Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sermon: Work in Progress

In mid-August I had a second opportunity to preach a sermon, providing pulpit supply for a west-Toronto congregation. In the context of the ongoing lectionary readings from the Bread of Life discourse in John, I wanted to tell the congregation about my experience visiting the unfinished Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in March of this year. I hoped that my reflection would give them a positive frame within which to reflect on their ongoing community visioning initiative. I now post it here for your interest and comments.  --H

One of my favourite hymn writers is Fred Pratt Green. He has a striking ability to pack a great density of meaning into compact, crisp little phrases. One of his texts begins:

The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

During my travels in Europe this past spring, in addition to spending time at the Taizé Community, I spent several days in Barcelona, in the Catalunya province of Spain. One of the highlights of my time there was an opportunity to visit La Sagrada Familia, a Catholic basilica in the heart of the city. Sagrada Familia is easily one of the most visually beautiful, creative, and inspired sacred spaces I have ever been in. It is also unfinished. Construction of the basilica began in 1882, with designs by famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi died in 1926, leaving sketches and guidance to the artists who would complete the building in his stead, knowing they would put their own stamp on the evolving structure. Now, one hundred and thirty years into the construction process, the basilica has been consecrated for public worship and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The interior of the building employs familiar architectural principles, but plays with them in the Art Nouveau style for which Gaudi is known, to stunning effect. The pillars of the central nave soar forty-five meters in height, and are composed of a variety of materials including sandstone, granite and basalt. Slight variations in the style of the pillars, and the varied colours of stone, create the subtle effect of an enormous, mysterious sacred forest. This effect is borne out by the breathtaking ceiling, which in place of the more familiar vaulted style of many cathedrals, is composed of a series of white starbursts, forming a canopy overhead. The chancel is bathed in multicoloured light from the striking abstract stained-glass windows, which inspire personal reflection on what they represent; the rainbow of colours they create splashes across the gleaming silver organ pipes.

David and I sat for a while in a beautiful sun-bathed side chapel, taking a moment for silent prayer. Actually, it was not-so-silent, as the percussive sound of a jackhammer overhead reverberated around us. Construction of this beautiful church is ongoing. It was an emotional experience, to sit in a cathedral while it is being built. I felt a part of the growing, changing, striving Christian story, following the church on its journey toward our heavenly home.

Outside, two of the church’s three major façades are now complete. The nativity façade is an explosion of joyful imagery, depicting the narrative of Christ’s birth in an exuberant and extravagant style. Among other things, this enormous sculpture depicts angels celebrating the birth of the Christ child with lute, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The figures of the “Holy Family” from which the Basilica takes its name are adorned with lush carved vines and flourishes; in the background, farm animals, fruits and vegetables, and even a fat turkey add to the general merriment.

A more sombre tone is struck by the sunset-facing Passion façade. Here, the story of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion is depicted by stark, haunting sculptural forms framed by bone-shaped pillars.

As we exited the cathedral doors we were flanked by these gripping figures, and my gaze was immediately drawn to one of them, just slightly above and to my left. At first I didn’t grasp the figure’s significance, but its gaze seemed to directly meet mine. It was a cloaked man, whose face was a picture of sorrow, and who seemed to be in the midst of crumpling under the weight of his emotion.

I glanced backwards toward the entrance, and saw two other figures eyeing him warily. It was when I then noticed, nearly in the background of the scene, the carved image of a rooster with its beak open. “Before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you know me,” Jesus said to his faithful disciple Peter. The significance of the little scene I had just walked into suddenly hit me in full force, catching me completely off guard. My eyes filled with tears. Here was a scene of Peter having denied Jesus, a heartbreaking and very personal scene in the midst of a much larger story, which had the effect of unfolding before my very eyes.

It was then that I realized that what I would take away most poignantly from this visit was not the grandeur or lavishness of the building itself, but how it had shown me the vivacity and power of the Christian story. The spiritual nourishment that I drew from my time in this basilica did not come from the building itself, gorgeous though it is, but from the way the building reminded me of God’s story, of my story – the power of the Gospel. 

The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Today we read from the Gospel of John, the continuation of a key passage known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” The use of symbolism and imagery is very important in John’s gospel, as we can tell from this extended passage in which Jesus compares himself with living bread. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson describes it this way: “[The Gospel of John] circles about the figure of Jesus. (...) [Early] writers compared John to the figure of an eagle. Like birds of prey who circle their target, this evangelist describes outer and inner circles around the figure of Jesus.” In this way, as Johnson explains, the gospel is like “a series of radii that point to an identical center,” through which John “say[s] the same thing in numerous and varied ways.”[1]

Jesus compares his very self, his body and blood, to a nourishing spiritual bread. To understand how truly shocking this claim was to Jesus’ contemporaries, it is helpful to compare this text with a key book of the Old Testament, the apocalyptic book of Daniel. Like the book of Revelation, Daniel is written to convey the hopes and longings of its community, through language veiled in symbolism and visions of divine prophecy. Daniel comes to us from the Hebrew roots of our faith, having been nurtured in the Jewish community of the early second century, after the events of Jesus’ life were concluded. The slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness and receiving of the Promised Land were at this time a distant memory for them; they were reeling under Caesar’s oppression and the feeling that they had entered a kind of second exile. 

Perhaps most important, their Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. This Temple was the center of their religious life and ethnic identity; its destruction was akin to the crushing of God on earth. The writer of Daniel begs God to reveal when their exile will end, and longs for the chosen one of God, whom they envisioned as a mighty warrior prince, to come and liberate them from their oppression. Interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the narrative of the burning fiery furnace, Daniel envisions God throwing down all earthly rulers (which Nebuchadnezzar can’t have been too happy about), and setting up a divine, eternal kingdom on earth.

Imagine taking that piece of writing and laying it down next to John’s Gospel. John does not try to gloss over any of the realities that Daniel laments – he is aware of their oppression under Rome, and does not ignore that their Temple has been destroyed. But in the face of all this, John teaches his contemporaries and us, “We don’t need the temple! We need not fear the worldly political rulers, or wait for the knight in shining armour to ride in and tear down. God’s accomplishing act has occurred now! Look no further than Jesus’ teaching, the words of the Bread that has come down from heaven: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’ This Messiah, this saving act of reconciliation, has come to pass; it doesn’t look like you thought it would, because it’s far grander than we ever could have imagined.” The reality the Gospel is describing was radical, shocking, disturbing – and completely life-changing.

I am drawn to the Gospel of John for the same reason, I think, that the Passion façade of Sagrada Familia had such a profound impact on me. The gospel opens in a swirl of mystery: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For John, Jesus was the living Word of God, a promise come to life and lived out in the world. The Saviour of God’s people was not a great ruler, or a Temple which could be destroyed, but a story, a storyteller, a nourishing Word, the Bread of Life.

Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse continues: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’”

My visit to Sagrada Familia reminded me that I am privileged to be a part of God’s living Church; that like my Christian brothers and sisters in all parts of the world, Christ abides in me and I have the opportunity to live out Christ’s story in my life. Like Sagrada Familia, I am unfinished. I need the community of God, the church, to keep teaching me how to be a better disciple. We, the church, are God’s unfinished masterpiece. We have glimpsed the kingdom to come, we have had a taste of the living Bread that comes down from heaven, and have been sent out into all corners of the world to be like him.

Fred Pratt Green’s hymn goes on to say:

We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord:
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.

I pray that we will continually be nourished by this spiritual meal, by the Gospel that teaches us to live the Christian story outside of the walls of the church, to break bread and share it, and to embody God’s surprising, unexpected kingdom on earth.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson and Todd C. Penner, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Rev. ed. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1999): 534. 

1 comment:

  1. You make lively and stimulating connections between faith and imagination, and a lovely interplay between biblical, architectural and personal modes of theological discourse. Wonderful work, and please keep it up.