Trinity 4 - Turning from darkness to light

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice, 13 July 2014

We have been doing quite a lot of baptisms in the United Benefice over the last several months. We had an adult baptism here a couple of weeks ago but usually they are infant baptisms. I find it rather strange, looking at a little child, usually clothed in white garments, in his/ her mother’s arms, and talking about turning away from sin, the world and the devil.  I can’t help but wonder, what sort of evil and wickedness can a baby of a few months old have been involved in. I usually try to explain to the parents and godparents that the Christian faith, which the child is embarking upon, is a life-long journey of faith. A journey that entails a daily turning from darkness to light, so that we may shine as lights in the world, so that we may bear good fruit, bearing good fruit being a theme in today’s Gospel. We pray for the child, and indeed for ourselves, that on our spiritual pilgrimage, the seed of God’s kingdom will grow in rich fertile soil, that strong roots will be put down, that the seed of God’s kingdom won’t become entangled with the thorns of the world, or become consumed by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word.

That’s our prayer for our children, for ourselves, for this community. In a nutshell, that is the gospel: we are born from on high, regenerated, transformed from darkness to light by the healing power of God’s love, baptized into Christ, and we live in the Spirit who dwells within us. Or to describe this in a more Eastern Orthodox way, God became human, so that humanity might come to share in the Divine life. It’s a prayer the priest presiding often says at the Eucharist when the wine and water are poured into the chalice: ‘By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’.

That’s our genuine prayer and hope – BUT. Does that sound too idealistic? Describing Christian faith in terms of ‘from darkness to light’ sounds so definitive, one and for all.

Does anyone remember the epistle reading from last Sunday – Romans chapter 7. It was an interesting reading about the flesh/ spirit battling within us. Let me remind you of some of the themes:

‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!’

Paul describes this battle of the flesh and the spirit. The flesh can mean a number of things in the Bible – it can mean the body, but here refers to that part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly and obstinate part of our inner self. That which pulls us towards darkness rather than the light.

Over last summer I read Tolsoy’s biography by Rosamund Bartlett. In it we graphically see the theme of a war or battle raging within himself, similar to St Paul. It was something that tormented Tolstoy, and to some extent all Christians. The ideal of living the Christian life and the reality of his life. His attempts a reform cause huge problems within his personal relationships. As a young army officer he had a string of mistresses, frequented whorehouses, participated in drunken orgies, lost thousands of rubles gambling. He would be consumed by guilt and go through short lived religious phases where he would go to bed by ten, up at five, resolved to eat moderately, and other sweet, walk for an hour a day and visit a brothel only twice a month.

He dutifully recorded these in his diary and four days before his wedding insisted that his finance, a sweet girl of eighteen, read the lurid accounts. She never recovered!

Tolstoy attempted to wholeheartedly and completely live the Christian life, as he understood it. He was willing to liberate his serfs, give away his possessions, live a simple life, sign away his royalties (his wife wasn’t entirely keen on this idea).

Yet holding up these Christian ideals, all he could see was the extent of his deviation. What he saw within himself filled with disgust: moral failure, hypocrisy, faithlessness. When this was pointed out to him, what he would say was, don’t judge God’s holy ideals by my inability to meet them. It’s a criticism often made of Christians and the Church. It is, of course, easy to highlight the rift between the ideals of the gospel and the flaws of its followers.

Perhaps this is best expressed in one of the greatest classics ever written, Anna Karenina, particularly the story of Levin and his wife Kitty, which runs parallel to the main story of Anna and Vronsky. Levin, an agnostic for most of the book, is the prime catalyst for the consideration of life’s biggest questions: What is our purpose here on earth? Is faith legitimate? Why is there so much suffering? What happens after death? Can we discern any sort of revelation from God? Levin experiences a sort of spiritual enlightenment or conversion at the birth of his child, where he involuntarily finds himself saying the words ‘Lord have mercy’. At first he is exuberant: It seemed to him that his relations with everyone would now be changed. ‘There will be no disputes; with Kitty [his wife] never any quarrels again; with the visitor, whoever he may be, I shall be amiable and kind; and with the servants, with Ivan, everything will be different.’ (943)

However, he later sees how stubborn his old self is, how much struggle, with St Paul, is the battle within us to put to death the old self, how difficult is the journey from darkness to light. He later says:
‘I shall still get angry with Ivan the coachman in the same way, shall dispute in the same way, shall inopportunely express my thoughts; there will still be a wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people; even my wife I shall still blame for my own fears and shall repent of it. My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.’

Tolstoy was tormented throughout his life by this spiritual struggle within himself and he never allowed the gospel to bring comfort to his own life. He needed to read the next part of the epistle to Romans. Because in chapter 8, we heard the words: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ God doesn’t want us living a life perpetually depressed by our imperfections. ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We also need to hear those words that were spoken to Jesus at his baptism, words that include us: You are my dear beloved son/ daughter, in whom I delight and cherish. We need to hear those words daily: we are loved and cherish by God whose love is limitless. There is no condemnation. God isn’t a strict headmaster who is ready to pounce on you when you falter.

There is, of course, the lifelong journey of turning from darkness to light. There will be failure and frustration, we may find forgiving difficult, we will make bad decisions. Reflecting upon our Gospel reading, I wonder whether the variety of places where the seeds of the kingdom fall actually refers to each of us. There may be times in our lives when the seed falls on the shallow or rocky ground of our hearts, and there may also be times when we are consumed with cares of the world and the lure of wealth. That’s why we are encouraged to pray, to come to the house of God, where are hardened hearts may be softened, where we may find encouragement to persevere, where we may find healing, where we re-affirm our baptismal identity as children cherish and loved by God. And where we are then sent out in the power of the Spirit to love, to spread peace, to work of justice, to bring the seeds of God’s kingdom in to the board rooms, schools, shops, friendships. Then God may produce a crop that befits the Kingdom of God.
Holland Park Benefice