A Sermon from Sherborne
Do not cling to me
A sermon for Mattins on Easter Day, preached on 1st April 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Monsignor Ronald Knox, Roman Catholic Chaplain to the University of Oxford in the 1930’s, once described a discussion at a students’ society: ‘The prevailing attitude … was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the speaker had not said.’
I have become increasingly concerned in recent months about the growing and militant refusal of people, from all walks of life and of every creed or none, to tolerate any opinion other than their own. Having spent many years of my life, first as a student at both Oxford and Cambridge and then as a chaplain and lecturer at Bristol University, I find the decline in the willingness amongst many students – and dons too – to permit free speech or to participate in honest and open debate, both worrying and dangerous.
Similarly I wonder whether it is any longer possible to say anything complicated about anything, or to address any complex matter in terms other than simplistic slogans and sound-bites. It is as though everyone has given up on intellectual effort, and even on the courtesy that requires us to try to understand what other people are saying before passing instant judgment upon it, and them.
Nor are Christians immune from this trend. If I write, in my regular column in the Western Gazette, something with which a reader disagrees, then instead of engaging in debate with me that reader is much more likely to write to the Bishop demanding that I be sacked (thus betraying a woeful ignorance of how the Church of England works). More depressing still are the missiles sent in the direction of those who seek to explore theological and ethical issues in a nuanced and sensitive way. Yet our faith is not something that can be reduced to a series of simple formulae or propositions, precisely because God cannot be contained by purely human categories and definitions. Contemplating the white tiger in Bristol Zoo, R. S. Thomas wrote
It was beautiful as God
must be beautiful; glacial
eyes that had looked on
violence and come to terms
with it; a body too huge
and majestic for the cage in which
it had been put; up
and down in the shadow
of its own bulk it went,
lifting, as it turned,
the crumpled flower of its face
to look into my own
face without seeing me. It
was the colour of the moonlight
on snow and as quiet
as moonlight, but breathing
as you can imagine that God breathes
within the confines of our definitions of him,
agonising over immensities that will not return.
And so when Nicodemus, the Pharisee described by Jesus as ‘this famous teacher of Israel’ [John 3:10], comes to him by night to discover what it is Jesus is about, what it is he teaches, the first thing he has to discover is a new language, a different way of looking, fresh understanding. He is told by Jesus to learn that the Spirit is like the wind, blowing where it wills. Unless we are prepared to learn this new vocabulary, we will never understand the things of heaven.
Go back to the Old Testament and you discover that the very name of God – the sacred name Yahweh, so secret it was pronounced only by the High Priest and only in the Temple – is a verb and not a noun in origin, from a root meaning ‘to blow’ or ‘to speak’. And that takes us right back to Genesis 1 and the Spirit of God moving or blowing over the face of the waters, and God’s first action being a spoken command, ‘Let there be light’. And we begin to understand, too, the Prologue to John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, which J. B. Phillips paraphrases as ‘At the beginning, God expressed himself.’
So, in the Bible, God is primarily the One-who-acts, who goes before the Israelites in the wilderness as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: never an object, never static, never an idol to be grasped or possessed or comprehended; but moving, acting. God is loving, caring, saving, grieving, judging, restoring. And when Moses meets God in the burning bush and receives his commission, and demands to know the name of the One who speaks, God answers, ‘I AM; that is who I am.’ Or, a better translation: ‘I will be what I will be.’ [Exodus 3:14]
Here is God’s own statement about himself, that he is primarily a verb and not a noun. In other words, he simply will not be pinned down. He will not submit to being caged by our definitions and categories. Jesus himself is notoriously reluctant to accept any titles, and the only one he uses of himself is the enigmatic ‘Son of Man’. Time and again he orders those whom he has healed to tell no-one. He prefers to teach through parables which only those with the ears to hear and the hearts to understand will grasp. To the rest, his messianic secret remains hidden, impenetrable.
The problem – and it has been the problem of Christianity almost from the start – is that most people are not content with our enigmatic and elusive God. Do you remember the terrible hoo-ha that greeted the publication back in the 1960’s of Sidney Carter’s famous hymn I danced in the morning when the world was begun? People were outraged and scandalised by the notion of Christ dancing through his life and onto the cross, then out of the grave and on into resurrection history. Many choirs walked out rather than sing it, and good church people wrote angry letters of protest about it. And yet is it the most compelling and true theology. That is exactly what Jesus did in his earthly life and what he continues to do today. The trouble is that most people would prefer to have an utterly rock-solid faith in a small, easily-defined god, or no faith at all, rather than put their trust in One who will always be calling them on and leading them into risk and adventure for His sake. So they put God in their cage of agreed definition and limited liability and there endorse him or deny him, knowing that there he will not be able to disturb them too much.
But ‘I will be what I will be’ is still our God. Nothing illustrates that more than those precious weeks after his resurrection, when the Jesus of history is becoming the Christ of faith. He is no longer confined by the limitations of his humanity. No locked door can keep him out. Just when the solemn religious folk think they have done their duty and justified the authority invested in them by efficiently disposing once and for all of this dangerous fool, Eternity has the last laugh. As Harry Williams put it in his book Tensions, ‘Behind their backs, without them having the slightest inkling of what is going on, the fool has popped up again like a jack-in-the-box and is dancing about even more vigorously than before and even more compellingly. People here, there and everywhere are falling under his spell. But the brass hats and stuffed shirts are facing the other way and can’t see what is going on. So they continue with their dignified mutual congratulation and their serious business.’
In the garden, when Jesus appears to Mary of Magdala, he utters a command which echoes through history, ‘Do not cling to me’. He wants us to engage with him and adventure with him as he leads us on in the dance of faith, the glorious, risky exploration of resurrection living. It will require intellectual effort, to be sure, because he wants to engage our minds. And it will require a willingness to love, because he wants to engage our hearts. That was what Moses glimpsed at the burning bush. It is what is true for us today. Still God goes ahead of us, dancing just beyond our grasp, leading us on. And unless we follow, we will never reach the Promised Land.