28 October, SS Simon & Jude – College Foundation Day 2014

Eph 2.19-22; John 15.17-27

When we hear Eliot’s line “humankind cannot bear very much reality” we think immediately of the four quarterts, of Burnt Norton, which appeared in 1935 but the line was first heard in “Murder in the Cathedral” earlier in the same year. With the knights just outside the cathedral and the inevitability of the end pressing in, Thomas responds to the chorus who ask his prayers:  

‘Peace and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.

These things had to come to you and you to accept them.

This is your share of the eternal burden,

The perpetual glory.

This is one moment but know that another

Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy

When the figure of God’s purposes is made complete.

You shall forget these things, toiling in the household,

You shall remember them, droning by the fire,

When age and forgetfulness sweeten memory

Only like a dream that has often been told

And often been changed in the telling. 

They will seem unreal.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’  

Now the martyrdom of an Archbishop may seem a slightly gloomy place to begin on our College Foundation Day but our patrons, Simon and Jude, remind us that the only reality is God and the way to God is the way of the cross, ‘costing not less than everything’.

We always live in strange times but every generation may be forgiven for thinking its own times stranger than anything which went before. We have an Archdeacon who gives the Church of England five years; a series of business reviews of the operations and management of the Church operating under the strapline “taking Christ to the centre of our culture” - a theological nonsense if ever there was one; a seemingly unending stream of unfortunate revelations of misdoing, abuse and corruption in every part of the church; - and, at the same time, we have the astonishing, breathtaking evidence of God’s inexhaustible new life in the procession of women and men called by name to give themselves for the sake of the Gospel.

If, in the midst of all this, we are to hold fast to what is true and real, to live in reality, there is a work to be done. It is a work of building. We are called to build a temple - a temple of the Spirit. This is a strange work, for the designer is God and the builder is God: we are invited to cooperate by offering ourselves as ‘living stones’. This uncovers another strangeness about this building: its essence is in God and from God; it transcends the limitations of time and space; it shares in the perfection of God. At the same time, it can only be encountered in this world through its fleshly, material, temporal form. It has to be institutionalised - to become Church of England in order to be Church of God. You can almost feel the dead hand of rigidity gripping you. On the other hand there is something disconcerting about a building made of living stones: your mind conjures up a Disneyesque squirming, pulsating mass - the very antithesis of stability and steadfastness. Perhaps a truer picture is a Labrador with her puppies all sleeping enfolded in a perfect harmony of form, so that it is difficult to tell where one puppy ends and another begins....

If we are to stay in tune with reality we have also to have the greatest possible honesty about those who, with us, are living stones. We have quickly to realise that God’s sense of humour is quite different from our own: we cannot see how any building can include this stone - or that one! Yet God, whose Spirit has summoned us here, continues to call, gently yet insistently saying, “Yes, you too...” We have to stretch our ears to hear and affirm the Lord’s call of one another - most especially of those whom we find it hard to understand, or whose way of living the call seems not just unfamiliar to us but plain wrong, for, as Jesus tells us, ‘in my Father’s house are many rooms...’ In years to come, when we may find ourselves God knows where, it will be good to recall what we managed to do to co-operate with the Lord’s desire that this place should be a temple of the Spirit.

Again, when we are looking at the institutional shape of this living temple we have to face up to difficult fault lines. How is it that those called by the same God can picture the building so differently? Here too we have to resist simply pitting the institutional against the eternal reality. God has, as it were, infinite capacity - a truly wondrous handbag - in which there is room for us all and in which we can rest content, affirmed and encouraged by one another. Here, that same capacity is offered - but our ability to understand and translate it into shapes and forms is limited by sin - not just in the sense that we are bound to get things wrong but in the sense that even our attempts to get it right will be partial and distorted. (For none of us, pray God, holds to things that divide us and cause hurt are doing so with the intention of causing hurt but out of a desire to live the truth) .

So we are drawn back to the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ; the corner-stone upon whom the church of the apostles is built; back to the rock that is ‘higher than I’, that reaches to the heavens, that is not limited by sin or mortality.

Suddenly this is again suggestive of the kind of world we only glimpse dimly with the help of the imagination of a Walt Disney or a Charles Williams: a world that is truly there, very close to us but rarely perceptible. It is the world that the liturgy opens up for us, the world where lambs and lions play together, where Bishops are neither men nor women but chess pieces - and where bread and wine become the medicine of immortality. This is God’s gift to us. We are called to be signs of that gift - made visible in that living temple that is both institution and network of relationship. We are called to be so confident in the promises attested by the Apostles that we live a similar extravagant generosity, giving, loving, serving others that they too may find the joy that belongs to those who love the Lord of life.

Our Gospel passage makes it clear that this is not a straight, or even straightforward journey. Much will seek to deflect us, to tempt us to give up but, sometimes with raw determination, we are inspired to go on because we have already sensed something of what it is to be citizens with the saints and of the household of God, ... with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone.

So, to God be the glory!


Peter Allan CR