Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 9th February 2014
9 February 2014 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Stephen Holmes, Priest-in-Charge, North Stoneham and Bassett, Diocese of Winchester
'How do I live my life?' All religions attempt to provide an answer to that important question. In the two lessons we heard from the Bible this evening we were given some very clear advice. In the Old Testament the prophet Amos rebukes the nations and its leaders and declares the wrath of God on those who act unjustly and reject God’s law; those who seek to exploit the righteous and the needy; those who act in immoral ways and forbid the prophets to prophesy! Has anything changed in today’s world we might well ask?
Our reading from the apostle Paul to the Christian community in Ephesus, is equally relevant and challenging to all of those seeking to live out their faith. St Paul writes to the Ephesians while in prison in Rome and addressed the topic of the 'New Man in Christ'. The Ephesian Christians lived in one of the most splendid cities in ancient Rome; a real jewel in the crown of the empire. It was a core of paganism and the temple of Artemis [also known as Diana] was located there, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was like our busiest metropolitan cities today, a city filled with riches, education and religion, yet corrupt to the core with immorality. The Ephesian believers grew up in this corrupt society, yet came to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Like many believers today who have placed their hope in Christ and are called out and set apart to be conformed to his image, they remained by necessity, in the very culture in which they had been active and immoral participants. But now they had a different Lord, they knew the true God, and were called out to be ‘salt and light’ to their world. Yet the old ways would continue to call them. This is just as much a challenge to us today as it was to the early Christians in Ephesus. The life of the Christian is not easy, and the pulls of the old self are always there, dragging us back to sinful ways of behaviour.
St Paul reminds them of the ‘old man’ they left behind when they came to know Christ as Lord, when they were slaves to sensuality and self-interest, insensitive, greedy, impure, ignorant and corrupt. With minds so darkened so that they cannot distinguish between the true and false or believe there is any reality beyond the material. Worse still is the petrifaction of the conscience, ‘hardness of heart’ and the lack of concern for all that is evil and unjust. Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that when they came to know Christ they had left this sinful life behind them. So he tries to convince them that it is unnecessary to feel that they were leaving anything behind of value. Everything from their former way of life was useless, cancerous and death! So why go back there? Anyone in Christ is a new creature; the old things have passed away, so strive to live like that with your whole being. He entreats them to put away falsehood, to speak the truth, to act with integrity, not to steal, not to slander, to put away bitterness, anger and malice. Paul tells his hearers to lay aside the ‘old man’ to shed it like an old coat and throw it away. Why wear rotten rags when the King of Glory has reserved for you a gleaming white robe. Be renewed in the spirit of your mind and strive for the highest and the best! Be clothed with the garments of love, forgiveness and kindness. Put on the Lord Jesus and live life as 'a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.' Paul goes on to say, in Chapter 5 of Ephesians, that they must look carefully how they walk, not as unwise men, but as wise. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, but it is very easy to forget the high dignity that is ours in Christ. We need to be constantly reminded of this, as St Paul reminded the Ephesians. So spending time in prayer, worship and reading of scripture is very important to keep us focused and to help us be as a ‘living sacrifice’ with total, and not half-hearted, commitment.
Art and music can be a real help in enabling us to internalize spiritual truth at a deeper level. Over thirty-six years ago, I came to London and worked for a while as a volunteer just around the corner from the Abbey, at a hostel for the homeless. When I finished work, I came to Evensong at Westminster Abbey every day for six weeks. I was one of a small number of worshipers, one of whom might sometimes be His Holiness the Dalai Lama! It was here, in Westminster Abbey, that I first heard some key biblical texts that helped me through my spiritual life thus far; like these words set to music by Willaim Boyce from Job 28: 28: 'The fear of the Lord, that, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding.'
Music and art has been very helpful in keeping me faithful to Jesus. Like the words of William Mathias's Anthem, 'Admonition to rulers', from Chapter 7 from the book of Wisdom:
I prayed and understanding was given to me: I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I prefered her before sceptres and thrones, and esteemed riches as nothing in comparison to her. Neither compared I unto her any precious stone, because all gold in respect of her is as a little sand, and silver shall be accounted as clay before her. I loved her above health and beauty and chose to have her instead of light.
Those last words meant a lot to me: to choose wisdom instead of light is to go beyond the senses and trust in that which cannot be seen, but spiritually perceived. It is to walk not in the way of natural sight but in the way of insight. And is this not what it means to live life by faith?
The anthem Mater ora filium by Arnold Bax for double choir, inspired me not so much by the words, but the glorious music and the singing of a long sustained top C for three long bars, whilst the second choir weave a polyphonic Alleluia underneath it. The music transports the soul to heaven and leaves it there for a sustained moment. And I guess that this is how I wish my life could always be lived; not oscillating between the old man and the new man in Christ, but striving always for the very best in life and serving the King of heaven with my whole being.
This is well illustrated by a painting of the artist Paul Klee who was an exact contempory of Arnold Bax and who currently has an exhibition of his work in Tate Modern. His painting The order of the high C is from a private collection. Klee was a great lover of music and played the violin to professional quality. He saw music, like art, as sacramental; a way of communion with God. Sister Wendy Beckett in her book The Mystery of Love tells us that Klee imagines that those few singers that can reach a high C deserve a medal, and so the singer’s head in his painting, is shaped like a medallion and decorated with ribbons. But it is only ‘medal-shaped’ because she has put all that is in her into producing the high note. Her very mouth has become a ‘C’, her hair is formed from musical staves, and her throat has dwindled to nothing but a source of song. In her intense concentration, in her desire to be wholly and purely that true high note, she doesn’t see that she has drawn into herself all the brightness of the picture. Her head has almost become a light bulb, radiating song.
Christ is the high ‘C’ and as Christians we strive, and frequently fail, to reach the standard that Jesus sets us, but he forms himself on the lips of those who narrow and compress all their energies into becoming his music.
This is the Christian way to live life.