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Address at the Evening Service on the Sunday next before Lent 2019

Have you ever wondered how Jesus might have engaged with social media?

The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar

Sunday, 3rd March 2019 at 6:30 PM

Have you ever wondered how Jesus might have engaged with social media? How the Son of God might have used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

Jesus was undoubtedly attracted to places where people would gather, especially the marketplace and, for all intents and purposes, social media is the modern-day marketplace. Lives are exposed, issues are discussed, culture is shaped, news is shared and celebrities attract their following: Pope Francis, 18 million; the Dalai Lama, 19 million; Donald Trump, 60 million; and Justin Bieber 105 million followers, all on Twitter.

Given the absence of Twitter in first century Palestine, when Jesus set about gathering his followers, those first called typically reach out to family and friends. So it was that Philip tracked down Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Initially, Nathanael is sceptical that any Messiah would come from such an obscure place as Nazareth but, curiosity gets the better of him and he accepts Philip's invitation. It leads to an encounter which not only dispels Nathaniel’s doubt but prompts him to make an audacious confession of faith: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Nathanael sees his life, and indeed the world about him, through the eyes of Jesus as Jesus goes on to tell Nathanael that he will see even greater things: the heavens will open and the angels will ascend and descend on the Son of Man. Jesus, here, is alluding to a story found in Hebrew Scriptures, the story of Jacob, who deceives his brother Esau and steals Esau’s inheritance. Running for his life he beds down that first night in the wilderness and, in his sleep, sees the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending on a ladder that reaches to the gates of heaven itself.  God speaks to him and says that he will make good his promises and create from Jacob a great nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Waking from his dream, Jacob remains awestruck: This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28:17), and he names the place Bethel, a Hebrew word meaning the ‘house of God’. He had encountered an ‘open heaven’ or, in the language of Celtic spirituality, a ‘thin place’.

In recent years, Celtic spirituality has rekindled an interest in the existence of ‘thin places’. The Scottish island of Iona is at the heart of contemporary Celtic spirituality where, just before the Second World War, an ecumenical Christian community was established by George Macleod. Macleod, himself, spoke of Iona as ‘a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual’, a helpful description for thin places are ‘where the distance between heaven and earth collapses’, not only holy sites such as Iona but ordinary places, such as Jacob’s Bethel, or Paul’s dusty road to Damascus.

In fact, as was the case for both Jacob and Paul, thin places are more likely to find you. Unexpected encounters with the ‘Holy’ in times of crisis: Jacob running away from home, Saul on his way to persecute the church. That our awareness of thin places, ordinary places, comes at a time of crisis suggests this is less about geography and more about a state of mind, being open to the sacred. Thin places are places of epiphany, an instance of sudden, momentous revelation or realization, when what is normally a reliable distinction between heaven and earth becomes blurred and we enter liminal space.

Liminal: it is not a word that routinely comes up in conversation. Liminal comes from the Latin word limen which means threshold. A liminal moment is a point where you leave one place and enter another. It is a place of transition. In entering liminal space you leave behind your former ideals and conventions, the status quo, the ordinary routines, inherited mindsets. You also leave behind your safety zone; you exit your place of security. You step out into a space where you will see things differently, where your worldview might be shattered, where your existing priorities might be turned upside down. You cross a border and go beyond your usual limits. What may have been a barrier now becomes a stepping stone into a larger spiritual adventure.

The liminal spaces into which Jesus leads us are places of radical unmaking and unlearning, uncomfortable spaces where we are called to be utterly vulnerable to God, and from which we will re-enter the world changed, somehow transformed.

The limen is the place of departure, a springboard into a fresh way of doing things.

The word liminality owes its origin to the early twentieth century ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep who coined the term ‘liminality’ to describe rites of passage as the movement, the transition, from one status to another. Rites of passage, found in all cultures and religions, are frequently accompanied by particular ceremonies such as those that mark birth or puberty, marriage or death. What they have in common is that they name and frame the space in between two states of being, between two realities. Liminal spaces are worlds between worlds – something akin to the wardrobe in The Narnia Chronicles – and they are always uncomfortable places.

This coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the Church enters the liminal season of Lent, forty days (excluding Sundays) representing the time Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness as he prepared for his public ministry. The image of a wilderness engenders a sense of displacement, that sense of being in no man’s land, where the landscape appears completely different, where there is no discernible road map, and where there can be no sense of direction. There is a need to let go, to leave behind, to be stripped of all structures of support and security for only then can there be a Nathaniel-like encounter with the risen Jesus as we emerge from Lent and Easter dawns with its promise of new possibilities and new life.

Lent is liminal space for serious followers of Jesus: those of us willing to immerse ourselves in self-examination and penitence, self-denial and almsgiving, personal discipline and austerity. By so doing, we invite God’s Spirit to reveal more fully how our lives can be different, more Christ-like.

Lent, liminal Lent, is not for any fainthearted follower, and, in a few days time as we begin the season of Lent, I must be honest with myself. Am I up to the challenge Lent presents? For that matter, are you?

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