The Dream

Sunday 18th January 2015
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
1 Samuel 3:1-10
John 1:43-51

If we have not read any review in advance, the first thing we do when open a book is to decide what kind of book it is or, to use a technical term what is its genre. When we make that decision we know in what light we must judge characters and events so, for instance, we read a Jane Austen novel of manners in a very different way from that in which we read Salman Rushdie magical realism.

We should go through the same process when we begin a book of the Bible. To satisfy ourselves with the idea that because it is the Word of God it must be addressed in a uniform way is to miss the point. We must, for example, approach the Book of Exodus, an Epistle of Paul and the Book of Revelation in completely different ways as, respectively, myth, teaching and liturgy. So, on that basis, how do we react when we open the Gospel of John? It begins, as we all know, with one of the most inspired pieces of poetic theology in the whole of human history but it soon 'descends' into the narrative of Jesus recruiting his first Disciples, the second part of which is our Gospel today, even containing a somewhat clumsy joke, and ending with talk of angels bridging the gap between earth and heaven.

After the rather down-to-earth account in the three Synoptic Gospels of the recruitment by Jesus of his followers, I find our account today somewhat surreal. I can imagine it being filmed with a lot of zoom shots with the whole in soft focus whereas you would never do that to Mark which would call for very slick editing.

The difference between us and the rather puzzled Disciples is that we know what happens later. Even though John's gospel emphasises the triumph rather than the degradation of the Cross, there is no getting away from the conclusion of the pierced side and the drops of blood and water. It doesn't matter what lens you use, the blood is still the same. But we also know, in the fullest Gospel account, of the Resurrection of Jesus and, with the passage about the gardener, we are back in the surreal.

Now some people, particularly of the practical, Gradgrind sort, might think that the term 'surreal' is rather dismissive but how could the experience of Philip, Andrew and Nathaniel be anything other than surreal? From being ordinary local lads they are suddenly adherents of the Messiah for which their people have been longing for half a millennium. So, for us, too, there should be a surreal element in following Jesus, a sense of wonder, the thought that we might be dreaming this awesome privilege only to wake up to a harsher reality. What John's first Chapter shows, from its poetic beginning via its gentle banter to its transcendental conclusion is that following the Word made Flesh is the most compelling and sacred calling that any human being can ever have. It sets the context for what the first letter of Peter calls our Royal Priesthood.

But, as the realists wearily point out, there's no such thing as a free lunch; we have to pay for our privilege. We get a sharp sense of this in our First Reading from the First Book of Samuel where the young boy is called to follow God; but following for Samuel will involve difficult decisions: the making and breaking of kings; fighting battles; judging difficult cases; and suffering national and family disappointments. That, so to speak, might spoil John's soft focus; but I think it doesn't. There is no contradiction between the hard graft and the wonder of following God, they are simply the two sides of the same coin. and, being human, we are forever caught between the serenely divine and the cruelly human. It isn't just the angels at the end of our Reading that bridge the gap between earth and heaven, so did The Word made Flesh and, in his stead, so do we. And, being human, we are forced to make difficult choices about our own imperfection and the imperfection of others: we have to choose often between the lesser of two evils; we have to come to terms with suffering and sacrifice; we have to turn the other cheek; we have to speak truth unto power but also refrain from judging the individual conduct of others; and, perhaps most difficult of all, we have to remember that every single human being was made in the image of God and should be treated as such.

Now to accept this last proposition is extremely difficult because it forces us into positions we really don't want to take. Our instincts are fundamentally concentric, starting with ourselves and radiating out to our family, our clan, the people who are like us, and then further out to our country. We feel threatened by difference which endangers our self-contained sense of safety and culture. We all know the rhetoric of diversity as enrichment but we don't really buy it.

But whether we do or not, those thousands of people who are drowning in the Mediterranean every month were created in God's image; and that is why the dream of following Jesus has to be tempered by the reality. The great theologian Karl Barth said that we should read our Bible with a newspaper in our hand but I would go further and say that we should read the Bible with a map in our hand, not only to show us where things are happening but also to show us where we must go. To follow Jesus is not just a metaphorical pilgrimage it is, too, a collective, moral pilgrimage where we are not to choose with whom we will travel. It's a simple paradigm: God deals the cards and we play the hand. There is no point whatsoever asking God to fix the things which he gave us the tools to fix. When we pray for the world after the Creed what we are really praying for is not that God should establish peace and justice on earth but that he will give us the grace and strength to do it. Which, of course, he will.