3rd Jun 2012
The Feast of the Holy Trinity itself forms the latest of great feasts that crown the Church’s year; Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday. Easter focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, Ascension his heavenly glory seated at the right hand of the Father, Pentecost upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity upon the godhead itself. Of the four, the Feast of the Trinity, of God’s manifestation as Creator God, as Christ and as Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand because it expresses God as three ‘persons’ but as a single unity. Despite the difficulty, it is more important than ever that we learn to speak about God. To know God as real and to communicate that reality in words as theologians. How then are we to make God real? I want to show you how this has been done by an icon painter, a novelist and a spiritual writer, and then to show three paintings which tell us more about God.
The Holy Trinity has been painted by Andrei Rublev as an icon for a household of love. The icon is based on one of Abraham’s visions in Genesis Chapter 18, in which the elderly Abraham and his wife Sarah entertain three mysterious guests. Rublev’s point was to establish the Trinity as both a concrete reality and as a sublime mystery. At the heart of the mystery is the hospitable God who wishes to invite you to take your place at the heavenly banquet, for the place in front of you is yours. God is depicted as a place to dwell in, or as Henri Nouwen has put it “a household of love”. This is a household where there are no artificial boundaries and where all who honestly seek after the presence of God may find it and be embraced by it. Living in this household is not only a revelation of God’s love but also makes this love apparent and real. This has far-reaching implications for the Church which must both safeguard the integrity of its faith but welcome the strangers in its own midst with the completest hospitality. And this hospitality has to reach deep into its theology and its world-view and into all its own prejudices, known and unknown. The icon for Nouwen’s household of love is also Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ in which loving forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s response to our own longing to find our true destiny.
We live not one life but many lives. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ begins with the words “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” Immediately we are plunged into Dora’s inner life through this novel in a way no other medium allows. Her life is not a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but like the rest of us lived out riddled with contradictions, or with what Murdoch called ‘contingency’. What could be more contradictory than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man and Spirit? It is in the tradition of the novel to allow us to accept and incorporate both the limitedness of human understanding with the incompleteness of things. As the hymn “And Can It Be?” puts it: ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies, who can explore his strange design…?’ It is in life’s radical incompleteness that the God of love comes to meet us. He is the one who, in Jesus Christ offers hope even in and through the gaps of our existence.
Three years’ ago I attended the funeral of a former parishoner who had been living with cancer for some years. I shall call him Michael. He had had many remissions and had fought the disease bravely until finally he died. As his eulogy was read at the funeral service I realised with a start that I had only known him as a sick man, albeit a lovely human being. But here was another man with a rich past, a painter, a diplomat, who had lived in Egypt for twenty years and was fluent in Arabic, and all I seemed to remember were our rather stilted conversations, mostly theological discussions, because he took a keen interest in that. As the service wore on, I nonetheless realised two things; firstly that the life I had encountered in Michael was put a small part of the entirety of his earthly life which spanned times and places I could barely imagine or inhabit. Secondly, I realised that nonetheless all real human encounters are spiritual encounters, and they have a quality that makes the spirit sing for joy. They involve the subtle interplay of lives apparently lived at a distance, but recognised as part of one reality. The funeral became for me a celebration of his life and of mine too. That small part of my life which was spent with him has been transformed for me and is part of my present life, and as I think on these things I know that in the middle of all this is the love of the Trinitarian God.
We can’t begin to fathom the intricacies of the meaning of all this, just as we can’t fathom the intricacies of the Trinity. Masaccio paints the Trinity as older man, younger man and dove but does this in a painting where you are left to wonder about their existence within the realm of time and space and perspective. It is not there to overwhelm you but to place before you the existence of God as both an abiding truth and a sublime mystery. The Holy Trinity does not therefore find us speculative and doubting, but beckons us to enter in and to find God ready to greet us, as we do today; to come and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour and to come ‘just as we are’, within the household of His abiding and all-embracing love.
Feast of Pentecost
27th May 2012
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.4.
Some say that The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s birthday, and in a way this is true, although the Church was begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. But even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. This Pentecost moment was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power; like burning fire, and it rested upon them. And it literally turned their lives inside out.
This had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Easteride of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this, but what? What is certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative. They now knew that what they had been given was a Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift was to be both inspirational and practical.
It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:
Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.
Little Gidding IV
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre -
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment?
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
T S Eliot.
Love as a devouring fire… A devastating thought.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalised one, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. It is inward in that the Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is ‘The Holy’ Other… In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God. The Spirit is also indwelling, and inward: This Church is to be the place where we may both re-charge our spiritual batteries and where our hopes and imaginations may be re-kindled:
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.
Extract from 'Pentecost' by William Blake.
Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This week as in all weeks we meet on Friday mornings for coffee. From 10 am until 2 pm. This is not a coffee morning or a conversation group – I would prefer to call it an open group, open to the elements, offering an open welcome, and open to the possibility of human encounter and human encounter in many different conversations being transforming and renewing in its possibility. It tells us all something about what one theologian has called ‘the sacramentality of conversation’. This week we had a welcomed a young business man from Toronto, a young man from Florence in Italy and an elderly Iraqi woman and her daughter-in-law, not Moslems but Kurdish Christian women. The older of the two women had witnessed her husband’s death at the hands of Saddam’s security guards. But they all come to this church and find something of god here, in what ever form you may wish to describe it. Or perhaps this presence, this peace, this Spirit of God is in fact indescribable.?
This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and therefore a place of peace. This provides for a pentecostal peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed. In the breaking down of these barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit has now provided the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…
Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer!!
Margaret Schelegel (Emma Thompson) From chapter 22, Howards End (1910) E M Forster.
That They May Be One
20th May 2012
“That they may be one as we are one”.
The words of John Chapter 17 lie at the very heart of John’s teaching. His Gospel tells us that Jesus comes from God and goes back to God. The space in between these two movements is the one which speaks of the fulfilling of a God-given destiny. The words of Jesus form what has become known as ‘the farewell discourse’ in which the fulfilment of his mission and its final farewell brings with it a prayer for the unity of humankind. The Cole Porter song tells us that ‘every time we say good bye, I die a little’ and in Jesus’s ‘goodbye’ discourse, there lies the greatest hope for the future of mankind. And this is the hope which sets human destiny alongside the call to unity. ‘That they may be one’ says Jesus’, ‘…even as the Father and I are one’. On this Sunday, the first after Ascension Day, this Gospel reading truly marks the shift between Christ’s earthly existence and the hope which he carries for us all as he returns to the Father.
To speak about unity is not to speak of uniformity or sameness but rather to speak of things which are experienced and held in common. The idea of a co-dependent common humanity is one which was been forged out of the two world wars. It took two devastating global conflagrations for the message of a united nations to make itself truly known. The forming of the united nations out of the death, destruction, wounds and ashes of world war was a deed whose time had come. It was a learning from past history and its mistakes. It was made out of the tragedy of carpet bombing, civilian death and the Holocaust. It was the creation of what Aldous Huxley had called ‘brave new world’. There is the same sense in St John’s Gospel in which Jesus looks forward to a brave, new world which will be realised as the life of God existent in the life of humankind. Both would, in Christ, live within one another. This was not to be mere ‘wishful thinking’ or an idle and ill-founded hope. This was to be a unity based on experience and upon fact, upon a future hope emerging out of past and present realities and upon an utterly realistic account of the human condition in as it is found.
Dag Hammarskjold United Nations Secretary General 1953-1961 on ‘fighting optimism’:
"It is in a sense a switch from the atmosphere of pre-1914 to what I believe is the atmosphere of our generation…—a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again."
The call of Christ is the call to see God in one another and to experience God in and through one another. The Christian faith is one which is, in human terms, for ever relational. And to see God in one another is to live as a ‘fighting optimist’. It is to accept along the way that we are far from the perfected beings we make ourselves out to be. The plain fact is that I need my neighbour not for what I can extract out of him but I need him to fulfil my own true destiny. I need my neighbour in order to find out what kind of person I truly am. This is surely what all the words about God and love in the New Testament lead us, more fully and more deeply into a love of humankind as I find it in my own life’s modest sphere. To learn from my neighbour that I am weak, fallible and prone to myself is not bad thing, but perhaps is the true ‘pearl of great price’, and the one thing needful for my soul’s salvation. The Olympic flame is now rested travelling through glorious Devon and will this morning cross the River Erme.
“Devon, Glorious Devon!”
Written by Sir Edward German (1862 - 1936, born Edward German Jones).
Combe and tor,
green meadow and lane,
birds on the waving bough.
Beetling cliffs by the surging main,
rich red loam for the plough.
Devon's the font of the finest blood
that braces England's breed.
Her maidens fair as the apple bud
and her men are men indeed.
When Adam and Eve were dispossed
of the garden, hard by Heaven,
they planted another one down in the West -
'twas Devon, 'twas Devon, glorious Devon!
As it traverses the shores of the British Isles, it carries with it the hope for the coming Olympic Games as it blazes its way around our shores. And what kind of an Olympic Games is best for all of us? The Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is a motto of superlatives, and if you are older yours might be slower, more careful, and a bit shaky’. Christianity does not offer a faith of human superlatives but one which is grounded in our everyday existence. God is to be shown in our everyday dealings with one another and especially how we treat one another with courtesy and respect, honouring one another’s own right to freedom of expression, and of our own right to be ‘who we are’.
The legacy of our ascended Lord is the one which is the prayer for human unity, at the individual, communal national and global levels. That we should find one another in one another. Perhaps then, we should look elsewhere for a deeper and more lasting meaning, and one which expresses once more the unity which is the hope of the Christ who utters his farewell discourse in Chapter 17 of his Gospel ‘that they be one, even as we are one’. That hope is symbolised in the five Olympic Games interlinked rings, representing the world’s five continents. But the rings might also represent the interlinking and interdependence of all our human destinies. We are to find our true integrity in and through our life together and in the understanding and forgiveness we can show along the way. In this way we can begin to give answer to the prayer of Christa and to begin to practice that ‘fighting optimism’ for which a great United nations Secretary General struggled and died.
A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
17th May 2012
One of the greatest discoveries in the painting of pictures was not of a painting technique but which lay in the discovery of a type of paint. Before the 1400s paintings were made with egg tempera, a mixture of coloured paint powder bound with egg yolk and mixed with a palette to make a paste. The good thing about the egg yolk was that it dried the paint quickly. The bad thing was that it always dried as matt, and its mixing as a paint produced a non-reflective painted surface. This made it very difficult to paint light and for the surface of the painting to attract light. And so paintings up to this period are painted on thick cuts of wood and appear very flat. The painter has to work very hard to paint light (done with white streaks) and water (usually with wavy lines). This was sometimes compensated for (if you could afford it!) by the adding of gold leaf so that the painting gave off a bright shine, and this was good for icons but could not produce an image which was what we might call ‘life-like’. It was the discovery of oil paint which changed things. Oil glistened and made colour shine, and so an eye could twinkle or a drop of water be seen as a reflective globule. You could even paint a mirror and reproduce its effects as in Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery
As we come to the Feast of the Ascension of Christ a similar problem faces both the artist and the Church. Traditionally the Ascension of Jesus Christ has, as you will see on the illustration to this morning’s new sheet, has been depicted as the group of disciples gaze up to see through the clouds a pair of feet! It always seems rather comic. There were no more means at the disposal of the artist to convey the Ascension. Its truer and deeper meaning is not about what is seen but about the very nature of God and of what lies deep. The real meaning ot the Ascension allows us to see that as Christ returns to the Father, so humanity and divinity also find their true meaning in and with one another and not apart from one another. As Jesus returns to the Father Heaven is joined to earth. Humankind is tranformed in its slow but increasingly sure understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This mixing and merging is symbolised in a small ceremony embedded in this Eucharist as the priest, preparing the Eucharistic offering, pours a small amount of water into the chalice he has filled with wine. And as he does this he says these words “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The water does not dilute. The coming of Christ brings about the meeting point between the divine and human realms, and also the heavenly and the earthly; which have in him mixed and merged; and produced the bright glimmer which we have called GLORY and the influence which is what we have called HOLY. The great prayer of worship sums it all up. It is called the Sanctus:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanaah in the Highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
Hosannah in the Highest!
This is the glory, that emerges out of Christ’s own humility and obedience to suffering. We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Christ “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And so in this way we may see the Ascension as the celebration of the glory not only of God but also of humanity and the unlikely possibilities that may emerge out of muddling and struggling lives like ours. God has become like us in Jesus Christ so that we may now share in the divine likeness, which for the first time becomes accessible to us in Him.
Archbishop Michael Ramsay was one who constantly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in terms of its irradiation of God’s glory, which is the life of man in its fullest potential. He wished that these words, from St Irenaus, a second century theologian and saint, be placed on his gravestone:
The Glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God.
“Where there is no vision; the people perish” says the writer of Proverbs in 29.18. The Ascension grants us that vision, maybe crudely expressed as a pair of feet, but in actual fact opening up for us a new vision of what John the Divine called “New Heavens and a New Earth”. And the coming of this vision is very important in our own times. If we are living in an age where we are defined merely as consumers, sharers of basic information rather than conversationists; where increasingly we see ourselves as subject to forces and influences beyond our control, and where language is abbreviated and human experience subject to so many mechanical transactions, then we need a new vision which embraces us in all our humanitiy and which is possessed of radical compassion.. The opening up of the idea of the Christ who ‘leads captivity captive’, the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ brings us to the place where life is no longer seen as pertaining to the old dull flat, two dimensional existence, the egg-bound one, but bright with light and multi- dimensional. It is a life which reaches beyond itself and finds God as Glory: The glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God”. This is the same God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus ...2 Corinthians 4.6.
A new dimension is opened up for us; one which has united our earthly existence with our Maker and Redeemer, and which lies before us as our ultimate; our truest potential. The Light of Christ will be able to be seen and known for what it truly is.
Love, Love, Love
13th May 2012
As we come to the end of the Easter Season our readings draw us to the final outcome of the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. It was for the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim their risen Lord not just as a phenomenon but in an understanding of what constituted ‘human being’. And for the Church this was straightforward. God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of history, the ‘abba’; the Father of Jesus was love. The outworking of human love was the defining characteristic of the Christian Church as it emerged like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. But this was to be a love that was expressive and timeless.
This teaching on love, though, was not just ‘pie in the sky’. It was forged in the life of the Gospel writer John in relation to the early history of the Church from 90-110 AD. It was at this time that the Christian Church had begun to identify itself quite distinctly from its Jewish inheritance. This identity emerged out of the wisdom on the part of the great Apostles Peter and Paul that Baptism be offered to those known as gentiles - the general population; the great mass of people ‘out there’, ‘the great unwashed’. This radical decision was acted upon out of a sense of Christ and of the radical demands of the love of Christ. There was to be no partiality shown. The Christian community was no longer a slave to religious convention, but now a community of love whose members held a relationship in common. Jesus had called them ‘friends’ and this embrace of friendship cut across and undermined the old religions and the claim to many so many little exclusivenesses. It cut across the cultural norms and the weight of rank and privilege set against the Christian claim to an interrelated society with a common and shared destiny. It gained ground and lasted because its vision was realistic and expansive. It spoke about what was real, and what is real in us. Jesus had come not to proclaim a religiosity for its own sake but to speak for the truth of our human condition at its very heart. John reminds us of Jesus’ words ‘This is my commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Another John, John Lennon was to say, nineteen hundred and sixty years later,
Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you've got to let it grow.
You're just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You've got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It's all down to you, mate.
John Lennon is all very well… but he was mistaken. The Church was and does never speak of ‘your own God in your own temple’. Lennon’s idea of love was a love without God. He was really saying ‘love is God’. That’s not what we know to be true. Our three readings this morning tell us differently. They assume before anything else that the sole referent for the showing of human love is the existence of God, who has loved us before time began and who sent his Son to show us that love. Through our Baptism we have been provided with the patterning for that love. John is sure as he waits upon God that God is saying ’You did not choose me, I chose you’. This expression is written into an icon at my old theological college, Westcott House in Cambridge.
Rowan Williams, in his book, "The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ" (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Westcott icon, writing, "the icon of the Christ Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image." Of its meaning he writes,
"The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us... we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father. In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves."
If love is to be anything at all it must speak for our human condition as it is found. This Eastertide stands for the proclamation of that love not just for its own sake but for the life of the world and the fulfilment of human destiny. Anything else is fake. It is in this sense, and only in this sense that St Augustine’s order has been understood:
Love, and do what you will…