Minister's letter

"Going the whole way"

(A sermon preached by Revd. Proff. Paul Fiddes, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, at the ordination of Ewan King, August 13th,  2013)

Hebrews 7:26 & 28:  "We have a high priest … exalted above the heavens … a Son who has been made perfect for ever."

This sermon is a bit of a first for me. It’s the first time I’ve been asked to preach an ordination sermon on a text set for the Feast Day of a Saint. And it’s the first time the person being ordained has already written an essay on this Saint for me. I won’t tell you what mark I gave it.

But those of you who know Ewan know that you end up doing a number of things for the first time when he’s around. So my text is from a passage of Scripture set in the Orthodox Church for the Feast Day of St Maximus the Confessor. Maximus, in case you don’t know, was around in the seventh century, and we have already heard some of the saint’s own words and thoughts in the piece especially written by James Cave. Our New Testament text is about Jesus Christ who has passed through the heavens to the Most Holy Place of all, into the very heart of God the Father. It echoes the confession of Maximus in James’ piece, that the eternal Son of God has become a human being in order to raise our human life into the fellowship of God’s life. Maximus insisted that God really became human in every way, and didn’t just pretend to be a man. This was at the heart of Maximus’ thought, and both the music and the scripture text recall his affirmation. Maximus was inspired by our scripture text saying that Christ, who was God made man, has gone right through the heavens into the most secret presence of God. So I want to speak about Maximus’ Lord, about the Christ who has gone the whole way.

Thank you, Ewan, for asking me to share in this special day, a solemn and joyous day, when you are ordained as a minister of word and sacrament in the church of Christ. Nick and I bring with us the greetings of Regent’s Park College, and our prayers for your future ministry throughout your life to come. On this day, the Feast Day of Maximus, let us think about the Christ who has gone the whole way.

If you drive a car, perhaps you’ve had an experience like mine. Driving slowly through the centre of town you come upon a pedestrian half-way across the road. He looks up and sees you coming and panic strikes him. I call it ‘mid-way panic’. He has left the safety of the curb from which he has started out, and he is not near enough to the other side to feel safe in carrying on, so he dithers, hesitates - and then makes a dash, usually in the wrong direction. Mid-way panic! If you don't drive, you'll still know what I mean because you and I have all been that person crossing the road at one time or another.

This is a parable of many situations in our life; we often have the feeling of being half-way along a difficult path when something strikes us that we can only call 'mid-way panic'. In between the safety of the beginning and the security of the end, there is a space - an open space where we may feel lack of support. So on this day I want to ask us all – not just Ewan but all of us: do we have mid-way panic?

Our text from the book of Hebrews celebrates Jesus Christ as the one who has gone the whole way on the journey through the tests and trials of life. He has found a path through the tangles of human experience, blazing the trail through suffering and trouble. And he has gone through: look, he has gone through to the innermost presence of God the Father. The writer says "He has passed through the heavens" after being "tested in every way as we are". This letter to the Hebrews constantly portrays Jesus as the pioneer, the trail-blazer of our salvation; if we put our trust in him he will take us with him into the heart of God. We too can come through. We can go the whole way on our pilgrimage. We can travel on in the midst of the tensions of life: and one of the tensions we have to face is mid-way panic.

It can be like this for us when we begin to deepen our faith through study of the bible and theology. The safe shore of a so-called 'simple faith' has been left behind. Perhaps we have left behind too the first sense of excitement as new horizons began to open. But we have not yet reached the further shore of a firmly thought-out faith, and mature devotion.

There are many other experiences in the spiritual life like this too.  Perhaps there is some new step of responsibility we have taken on, some new job in daily work or in the church. We are at the stage where the opening thrill of being engaged in something worthwhile has faded away, but as yet we are not on the far shore of really coping with the job, being at ease in it. Or it may be that we've recently got involved with someone who needs our help - an older person who can't cope; a mother who finds the children are wearing her down; a young person who is bewildered by life and feels lost. We've got to know someone like this and offered them the friendship of Christ - and then we've felt, "Help - what have I let myself in for?". Perhaps the church as a whole has embarked upon a project, an adventure of mission and service to the people around we began with enthusiasm, but now we are getting cold feet about it.  Ministers, let me warn you, Ewan, are especially prone to feel this panic. The minister can often see the whole situation, and realise all its implications, when these are hidden to other church members. Ministers will also feel responsibility for leading others into what they know is alarming territory, when those being led may be blissfully unaware of what is likely to happen. It’s no wonder that ministers can feel anxious about being out in the middle of the way.

Now, there are different reactions to mid-way panic for all of us. First there is:

1. The desire to run back - Many of the people to whom the author of this letter is writing were in this sort of situation. They had made a good beginning in the faith, but now as they faced opposition and attack they were inclined to make a dash backwards - they were wanting to retreat to the beginners’ course, which seemed safer. The writer rebukes them, saying: "Then let us stop discussing the first lessons of the Christian message. We ought not to be laying over again the foundations of faith..." (you can find that in chapter 6, v.1). They were making the move backwards because they didn’t want to cope with the challenge of growing in their faith, and being witnesses to Christ in hostile situations.

They wanted to remain beginners for ever. They shrank from the tension of being out in the middle, on the way to that goal which is set before the people of God. But we shall be bitterly disappointed if we insist that God should simply repeat the blessings of the past, that God should give us the same kind of joy we knew then. We are inclined to say to God – "Bless me the way you did before - then I will feel like praising you...". We say "Repeat the good thing I enjoyed ten years ago, and then I will call you a faithful God". As a church we may say: "bring back the good times of fifty years ago" - awake O Lord as in the time of old! But our God is the God of the new. He always has new things to surprise us. So our New Testament writer encourages his readers to go out into the middle of the way; to follow Jesus who has gone the whole way, passing right through the heavens; he has run the course from first to last, and so he can sympathise with our weakness, our mid-way panic.

But another way we can try and cope with this panic is to dash forward too quickly; like the pedestrian, we can run and trip over, or run into traffic coming the other way. There is:

2. The temptation to bring the journey to an end too soon - Some of those to whom the author is writing his letter obviously think they have arrived at all the answers. In the panic of the midway they have dashed to quick conclusions. They don't need the testing Jesus has gone through; they’ve found the solutions without pain. And so the writer has to say to them: "Let us go to Jesus outside the city and share his shame; for there is no permanent city for us here on earth... We are looking for the city which is to come..." (you can find that in chapter 13 of the letter). We have not arrived at our destination; we haven’t reached the city where we can settle down as Jesus was crucified outside the city walls we are to go out on pilgrimage with him, into the mid-way where we feel exposed.

But we are often tempted to come to quick, clever answers without having done a good job, without growing through our experience. A little while ago I read an item in the newspaper headed "Christian computers". It was about a research worker at Reading University in the UK, who had first studied mathematics and then become a Christian minister, and who had developed a remarkable computer programme. With this programme, it appeared that anyone could go along to a computing centre and receive Christian counselling from the machine. Whatever the problem you had, the computer would diagnose it (if you punched the right keys) and it would offer you counsel and support: it would give you the right answer. I thought... You’re never alone with a microchip. We laugh at this, but we can sometimes look for programmed answers in the Christian life.  We can often give them to others. At times in our fellowship together it does seem like pressing an input key and getting an automatic response. You know what I mean: we share a problem with a Christian neighbour, and we are offered an instant answer; nothing more than a formula, a cut and dried reaction to our needs. "These things are sent to try us" someone may say; or "if you don't know what to do, try praying about it"; or "is there some secret sin you're hiding?"; or "God blesses those who honour him". When people say these things we know they haven’t really felt deeply with us. It is like getting a pre-set answer from a machine.

I want to tell you, Ewan, that this is also a temptation that befalls ministers. When we’ve had some experience in dealing with people’s problems, it’s easy to think we recognize what a problem is, to name it and classify it, and offer a solution that’s worked before. “I’ve seen this before” we say to ourselves, and we rush forward with an answer too soon, before we’ve really listened at the depths to what someone is saying. Perhaps those who’ve come for our help don’t express themselves well, and really to listen is going to take time that’s very hard to find. Committing this time and attention, especially when you’re tired, is one of the costly pledges that you make today. 

So we may try to dash back, or forwards. A third reaction to mid-way panic which the writer describes is:

3. The feeling of being paralysed by uncertainty - In this passage the writer portrays Jesus as a son who has been ‘made perfect’ in a painful process. What he means he has already explained in an earlier chapter when he pictures Jesus himself as out in the open space, in the middle of the way.  He is the Christ of the Gethsemane garden. [There the security of the fellowship of the Upper Room was left behind. Now Jesus was in the mid-stream, in an open and exposed place, a place of "loud cries and tears"; The goal of being glorified by his Father lay ahead]. Though he was the divine Son of God, he was still in the agony of the mid-way, in the uncertainty of Gethsemane, in the waiting, the learning of obedience through what he suffered. Scarcely able to speak, he can only make deep sighs and groans.  We too know that experience of numbness and silence. In the mid-way we may find ourselves paralysed, struck dumb by our problem. We find it hard to talk to others, and to talk to God. We are driven in upon ourselves, to brood and simmer.

A little while ago I read in the newspaper of a worker with an aid organisation who had been immersed in the terrible experience of working with people who had suffered the floods in Bangladesh. In the midst of this disaster she had felt that she did not know how to cope; returning to Britain she had been unable to talk to her friends about it - and had retreated into isolation and silence. Finally, tragically, in depression she killed herself. She was well loved by many, and the Coroner said that a ward in a London Hospital was to be named after her - the Maria Procope Ward.

Faced with the tragedies of others, or in perplexity ourselves, it can be hard to express how we feel.
We are struck dumb - there are no words to match how we feel. We cannot cry to God or share it with others – communication has broken down. There is a paralysis of the spirit. But, says our writer, we have fellowship with Jesus who intercedes for us as our Great High Priest. He takes our half-formed cries and groans into his own prayers. He takes us and our wordless sighs with him to the Father and makes them into true communication.

He has gone the whole way; he has won through from deep sighs and tears to a prayer of trust to the Father. He has learned the way of prayer and so he can help us to pray. Ewan, this day you are promising to stay with Christ in Gethsemane. Unlike the disciples who ran away, you are pledging to stay and pray with him, to stand with him in the hour of his need, and so to discover that he takes you with him the whole way, taking you out of bafflement and silence into joyful conversation with the Father.

St Maximus knew that fellowship – Put on trial, tortured, his tongue cut out so he couldn’t speak his faith, his hand cut off so he couldn’t write down his teachings, sent into the loneliness of exile. He stood with Christ in the mid-way, and Christ stood with him. So this is our Christ, our Lord - the Lord of the open space, of the mid-way. Ewan, he gives you a place to stand today. He gives us all a place to stand, just where we are.

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