Monday, 7 January 2019

An Epiphany Sermon - Souls & Bodies: Journey to Bethlehem

This sermon was prepared for the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, Epiphany 2019  but in the end not preached, as more (?Better) inspiration moved me to speak without notes...

‘Arise, shine for your light has come… And you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (Isaiah 60)


The Magi - wise seekers after truth - have come to their journey’s destination. They have followed the star and arrived in Bethlehem.

As a token of this we have placed their figures in our crib, and next Sunday in the evening, through scripture, prayer and music, we will reflect more deeply on the gifts they bring and on the wider themes of Epiphany.

To get to Bethlehem the Magi set aside time, money and effort to make a potentially perilous journey.

Gold represents the majesty of Christ, and, you could say, the cost of their journey; frankincense represents Christ’s divinity, and the spiritual dimension of their quest; myrrh foreshadows Christ’s death, as it is used for anointing dead bodies, and it tells us of the dangers the Magi went through to get to Bethlehem.

Their arrival in Bethlehem was an ending: they had reached their destination. But it was a beginning too. Things had changed; they went home, but by a different way, breaking new ground; life could never be the same again.

The Magi reflect the deep human propensity to want to seek out new things, to discover to explore. This impulse starts early: over Christmas we had niece and nephew aged 4 and 6 staying with us; say no more!

It continues into adulthood. The news over the last few days has been filled with human pursuits and searching: NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ interplanetary space probe; the Chinese landing on the far side of the moon.

Little children, the Magi, NASA, the Chinese space programme and all of us share the same impulse to explore, to gaze up into the heavens and see possibilities beyond what is immediately obvious or just there. (Of course for NASA and the Chinese there are other motivations too about power and domination).

This is of feature of the journey of faith.

‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ (Psalm 19.1) says the psalmist. In the heavens the Magi saw, a star that would lead them to God’s glory, but not where they expected it.

Many people today identify with journey, with quest, with seeking. The metaphor of life as a journey is a very powerful one: after all, Jesus described himself in journeying terms, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’; the Church is often described as ‘God’s Pilgrim People; and Christianity was first known simply as the ‘Way’.

Many people today, though, journey after an imperceptible something, not even as tangible as the star, no longer trusting that they can ever find a place to rest and be renewed.

This is encapsulated in the phrase often heard, ‘I am spiritual but not religious’.

That phrase – which needs addressing - captures the zeitgeist of our times. ‘I am spiritual but not religious’: it says, I want to have a sense of something wonderful, but I don’t want to be pinned down; I know there’s more to this, but I can’t trust the answers that others have found to be true; I seek after truth, but can’t trust that there is even such a thing as truth.

It begins to reduce being human solely to what is thought to be a spiritual quest and wrenches that experience away from our bodies. It means that there is a difference between how I feel and what I do. And the body is less and less valued.

To reduce being human solely to an unembodied spiritual quest means that I don’t need anyone else, it becomes essentially most lonely and introspective. As Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests, spiritual death is when life is shut in on itself. This is a huge burden to place on ourselves.

The most perilous, fearsome journey known to man is the journey into the human heart and to be at home in our mortal bodies.

There is a great divorce in Western culture, emanating from the thought of Plato, which seeks to separate out body and soul. This hasn’t always been helped by some strands of Christian thought over the centuries which has been suspicious of the body and implied that the ‘spiritual’ is more pure. This leads to us getting tied up in knots about purity, sexuality and physicality.

In society this body/soul split has accelerated such that the body is perceived to be an encumbrance on the true ‘me’ inside. It’s the disembodied spiritual quest and yearning. This can led to all sorts of pain and a sense of being ill at ease with one’s own body and, at its extremes, to the tragedy of bodily self-harm let alone the ways human bodies are also cheapened by others through violence, torture and pornography.

To be human is to be body, mind and spirit all together and to be called into relationship with other people and with God, the source of our life and hope.

Religious faith seeks to locate the spiritual life in the body with practices that shape and are shaped by faith, faith in the truth that finds us before we find it. This is about life turned out from itself towards God and towards others, whilst cherishing the God-given body that we have.

Christianity is nothing if not about our souls, our minds and our bodies. We draw this directly from the great Christmas gospel of the first chapter of St John’s gospel, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’: God’s truth, Jesus Christ, finds us before we find him.
Jesus Christ inhabits a human body; is a human body. The Magi’s spiritual quest is met in the reality of a human body that can be seen, touched and held. And in this body dwells the full presence of God. The glory of the Creator and the wonder of creation are here, in Jesus Christ.

The star led the Magi to something, someone, very specific, tangible and embodied: God in Christ. This is what our faith leads us to this morning as we come on our spiritual and religious journey to meet him afresh in his Word and in his Body.

We come to worship and to adore and to offer not gold, frankincense and myrrh but ourselves in his service.

‘Arise, shine for your light has come… And you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (Isaiah 60)

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