Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Sermon on John 1: 19-28, St Matthew’s, 19th December 2010

Today’s gospel reading comes from the very beginning of John’s Gospel just after the famous passage which begins with the words. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. In this prologue John the Evangelist sets out his theology before getting into the story of Jesus’ life and death. As I was saying a couple of weeks back: one aspect of this theology is the rather odd sounding idea that Jesus is the Word of God, When John says, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ he means, amongst other things , ‘In the beginning was Jesus'. and when John says ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’ he is saying, in effect, that ‘Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’. So today I want to say a bit more about Jesus as Word and what this means.

Mixed with the theological poetry in the prologue are some rather prosaic remarks about John the Baptist: ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light’, He might also have said ‘John the Baptist was not The Word but he came to bear witness to the Word’.

John doesn’t tell us much very more about who John the Baptist was or about his life, He seems to be assuming that his readers will know all about the dance of the seven veils etc., which we only know about from the other gospels. But in the space of 20 verses in the first chapter of his gospel he tells of three days in the life of John the Baptist: On the second of these three days he meets Jesus.

In today’s passage – on the first day – John the Baptist is interrogated about his ministry: first by some Priests and Levites and then some Pharisees. He first tells his interrogators lot of things his is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. By ‘the prophet he probably means the Prophet-like-Moses’ foretold in, for example, Deuteronomy 18: 15. All three – a Messianic King in the line of David, Elijah or an Elijah like figure and a ‘Prophet-like-Moses’ were expected by the Jews at that time. So here John the Baptist is denying that he is any of these. So who was John the Baptist? Well as I said we know a few things about him from the other gospels and other sources. One thing he certainly did was baptise people but John the Evangelist is not interested in this. He doesn’t even mention that John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

According to John the Evangelist John the Baptist says that he is the ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness’, And all the other three Gospel writers associate this quote from the book of Isaiah with John the Baptist. For John the Evangelist the important thing about John the Baptist is that he is a witness who bears testimony to Jesus.

One of John the Evangelist’s big metaphors in his gospel is that of a trial. He regularly uses trial language like testimony, witness, interrogation, confession, judgement. Now courts are places where a lot of words are used to try and sort out the truth. But not just truth for the sake of it but for the sake of bringing things that were hidden into the light in order that a judgement might be made.

Now as I was saying two weeks ago, at this service, words are not just means of conveying truths. I am reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations at the moment, together with some friends, and Wittgenstein is a philosopher who says a lot of unsettling things about words. He makes you realise that the meaning of a word like ‘game’ for example is not nearly as simple as it seems to be. Is a game always played between two people? No because there is solitaire, patience, etc. Do you need equipment for a game? No because there’s eye-spy and other games you can play on a car journey. Are games always competitive with winners and losers? No – certainly not –as you would know if you ever played games like Parachute with the Wood Craft Folk. So what exactly is a game?

Language – Wittgenstein says – is something like a game –in that it is incredibly difficult to pin down exactly what it is. But one thing we all know is that words do things as well as convey truths. When I say to my wife, ‘You look lovely in that dress’ I am not saying simply that her dress is a colour I like or that it fits her rather well I am giving her a compliment. She may not even believe that I like the dress, knowing full well what my favourite colour is, and she may have no regard for my sense of fit. But the words will generate in her feelings. Hopefully she will feel pleased even whilst doubting whether the words convey anything particular meaningful e at all.

Words are powerful if only because they invoke in people feelings that they otherwise would not have. But some words or sentences do even more than convey meaning and evoke feelings. Commands like, ‘Go’ or ‘Listen to this’ do not convey truths at all but are designed to bring about a new state of affairs.

But it’s not just commands that change things there are some statements that do as well. Many of the words spoken in the context of religious ceremonies are such peformative words. When in the marriage ceremony the bride and groom say ‘I do’ they are performing an act – they are making a promise - not just making a sound. When we baptise children we do so with the words ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit’ and the words are not just sounds with a particular meaning they are actually doing something. You might like to ponder what the words that I shall say later about the bread and wine actually do as oppose to mean.

Hopefully you’ll begin to see why words are not just conveyors of facts or even truths. If you think of words as changing things you might begin to see why John’s assertion that Jesus was God’s Word isn’t quite so odd as it sounds.

John Parry in another sermon at St Matthew’s today reminds us that what is particularly distinct about Christianity is its claim that God speaks to us through a person – the person of Jesus – and not just through words. God does of course use words – and the Bible is the result. But if we remember the story of the people of Israel we’ll see that words in the end failed to save them from themselves. The words of the law – delivered though Moses – was not enough to make them behave in the way they should as God’s special people. The words of the prophets like Elijah were not persuasive enough to stop them loosing almost everything including their land and their temple. In the end God had to come in person to try and save them.

But back to back to John the Baptist - to testimony and witness - both with same Greek word at their root. To bear testimony, to witness in a court, involves speaking and speaking with care at that, because in that situation words matter very much indeed. Sometimes they are even a matter of life and death. Witness and testimony demand judgements and verdicts. A testimony is not just a set of words that can be taken or left as vaguely interesting like as Sunday supplement article say.

The trial image in John’s gospel culminates in a real trial in which Jesus is brought before Pilate, testimony is offered and a verdict is pronounced. Jesus is condemned and executed as the so called ‘King of the Jews’.

But the trial image is also threaded throughout John’s Gospel. In this version of the story it is not only Jesus who is on trial it is the world in the shape of the Jewish and Roman leaders. They are trusted with the authority to judge on behalf of, and to secure the well-being of, the world. They fail miserably. In today’s extract of the story some of these authorities are interrogating John the Baptist as a potential witness but for whose trial?

Testimony is not a neutral thing it forces choices that have enormous consequences. It changes the world. It is also a public thing not a private matter. To bear testimony to Jesus as John does is not just to talk about him to his friends but to go and shout about him in the desert – to cry in the wilderness. But John’s testimony – powerful as it is - not the Word it is testimony to the Word

The story John the Evangelist tells is of a God who is bound to speak, a God who is Word himself. Once the Word becomes flesh it cannot any longer be a private matter. The Word is for the world and the world will have to judge. John the Baptist is the first to offer testimony to Jesus in a way that will provoke the world to act. The ‘speaking‘ of the Word, will not leave things as they are. Judgements will have to be made once the testimony is offered, once the Word is made flesh - judgements that will reveal the world for what it is will also change the world for ever.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sermon on Romans 15: 4-13 and Luke 21: 25-33, BCP Communion, St Matthew’s, 5th December 2010

Bishop John [Oxford] often starts his sermons with a prayer which I really like. I haven’t got the precise words but it goes something like this: ‘May my spoken words truthfully reflect the written word so that our time together might lead us to a deeper encounter with the Living Word.’

By ‘Living Word’ Bishop John means Jesus of course and this prayer reminds us of the opening of John’s Gospel where the John the Evangelists – rather than John the Bishop - describes Jesus as the Word. John’s Gospel starts, you’ll remember, with the words ‘In the beginning was the Word’ meaning in the beginning was Jesus. And the opening of John’s Gospel with its account of how the world was created is, in turn, a hark-back to the opening of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where the writer talks of God speaking as an act of creation. Genesis 1 verse 3 says: ‘And God said, “Let there be light’’ and there was light.’

We can so easily take the words ‘the Word of God’ to mean the Bible that we forget that they have a double meaning. Yes they often mean the Bible but they also means Jesus.

So in today’s Collect we prayed (referring to the scriptures) ‘Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life’. Of course holy Word may equal ‘scripture’ in this prayer but it can also be taken to equal ‘Jesus’.

This – perhaps rather randomly - reminds me of recent debates about the future of Anglicanism culminating in a vote on something called the Anglican Covenant at General Synod the week before last. This vote was not much discussed in the pews but may in fact turn out to be a very important event in the history of the Church – at least the Anglican Church. Anglicanism is often thought of as being built on scripture, reason and tradition and in the recent debates one of the central questions has been the relative importance of scripture compared with tradition and reason in defining Anglicanism.

Some would like literal readings of the scriptures to be definitive. Others would like reason to over-rule scripture where the two apparently contradict and there are many positions in between.

A 16th Century theologian called Richard Hooker is generally accredited with setting out the basis of Anglicanism in terms of scripture, reason and tradition and sometimes the three are talked about as three legs of a stool. I.e. that scripture, reason and tradition have equal importance for Anglicanism: if you take one away the thing will fall over. But this then irritates those who see one leg of the stool as being more important than one of the others e.g. those who see scripture as being more important than tradition and reason.

Actually I think the three-legged stool metaphor is unhelpful because of what I was saying earlier. Scripture itself never sees words as merely written words. The Word of God is not just a means of conveying truth but is also an active word that changes things. It is in short a Living Word. The Word of God – cannot be corralled into supporting a particular position. And moreover the Word of God is to be experienced and encountered not just read.

Today’s Collect thanks God for causing ‘all holy scriptures to be written for our learning’ and this echoes the first line our Epistle reading: ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ At first sight, however, the Gospel reading hardly connects at all with the Collect. It’s an account of what Jesus predicts will happen at the end of time. It starts ‘And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon and in the stars.’ Here Jesus is saying that when the end comes it will be obvious. You won’t then be trying to work out what is going to happen from reading the scriptures. What is happening around you will be a clear and obvious ‘sign’ than things are about to end.

Scripture alone has never been sufficient for our leaning let alone for our encounter with the Living Word that is Jesus. It is however necessary if not sufficient for that learning and encounter. It seems clear that you cannot make any deductions about God through reason alone. I doubt – despite what some philosophers of religion say – that it is possible even to conclude that God exists – merely from looking at the way the universe is constructed.

But while scripture may be necessary for our encounter with God, it has also always been important – as our Gospel reading reminds us - to look around us, to try and see what is happening, and reason what God is doing both through the lens of scripture but also in the light of how scripture has been traditionally interpreted. It is particularly important to look around us in the end times. And it increasingly looks as if we are getting closer and closer to the end times.

The Gospel reading looks forward to the second coming of Jesus – a traditional theme of Advent – when we wait in hope for the coming of Christ – both the celebration of the first coming as a baby born in a stable and the future/second coming as ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. And here too is a theme which connects the Collect and the Epistle and Gospel readings: that of hope.

In the Collect we prayed that through reading the scriptures we ‘may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.’ In the Epistle reading Paul prays that what the scriptures might bring hope to the Christians at Rome: that ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ And the Epistle reading ends with the great prayer,‘Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost’.

So the scriptures are written to give us hope but in looking around us we are also to find hope. To do this we need to look up not down. Jesus in our Gospel reading says ‘And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads for your redemption draweth nigh.’ In other words don’t despair at what you see is happening to the world but have hope that things will eventually turn out for the good.

In the end it is not through poring over the scriptures, studying our traditions and trying to reason things out for ourselves that will bring about the return of the Son of Man. But only by looking up we will see our redemption drawing nigh, only then will we encounter the Living Word who was there at our beginning and will be there at our end.