Lent 3 ~ Maureen’s First Eucharist
It’s been a rollercoaster week hasn’t it? Last Sunday we were here together, with Bishop Michael as Maureen was ordained a priest in the church of God. We shared in the service and in fellowship and food afterwards. It was truly a rare event for us, and over a decade since we last had an ordination here – of Jackie, of course. And among everything else that that service meant, it now means we have two women priests in our midst - unique - and a first I think for this Edmonton Area of London. I feel a bit outnumbered!
Leaving aside the debate about women priests and bishops and all the shenanigans of the last decade or so, it does mean that we have a very distinctive ministry on offer here. Each one of us brings different gifts to the ministries we manifest and share, and I don’t just mean Jackie and Mo and I, I mean all of and each one of us. For there is a sense in which we are all priests. In the New Testament St Peter explains that we are a royal priesthood, called to minister God’s grace and be channels of grace and hope and love, to help each other, inside and outside of the church. So the ministry of priesthood is one we all share in, one we are all called to, and one in which both we, and God delights.
In that much, if some are selected to be ordained priest, it means that not only are all of us priests, but some of us are priests in a different sense - called by God to exercise pastoral leadership, under the Bishop, to care for Christ’s flock, to reach, teach and preach and lead the people of God in life and faith. And we do this in sickness and in health, in weakness and in strength, in hope and fear, in poverty or wealth. It is a tremendous privilege, a great joy, and a unique calling.
And yet, there is a another sense, in which none of us - no not one of us - are priests. For only Jesus is our great high priest - only Jesus can truly mediate between heaven and earth - between us and God. He is our intercessor, our friend, our judge and our saviour. Through him we pray, gaining direct access to the Father. Through him we are saved by the Cross. And through him the gates of everlasting resurrection life are opened to us by his own death and rising on the third day.
We are all priests.
Some of us are priests.
and none of us are priests.
There are three senses in which we might use the word - a Trinity of definition if you like. And we hold it all together. It is a triple paradox.
A paradox is one of those things that is logically true but makes no sense. So we might, for example, firmly believe that God has a role in our lives, that he watches over us, and that when we are in trouble we pray for guidance, help and support, and he responds. God answers prayer. And yet, at the same time - paradoxically, we hold to the idea that he has given humanity free will. We have some kind of control over our lives, indeed we have that crucial freedom as to whether to believe in God or not. It is vital that we have freedom to do this - or not - because faith is grounded in love - love of God and love by God.
God loves his creation, and God so loved the world that he sent his Son that we might all have eternal life. But God’s greatest desire is that we might love him. And that cannot be coerced - forced, or done without freedom. Love is a free gift, offered and received. So it is vital that we have free will.
So we can choose whether to love God, whether to believe, and whether to do good deeds or bad. And for sure, we are held responsible, not only by each other, but by God, for what we say, do and believe. So, paradoxically, we hold together the contradictory ideas of our freedom and the power of God to act in our world.
Another paradox is to be found in priesthood. For not only do we have the threefold paradox I mentioned already - that we are all priests, that some of us are priests, and that none of us are priests, but there is also the paradox of what a priest is. A priest is set apart, but yet is one of the people. Jackie and Mo and I are human beings just like everyone else – how could we not be? Jackie and Mo and I are flawed human beings just like everyone else - we make mistakes, we get annoyed, angry, upset, tired, stressed, frustrated - you name it - and we hate traffic jams just like you do. And yet, there are things that we are permitted - called, required - to do, that other people are not, namely pronounce God’s blessing or absolution, and celebrate the eucharist on behalf of us all. So are we like other people or not? Well yes, obviously, and, well, no.
But this is a minor point compared to the ultimate paradox of all. And that is the paradox of the incarnation. The paradox of Jesus Christ, divinely human, humanly divine. There are lots of incomprehensible Greek words associated with this - homousious, theotokos, and other fancy titles and doctrines, but they all boil down to an attempt to explain, elucidate or otherwise illuminate what it is that this unique person in history called Jesus Christ, is, was and ever shall be.
How can someone be human and divine, surely the two are fundamentally opposed? Introduce human sinfulness into the equation and it is logically impossible to be sinful and to be incapable of it. So the theologians are still arguing about that one.
Part of the problem - it seems to me - is that we are stuck in a sort of Ancient Greek either-or world view - epitomised and supremely articulated by Isaac Newton, who gave us the laws of physics and some memorable equations, none of which I can quote because I never studied physics… But Newton’s laws of gravity, force, mass, and so on, even though Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and others after him challenged them and introduced ideas about relativity and quantum mechanics - whatever you say about Newton’s laws of motion and so on - they work. Our cars drive, airplanes take off and land, when you drop something on your toe it hurts, and so on. So there is a scientific paradox, if you like. The laws work, even if people with brains the size of houses tell us that they shouldn’t because of uncertainty principles lying at the subatomic level. There is so much going on that we do not understand. As Hamlet famously put it:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet Act 1. Scene V abt. 1601
There is so much contradictory, so many important aspects of life that if we looked at them closely would give us different answers depending on how we looked at them. Which is actually how quantum physics works incidentally – the act of looking at a problem affects the answer. But as a book I read recently began by saying – ‘if you think you have understood quantum physics, you clearly haven’t.’
But back to Jesus.
If we are holding together, as some kind of paradox, that he was both human and divine – a human being like you and me, but also God incarnate, what do we make of the story we heard in today’s gospel, where Jesus famously turns over the tables in the Temple, casting out the moneychangers and generally causing a ruckus. For he behaves in a rather ‘human’ way – getting angry, being frustrated. And yet, in the very act of doing so he refers to ‘my Father’s House’. This is the human Jesus, Son of God speaking. The paradox is in the story, conflicting almost. Who is angry? – is it God or man? We can’t ask the question, because we can’t answer it. And we can’t answer it, not simply because we don’t happen to know the answer, or don’t know how to work it out, or don’t know who to ask. No we can’t answer it because it doesn’t have an answer. It is the wrong question.
Perhaps no-one is angry. Jesus behaves as an angry person might – that would be a mainly human reaction to something that upsets or angers him. But his action is not simply humanly destructive – that is, it no doubt breaks a few pots, scatters coins everywhere and maybe one or two folk get some bruises – but also it is a prophetic act with meaning. So his action is both human and divine – inseparably so.
For Jesus quotes scripture as he does it, and thereby brings in a divine dimension about what God expects of us, what appropriate behaviour in the Holy place is, and actually, in a case of ultimate self-referentiality – he reveals who in fact he is. For it is not Jesus who turns over the tables in the temple, condemning the Jewish liturgical and sacrificial culture into which Jesus was born, but it is God himself who does this. No wonder they were hacked off about it and wanted to kill Jesus.
Was it Jesus the man or Jesus Son of God who did this? It was both. Except it wasn’t, because the idea of ‘both’ implies two parties. And they are one. It is a paradox – true, but incomprehensible: true but illogical.
Modern, secular society does not like paradoxes. We like things to be clear cut, either/or. And even the cop-out phrase, ‘both/and’, actually acknowledges a distinction we are avoiding making because we are confused.
And all because we no longer relish, or even value mystery. Mysteries are to be solved. Hercule Poirot, Lewis and Morse, and Miss Marple all know that.
But we cannot solve the mysteries that underpin divine paradox. No sleuthing, no quantum physicking, no linguistic turns of phrase and no secular debunking gets near explaining or dismissing how the creator of the universe, our Father God Almighty, can take human flesh and be born among us, to turn over the tables, be crucified and rise again, and continue to be with us by his holy spirit, in all the chances and changes – and paradoxes - of our turbulent, thoughtful, timebound, priestly lives.
So to him be all wisdom, authority and glory, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 08/03/15