Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?

Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.

Expectations and reality

SnailShell45Church Magazine, September 2018

I’m glad to see the back of August. It seems to have been an awfully long month. From a personal point of view it’s not been without its trials. At the risk of boring you all, I tell you again I don’t like hot and muggy weather, and it has been very hot and muggy. Then there is the continuing saga of the left eye. Earlier in the month, the pain was such that I was sure it must be eye cancer that had already invaded the skull bones, and I was planning my funeral. Like many medics—even though I practised full time for only 12 months 40 years ago—I tend to catastrophize.

I quite enjoyed sitting in the ophthalmology waiting room. It gave me a sense of superiority. I may be older than some of the other punters, but I’m not as obese as most, I’m sprightlier than most, I don’t have a Zimmer frame and I look less miserable than most. Indeed the consultant ophthalmologist said that I looked a lot younger than 68. So there.

The NHS, truly the national religion, is indeed a wonderful thing and we need to protect it from the assaults of the enemy. But let’s keep a sense of proportion. It was not invented to make up for our irresponsible decisions. It was not invented for A and E departments to be a pool of vomit every weekend as a result of leglessness. It was not invented so that people could ask for sterilisations to be reversed just because they’ve changed their minds. It was not invented to keep people alive well beyond what might reasonably be expected. It can not alter the fact that life is a terminal condition, and the longer you live the more likely you are to die. Get used to it.

We have unrealistic expectations of health. We think the doctor’s duty is to make us feel as well at 68 as we did at 28, despite the lifetime of shoving stuff into our gobs that is not good for us, despite choosing to do things that take their toll. If you are going to go running on hard pavements, don’t be surprised when you get knackered knees. And don’t blame someone else. I know this is a favourite theme of mine, but the fact is that actions have consequences, and we have to take responsibility for our actions. It’s no good praying to the sky pixie for healing when the condition results from our own genetics or activities. I know people are afflicted by disease through no “fault” of their own, but I’m not talking about conditions like that.

Anyway, healing doesn’t mean perfection. It means coming to terms with the reality of the situation you’re in. If you’re dying of cancer and accept that it is so, there’s a sense in which you are healed. Think about it. And remember that stress always results from the mismatch between expectations and reality.  Ditch expectations and live moment by moment. Yes, I know it’s difficult. I’m not good at it.

Just as we are often unrealistic about things of the body, so we are about things of the spirit. Here are some tips for spiritual refreshment from Niki Hardy, who lives with rectal cancer.

  • List a few things you’re grateful for: practising gratitude increases wellbeing.
  • Write down how you’re feeling: tired, angry, worried, resentful, hopeful or whatever. Then think about what you’ve written.
  • Put on some beautiful music.
  • Get out into nature: lots of people see more of God in a garden than in a church.
  • Find somewhere quiet and sit in silence. Remember Elijah encountering God not in storm or noise but in silence. Be still. Be quiet. Stop yabbering on.
  • Be kind to others. Remember that everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Stop moaning.

Happy Autumn.

Divine sustenance from a child

DancingHomily for Proper 12, year 

2 Kings 4.42-44; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

I’m not bothered whether the feeding of the five thousand is historical or not. Its symbolic power is profound.

Jesus distributes victuals to the hungry. Victuals, fruits of creation, are gathered by the labour of human hands. Crossing the lake to the other, gentile, side tells us that the message is for all, not just respectable club members. It’s for the whole world, represented by the five thousand. God’s grace and goodness is signified by 5 in Biblical numerology. In all this, the allusion to the mass is clear enough: takes loaves, breaks them, distributes, consumes.

Here are several topics for a homily, but today I’m not dealing with any of them. I want to consider something you may think is a minor detail. All the gospel writers tell this story, but only John tells us that the victuals are provided by a paidarion, the Greek for child or young slave. Yes: the bread of life comes from the hands of a child. This is a remarkable detail, and one that hits me all the more forcefully every time I see children in action.

Here are some resonances it conjures up:

  • A little child shall lead them.
  • Allow the children to come to me.
  • If anyone hurts a child, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the water with a stone around his neck.
  • To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as a child.
  • The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man (Simeon).

What is it about children that is so important to salvation?

Straightforward. Trusting. Direct, unhampered by so-called politeness and good manners. Pushing at boundaries. Taking risks. Full of energy. Full of imagination.

The openness and open-mindedness of children reminds me of a favourite Hebrew image of salvation: enlightenment, freedom from ignorance. Buddhist too. Such freedom comes from living in the moment—being fully aware of what exactly is going on in and around us, with open eyes and minds: nonjudgmental mindfulness.

But this is a difficult thing for us adults to aspire to. The ‘freshness’ of the child within us has been obscured by the accretions of ‘adultness’ that gather around the core. Layers that come from pride, wilfulness, selfishness, thoughtlessness, self-deception, pretence, puffed-upness. We are “inclosed in our own fat”. We tell ourselves that some of these things are necessary to get on in life, to crawl up the greasy career pole, to please other people. I know—I’ve been there. All these things that prevent us from living the authentic life that is trying to get out. All these things mar the image of innocence within, and by innocence I mean simply a lack of noxiousness. Our hearts are hardened by life. Scarred. Solidified. Frozen in ice. All encasing that innocence, that child-likeness within.

To give a medical analogy, think what happens when we are wounded. The wound heals by scarring, and scar tissue is thick and ugly. So as we go through life with its hurts – others hurt us and we hurt ourselves, the accumulating scar tissue obscures the inner core. It clouds our view of the world; it prevents others from seeing what we are truly like. We end up like a Russian doll with so many layers covering the core.

The journey towards salvation requires us to let these layers fall away. I suggest, like the Fathers of the Church of the first three centuries (before Augustine) that the core within is divine, part of God implanted within us all. All we have to do is cooperate with it once we recognize it. To recognize it requires that we search for it.

This is not easy. A good place to start is by self-examination, by trying to see ourselves as others see us. You might try imagining yourself on a cloud looking down at you and noting what you see. One of the best ways to go about this task is to open your heart to someone you trust absolutely.

You might say that such self-examination is about letting the light shine into your soul. It may be that you are altogether better than I am, with only pure whiteness within—but looking around at you, I doubt that. In myself I’ve seen pride and selfishness masquerading as necessity or pragmatism. I’ve convinced myself that rearrangement of my prejudices is radical thought. And I don’t think I’m alone: listen to the first letter of John: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Later in the liturgy we meet the Lord. He is love, so why be afraid? Maybe we are not so much afraid as ashamed. If God is love, and love is God, we don’t need to be ashamed. Are we afraid that by letting someone into our lives we are in some way diminished? Not so, said Pope Benedict XVI at his inauguration: ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.’

Let the warmth in. Warmth hatches chicks. We need hatching of our hearts. Or, melting. Strangely warmed, as John Wesley said. Warm the shell of grumpy self-obsession, and we see the world again through child-like eyes. If the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

Hatching of the heart is not going to happen until we pause, rest, and are still – in order to let it happen. The challenge is to confront our demons inside in the hope that the light of Christ will bleach them, to help us to approach the image of God within. Now we get to the message of the reading from Ephesians: Christ does indeed dwell in our hearts. We may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Consider this:

I think we have lost the ability to balance. Our equilibrium is off. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed somebody making a good balanced unbiased decision. I think the phrase “godly, righteous and sober life” is the thing, sober is the way forward, well–considered, well thought out, and poised. This doesn’t even come close to saying what it was supposed to, but when you get started it’s hard to stay on point which I think was about listening. Inner peace – it is in the listening that I heal. The problem is that the noise inside my head is deafening.

My elder son wrote that in an email from Texas. He died a few years after.

Listening to the quiet, letting the heart be warmed and hatched in the light, is a daily discipline. Listening in silence is prayer. There are other ways of hatching too: coming to church is hatching with others—battery hatching. Journal writing, gardening, walking, acts of compassion, social protest are others.

Whatever ways you choose, attend to your heart. Listen to others. Be quiet and listen to yourself. Read The Snow Queen. Again and again—it’s full of pertinent resonances, wholeness restored when Gerda’s tears of love melt Kay’s heart of ice. Through child-like love we attain eternity.

O my Saviour, lifted from the earth for me, draw me, in thy mercy, nearer unto thee. Speed these lagging footsteps, melt this heart of ice as I scan the marvels of thy sacrifice. Lift my earth-bound longings; fix them, Lord, above; draw me with the magnet of thy mighty love. Lord, thine arms are stretching ever far and wide, to enfold thy children to thy loving side. And I come, O Jesus: dare I turn away? No, thy love hath conquered, and I come today, bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin, and care; at thy feet I lay them, and I leave them there. William Walsham How, 1823-1897.

A midsummer night’s dream

15163038101103088973a-midsummer-nights-dream-clipart.medFor St Paul’s Magazine, July 2018

I wake about 4 am sweating, heart thumping. I’ve been dreaming of some disturbing event, often at school, often involving exams I felt sure to fail: physics usually. Sometimes at medical school, with doom-laden foreboding that I am to fail physiology or biochemistry (the one subject I actually failed was pharmacology, and that doesn’t seem to feature). I’ve even had to go back to Cambridge for resits—here’s the curious thing—despite knowing in the dream that I had spent 30 years as a medical school academic.

In last night’s dream I told a few home truths to parents. I wish I’d done that when I was younger. It was gratifyingly violent.

Such a lot of insecurity. Such a lot of anger, never openly expressed, but smouldering, occasionally erupting at inconvenient times. It’s very tiresome. I wish I could remember pleasant dreams. As it is, I wake feeling as if I’ve done several rounds with Mike Tyson.

Why am I telling you this?

Some people expect clergy to be perfect, to be free of the problems that affect ‘normal’ people. Some people who don’t know me apologize for swearing in my presence, presumably on the ground that my thoughts are so pure that my psyche will go into meltdown if exposed to too many profanities. If only they knew. I could teach them a thing or two about swearing. It’s impossible to live and work in Dublin for almost 20 years without becoming adept at the handling of profanities, given the infinite creativity of Dubliners in that regard.

Mixtures of past and present. Mixtures of sacred and so-called profane. We are all mixtures. There is nothing pure about any of us. We are mixtures of genes from ancestors. Do you realize that each one of us carries around particles from the big bang? Do you realize that every one of us has something of the primordial swamp in us?

It’s hardly surprising that past memories are part of us too. In fact, they are stored in the brain more securely than more recent memories, which is one reason that old people find it easier to remember what happened 30 years ago than what happened yesterday. You might have heard me use the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hillside, picking up with each revolution some of the snow it has rolled over, getting bigger as it descends. Not a bad image of the human condition—except that there comes a point when we realize that we don’t need all the snow that we’ve collected, and it’s time to get rid of much of it. Trouble is, this isn’t easy, and some of the bits we’d like to get rid of are reluctant to go.

Dreams are just dreams. They don’t foretell the future, but in my experience they can point to stuff in my head that needs sorting out. If it niggles, sort it. Examine the emotions you feel in the dream, try and figure out why they bother you. This is called prayer. Prayer is not about presenting the sky pixie with a shopping list. It’s a journey into yourself. And the further into yourself you go, the closer you get to the Divine core—God in the middle of you.

When you cut yourself, blood particles called platelets gather at the site to plug the hole in the blood vessel and help the blood to clot. These platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for—wait for it—huge cell. You and I, all of us, are broken off bits of God. We too can plug gaps and mend cuts, metaphorically speaking, by doing things that help to heal and restore people and events. Life’s destination is to be reunited with the Divine megakaryocyte. This is the doctrine of theosis as interpreted by the Vicar. Look it up if you’re interested.

Ponder these:

  • God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is.… The glory of God is a living person and the life of man is the vision of God. St Irenaeus
  • It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him;” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparted to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.” Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Christmas Day 1605.

Accept the upsetting dreams, and take what you can from them. Go easy on yourself—there are plenty of gobshites out there who are quick to find fault with you, so you don’t need to join them—and remember your destination.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:

And whatever else you do this summer, have a rest.

Easter freedom

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Easter homily 2018

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics beloved of medical students. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up golf club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped, flown away.

Can you not see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to learn to to move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. Forgiven.

People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise the piano. We have to keep telling ourselves. We have to brainwash ourselves. But the penalty for not forgiving is that we become like Miss Havisham or like Gollum, wizened, miserable, resentful, odious, mendacious. We think we are sticking two fingers up at the world, but in truth the world doesn’t care a jot. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d betrayed wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them for their calumny? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them? Does he plan some even more horrid act of vengeance?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace to you”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, blindly followed the crowd—every time hammering another nail into the wrists and ankles. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, you and me, now. It’s about death of pride and self in order that selflessness can ascend.

We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it like Miss Havisham. We turn masochism (all very well in its place, I’m told …) into an art form. But life is to be lived. So, girls and boys, practise forgiving yourself. Moment by moment. It doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of them for the benefit of others. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old. It helps you to live life to the full by laying down all the vain things that charm you most.

Forgive yourself. Live for the future. Happy Easter.

Plagiarized from the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Sunday 16 April 1609. 

http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/andrewes/v2/easter1609.html

Tuesday in Holy Week: love your enemies

prodigal_son33

The welcome

Isaiah 49:1-6. John 13:21-33, 36-38

I suspect all church people have heard ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ The usual response is ‘well, there’s always room for one more, so you’d be in good company.’

We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is, amongst other things, accused of being a hypocrite. Judas wasn’t a particularly bad man, just weak. His weakness is part of the story, just as are Peter’s denials. Maybe if Judas hadn’t killed himself he’d be a saint like Peter—maybe he should be, since he was the agent of Jesus’ liberation from earthly form. Yesterday we heard him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story.

It all puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart. Homer says: I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

As it happens I think Homer’s a great guy. For all his faults, he’s a kind of innocent, and he certainly loves his family. But enough of these insights into my depraved televiewing habits. I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s Judas in us all, in our human nature. Once again, biology plays its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons. As we go with him, we must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection, enemies of imagination. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. Three are obvious:

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees three quarters of his people starve while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said ‘it wasn’t me’. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. It’s easy to pick on politicians because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. In this regard, we are all complicit in the problems that afflict us, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden of the mistakes our generation has made. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is staggering. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is, in my theology, the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, QeotokoV. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. After giving birth, the woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology. Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy,

  • Jesus’ cells invade Mary.
  • Mary does not reject Jesus.
  • Jesus and Mary exchange material.
  • Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity, she’s one of us. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing for 1614, without knowledge of reproductive biology.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta. So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I have patented it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is a wonderful example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. In cooperation we can be so much more effective than if we act singly. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it is a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. But as Satan—however we choose to interpret that—entered into Judas, so Satan enters into us sometime during our exposure to life on this planet. There are spiritual battles going on in us all the time with demons that we need to guard against. There is a whole subject opening up as I speak: our biological urge to reproduce, our biological need of sustenance, the need to survive at the expense of competitors—all this set against community and common good. This is for another day.

Using my image of God implanted within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to God. We do this by listening to God within, the still small voice. This is the implanted word. Conscience.
  • Mary did not resist. Honest self-examination is a key to this. It’s not so much that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. The pilot light flares within. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

God became man so that man might become God, said St Irenaeus.

Self-examination melts away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the light shines in our souls and we see ourselves starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Charles Wesley was thoroughly grounded in this theology. His most astonishing hymn is Let earth and heaven combine. Here are some lines from it:

He deigns in flesh to appear, Widest extremes to join; To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine: And we the life of God shall know, For God is manifest below. … His love shall then be fully showed, And man shall all be lost in God.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

My point is that the battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps when you recognise one, and send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary. Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within that I suggest needs to fill us from the inside. It was written by a 20-year old C H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,

I laugh and play as others do,

I sin and chatter, just the same

As others with a different name.

 

And all year long upon the stage,

I dance and tumble and do rage

So vehemently, I scarcely see

The inner and eternal me.

 

I have a temple I do not

Visit, a heart I have forgot,

A self that I have never met,

A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

 

This sanctuary of my soul

Unwitting I keep white and whole,

Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care

To enter or to tarry there.

 

With parted lips and outstretched hands

And listening ears Thy servant stands,

Call Thou early, call Thou late,

To Thy great service dedicate.

 

We left Jesus standing at the gates of the city and confronting reality. We are standing at the gates of the inner kingdom. Let us love our enemies, our demons. Let us embrace them and expose them to Divine light and watch them dissolve.