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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 10 February 2019 – Sung Eucharist 10am
Isaiah 6:1-8 Luke 5: 1-11
When the Bishop of Winchester commended Jonathan to us as our new Dean at his installation eight days ago, he did so with great eloquence and affection. He noted in particular that two phrases are often to be found on Jonathan’s lips: ‘Our life together in Christ’ and ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. Well, I’ve heard Jonathan utter these words already! The first phrase obviously speaks of the life of the Church. So, too, of course, does the second, but the Bishop was quick to add that for Jonathan the Holy Spirit’s perceived to be just as much at work in the world as in the Church. I take this to indicate that the Church and the world exist in a reciprocal relationship, in which the boundaries between the two are far from sharply drawn, precisely because the Spirit’s present in both.
I want to explore something of what this means in the context of today’s readings, especially the gospel. The broad theme is that of vocation. In the first reading we heard of Isaiah of Jerusalem’s evocative and transformative vision of God in the temple – the God, we might note, whose glory fills the whole earth – with its call to the prophet to speak uncomfortable words to the people of Judah in the latter part of the eight century before Christ. In the second we heard of Jesus calling those who’d been hard at work fishing all night but without success. When they responded to Jesus’ invitation to ‘put out into the deep water’, and saw the result, they ‘left everything and followed Jesus’. I want to speak about the significance of the sea in all this, but I’ll come back to that later. Let’s start with vocation.
What do you think about vocation? Do you think you have one or do you think it’s just for clergy? Let me suggest that every single human being has a vocation and it’s not primarily to be ordained or even to be particularly churchy or religious. In the first instance, it’s simply to be fully human, to be who we have it in us most truly to be. Deep within every human heart is a longing for love, acceptance, relationship and inclusion, a profound desire to experience life not as fragmented and broken but as complete and whole. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be fully who we truly are. His full humanity’s seen to be realised only when it’s completely open to and at one with the transcendent source of all that is, the one he called, ‘Abba, Father,’ just as his divinity’s revealed not as something separate from humanity but as love poured out and into all that is, with absolutely nothing left over.
People responded to Jesus – and still do – as the one in whom all longing, human and divine, meets: our longing for God and God’s longing for us. So to be drawn into ever greater union with God is at one and the same time to be drawn into ever closer relationship with every other human being and, indeed, with all creation. The Church’s primary vocation is to be a community, a communion, of love, united in the Holy Spirit of love, sharing with one another without reserve in the overflowing life and love of the Trinity.
We all know only too well, though, that the Church isn’t always experienced like this. The Church itself is fragmented and broken not only at an institutional level, but also in local communities. This is true to a greater or lesser extent of every church community I’ve ever been involved with. The plain fact of the matter is that even when we respond to the call to attain our full humanity and maturity in Christ, we still share as human beings in the brokenness of the whole world. Being called into life together with God and with one another in the Church doesn’t remove our difficulties in one fell swoop. Rather, we travel together in full awareness of both our brokenness and also of what and who we already are in Christ. We might say that it’s our being in Christ that gives us the freedom to live with our brokenness and to be open to healing and transformation.
It remains the case, nevertheless, that some people – many perhaps – have been hurt and broken by the church itself. In our own time, the significant number of people who’ve been subjected to clerical abuse, for example, testify to this. So, too, do LGBTI people, who’ve often been silenced and excluded, women who’ve suffered discrimination, and divorcees who’ve been made to feel as if they’re beyond the pale. Many have been hurt by the judgmental and harsh attitudes and actions of the Church, and sometimes the Church has had to play catch up with the rest of the world, which, by contrast, can appear to be rather closer to the Spirit than the church itself.
Some simply feel let down or disappointed by the Church, as a result of which they’ve given up on it and looked for what they want and need elsewhere. Among these are those who look for the fulfilment of their deepest spiritual longings outside the Church. I often find myself having conversations with people who used to be part of church communities but who found they were no longer nourished and sustained by what they were given. The many, for example, who’re looking for more silence or for a less dogmatic approach to things. Others feel that the Church doesn’t engage enough, if at all sometimes, with the really serious issues facing us: poverty, injustice, inequality, global warming, migration and so on. The drive to respond to these issues is as often as not found outside the Church. So this very awareness pushes us to look for where the Spirit’s at work in the world as a whole, as well as in the Church.
Some Christians find this rather uncomfortable. The world, they argue, is at best ambiguous, at worst full of temptation and danger, capable of leading us astray. It’s better to play safe, they say, and stay within the secure boundaries of the Church rather than engage too closely with the world.
The difficulty with this is that, as I’ve already suggested, the church itself isn’t always a safe place. The Church can just as much be a place of danger and corruption as the rest of the world. Importantly, too, perhaps, the Church can also be used as an escape from the rest of the world, from life itself and the challenges if brings. Life isn’t always comfortable, though, either in the church or beyond it, and the Spirit’s constantly blowing us out of our comfort zones. The Spirit may sometimes be a still, small voice, but it can also be a hurricane: powerful, uncontrollable and irresistible, just like the sea.
Those who made a living from fishing knew they were encountering danger on a daily basis. In Biblical times, the sea wasn’t just a force of nature, it was a place of chaos and disorder. And yet, Jesus invited the fishermen to put out not just to sea, nor to the shallows alone, but into the deep water, the place where safety and security can’t be guaranteed, where human beings are vulnerable to the elements and definitely out of their comfort zone. The sea, after all, has the capacity to overwhelm and destroy, and yet it’s also teeming with life and energy. If the sea was for those fishermen a symbol of chaos, it was also the place of abundance, grace and generative power: they found so many fish that they could barely contain them in their nets.
The fishermen were surprised by catching anything at all, let alone the sheer size of the catch. Abundance came from the most expected place. So, are we prepared to launch out into the deep? What gifts of abundance and grace in the world do we reject? What gifts might those outside the Church have to offer to it? In what ways do we inhibit such gifts from being offered? Where’s the Church called to listen to the voice of the Spirit in the world today? For the Spirit’s the Lord, the giver of all life, drawing all into union with God and with one another. Only together can we fulfil the divine call to be fully human, to be truly who we are.
So it shouldn’t just be Jonathan praying, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, but all of us. So come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of all your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love, that the call to us from the depths of the Father’s heart to be who we truly are might be made real in the fullness of our life together in Christ.
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