Sermon: Sunday 22 April 2012
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
The Jesuit priest and renowned teacher on prayer Anthony de Mello suggests an interesting spiritual practice based on the questions of Jesus. He urges us to enter a prayerful state and then imagine that Jesus is asking us one of the questions that he poses in the gospels.
Today’s gospel reading presents several questions. The first two that Jesus asks are “Why are you frightened?” and “Why do doubts arise in your heart?” I am sure everybody here can think of a number of things which frighten you and arouse doubts in your heart. All of us have concerns for our families, our health, our jobs or our financial situation. Expanding our realm of concern somewhat, we may tap into anxieties over an uncertain economy or our nation’s involvement in violent conflicts at home and abroad. Taking a step further back, many might express deep fear and doubt over what is arguably the most pressing and far-reaching crisis of our time: ecological degradation so vast that it threatens Earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it.
But what is the source of this? Why are human beings as they are? Why are we frightened? Why do doubts arise in our hearts?
The Christian tradition has identified pride as the main source of human suffering and sin, starting symbolically with the great turning away from God by Adam and Eve. However, the first outcome of the fall for Adam and Eve was not a feeling of pride, but the feeling of being ashamed. Genesis 2 says that in paradise ‘the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.’ Shame is the first and in my eyes foremost outcome of the fall; shame is distinct from guilt as it is not about what I have done but about who I am. Shame offers no path of amendment; shame is corrosive, damaging and incredibly harmful. Adam and Eve forgot who they are: they forgot that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that their bodies are holy, they forgot that they were made in the image of God and that they were stunningly beautiful – they realised that they were naked and became ashamed.
Lack of confidence about our bodies is very common nowadays. I presume most of us would be slightly uncomfortable if all our clothes would suddenly disappear, but shame goes beyond the worry about the perfect physical appearance or your bikini figure. Fear of nakedness is not only fear that our bellies become visible or that increasing influence of gravity cannot be hidden, but fear of nakedness means our fear that all we try to hide about ourselves from ourselves and each other becomes visible. Shame is the vulnerability of human beings to forget who they really are: beloved of God, clothed in beauty and splendour and made in the image of God. Shame is the conviction that part of us is so dirty that it is beyond redemption, and we do everything, truly everything to hide this from ourselves and from others.
We don’t want to be naked. In reality, all of us have forgotten who we really are. All of us have been told one way of the other that we are rubbish, that we are ugly, that we are worthless and, equally important, all of us have shamed others, we have told or shown others that they are rubbish, ugly and worthless. Shame breeds shame, and children are particularly vulnerable to shaming – hence Jesus warning ‘it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’ The prominent sins like pride and anger and fear in my eyes stem out of shame, a lack of knowledge and trust of who we are. As we are unsure about our dignity and value pride or hubris offers a way out. For example, gluttony or over-eating offers a way out of feeling small, insignificant and dirty. All the classic sins can be seen as shortcuts to deal with the corrosive feelings and effects of shame. I think that shame is at the root of all that is wrong with humanity and this planet – and there is strong biblical evidence for this as well. Vulnerability to shame is the human condition after the fall and it has effects which are beyond the individual.
Shame is at the heart of how we mistreat our planet, as we don’t know our role in God’s plan and in spite of Jesus dying on a cross for us have a very different idea what leadership and rule should mean. ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,’ God says in Genesis. If we are supposed to be rulers like God rules us, to look after God’s creation as stewards and loving carers like God showed us by example on his cross, then we got it truly wrong by messing up our planet.
Today, April 22, is Earth Day – a worldwide day of awareness and action for the Earth’s natural environment. And since it falls on a Sunday this year, churches across the world are called to contemplate the created order around us, repenting of the church’s responsibility in furthering the destruction, accessing our Christian tradition’s rich resources to address the crisis, and sharing together the hope that, as the psalmist writes, ‘we might see better times.’
There is much ‘dishonouring of God’s glory’ to lament today. We humans are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate. The data keeps pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil, jeopardizing the health of humans and other species. Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise due to the increasing use of fossil fuels, with 80% emitted by only 19 countries. Oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, most of the world’s mountain glaciers are diminishing rapidly, and forest area has decreased dramatically. Each year 27,000 species created by the Author of Life go extinct – gone from the face of the earth forever. In short, Creation is groaning as a result of human action and humanity missing its proper place in the order of creation.
Today’s gospel reading in Luke describes a reappearance of the resurrected Christ to the disciples. Jesus appears, to the shock and terror of his disciples who initially surmised that surely this was a ghost. This gospel passage is hugely important because even the risen Jesus is NOT separated from the material world, but eats. Matter is not something dirty or less holy, matter is on the contrary something extremely important: God made this world, called it good, God made us and called it very good, Jesus became truly human and even after his resurrection engaged in physical actions, in human behaviour: isn’t that incredible what this says about our human nature, about our beautiful bodies and about the respect we should show towards God’s creation?
In response to the disciples’ bewilderment and fear, Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet. ‘Touch me and see,’ he says, ‘for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ This passage in Luke is a direct contradiction of the Gnostic idea that spirit was superior to matter. On the contrary, matter is extremely important. Matter is the stuff of this Earth, and here was Jesus, incarnate, in the flesh, emphasizing the importance of the material life on Earth.
Like the disciples, we too are called to experience and value the stuff of this Earth, and this has to start with ourselves. We too must respond to Peter’s call to repent, even though we may ‘act in ignorance,’ not knowing the consequences of our actions. We all act in ignorance because we are vulnerable to forgetting who we truly are, made little lower than the angels. All of us are tainted by shame, all of us try to hide parts of ourselves and all of us are terrified that our supposedly dark bits become visible to others, all of us fear to be naked. Our shame leads us to trying to appear better and taller and greater and more wonderful, makes us proud, angry and greedy. All of us are meant when Peter called the Israelites and their rulers to ‘turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.’
At the heart of our celebration today and every Sunday is God’s promise to sort us and all creation out, as he said in our first reading today: ‘I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you.’ Amen.
© The Revd Canon Johannes Arens