Sermons from Saint Faith's

Living the Mystery
A sermon preached on the fourth Sunday after Easter, 2007
Fr Mark Waters

'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly’

The people described as ‘the Jews’ in this morning’s gospel reading want Jesus to tell them plainly whether or not he is the Messiah. The story is part of a whole pattern of examples across the four gospels of stories of Jesus’ reluctance to make claims about his divinity. Scholars have called it the Messianic secret.

What these passages are really saying is not that the Jews didn’t know, or that Jesus didn’t know, but that the early church didn’t know exactly how Jesus could be divine. The gospels are witness to that. They, and the rest of the books of the New Testament, were the first written attempts to grapple with that central mystery of our faith. Here we see first century Christians struggling to make sense of what incarnation meant – how a human being could also be God at the same time.

And the church continued to struggle with that task for centuries; holding a series of world councils – with endless arguing – as the church haltingly tried to define what Christian orthodoxy was. Until we get to the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth such Christian council held in the year 451 and attended by 600 bishops. And this is part of what they came up with, some of which you will recognise from our creed:

“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”

. …….So that’s alright then isn’t it, got that one sorted!

Despite all of those efforts the question hasn’t really gone away. And never really does go away.

Definitions can never hack it – no matter how many bishops put them together. We still struggle with the same question now. How is Jesus divine?

T. S. Eliot devotes the whole of his poetry in the Four Quartets to this question. He talks about ‘trying to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time’, which, he says, is the occupation of the saint.’

‘But for most of us’, he says,
‘there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time.
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen,
or the winter lightning or the waterfall,
or music heard so deeply that it is not music at all,
but you are the music, while the music lasts.’

 ‘These are only hints and guesses’, he continues,
‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.’

So we struggle with hints and guesses. Because the answer to the question of the incarnation isn’t anything that you can sort out in your head! It’s not a head thing - it’s a heart thing! We can only really know the mystery by actually living it.

As the American writer Frederich Buechner says:

If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then he speaks to us largely through what happens to us –because the word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically through events.

That’s what the Jews couldn’t understand in this morning’s gospel.

And that’s why Jesus’ answer to them in the gospel this morning is – look at what I do, what I have done – there is the answer to the secret. There you will see God.
And when we look at what he did, it is clear that you can only understand those things in terms of relationships. Engagements with people. Part of a process. Divinity understood in a series of happenings. Encounters.

The incarnation, God’s love made flesh, God’s love with skin on, is a recurring irruption of grace into our lives. It wasn’t an event which happened all those years ago, it is a process which is going on now.

It happens in the middle of relationships, in encounters between us, out of the depths. And you can’t bottle it. You can’t ever properly define it. You can’t preserve in aspic. You can’t nail it down in church statements. And you can’t conjure it up in liturgies.

We can only experience it in what happens to us, day by day, in our lives with one another. In the mundane realities of the everyday. In our encounters with one another.

John Shea puts it like this:

When grace erupts the human condition changes. Grace is a catalyst. When grace explodes you don’t know what its going to do, but people are going to move, things are going to happen. There is no predicting it, but you can be AWAKE!  You can be awake when it happens. And if you are then you kiss the earth, and if you are, then you give praise to the source of life and the people you live with!

So the key is being awake!  Not  falling  asleep.  Not  allowing  habit  and  custom to
blunt our perception of what is happening in the moment. Not to allow life to just happen to us. Not to be dragged along by events. But to learn to inhabit events. To be really alive to the moment. To learn to be thin-skinned.

We need to have faith in that contemporary Christ. The one who is alive now in the miracles of love which we witness every day. Anytime people do as he did. Welcoming the stranger. Serving the poor. Healing the dis-eases of our bodies and souls. This is what it means to be one of his sheep. To understand servanthood, humility, commitment, faithfulness. This is the only way we will ever know.

T S Eliot again:

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Quick, now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well
All manner of things shall be well.’

Behold, our Christ is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

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