was to re-establish something felt to be lost : that before our worship were ever ceremonial or occasional it was first and foremost a living encounter with a God, who in Jesus Christ  – the life of the world – feeds us now and ever more.


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

Barbara Glasson I am Somewhere Else  Publ. D.L.T., 2006.



The Calming of the Storm

29th Jul 2012


“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”.   John 6.20


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 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 by nature communal; and we have always needed places of ingathering, and above all places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. And, to draw upon the image of the lion, we may speak of the roar of the crowd. The Colosseum was a place where the early Christians were thrown to the lions, to be mawled and eaten by them for the entertainment of the masses. The Olympic stadium is quite a different kind of place, but the roar of the crowd and the enjoyment of spectacle for its own sake and its emotional draw is very strong. The architectural shape of the stadium is as a cradle. It envelopes and surrounds and yet it also excites and overwhelms.

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. 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. They own 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 in us, but as a very predictable and understandable part of what makes us human.  John sets up the idea of the boat and the storm as identifying with the fact of 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 tactful kind of understanding of one another which accepts that whether we know it or not, life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is a good paradox that it is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human. The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity, which in us all, cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of peace. A Christianity disconnected, that is, from our true humanity, which seeks understanding and healing. 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. But we know that he gets into the boat with them and journeys with them and they get to their destiny together.

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’, a hymn we shall sing at the end of the service. 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 like Shakespeare’s King Lear. What remained and what was revealed was also revealed to the blind man who had received his sight. Christ was revealed! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of the storm. God was in the eye of the storm. He was at the heart of the storm which is, paradoxically, the place of its still centre. At the deep heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctancies, vanities and stubornnesses; 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 life and our soul’s true wellspring. 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:

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”.





 

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