A sermon preached by the Chancellor, Canon Edward Probert
Sunday 7 February 2021, Eucharist, Second Sunday before Lent
Colossians 1.1-14; John 1.1-14
(scroll to the bottom for a video of this sermon)
My grandmother used to say she wasn’t much bothered if she went down instead of up when she died, because she’d spent so much of her life stoking her boiler that if she went to hell she would feel at home shovelling coal.
In doing so she made a joke of what has always been one of the most powerful tools in the bag of writers, dramatists, sporting contests, politicians, preachers and religious authorities across the world and throughout the ages – the power of stark contrasts, of binary choices. In Deuteronomy Moses offers a stark choice to God’s people as they prepare to enter their promised land: ‘I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity….. Choose life’. Many years ago I wrote a paper reflecting on what underlay something I’d observed in the films of the incredibly successful director, Stephen Spielberg, in whose work I kept noticing villains or antithetical forces, who were strong on menace, and weak on subtlety and likeability – if they weren’t Nazis, they were faceless and heartless or simply malign powers such as unnamed agencies of ‘big government’, T Rexes and velociraptors. The simple answer to that success (and its merit is that it is so very simple) is that dualism works as a driving force in narrative: one’s sympathies are strongly engaged on one side of a clear divide, and this leaves the audience free to direct towards the antagonist all the fears, the anger, all the negatives. And when the drama ends we feel cleansed, more secure.
In many ways it is a really satisfying to live in a binary universe. You know what’s good, what’s likeable, who your friends really are, which (if you like) are your ‘team’. And perhaps even more importantly, you know who your opponents are.
But drama in any form is an imitation of life, not life itself. It may in many ways be comfortable and convenient for us humans to default to a dualistic interpretation of events, but life – as opposed to sporting encounters and dramatic entertainments – is not confined within tight chronological boundaries and clear plots. If we are honest, and not conveniently suspending disbelief (in the dramatic sense) we see within ourselves and in other people much more complexity, a mingling of good and bad, of light and shade.
Which takes me to our scriptures this morning.
The beginning of John’s gospel, setting the scene to help us understand Jesus in the chapters which follow, provides a strong dramatic contrast: light, and darkness. John reminds us of the creation narrative at the start of Genesis, where the universe starts with God saying ‘Let there be light’, and so separating the light from the darkness. Here, in John, the Word of God embodies one half of that divide – the light shining in the darkness. Both at this point, and later in John’s gospel (and the letters of John) where Jesus and his followers can seem to be completely apart from all that surrounds them, utterly detached from a dark and unbelieving world, there are hints of dualism: team Jesus – or team world.
We need to look at this. Note that John takes care to undermine that apparent dualism: ‘What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people’; ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’. Light and dark are not equivalent forces, balanced and fighting it out in some drama. And darkness isn’t the opposite of light – it’s the absence of light. So darkness can’t overcome it; if light exists, it can ALWAYS be seen. So you don’t need to divorce yourself from darkness, just turn to the light.
The most mistaken forms of religion take the convenience of dramatic dualism and apply it to theology and ethics. You are good, they are bad. Don’t waste time trying to understand or empathise with your opponent; they are your enemy.
But if you are tempted by this, I refer you not only to your own experience and the subtler dimensions of John’s thinking, but to some rather simpler words of Jesus recorded elsewhere: ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’.
In following Jesus we do not need to suspend disbelief so as to live in a simple, comforting and artificial drama with twin contrasting forces of good and bad; for our purpose is rather to find true belief in life itself: in Jesus, the light of life, to whom simply to turn is to find the way forward; from whom to turn is to look out into the darkness. The choice is not out there, in competing forces of good and evil, but in ourselves, and choosing to look for the light of life.