Illumined

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Mayfield Village, during our shared sabbatical season (more on that to follow …)

I was struck by the aptness of today’s Collect; it is almost a sermon itself on the readings for the day.

Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; & Doxology.

Christ is the Light of the World; it is he, not we, who should be known, worshipped, obeyed to the ends of the earth; yet we have asked and are called to become instruments of his glory, entering his story, embodying his light, as we are able.

That image of being illumined by Word and Sacrament is instructive. In the first place, we have the picture of a traditional Gospel procession, by torchlight; the words of the Bible falling like the lumens of the candles, to brighten our understanding and lead us to see, know, grasp the Word of God whose life speaks through those words of scripture.

Then there is the Sacrament that Christ set aside for us, in which we receive and taste and internalize the grace that God has shed upon us, so that we are transformed by it and begin to shine from the inside out, so that before you know it the people of God are shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory.

This is the rhythm that we celebrate in our Eucharist service: Word and Sacrament, external and internal illumination; and it is a pattern that we get to see slowed down, stretched out across this brief sabbatical season, the pendulum swinging between Morning Prayer and Holy Communion, so that we might have a chance to reflect at length on the ways in which God illumines us from the outside in, and from the inside out; a season bathed in the light of Christ.

What a gift! But this grace is offered to us, but not for our own sakes alone, but so that Christ might be “known, worshipped, and obeyed” to the ends of the earth.

In the story of Samuel, we hear that the word of God was rare in those days: rarely sought out, rarely recognized, rarely listened to. We might think that the conditions sound familiar. When the noise of other voices becomes so loud in our newsfeed, in our daily demands, in our own heads, does the still, small voice of God become harder to hear, or to recognize?

Samuel was not familiar with the ways in which God might speak to him. He needed the wisdom and experience of Eli to help him to know when God was trying to get his attention. Illumined by the Word and the Sacramental service of God throughout his life, even Eli did not recognize, at first, the call of God through the dreams of young Samuel. But as both men, young and old, continued to listen, then between them they heard the word of the Lord, rare as it might be, and shared it between them, hard as it might be to hear.

So we learn that we need one another to know Christ. We find him here, in the Word and Sacraments; and we are well qualified, only by their illumination, to help others, to help Samuel, to recognize his voice in the world; if we will continue to seek it, and to serve one another as we are called to do. Again, in this sabbatical season, we have the opportunity to share our vision, and what we have heard from God, between our congregations and our communities, illuminating one another’s understanding.

Then, there is worship. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is so scandalous to our ears, so embarrassing that we might want to skip over it altogether. But here is what we do need to hear from him: When Paul wrote, he was addressing a society that believed that the body was a mere vessel bound for decay, while the spiritual realm, the world of the mind was all that really made them human. That said, it could be argued that what we do with our bodies, or with one another’s bodies, doesn’t matter; that the body has no moral consequences. Paul thought that this was outrageous; hence his bold and outrageous example.

The Word of God did not come to us only in visions and prophecies. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, body and soul. You cannot, Paul argues, worship Christ with your spirit divorced from your body. That is not how being human, made in the image of the living God, works. Jesus proved it to us by his own incarnation, and by his ministry. He cared about people’s bodies, feeding them, healing them, holding them. To worship God whole-heartedly means to glorify God in our bodies as well as our souls; to love our neighbours is to cherish and protect their bodies, to honour their skin as much as their spiritual enlightenment. It is a good and healthy thing that our first collaboration between our congregations was serving food, the community meal that we enjoy on the fourth Sunday of every month; glorifying God and seeking and serving Christ in body and appetite as well as in spirit and truth.

“That he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

When we see a celebrity, our first reaction might be recognition; knowing: we know who they are. Perhaps that is followed by worship: “Oh, my God, it’s [insert name of favourite celebrity here]!” But obedience requires more than mere recognition and idol-worship. Obedience requires relationship. Obedience to Christ comes from the desire to be with him, to mould our lives to match his, to walk closely beside him, to follow him.

In the Gospel, Philip is called to follow Jesus. He is delighted by the call, and obeys without question. Further, he is excited enough to invite his friend along. Nathaneal is more circumspect, more suspicious. Nathaneal has not learned to seek and serve Christ wherever he is to be found. He has not learned to recognize the image of God in every child of God. He questions Jesus’ origins, his caste, class, country. Nathaneal’s doubt does not undo Jesus’ dignity, nor his authority. It is only Nathaneal’s own reputation that suffers from his outburst.

If Jesus is to be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth, then it follows that no part of the earth, from Nazareth to Nigeria, Galilee to Guatemala, the Holy Lands to Haiti, from Mayfield Village to Euclid, is beneath his notice, nor beyond the reach of his love.

Illumined by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, we are called; we have prayed to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he might be known, worshipped and obeyed. We have all that we need to receive God’s answer to our prayer.

If the word of God is rare in these days, it will only be because we preach it too quietly. If the worship of God fails to take into account the bodies of God’s children, the sins of unequal honour, of racism and prejudice, then it is up to us to undertake a reformation. If we are to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, then we must obey his commandment to love: to love God, and our neighbours as ourselves.

Illumined by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, we have all that is needed to continue the work begun by the shores of the sea of Galilee by a Christ clothed in flesh and crowned with glory.

Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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