The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Sunday 1 February 2004 - 11.00am Choral Eucharist
Long, long ago, very clever people decided that the human body, flesh, all material things, that all of these were in and of themselves, evil, intrinsically, inherently and always. So there was no way that the good, the pure, the sublime and, by definition, the perfectly good spirit could be united with the material. For these people, the dualists, the incarnation, God, pure spirit, becoming a human being was totally and in principle, and always, out of the question. What people thought was God become flesh in Jesus Christ, well, that was all just playacting, a charade. Could you imagine God the all-powerful, God the eternal, dying? Oh come off it! Get real! When this one was crucified, it was not really Jesus - God - dying. You and I may pooh-pooh all this superiorly and say, "How odd, flying in the face of facts" but aren't so many of us really closet duallists or worse, have we not sometimes been embarrassed with our physicality, when we have found it attractive to engage in the familiar dichotomies as between the sacred and the secular, the profane and the holy? When we have thought that Original Sin, must somehow have had to do with the facts of life, we snigger a little bit, wink, wink, as if when God said to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply", God meant that they would do so by perhaps looking into each others' eyes!
And have we not heard so many, many times: "Don't mix religion with politics", so very much the philosophical position of duallists. And just look at the tangle we have got into about human sexuality, about gays and lesbians, etc. Now what follows is really in parenthesis. I hope so very much that you have got over the anguish of last summer and may I salute Canon Jeffrey John who acted with so much dignity and selfless generosity.
The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing - their race - and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about - their gender, and hence my support inter alia, for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.
And equally, I could not myself keep quiet whilst people were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their sexuality. For it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as Apartheid ever was.
The God we worship has taken our physical material selves seriously because God declared about everything that God had created - matter and spirit, everything, not just that it was good, God said it was "very good". That is why we say in the Nicene Creed: 'maker of all there is, visible and invisible'. That matter is not recalcitrant, hostile and antagonistic to the spirit and so God could and did become a real human being, a real baby, belonging to a particular couple who have names, who lived in a real, a particular village, Nazareth, in an actual, real part of the world God created, belonging to an actual, real community with particular and specific laws, rules and customs.
So this baby's parents obeyed the law and brought the baby to be redeemed as the first-born male who belonged therefore to God. God took human history seriously and so fulfilled promises God had made earlier to a Simon and to a faithful widow, Anna. God became a real human being; God took on our humanity - why? Other clever people said God became a human being so that we could become God. The epistle of St Peter speaks daringly of us as partakers of the divine nature. In this Eucharist, we will mix water and wine in the chalice and the President prays a remarkable prayer: 'Oh God, who didst wonderfully create and wonderfully renew the dignity of man's nature, grant that by the mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of His divinity, who shared our humanity.'
Here God uses everyday, mundane, material things to communicate the very life of God, making Christianity, as Archbishop William Temple used to say "the most materialistic of all the great religions." Yes, we are made partakers of the divine nature, God became a human being so that we could become as God. The Orthodox Church makes far more of our so-called 'deification' than we and you might recall how in the epistle to the Ephesians, the author speaks of us as being those who are going to be filled with the fullness of God - yes, we have been created in the image of God, that is our destiny, our destiny to be God-like, God-like so that we are perfect, even as our heavenly father is perfect.
So in the Old Testament, God exalts God's people to be holy, "even as I your God am holy" and though this injunction occurs in the book Leviticus, which spends a great deal of time over the minutiae of cultic, ritual things, it turns out that this holiness that God requires of God's people has nothing to do - or very little to do - with cultic purity. No, it is to reflect the divine compassion and concern for the weak and the hungry and so the assertion is when you are harvesting, don't take up everything, leave some, leave some for the poor, be kind to the alien, for you see you were aliens in Egypt. How apt as we contemplate ever more stringent requirements for asylum-seekers and refugees. When you worship this God, if it does not make you see and feel like God, then that worship is a cult and for God it is an abomination, however elaborate it might be.
God will not heed your worship, your beseeching, for your hands are full of blood, the blood of your sisters and brothers killed in wars that were avoidable. Demonstrate your repentance by how you treat the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, the alien. When you are king over this people, and this God gives you God's righteousness, it is so that prosperity will prevail, will prevail because as king, you judge rightly, you judge rightly especially the poor with equity, you give justice to the poor, you deliver the needy when they cry and the poor man who has no helper. You will pity the helpless and needy and save the lives of the poor. How many of our governments would pass this stringent test: "how did you deal with the poor?"
And when God's spirit anoints you, it is so that you may preach the Good News, especially again to the poor, to preach the release of the imprisoned ones and to announce the year of the Lord's favour, the year of jubilee, the year of release, the year of the cancellation of debt - of heavy, un-payable, draining international debt.
To be partakers of the divine nature means we become more and more God-like, treating all with an even-handedness, even those we regard as evil. For you know, even the most evil, the Shipmans, the Saddam Husseins, Bin Ladens - we may not like it - but they remain God's children. This God, who lets God's sun shine on good and bad alike; who makes God's rain fall on all, for all, and we, who want to be God-like, are asked to forgive, even as God has forgiven us in Christ, forgive even that which we consider to be unforgivable.
To be like this God, who gives up on no-one, who loves us, not because we are loveable but that we become loveable only because God loves us, God loves us with a love that will not let us go, a love that loved us before we were created, a love that loves us now, a love that will love us forever, world without end. A love that says of each single one of us: “I love you, you are precious and special to me, I love you as if you were the only human being on earth, I love you and there is nothing you can do to make me love you more because I already love you perfectly.”
How incredibly, wonderfully, it is that God says to you, to me: "There is nothing you can do to make me love you less. I take you, I take you very seriously, I take you - you - body and soul, you the visible and the invisible of you, I love you, I love you, I love you."