Sunday 23rd February 2020
Year C, The Sunday next before Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Matthew 17.3-32

The only way to understand our two Readings fully is to extend them both to their natural dimensions. The key point in the Elijah story takes place after our Reading ends when Elisha, wishing to re-cross the Jordan, uses Elijah's mantle to part the waters, thus confirming his succession. In our Gospel Reading we need to know that the events take place just after the Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah have just appeared, which makes the failure of the Disciples to cure the epileptic child even more poignant; for all the time they have spent with Jesus, they are not yet his successors. This passage ends with Jesus defining our succession in his death and Resurrection.

In a narrow sense, succession is an extremely important part of our culture, particularly as it relates to families. It is interesting, for example, that by far the fairest form of taxation, Inheritance Tax, is the least popular; and in spite of being the most mobile population since we were hunter gatherers, we care about our geographical roots and invest in genealogical charts and DNA testing. But in a broader sense, in spite of extensive university education and multi-channel television, we are already vague about the details of Auschwitz and pretty near ignorant of anything that happened before we were born.

For almost a thousand years, from the re-emergent order created in Europe by the Coronation of Charlemagne in 800 and the rise of parallel monarchies in France and England until the Industrial Revolution, Christian tradition was bound up with agriculture and the turning of the seasons. In many ways it is surprising that those traditions have hung on almost to the present day but they are now beginning to wither. Many Christians no longer worship according to the Lectionary of the Seasons: Advent has gone, for all intents and purposes, along with Holy Week. So we are left with a decreasingly recognised Good Friday and Easter Sunday and a Church Christmas dominated by Nativity Plays which increasingly resemble pantomime so that King Herod is almost indistinguishable from the wicked witch.

At the same time, we are almost entirely ignorant of how Western Christianity functioned before the Reformation and how the Reformation sifted what it wished to keep and what to reject. We are rapidly becoming a Church where transaction dominates and mystery is down-played: "Jesus loves you so you must love Jesus" is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far.

In the first place, this approach which abandons collective humility in the face of mystery in favour of the individual, apparently transparent, transaction, implicitly takes an extreme Protestant position by making the Church, founded by Jesus, irrelevant. If we only have to love Jesus because he loves us, what's the point of a church? Now that is a very good question. Why did Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, create a Church with all its necessary complexities, compromises and counterpoint?

The simplest answer is that we need the Church and its Sacramental and teaching Ministries because we are not strong enough to sustain a solo, bilateral relationship with Jesus; not only do we need Ministry in the formal sense, we need the ministry of mutuality so that we might, as Saint Paul says, build up each other in Christ.

The inter-wovenness of mutuality creates the fabric of succession which no individual, no matter how strong or moral, can generate. Individual story-tellers might do very well but they can only survive within a culture which tells, listens to, learns from and wonders at stories. There is something tantalising, for example, about the personality of Elijah who seems to owe nothing to Samuel but gives everything to Elisha, a story so strong that it lived down the generations to the lifetime of Jesus and got entangled in speculation about his status. Likewise, the story of Jesus in four Gospels and Acts is partially rarified in Epistles and outrageously amplified in the Book of Revelation. When I was a child, this treasury was massively enriched by stories of Martyrs and Saints; I had my favourites and I had my own, personal, guardian angel. Now many Christians have to get by on an understanding of the Bible which is the equivalent of the Readers Digest short book.

There are, I think, three reasons why Biblical simplicity will fail: first, because the understanding of Scripture never will be akin to our understanding of physics; secondly, as Christianity has always found, the appeal to reason is always shallow and in the age of paradoxical irrationalism, it will be even less effective; and, finally, as a culture we've all got too entangled in the factual and the rational and the transactional and we are no happier for it.

But whereas we convince ourselves that we can handle the rational alone, that is not true of the mysterious which we must approach collectively. All the best stories are fundamentally about what happened, leaving us to work out why. Stories that tell us why as well as what tend to collapse into two-dimensional hectoring.

Thus, I say, we must not be taken in by a model of church which is simplistically transactional, the spiritual equivalent of the NHS which has largely usurped it. Jesus isn't going to make anything better just because we ask him to; if anything, he's going to make things worse because he says, unashamedly, that he will call upon us to make sacrifices in order to follow him; and, so, in a parody of Dennis Healey, if we're not sacrificing, we're probably not following.

The clean lines of concrete and steel are an ugly illusion, unlike the Gothic where we will find bits of truth in dark corners suddenly illumined. The illusion is of certainty akin to science but in the realm of the supernatural, that is no kind of certainty at all.