Monday 5 February 2018

Jesus Christ: the Eternal Word born in time

A sermon preached at Guildford cathedral on the Second Sunday before Lent (4th February 2018). Readings: Proverbs 8.1,22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.

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

I wonder how you measure time? How long did the singing of the Kyrie eleison last this morning? Unless you had a stopwatch out – and I hope you didn’t! - you couldn’t tell me. You might say, ‘well it’s a stupid question, just get soaked up in it, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s wrong to time it’. And that in a sense is my point. When it comes to talking about time we get in a tangle when we talk, on the one hand, about its objective measurement and, on the other, what it meant or how it felt.

Clock in Guildford High Street,
public measuring of time
This is significant when it comes to our religious experience. Greek, the written language of the New Testament and of the formative thought of Christianity, has two distinct words for our one English word for ‘time’.

The first word chronos is where we get the word, ‘chronology’. Chronos is ordered measured time: it is the ticktock of the clock. We tend to measure and evaluate our lives in chronological language: a long life, a short career, over in a second.

The other word is kairos. This word is less measurable but no less intense. Kairos is the moment fulfilled. It associates perhaps more with quality of life than its bald measurement. Kairos describes a life well lived; a piece of music resonant with beauty despite its length; it is the fullness that a smile can bring or act of kindness. Chronology is irrelevant to kairos like this. You see it in the Psalms, ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as a moment, a watch that passes in the night’ (Psalm 90.4). As Roger Federer said on winning another grand slam event, ‘age is only a number’.

To unpack time in these two Greek words is helpful as we consider the wonder and mystery that our scriptures unfold before us today. All this is focused in the incarnation of the Word of God, where the Eternal Word becomes flesh and lives as one of us. It is where the chronos of time meets the fulfilment time of kairos.

In our gospel reading the chronos of world history is graced with the kairos of the life of Jesus Christ. His birth in history, born of the Virgin Mary, is on one hand deeply irrelevant to who he is, the very presence, wisdom and eternal Word of God; and yet without entering into human experience lived out through chronological time his incarnation would not touch us at all; he might as well be a phantom and not the Word Made Flesh.

So in the Incarnation, the taking flesh, of the Word of God, Christianity deals with a huge paradox: our human existence is caught up in things eternal, and the things eternal are intimately entwined in the daily existence of being human.

The eternal Word has entered human time; has entered the rhythm of the days – and there was morning and there was evening – has entered the rhythm of the human heartbeat; has entered the rhythm of the music of our lives.

This is what ‘Ordinary Time’, this season of the Church Year holds before us. We have celebrated the great mysteries of the Incarnation - in the Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas cycle - and now the liturgical year pivots towards the mysteries of Christ’s temptation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, in Lent, Holy Week and Easter all sealed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The liturgical year appears to deal in chronos but in fact deals in kairos time and unfolds the mysteries of Christ: as ‘Ordinary Time’ ticks by kairos moments abound.

Finding kairos in the chronos of daily life is what Christian living, life in the Holy Trinity, is all about. This is profound stuff.

This takes us to consider wisdom and the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 8, this morning’s first reading, is a seminal passage for Christians as we look to understand the promise of the coming Son of God. It matters little if this passage was written in the 4th century BC, which is probable, or the day before Jesus was born; the point of it is that it testifies to the presence of wisdom as integral to God’s creation.

This is what might be called a diachronic view, which says that the coming of God’s wisdom is sensitive to the rhythms of human history and is not locked in a chronological moment. In other words, God’s wisdom runs like a thread through human existence and is to be sought now, as much as it was 2,500 years ago.

The book of Proverbs sets our task for Ordinary Time: delight in the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! This is about navigating the pitfalls, traps and snares of the world wisely and in the way and Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Wisdom is not equal to God, wisdom is not god, wisdom was ‘created [by God] at the beginning of his work’ (Proverbs 8.22). Wisdom opens up to us the delights of God and God’s delight in us. Proverbs tells us that wisdom is woven into everything that God made. As we understand the Holy Spirit blowing where it will (John 3.8), the Spirit blows this wisdom through the fabric of the world and our lives to inspire, lead and direct us wisely.

St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus Christ is ‘the wisdom of God’. His is the wisdom that leads, guides and encourages us. But this is sometimes misunderstood. The Arian heresy of the 4th century asserted that Jesus Christ was a creature, created like you and me, created like wisdom. This makes him less than God, subordinate to the Creator: wise and kind, a really, really good bloke, really obedient to God’s will, but not God our Saviour. Our creed counters this quite plainly ‘he was begotten, not made’: not created.

And this matters ‘for us and our salvation’. We place our hopes in ‘the Word Made Flesh’, ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1.15) because, to quote our second reading, ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace though the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1.20).

Christ: chronos and kairos; born in time as one of us; yet eternal through the ages of ages. What wonder, what mystery, and to every who receives him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God: therein lies our dignity, our hope and our salvation, that send us out so all may see and know his grace and truth.

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

Sunday 4 February 2018

Candlemas: light & darkness; flames & ash

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral, 2nd February 2018

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

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is perhaps one of the most beautiful, intriguing and mystical of the festivals of the Church.

It is also bittersweet.

It is - all at the same time - a time of rejoicing and recognition, of the fulfilment of longed for hopes and warnings of pain ahead.

What a claim it is that the simple candle can catch the beauty and mystical depths of the Presentation of Christ, reflected in the name Candlemas.

The candle gives light. Light shining in the darkness connects us to the opening of St John’s gospel and the promise of the triumph of light which the darkness cannot overcome. (John 1.5)

How will Jesus Christ the light of the world guide us through the darkness? Candlemas doesn’t give glib answers. As Mary is told, ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too, Mary’. (Luke 2.35) A candle gives light and warmth, but it can burn us too. Christ, our light, will go through dark times and will be with us in ours.

An extinguished candle leaves an ashen wick: it speaks of mortality. The life and light with which we shine out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ will one day end in dust and ashes.

So too, Candlemas pivots us from the light of Incarnation towards the ash of the beginning of Lent.

Yet, we live hope-filled lives, knowing that the promise of the Resurrection of the Body is the promise of a transformed life in the life of the world to come and eternal life means we shine with Christ’s light in the here and now.

Many lives lack light.

Many people wait attentively and patiently, some knowing what they seek, and others not knowing at all. Yet, instinctively, when they see they recognise.

We celebrated the Conversion of Paul just last week: he was searching for those who bore the Name of Jesus; to kill them not join them. The light of Christ shone, it blinded him, it disorientated him, and he saw the light for what it was: the light that shines in the darkness, the true light that enlightens everyone. (John 1.9)

This light shines out in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and it challenges and transforms lives.

This light shone out from the cradle trough of Bethlehem;
in his presentation in the temple;
in his baptism in the Jordan;
in water made wine at the wedding feast;
in his healings on the streets of the towns of Galilee;
his feeding of the crowds on the mountainside.
It shone out even at his darkest hour – when Mary’s heart was pierced with a sword –
an Hour that John calls the Hour of his glorification.
This light shone in his resurrection and ascension, and as the Spirit was poured out upon the disciples in the Upper Room.

This light is creation’s light, the uncreated light of God: ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3). As Simeon declares: he is ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. (Luke 2.32)

 For Simeon and Anna representing God’s first called people, the Jews, that recognition comes in the Temple, not just in the synagogue or on the streets of Galilee. He comes in the prophetic tradition of Malachi, one to cleanse and give light to the temple.

It is not the last time Jesus will visit the temple. Across the Gospels the temple is somewhere Jesus returns to. Indeed immediately following Luke’s account of the Presentation Jesus is back as an adolescent and is found in the temple with the teachers of the Law.

Luke’s Gospel ends in the temple, because after the Ascension of the Lord we read that the discples ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God’. And as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, they continued to pray in the Temple: ‘day by day, as they spent much time in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2.46, 47)

The temple was where the light of God had emanated in Israel, and this light was now to shine through Jesus Christ. This makes sense of Paul’s assertion that the human body is the temple and dwelling place of the Spirit, for Jesus cleansed the earthly temple as his own body was a temple to be raised in three days too.

Christ opens the way for the Gentiles, the second called people of God, to know the way to the Father in Jesus Christ

Candlemas today brings us to present ourselves in this temple; this place of encounter – to receive into our bodies his body and to ponder with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and one another the light and darkness, the life and ash of our lives.

And after the communion we will get up, bodily, and move in procession to the Lady Chapel. There we will stand, informally, as the choir sings Simeon’s words.

Christ comes as the Dayspring from on high, the light to dispel the darkness and to enable us to reimagine who we are as men, women and children created in God’s image and likeness.

We stand as those who have received his light, in baptism and Eucharist, and now shine it out and we pledge ourselves to ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’ (Baptism liturgy).

We stand with his Mother, Mary, and ponder all these things in our hearts.

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