Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 1st June 2014
1 June 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
I recently attended the Chelsea Flower Show, once again sponsored by M&G Investments (shrewdly aware that investing requires similar patience and timing to aspects of gardening). Reassuringly, all was watched over by Wren’s great chapel for the Chelsea Pensioners. The visit was an absolute delight: an experience to raise the spirits and an opportunity to reflect on the glory of floral life; on truly beautiful and spectacular gardens and displays. The transformation of an ordinary open space into an amazing horticultural spectacle – powerfully symbolises resurrection, and the glory of the creative genius (the heart of the fabulous displays) embodies ascension.
The place was absolutely packed with people. Indeed at one stage I got hemmed in by a party of pregnant mothers describing the show as ‘absolute paradise’, reflecting how this year’s garden designs ascended to new heights – and all rubbing their tummies! However we all realise that the show is very much a transient thing - for in a few days everything will go – the flowers, the gardens, the close camaraderie; yet we’ll take home fresh inspiration, new ideas, coupled with power to inspire, delight and amaze. I mused on the fact that flowers (like babies) need nourishment and care to grow and flourish. My mind floated back to the Easter Vigil. Firstly how light from the Paschal Candle becomes a wave of lights, speaking to us of Christ – the Risen Lord in whom light has brought forth life, a sort of divine photosynthesis for us human beings. And secondly how water - life-giving spring water (amid the dryness) becomes the image of the sacrament of baptism, and through which we become sharers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Well back to the garden show: I next found the Great Pavilion with its expert exhibits and mass of organised glory. The roses from Beales and David Austin were unmissable; the gladioli displayed by Pheasant Acre Plants were sumptuous. Sweet peas transported us into July and chrysanthemums fast forwarded us into November. It was resurrection and ascension rolled into one! On the Main Avenue there was also a major outdoor garden entitled ‘The Paradise Garden’. Its aim was to present a style of garden which ‘the Persians’ invented and which is considered to influence us still today. It claimed to show how traditional English gardens have been influenced by the ancient paradise gardens of Italy, Persia and Greece. As I was mulling this one over, I bumped into the Canon Theologian…I strongly suspect that he was thinking along the same lines as myself: That the word paradise is used far too loosely now days – not least by historians of ancient Roman and Italian gardens: just because ancient fresco paintings contained lots of flowery images – did that necessarily mean they had anything to do with Paradise? In modern popular usage, paradise usually refers to a state of future bliss, or even in Christian terms as a synonym for heaven.
But is it something we long for in the future? Or is it here and present with us now? Having just celebrated the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, and as we draw towards the close of the Easter season, I also reflected on this particular juxtaposition of ascension and resurrection brought together for us on this particular Sunday. If we were forced to make the distinction we could well say that Resurrection proclaims Jesus’s victory over sin and death, while his ascension points to the glory at the heart of his triumph. “Glory” (so often symbolised by beautiful flowers) is rather like a touch word for the new life. In this context – its interesting to think of the disappearance of Jesus as part of our homecoming.
In todays Gospel reading we hear how Jesus said to his Father “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do”. And a couple of Chapters earlier, Jesus said to his disciples: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”. John 14.3 NRSV. The disciples had been very much at home with Jesus. They had shared his company, dined with him, walked with him to Jerusalem, and witnessed his death and Resurrection. He had been their companion, the centre of the community.
But Jesus must disappear if they’re to be not just with him but at home in him.
With the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus is transformed from being someone with whom the disciples are at home. Instead he becomes their home. They used to be with his body. Now they are becoming his body, as we are the Body of Christ. Paradoxically, they have to lose him, if they are to find this new intimacy. It’s the opposite of our own birth (as those young mothers at the show will no doubt know well). When we are born, we lose the intimate, home of the womb so as to be at home with our mother. We lose the intimacy of being in our mother’s body so as to be able to see her face to face. The joy and the pain of birth is that we lose one form of intimacy, safely protected inside our mother, being one body with her, so as to gain another and deeper intimacy, which is seeing her face, being with her, and eventually being able to talk to her.
With our Christian rebirth, it’s the other way round. The disciples lose Jesus as the one whose face they can see - so as to find him as the one in whom they can be at home. Jesus departs – so that we may become more intimate. We lose him – so that we can discover him at the very heart of our existence. Jesus’s ascension isn’t so much another episode in a sequence of temporal events (he died, then he rose, then he ascended) as a way of proclaiming, just as the Dean said on Thursday, that his victory over death breaks through the confines of time and space. Rather, he’s gone deeper into the heart of our reality, and shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world, and the source of our prayerful trustful waiting on God.
The flower show, I think, helps us to understand this. Flowers (stemming from bulbs and tiny seeds) symbolise Resurrection - and gardens (not least Easter gardens) proclaim Jesus’s victory over sin and death - while the skill and creative genius of horticulturalists – speaks to us of ascension and points us to the glory at the heart of his triumph. With eyes to see, these fabulous gardens can be a touch word to us for the new life. In this floral context its helpful for us to reflect on the disappearance of Jesus as part of our homecoming. We lose him – so that we can discover him at the very heart of our life. This is the paradise we seek.