Sunday 5th May – Bishop John Armes
A ‘Damned World’?
The Patronal Festival of St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh, 5th May 2019
1 John 1.1-9; John 20.1-8
We live in a ‘damned world!’
When Elizabeth Templeton heard a Christian minister say that she was rendered speechless. Not, I hasten to add, because he had used the word ‘damned’ but because she considered this to be an almost blasphemous ‘denial of God’s restoring love.’ How can we write off the world in this way, how can it be a ‘damned world’ ‘post-incarnation and post-resurrection’, both of which speak powerfully of God’s affirmation?
Elizabeth Templeton was a brilliant Scottish theologian with an international reputation who died in 2015. She was fiercely indignant at any suggestion that the world is irredeemably sinful and clear-sighted about the way the Christian church alienates people. They expect to be ‘scolded and nagged all the time for not being good enough, not being faithful, not being responsible and so on.’
In 1994 she wrote –
‘The trivialisation of God to a moral nanny with multiple binoculars trained mainly on the bedrooms of the world, rightly alienates people. And it alienates them, not because … they cannot bear the scrutiny of the judging God, but because they know in their bones that such a God is not God but… a God constructed out of human fear and guilt.’*
Blistering stuff! And still pertinent 25 years on. And lest we complacently acquit ourselves of the accusation of creating a God out of fear and guilt, Elizabeth could be equally fierce about any version of a God made in our own image.
For, world-affirming though she was, Elizabeth was well aware that God unsettles us when justice is denied, goodness and compassion spurned and where a false peace is enjoyed only by the few. In other words, an unqualified ‘yes’ to God’s creation, human and non-human, must be matched by an equally unqualified ‘no’ when idols are worshipped in place of God, ideologies make others less than human and selfishness despoils the very planet that sustains our life.
There is always a fine balance to be struck between this ‘yes’ and this ‘no’. For at this moment in history, insecurities, anxieties, terrors assail us and encourage us to build our defences high and to claim a God as our protector who, (surprise, surprise) disapproves of exactly the things we disapprove of.
Elizabeth Templeton challenged us to take the risk of letting God be God – God who is both utterly free and profoundly in relationship with us; God who is known by us and yet always is unknown to us. And to bear in mind that our words will always fail to describe this God who is far beyond our limited minds fully to grasp; and that our religious institutions will always themselves fall far short of, and therefore must be judged against the qualities of the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught.
So, as St John’s embarks on a third century we must bear all this in mind and ask ourselves what it means here and now to live the faith we proclaim. How are we to live out both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’?
There are some here who have had an intimate knowledge St John’s for 25% of its life or more. As someone who can at least claim a 10% knowledge I can look back and identify a delightful commixture of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. A worship style that, through its indulgence of the senses, sight and sound, subverts the puritanical and severe. Yet at the same time, this neo-Gothic pile, with its elegant twentieth and twenty-first century additions, at the heart of our cultured and rather comfortable city, is identified as a place of protest and ‘in-yer-face’ challenge to the status quo. This is a place and you are a people who, at your best, have a generous sense of what and who might be considered holy. You have learned, at your best, to find God as much in the so-called ‘secular’ as in the so-called spiritual; in other faiths and no faith; in the damaged and insecure, the chaotic and the messy as much as in the ordered and the self-assured.
Looking back we can see these things, but our purpose now is not to look back but to look forward. And as we do so let’s reflect for a moment on your patron saint – St John the Evangelist – St John, who invites us to walk in the light and who gave us, in his gospel, an incredible spiritual classic. Our reading this morning offers us a tiny sample of his writing and, like every other fragment, it raises all sorts of interesting questions. Who was the disciple whom Jesus loved who comes running to the tomb with Peter (and gets there first)?
Some would say it is John himself, the one whose testimony is true. Others see the beloved disciple as also an idealized figure who, as the one who lies close to Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper, who is there at the foot of the cross, who believes in the resurrection before he has seen the risen Lord (as we heard in today’s reading), is a pattern for us to follow.
Yes, perhaps, but if that’s the case I would suggest that this pattern isn’t complete. The beloved disciple must always be placed alongside another key figure – Thomas, the one who questioned. For we have in these last paragraphs of the gospel one disciple, the beloved one, who did not see and yet believed, hand in hand with Thomas who insisted on seeing in order to believe… for, crucially, Thomas’s test of the resurrection was whether Jesus’ wounds were real.
It was Thomas who recognized that the resurrection requires wounded-ness; he saw the resurrection in the broken body of Christ –– thus pointing us to the sacrament, of course, but even more than that opening up the extraordinary possibility that it isn’t in our perfection, whether of body or soul, but in our imperfections that God’s work is done.
John’s is a gospel of incarnation – of the Word becoming flesh, becoming fully human. And it is a gospel of resurrection – of that frail human flesh becoming glorious. No ‘damned world’ in John’s Gospel, but a world formed by the Word, blessed by the Word.
John also tells us of a God who is utterly free to be God, who always eludes our prejudices, and yet who is also utterly entwined in relationship – God in Christ, Christ in us, the Spirit of God joining us with one another in love.
Incarnation and resurrection, freedom and relationship, these are the keynotes of the music of the gospel – it has been thus for two thousand years, not just two hundred. And all of us, whether we’ve been here for fifty years or five weeks, can hear the song and make it our own. Indeed, we must make it our own if others, far from now, are to sing it too. We must be loud in our ‘yes’ to the world, without allowing that ‘yes’ to collude with or to excuse evil; firm too, therefore, with our ‘no’, whilst remembering that God loved the world so much that God sent the Son, not to condemn but so that the world might be saved.
And therefore to make it our duty and our delight, in the face of so much that seems to deny it, to shout from the rooftops that though this may be a broken world it is not and never shall be a ‘damned’ world.
* Quotations are drawn from, In Your Loving is Your Knowing, Elizabeth Templeton – Prophet of Our Times, ed. Peter Matheson and Alastair Hulbert, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2019, p31
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