Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2019

‘Those who love me will keep my word.’

The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster

Sunday, 26th May 2019 at 11.15 AM

We all believe that words matter. They are memorable, they build connections, they make sense of complexity and they inspire action. We all use a lot of words, but we are not always quite as good with them as we like to think.

There is the famous church service sheet which said: ‘this being Easter Sunday we have asked Mrs Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar’.

Then there was the big advert outside a north London church. It just said: Tired of sin? Then come on in’. To which someone had scribbled at the bottom ‘and if not telephone 573921’.

Words are crucially important. They are one of the essential tools that we use to communicate, and we all know how important words are to both individuals and congregations.

The ‘right’ words can mean the difference between being misunderstood and communicating clearly. Well-timed words mean the difference between being hopeful and supportive or being judgmental and condescending.

Think for a moment about your own experiences: Do those around you respond better to words of encouragement, or to criticism? How about you? Do you handle praise or disapproval better in your own life? Words carry enormous power, power to heal or wound, encourage or discourage, praise or criticise.

Tom Wright, a former Canon here at this Abbey suggests that the Christian life may be compared to taking part in an unfinished Shakespearean play. Just imagine such a play whose fifth act has been lost.

The first four acts set the scene and establish the plot and characters. And then for the fifth scene the actors (immersed in the language and culture of Shakespeare) improvise it by themselves.

This is the manner in which we might approach the Christian life. We have the scriptures and we have the Christian tradition and we have reason. Anglicanism is sometimes said to rest on the three pillars of scripture, tradition and reason.

But perhaps we should think of it as our faith resting on the living word of God as interpreted through the Christian tradition and by our reason as a sort of dynamic relationship.

When Austin Farrer, that great philosopher and theologian was asked, why do you bother reading the Old Testament?  He replied, because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with, it is the body of doctrine  which he took over and transformed. 

He went on to explain that when we read the Old Testament, we should ask what does this mean when it is transformed in Christ?” and whenever we read the New Testament we should ask, how does this reveal Christ to us?”

In other words we’re invited to make connections: how can this passage be transfigured in the light of Christ, how this passage help me to be transfigured in Christ. 

We’re invited to prepare the ground for the work of the Holy Spirit making connections within the text, between text and hearer, between hearer and Word, between one hearer and another. 

Spiritual reading, sometimes called  ‘Lectio divina’, is a way of praying the Scriptures so that the Word of God may penetrate our hearts and we may grow in intimate relationship with the Lord.

In other words giving space for God’s Word to challenge us so that we may begin to look upon our world as it were with the eyes of God and to love what we see with the heart of God. 

Its natural movement is towards greater simplicity, with less talking and more listening. Gradually the words of Scripture begin to dissolve within us and the Word is revealed before the eyes of our heart.

The movement in ‘lectio divina’ prayer is towards silence. It is a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures. If you allow a special time for this you will discover an underlying spiritual rhythm to your daily life. You will discover an increasing ability to offer more of yourself to the Father and  accept his presence within you.

For this to be effective you will have to set aside quality time to experience the Word in your hearts and lives. There are various ways to do this.

Those who are regular in reading the Bible should be able to dive into it without much difficulty. The usual way is to take the following four steps:

Firstly read the passage slowly and attentively. Take your time with each word, each phrase, pausing when you feel like it, repeating words or phrases to yourself, savouring and enjoying every word, focusing on things that may stand out.

Secondly take the word or phrase to yourself, and slowly repeat it. Let it interact with your concerns, memories and ideas as you try to work out its meaning and make it personally relevant.

Be aware of your feelings and emotions. This is not self-indulgence - but an honest accounting of our lives and always directed outward to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thirdly speak to God about the thoughts and feelings that have come to your consciousness. Perhaps there is something that you may tackle in some area in your life or maybe you have become aware of God’s action in some other aspect whatever it is, pour out your heart to God, speak to him about what you are feeling. Know that he is truly present and is listening to you.

Fourthly, and finally, be quiet and rest in God’s presence, waste time with God. Words may not be so necessary at this point. Sometimes, you may as a result of God’s grace be raised to experience something new and mysterious. At other times, you may simply be calm and comfortable with God.

It is rather similar to a close sharing between friends. It is a surrender to the loving will of the Father in an even deeper union with his beloved Son.

In many ways its rather child-like. His presence purifies our hearts and illuminates our eyes to see the divine word of God. For as St John records, ‘Those who love me will keep my word’.