Those of you who use the Internet at all to search the web, or use web based email programmes like Hotmail or Facebook will be very aware of the adverts which pop up on your screen which are supposedly selected especially for you. Some faceless device working on algorithms and preference analysers and other such terrifying things thinks it knows what you most need, and selects an advert so that you have the opportunity to buy the product which is going to revolutionise your life. Sometimes they also make lifestyle suggestions!
When I first started using Facebook, and I was in my early twenties, I quite often used to get adverts for dating agencies popping up. Clearly the big faceless algorithm analyser thought, ah well this chap is in his twenties, what he needs is a wife. Interestingly now, in my mid-thirties all those dating adverts have gone away. They have been replaced, however, with hair loss solutions. Now the computer doesn't think I need a wife, it thinks I need a wig.
I notice a preoccupation in these advertisements, for the staving off of the things in life which apparently need to be defended against – ageing, imperfection, deficiency, weakness…
Contrast that with the words of St Paul in our first readings this morning:
"So we do not lose heart, even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure."
We enter, this Sunday, the first of the long season of Sundays after Trinity, which stretch from today all the way to Advent. Since last November we have been following the life of Christ in a sort of pseudo-chronological way, through his birth, childhood, life, death and resurrection. Now, in these umpteen weeks after Trinity, it is time to say: well, ok then. Given all of that, given this extraordinary man and the things he has done, what next? How is this my story? Is this something which, when all the incense and flowers and champagne have been cleared away, is going to make a difference? During this season of what is fairly appallingly entitled Ordinary Time, we grow, as Christians, as a family, as a congregation and as a community – as human beings here together, or at least we are supposed to grow. And our readings this morning set us off on a pretty good path.
Paul is absolutely clear that there are some things we need to get straight early on, in order to navigate life well. The first is that here is where we are. Paul is not interested in people who are kidding themselves – that is no way to go about our Christianity. What he says in this letter, and indeed in all his letters, is that we have to be clear about the reality of life. We are, all of us, living somewhere in between creation and redemption. What do I mean by that – well I mean that Christianity is a process, not a state. Look again at what St Paul says in this snippet of a much longer letter: Look at the words he uses, and the phrases: They’re all process words aren’t they: wasting away, being renewed, momentary affliction, weight of glory, not losing heart, temporary, eternal…
One of the big mistakes we make when we think about Christianity is to imagine that it is all about two binary states. Bad and good. Bad, mortal, physical, nasty fleshy world, and good, holy, glorious, eternal world to come. We are in one, which is grim, and we are heading towards one which is glorious. Everything about now is deficient and evil and everything about what is coming is wonderful, and there’s nothing much in between. It’s kind of what the Gnostics believed, and it leads to a pretty austere and unhelpful approach to the world.
Paul, who is often not seen as particularly fond of the body and of this world, is actually a lot more nuanced than that. His is a teaching all about transformation. Yes, he says, there is a lot that is fragile and broken and disordered about this world. Our outer nature is wasting away – some of us more obviously than others, but it is happening to all of us – but that’s not a curse, that is the nature of this world, because this world is giving way to something else. The Kingdom is coming, and so as the kingdom approaches, we are transformed with it. And we experience the beginnings of that even now. You are transforming. As you sit there this morning in church you are transforming. We leave this Eucharist closer to the Kingdom than we came in. We leave this Eucharist closer to the image of God to which he conforms us, than we came in. And it is not just the sorts of people who go to Church to which this is happening. Paul writes elsewhere that the entire creation is groaning in labour pains – the entire creation is part of this extraordinary new birth which is the destiny of the created order.
Things are becoming new. Old things are not bad – they are transforming into new things.
I sat on Thursday listening to the London Philharmonic Orchestra in concert here, and I was sitting down by the font, and out of my right eye I could see the standards, the old colours laid up down by the north porch. We laid up two standards a few weeks ago – those of the Burma Star and the Normandy Veterans association. The words used when a standard is handed over to the Cathedral are extraordinary, and they popped into my head as I was thinking about this paradox of wasting away whilst being renewed day by day.
I request you, Dean, to receive this Standard for safe lodging in this house of God until such time as it will pass to dust like those whose courage and devotion are enshrined in history.
There is something about wasting away which is actually holy. It is part of who we are and what we do. That’s why we are pleased to receive Standards into this Cathedral to hang there until there is nothing left of them. It reminds us of ourselves – who will pass to dust, but at the same time the things which matter will not. The things enshrined in the Father’s hand, his history, - not courage and devotion, but the very breath and kiss of God himself – are assured, and eternal, and we begin to live that life now. As you leave this morning pause at the font, look at the standards crumbling away and recognise yourself, and as you do that dip your hand into the water of the font – living active, ever flowing, and recognise yourself there too. Feel your identity as both wasting and renewed. Recognise the reality of life in the spirit – life on the journey, on the Way.
So in our Gospel Jesus tells some truths to the people about the nature of that sort of life. It requires radically new family relationships – recognising ourselves as part of a larger family. It is a life where we have to stop attributing blame for things- he’s clearly of the devil ‘cos we don’t like what he’s doing, and he threatens us. This is about more than that, says Christ. This is about the Holy Spirit – and that has to be taken seriously. This, like this season of Sundays after Trinity, is about what is the Holy Spirit doing in your life, in my life? How am I being transformed, and helping others around me to be transformed, as my wasted life becomes renewed? How am I identifying the people, the situations, the lives, both near at hand and far away, to whom the Spirit is whispering – as the hymn-writer put it – tidings of a new creation to a tired and weary earth? The Holy Spirit brings the growth, the renewal that is signified in this ordinary time by the flash of liturgical green in our vestments, the colour of the natural world, of the green blade rising, of the eternal and vibrant and whole, which is not only God’s promise of the future, but is already at hand, if we can listen hard enough to that breath and kiss of God within, around and before us.
RS Thomas put it beautifully when he wrote: