Sermon for the second Sunday after The Epiphany, 2023
‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive . . . the Glory of a Man is the Vision of God’
St Irenaeus of Lyon
From around the middle of the fourth century to this present day, visiting the Holy Land has been a thriving trade . . . come and see where Jesus walked . . . pretty much all of the traditions about where and what happened were established in that time. Perhaps it was because now Christianity was established as ‘a respectable and legitimate part of Empire’ it became possible to earn a little money from folk who ‘wanted to see’.
In a sense this trade speaks to a deeper desire or thought. ‘Seeing’ we think, ‘is believing’. How many of us might have pondered ‘Oh if only I had seen Jesus . . .’, or indeed ‘if only I’d seen a miracle’. Yet the gospels are careful to dissuade us from such thoughts. For the gospels, ‘Seeing is not believing’. After all if we can in our imaginations place ourselves on those ‘dusty roads of Palestine’ we might imagine the huge crowds who followed Jesus, who saw him, and who saw his miracles, and yet at the end cried Crucify.
Matthew’s gospel ends with the disciples on the Mountain of Ascension and we are told ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted’ and Jesus says that it is a wicked and adulterous generation that asks for a sign, and says those who believe and have not seen, are those who are blessed.
Because we don’t see what is in front of our nose end. Imagine you are driving – most of the time you are actually not actively watching, you may well have your mind on other things and are not paying attention. Or, again and on a slightly different tack, you are in a conversation but you are not paying attention to what the other person is saying, you are itching for the opportunity to have your say. Despite the fact we can see the person or the road in front of us, our attention is elsewhere. So we say for example we know people, and yet rarely do we pay the deep attention to begin to justify our judgements of them.
Ironically, the more things we give our attention to, the less we see of any one thing. Our attention becomes thinner, and so do we . . . we become scattered – our thoughts in a million different places unable to rest . . . rather like ghosts
Think of a small child, who if you leave them to it, will play happily for hours with nothing more than a few scraps of paper, or a wooden spoon. I was pondering this the other day, how now we ruin our children’s attention – I still have my teddy – I have my Mother’s teddy – Sarah has the very worn rabbit that had belonged to her father and then to her . . . but my children’s children have a multiplicity of such things, and none are worn through by affection now, or indeed are likely ever to be so. We ruin children’s most precious capacity, that of attention by heaping things on them.
We turn them into hapless Martha’s with her ADHD and ‘many things’ because we cannot allow them to pay attention to just one thing. For Jesus is in the house, and she sees him, but she is blind . . . and our sight, our Seeing is central to our problem, for as Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘if you were blind you would have no sin, but now you say you see, your sin remains’.
This takes us back to what the old prayer book calls, ‘the days of man’s infancy’, that is those opening chapters of Genesis, and John of course in his gospel, would draw our attention there too . . . Once we have heard the prologue ‘In the beginning was the word . . .’ John carries on ‘on the next day, on the next day and so on . . .’ And the emphasis is on Seeing, and healing of our sight . . . For the Baptist commands his disciples, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World’
In that Genesis story there is a little detail which is often missed, not least because we think we see, so it doesn’t make sense, so we pay it no attention. But when the snake talks to the woman in the garden about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil he tempts her saying God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened . . .
Right at the beginning our ‘Seeing’ is named as our problem. By the way, did you notice, although the woman’s eyes were not yet opened, she saw? We don’t notice that it is only here that the eyes of the man and the woman are opened . . . and yet they had given names ot all the animals, and the man knew his wife as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones – and they perceived God, they heard him. But when they see they hide from his presence. God becomes ‘Other’, Alien, Not them . . . I wonder also had it ever occurred to them that they were not like God?
It is the visual sense which gives us a sense of separation form things around us – of being divided – of not being one with, other people and the creation . . . and Separation is the essence of Sin. Sin is that which separates. And as we have pondered these past few weeks, through Christmas and Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ – the Gospel is that All things are one in Christ. Heaven is woven into Earth – The Word, The Spirit, becomes Flesh, matter if you will. Woven together, in Mary, In the Baptism of Jesus – John Sees Jesus as the one on whom the Spirit rests – the Word becoming flesh – the one in whom is life – the Life of God, with which we are told he also will baptise – weaving us together into The Life of Heaven – enabling us to See the Kingdom of God . . .
Behold the Lamb of God – Behold. Don’t merely judge by what your eye sees, this Galilean on Palestine’s disty roads. No! Open once more the centre of your attention, the eye of your heart, to Behold the One who makes all things New, the One in whom all things are joined together – for he takes away the sin of the world . . .
John twice makes this announcement and two of his disciples follow Jesus. He turns and Sees them . . . oh to be seen by Jesus . . .and asks them, ‘what do you seek?’. Teacher, where do you abide . . . Jesus of course rests in God, and God in Him . . . and Jesus replies to them ‘Come and See’
We rush through our days oblivious to the transcendent Beauty, the Glory . . . but the witness of the Evangelist is that we have seen his glory . . .
One of the very first witnesses to the gospel was St Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon – a disciple of St Poly carp who was himself a disciple of St John the Evangelist – and he said this of Seeing
The Glory of God is a Fully Alive Human being, and the Glory of the Human Being, is the Vision of God.
Through word and Sacrament and the ongoing ministrations of the Church, may our vision be fully healed, that we might See heaven opened, Behold the Glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World.