Sermon for Matins
28 May 2006 at :00 am
The story is told of a clergyman who once encountered the comedian Groucho Marx, one of the legendary Marx brothers. The clergyman evidently went up to him, shook him by the hand and said 'It is a great privilege to meet you. I would like to congratulate you on all the pleasure you have brought to so many people' to which Groucho Marx, looking a the clergyman's clerical collar, is reported to have replied 'And I would like to congratulate you on all the pleasure you have taken away from so many people.'
I was reminded of that encounter when I went with my family just over a week ago to watch the Da Vinci Code. Do not worry, this is not going to be yet another sermon on that film, the Church of England has probably had more than enough of those and anyone who really wants to explore the issues raised by it can do so in the two evenings that this Abbey is organising, but part of the theme of the novel is that the world needs to be released from the power of a church that has an excessive distrust of women, and even of pleasure.
Now of course both Groucho Marx and Dan Brown have a point. There certainly have been times in the life of the church, and in all parts of the church, when it has appeared far more life denying than life enhancing. Whether it be those at the Catholic end of the spectrum encouraging harsh routines for self-denial, or some of the more gloomy periods in Protestant history when an over emphasis on sin and guilt has resulted in a pretty joyless view of life - I doubt, for example, it was much fun living in Calvin's Geneva - in both the pressure was to suspect and distrust anything that might give pleasure. Pleasure, it seems, was sometimes considered something that will always distract us from goodness.
But that has never been the whole truth about the Christian vision of things, and I suggest, the way to deal with that is not to create an even more fantastic myth to correct it, as Dan Brown tries to do, but simply to go back to some fairly basic theology.
The first area to be explored is a proper approach to creation. To those who assert the reality of original sin, the propensity in human kind to do evil rather than good, it is, I think, worth pointing out that even in the Bible itself the story of the fall of Adam is preceded by the statement, repeated many times in the first chapter of Genesis, that God saw what he had made, and behold it was good. Original goodness certainly preceded, and in a sense is more fundamental, than original sin. The world and life is primarily here to be enjoyed, that is also part of the Biblical picture.
And that, of course, extends to all that we are. God made it all. There is, I suspect, always a danger in religion that we project onto God all the things that we know are good, but project onto the devil, or evil, or whatever we call it, those things that appear less good. But in religious mythology even the devil was a fallen angel, implying that evil is good gone wrong rather than pure evil itself. And if God made all that we are, then all is potentially good. All that might give us pleasure, be it physical things like food, drink or sex, or intellectual and emotional pleasure as provided by things like music or art or even a clever argument are intrinsically good and come from God. Of course in some cases there may be some terrible distortion in that pleasure, and the good that has gone wrong might be hard to define, but the principle that all that we fundamentally are is good remains.
So a good understanding of creation is part of the answer to the joyless distortions of religion that have been around and still are. But the second area to be explored in this matter is the festival we celebrated last Thursday, Ascension Day, when in the Acts of the Apostles Christ is presented as rising to heaven.
To get at how that can help we need to realise that there is sometimes quite a difference between the eastern Orthodox view of the Ascension and the one usually given in western churches. Here in the west we often see it primarily as Christ moving to his reigning in glory, it is not so much a movement through space as a movement through status. It marks the end of his presence in any visible form on earth and puts him, as the heavenly image has it, at the right hand of God. But the eastern Orthodox see another dimension to the meaning of the story. They see Jesus as an expression of our humanity, and it is, therefore, our humanity that is taken up by Christ into glory and into the heavenly places. And our humanity being made part of God is what the Eastern Orthodox call salvation, or divinisation. Divinity is what humans are made for.
Of course that has not been wholly lost in the west. Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, a former canon of this Abbey, wrote a hymn that started:
Lord, Thou hast raised our human nature
To the clouds at God's right hand.
It is there in our Western tradition, but it is more emphasised in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Now we are, of course, dealing here with symbolic rather than literal language, but then symbolic language can point to a deep truth. If our humanity can be caught up in God, if all that we are as humans can be divinised and made one with him then there is hope for all that we are.
And the route to that lies in experiencing God not primarily as judge but as love. He loves all that we are, he does not despise it even if we sometimes despise parts of ourselves. Of course God may sometimes want much of what we are used in better ways than we use it, but it was central to the teaching of Jesus to say that God loves humankind, saints and sinners, and he wishes to heal our damaged souls by loving them into wholeness, a wholeness that includes all that we are. Groucho Marx was a very funny man, but fundamentally in that story he was wrong.