Sermon preached on Easter 6, 2013
Dean Inge of St Paulís was an authority on mysticism amongst other things. One day he found himself on a railway station and had to go looking for a telephone box. When he found it he phoned his wife and said ďcan you remind me where Iím going and what for?Ē. Forgetfulness is part of the human condition, for some of us more than for others and I think I can speak out of a fair amount of experience.
Forgetfulness takes a variety of forms. One of them is an inability to retain information. The good teacher knows itís no good simply saying things. You have to find ways of enabling the information to stay there, rather than going in one ear and out of the other. Going back to Dean Inge, another thing he was famous for was his preaching. He once said preaching is like trying, from a great height, to get a bucket of water into a collection of narrow-necked bottles. Preaching, in fact, is one of the worst vehicles for teaching, as there is no interaction. The good teacher finds ways of enabling the students to handle the information being taught and to play it back. However, every teacher knows you can try every technique you like but the image of the narrow-necked bottles always wins in the end. The only way to hope to overcome forgetfulness is by constant repetition, constant returning to the subject.
Teaching isnít just about conveying information, however - its most important task can be to lead the students along an unfamiliar path to leave them in a different place, even though they may not be completely sure how they got there. Jesus was quite aware of all of this Ė you can see from any of his comments that what he said, on the whole, went in one ear and out of the other. We can sense a note of exasperation when he says to the disciples, ďhave you still not understood?Ē
In todayís gospel John depicts Jesus as talking at the last supper to a group of disciples who are still struggling to understand. He talks about what it will be like for those who have grasped it.
They will keep his word
They will love him
They will not be troubled
They will believe
This implies that, at that moment, his audience were not doing very well at keeping his word, loving him, remembering what they have been taught, not being troubled or afraid and at believing.
At the heart of this passage he speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, who will remind you of all that I have sent to you. We forget what Christ teaches but the Holy Spirit will keep us reminded.
When I was a little boy there used to be a programme on TV on Sunday evenings called Sunday night at the London palladium. One of the acts which appeared occasionally was a man who put up a row of flexible poles and set a plate spinning on each of them. He ran from end to end keeping the plates spinning and when there was a chance he added another pole and another plate. The more he added the more he had to run to keep them spinning. In the 1950s that was the kind of simple pleasure which got thunderous applause from audiences.
Itís an illustration of the assiduousness needed in knowing facts, in knowing people, in knowing truth. In fact, in knowing God. The liturgy takes us all the time round and round the basic truths of the faith. If we stopped celebrating the Resurrection each Easter, it would probably cease to be very significant in our minds. Every time we hear the Beatitudes, there is hopefully an element of surprise, because all of their meaning canít be taken in during a lifetime. In this church, the basic saving acts of God are commemorated in our stations of salvation: the incarnation, Christís Ministry, his passion, cross and resurrection, his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Worship takes us repeatedly through this series, which is really a deep, fundamental pattern at the foundations of the universe. It is so simple but we never understand it: all we can do is keep going over it. In the Eucharistic prayer, for example, or in the Creed. If there are any bits of the faith that we donít visit often enough, they can go cold on us.
Often our forgetfulness isnít in our mind but in our hands and mouths. We can come from church feeling convicted of sinfulness and that we should never sit in judgment on anyone, until someone trips you up, or sells you a faulty item, or behaves in a way which irritates you. Then our judgemental behaviour comes out, criticism, irritation, or gossip, before the better part of yourself has time to remind you not to do it.
Our habits of forgetting can go strange and deep, to a more serious level than that of daily doings. The Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade wrote one or two novels, of which The Forbidden Forest is thought to be his greatest. This long novel of several hundred pages reflects on the batterings and wholesale destruction inflicted on Romanian culture during the Second World War and afterwards under communism. The hero gets caught up in great events which take him all over the world. At a certain point he meets a woman from his past - Ileana - and he realises that she was his real love - but it had passed from his mind. Then the events of the novel once more sweep him up and years later he meets Ileana again and once more he remembers that she is his great love. The novel ends, I remember, with the two of them in middle age sitting in a car in the pouring rain, with the hero dumbfounded by the fact that he was able to lose sight of his great love.
Somewhere I have read a biography of a young student who stayed for a few days in a monastery and was completely overwhelmed by it and by a realisation that here was the truth. Then he had to go back to his student life and very quickly returned to the mindset of the modern world with its activism, its belief in human will and the pursuit of pleasure. The monastery was all very well but was out of touch. Years later he found himself in a monastery again and was shocked to realise the extent to which he had rapidly lost sight of the urgent and sovereign truth that was found in that place. He became a monk.
We heard from Jean Vanier the other evening of the need for a Christian community to remain urgent and not to become a lukewarm. So we, like everyone else, need to pray that the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, will constantly remind us of all that Jesus has taught us and will ďrenew us in our first loveĒ.
George Guiver, Superior CR