Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Trinity Sunday Sunday 16 June 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 3.1-15; John 3.1-17
In the history of Christianity and other religions there have been numerous individuals and groups who have gone out into the wilderness, to a place where they would be free from distractions, in order to find God.
But this was not what Moses was doing in this evening’s reading. He was simply going about his daily business – looking after his father-in-law’s sheep. It was a bit of a come-down from being the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, but when you are on the run from Pharaoh after killing someone you can’t be too choosy.
He has not gone out into the wilderness in pursuit of some mystical experience or spiritual enlightenment. But his search for pasture for the flock brings him to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There he sees something unexpected and unsought and definitely out of the ordinary, not part of everyday experience: ‘the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.’ He says, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’
Then God calls to him by name out of the bush. When he responds, ‘Here I am’, he is told ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ The voice from the bush then identifies himself as the “God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’
This encounter has a purpose: it is not just a spiritual ‘high’ but a call, a commissioning. Moses is to be God’s agent in the liberation of his people from bondage in Egypt.
Moses is understandably doubtful of his suitability for this extraordinary task of taking on the power of Egypt. For a start, how is he going to persuade the Israelites that God has sent him to their rescue? What should he say to them? He receives the answer ‘I AM WHO I AM’ or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. Tell them I AM has sent you. Anyone familiar with St. John’s Gospel will recognize this as the designation Jesus takes for himself.
In that Gospel, Nicodemus does come on a religious quest. He represents the Jewish religious establishment; those who looked back to Moses as their founding father and who sought to teach and live by the law, the instruction, delivered to him by God.
His nocturnal visit, out of the public view, is to check out this new voice in the Jewish theological scene; a voice which comes from an unexpected and unlikely source. Jesus may not have come through the usual channels of training in the law, but he has made enough of an impression to merit investigation.
Nicodemus beings by treating him respectfully enough: ‘Rabbi, we known that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ But he finds Jesus response baffling, as others will do throughout the Gospel. ‘Very truly,’ says Jesus, ‘I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus can only understand this in terms of physical birth – and how on earth can that be possible for a grown man? When Jesus speaks of being born of water and the Spirit, he is none the wiser.
So it is the inquisitor who then finds himself being interrogated: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’
Nicodemus is confined within the established ways of thinking. But what he encounters in Jesus is something and someone of a far greater order than just another rabbi. Here he meets the one who is the teacher because he is the Word of God, the Word made flesh; the self-expression of God in human form. That requires a revolution in thinking: a being born from above – having our thinking and our lives radically re-shaped by God.
Yesterday the Church of England’s calendar commemorated Evelyn Underhill; one of the great spiritual teachers and guides of the 20th century. Born in 1875, the only child of middle-class parents, she studied at King’s College in London and became its first woman fellow. After working in Naval Intelligence during the Great War, she returned to her studies, specializing in mysticism. In 1921 she was the first woman to give a series of lectures of theology at Oxford. Much of her life was devoted to writing, leading retreats, and giving spiritual direction.
While she had been brought up nominally Christian, she abandoned the faith for some time and it was only later that she gradually returned to active practice of it in the Church of England and its catholic tradition.
Her view of the spiritual life, too, would develop over time. She moved from a preoccupation with esoteric spirituality and an elitist view of mysticism to an understanding of the Christian spiritual tradition which corrected ideas of withdrawal from the material world. She came to recognize that her thought, under the influence of Greek philosophy, had a tendency to withdraw from the world in pursuit of some spiritual idea. It lacked specific Christian content.
She came to see that a true mysticism must be based on the contemplation of the God revealed in the Christian faith, rather than on some generalized notion of the divine. In her great book “Worship”, we find that she had resolved this problem, supplied this shortcoming, by saying that all worship and prayer:
‘is conditioned by a concrete fact; the stooping down of the Absolute to disclose himself within the narrow human radius, the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos within time. The primary declaration of Christianity is not “This Do,’ but ‘This Happened’ – indeed, is happening still, since the path of incarnation remains open, and Christ lives and acts in his Body, the Church, and gives himself in its sacraments.’
‘So spirituality….must not be a lovely fluid notion or a merely self-regarding education; but an education for action, for the insertion of eternal values into the time-world.’ Mystics, she said, need to be firmly rooted in the sacramental life of the Church – and to emphasise that the difference between the mystic and the ordinary devout Christian is one of degree not kind.
Her interests and studies were never narrowly religious. For example. as she sought to integrate new insights of psychology with the Christian tradition, she identified three key ways in which our relations with God are realized.
1. A profound sense of security, of being; safely held in a cosmos of which, despite all contrary appearance, peace is the very heart.’
2. In the awareness of an intimate and reciprocal communion of a person with a Person.
3. In the awareness of the Spirit as an inflowing power.
These correspond to the Persons of the Holy Trinity which we celebrate today:
- We experience a sense of there being more to life than blind chance,
- We begin to glimpse the possibilities of relationship with that which exists outside us
- We experience within ourselves the power to respond to these possibilities.
Here is a Trinitarian mysticism which is not split off from the everyday. Human beings are two-fold creatures, made for both outward action and inward transformation, for love of God and neighbour, and we shall not be happy, in her view, if we settle for only one or the other.
The full living of the spiritual life will imply a single-minded focus on God. Just as Moses was drawn to the burning bush and hears the voice which speaks from it and draws him into a life dedicated to the service of God and God’s people; so we are called to focus our attention on the Son of Man who is lifted up on the cross in order that we might have eternal life. In that eternal life, in which we share now, not just in the future, the whole of our human nature, including our relationships with others, is to be transformed in God; woven into his creative activity, his redeeming purpose, conformed to the pattern of Christ, heart, soul, mind and strength.
At the heart of the matter, she says, is worship as sacrifice. Sacrifice had deep primitive roots, but its full meaning is disclosed in the cross. She identifies the purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament as restoration, an attempt to bring about a profound change in the relationship between humans and their Creator.
And crucially, she tells us ‘Perhaps the most significant development in human religion has been the movement of the idea of sacrifice from propitiation to love.’ That is from the placating of an angry God to the perfect expression on the cross of that giving and receiving of love which is the life of the Trinity on the cross.
If worship it to be sufficient it must include costly, disinterested offering of the self. For worship is directed to self-loss, not self-fulfilment; self-offering not self-consolation. The Church’s worship, and especially the Eucharist, is to reproduce that life of love in the community and in the world.
Worship then demands a fundamental un-selfing, a being born from above, a being born again: hence the importance of the prayer of adoration like that which we will share as we look at that burning bush, that fire which is not consumed, which is the sacramental presence of Christ; that adoration which lifts us out of ourselves into the rhythm of the worshipping community as it seeks God’s transforming presence; that presence which draws us into the self-giving love of the Holy Trinity; to whom, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all adoration and praise, now and to the ages of ages. Amen.