Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 14 January, Epiphany 2, at the United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 14 January, Epiphany 2, at the United Benefice of Holland Park

Epiphany is a season of light and revelation, a season of searching, discovering, finding, and knowing. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s traditionally the time when baptisms take place. In the Western tradition, that’s usually done at Easter. And the emphasis, following the themes of Easter, is about dying and rising with Christ. Dying to our old or false selves and rising to our new, indeed our true, selves. Which is why the font in the Western tradition is understood as a tomb, with its themes of dying and rising. Great theology here.

But in the Eastern tradition the focus is a little different. The font is viewed as the Divine Womb in which we are birthed into the mother church. Babies are dipped naked and plunged fully under the water three times, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it’s no wonder they re-emerge from the water screaming! They rise to become fully part of the church. I have sometimes heard the phrase, ‘children are the future of the church’. Not so with Orthodox theology – they are fully members from baptism. And they receive communion from baptism. They often use a tiny spoon for the wine.

At baptism, we discover that we are God’s dearly beloved children. We’ve heard the reading from the OT describing Samuel’s disturbed sleep. Samuel had to learn how to listen to God’s voice. Like Samuel, we also need to learn to hear God’s voice amongst the other competing noises that fill our lives – voices that tell us we’re not good enough, that we’re failures, that we’re not holy enough, that we’re bad Christians. Or voices that praise the powerful, the successful, and the wealthy, things that our culture highly values. Let us learn from Samuel to hear that quiet but distinct voice of God, the words we hear at our baptism – you are my precious child in whom I delight, with whom I am well pleased. Let us develop ears to hear and be attentive what God really says about us.

Our Gospel this week describes the sceptic: Nathanael makes a dramatic journey.  He experiences an epiphany, discovering for himself that Jesus of Nazareth, despite having an unfashionable postcode, is actually the true Light that has come into the world. 

It’s interesting what Jesus sees in Nathanael. Like our sense of hearing, seeing is also always selective. We make choices about the things we see – and not only that, but we make choices about how we present our selves to the world, which are multi-layered and messy. And it takes both love and patience to sift through those layers and find what lies at the core of us.  But there’s great power in that sifting, too.  Something healing, something holy, happens to us when we are deeply seen, known, named, and accepted.

It’s instructive to reflect upon what Jesus chose to see when he met Jesus Nathanael.  He could quite easily have said, ‘Here is another cynic who’s stunted by doubt’, or ‘Here’s a man who is ignorant, governed by unconscious bias’.
Those things might very well have been true of Nathanael.  But Jesus looked past that to see an honesty, a guilelessness, that revealed true core of Nathanael’s character.  Maybe the other qualities were there as well, but would Nathanael’s heart have melted in wonder and joy had Jesus saw and named those first?  Or would Nathanael have withdrawn in shame, fear, and embarrassment?   Jesus named the quality he wanted to bless and cultivate in his would-be follower. What did Jesus see in Nathanael? He saw a person of beauty, someone born in the image of God, someone with God’s DNA.

And this is how God sees us. In contrast to one c.18 evangelist, we are NOT (to quote him) ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’. What dreadful theology. No wonder people give up on Christianity if that’s what they think about God.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and author and has written a book, entitled Just Mercy. He looks at the blight of mass incarceration in the United States, and he insists that “each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”  ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done’.  In other words, each of us benefits from a second look, and a third, and a fourth.  To offer that second look, that deeper, kinder, and more penetrating look, is what’s called grace.  It’s the gracious vision of Jesus, and it’s the vision we are called to practice in a world that too often judges and condemns too quickly. 

Is there anything, after all, that feels lonelier than the experience of being unseen, misunderstood, and prematurely dismissed?  And is there anything more life-giving than the experience of being seen for who we really are, deep down beneath the fragile defences we project out of fear?

To quote that great theologian Paddington Bear: ‘if you look for the good in people, you will find it’.

I shall be starting my sabbatical in a couple of days and I’m very much looking forward to returning to India after 20 years. One of the reasons of wanting to go back is that I’ve done quite a lot of studying and thinking and changing during those years. And I want to go back with different eyes. I used to think that the great religions of India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism – were the result of delusion (at best) or (more probably) were demonic. So when I went out to India as a cocky and arrogant 21 year old, I has eyes to judge and condemn. And so, it was unsurprising that I saw what I expected to see. This time, by God’s grace, I hope to travel with a humbler stance, and with a desire to perhaps learn from those traditions.

Perhaps I could leave you with a challenge as I go. So that when I return, you too might have changed a little. And the challenge might be to develop grace-filled eyes, to see as Jesus sees? 

Today’s invitation to “come and see” is an invitation to leave our comfortable vantage points, and dare to believe that just maybe, we have been limited and wrong in our original certainties about each other, about God, and about the world.  To “come and see” is to approach all of life with a grace-filled curiosity, to believe that we are holy mysteries to each other, worthy of further exploration.  To come and see is to enter into the joy of being deeply seen and deeply known, and to have the very best that lies hidden within us called out and called forth.

Come and See, Debbie Thomas, Sunday January 14, 2018

Holland Park Benefice