SERMON PREACHED AT THE
CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, FRED’S PASS (NT)
SUNDAY, September 2nd 2012
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 22 / FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST)
Readings: Song of Songs 2.8-13
Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9
Mark 7.1-8, 14-23
Amongst my many mid-life crises – a description that is increasingly over optimistic as I slide into what I fear is Shakespeare’s fifth out of seven ages of human life! – was one brought about during my first post-grad degree, when I had cause to read a book by a man called Alexander Irwin. The book had much within it with which I was impressed, much at which I was somewhat horrified. But that wasn’t the point: the point was that the learnèd author was younger than I was. Actually I had a similar crisis a few years earlier when Kylie Minogue hit the airwaves, but that’s another story altogether. The real story is that Irwin was the first author to alert me to the sense of the erotic in the human relationship with God, with the divine.
Eros, the ancients’ god of sexuality, has tended to receive bad press within the Christian community. Not least, in recent decades, this was driven by C.S. Lewis, who in his The Four Loves treats Eros in some depth, but is often misrepresented by people who haven’t read him as disparaging (‘dissing’) this form of love. He doesn’t, but at the same time he recognizes its limitations and potentials for abuse. I have no argument with that, and my author Alexander Irwin is not engaging, in any case, with Lewis, but with a very different philosopher/theologian, Paul Tillich.
Paul Tillich, who had an enormous influence on twentieth century theology, needn’t altogether detain us here, except in so far as he introduced the language of eros into the descriptions of the relationship between humans and the divine. Tillich, it must be acknowledged, allegedly had a few problems of his own with regards to the erotic, but that for now is another story. What does matter was that he took something of which Christians have often, at least since St Augustine, been afraid, and tried to draw it into the mainstream of Christian discourse. Which is the point of Alexander Irwin’s book (Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic) even as it gave me my nineteenth nervous breakdown, midlife crisis, or whatever it was.
In fact if we reach into the writings of the mediaeval and earlier mystics we will find that the language of the erotic often tinges writings about the life of prayer and devotion into which holy men and women of God entered through prayer and extraordinary discipline. The Reformers cast out many babies with the bathwater of reformation: a quick tour of England’s ruins soon reveals the extent of Henry VIII’s and Thomas Cromwell’s obscene orgy of destruction. Like the Taliban destroying statues of the Buddha they rode roughshod over human spirituality, destroying both the corrupt and the godly in their demonic pogrom. That, sadly, is a flaw deep in the DNA of Protestantism, and one we must admit with shame, if that is, we see ourselves as Protestant.
But in the wonderful life of prayer of those whose writings - and even architecture - survived there is a longing for the knowledge and experience of God that has probably only ever been matched, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, by the author of the Song of Songs. That book, from which we read today, was of course ‘spiritualised’ by Christian writers, removing its essential energies so that it became a weak parody of itself. It is a writing about longing and love, of bride and groom and all that courses through human veins and arteries when we are – or were, when we were younger – captivated by the darts of the erotic. It is not about the love of Christ for his Church.
Except that it can be. It isn’t, but it is. The love of Christ for his Church, and for you and for me, and the love that we can experience for the risen Christ in moments of immeasurable devotion, that love has all the uncontrolled idiocy of the erotic but so, so much more. That was, I believe, the point that Tillich was attempting to make.
We have however tended to exercise no more than a flaccid parody of that love. One poet wrote in rather unchurchy terms of what one vandal once did to a statue of Venus: perhaps all we can say in church is that the vandal removed that statue’s potential for fathering baby statues.* We have done it often, in our preaching and teaching, too often portraying our God as a miserable celestial wowser forcing eternal miseries on his – his – subjects. That is not the God of the Songs of Songs – though there is no doubt that the deification of sexuality is a dangerous misdirection of energy, too.
Too often we major in the minors, fixating on easily identifiable errors in human lives, rather than flaming the spark of God’s image in struggling human beings. This of course effects not only questions of sexuality: anxious to override excesses of the mediaeval catholic church the Reformers did all they could to destroy many of its good points, too. Luther was so determined to emphasise, rightly, his gospel of grace that he, wrongly, sought to drive a bitter wedge between faith and so-called ‘works’ and between grace and works in the life of the believer – he even expressed the wish that the book we know as James be excised from the canon of faith.
How dare he? The books of scripture slowly came together in what we have come to know as the bible, slowly came together in a remarkable working of the Divine Spirit, slowly came together and were agreed on by the magisterium that Luther and other reformers hated, but by whose decisions they were, ironically bound in their obsession with scripture. It wasn’t written in scripture which books were scripture – but I digress! As a result of their obsession we often lost sight of the need to outwork our faith in works of what used to be called ‘charity’, to demonstrate as the first Christians did that the love of Jesus, in all its cruciform shape, is a practical love that empowers the disempowered, feeds the hungry, caresses the soul of the refugee even when wider society dismisses him or her as a queue-jumper and locks them behind razor wire.
Which ironically, or providentially, brings us at last to the acerbic words of Jesus, directed at religious hypocrites in every age, at those who lay burdens on the shoulders of the struggling in every age, of those who create prerequisites to the encounter with God’s love in every age. The acerbic words of Jesus that tell us that when we say people have to be more heterosexual or more middleclass or more Europeanised or more literary to encounter our God that it is we, not they who stand judged and condemned: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ Too often, instead of using the potentials of the world around us as signposts to the magnificence of God we use them as weapons with which to hurt and condemn. Too often we make our Jesus not into the attractive, erotically magnetic figure that he is, but into a stern invisible friend, who judges only to condemn, not beckons to redeem.
We must not drive a wedge between sexuality and access to the divine giftings of eternity, any more than we should drive a wedge between faith and works, grace and works, love and works. Faith, hope, love: all these and more are the outworking of our experience of the God who calls us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”. We should be responsible celebrators of the giftedness of human life, not the destroyers of happiness we often seem to be. The mediaeval mystics were attracted through prayer and liturgy to encounter the divine with every pore of their erotic being. We have too often turned God into the subject of a scientific formula: telling them to say the sinner’s prayer, as Dylan parodies in his masterful “If You Ever Go To Houston”, so that all is suddenly, magically, eternally well when we do. We have emasculated not only eros, the God of love, but have de-energized the author of love. By seeing, or sounding as if we see, the world and all that is in it as defiled and defiling we have set ourselves against the potential of God. The challenge is to become so saturated in God-awareness through our own lives of prayer and liturgy that the powerful erotic beacon of the Creator shines through us, through our worship, through our acts of compassion and draws those around us back into the embrace of eternity.
*The statue of a Greek god lay on the floor
With his prick and balls knocked off by a chisel.
'Alison,' I said, 'they've buggered the god of death,
They've cut the balls off the god of love.
How can their art survive?'
James K Baxter, "Ode to Auckland" (18 October, 1972). In James K Baxter Collected Poems (Wellington, NZ: Oxford University Press, 1979), 598.