Friday, 30 May 2014

Ascension


"Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head." 
- from a sermon of the Ascension by St Augustine of Hippo (you can read the whole sermon at https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/419/Ascension_of_Christ___St._Augustine.html)

This is the second Augustine I have encountered today, because in anticipation of tomorrow's dread advent and its corollary paternity leave, I am writing the parish e-mail a day earlier than usual; and today, Tuesday 27 May, marks the feast of the Carthaginian bishop's namesake, St Augustine of Canterbury. Dubbed the "Apostle to the English," this great man was sent in AD 595 by Pope Gregory the Great to lead a highly successful mission to our far-flung isle. In 597 he was made the first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose successors continue to this day in unbroken apostolic tradition. Thus the Church of England began in the sixth century, and not the sixteenth, as some might fondly imagine.
Christianity has been the English religion for the best part of 1400 years. Yet nowadays increasing numbers of our compatriots describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" - apparently reduced on internet dating sites to the acronym "SBNR." The reason typically given for this is that people reject the traditional doctrine, structures and communities of formal religion, preferring to seek a truth that fits their individual proclivities.
I suspect that the reality, though, has less to do with rejection of traditional church teaching than ignorance of it. There is also the inconvenience of having to get up on a Sunday morning and muck in with a motley bunch of churchgoers when you could just be smiling at trees and thinking spiritual thoughts on your own instead, perhaps over a tasty latte. Lastly, there is the problem of authority. After all, the fashionable androgyne on the Clapham Interweb has little need of the Bible, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or a parish priest, when all the world's learning will pop up at the tap of a finger on some smudged glowing rectangle.
Well, we may scoff. But I wonder, is it really any better to be RBNS - that is, "religious, but not spiritual?" There are times, I know, when I am just so: even though I may be living the Christian values, thoroughly involved in the Christian community, stalwart in defending the Christian tradition, I can still at times be spiritually dead.
The finale of Easter, Pentecost, just a fortnight away, is a warning against that, and this week's feast of the Ascension shows us why. We must be open to the Spirit of God which is already and always within us, because Christ, the head of our collective body, lifted us up to the Father with Him. It is the Spirit of the God we know in Jesus Christ who dwells in us, not just some general vague notion of divine energy that makes us feel good about ourselves. It is the God who shows Himself as utter, self-giving love, and no other god. Fundamental to all our good actions as Christians, all the good things that our church does, must be an openness to that Spirit - or it is all in vain.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Fr Anthony Lathe: Sermon for Easter 6

A wonderfully apophatic sermon from Canon Anthony Lathe:



You have already had one sermon this morning – St Paul in Athens – a sermon that gets theologians, if no one else, fairly excited.  This is the only account of a sermon preached by St Paul to non-Jewish people.  So we find him presenting the Christian message not in his usual Jewish kind of way but in a Greek philosophical kind of way. This way of thinking has had a huge influence on Christian theology.  Paul’s starting point is an altar he has seen dedicated to The or An unknown God. It is on this that I should like to reflect this morning.

But first of all back to a more recent past: One of the routines I had as a parish priest was to take Holy Communion to the house-bound.  At Easter time this was especially important.  At this busy time of year it meant doing a round with about twenty minutes allowed for each household.  Any interruption or delay was not welcome, casual chat could land me half an hour late by the end of the morning or afternoon. 

There was I reading the Easter story of the two disciples walking to Emmaeus.  You’ll remember how they walked with Jesus but he was unknown to them. I finished reading and was about to launch quickly into some short prayers when the elderly lady interrupted.  “I love that story – it is so realistic”.
In spite of the schedule I had to ask why.  What she said was that whenever she had been in real trouble, like when her husband died, she did not feel or experience the presence of God.  It was only looking back she realised that God had been helping her all the time.  When she was thinking God was absent, God was present.

Yes, I thought to myself, that’s it.  That’s my experience too.
I love that verse in a hymn which sums up what I know.  When in the slippery paths of youth, with heedless steps I ran, thine arm, unseen, conveyed me safe and led me up to man.. The unknown God, the unknown Jesus – apparently absent, but, looking back, was present all the time. 

Sometimes when we are overwhelmed and God seems unknown we accuse ourselves of lack of faith.  We no longer have the confidence we think our religion should bring to our lives – we have failed!

But let us remember how often Jesus the revelation of the nature of God, is so often portrayed as being unknown, unrecognised, yet actually present.

Setting out the agenda for the whole of Jesus’ life the gospel writer John can say He was in the world and the world knew him not.   John the Baptist did not recognise Jesus at first.  Preaching, he could tell the crowd there stands one among you whom you do not know.  We have already remembered how the two disciples travelled with Jesus without knowing it at the time.  Mary stands by the empty tomb talking to Jesus without knowing him, thinking he is the gardener. 

Remember how the Epistle to the Hebrews defines faith –Faith is the proof of things not seen.  Recall how Jesus told doubting Thomas Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

This cannot possibly be failure.  As the old lady told me -  it is realistic.
Easter is the empty tomb, the apparent absence of Jesus – and at the same time the ever present, ever living Jesus Christ.
It is the unseen arm conveying us safe.  It is looking back over times good and bad and realising that the apparently absent God was present.

So back to the first sermon – the one by St Paul!
Some people have criticised it for holding out the possibility that God is knowable in the sense that that you can understand God.  Get the right knowledge, mug up your theology, and you can get there.  The intellectual approach if you like.

The approach of faith is different: it is entering into a relationship based on life experience.  Certainly theology is a rich and demanding intellectual discipline.  Knowledge, and thinking can certainly help faith and strengthen our relationship with God.  Above all, learning helps keep us on the right path and save us particularly from fantasy and self-indulgence. But information or even practice is not the thing in itself.  Just as the idols in Athens, which upset Paul so much, were not the creator, but something created, man-made.

Our Christian faith teaches us knowing God is not essentially intellectual – it is being in a relationship.  Things like perceiving, intuition, awareness, grasping something beyond understanding; these are what we are on about.  The unknownness of God is part of God’s nature, part of the mystery, part of a glory which we can grasp.   God is beyond understanding, yet intimately bound up with the everyday business of living even if at times God is unknown to us.   We experience both.


The unknown seemingly absent yet always-present Lord is the mystery of faith!

It may not often feel like it, but in the here and now as we receive bread and wine we are part of life eternal. As we move toward this altar we are including ourselves in something mysterious and glorious, and part of something realistic.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Easter 3: Is England a Christian country?

Is England a Christian country? A topic of some recent debate. Apparently, some people consider the very suggestion "offensive." Then, some people find the suggestion that England is a monarchy offensive, too, but like it or not, their sense of offence doesn't alter the fact that it is so. For my part, I don't quite recall when the British electorate voted to change our nation from a self-ruling Christian monarchy into the multicultural vassal state of a secular Europe, but then, my memory is notoriously poor. Of course, we have an established Christian church, but detractors say that it is so only in a "narrow, constitutional sense." Again, the parallel with the monarchy comes in: one might say we are a monarchy only in a narrow, constitutional sense. The reality of the Church is that only a minority associate themselves with it, and the reality of the state is that the monarchy is a figurehead with no real power. Power is of the people, and the people by and large aren't practising Christians. So, we are not really a Christian country, and not really a monarchy, either: we may be so in law, but not in reality, in principle, but not in practice. So the argument goes.

I suppose it's partly a question of how you see things. Do you see things in terms of principle, of ideology, of transcendent ideas, or is this all too airy-fairy? Should we not be more commonsensical, everyday, practical, down-to-earth? After all, we are a Christian country only in terms of our constitution as a nation, and that is a constitution which is not even written down, but is tied in with the Crown as head of state. It seems quite a long way off from life down here on the ground. Things look rather different from below than they do from above. So like I say, maybe it's a question of how you see them.

Seeing is a key feature of today's Gospel. Or rather, eyes are. Jesus walked alongside the disciples along the Emmaus Road, but "their eyes were kept from recognising Him." He reveals the Scriptures to them, but still they do not know Him until, at the end of the story, He takes, blesses, breaks and gives them bread. "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;" but as soon as they saw Him truly, Luke tells us, "He vanished from their sight." So the Gospel starts with the disciples' eyes being prevented from seeing Jesus, and opened to true vision only when He makes Himself known in the breaking of the bread.

I've been reading Dostoevsky's "Karamasov Brothers" recently for the first time, I'm ashamed to say, and some words from the fictitious homily of a dying monk struck me as particularly pertinent to this theme of seeing and unseeing:

"Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world ... if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it."

You see, Jesus can appear to His disciples in the flesh, talk to them about the Scriptures until the cows come home, but it's only in that ritual action of breaking the bread that He opens their eyes to the reality of who He is. Even standing among them and taking to them, He is concealed from their sight, hidden; but in breaking bread, He makes that connexion to His death and Resurrection, that bond to something beyond everything we can merely see but which somehow, nonetheless, we can sense with the eyes of the spirit.

And I truly believe that there is that sense. I am sure I have felt it and many if not all of you have, too. A sense of something beyond all being, something greater than anything we can normally perceive: perhaps you sense it in works of great art, or music, or natural beauty. It's there most fundamentally in the Eucharist: after we've exhausted our means of prayer - confessing our sins, hearing the Scriptures, making our intercessions - in the end, it is in that wordless action of receiving bread and wine that we get the fullest, unspeakable sense of God's love being shared among us and between us, that moment when Christ dwells in us and we in Him, in unity. That's the sense I think Dostoevsky is talking about.

But what happens if we lose that sense of God in life? If we lose the sense that there is anything beyond what we can see with our own two eyes? Dostoevsky's monk says we become indifferent to life, maybe even start to hate it. And I think that's right.

Apply it more widely, not just to us as individuals, but to us as a society, a nation, and I think that's exactly what's happening when people take offence at the notion of being a "Christian country." I think it's what's happening when we deny that our earthly Kingdom has a mystical bond to the unseen Kingdom of God. The ideology behind the Crown is that the monarch, anointed by the Church, represents one single aim for both Church and State, and that aim is the life of the heavenly Kingdom. What the actual king or queen is like is not so important: it's the principle of the matter, that just as Christ is the cornerstone of all existence, so the Crown is meant to represent Him as cornerstone of our nation.

Maybe this is just a narrow, constitutional concern, just ideology, without any underpinning in reality. Maybe I'm a dreamer. But it is an ideology that says, among other things, that all people are equal in the eyes of God, that we are to see each other with God's eyes and so see that every person is our brother or sister in Christ, that we are to serve one another as He served us in the breaking of the bread and by His death on the Cross. Take that ideology away, and politics becomes little more than an argument over how best to redistribute wealth. Secularists may mock the Christian dream, but they have yet to show us a just order built up by themselves without Christ. So which is the pipe-dream, the idle fantasy: their vision, or ours?

 You must make your choice. Be sure to make it with your eyes wide open.