‘The Lord has need of it’
Epiphany 2 BAPTISM OF CHRIST
LINK TO SERMON RECORDING BAPTISM OF CHRIST 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another;
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Last week we celebrated the Epiphany of Christ, and we are now in the season of the Epiphany which extends until the first Sunday in February when we shall celebrate Candlemas – the feast of the Presentation, albeit a day late, for that feast, falls on Saturday February 2nd.
This habit we have in the church of shifting festivals to the nearest Sunday is a symptom of something which I fear in the end will do us no good. Of making faith fit our lives, rather than making our lives fit our faith. Christmas is unusual, to an extent in that we still come to church on that day irrespective of whether or not it is Sunday, and some folk still come to worship through Holy week, but on the whole we have given up on the celebration of major festivals on the day they fall. We either transfer them to an adjoining Sunday, or ignore them altogether. When, I wonder was the last time we celebrated The Feast of the Transfiguration? It strikes me that such a festival, with its theme of the Glory of Christ, falling as it does in August . . .??? Does anyone know the date? Well it is August 6th – a time when here in New Zealand we are stuck in the darkness of winter. What a wonderful idea to come to church in the darkness and find it ablaze with candles as we celebrate that feast.
Taking time out to worship according to the calendar might not seem much, but it is a simple discipline of ordering our lives to faith – and it is in the accumulation of such small things that our distinct Christian identity becomes more manifest – as we are conformed to the Life of the risen Christ in the church. The gift of the whole season of Epiphany is about the manifestation of the Glory of Christ. Four weeks to contemplate Him. Actually the church gives us half the year to contemplate Christ. From Advent, through Christmas and Epiphany, with perhaps a brief break, then into Lent, and then Easter, Pentecost and Trinity – the subject of our attention is not ‘how to live the Christian life – how to be relevant in the world – how to do mission’ – no. for half the year we are called to attend to the person and work of Christ and that is very necessary.
The crying problem of the church today is not the irrelevance of the church to the world – that church doesn’t fit the world we live in – it is not fitting our faith to our lives – no. It is that so often church does not fit the life of God revealed to us in Christ, and that I suggest is in no small part because we give insufficient time to the contemplation of his glory.
Epiphany especially is given to us for that contemplation. The Glory of Christ is revealed to us – the traditional readings are his revealing to us in the visit of the magi, in the changing of water of wine at Cana where he reveals his glory, the presentation at the temple where Simeon cries out ‘I have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the face of all people’, how he is revealed as the Servant of The Lord, the fulfillment of Scripture at Nazareth = and today – in his baptism – he is revealed as the Son of God – and Uniquely baptised with the Spirit. He is Clothed with the Spirit of God. The Spirit that had departed the Temple and caused the people to cry in dismay ‘Ichabod’ – the Glory has departed. He is clothed as were Adam and Eve at first, not in animal skins, but in the Glory of God. Having taken their life in their own hands, the glory departed.
Perhaps we do not notice this, because unlike the Israelites of old, like those first disciples at Cana, we have not seen his Glory – we do not see how our lives are so small in comparison with the Glorious majesty of God revealed in Christ – we seek too readily to move away from contemplation of his glory – his beauty, his majesty. We want something Practical – some hints and tips for Our everyday lives, not realising that he seeks to utterly transform the essential nature of those lives.
A few weeks ago I saw a rather sad Facebook post – it said ‘Of course if it had been three wise women who came to the tomb, they would have brought something Far more practical, like a supply of nappies and a blanket!’ And it struck me as very sad that someone would use what is a story of immense mystery – something which Mary ponders in her heart – was used to make cheap political gain from. I wanted to say “can you not see?” Can we not see His glory? Have we not been held captive by it? That these gifts tell us here is a child like no other . . . like no other. He comes to be one with us – but he is like no other. He embraces fully our humanity . . . but he is like no other
Jesus comes with the crowds – they are All coming for baptism – he is in the crowds that are all asking if John the Baptist is the Messiah – their Messiah stands among them – they do not see his glory. They do not recognise their Messiah. They look as anyone else would look – John in his own way is impressive – he stands out, certainly! ‘Perhaps he Is the one’, they are all thinking. But they are wrong. They do not See.
So Jesus comes to be baptised . . . and his baptism sets him apart. 21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” His baptism is like no other – he alone is baptised with the Holy Spirit. He alone is declared to be the beloved of God. Just this week I was reading about perhaps the cardinal sin – that of Envy. It is said that Jesus was crucified because of the Envy of the Pharisees – he was like no other – there was something about him that set him apart. He was a tall poppy – and we know what we do with tall poppies! The Life of God is Too Big for us – let’s cut him down to size.
And we also try to cut him down to size. ‘Let’s think on something practical – lets not contemplate the mystery, the gold of kingship, the frankincense of the one who ever lives to intercede for us – the Myrrh – his death’. A death foreshadowed in his humbly going down into the water of baptism. How readily we turn from thinking about Christ to thinking about ourselves. How often do we think of our baptism, how infrequently, even on this Sunday, about His.
This setting apart of Christ at his baptism is I suggest an offense to our modern predilection for not wanting to know of anything more beyond the scope of Our lives. As I meditated upon this earlier in the week, I was reminded of a story – a story with which this ‘cutting down the tall poppy’ was thrown into a horrible irony and contrast.
It is said there was an old woman, who was in hell. The angels of God as they are wont to do sought desperately to find a way to bring her out of hell, and discovered that Once in her life, she had committed a kind act. A passing stranger had asked her for food, and the woman had thrown him an onion. Well it wasn’t a Huge thing – but the angels saw in that a hint of goodness and thought that this might draw her out of hell. So they lowered an onion on a long stalk down into hell and called on the woman to take hold. And as she did – they began to draw her out of the lake of fire. But others seeing that she was being drawn out clung to her clothes, and miraculously many people were being drawn out of hell – until the woman realised what was happening and spat and screamed at them – get off! this is My onion!! and at once the onion stalk broke and they all fell back into the fire.
Well, what we might ask is the parallel between that sad story and our thoughts on Jesus – on our discomfort with him being set apart – like no other . . . well it is simply this – that it is precisely because he is not like us, that He is able to draw us out, to draw us upwards – to draw us into His life – and our cutting him down is like the cutting of the onion stalk. We are saying to Him – don’t be different!! We can’t attain to you – stay down here with us. But he says, why would you stay down there – no you cannot attain to me – so I will come down – to draw you up.
Christ does not come to us to leave us where we are. All our attempts to deny his otherness – that he is like no other – prevent him from doing what he comes to do – to draw us up into the fulness of his life. A life for which we have very little feeling because I suggest we have given little time to contemplating his glory – we are not thirsty for the Life he brings.
Until His Life is released into the world at Pentecost He alone is baptised of the Spirit – perhaps those who had not yet received the Holy Spirit in our reading from Acts were those whom Jesus disciples had baptised before his Passion as John recounts in his gospel. He passes through death, to be raised to new Life – so that we might follow him – so that we might ourselves follow that path – so that we might know His Life, as he baptises us with the Holy Spirit – with His Life.
As I said last week – our faith is not a set of ideas – a moral scheme for living better – a set of ideologies – it is not even About Jesus – it is Christ – His Life is our Faith The more our lives are turned to him, shaped around him, the more we will find the Life he offers us – and to go back to that story of the sad woman – the more, seeing that we are being drawn up to Life in him, others will want to hang onto our coat tails and be drawn up also.
So let us not be quick to turn from the contemplation of his glory, for as St Paul tells us that is key to the transformation of our lives, as we ‘contemplating the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another;’
Sermon for Sunday September 2nd, 2012
Song of Solomon 2. 8-13
Psalm 45. 1,2,6-9
‘The Life of Slavery and the Life of Liberty’
So we are now coming to the end of the weekend of prayer for the Diocese in what is without doubt a time of exceptional challenge. Not that it is unique in any sense. A document suggesting possible structural adjustments regarding arrangement of parishes and clergy has been circulated to clergy and vestries also will get a look. Not unlike many such documents I saw in my time in England it states that the purpose of the document is to enable Mission, yet it is all about arranging parishes together, – something which we called ‘managed decline’ back in the Church of England. No matter how glossily it was all dressed up, that was the driving rationale behind it all.
And, also as in England, there is little or no self criticism in the document – which suggests a disconnection from the deep roots of our faith. For throughout the entire Old Testament, whenever things turned bad, the community of faith through its prophets always had one explanation, and one alone. Not the times are changing, not people today they are different and we need to adjust. No, the consistent reason given was ‘you have abandoned God’.
When things got tough for the Israelites, they didn’t hold colloquia on the changing nature of society and ‘the need to adapt our methodology’ for a new era – they didn’t go into lengthy discussions of how the technological advances in the Assyrian chariot design had left their puny foot soldiers left behind. No, as it is written ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines’ If things had turned sour, the Israelites did not look for reasons ‘out there’ – they did not focus on the externals and a need to adjust themselves to new circumstances – they looked inside, to the state of their collective hearts – or at least that was where the prophets commanded them to look. ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’
And of course that looking at the externals rather than the internals was precisely the focus of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees – whom he accused of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human traditions. (We may well in that context think of how our church has itself abandoned the commandment of God and rather, looking to the wider world, shaped itself a faith more in accordance with mere human traditions, but another time). But it is instructive to discover what the command of God it was that Jesus used as an example. Unfortunately, once again the lectionary has cut out the key verses so I will read them to you because they hit right on the root of the matter Then Jesus said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say [Note here in a reversal, that Jesus who says ‘You have heard’, ‘but I tell you – and who always Intensifies the meaning of the Law, here accuses the Pharisees of diluting the Law – ‘You say ] You say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
All this respecting Father and Mother then as now was a very hard call, so the Pharisees had invented what amounted to a religious tax avoidance scheme. The Law was stringent on honouring father and mother – to curse your parents was punished by stoning to death, but the Pharisees had abandoned this commandment to honour father and mother and had established a tradition whereby they could withhold financial support for their parents by declaring the money set apart for God.
But you might say – those words of Moses which Jesus repeats, ‘whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die’ – they are terrible!! Are they?? Why honour your father and mother – because humanly speaking they are the source of your life – without them you have no life. This is made patently clear in the parable of the prodigal, where the son wishes the father dead – he wants him out of the way,and then discovers that apart from the father he has no life – life without the father is no better than eating pigswill. And so when the Israelites discover that their life is pigswill, they know why, ‘they have abandoned the Father who gave them life’ – whose commandments are Good and life giving – ‘that implanted word which has power to save your souls.’
The Pharisees were obsessed with the externals – Israel was to be preserved by rigid adherence to external signs of faith, but signs which had no interior reference, no inward glance, no suggestion that the Salve for their suffering was not by lives that were consciously ordered with respect to the world around them, but by repentance and faith. And one way or another too much in the modern church is exactly the same as the Pharisees – except we go in exactly the opposite direction – The Pharisees thought that their salvation depended upon their distinctiveness from surrounding society – today many in the church think that our salvation depends on our adapting ourselves better to the world in which we live. We are concerned with Relevance, the Pharisees couldn’t care less about relevance, but we are the same for their is no inward glance – no suggestion that we may be where we are because we have abandoned our heavenly parent. We have become like earthly children, living lives of utter independence.
There is a spirit alive and well in the church that thinks that we have in a sense ‘come of age’ as human beings, that we can now make our own plans, carve out our own paths – we can live without reference to the Commandment of God. ‘We know better now’ is the mantra of our age – we are free! So we would like to believe. But we are not – rather we are slaves, slaves to the desires of our hearts. We believe we have an absolute right to happiness and fulfillment on our own terms, and there are many who would abandon the commandment of God and take hold of enticing human traditions that promise us something elusive, not hearing the words of St Augustine, that we are made for God and that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’. We are made For God, and that to seek happiness or meaning elsewhere is in fact a form of Slavery, slavery to our own desires, slavery to Externals to the detriment of our hearts
Our first reading this morning may well have cause one or two to blush – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
We may well ask what is such poetry doing in the Bible, and I might say – ‘that’s nothing! you should read the rest of it!!’ or, less flippantly ‘well of course the Bible is about all of human life, so why not’ – but rather I want to put it to you in line with the tradition of the church down through the ages, that the Song of Solomon stands here as testament to the passionate love that is betwixt Christ and his church and between God and the soul of the individual believer. That here figured is the glorious liberty known only in and through an all consuming love of God for his creatures and their response of love to him.
Christ says to his church as he says to us each as members of that church, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’ Come away from what we may ask – to which the answer is ‘that slavery to your own desires, for I have set you free – why do you live enslaved in Egypt when you could dwell with me in the land of Promise. And these desires that we are enslaved to are So puny . . . as CS Lewis puts it in ‘The Weight of Glory’
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Put another way we were created for something far far greater than the love of those things which our hearts desire all to readily, that which the Bible calls ‘Idols’ – we were created for the Love of God. How many of us I wonder can read the Song of Songs – put ourselves in the place of the beloved and gasp with wonder and delight to find ourselves not only the object of such love, but the giver of such love in return – that we love God with all that we have and all that we are.
I must admit I search for signs of such passionate ardour for God in Diocesan documents and the like, and I search in vain – for the mark of a body that loves God with all its heart and all its soul and all its mind and all its strength.
But perhaps that is unsurprising. Bernard of Clairvaux, the C12 founder of the Cistercian monastic order gave a lengthy series of sermons on the Songs of Songs. In it he says that in order to love God we must be free of our false loves, we must reject all our false suitors. Put another way we must stop our restless searching anywhere else for our Life than in God himself. Bernard tells us that we are not ready for the Song of Songs, we are not ready for that love, until we have fully learnt the lessons of the two books which precede it in the Scriptures. Firstly Ecclesiastes, which details the search of the wise man for meaning in his work, in pleasure, in all the things of the world, which after extensive enquiry he declares to be a chasing after winds, Vanity, futility. Such is the Life that seeks its meaning in the world, such is the way of a church which seems to make itself relevant and reasonable, like a rather pathetic lover, seeking to please the object of its affection.
Then freed from the love of the world, Bernard says we must learn from Proverbs, we must stop learning to trust our own wisdom, but as James tells us, we must ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word which has power to save our souls’. Freed from the tyranny of slavery to pleasing the world, from the tyranny of our own opinions and desires, we are set free – truly free, free to Love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.
Such poor teachers has the church had down through the years that this fundamental aspect of our faith is all but ignored. We hear so many many sermons on loving neighbour, we may hear many about how we are loved by God, but how many on the our Love For God – the first commandment – that we might utterly Love our heavenly parent, that we might wait patiently and with great desire for his word of command – for we live and Love to do His will. For here is the great Paradox, that it is in our complete submission to God our Father that we know what it truly is to be free. And if I have lost sight of prayers for the Diocese in all this? My prayer for the Diocese is that we would turn back to the great lover of our souls, the only source of our life, and I end with a prayer – again of St Augustine – Let us pray
who art the light of the minds that know thee,
the life of the souls that love thee,
and the strength of the wills that serve thee;
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee;
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom.
Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong
Exodus 2:23 – 3:10
‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.’
Standing on Holy Ground and, like Moses, we do not know it. Yet Unlike Moses, there is no fear of God before our eyes.
A good friend of mine some years ago took her family to see the USA. Amongst other things they visited Las Vegas, just to look. My friend’s eldest son, a young man of a sensitive disposition, walked into one of the Mega casinos, blindingly lit by a million 100 watt bulbs, turned to his mother and said, ‘It’s true, we’re doomed’. He was of course referring to the obscene use of electrical energy when understood against a background of rapid climate change, but he could have been talking about the debauched human behaviour he saw presented there – they are not disconnected.
Amongst my interests, I have for the last 25 or so years had a keen interest in Climate Science. I was teaching on it in High School long before most people had heard of the Greenhouse effect – and I am a sceptic. Not a sceptic about the science which is not only compelling, but whose predictions are coming true at an accelerating rate. No, rather as an observer of human nature, I am sceptical of those who suggest that ‘humanity’ for want of a better word, is in any sense capable of doing anything to change the course of events. Of course such scepticism is academic now as the total collapse of the planet’s complex systems of which we are the beneficiaries is already well underway. But how have we come to such a dreadful place?
Thinking upon this this week, I was reminded of a Victorian tale – the only novel written by Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Grey. In it Wilde depicts a young aesthete who has his portrait painted and muses that he would sell his soul if he might retain his youthful beauty and the painting age in his place. Well that of course is what happens. Grey hides the painting in his attic and embarks on an increasingly debauched hedonistic life, not denying himself any of life’s ‘pleasures’ – a life without boundaries, which leads him finally to committing murder. In the final scenes he comes face to face with the painting, it is utterly scarred and disfigured beyond imagining. Trying vainly to redeem himself, Grey attacks the painting with a knife and is found the next morning by his servants – dead, with a knife through his own heart, so hideously disfigured that he is unrecognisable except for his jewelry, and the painting, never seen previously by anyone except Grey – restored to its original beauty.
And I couldn’t help reflect, that the creation is our painting in the attic. That in our desire to satiate our desires – something understood as a universal human right in what passes for contemporary ethical discourse – we have as Grey did, destroyed our own souls and that this is rapidly confronting us in the environmental devastation for which we are responsible. But of course we do not live in an age that believes in the Soul in any meaningful sense. We have no sense that Christ by his sacrificial death, by the shedding of his blood, has created within us something that is, to use an unfashionable word, Holy. Something which must be treated with reverence and awe. We do not think that most of what we do can in any sense harm us, unless we are talking about abusing our bodies, in the crudest of senses through bad diet or drug abuse of one kind or other. We have no sense that everything we do with our bodies is of Great Significance. We have little sense of what Jesus is saying when he says that the eye is the lamp of the body. THat, as we have destroyed the creation, we also have souls which we can all too easily destroy
Just this week, I marked my first anniversary as Vicar here. On that rather chilly evening of my installation, there was a moment that had a profound echo in this last verse of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews. I knelt before the bishop who handed me his license, passing on his legal authority to me, with these words ‘Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’. And as I read the passage set for this evening I couldn’t help think of that phrase ‘cure of souls’ in the light of the exhortation to all Christians to Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. It was that bit that was addressed to me – that I am to watch over souls and will have to give an account of my work to God.
It reminded me of something my first Spiritual Director told me – she was a very wise and skilled Priest, but she herself had found herself given a sharp reminder of the significance of her work once with her own Spiritual Director. Christine had been having a particularly rough time with her congregation and casually said ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for the salvation of their souls’ – and her director came back to her as quick as a flash – ‘whatever gave you that idea – of course you are!’
But really?? Salvation of Souls? Isn’t that just a bit old hat? How many of us would respond with any degree of seriousness to the counsel I was given by a friend just over a week ago. I had been considering going to what promised to be a rather tetchy and rancourous public debate on one of the ‘issues of the day’, and my friend said – ‘Don’t go – you need to guard your soul’’ In our world it is hard to take the idea of guarding our soul with much degree of seriousness I mean, seriously – could exposing oneself to such an event as a public debate have a deleterious impact on one’s soul? Why, it has a quaint almost Victorian ring to it – it seems like an idea that we have pretty much discarded – but is that because we have sold our souls and have little idea of what we have lost? That we have lost any sensitivity of the soul, that our souls are dead or at the very least barely clinging on to life.
Thinking of the soul of the modern world, not only Dorian Grey, but of course the tale of Dr Faust comes to mind. Someone who to all external appearances has much, just like us, yet is dissatisfied with life – so he does a deal with the devil – the devil can have his soul if he can have limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Prince of this world is always ready to cut such a deal. And we may well say that we live in a Faustian age, where the pursuit of knowledge and sensual pleasure has led to the destruction of the soul. ‘We must have all we desire – we must cast off all restraint. The strictures and Wisdom of Scripture are but infantile attempts to stop us enjoying ourselves.’ We say, until at the last we discern that it has all turned to dust in our hands
I am reminded of the words of the sage from the book of Ecclesiates Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; . . .Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Whatever my eyes desired. It is perhaps no surprise that an age which has lost touch with any sense of the soul is an age increasingly dominated by spectacle – by the visual – the image is Everything – the Image is God – our eyes are entranced and we do not heed the words of Jesus, that the eye is the light of the soul. That that which we feast our eyes upon can harm us. We think we know better. Not believing in the soul we think that sensuality and reason are all we need – but our reason is like that of Faust and Grey, making foolish bargains, not realising what horrors are happening within. We look outwards – we never visit the portrait in the attic. We do not look at our souls. So entranced are we by what we see – we have no sense that we are being constantly degraded by that which we see – we have no Inner sensitivity
This is revealed for example in the continuing increase in violence in the movies. Whilst it is not possible in simple terms to make the connection between violence in the world and upon the screen – there was a terrifyingly clear note about this in the latest mass killing in the United States at the screening of the Dark Night Rises. When the gunman started his spree – people thought it was part of the movie – the movie was so violent that the external violence was normalised. The level of violence on the screen merely being mimicked by the young man with a gun in the theatre. It was Orson Wells who said of movie violence ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.” And that was 40 years ago. We are careless with our souls.
And one is thought a spoilsport to suggest this – must I be denied pleasure – that which was once seen rightly as infantile petitioning is in our age understood as the height of rational discourse, encased in the slippery language of rights. Thus when the writer to the Hebrews writes – Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Well such an idea is scoffed at. Indeed even Christians have pretty much given up on the idea of God judging anything or anybody.
Much as we scoff at the idea that watching violence on the big screen in any sense damages us – we similarly think that there is no great harm in having multiple sexual partners in and through life. Violence? Watching people being shot? Oh it’s just Entertainment. Sex? It’s fun, it’s an expression of our sensual nature, but in reality no more than a physical transaction between two consenting adults, in a sense nothing more than shaking hands. As long as both people freely want to, where’s the harm in that? There is no sense of something Other about our lives, about the Holy – something that says, when you live out your life, every action has a profound Spiritual dimension.
It is horribly ironic that in an age where we are increasingly told we must be careful about physical touch – where in England at least teachers are forbidden from giving a crying child a hug, where on the one hand we treat touch as highly dangerous, we seem to imagine that the most profound human contact in being rendered meaningless is ‘harmless’. There is no sense of the Spiritual – there is no sense of the soul. There is little or no sense that sexual intimacy outside of the Given bounds of marriage might in some sense be ‘harmful’, in and of itself. That watching violent movies might harm us. That that which we look upon has the capacity to destroy something which is infinitely precious.
It strikes me that current debates about marriage even within the church completely lack this dimension. Both conservatives with their ‘the bible says’ rhetoric, and liberals with their ‘rights’ rhetoric all singularly fail to acknowledge that sexual union is a profound mystery. That there is more going on than we can see. That it is Holy – that we were Given sexual boundaries – that they were Good and Grace, for we were blind to the Spiritual reality. So we had the Law – thou shalt, thou shalt not – not in a sense of denying pleasure, as this is popularly parodied, but in the sense that here we are touching on the Holy, playing with Fire. We needed to Know where the boundary lay for e could not see it. But to be a Christian is to be anointed by the Holy Spirit – to See that deeper reality – to know what we are doing to our souls. It is to be freely responsible before God, Knowing the nature of reality – Seeing that adultery and fornication, that violence, that deceit, that many many other things trash our souls, spreading chaos, undoing the very fabric of the created order
To be a Christian in this age is to find oneself sometimes the object of scorn – as if it is to be a flat earther – ‘Ah we know so much more nowadays’. Yet rather to be a follower of Christ, to have the merest sense of the Holy, of the Sacred, of the Beauty and fragility of the human soul, makes us Deep Magic people in an age stripped of the deep sensitivity which signals we are spiritually alive – a sense of the Holy. The irony is that those who call Christians flat earthers are engaged in an act of Projection, for all depth has been stripped out of our common approach to this matter of Life. And so such texts as we have heard tonight can seem to us utterly alien.
The Gift of Scripture – the Gift of sitting underneath such ‘Other worldly’ texts as we have heard this evening is that it reminds us that the Life of the World is not as flat and devoid of Ultimate meaning as we have been taught – that when we show hospitality to a stranger, we may well be entertaining angels – that ‘love of money’, or ‘sound financial management’ as we have disingenuously renamed it – harms us. That the ground we are standing upon might in some sense be Holy to the Lord. That we have souls that are so important that we are all to put ourselves into the hands of others, to keep watch over them. That we have been redeemed and sanctified, made Holy that is by one who suffered outside the city gate, for the sake of our souls, the one who is as St Peter reminds us ‘the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
This morning we heard in our Epistle, these words – Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Week after week it seems news comes to us of one Christian leader or another who has fallen. We do a terrible thing when we say, ‘ah but they are just human’ – for that is not human. Such talk reveals that we have become far too comfortable with the painting in the attic, a ghastly parody of the human. I am thankful to GOd for my friend who counseled me to guard my soul, I had not received such counsel for many years. When we hear of those who fall from grace, we should not say ‘Ah but they are just human’ – rather we should ask, ‘Given that the days are evil, who was looking over this man’s soul, who said, for the sake of your eternal Soul do not take this path for what can you give for your soul?’
Dorian Grey realised at the last the horror of what he had done. The coming environmental collapse will horrify the world. We are facing times of deadly seriousness, yet still the sensual spectacle goes on. As the Olympics, our fascination with movies and good food, and the brutal sexualisation of our culture reveals, we are like the Romans at the last, still consumed with bread and circuses. The times have always been deadly serious, but for most of history we have understood the significance of the soul and guarding it – let us strengthen that which remains.