Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 September 2013
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp
Readings: Isaiah 43. 14 – 44.5; John 5. 30 – end
One of Britain’s great treasures is a book: the Lindisfarne Gospels. They date from the end of the seventh century and were produced by monks on Holy Island in Northumberland. The pages of the Gospels are illuminated with glorious designs and decoration. There’s a wonderful intertwining of line. Celtic-style knots interlock. The eye travels across the page and double backs on itself. All is dynamism and movement.
After the Reformation the Lindisfarne Gospels ended up in the hands of a private collector but in the eighteenth century they were given to the nation as part of the foundation of the British Museum. Subsequently they went to the British Library. But if you go up to King’s Cross to see them today you’ll be disappointed because the Lindisfarne Gospels are currently in a special exhibition in Durham until the end of this month. They’re currently in their spiritual home – the North East.
The origin of the designs of the Lindisfarne Gospels have long been debated. Some of the pages have no writing; just patterns based on the cross. Some scholars say that they’re redolent of rugs and carpets from the east. At the time the Gospels were produced in the Lindisfarne scriptorium Arabian carpets were finding their way into northern Europe. The seventh century is sometimes referred to as being in the Dark Ages but the Dark Ages weren’t ‘dark‘ because they were unenlightened or unsophisticated. Far from it. Artifacts and works of art from the period are sometimes of astonishing quality. But the age was ‘dark’ because of the paucity of recorded history. So whether the Lindisfarne Gospels were a take on eastern carpets or not is a moot point. Nonetheless some of the pages are called ‘carpet pages’. Blown up you can imagine the designs gracing the floor of a beautiful room.
But the Lindisfarne Gospels are so deeply Christian that the design must be pointing to something that isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics or taste. The Lindisfarne Gospels are gospels – narratives that proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again for our salvation. Yet as we all know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have significant differences. John especially stands out from the other three. Instead of the fast pace of Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel is longer and more meditative. It seems almost serene. Jesus gives lengthy discourses. Jesus interweaves complex themes that develop theological patterns into a coherent whole.
The content of John’s gospel is dense and rich. It doesn’t just offer the outpourings of Jesus of Nazareth but the ministry of Jesus written up within the experience of the living Body of Christ (the church) as early Christianity struggled to find its identity in the face of opposition. The church could expect nothing less. If Jesus had been crucified then the first Christians weren’t in for an easy time either. But to make it more difficult the church was fighting on more than one front. As chapter five of John’s Gospel unfolds we can discern three areas of tension.
The first is with the followers of John the Baptist. This may come as a surprise. The Christian story as we have received it sees John as the forerunner of Jesus. We know from elsewhere in the gospels that John also had disciples. They took his body away for burial after John the Baptist had been beheaded under orders from King Herod. But although John’s followers disappear from the New Testament they didn’t disappear from history. They may well have morphed into a movement called by the Early Fathers, the Ebionites (from a Greek word meaning ‘the poor ones’).
The Ebionites accepted that Jesus was the Messiah but disagreed that he was divine. They kept strictly to the Jewish Law and put great emphasis on ritual bathing – washing and ‘baptizing’ regularly. No wonder that the followers of Jesus and the likes of John the Evangelist wanted to correct what they regarded as erroneous. Quite what became of the Ebionites finally is unclear but they were probably assumed within one of the forms of Islam around the turn of the millennium. Jesus’ emphatic ‘I have a testimony greater than John’s’ this evening is a definite bid to eclipse the Baptist.
The second area of tension was with the Jews. The context of this evening’s verses is Jerusalem during what the evangelist describes as ‘a festival of the Jews’. Jesus seeks to defend his authority over that of the Jews themselves. By the time John wrote his gospel (towards the end of the first century) Jews and Christians had parted company. In the eyes of the Jews, Christians were blasphemers. Christians were banned from attending synagogues. The church was becoming autonomous and increasingly detached and antagonistic towards the Jews. Hence the references to Moses, the scriptures (what we would call the Old Testament) and who is being true to their roots. As the church grew it became increasing Greek and gentile.
Here we see a third tension in this evening’s passage. Jesus says ‘I do not accept glory from human beings.’ Those who did accept glory were typically the rhetoricians of the ancient world. Rhetoric was highly prized. A fine orator could sway large numbers of people. In a time before mass media this was the primary way to galvanize crowds into action. At worst however those with golden mouths could persuade their hearers with untruth. There was ‘glory’ and there was glory. For Jesus and his evangelist John the mere praise of men is worthless unless grounded in the glory of God.
The struggle for identity is a feature of every age – be it the identity of the individual or the identity of a group or movement. Identity tends to be forged in the face of difference and sometimes opposition. For the catholic tradition in this country (like the early church) identity has sometimes involved a degree of reticence if not secrecy. People went (and still go to) to ‘Margaret Street’ or ‘Farm Street’ instead of ‘All Saints’ or the ‘Immaculate Conception’. As we forge identity all sorts of strands become intertwined. Forces, drives and experiences interplay with each other. We make choices or choices are made for us. When our identity comes under threat then we tend to get angry. There is conflict and hurt.
Two thousand years on we read John’s gospel in church in quite a different way to which it was written originally and first heard. John the Evangelist’s congregation would have seen how their faith was being shaped by the forces of opposition around them – the followers of John the Baptist, the Jews and the Hellenic world. Because analysis of John’s gospel shows the work of at least two editors, one of which added the prologue (‘In the beginning was the Word …’) and another who added some of the verses after the resurrection its become commonplace for biblical scholars to talk about the Johannine Circle – a group, possibly an elite who refined John’s gospel in ever-changing circumstances in the early years. We may read John is a way that is almost serene. Yet those who out pen to parchment were writing amidst heated controversy.
Over time the issues were resolved. Over time the controversies and arguments gave way to the ‘peace that passes all understanding’; whose beauty is so wonderfully evoked in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Its extraordinary illuminations and its survival over 1300 years testify that the stresses and strains of history are not the whole story. The whole story is about holiness and the tying together of many a different strand. The whole story, the gospel story is something that is coherent, stands the test of time and is finally a thing of great and enduring beauty.