Sermon Mirepoix 18th November 2018
Hebrews 10, 11-14, 19-25 John 18, 33-37
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Amen
I don’t know whether you agree with me but I think the older we become, the more consistent and uniform our characters are. When our lives were more complex, more layered, we were capable of housing a range of personae. The personality we tried to project in our peacock days, when attracting a mate was the number one priority, has long since (mercifully) been laid to rest. If we have lived with a partner for a good number of years well there is no point in pretending anything any more; is there? Our children grow up so we can dispense with that authoritative, parental role that proved useful when bringing up small children or harnessing adolescents. We retire from paid employment so we shed those facets of our character which were tuned to the world of work. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this phenomenon because I was educated at a boarding school and, my term-time self was completely different from my holiday self. There was very simply no real overlap. Every Sunday, there was compulsory letter-writing and, almost by instinct, I knew that the ‘me’ my parents wanted to read about was not necessarily the ‘me’ I was at school. The week’s exploits would need judicious editing. It was not a question of fibbing more one of fashioning someone who would sit comfortably within the home environment. And so, on those occasions when my parents paid me a visit during term-time, there was a risk of two worlds colliding with, on their part, a suspicion that far more was going on than they had been aware of.
The passage from John’s gospel which we heard reminds us of those occasions when the people around Jesus couldn’t quite work out who he really was. They knew him as brother, friend, teacher, the carpenter from down the road, or even a miracle-man. Then, that fateful Passover in Jerusalem, he is hailed as a King and then a criminal. Here, Pilate has a go trying to foist the title of king upon Jesus, seeing if it fits. Jesus doesn’t give him any help:
“Mine is not a kingdom, of this world…It is you who say that I am a king.”
Earlier on in this gospel, John has reported the “I am” statements that Jesus made about himself, during his ministry. These are more metaphysical or metaphorical than straightforward. It is as if Jesus is struggling to translate one persona into the language of another. He says, on various occasions,
I am the Bread of Life
I am the Light of the World
I am the good shepherd and the gate of the sheepfold
I am the resurrection and the Life
I am the way, the Truth and the Life
I am the True Vine
And to the Samaritan woman at the well, he says categorically, I am the Messiah, the Christ.
I think those first disciples might be forgiven for thinking: I wish he’d make his mind up. Who on earth is Jesus?
And that question, of course, is at the heart of the dilemma. On earth, Jesus is one thing. But he has, in addition, another identity which, as he tells Pilate, is not of this world. He embodies more than the dimensions we are familiar with. So how is that relevant to us, his followers?
So, as we head towards Christmas, where the humanity of Jesus is given particular prominence, I think it’s worth spending these few minutes pondering Jesus’ identity and reminding ourselves what meaning that has for us.
For St Paul, writing to the Hebrews, it was critical that Jesus was recognised as being flesh and blood. In that way, his sacrificial death on the Cross could be regarded as an extension of or replacement for the futile blood sacrifices which the priests performed on a daily basis. Blood sacrifices are now officially redundant. Indeed only one sacrifice was ever necessary and that has now been made: this man has died. Once and for all. Over and done with. The debt of blood is finally paid off.
I am no anthropologist. I can’t throw any scholarly light on the concept of blood sacrifices but they clearly seem embedded acr0ss history in many cultures and civilisations. As human beings, we seem hard-wired to the notion that the spilling of blood is somehow necessary either to atone for something or as an act of appeasement. Even in our enlightened times, we see the language of sacrifice creeping into commentaries on Remembrance and the way we talk about the First World war. As Christians, however, we must understand that blood sacrifices are no medium connecting us to God. In Psalm 50, God is presented as saying, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank-offerings to God”
Jesus took on the attributes of a sacrificial victim to close this narrative once and for all. Those rituals pf atonement or appeasement – if they ever meant anything – now count for nothing. Why? Because there is now only one sure route to God and it is the one he has opened for us.
In St Paul’s words, he has opened for us a new way, a living opening into the sanctuary of God. We are offered a route which takes us from a gritty mortal existence – life here on earth – to a different dimension.
Jesus is a portal.
Have you ever stopped to consider how incredibly pervasive this notion of a portal is in our culture – particularly in popular and children’s culture. Dr Who’s Tardis carries him (or her these days) from this world to others. Star Trek and the whole ‘beam me up, Scotty’ concept does the same thing. Philip Pullman’s magnificent triology for children, His Dark Materials, has his protagonists slipping from one parallel universe to another in their quest to block evil. This metaphor seems to be a particularly potent one in contemporary culture. I wonder if it exists outside Europe and the West?
I think the metaphor of a portal has caught on because it is a way of grappling with being here and there, if not at the same time, as good as, within the bounds of physical and temporal existence as we know it.
It’s something that many of us in the 21st century are hungry to experience.
Before the latter part of the 20th century, here and there was usually described in terms of earth and heaven, this life and the next. We were on a journey. Or it was like the metamorphosis of earthly caterpillar to ethereal butterfly: a one-way process.
I think the metaphor of a portal is richer than that. I think this gives us a sense of coming and going with here and there co-existing. If Jesus is the Way, the gate to the sheepfold, there is nothing to suggest we can’t, if we are so minded, turn around and walk back in the other direction or unlatch the gate to the fold and lope off into the wilderness. It’s a more sophisticated metaphor and it requires a bit more active engagement on our part.
I don’t find this at all easy. I am a mortal animal with sharp sense. I have appetites and desires and longings. I love and I dread. I am bound by geography and history and all the other accidents of my birth. I am here. And at the same time I can conceive of something other – there. There is within the human creature something which is tuned to that other dimension, that ‘not of this world’ place which Jesus told Pilate about. The thing is: how does one bridge the two? How does one start placing one foot in front of the other, walking The Way without slipping backwards or getting confused and going around in circles.
St Paul is quite clear. The dear fellow even gave the Hebrews a list of things to do or be. We should: be sincere in heart; filled with faith; free from any trace of bad conscience; keep our bodies pure; be firm in hope; concerned for each other in order to stir up a response of love leading to good works; we should attend assemblies and encourage each other.
Refreshingly, accessibly simple. Gratifyingly, there is no mention of blood sacrifices or hair shirts. Simple but not easy.
But at least we know that following this list enables us to use the portal that is Jesus and enter the sanctuary of God.
It’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves before Advent, which is a season of preparation, of what we need to do.
Or do we?
Sincerity – lack of guile – no white lies? Not ever? What about the diplomat or the negotiator, treading a tortuous path.
What does keeping our bodies pure mean? Is it just irresponsible sex or does bingeing on chocolate digestives or getting occasionally drunk count?
Is it not just naïve to be firm in hope when the world order is wobbling so badly with the rise of the far-right, the scourge of the social media mob-mentality, the election of nascent dictators to erstwhile democracies.
You know what I mean?
I have come to the conclusion that the greatest risk of all is complacency: thinking we’re safe, marching inexorably towards the light, confident in our own worthiness. There are things we don’t understand and there are things that will be a constant struggle. That’s why it is so wonderful to have St Paul list encouragement as a key attribute of those trying to access the portal. It is a recognition that this journey will not be plain-sailing.
Perhaps only saints succeed.
Actually, I don’t think that matters. Surely, the key is to appreciate here – with all its challenges – whilst never losing sight of there. It’s like glorying in the washing-up while listening to an exquisite symphony. You’re in two places at once. One is enhanced by the other. And if that’s difficult and we never really feel we succeed for long, that doesn’t matter either because that tension, that restlessness is also God-given.
Either [The poet George Herbert saw what he called ‘repining restlessness’ as a gift to humankind because it stopped complacency and ensured we never stopped seeking to cross through the portal to God.]
Or [George Herbert puts it best. So let me finish by reading his poem, ‘The Pulley’…]