Sermon: December 27 2015

29 12 2015

Readings

Ecclesiasticus 3.2-6, 12-14

Colossians 3.12-21

Luke 2.41–end

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Son, why have you treated us so? is the New Testament’s equivalent of that more familiar parenting trope, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”.

This is, so our cultural cynicism has led us to believe, just what families do: families disappoint. They fail to remember birthdays, or show up to piano recitals; they refuse to take over the family business, or settle down with a nice Chinese girl; what about that one you used to play together with when you were small? Families, they disappoint. They get pregnant, and claim that it was a miracle. They try to end the engagement in secret. They don’t think to tell their mom and dad where they’ve gone; don’t you know that we’ve been worrying sick? You could have been kidnapped, like that poor girl all over the Internet: the blonde one, with the eyes, her parents are still looking for her. Why have you treated us so?

+++

The preacher’s temptation at this point is to pivot from the fraught fragility of the facts of human families to the simple serenity of our spiritual home, with that paradigm of loving relationship, the Father, Son, and Spirit. From there, the preacher can derive some moral ideal about how we should treat our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, with self-giving love.

The problem with this otherwise apparently sensible and edifying approach is that there is precious little evidence for this kind of idyllic familial bliss in the Bible. It may be true that the perfectly mutual self-giving love that is Father, Son, and Spirit canwith some heavy qualification—provide a sort of template for our own earthly family lives, but the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the first place a doctrine about human social relations. To confuse it for one is to confuse God for creature.

What we get instead, even in the case of the Holy Family, is dysfunction and awkwardness, failures to communicate and to empathise. Long before we even get to the New Testament, the Bible is a saga of familial conflict and complication. We have Abram trying to pass off his wife as his sister. We have Laban tricking Isaac into marrying both daughters, rather than one. We have Jacob cheating Esau of his inheritance. We have Joseph, sold to slavers by his brothers. We have the soap opera of the lives and times of Saul and David and Jonathan and Michal and Merab and Bathsheba and Uriah and Absalom and Amnon and Tamar and Solomon. 

By the time we get to Joseph and Mary, it seems only a minor scandal that she conceived out of wedlock and that he tried to get rid of her. He even comes off as a nice guy for trying to do it quietly, even if it is also his own face that he is trying to save. And then, of course, Joseph himself soon vanishes from the picture altogether, we can only speculate why.

And what of our Lord? At least in South East Asian terms, Jesus himself can hardly be said to be a paragon of filial piety. In our gospel reading today, we have Jesus, the insolent pre-teen, neglecting to inform his parents of his whereabouts in a magnificent failure of empathy. This would not have gone down well with my parents when I was a child, I assure you. And then, at the beginning of his adult ministry in John’s gospel, we have that famous and much debated scene of the Wedding at Cana, in which Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come”. And in Matthew’s gospel, his response to the bloke telling him that his mother is looking for him is more unambiguously dismissive, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”.

You know, I’m beginning to think that Jesus did not have very much time for the nuclear family. In any case, any attempt to establish the nuclear family as a biblical mandate is flagrantly unwarranted.

+++

If there is a Christian doctrine of the family, it is a doctrine of adoption. Think of the election of Israel, think of the appointment of David; think of Jesus and Joseph and Mary. Think of us, the goyim of the eleventh hour, nevertheless called up to our place at Israel’s banquet. It is at least a picture of family that rejects pat certainties about who’s in and who’s out, that refuses to fetishise genetic relatedness or ethnic membership, and that instead takes risks in hope and perhaps even in absurdity, based solely on the faithfulness of the God who first adopted us.

There is, of course, an important sense in which we don’t, for the most part, choose our families. But of course we do, in much more important ways, daily, with every interaction.  

+++

Families, they disappoint. Sometimes, it’s their fault; sometimes it’s ours; sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, really. But—and maybe this is perverse to say in these most tender of times post-Christmas reunions—[but] the very fact that families can and do disappoint is, it seems to me, a good thing, a good sign, in that it reveals an openness, a vulnerability in us to be affected by those whom we love enough to hurt us.

Make no mistake: this is not to let ourselves off the hook, not to enable our neglectfulness and selfishness; nor is it to encourage us to allow ourselves to be abused or taken for granted or otherwise disappointed. To celebrate vulnerability is by no means to condone its exploitation.

Quite on the contrary, the reminder that we are called to be vulnerable to one another is precisely and for that reason a reminder of our obligations toward those who are vulnerable to us. Say what you like about the gender politics of the epistle to the Colossians, but it gets right at least the fact that all human relating is mutual, even if not always equal: wives and husbands are both addressed, ditto parents and children. The call to be vulnerable comes with obligations for those toward whom the vulnerability is directed.

+++

Much has been made in recent weeks about the Holy Family as refugees, and this is no bad thing. It is no bad thing not just because that reading inspires compassion in us, but because it relocates our imaginations away from cookie cutter, colour-by-number dioramas and nativity plays, into the gritty particularities of actual human familial experience. The Feast of the Holy Family captures pregnancy scares and anxieties about infidelity as much as it does the triumph of innocence over the unreasonable expectations of imperial bureaucracy and the long arms of despotic persecution. In other words, it is about your family, and mine. And it is about our disappointments and regrets, as much as it is about the mundane miracles of being and having father and mother, brother and sister, husband and wife. Our prayer therefore, is that these families are made holy, in ways that only precious, fragile, vulnerable things can be. And, we pray also to recognise that they already are holy, in the ways they afford opportunities for love.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

     





Sermon: December 16 2015

29 12 2015

May the Lord when he comes

find us watching and waiting.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The 2003 film Love Actually—I am well aware how outdated and clichéd a pop cultural reference this is, but I will defend to death my right and yours to love this film unabashedly, and with no trace of irony—[The 2003 film Love Actually] opens with a scene at the arrivals gate at Heathrow, and a voiceover about how love is all around, in “fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends”. The scene is a montage of hugs, and the joy in everyone’s faces is unmistakable and even infectious.

But whenever I watch that scene—and yes, I’ve seen it more than once—I think immediately of what happens before the embraces, off screen: I think of people, bags clutched or dragged behind them, scanning the crowds. I think of that mounting feeling of anticipation—neck craned, heart rate elevated—just before the moment of recognition, and that breaking of dayspring in their eyes and lips. Unmistakable, infectious.

+++

We are called, throughout this Advent season, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive.

These are not verbs we celebrate these days, in our culture that fetishises busyness and easily quantifiable productivity. In our world in which time is money and the WiFi connection can never be fast enough, the idea that we are called to wait can sound like a drag.

But there is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching, not if we do it right.

+++

Neck craned, heart rate elevated, the Queen of Sheba spies land, finally. She has journeyed long; a sort of fool’s errand, driven by rumours of greatness in the north.

The wise men, they see the star stay put, finally. They too have journey long, from the lands at the rising of the Sun, from the comforts of their libraries where they first found clues to look to the heavens; a sort of fool’s errand, driven by prophecies of a newborn king in the west.

These are, of course, the same story: of one type, as received by the Church. The queen comes from afar, bearing gifts for the King of the Jews; the “three kings” do the same. Christian legend has even long held that the Queen of Sheba brought with her the same gifts as the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The former foreshadows the latter, which is its fulfilment.

+++

Mary and Elizabeth both, hands on bellies, they feel the life stirring inside their bodies for the first time, finally. They too have been waiting; watching for signs of the impossible. There are few things more foolish, surely, than a postmenopausal woman expecting a child, except of course, a virgin doing the same.

Here too, we have foreshadowing, both between the women and between their sons. Thus, the Benedictus, in which Zechariah addresses his son, John:

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins.

It was, we might recall, the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, when John the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, waiting.

There is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching, not if we do it right.

+++

This penchant for foreshadowing—for seeing the kings of the Orient in the queen of the South; and the Church in Israel; and Christ in David; and so forth—is a manifestation of how the Church conceives of waiting. We play the long game, to be sure—often, mythical millennia divide forerunner from fulfilment—but much more than that, we hold and hold on to the insight that forerunner and fulfilment are, despite all appearances, much closer than can be quantified in our standard measures of time. We recognise that the saving work of God is both still to come and already done. And so it is, that in Advent we simultaneously recall what the Lord has done and anticipate what the Lord has promised to do; we look backwards and forwards, not least to the birth of Jesus and to his coming again in glory.

We are, of course, in the middle, in the thick of things, and called so and here to be. We are, you and I, the Queen of Sheba and the kings of the Orient; Mary and Elizabeth; John the Baptist. We wait and watch, which is to say that we move toward the horizon that we can only just see, bringing all the gifts that we can bear for the once, now, and future king. We wait and watch, which is to say that we attend to our bodies, and the image of God in us and the life of the Spirit that compels us. We wait and watch, which is to say, we go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins. Necks craned, heart rate elevated, eyes squinted in pregnant anticipation.

There is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching.

+++

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John, the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, in the water, waiting for the God who calls and comes, who invites and arrives, who promises and is present. And the crowd too, they waited and watched, not knowing quite what to expect. These centuries later, we join them and with the Church past and present, no more certain than they what God will do next. But whatever it is, whatever it is we are waiting and watching for—it is good news, and occasion for joy.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.





Sermon: November 29 2015

7 12 2015

Readings

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:12-4.2

Luke 21:25-28, 35-46

“Preparing for Christmas” involves a good many things: there are presents and cards to be purchased, food to be prepared, trees to be decorated, parties at which to be seen. It is, for many people, a time of great anxiety. The limits of our means and our memories come up against our supposed social obligations.

It seems to get earlier every year. Advent is only just beginning, and yet already our annual insecurities are being fuelled by the glare of cheap tinsel under gaudy flashing lights, the embarrassing catchiness of kitsch Yuletide pop music.

The problem is, I think, that we have, all of us, been suckered into all sorts of stories. We have misidentified ourselves, for cogs in the machinations of mass producers and Machiavellian politicians.

We have misaligned our loyalties, to Pepsi or Coke, Visa or MasterCard, Apple or Microsoft.

We have misplaced our hopes, investing them in the pale facsimiles of Christmas propagated by the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

We participate in this pernicious Ponzi scheme for many reasons. At some level, we believe that we can buy love after all, or close enough; forgiveness, for otherwise neglecting our families and friends, or close enough.

Or we believe that we can buy our ways out of our hamster wheels, by greasing the stockings of our bosses and board members; an investment, toward working less for more money. Maybe then we will get to spend more time with our families. Next year’s presents will not be corrupted by ulterior motives, we promise ourselves.

It’s not just us doing the promising, of course. Promises are made to us too. We are promised more…something. I once saw a tag line for a jewellery store: love built on more, it read. Few literary entities are more vacuously depressing than such glib slogans that manage to cheapen marriage by shackling it to exorbitantly-priced inert rocks, extracted from holes we’ve made in God’s good earth by exploiting people who don’t look like us, far far away. Love built on more. More what?

The gospel according to Madison Avenue: buy this car, and you will have this woman or man; buy this frozen dinner, and your family will be shiny and perfect; buy this detergent, and you get to wipe your cotton slates clean, no matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t take a cynical leftist to pick up on the fact that these promises are as empty as discarded Amazon boxes.

+++

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

It is the First Sunday in Advent.

Advent is a funny old thing. It is a time of waiting, of anticipation and preparation. But we seem to be anticipating and preparing for an event that has already occurred, the birth of Jesus, all those centuries ago in a place far away from us.

And yet, of course, while Christmas is in some sense a one-off historical event, there is surely a greater sense in which the Incarnation is a cosmic event, which continues to define our present reality. It is a crucial element in the logic of the story in which we actually belong as members of the Body of the One Who was Raised.

Furthermore, the Incarnation is not done. In Christ, glorified and risen, the Father is still ever working at the heart of things—in your hearts and in mine—reconciling the world to God.

The Christian faith is full of such now-and-not-yets. The Kingdom of God is among us, and yet—as we shall pray together later—we yearn for its coming. We are raised in Christ, and yet—as we shall confess together later—we look forward to resurrection and new life. The promises of God, fulfilled and yet to come to fruition.

+++

It is the First Sunday of Advent, and now we wait, which is to say that we anticipate and prepare, neither of which are passive verbs.

We wait on the promises of God, in this our celebration of the Incarnation, by coming and gathering together to tell the story that is our story; by partaking of bread broken and wine spilt, and in so doing, offer ourselves broken and spilt for the sake of the world; by going out into the world in peace, in the name of Christ our once, now, and future King, to love and to serve.

Stand up! Raise your heads!

Your redemption is drawing near.

The Incarnation was and is to come, and is now, both promised and present in the life and work of  the Church, in you and in me.

+++

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

“Preparing for Christmas” involves a good many things: there are presents and cards to be purchased, food to be prepared, trees to be decorated, parties at which to be seen.

And what has that to do with the promised justice and righteousness? Everything.

Christmas is coming, and with it the characteristic feasting and gift-giving. This sharing of material goods, and especially of food, is neither foreign nor anathema to Christian practice. Indeed, we will soon be engaging in precisely these acts, as we take up the offering and as we share the Eucharistic feast together.

But how we share food and other material goods—what we eat and buy—is crucial, and if there is to be justice and righteousness, what better place to start? If all consumption is patterned after the Eucharist and in anticipation of the heavenly banquet to come, then our Christmas consuming must also be communion: the free and reckless opening of our selves and all that we have to and for each other. If our consumption is to be just and righteous, it must also be—it must primarily be—about and for others, for friends and family, and for our neighbour, which is to say, for the alien and the stranger.   

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Those days are not yet come, but of course they are.

This Sunday just past, the Church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end to the liturgical year. It is a timely reminder of our true identities, of our allegiances and obligations, meet and right. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category, but the risen Body of the crucified King, who subverts our dominant assumptions about death and life, weakness and power, freedom and obligation. It is only with this affirmation still ringing in our ears that we might begin to consider what it means to prepare for Christmas.

We are called, throughout this season of Advent, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive. Advent connotes both approach and arrival; in the same breath: presence and promise.

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Those days are not yet come, but of course they are.





Sermon: November 25 2015

7 12 2015

Holy Scripture

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

If we knew any Arabic at all, there were two phrases familiar to Malaysian children, regardless of our religious or ethnic background.

We woke up every morning to the azan—the call to prayer—which begins with the proclamation that God is great, followed by the affirmation that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is his prophet.

And in the evenings, before the cartoons came on, the Qur’an was read, and it always began: Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim. Rasulullah shallallahu ‘alaihi wasallam bersabda marhumnya… (In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful. The prophet, may God grant peace and honour on him and his family,  says…) And this was followed by the video of a man chanting in Arabic, accompanied by a sign language translator in the lower right hand corner: invariably, a woman in hijab.

I have not heard those words said in over a decade, but they are seared into my memory. It is to me what I suppose the theme song for Eastenders might be to many of you.

The whole image is seared indelibly into my memory: I must have watched that man chant from those Scriptures hundreds upon hundreds of times, growing up. And yet, when I first picked up a Qur’an—in  English translation, and therefore not the real thing, as my Muslim friends were quick to remind me—(when I first picked up a Qur’an) it seemed utterly foreign, far from familiar.

+++

Th Qur’an was, in some sense, our text, by which I mean the text of the country, though we—like the United States, and unlike Britain (Magna Carta notwithstanding)—have a written Constitution. None of us knew very much about the contents of either, but we at least knew what the Qu’ran was. It was, however, not our text, by which I mean the text of my family, and our cultural context of the Chinese diaspora to which we belonged. It is hard to say what our text was, exactly. There is a good case for it being the Tao Te Ching, one of Taoisms fundamental documents, attributed to the great sage Lao Tze in the 6th century BCE. I was once taught to recite it from memory, but—unlike the snippets of Arabic—the classical Mandarin proved to have little staying power. Much more engaging and influential were the myths and legends about the gods and heroes. The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; the English had Beowulf; and we had the Journey to the West, the epic tale of the monk Tripitaka’s journey to India to obtain sūtras—Buddhist sacred texts—accompanied by a sand demon, a human/pig demon, and (most famously) the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, the precocious primate born from a stone egg, itself formed from an ancient rock created by the coupling of Heaven and Earth. We all wanted to be Sun Wukong: my grandfather once fashioned for me the relevant headgear, and wooden staff. I was a menace; my parents were not pleased.

None of us read it, of course, The Journey to the West: in English translation, it runs into four volumes, totalling well over 1,500 pages. I encountered it first through a comic book adaptation, and then through various live action versions, on television and in the cinema. We all knew the stories, but never actually bothered with the texts themselves. I suspect the same can be said here in Britain, for most people, about Beowulf, and perhaps (though few might admit it) even about Shakespeare and Dickens. Certainly, from the far reaches of the empire, I saw many animated adaptations of A Christmas Carol long before I even knew there was a book.

+++

The Qur’an and the Tao Te Ching and the “sūtras of transcendence and persuasion for good will”. The Constitution. The Iliad and the Odyssey; Macbeth and Hamlet; A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. The Journey to the West and Beowulf. The Eastenders.

How does the Bible fit in here? How is it the same as or different from these other elements of our cultural heritage and contemporary environment?

Many answers have been proposed for these questions, and in particular about the question of the Bible’s uniqueness. It is, some say, uniquely accurate (and thus, ahead of its time), on matters historical and scientific, as well as theological and moral. It is, some say, uniquely written, by great patriarchs and saints, with God whispering into their ears. Whatever the merits of these answers, it seems to me that they miss the Bible’s most fundamental property, which is that it is ours.

The Bible is the book of the people of God, which is perhaps one way of pushing back against the claim that we are the people of the book. The uniqueness of the Bible comes from the uniqueness of the people to which it belongs, and not the other way around. It is precisely the fact that the Bible is ours that makes it special, because the Church is special, the Body of Christ, who is the Word of God.

The Bible is our book because—before we are Malaysian or British, before we are Chinese or European—we are the Body of Christ; thus, before the Constitution or Magna Carta, before Beowulf or The Journey to the West—this is our book. This is, of course, a very odd thing, because, of course, we are aliens, both in ancient Israel and in the Roman occupied territories. The cultural context of the Bible—both testaments, Old and New—is not ours…except by adoption. And there, here, is the key: we are, the Gentiles among us, adopted children of God, and the Bible’s story is now the story in which we find ourselves. We travel not to Geatland (with Beowulf) or Ithaca (with Odysseus) or the Dahila Kingdom (with Tripitaka), but to the Promised Land and to the Cross, which in some mysterious way, turns out to be the same thing after all.

The Bible is our book, for better or for worse, not for its historical accuracy or moral clarity or literary merit, but because we have the same home. Brother Bible, sister Scripture; with these hard sayings and stories will we ever scrap and struggle, seeing in them ourselves, and each other, and—by family resemblance, by the promise that we are all of us made in God’s image—we will see our Father who, in the power of the Spirit, faithfully speaks his Word.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.





Sermon: November 2 2015

7 12 2015

Feast of All Souls

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among our earliest evidence for what we might recognize as “religion” are the burial practices of our hominid ancestors in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Certainly, by about 50,000 years ago, our forebears were burying grave goods with their dead, whose bones were often decorated with red ochre and other natural dyes.

[Incidentally, our Museum of Natural History is in possession of one of the oldest examples of Western European ceremonial burial, dating back 33,000 years. The “Red Lady” of Paviland was buried with jewels made of seashells and mammoth tusks, among other precious things. Go check him out the next time you’re there. I say him because the Red Lady turns out to be a man who died in is mid-20s.]

Consistent with such archeological findings, many anthropologists argue that beliefs and rituals about death form the very foundation of religion as we know it today. Ghosts, the say, came before gods; crypts before cathedrals. Indeed, even today, ancestor worship has a good claim to being the world’s most popular religious act.

As a child, growing up in a modern Chinese family in Malaysia, ancestor worship was my only religious act. Much like good anglo-Catholics incidentally, we too had incense on such occasions. And not only did we have sacrificial offerings of food and drink (not quite like the Mass, but not entirely unrelated), but we also burned various effigies representing everyday objects: anything from shirts and wristwatches to cars and mansions, and even gold ingots. This was our way of expressing our love and care for the dead. In comparison, modern Western Christian devotion to the dead—including the saintly dead—seems a low key affair. Indeed, my grandmother’s objection to Christianity was that if she were to convert, all she would have to eat in the afterlife would be candles (and maybe flowers).

+++

If there is such a thing as a Christian doctrine of death, it is that death is an outrage. It is not, contrary to the popular attempt to sugarcoat things, a “natural part of life”, but the very annihilation of life. And insofar as life is—as the Book of Genesis insists—a good thing, then its cessation is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

It is, most obviously a very bad thing for us, who are not yet dead. Some people we love are dead, and despite the well-intentioned platitudes of ostensibly pastoral figures around us, this is very much not OK, nor will it really ever be. Some people we love are dead, and it’s awful. It’s not awful all the time, of course, but once in a while, when we are reminded—on anniversaries, or when we find an old picture, or when we visit an old haunt—the awfulness might come back, and that is a truthful feeling.

Death is also, in a different way, a very bad thing for them, for those who have died. It is very different for them because, well, being dead, they don’t experience the badness: it’s not so much that they don’t miss us terribly, more that they don’t know what they’re missing at all. Perhaps on the principle that “ignorance is bliss”, the dead are better off than the living, but this is a dubious principle indeed. Upon death they—as we all will—lose everything, including themselves. There is, in that sense, no them, just as when we die, there will be no us.  Death is the ultimate deprivation.

+++

Religion, many people think, is meant to provide solace for the bereaved, and to mitigate our fear of death. In Christianity, talk of heaven is, we are told, supposed to comfort us, by dissipating both the unknowability and the finality of death. We believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” and therefore, as that poem now ubiquitous at funerals goes, “death is nothing at all…[the dead have] only slipped away to the next room”.   

This all seems uncontroversial enough. After all, Christ has, in his death, indeed defeated death. The Christian faith is an Easter faith, a resurrection faith, in which we proclaim with confidence that Christ has robed death of its sting, and the grave of its victory.

However, the Christian faith is also the faith of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, with his anguished prayer; and on the Cross, with his cry of dereliction. Death does not, for Jesus, seem like “nothing at all”, a mere relocation.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally misleading even in the assertion that the Christian faith is a resurrection faith and also a faith of Christ’s passion and death, as if passion, death and resurrection were independent and separable phenomena. But the resurrection of Jesus is not best thought of as one event that occurs after another, that is his death. Nor is it really a response to the death of Jesus, a sort of magical CPR, so much as the consequence—the unfolding, better yet, the meaning—of what happened in his death. What happened in the death of Jesus is the perfect and selfless and total (in other words, the miraculous) outpouring of the love of a human being for God, and at the same time because of who Jesus is, the perfect and selfless and total outpouring of the love God for us. To believe in the resurrection is nothing other than to believe that we—and those whom we love, but see no more—can be caught up in this perfect love between the Father and the Son. In other words, it is to believe that, we will, in the end, be in God.

+++

This is, I think, not a sentimental view of death and the life everlasting. It is, in some ways, the opposite. There is no dispelling of mystery here, no theory of life after death, no comforting image of reunion with our loved ones gone before us. If there is any sense at all in which we will be with them again, it is in that we will all together be with and in God. There is really little more to be said about this, but then Christian doctrine is less about saying, and more about doing.

The Christian doctrine of death takes death seriously, refusing to offer illusions that it is inconsequential, either because it is a “natural” part of life or because it is a temporary state of affairs. And this, I think, allows us to mourn our dead properly: to grieve with honest intensity. This is an important corrective in a world that is obsessed with happiness, and treats grief as an impediment to productivity.

This insistence on the finality and tragedy of death is also an affirmation of the importance of life. Jesus’s consistent response to the sick was to heal them; and to the dead, to raise them up. If there is no “pie in the sky when we die”, then we had better get along with the business of ensuring that nobody starves to death here and now.

This work is, for the Christian, because of her resurrection faith, essentially an act of hope, and not one of mere desperation: it is what it means for her to “look for […] the life of the world to come”, the new and abundant life made possible by the self-giving love of God in Christ, that is the very life of the Triune God.

The Christian faith cannot be mistaken, therefore, for a nihilistic faith. But our hope is not in some particular and particularly fantastical post-mortem scenario, but in the eternal God who will, in the end, put all things to right, a work that—because of Christ’s work on the Cross—has already begun and is happening even here and now, in your lives and even in mine, and in the lives of all those who have gone before us.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.





Sermon: October 28 2015

7 12 2015

The Holy Spirit

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Words from the second epistle to the Corinthians, the third chapter.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is not unusual to think about God primarily by thinking of God the Father. This is, I suppose, what sustains the popularity of the view of God as an old man in the sky, calling all the shots and policing our moral behaviour. Among theologians and philosophers, this way of thinking leads to an emphasis on God’s transcendence: God’s radical otherness from creation.

Nor is it unusual to think about God primarily by thinking of God the Son. This is, I suppose, what enables many people to think of God as a comforting friend, who journeys alongside them in good times and in bad. Among theologians and philosophers, this way of thinking leads to an emphasis on God’s immanence: God’s presence in the world, being closer to us than even we are to ourselves, as St Augustine put it.

What seems less common is thinking about God primarily by thinking about God the Holy Spirit. This is at least in part because—as almost every preacher and theologian will begin by saying—we don’t really know how to think about the Holy Spirit. Then again, we don’t really know how to think about God at all, so this state of affairs is really not that unusual.    

+++

One of the attractions of thinking and talking about God in terms of Fatherhood and Sonship is that we know what fathers and sons are, whereas the idea of a spirit is much more elusive. This—the unknowability of the Spirit—is, perhaps, not a bad place to start: after all, we are told that the Spirit blows hither and tither, we know know where. It is a useful reminder, in an age that lusts after pat certainties, that God cannot be known, because God is Spirit.

Fortunately, our theological tradition does not simply leave us hanging there. The Bible is replete with mentions of and allusions to the Spirit, not least because the word for “Spirit” is the same word as that for breath and wind and air and life, and a myriad of other related things. On one hand this linguistic slipperiness makes it difficult to decide whether any given biblical passage is directly relevant to a theology of the Holy Spirit; on the other hand, it opens up the possibility that all uses of words like ruach in the Hebrew Bible and pneuma in the New Testament can somehow contribute to our thinking about the Third Person of the Trinity.

+++

If the elusiveness of the Spirit serves to remind us that God resists our attempts to categorise or domesticate the divine, then the diverse testimony of the biblical tradition consistently asserts the unceasing activity of God.

The Spirit of God is, from the beginning, hovering over the waters of chaos to bring order into the world. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit equips workers for service and endows prophets with words. In the Gospels, the Spirit fills and drives Jesus, now at the baptism, now into the wilderness, and beyond. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit forms and guides and enlivens the Church in her ministry and mission. In the epistles, the Spirit produces both gifts and fruits.

In other words, the Bible’s doctrine of divine action—of God’s working in the world—is, in large part, its doctrine of the Holy Spirit, even when it comes to creation (typically appropriated to the Father) and redemption (typically appropriated to the Son). Indeed, the traditional notion that “the works of the Trinity are undivided” is brought home clearly here: the Spirit’s involvement in the work of the Father and the Son reminds us of each divine person’s involvement in all of God’s activity in the world. In this way, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is also the doctrine of the oneness of God.

+++

By considering how thinking about the Holy Spirit might affect how we think about God, we are led also to consider what it means—for us personally and corporately—to believe in the Holy Spirit.

To believe in the Holy Spirit is, as we have been exploring, to believe in God who is beyond all telling and yet closer to us than we can say. So close that when we pray—not knowing how we ought—it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words.

And to believe in the Holy Spirit is, as we noted earlier, to believe in God whose very being is unity, even as it is Trinity. Furthermore, the New Testament is insistent that it is the Spirit who brings us—leads us, and if necessary, drives us—to God. In other words, to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God who compels us all to join in the unity that is the life of the Triune God.

And, as we have seen, to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in the God who is ever at work for our sake: not just acting for us, as if to rob us of our own agency, but equipping us to participate in God’s mission in the world. There are, to be sure, exuberant and ecstatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s gifts: We should see no need to disparage our charismatic brothers and sisters, as we might be tempted to do. But, at the same time, it would be remiss to neglect the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are, after all, also gifts from God. Indeed, we ought not distinguish too readily between gifts and fruits: there is, for example, no reason to think that the fruits of the Spirit should be any more respectable than the more infamous of the charismata. There ought to be nothing boring about love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, generosity; faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we ever catch ourselves believing that the spiritually fruitful life is unexciting (or, indeed, without its perils), we should realise that we have misunderstood something most profoundly. In the same passage that enumerates the fruits of the Spirit, we are told that if we live by the Spirit, we ought also be guided by the Spirit. This is, of course, nothing less than a description of the life of Jesus Christ himself who was ultimately led to the cross. To believe in the Holy Spirit then, is to sign up to join him there.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.





Sermon:October 18 2015

7 12 2015

Feast of St Luke

 

I once saw St Luke’s body.

Well, actually, the body itself was hidden in a reliquary in a chapel in a basilica in Padua, where I was visiting a colleague. Like many relics, we are, evidently, not meant to interact with it directly, so much as stand near it, and—I guess—absorb its holiness, or something.

Anyway, I once saw St Luke’s body.

Well, it was missing its head (which is in Prague, for some reason) and a rib (which the Italians kindly gifted to the Greeks in the year 2000).

But I digress. I once saw St Luke’s body. Well, kind of.

I mean, it probably wasn’t actually St Luke’s body at all, but—you know—why let facts get in the way of a perfectly good story, says the priest. Frankly, most of what I’m about to tell you about Luke was probably made up by pious Catholics in the middle ages, but—bear with me—I promise you there’ll be a point to all of this.

+++

There is much that is said about the saint whose life we celebrate today, handed down to us over the generations. He is, of course, best known as the author of one of the four gospels in the New Testament, despite the fact that the text never actually names its author. Indeed, he is the author of what is arguably the most fastidiously historical of the gospels: he at least claims to want to set the record straight.

From the other biblical work attributed to Luke—the Acts of the Apostles—Christians have traditionally inferred that the saint was also a physician; indeed, this was apparently his day job. Thus, we have the image both of historical scholarship as well as of science, albeit ancient medical science, which is perhaps unrecognisable as science today, and probably quite scary.        

Now, the signs by the reliquary in that basilica in Padua mentioned very little of any of this. Instead, they chose to focus on a lesser known strand of the traditions concerning St Luke: that is, his work as a painter. Since about the 8th century—probably in response to iconoclastic controversies in those days—Luke has come to be celebrated as the inventor of icons. That ubiquitous image of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus at her side is said to have first been painted by Luke who even had the Blessed Mother and Child themselves sitting and posing for him.

+++

Thus, we have Luke: saint, medical doctor, amateur historian, and visionary painter, an impossible polymath if ever there was one. And yet—despite my general scepticism about relics and the details of the lives of early saints—there is something important being expressed in St Luke’s life and work as we have received it.

I am not, you might be relieved to hear, talking about “interdisciplinary research”, which is all the rage these days, though I suppose it would be interesting to see a dissertation on the history of medical science entirely painted with egg tempera and gold leaf on wood.

Nor am I attempting to extol the virtues of amateur scholarship, even though I do think that it is a wonderful thing that non-academics—equipped with torches, metal detectors, telescopes, and shovels—are constantly making important discoveries about Roman Britain, comets, and (best of all) dinosaurs.

Nor am I even trying to show that holy men and women—saints, even—can be serious contributors to knowledge and the arts, even though Georges Lemaître (the Belgian priest who first proposed the Big Bang theory) and Gregor Mendel (the Augustinian friar who first discovered genes) are personal heroes of mine.

+++

Instead, I want to think a bit about what work—and, for that matter, play—is good for, through this particular prism.

The Gospel according to St Luke is, as I have already mentioned, an anonymous work, and may well always have been, though there is scholarly disagreement on this point. “Luke” is the name we have designated to its unknown author, around whom we have constructed this elaborate hagiography, based only in part on biblical material. Having done this, it is easy to make the anachronistic mistake of thinking that Dr Luke’s dabbling into investigative journalism or historiography is some kind of side project that will help him diversify his income streams or increase his impact factor. But the Gospel according to St Luke is, in the first place, a gift to the community to which Luke belongs: he is far less interested in fame and fortune—he had neither a publishing contract nor even author attribution—than in widening access to the good news that Christ sets us free. (Incidentally, one of many things from which Christ sets us free, is the kind of insecurity that drives us so to crave fame and fortune.) Would it only that we—members of the scholarly community, at whatever level—were also happy to publish anonymously, and not merely in order to shield our fragile egos from criticism, but actually because we prioritize the propagation of knowledge over personal glory. A pipe dream, perhaps.

Similarly, it is a mistake easily committed to think of Luke’s work in the visual arts purely as an extracurricular expression of individual creativity; as if, in other words, it were a hobby to ward off the tedium of his upper middle class life in his Harley Street practice. Furthermore, icons are, like gospels might have been, typically left unsigned, which makes them consummately unlike most modern objects recognized as art, which almost inevitably serve as vehicles for the artist’s symbolic immortality. Far from being such antidotes to boredom or commodified products of self-expression, icons are manifestations of pious devotion to their subject: in Luke’s case, the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. It is, in other words, not for the glory of the painter, that the icon maker paints, but for the glory of God and saints being painted, as well as for the benefit of the faithful.   

All this talk of benefits might sound utilitarian, but it need not be. There is, of course, I think, everything in the world to be said for art for art’s sake (or for that matter, science for science’s sake): the rejection of our culture’s fetish for practical and measurable outcomes can only be a good thing. But too often what lies beneath such slogans is selfishness and narcissism. To reject crass utilitarianism is not to simultaneously stop asking questions about the good that our endeavours aim to accomplish, both for us, as well as for others.

+++

Admittedly, this is all almost certainly to read too much into the fantastical life of a saint, whom we may or may not have made up from disparate fragments of information. It is also almost certainly too romantic a view of gospel writers and icon painters both, who were after all, human beings at least occasionally riddled with the same sorts of pathetic insecurities as we are. All the same, sermons—like icons and biblical narratives, incidentally—are not meant merely to be veridical representations of the facts as they are, but rather to be proclamations about the world as it ought to be, about us as we ought to be.

And so it is that the memory of St Luke, the unlikely polymath, has allowed us to go from an anecdote  to a sustained criticism of individual ambition in favour of a view of work and play that prioritizes collegiality and community. Not an inappropriate place to end up, it seems to me, in this august institution. Go forth then, and do likewise.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.