Sermon for Eucharist
18 June 2006 at :00 am
Sermon for Eucharist, 18 June 2006
by the Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian
Readings: 2 Cor 5: 6-10, 14-17; Mark 4: 26-34
Our first reading this morning tells us that 'if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!' Rather more boldly, and quite unforgettably, the translators of the New English Bible wrote, 'When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world'. The central point in both translations is the same; that to be united to Christ is share in the new creation that begins with the resurrection. What the New English Bible catches so brilliantly is that it is not just the person who is made new but their whole environment as well. To be in Christ is to see the world with new eyes. There is a 'new world'.
The picture is that of God working in an instant; a miracle of transformation and of renewal; of opening one's eyes and finding oneself in a completely new environment. It is the miracle of new birth. 'Can an adult truly be born again?' Yes, says, Paul, and when you or I are born into Christ, we discover that a whole new world that has been born with us.
On the other hand, the Gospel reading spoke to us of the slow growth of the kingdom of God, like seed growing towards harvest. The farmer sows his seed, and watches anxiously day by day as it slowly grows, hoping and praying that there will be not too much sun and not too little, not too much rain and not too little. Gradually the grain ripens and fills out until eventually the time comes for harvest. And only then is it time to reap the grain. The point here is about slow growth in God's time, and our need to be patient while God does his work. In a variant of this parable, Jesus talks about the mustard seed, which is tiny, but eventually yields a plant so big that birds can nest in its branches. Here, the emphasis is on the power of this growth: what comes from the tiniest beginnings, given God's timing, can yield the most extraordinary results.
It is not, then, for us to set a time-scale for God's working. Just because God moves more slowly than we would like, it does not mean he will not give a rich harvest. At the right time, God can work in an instant. We have to be ready for either.
Shakespeare, though probably not conventionally devout, understood this very well. One of the reasons I so like the New English Bible translation, 'When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world', is because it reminds me of the words of Prospero's daughter, Miranda in his last play, the Tempest. Many years before, when Miranda was a baby, Prospero was deposed from the throne of Milan by his brother and cast adrift with his baby daughter in a leaky boat. They ended up on a desert island, with only the spirit Ariel, and the sub-human being, Caliban, for company. For many years Prospero, a god-like figure, exercises his beneficent reign over his island, until his enemies pass by on a voyage. With the help of Ariel, he stirs up the tempest, which throws them up on the island and into his power.
Amongst those thrown up is Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, who conspired with Prospero's brother to usurp the throne of Milan. Inevitably, Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, the first man other than her father that she has ever seen. Shortly after, as Prospero's magic works its effects, she set eyes on the conspirators. What she says may well, I think, have influenced the translators of the New English Bible:
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here.
O brave new world that has such people in it.
The creatures she is looking at are treacherous, violent and compromised. When they threw her and her father out of Milan they thought they were sending them to their deaths. Miranda sees them in the light of Eden, and what she sees is not what they are, but what they could be and what in an instant Prospero can make them again.
Besides being the last, The Tempest is the most tightly structured, of Shakespeare's plays. As the audience, we come in on the last hours of a plan that Prospero has worked on for years. What he has plotted is not vengeance but reconciliation. For all those years, his enemies have thought he was dead. There has been no haste about what he has done. He has waited for Miranda to grow from a baby to a child, and from a child to a woman. But in the end the power of what he has prepared becomes evident to all. None are excluded from his plan of reconciliation. It is an astonishing end to Shakespeare's career as a playwright. Without the long years of preparation, there simply could not have been this astonishing harvest.
It is easy to become transfixed at the end of the Tempest by the moment of farewell, when Prospero talks of breaking his staff and giving up his books. It seems so obviously a moment of farewell from Shakespeare itself. If you want to be reminded of some of Prospero's last words, you can find them on Shakespeare's memorial in the south transept (and you may reflect, like me, on the extraordinary contemporary relevance of what he has to say about the 'cloud-capp'd towers' which 'shall dissolve. And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind'). The moment of real hope at the end of the play comes when Miranda looks, with love and admiration, on the motley crew of conspirators and sees in them the inhabitants of the 'brave new world' of Prospero's imagining. Prospero has planned it but it is her innocent eyes which look out on a vision of Eden and she who speaks of it with wonder.
The Tempest is a fantasy. For Christians, what Paul and what Jesus talk about is far from a fantasy. It is God's reality. Imagine for a moment what it would be to have the kind of innocence and openness which naturally sees the good and the beauty in others; imagine what it would be to share in a new world in which the bond between people is nothing other than the bond of unfeigned and unselfish love. This is the world which Christians believe has been brought into being by the resurrection of Christ, the world as God willed it from the beginning. This is the world we touch and taste by sharing in the eucharist, which is the sacrament of a new world born out of the travail of costly love. This is the world which, like the mustard seed, is here among us, secretly growing towards the harvest that in God's good time will surely come. It is a world which can take a lifetime to find, or can be entered in an instant. To put our two translations together, 'If anyone is in Christ, there is a new world; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!'