St Bride's: Sermons

Lifted up ...

One of the rather peculiar things about being a member of the clergy, is that we tend to experience church buildings and their artefacts slightly differently from the way that congregation members perceive them, simply by virtue of where we stand during services.  For a large part of the time I am, of course, up here at the front.  There are some things that you tend to see close up, that I can only see only from a distance;  and of course the reverse is also true: there are some things that I see in close detail, Sunday by Sunday, which I suspect many of you normally see only from afar.

And one of those things is the painting behind me on the reredos, by the artist Glyn Jones.  Every time I preside at a communion service here, facing the altar, I say the words of the Eucharistic prayer with that image directly in front of me.  It dominates my field of vision.  And over the past year, I have become intimately acquainted with it, and with some of its finer details - the kinds of things that one can easily overlook when seeing it from afar.  And the more time that I spend in close proximity to that painting, the more I find myself profoundly affected by it.  It really is a quite extraordinary piece of art.

It is, of course, very obviously, a painting of the crucifixion; but in fact, what it portrays is rather more specific than that.  Because what the artist shows us is the actual moment of Christ's death. You can tell that, only seconds before, Jesus was still alive: fresh blood continues to flow down from his wounds - and yet, you can also see from the eyes of the crucified man, and from his slackened jaw, that his tortured body is now lifeless.  Beneath him, the women at his feet and the beloved disciple, show their anguish and despair in their terrible moment of realisation:  Jesus, the Messiah, is dead.  Utterly and definitively dead - and with him all their hope has died as well.  The sky in the background is black - darkness has covered the earth - and, if you look closely, in the distance you can make out the outline of the Jerusalem temple, being struck by a bolt of lightning.  As you may remember from St Matthew's version of the crucifixion, at the moment of Christ's death not only was the veil of the temple torn in two, but the earth shook.  

What is portrayed here is not merely the bleakest moment in human history, but an event so devastating that the whole of Creation was rocked by the horror of it.  And, at the human level, it is not merely the portrayal of a singularly barbaric form of execution - it is also symbolic of the true extent of human cruelty: because Jesus was not merely tortured to death on a cross: he was also publicly and gratuitously humiliated in the process: the crucified man wears a crown made out of thorns, and, as described in the Gospels, above his head is displayed a notice in three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'.

What a singularly bleak image to choose to have as the focal point of such an exquisite church building as this; indeed, come to think of it, what a singularly gloomy subject for a sermon.  But perhaps there is more here than meets the eye.

From time to time I do find myself lamenting the fact that at a relatively early point during its long history, the Christian faith became respectable - and, more disturbingly still, came to be associated with the kind of narrow-minded moralizing that is life-denying rather than life-affirming.  Because in origin it was certainly neither of those things.  Indeed, properly understood, the Gospel of Christ is so extraordinary, so glorious, so radical and so subversive that it overturns just about all of our assumptions about everything - but above all in what it teaches us about human flourishing.  Ours is a faith that deals in paradox all the time, which is why the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John, are so full of irony.  But the most extraordinary thing of all is, however counterintuitive it might seem, that if you try it, bizarrely, it works.

The world around us works on the assumption that power and wealth bring freedom. The Gospel shows us the opposite: because such things, in fact, merely lock us into different forms of slavery; but more significantly still, the Gospel teaches us that the true power of God is known ultimately not through strength, but in weakness.  Sometimes we need to learn to 'let go and let God'.

I was reflecting the other day on those times in my life when I have just, momentarily, glimpsed something of the kingdom of God - and they are almost invariably in the most surprising of contexts, and amongst the most unexpected of people.  During my ordination training I spent some time on the streets of Sheffield, getting to know the 'jack' drinkers - the guys whose level of alcoholism has reduced them to drinking surgical spirit.  I don't know if you can imagine what that does to their bodies and their minds, but it really is quite shocking.  But, bizarrely, I have seldom seen such generosity of heart as I glimpsed amongst those lost and hopeless souls: if one of them received a benefit cheque, they shared it equally amongst themselves.  They looked out for one another; they really did care about each other.  Now, of course, I am not for one moment either commending their way of life, nor looking at it with rose-tinted spectacles.  I am simply saying that, once you learn to see the world through the eyes of Christ, it really does start to become full of the most extraordinary paradoxes.

And the biggest paradox of all is, of course, the one that concerns the Kingship of Christ - which is what that painting behind me is depicting.  Throughout St John's Gospel, Jesus constantly makes reference to the time when he will be 'lifted up' - the double meaning is absolutely intentional: his being 'lifted up' on the cross is inextricably linked with his being 'lifted up' in glory - Christ the King.  The sign that was fixed to the cross that was intended to humiliate - 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews - was simply a statement of the truth.  But how on earth can that be so?

The answer is because ultimately the God who is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, is a God of love.  And love does not obey the usual rules.  The most ordinary of human beings can show themselves to be capable of the most extraordinary acts of courage, and selflessness, and steadfastness, out of love.  And that is, of course, but a shadow of the astonishing, all-forgiving, all-embracing, love that is God.

There is a remarkable poem by the priest and writer on Christian spirituality, W.H. Vanstone, which is one of the best exploration of the paradox of the love of God that I have ever come across.  His poem was later re-cast as the words of a hymn, which is the version I shall close by reading to you.  It begins with a celebration of all the wonderful gifts of God that we can see and sense around us: the beauty of nature, the extraordinary achievements of human beings that are inspired by God - including soaring music.  But, as Vanstone then goes on to describe, the most important gift of all is the gift that tends to remain hidden: the gift that is embodied in the painting behind me.  The words of Vanstone's hymn go like this:

Morning glory, starlit sky,

soaring music, scholars' truth,

flight of swallows, autumn leaves,

memory's treasure, grace of youth:

 

Open are the gifts of God,

gifts of love to mind and sense;

hidden is love's agony,

love's endeavor, love's expense.

 

Love that gives, gives ever more,

gives with zeal, with eager hands,

spares not, keeps not, all outpours,

ventures all, its all expends.

 

Drained is love in making full,

bound in setting others free,

poor in making many rich,

weak in giving power to be.

 

Therefore he who shows us God

helpless hangs upon the tree;

and the nails and crown of thorns

tell of what God's love must be.

 

Here is God, no monarch he,

throned in easy state to reign;

here is God, whose arms of love,

aching, spent, the world sustain.

Amen

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