Eucharist Sermon - 14 March 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday
Ephesians 2:1–10, John 3:14–21
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity

Good Morning and a warm welcome to this Choral Eucharist on the fourth Sunday in Lent – or Mothering Sunday. Although we remain scattered let us give thanks that we are still able to worship and pray together as fellow members of the body of Christ.

‘In him we live and move and have our being’

As fish need water, birds need air, and plants need the sun, so the readings we have heard this morning suggest that we human beings need faith; faith is our element. For just as a fish taken from the water will not survive; a bird without air will be unable to fly; and a plant without sun will wither and perish, so, unless we have the life and light of faith, we will die.

In our epistle and Gospel, Paul and John identify that life and light with Christ, who saves and redeems us through faith. Paul describes faith as a grace; a gift given to us by God, in his mercy, kindness and love, in and through Christ. He writes to the Ephesians, ‘You were once dead because of your sins and wickedness…But God is rich in mercy, and because of his great love for us, he brought us to life with Christ when we were dead because of our sins; it is by grace you are saved…..For it is by grace you are saved through faith’. In our Gospel John makes the same point in the well-known words: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life’.

What is this faith - this gift and grace, which saves us from perishing?

We tend to think of faith in terms of what we know or don’t know – or at least I do. We have faith in something because we can’t fully comprehend it; we have to take it on trust, or on ‘good faith’ as we sometimes put it. Faith is ‘faith’ because it is in what is unseen – but when we can see and fully comprehend something, then we speak of knowledge, rather than faith.

But what we have found in our lessons this morning is much more fundamental. Faith is not just about what we can and can’t know, but much more importantly about how we know. Faith, I’d like to suggest, is the air we breathe, the gravity that holds us up, the light in which see, the food that nourishes and sustains us. Without faith, we are nothing; we fall back into darkness; we cut ourselves off from that which gives us life.

What I mean, first of all, is that we live and move and have our being only because of God: we are created beings, who owe our existence to our eternal, unchanging, divine Creator; and as temporal, mutable, human beings, we can never fully grasp or know Him; we can only relate to Him in faith. In other words, from the very beginning, our existence is one that is grounded in faith. If we fail to realise this, and if we are tempted proudly to think that we are sufficient to ourselves; that we can live and move and have our being without God, then we no longer live but die; we move from the light of God to the darkness of sin. In the same way, if we think we can know and fully comprehend God, then it isn’t God that we know – instead we are simply seeing things in our own very limited, human terms and are blind to the truth of his transcendence. So, not to have faith is not to appreciate that what we know of God is always, only a reflection, an image, a glimpse of his unimaginable, ungraspable majesty. As one early Christian theologian puts it, ‘the superiority of the stars to the grasp of our fingers is nothing in comparison with that of the nature which exceeds every mind to our earthly reasoning’.

Theologians often explain this with the image of the Sun: just as we cannot gaze at the sun directly because it is too dazzlingly bright, but must instead look at what it illuminates - at reflections and shadows – so, we cannot look upon God directly, but must contemplate him in His creation, his gracious works and acts towards us, in the reflected light of His prophets, saints, teachers and preachers. This is the gaze of faith. It is an indirect one; a mediated one, the only way we human beings can approach our transcendent God – and of course, as our lessons this morning make clear, the supreme mediator is Christ, who, in taking human flesh, has veiled the blinding light of His Godhead so that we might gaze upon His earthly life and works, and believing in Him, be saved. For in Christ, the darkness and death of unbelief is righted and set on a true course: faith in Christ, raised up on the cross, as Moses raised the serpent in the wilderness, leads us to Christ, the Son of God, who saves and redeems us. It is only by the grace or Gift of God himself, incarnate, that believing in Him, we can be saved.

What does this mean for human life in the world? How is this life of faith to be lived? Well, it is certainly not one based on a fixed and unmoving grasp of the fullness of truth, on rational argument, logical definitions or scientific statements. Rather it is one that is always open to what is yet to be known, to what lies before us, to what we will become, confident in the faith that both the way and the goal are to be found in Christ, the Son of God, who is the ungraspable fullness of truth.

The poet Rilke puts this beautifully in his Letters to a Young Poet , as he encourages him to live with all the unresolved matters in his mind and heart, knowing that they can only be resolved through his living them. He writes: ‘be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future’.

There is both a stillness and a stretching out here. A being present to God in faith and a stretching out towards his eternal, endless majesty. It is this stillness and stretching out of faith that should characterise our lives and prayer: always present to God and then, aware in this presence of his limitless greatness, always, also, seeking and stretching out towards Him. It is for good reason, I think, that faith is always placed before hope and love. Faith is the ground of hope and love, and hope and love are the way in which the stillness and stretching out of faith can happen in our hearts and minds and lives: faith centres us in God so that we can continually stretch out towards him in hope and love.

And as our lessons this morning remind us, and as we will soon affirm in the Creed, we believe in God – and I think this is to be understood in the strongest sense of within God: for both the stillness and stretching out of faith towards God is, as Paul reminds us, not our work but God’s: it is given to us; it is a gift or a grace; it is the presence of God to us and with us, stretching out within and through us, towards Himself. This is especially so, as we join ourselves to His incarnate Word - for faith in Christ, lifted up on the cross for our salvation, catches us up into God’s love and unites us to Him; in faith He becomes ‘the one in whom we live, and move and have our being’.