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Westminster Abbey and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Lent 2021

'Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.'

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 7th February 2021 at 11.15 AM

Last week, Canon Hawkey asked if we could remembered our first day at school and then he conjured up his own first day. A boy in a scarlet cap. I had to firmly, set aside the image of Hawkey, J. (cap and the shorts and satchel I added), to hear what he had to say next. Good beginnings catch the imagination.

So, for example:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen

That, of course, is the dislocating opening of Orwell’s 1984. There are poems—Keats:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

Or, Larkin’s This be the Verse, but not for a sermon. You will have to look that up later. Most theologians frown on over excitement, so Calvin’s

Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God

tells you that you might want to furrow your brow and take notes. The gospel writers, though, are different. They want to get us up and running. Gospel beginnings are coat-trailing affairs—sniffing the wind, chasing down the truth. Mark and that electric one voice, crying in the wilderness, or Luke and his barren priest serving in the Temple. Best of all, is what we heard a moment ago,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1: 1)

It’s a quotation of course, and that is what we are supposed to notice first. John uses words from Genesis. The beginning of his gospel is also the beginning of the Bible—which was itself the Book of Beginning. So, what we heard was the beginning of gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ, but it is also, for John, the beginning of absolutely everything. John knows that where and how you start really matters.

Suppose, for a moment, I am going to show you around the Abbey. Where am I to start? With the story of Archbishop Dunstan and a community, damp and cold on Thorney Island up river from the city in the tenth century? That is a good beginning. Or what about the shrine of St Edward and Abbey arranged around royal holiness. Or the coronation chair maybe and the Warrior—national life, national church. Or I could begin as the new history of the Abbey begins with life now? All good and proper places to start, yet each of them will take us in a different direction.

Theology is the same. The beginning points you in a direction. Remember Calvin? Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. What Calvin wanted us to know is that if we truly know ourselves we will know ourselves sinners. In fact, Calvin is sure that we are ruined by sin. Left to ourselves we could never summon up words good enough for God. Theology then can never be what we have to say about God; it can only ever be what God chooses to say to us. And we are off, in a particular way.

The beginning of John’s gospel is an utterly deliberate act. What is the first thing we have to know? We have to know that we begin with God and that God speaks.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.

The very first thing to say is not something about me, or you, or the world around us. The very first thing to say is that there is God and God speaks. Before all else, God speaks a Word.

Now, here we need to pause and even perhaps stare thoughtfully at our boots for a moment because this isn’t any word that God speaks—it is not a ‘Good Morning and Hello’ or ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’. According to John what God says is, in Greek, a Logos and a Logos is an explanation. In the beginning God explains himself and the explanation he gives, the word he utters, is Jesus Christ.

John Colet called the beginning of John’s gospel words of thunder ‘Universal thunder’. The great drum roll of thunder declares that this gospel, will be the story of Jesus’ life and teaching. And we must hear it as nothing less than God’s explanation of himself.

‘What does it mean?’ We, rather irritatingly ask, composers and artists as we listen to music, or stare at a picture. There’s a story that T.S. Eliot got into a taxi cab and the driver said to him over his shoulder, ‘You’re that Mr Eliot, aren’t you?’ Eliot said he was. The driver said, ‘I have lots of important people in my cab. Only the other day I had that Bertrand Russell in here, sitting just where you are now. I was talking to him over my shoulder, just as I am to you. I said to him, “What's it all about, then?” And, do you know? he couldn't tell me’.

What’s it all about and God said it is about this and God set Christ before us.

It's exactly the point made in the letter to the Colossians. The Colossians, I am afraid, were a tricksy lot. Colossae was full of clever Christians, the sort of people who look at you over the top of their glasses and tell you with weary politeness that you don’t seem to quite understand. Paul’s letter is full of warnings don’t listen to philosophy and deceit he says. The Colossians thought the truth is mysterious, and hidden. In fact, the truth is best left to clever people who can find it out, by degrees… preferably higher degrees. To be a Christian you would need to learn about angels and principalities and powers. You would need to know particular things and you would need to live in a very particular way with lots of special festivals and special diets.

‘No, not’ so says Paul, ‘you need to know one thing only—Christ’.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

Christianity is the only faith that makes this claim. Christianity is the only faith that begins with the one thing we have a chance of knowing—a human life—and tells us ‘Look here is all that you need to know. To know about God, to know about being human, to know about Faith, Hope, Love, we need the Word. And the Word we need is Christ. Christ is the language we need.

Of course, theology and prayer, history and liturgy, all the words we have stacked up, they are part of the enterprise of faith. They help us and they shape us. They are the grammar of faith, but we only have one language for ourselves, for creation, and for God and that language is Christ. When Christ heals that is what God is like, when Christ teaches, that is what God is like, when Christ dies on the cross that is what God is like, when Christ rises from the dead that is what God is like.

And we make it so complicated. We imply that there are so many lessons to learn so many actions to perform. We make faith so busy, push God away and make God complicated.

Scripture says God is not complicated. Scripture says that God explains himself and the explanation is Jesus Christ. As Michael Ramsey used to put it:

‘God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.’

If you find faith complicated, or impersonal, or heavy on doctrine and ideas. If you have been told that faith demands that you must feel something—guilt, liberation, or certainty, perhaps. Or if you think you should have visions in the night and plug into the spiritual mains when you close your eyes, then can I please suggest that you have been led astray? What is it? What does it mean? ‘It means this’ says God as he pours himself out in love. This Christ. This life and death and resurrection, this is what it means.

Around Jesus were people who made things complicated in their own way. There were those who insisted that you must obey the law (and the law turned out to be very complicated indeed). There were those who argued you needed all the complicated ritual of the Temple. And there were others who rejected both ideas and thought you were better off in the wilderness striving to be pure and that was the most complicated task of all. We have always made it difficult or added tests and proofs to the Word that God spoke.

Jesus does not ask of us, anything like that. He does not, notice, give us another explanation. He is the explanation. No blueprint, no agenda, very few commands, just himself. When people listen to Jesus you do not hear them say afterwards, ‘How interesting’. They do not start the Bethlehem Theological Book Club, or the Galilee loaves and fishes diet. They just ask ‘Who is this?’ They do not set up charities; nor do they draw swords, or build shrines (he actually stops Peter from doing both those things). People either follow him or they do not.

It’s perfectly simple. You follow or you don’t. Perfectly simple. And rich and profound and eternal.

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