Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6 February 2011

6 February 2011 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon

You are the light of the world, says Jesus, a city built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5: 14).

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose statue stands above the Great West Door of this Abbey who, in the last year of his life reflected on the difference between being “religious” and being a “Christian.” As someone who had witnessed the tacit collusion of many in the Church with the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer knew that Christian faith needed to be relentlessly world-engaging and world-facing. Religous acts do not precisely make one a Christian, says Bonhoeffer, but to be a Christian we need to become (I quote from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison) the “person Christ creates in us.” Not a “type of person” created by a kind of prescribed method, but rather a person of responsibility to the world re-created in and through Christ, standing with Christ in his suffering, and being someone through whom Christ’s love shines to the world.

You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hidden.

All very well, we may think. Paul Minear’s ground-breaking book on the Church published in 1960 recorded some 96 different images of the Church in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps the “Light of the World” might sometimes seem among the more ludicrous. Imagine how that description of the followers of Jesus must have sounded to the Corinthian Christians, part of St Paul’s first letter to whom we heard read as our second reading today. The Church at Corinth was ridden with factions, arguments, jealousies and pomposities. Light of the world? Perhaps, but not always. How must it have sounded to those scandalised by the excesses of the Borgia papacies? Imagine how that description of the Church might sound to those who have been affected by cases of abuse within the Church, or very simply to the world which looks on whilst Christians bicker over questions that the world simply isn’t asking? Of course there are plenty of wonderful examples from Christian history when the Church really has shone with the light of her Lord – we might think particularly of those Christians who opposed Nazi ideology or Stalinist purges, or of the Church’s role in Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa and healing of tribal enmities in post-genocide Rwanda. But we still have to admit, that our history is deeply compromised, and that the Church is as much the wayward child of God as the spotless bride!

And yet, Jesus tells his followers that they are the Light of the World. But today’s Gospel reminds us that the metaphor doesn’t end there; Jesus continues to say that a “city built on a hill cannot be hid.” In using this imagery, he is almost certainly very self-consciously tapping into very important Jewish imagery. The “city built on a hill” is an image of Jerusalem – the village originally established on a hill-top as a sign of God’s presence and rule, and Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. It is both the physical city chosen by God as a point of revelation to his people, and the image of future hope. This is the image Christ is using for his followers, the Light of the world: a city built on a hill which cannot be hid. An identity which draws its strength and hope from a final reality which is still currently beyond them.

Where does this all leave us today, as Christians gathered together from many parts of the earth, coming here to celebrate the Eucharist together? I want to suggest that the image of the Church as “light of the world” and a city set on a hill represents both our current life and our future hope. These things need to be held together. In order to be – in any sense – light of the world, we will firstly need to discipline ourselves (as individuals and as communities) with constant conversion, with what the New Testament calls metanoia – a real and regular turning towards the intense light of Christ’s love. We will need to do that through prayer, eucharist and silence. Secondly, in doing this, we will also need to turn towards the world, rather than falling into the trap of thinking that we can safely box-ourselves away in self-righteous communities. Thirdly, and especially when we get things terribly wrong, we will need to keep our eyes focussed on our future hope. The city set on the hill is the heavenly Jerusalem, and it is from God’s promise of the consummation of all things that we draw the energy for Christian living now.

One of the habits condemned by Bonhoeffer as “religious” rather than “Christian” was the mechanism of our self-satisfaction. It is perhaps a similar fault that the prophet Isaiah rebukes in our first reading. Being religious isn’t enough. As Jesus puts it, rather shockingly to ears which have grown used to wrongly assuming that the Pharisees were always the bad guys, “...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We are called to be Christian, rather than religious, so that we become the people Christ creates in us. And this isn’t pious talk, because it cashes out in how we respond to those in need, to the persecuted, the excluded, those who live in fear. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 58:6) says the Lord.

“You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill.” I said a moment ago that Jesus was speaking out of a Jewish tradition which saw “the city on the hill” as Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the sign of God’s reign on earth. But of course, in Christian tradition, there is another hill at the heart of our message. That hill is the hill of Calvary. The place of the cross, where Jesus dies. And it is as he dies that his light shines out perhaps most brightly. When Jesus is being extinguished from the world, he is forging new bonds, creating new communities. Twenty-first-century western culture often suggests that we should shie away from suffering, wall ourselves in, keep ourselves safe. The lives of thousands of Christians in other parts of the world where they suffer for their faith reveal the shallowness of this deception. Because the hill that the Church is set on, through, with, and in Christ, is also the hill of Calvary. The hill which refuses to run from suffering, but stays, waits, hopes, and whispers the truth of God’s love. The hill from which the followers of Jesus find their identity in being made holy and hopeful by events that are still beyond them. Endlessly giving, offering love, forgiveness, and new hope. 

It is in the eucharist that we put down our best roots into the Hill of the Cross. It is here that we learn how to live with suffering, here that we learn to stay with those who suffer and are in need and here that we learn how, in acts of love and care, to shine more clearly with Christ’s light and truth as we feast on his life poured out for the world. Here, through Christ’s trampling down of death by death, we start to become the City set on the Hill. Bonhoeffer encourages each one of us to become more truly the person Christ creates in us: then together, we will emerge as the City set on the hill, and become a little more obviously, true light for the world.

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