Sermon for Second Sunday before Lent Sunday 12 February 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning at High Mass on the Second Sunday before Lent, 12 February 2012.
Readings: Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.
The Gospel today is one of our most sacred texts. It is the distilled essence of our faith. It is called the Prologue to St John’s Gospel. There in fourteen verses is a Christian faith which takes us by storm, a living flourishing faith, not a religion diluted into a tame and convenient lifestyle to suit our opinions. In the Anglo Catholic tradition in which this church stands, there used to be a private devotion to this Prologue called The Last Gospel. After every communion service the priest would go to the Gospel side of an immoveable altar – that’s the left hand side from where your’re sitting, the right hand side being called the epistle side – and there the priest would say the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, and he and the server would genuflect at the final verse, the Word was made flesh, the people remaining on their knees. And that was it. No commentary, just the end of the service. It was the Last Gospel. God had the last word. And for you and me that last Word, which is made flesh today in Jesus, is a call to unlimited life, to an expansion of consciousness, to utter freedom, to nothing less than union with God, becoming children of God “born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God”.
From the silent past to the talkative present. This week modern science allowed me, not only to download all the papers required for those attending the General Synod of the Church of England this week, but also to listen to the debates in real time, in the safety of my home. So I listened to the debates on Women in the Episcopate. To help you catch up, these were not about women becoming bishops, but about what provision should be made in the Church of England for those who in conscience can not accept the authority of women bishops. What I realised, as I listened, was that these good Christian people had got stuck in what is called “principled disagreement”, but which is actually the prison of their own opinions and those of others, and they could not find a way out. The debate, which has raged for years, was all about what they thought was right, and the only appeal to a higher authority that I heard, was not to Scripture, nor to Tradition, nor to the two Archbishops who were present, but to the voice of the people.
In the Bible, the people are usually wrong.
The first casualties of a populist argument are the minority views, the principled minorities which a worldwide Church could help to flourish. Anyway the result in Synod is the same each year, a head on collision in which people get hurt, first those who get in the way like the Archbishops, then the losers, then everyone. Now you might think this has nothing to do with you, and it’s all a fuss about nothing, and it’s all done and dusted anyway, but if you attend this church you will meet those, on both sides, who are profoundly hurt and worn out by this tortuous process, and so we are all involved. So what do we do, what does anyone do, if and when decisions go against us in this world, and we, or our friends, feel betrayed and unwelcome, and loyalty is not recognised? This is not just about Synod, it’s about our vulnerable humanity in many situations. How do we react to the darkness which settles in from time to time in every human life? I think there are three possible reactions.
The first and the most common response is one of unreal hope and simmering resentment, the unreal hope that all will be well again as it used to be, and a lingering resentment that it isn’t going to be so, compounded by fear of the future. It’s not a happy place to be, it’s dangerously close to self-pity and hate, but we can exist in that state for years on end.
The second response is to pack up and go away, leave it all, change churches as many in conscience have done, start afresh, forget. The trouble is we don’t forget, do we? It’s like when we go on holiday and we find ourselves thinking much more about home than we thought we would. And if resentment is not healed through forgiveness of some sort, then the pain of our loss will be frozen in time at the moment of our flight, and the resentment lingers for ever.
There is a third way, which is open to “all that travail and are heavy laden”. We can return to the sacred texts of our religion, and to the living tradition which arose out of them, and find there freedom from the tyranny of our own and others’ opinions, and there we can learn to flourish in this world, whatever happens. In the first chapter of the Gospel of St John, we heard that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Darkness doesn’t go away. Jesus’s life was full of darkness, and ended in darkness. But there is now nothing to fear in the darkness. The Desert Fathers of the Church believed that one of the marks of the saint was that he could live at peace with lions and serpents, with nothing to fear from them. There is nothing to fear in the darkness. It is the Christian insight that wounds and afflictions and darkness become openings for grace. There is everything to gain. St. John takes us further. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel is about the universal Christ, Christ everywhere. He is our image of the invisible God. This is the catholic world view, ambitious, enlightening, challenging, incorporating – including within one body – many different views. The Christian has nothing to fear from the opinions of others, and that should impel us towards unity: relationship with difference, that’s Christian unity. But we remain fog bound, mentally bound by structure, legalism, and our declining institution. Synod week is traditionally marked in the press by a rash of articles about the decline of the Church of England. The irritating thing is that they are mostly true. The money’s running out. All the numbers are down, except for the average age of congregations which has risen to sixty-one.
And yet, and yet, there is one thing which grows stronger in the darkness of the human condition, in adversity, and for which we shall always need each other, and that is our experience of God. Our God doesn’t plan for decline. God plans for expansion of consciousness, for the variety which flourishes in His Creation, for the widening of our horizons into his spaciousness and the eternal life of His kingdom. We’ve been looking in the wrong place for clarity. We expected clarity to emerge somehow from the clash of competitive human opinions, if we talked for long enough. But it never does. On the other hand, God makes all things clear, by drawing us towards a purity of heart free of judgement, beyond argument, a place where mind, body and soul rest in the same peace. St John describes this unity, this mutual understanding, our union with God, in words of transcendent beauty, as an experience beyond opinion, beyond discussion. It is what happened then and it is what happens now. God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ [Colossians, 1.18] “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” As the endgame draws near, the voices on all sides will grow more strident. We might prefer the silence before God which once followed the Last Gospel.