Sermon given at a Sung Eucharist on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 2023
Looking for just one thing.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 1st October 2023 at 11.15 AM
We had a lot of bishops here on Friday. The Archbishop of Canterbury was with us because we were consecrating three new bishops at a special service while other bishops gather round. We were a purple patch—we had dozens of bishops. I wondered of you could ever have too manty bishops and then I thought of Jim Ede. In the 1920s Jim Ede worked at the Tate Gallery. He was a force of nature and a on a mission to get modern art into the Tate. The trouble was that no one around him agreed. He used to joke that it was easier to steal an old picture from the Tate than get something modern in. He gave talks, eagerly explaining why modern artists break the rules and make things look strange and new. He called his talk ‘The Bishop’s Question’. He did that because once, lecturing in a cathedral town, the local Bishop did not like modern art and complained ‘why shouldn’t a chair look like a chair?’ Jim Ede said that our problem is that we usually make our mind up before we start looking, we only look for what we want to see. The trouble with the Tate Gallery, said Jim Ede, was that it was full of bishops.
Too many bishops. And I did not tell that story on Friday in case you were wondering.
This is not a sermon about bishops. This is a sermon about looking for just one thing. We should see a world that is rich and various. I want to say something about the Epistle to the Philippians, the reading which we just heard:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2: 5)
Paul is a prisoner, in Rome, on trial for his life. He writes to Philippi, a garrison town, all muscle and strong opinion. A battle was fought there, Brutus died at Philippi, defeated by Mark Anthony. Soldiers stayed on afterwards and Greek Philippi became a Roman city. It was also a place of trade and travel. Think accents, languages and more religions than you can count, temples to the Gods of Rome and Greece, of Egypt and Thrace. A divided people and a divided church. That’s why you hear Paul urging Philippians to be ’of one mind’. Paul, the prisoner in chains, is choosing words carefully, life looks difficult, brutish and short.
This morning Paul stares us down, asking are you listening to me? He wants us to hear what he says about Christ. He wants us to see Christ and then he wants to say ‘that’s it’. Just that’. ‘Do it like that, do it like him’.
And this is the point where we must remember the Bishop’s Question.
We are used to people telling us about Jesus, you are used to people like me talking about Jesus trying to make it sound straightforward and simple. And we need to watch our step, because Paul thinks it is simple, but he does not believe it is absolutely straightforward. That is because Paul looks at Christ and he does not see one thing, he sees two. It was there in the reading,
He was in the form of God… but emptied himself
Not one thing, but two—he was in the form of God… but emptied himself. Paul knows, that the man Jesus was in the form of God. Paul gathered up everything he knew about God and saw it in Jesus Christ. The God who created the heavens the earth—found in Christ. The God of Sinai blazing in light and power, telling Moses not to look because it would kill him—found in Christ. The God who spoke to Isaiah in the Temple making the doors shiver and shake—found in Christ. All of it, all that glory and power in the man Jesus. Now, that requires some imagination some courageous thinking, but having understood that, there is more. Paul also saw that this man Jesus died on the cross. Jesus burns with the brightness of God’s everlasting glory and yet Jesus is also despised and humiliated and dies asking God ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Both / and, Paul sees both / and,
Jesus as the one who carries the intensity of God’s glory… Jesus as the one who is most dramatically estranged from God.
That’s how Rowan Williams describes it. Both / and, you must not rush in and tidy that up. Jesus is this and that. We must see the ‘both / and-ness’ of Christ and begin to think differently. We have to understand that an awful lot of what we say about God and an awful lot of what we say about human power, success and being human have gone quite wrong—God looks like this and that, human dignity is both / and.
What we are hearing today is Paul telling the Philippians that they need to think again. Writing to that city of might and muscle he explains that Christ who was the majesty and power of God, ‘emptied himself’. Think again, he says. All those gods with their huts and houses in Philippi where men and women worshipped a mystery they could not see, swept aside by a God who meets us face to face in our human life. This is what marks Christianity out, that God meets us in the thing we know best, in the only thing we can ever really know, our God meets us in human life. God meets us in the both / and- ness of a human life that might be wonderful, but might be a failure.
Ask us what we have to say about our faith and we will say that in Christ we see God himself. In Christ, we see what God is and what God does. The man Jesus is the ceaseless, startling initiative of a God who comes to meet us in living and in dying. Both / and, the glory of God and the occasionally wonderful, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic business of being human. All of it, found in Christ.
And that is really important. The both / and-ness really matters. Let me explain why it matters to me. My week ended, on Friday, with bishops. Here in The Abbey, we were busy with the church organising itself for ministry and mission, getting the job done. But my week began in Bristol where I used to work. I went back to preach for a friend who died much too young. Jon—his name was Jon—was one of those people who make us all a bit better than we were. He was bright, he was funny, he was utterly alive. He could talk and explain, he wrote beautifully, he made you see things you had missed. He was warm, eager and anarchic. One of his daughters, quite a young daughter, told us that her father taught her that nonconformity is a super power. Another daughter sang and filled the Cathedral with her sorrow and her loss. It was one of the most moving memorial services I have ever attended. I was in pieces; I was in tears. It was a breath-taking service and it was also quite hard to be there.
And the thing that gets me up into the pulpit, looking for the words at moments like that, moments when it is hard, is the both / and-ness of God in Christ. You see, the same God who is glory and joy is seen in the man who dies too young and in pain. Jesus Christ who is the Word, the explanation for everything is also the terrible silence that falls on Calvary as he dies announcing ‘It is accomplished’. Christ is the life that embraces both ends of our experience. Christ is the story in which, finally, it all hangs together.
And knowing that, you and I can get on with the business of living whatever it feels like today. We can even plunge into the business of organising the church for mission and ministry. Actually, we have to do that. Church, this gathering this morning is where we hear Paul speak to us and where Christ comes in the broken bread and the poured-out wine. Here is the both / and story that I believe in being told again. Here that story talks shape in you and in me.
This morning Paul says to us—let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We have seen Christ. We have seen God. We have seen the glory and the pain. We have seen ourselves. Now we hold that in our minds, hold the both / and-ness of things. We see it, think it—and then we live it.