Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 28th October 2012
28 October 2012 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
‘God became man, so that we might become God.’ However you translate this tricky bit of Greek, it jars on our northern European ears. ‘God became man, so that we might become God.’ It sounds rather shocking—but it’s not a quotation from a piece of late twentieth-century pop-spirituality, rather thus thundered St Athanasius the Great, in his treatise On the Incarnation towards the end of the third century. God became man, so that we might become God. The point of the incarnation of the Eternal Word, argues Athanasius, is that mankind could be taken right into the very heart of Godhead.
This is a rather dazzling way of expressing our Christian vocation—and has been seen by some theologians as being overripe, even quite dangerous—what about the divide between Creator and Creature, they cry—but the fact is, that this focus on sanctification, being made holy and thus sharing in the life of God himself, is undeniably found throughout the Fathers of the Church. So often, our contemporary take on Christianity is softened by a northern European, protestant, enlightenment driven culture, so subtle that we don’t notice it—but Christianity is, at its origin and heart, an Eastern Religion; it is about sanctification, about taking on some of the fiery attributes of God himself. Whereas a basic understanding of Christian Ethics combined with good old fashioned protestant moralism encourages us to ‘be good’, the depths of our tradition encourage us towards something altogether more exciting and effectual: don’t just ‘be good’ but ‘become holy’. In evangelistic terms, the Christian project immediately sounds a bit more interesting to people searching for meaning. The destiny of the Christian is to be ‘raised up to the life of God.’ Not to become God, as the Father is God, by nature and by essence, but rather to share in the Sonship of Christ by grace and adoption. That is the glittering and dazzling truth at the heart of Christianity.
Why does this matter, today? In commenting on today’s second lesson, St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, ‘Even at this moment, Christ is, as human, interceding for our salvation, until he makes us divine by the power of his incarnate humanity.’ The Letter to the Hebrews reveals Christ as the perfect High Priest, who is constantly desiring to draw humanity into the sphere of his perfection, in order that our humanity can share his glory. In a world which is increasingly infused by the new wisdom of particle science and astrophysics, we can talk with fresh confidence about being drawn to the energy of Christ—it is to this intense magnetism of Christ’s life which we must give our attention, so that in pastoral terms, all that would hold us back from Christ can be overcome by his love. And, as today’s Gospel shows, in this process, we will learn that we are actually more alive, more alert. Our Gospel reading from St Mark contains an interesting illustration both of this magnetism and this response. Blind Bartimaeus defies the crowds to cry out to Jesus, refusing to be silenced. When Jesus summons him into his vista, Bartimaeus literally finds that things look different in the presence and orbit of Jesus. This Gospel story and the teaching of the letter to the Hebrews share the same simplicity at their heart—two writings of utterly different literary and theological styles, but with the same simple truth—as humanity is brought within the graced orbit of Christ, change is effected, holiness shines through, redemption occurs.
Rowan Williams has spoken of this as ‘standing where Christ stands.’ In today’s Gospel, Bartimaeus cries out until he stands where Christ stands, and then he sees. The writer to the Hebrews, declares how the Son who has been made perfect forever saves all those who approach God through him. In the prophecy of Jeremiah, we hear the prophet proclaim that those who are scattered, the outcast, the lame, the despairing, shall be brought into the heart of the covenant—the very heart of God’s action with humans. If we say that Christian people—those adopted by grace through baptism—are called to stand where Christ stands, it means that our lives need to discover a radical openness to God. It’s why Christ encourages us to pray ‘our Father’; it’s why he no longer calls us servants but friends. Because the Great High Priest has cleared the space where we can stand to share his relationship with the total creative love he calls his Father.
It is at the Eucharist that we are so clearly gathered into this space, together. As people from different backgrounds, countries, with different histories, needs, and hopes, we are come here to be formed into the image of Christ—to be transformed, individually and corporately, by attentiveness to scripture and by the sanctifying grace of Christ’s own divine life in the Eucharist. At the culmination of the Eucharistic prayer at the heart of this liturgy, the great Thanksgiving offered by the whole Church, we pray it all: Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. Repeat. And if this is sincere, it will start to transform our lives, thoughts, and actions. Not by simply ‘being good’ so that we might become holy, if it pleases God—as if we would ever be capable of that! But by becoming holy, so that our living, our loving, and all our doings are shot through—animated—by the love and life of Christ.
This subtly different approach is seen by the mystics and narrated by the poets, rather than reported by journalists or recorded in tick-boxes. But it is worth orienting our life in this way so that the depth of what Christ offers us may be glimpsed, however tentatively. The truth it reveals is the truth of the end of the story, as we glimpse through the cracks of broken bread and outpoured wine the occasional shaft of the absolute transformative brightness of Christ’s light.
But we have to allow ourselves to be transformed. Grace enables, not forces. Like Bartimaeus, we must cry out to Christ, and not resist the magnetic draw of his life which will purify and sanctify us. And as we do this for our own discipleship, we can be sure that this transforming, contagious holiness will re-enchant our society, more than any well-meaning programmes of moralism or missionary zeal. The reformed theologian and ethicist H Richard Niebuhr considered much of this in his posthumously published book The Responsible Self:
Christians cannot boast that they have an excellent way of life, for they have little to point to when they boast. They only confess—we were blind in our distrust of being, now we begin to see; we were aliens and alienated in a strange, empty world, now we begin sometimes to feel at home; we were in love with ourselves and all our little cities, now we are falling in love, we think, with Being itself, with the City of God, the universal community of which God is the source and governor. And for all this we are indebted to Jesus Christ in our histories, and in that depth of the spirit in which we grope with our theologies and theories of symbols. To whom else shall we go for words of eternal life, to whom else for the franchise in the universal community?
Niebuhr closes this remarkable passage by quoting St Augustine, himself inspired by St Athanasius and the other Greek Fathers: ‘I do not say to thee seek the way. The way itself has come to thee. Arise, and walk.’