Cry Out To All
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June 16, 2019
To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
Back around the time of the Annual Meeting of the cathedral, I remember mentioning how the political meltdown in my mother country caused by Brexit had meant that quite a number of people were paying more than usual attention to the increasingly bizarre proceedings in the British House of Commons. And, because the televised glimpses into this extraordinary and disastrous chapter in British political history are often focused on the results of votes, or ‘divisions’ as they are termed, the Speaker, John Bercow, whose style of presiding over chaos is often rather engaging and amusing, has become something of a celebrity as a result of this political instability.
In particular, I remember that as I kept one eye on my watch, to ensure that the Annual Meeting did not last all day and strain your patience to breaking point, I made reference to the fact that when a vote is called in the Commons, the Division Lobbies are locked while the MPs are counted, and thus, as the results of a particularly significant vote are reported to the Speaker, the drama always concludes with him announcing that the ayes or the noes ‘have it’ – after which, with great authority, he always says, “Unlock”.
And one of the challenges of an Annual Meeting – at least for someone like me – is that there is always more to say. There could always be further reflection on the year past, as we consider the goals achieved and the opportunities lost. And there can always be further explanation of the hopes and plans for the future. In a parish as big as this, there are always more people to thank, and there are always more requests that can be made for extra volunteers for any number of ministries. But all this has to be tempered against the fact that nobody wants to spend all of Sunday in church, and the time has to come when the Chair of this great gathering, that is the summary of a whole year of church life, has to echo Mr Speaker, and announce, “Unlock”.
Which is, of course, a word we might expect to have found in that rather brief gospel reading, taken from what Saint John records as being a rather lengthy final briefing that Jesus is giving his closest friends at the Last Supper. “I still have many things to say to you,” says Jesus “but you cannot bear them now.” And if Jesus was John Bercow, that would have been the moment when he said, “Unlock”, to allow them all to make their way to the place across the Kidron Valley where there was a garden.
Now, it may be the case that Saint John’s editing of his notes of Jesus’ rather lengthy speech or speeches at the last supper was inaccurate, because, in fact, you will find about another sixty verses of rather complex and repetitious speech and prayer on Jesus’ lips before the ‘unlock moment’ finally arrives.
But nevertheless, even though Jesus has a number of things that he is going to say to his closest friends and followers, and to do so without even drawing breath, there are some things that Jesus is not going to share at that point – because, as he tells the disciples, you cannot bear them now.
So what was it that Jesus thought his disciples could not bear? What needed to remain veiled to them at this critical point in the gospel story? What had to wait until the coming of the Holy Spirit, which, as Jesus tells the disciples, will guide them into all truth… and declare to you the things that are to come? What is it that cannot be said before Jesus echoes the Speaker of the British parliament and says, “Unlock”?
The clue to this question, I think, is found in that vital snippet of Paul’s magisterial letter to the Romans which we just heard – that wonderful passage which speaks of sharing in the glory of God – something of which Paul is happy to boast. And today – this great feast that is the culmination of a liturgical year that leads the church once again from Advent to Incarnation to the Wilderness to Golgotha to Resurrection to Ascension and finally to the coming of the Spirit – today we celebrate God’s glory. God’s threefold glory that is the nature and basis of God’s being and identity. Today we celebrate the Trinity – the unique revelation that, so Christians believe, gives us the fullest understanding there can be of the nature of God.
But, says Jesus to his friends at the Last Supper, you cannot bear this now. Instead of giving his closest friends an insight into the full nature of God, instead of communicating to them the magnificence of God’s glory that is the subject of our hymns this morning, instead of offering his disciples the ultimate vision of God in God’s grandeur as the climax to his last ever conversation with them before his death, he tells them that they cannot bear this now. Instead, the full revelation of truth is something for which they will have to wait – to wait until the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.
And what is it that has to remain hidden at this climactic moment of the gospel drama? What is it that the disciples cannot bear? And, conversely, what is it of which Paul can boast? What is it about the Trinity – what is it about God – that is at the heart of what we celebrate today, in this climax of the cycles of the liturgical year?
Paul knows the answer to this question very clearly, and it is at the heart of what he calls his ‘boasting’. Now that’s not an entirely helpful term, and Paul is being ironic in his use of the word, trying to make sure that his readers understand that conventional boasting about anything or everything other than God is simply vain and inappropriate. What Paul is actually doing at this point is talking about his faith. He is talking about – and rejoicing in – what he knows is Good News. What Paul is doing for us is modeling evangelism.
And it is how Paul speaks about his faith that not only gives us the answer to the question of what Jesus knows the disciples could not bear at the Last Supper, but also reminds us and – I hope – excites us – excites you and me – about the wonderful and life-giving nature of God. God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Because, since his time of extraordinary revelation on the road to Damascus, Paul has done a lot of relearning what he thought he knew about God. And Paul now knows that the glory of God is yet more remarkable than he had ever dared dream in his days as a pious and zealous Pharisee. And the key thing which Paul has learned is that – through the extraordinary act and gift we call the Incarnation – God shares with the world the horrors of pain, of suffering, and of death. And – paradoxically – this does not diminish God – it was what makes God truly great. It is what makes God really worth boasting about. It is what makes the news about God, truly, definitively and absolutely Good News.
And this news is what enables God to offer what you and I often call ‘salvation’ – or, to use Paul’s terminology in that brief portion of Romans, it is what enables God to share with us God’s glory.
Back in the mists of time, in the year that I was ordained, the Church of England decided it needed to do some theologizing about something important. It was at a point when the C of E had just managed to reach the point of ordaining women to the priesthood, and some of the other arguments about gender and sexuality were still in the future. And so it was decided that it might be good to get back to the heart of the Christian faith, and some theologians were commissioned to produce a report entitled The Mystery of Salvation, in which, in a paragraph that is remarkable succinct for something produced by a committee, the authors wrote:
As incarnate Son and indwelling Spirit, God enters our situation of evil, suffering and mortality, shares with us the pain of our alienation, bears for us the pain of overcoming our enmity and healing our estrangement, sustains us in the struggle to be truly human, redirects our lives towards the Father as the source and goal of our being... It is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that God can and does save us.
Or let me remind those of you who joined in the study project we did together on The Shack the other year, how the author of that extraordinary book reminded his readers of this truth. The bewildered protagonist, Mack (a sort of very ordinary ‘everyman’ figure, who has had a child abducted and murdered by a serial killer), is in a conversation with a Whoopie Goldberg like depiction of God the Father, and they are talking about suffering. And not just any old suffering – they are talking about the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and whether or not God the Father was absent or present. And ‘Papa’ has taken Mack’s hands in hers, attempting to reassure him that no part of God could ever be indifferent to suffering, as the author tells us:
Papa didn't answer, only looked down at their hands.... Mack noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his. She allowed him to tenderly touch the scars, outlines of a deep piercing, and he finally looked up again into her eyes. Tears were slowly making their way down her face... "Don't ever think that what my son chose to do didn't cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark...we were there together....Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him
And that is what Jesus knew that at that pivotal moment in the gospel story, the disciples could not yet bear. It was one thing to predict the Passion. It was one thing to predict that he would rise on the third day. But it was, perhaps, something too extraordinary for Jesus to explain that what he was about to undergo in his imminent desolation and death was, in fact, the defining characteristic around which the love of God was wrought.
That was an insight that would have to be down to the work of the Spirit in the light of the resurrection, for without the light of resurrection, it is hard to understand fully the implications of Incarnation. But, as Saul turned Paul discovers about the God he has sought to serve for so many years, and has had to reappraise since he was struck blind and thrown to the ground, an Incarnate God is way more surprising than an unincarnate God, which is why Paul finds himself celebrating a God whose strength is weakness and vulnerability. Which is why when Paul boasts in our hope of sharing the glory of God, he can say with such confidence, we also boast in our sufferings – because it is from his sufferings he has learned that God’s love has been poured into our hearts – and he has learned that the glory of God, of this God who is glorious in triune majesty – the glory of this God is centred around cross-shaped wounds that can never be magicked away in a denial of the pain of this world.
I have quoted in other contexts the final stanza of the poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’ by the war poet Edward Shillito, but it bears repetition for reminding us that
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak.
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne.
But to our wounds, only God’s wounds speak.
And no other god has wounds, but thou alone.
As the Church of England report stated so well, it is this God that can and does save us, and if you don’t recognize that this is uniquely and supremely Good News, I’m not sure why you bothered turning up this morning.
But there is one sting in the tail of this extraordinary Trinitarian God who is the God that can and does save us – this is a God about whom one should be boasting. Paul, having come to this revelation, is not keeping silent about it. And neither should we.
By now, everyone here who is not a first-time visitor, should know that we are having what I am sure will be an excellent weekend at the end of this month, with the inventor of the Invite Welcome Connect ministry, Mary Parmer. I have just got back from the annual conference of this ministry, down at the Beecken Center in Sewanee, Tennessee – an event which opened with a Eucharist at which Carlye Hughes, the fairly newly ordained Bishop of Newark, preached.
She spoke, in part, of the pain of the world, drawing on some examples of the African American community of which she is, herself, a part. She spoke of the need for Christians to stand alongside the vulnerable, the scared and the hurting – something which we dare to do only because, with Paul, we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God… because we also boast in our sufferings.
And Bishop Hughes opened our minds to the distinction between piety, something which is allowed to be private, and faith, which is not allowed to be silent. We are past the point where that works for us, she asserted – and if there is anything to question in that statement, it is only whether or not that ever worked for the church and for the world. But certainly, it does not work now.
For we are called to take what was Jesus’s and to declare it to the world. We are called to boast to the world of a Trinitarian God whose love is rooted in the cross, through which God can and will and does save the world. And if we are wise - if we have the gift of wisdom that was present in the world even in the centuries before the coming of Christ – then we must join in Wisdom’s call. Like that elusive figure so many centuries before Christ, of whom we read in the Book of Proverbs, we must make sure that – like her – we cry out to all that live. Because the Good News of God as Trinity is way too good to keep to ourselves.
In a few minutes time we will gather around that altar, as we recall and re-enact the Last Supper for ourselves. But for us, the Last Supper has become the Lord’s Supper, in the light of Incarnation and Resurrection. And when it ends, make sure you hear Mr Speaker add his voice to mine, as he calls ‘Unlock’ to you and to me and to all who worship God the Holy Trinity. And then, my friends, go and cry out to all who live, and never stop boasting of that Good News. Amen.