A sermon preached by The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
The Eucharist on Sunday 19 September, 10,30, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Please scroll to the bottom of the page to follow a video of this sermon.
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”.
“Draw near to God” writes James. “Draw near to God”. When James issues that instruction to his readers he does not invent a pleasing epigram with which to sign himself off and end his letter. Instead, he aligns himself solidly within the tradition of his ancestors.
The God of Israel, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, is a God who across the generations invites his people to draw near. We might think of the priests who are summoned to approach the Lord on Mount Sinai; or of the men of Israel, bidden to appear before the Lord at the great annual festivals which mark out the year. In this tradition faithfulness to God demands a drawing near to God.
Yet the movement of which James writes cannot be a matter of crude spatial relationship, of one becoming physically more proximate to another. After all, the disciples do more than draw near God. If what we believe is true, then they live alongside him day by day and hour by hour. And a fat lot of good it does them. Passing through Galilee in his company they are oblivious to what Jesus teaches them. They are instead fixated on a contest. Who is the greatest? They could not have been closer, and they could not have been more distant.
So when the people of ancient Israel were enjoined to approach God, and when James urges that upon his hearers, what is meant?
Here’s another pleasing epigram, of more recent origin: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. This advice, given to Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, was doubtless in the Prime Minister’s mind as he reshuffled his Cabinet last week. One who is held close is far less dangerous than one who has been cut loose. One who is held close finds escape more difficult; one who is held close is more vulnerable to attack; one who is held close is dependent on the one doing the holding. What is true of an enemy held close is true of anyone who is close to another. When we draw near to another it is more difficult to get away from them. When we draw near to another, we make ourselves vulnerable to them, for they got there first, and they know the terrain as we do not. When we draw near to another, we make ourselves in some sense dependent upon them, for we have left where we were and have moved towards them. We have been called, drawn, attracted – and we have made a move.
Which is exactly what God does, according to the very first words that Jesus speaks in St Mark’s Gospel. He arrives in Galilee for the first time, after the arrest of John the Baptist, proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. “Draw near to God” writes James. “The kingdom of God has come near” says Jesus.
So Mark’s beginning accords with James’s ending. The Greek verb is the same – this is surely no coincidence. “Draw near to God”. At the opening of Mark’s Gospel Jesus proclaims “Repent, and believe in the good news”. Now, more than halfway through his Gospel, Jesus passes through Galilee again and tries for the third time to explain to the twelve what the good news is.
The good news remains that the kingdom of God has drawn near; but now Jesus adds that the kingdom of God is embodied in his very person. He calls himself “the Son of Man”. Like James, Jesus aligns himself solidly within the tradition of his ancestors. The God who invites his people to draw near is also a God who promises that his people will be vindicated. Their exiles will be ended, their defeats will be reversed, their sufferings will be redeemed: and in their prophetic writings this vindication, this redemption will be embodied in one called a Son of Man.
Jesus teaches the disciples “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again”. Here is the good news. The Son of Man is among them; ultimate vindication has arrived; unimaginable redemption has arrived. But this drawing near of the kingdom of God first means betrayal and death. Drawing near his creation God makes Godself as vulnerable and dependent as one of Corleone’s enemies: drawing near means that the cross and the shameful death are unavoidable. Drawing near is not about juxtaposition – it’s not about General Haig making a gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin, as Blackadder has it. Drawing near is about allowing ourselves to be changed for ever. That’s why Corleone is so keen on it.
“Draw near to God” writes James. It doesn’t mean come to church or pick up the Bible or receive the sacrament. At least it might mean any of those or all of those, but we can do any of them or all of them and still be more interested in arguing about who is the greatest. “Draw near to God” means “be changed by God”. Jesus takes a child in his arms. In our generation we have got better at acknowledging the wonder and beauty and preciousness of children. We still have a way to go, but in the ancient world, children had no economic value and no social status. “Welcome one of these, who can never repay your hospitality” says Jesus; “Be the slave one of these, who is in every way your undisputed inferior”. Be changed.
It’s Creationtide, and at the distribution of Holy Communion we use the words “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people”. But at other times of the year we use other words. “Draw near with faith”. They are loaded words – dangerous words. We might re-write them as “Draw near at your peril”. As you leave your seats this morning ask – what change in me do I seek? And what change in me might I need – what change that I will not welcome? And then, only then, take and eat.