3.6.18 - SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY OF TRINITY - sing with joy to God
X May I sing with joy to God our strength - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One of the things I like most about this church is that we take our faith very seriously, but we wear it lightly. I suppose anyone from outside might think I have a very low threshold for what lightness is. All that ceremony, all those candles and things to get right (or not, as sometimes happens). Far from resting on our sabbath day, as Deuteronomy exhorts us, clergy, choir, servers, stewards, coffee team and sacristans are all beavering away. And the congregation, too, I am sure, do not see coming to church as a rest, exactly. I maintain, however, that there is a lightness about our seriousness, which makes our observance of the sabbath a joy. The things we do are serious, because we want to praise God with beauty and solemnity, but they’re definitely not an end in themselves. All these busy people are saying with Paul: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”
Deuteronomy tells us to rest on the sabbath, reminding us that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”. This act is one of the key events in salvation history, remembered by Jews every year at Passover, but here applied to the weekly festival of rest. At the Easter Vigil mass and in Advent, we hear events from this salvation history, preparing us for the magnificent salvation event which is Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. It is the same salvation history which our Psalm says lays a solemn charge on God’s people to sing with joy to him.
Jesus himself states clearly in today’s Gospel that “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath”. Liturgy and worship are designed by people, to express their thanks, awe, praise and deepest desires to God. God gave us the sabbath as a statute because he knows we love to be busy - often to our detriment - and that we need telling to rest. He didn’t say we had to go to church. As the Gospel tells us, he didn’t say we had to rest from doing good. And Jesus tells us that the rules should never become an end in themselves, binding up our humanity and making God’s praise the last thing on our minds.
During Lent I read two books which I think have useful things to tell us about this serious business of singing with joy to God. The first came into my hand, as books do when the time is right, and is called Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin. It makes a strong case for true godliness being closely related to joy. Those who see God in everything tend to greet him there with a smile of recognition. I will return to this.
The second book arose because the Lent group I joined discussed, amongst many things, what other written records of Jesus there were apart from the Gospels. When I trained as a Reader, I had read some of the apocryphal gospels, which are fascinating. The Gospel of Judas, rediscovered in the 1970s but not recognised for what it was until 1983, is extraordinary for two things. It was written by gnostic Christians, probably in the second century, though the text we have dates to the third. The Gnostics built a complex cosmology around the central belief that Jesus was divinity wrapped in a human person. His death was welcomed by him as an escape back to his divine life. Secret knowledge, gnosis, gets humankind nearer to that divine life. The writers show Judas as the best disciple, the one who really understands Jesus and who frees him from the agony of life in this world. The second extraordinary thing is that Jesus is always laughing in this gospel.
In the gospels accepted by the church as gospel truth, we hardly ever see Jesus showing emotion. He gets angry at injustice and defilement of his father’s house, he weeps over Lazarus - but he never, never laughs. Why is he presented as so po-faced, why has faith been thought too serious for laughter? I think it’s because laughter is unpredictable and seriousness can be controlled, especially if you’re the most serious person in the room. Hierarchy and self-importance don’t mix well with laughter. In the Gospel of Judas his laughter is sardonic and deeply unsettling. This is to me a dystopic vision of Jesus, as the one who knows everything and who despises those who don’t; the one who prefers to discuss visions of the unearthly powers with his trusted disciple; the one who comes from a god far more powerful than the God of salvation history. There is sardonic laughter, but there is no love. I think this vision of Jesus is largely responsible for the early church being so determined to stamp out Gnosticism. I am of course simplifying: there is a vast body of research into the writings of the early church and the gnostics - but I still think this basic difference in attitude lies at the bottom of the rift, quite apart from Gnosticism being too close to both Platonism and minor Jewish cults for what, in the end, would become the winning side.
Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection of scrolls in 1945, we only had the early church’s version of what they so feared about Gnosticism. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote a book in the second century - Against Heresies - which, for instance, really goes for the Gospel of Judas. Reading the actual apocryphal texts shows much of what he says about them as inflated polemic, but when you read those texts you see what was being eliminated in the choice of the gospels we have. It may be a pity we don’t see Jesus laughing, but we are spared both a “magical” version of Jesus’ childhood, where he performs miracles to please a childish whim; and that sardonic, anti-human Jesus, who is fully divine, unwillingly human - and deeply cold.
The negative view of creation and humanity in particular continued to surface, and affected much of mediaeval theology. But for the early fathers, creation was crammed full of the glory of God. For Irenaeus, the incarnation - the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus - gave a completely different view to creation and humanity in particular. It was no longer a poor copy of an ideal world as Plato taught.
Irenaeus is the one responsible for the phrase we now know as: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” What does this phrase mean? Let’s just stop a minute and think: when we feel most fully alive? - Surely, it’s when we feel joy, joy in another person, joy in something beautiful, joy in our physical existence, joy in music. James Martin says that a striking feature of the saints, and of deeply holy people he has known, is joy. Not a surface, temporary excitement, but something that comes from the core of a person. A shining in the heart which persists despite difficulties or even suffering. Karl Barth suggests that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” He’s certainly there in all things but we know his presence for sure when we feel joy.
The laughter that arises from such joy is far from sardonic. It’s the laughter of surprise and recognition which we use when we greet someone we love. We are deeply serious about those we love, and yet what characterises much of our engagement with them is laughter. And so it should be in our relationship with God.