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Boundless Openness

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The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

Sunday 15 April (The Third Sunday of Easter), 10am Eucharist

Acts 3:12-19        Luke 24:36b-48

A couple of days ago, one of the Minster Community said to me, ‘I hope we’re going to hear about your sabbatical in your sermon on Sunday’. Well, that’s a little bit like someone saying they’d love to see your holiday photos, and two hours later regretting they’d ever been quite so polite! I know for a fact that the person in question wasn’t simply being polite, but I recognise that not everyone will be quite so interested, so I won’t go on about it too much. First, though, may I say how deeply grateful I am to all of you, and especially to my colleagues, for making it possible for me to be away for just over three months. I’m aware that my absence has added to their load, but it’s a mark of our generosity towards each other that we can make it possible for sabbaticals to happen. So, to Viv, Peter, Michael and Catriona: thank you so much.

Sue and I spent just under four weeks in India in January. Then we lived in Goathland for two months where I was able to write a book and I’m pleased to say it’s now in the hands of the publisher. The current title is Zen Wisdom for Christians and it’s due to be published later this year. One of the lovely things about being relieved temporarily of responsibilities in the Minster is that we’ve had weekends free, and we were able to use them to visit different churches and also to catch up with family and friends. That’s been a real gift. In Easter week we had a holiday in Skipness, just across the water from the Isle of Arran. On Easter Day itself we attended the Episcopalian church in Lochgilphead, where we had the liturgical works, and where we were made to feel extraordinarily welcome. I’ve had to revise completely my stereotypical view of the Scots as dour, miserable and stingy. Now it’s just Yorkshire people who’re like that!

One of the purposes of going to India, apart from seeing a number of people we’ve known there for nearly 25 years, was to visit a Zen centre up in the hills near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. We hadn’t been before and we enjoyed ten wonderful days there. The Zen Master is a Jesuit priest, Fr AMA Samy, a quite remarkable man who just exudes peace and tranquillity. He’s spent much of his adult life now practising Zen as a Christian, and Bodhi Zendo, which can accommodate some 50 guests at a time, is full all the year round. Many of the visitors are from Europe, especially Germany, but it attracts people from all over the world, mostly but not exclusively Christian, in search of a depth of spirituality which they find it hard to come across in their churches. What they’ve discovered is that meditation, being still, waiting in silence and being open connects them more profoundly with themselves, with others, with the world and with God.

AMA Samy is quite a prolific author and in one of his books he describes the characteristic stance of Christians who practise Zen as ‘boundless openness’. This openness is what lies at the heart of the Easter mystery. As far as Zen is concerned, AMA Samy says that the Christian must ‘learn to let go, to pass over, to die, into Zen and Zen tradition. Having died, he or she can come back to life’. For dialogue to be ‘genuine and life-giving, it must be a passing over and dying into the other…The heart of Christianity is discovered as boundless openness to the other…This is the mystery of Jesus Christ’.[1]

Boundless openness. That’s the message of Easter. It’s one we all long to know in our depths and it’s one the world needs to hear more than ever at this time. Because the truth is that boundless openness is primarily what God is. God is boundlessly open towards us as an infinitely limitless love. It’s what all human beings are in their hearts, too, created as we are in the image and likeness of God, but such openness, as well as being utterly exhilarating and liberating, is also scary, for it takes us out of our comfort zones. Boundlessly open love asks us to lose ourselves in love, to risk being hurt and rejected, ridiculed and misunderstood for the sake of love, but because of our fear we resist the truth of who God is and of who we are.  We close in on ourselves and become closed to others and to God in the mistaken belief that somehow we shall be able to hang on to ourselves. In truth, this is the real death.

And this is precisely what the whole Easter story is about. Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s boundlessly open love. Such openness, however, was too threatening – largely, it should not be forgotten, for the religious establishment – so he was killed. His resurrection, though, demonstrates the boundlessly open heart of God, who, even when rejected, cannot help but go on loving. Boundlessly open love is who God is in God’s inner being as Trinity, a communion of love, in which each person of the Trinity is utterly transparent to the other. Boundlessly open love is who God is in relation to God’s beloved creation, which God longs to draw in to the very fullness of divine life without any barrier whatsoever. Boundlessly open love is God’s nature – and although obscured, it’s yours and mine, too. Easter summons us to open ourselves to God’s boundlessly open love and, in so doing, to be who we are.

This is what we hear in both readings today. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is depicted as almost rubbing the Israelites’ noses in the shame of rejecting Jesus and choosing a murderer instead. And yet, despite killing the ‘Author of life’, a fresh start, a new beginning is available to all. All that’s required is repentance, a turning to God in boundless openness, a God who doesn’t rub our noses in it but embraces and includes us in God’s boundlessly open love.

In the gospel reading the Risen Christ greets the eleven and their companions with a seemingly innocuous word: ‘Peace’ – ‘Shalom’. The gospels are at one in their portrayal of the disciples as being bewildered, confused and afraid, and this rings true, doesn’t it? If you’d just let your friend down in such a way that had led to his or her death, wouldn’t you be consumed with guilt, remorse and self-hatred. You probably couldn’t imagine the sting ever being removed. So even the news that Jesus was alive would be tinged with apprehension. Would there be blame, recriminations, a reckoning? No wonder they were disbelieving in their joy. Jesus greets them with, ‘Peace, be still, stop beating yourselves up, it’s all okay. My presence is the sign that the boundlessly open love which I am in every fibre of my being, and which led to my death, is actually indestructible, so open your hearts to it, lose yourselves in it, and come alive, for there’s nothing to be afraid of’.

Nothing to be afraid of? We’re living at a time when there seems a great deal to be afraid of. Chemical weapons, bombs in Syria, political instability on a global scale, an escalation of tension that’s led some to comment that we’re in a more dangerous state than we’ve been since the Second World War. The knee-jerk reaction to such circumstances is to close down, to harden the boundaries, to pretend that everything’s black and white, to behave in the very way that led to Jesus’ death.

The message of Easter is that the way that leads to life is to be boundlessly open – to the other, to difference, to change, to love. Of course it’s costly. That’s what the cross shows. But just imagine what this place and the whole Church would be like if we were truly open and inclusive, comfortable with rubbing shoulders and sitting next to people with whom we might disagree strongly and yet prepared to take the time and effort to find out what makes us all tick. Just imagine. We’d be a truly Easter people, boundlessly open in love to one another and to God, a sign of the presence of the boundlessly open God, whose love is indestructible. We’d be who we really are.


[1] See Samy, AMA (2009) The Zen Way, Dindigul: Vaigarai, p.121 and Samy, AMA (2010) Zen: Ancient and Modern, Dindigul: Vaigarai, pp.201-202.

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