Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 5th June, Trinity 2 at St George's and St John the Baptist Churches

Sermon by Fr James Heard on Sunday 5th June, Trinity 2 at St George's and St John the Baptist Churches

We are half way through our Christian mystics course and it has been a fascinating journey reflecting upon the ancient tradition of the church.  One of the significant themes in the mystics, and which I particularly feel drawn to, is the apophatic tradition, which recognizes that God is beyond anything we can imagine. To quote Clement of Alexandria:

‘[God] is ineffable, beyond all speech, beyond every concept, beyond every thought.

This was reaffirmed in Tom Stacey’s masterful talk on Meister Eckhart – available to read on our sermon blog. Here’s a quote from the Meister: ‘Therefore I pray to God to rid me of God’. It’s a shocking quote, and, indeed, it was meant to shock. ‘Therefore I pray to God to rid me of God’. If you think you’ve got God summed up, understood, made sense of… it is not god but your own human construction. The mystics rightly encourage us to go through a kenotic or self-emptying process, the stripping away of our humanly constructed views about God. So that’s one dimension of the mystics which I think is so insightful.

As I’ve been reading about some of the mystics, I must confess a slight unease with one dimension of certain forms of mysticism. This is particularly in the understanding of the inner relationship between one’s ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ and God. Behind this seems to be the implication that people only relate to God with their ‘inner’ being (one’s soul or spirit) and not with any other part of who they are. The biblical scholar Paula Gooder unpicks this sort of perspective in her new book, ‘Body: Biblical spirituality for the whole person’. She highlights a lurking influence of Neo-Platonism within Christian thinking that tends to assume that the material is bad and the spiritual good; or the idea that there is a gaping hole between our inner and our outer selves and that the proper location of devotion is our inner being.

There is a further assumption that the soul/spirit is to be placed in the 'good' category while opposite it, in the 'bad' category, is the body/flesh. The mystics who got it right, I think, managed to counterbalance the mystical experience, of union of one’s soul and the divine, with perhaps the most outrageous and radical Christian doctrine – the Incarnation.

The great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, described Christianity as the most materialist of all religions. He wasn’t referring to our culture’s acquisitive hunger for consumerist stuff, or that the material is all there is. He was articulating the sense that personal spiritual experience is grounded in things that are available to all, and the material, the physical, can function as a door to the divine. We can experience something of the divine through music, art, poetry, creation. Indeed, two of our readings today highlight the body as the place of encounter and where divine wholeness is experienced.

What is wonderful in the biblical narratives in today’s readings, about two nameless widows, is that it gives voice not just to the powerful and the famous, like the St Paul and King David, but also to the marginal and the obscure. Jesus seems to have a knack of consistently surprising people – especially the religious elite, who perhaps felt they had a grasp on the nature of God. Time and time again in the Bible, God breaks seemingly sacrosanct divine rules – what the religious people think are God’s ways – and he blesses the younger and not the older, the least important and not the most privileged, the poor and not the rich. And in the Gospel reading, the glory of God was at work not at the great Temple in Jerusalem and amongst its priests but on a domestic scale, in an insignificant village, in the life of an unnamed widow. This was deeply counter-intuitive. Jesus had compassion and brings wholeness to the body.

To sum up so far – the mystics teach us that God is the one who is beyond any human thought, of any humanly constructed views: – ‘I therefore pray to God to rid me of God’, as Meister Eckhart put it. And the Incarnation affirms that the material sacramental world in which we live may be a door to the divine.

One thing we have been doing in the Journey to Heart course is a weekly meditation which has included about 20 minutes of silent contemplation. The mystics would be horrified has we simply discussed their teaching – God is a reality to be experienced!

What is the point of contemplation? And here, I also think about being in church Sunday by Sunday, doing very similar things: hymns, readings, praying, receiving simple gifts of bread and wine. What’s the point? Does it do or change anything? Well, Rowan Williams describes it like this:
[Contemplation]… is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

What a remarkable comment. Contemplation liberates us from self, ‘freedom from self-orientation’ as Williams puts it. Its recognizing that life isn't all about me, its living free from our own ego. And Contemplation anchors us, it roots us in the source of God’s compassionate and all-embracing love, so that we are not held captive by our passing emotions and obsessive thoughts.

Coming to church slowly changes us into people capable of forgetting our own needs for a moment, of being, as it were, ‘de-centred’, in order to find a spark of generosity that will feed and nourish those who cry out for their daily bread.
This is all put beautifully in today’s collect:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,

without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.