Sunday 22nd October 2006
Year B, The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Mark 10:35-45

It's always the simplest images that stick. I can still see in my mind's eye, from Look and Learn, somewhere in the early '60s, a picture of Isaac Newton standing before a wheel segmented into all the colours of the rainbow; and then another picture of him before the same wheel spinning, making it completely white. I have never learned whether this is strictly accurate scientifically; I know that pure white refracted light separates into the colours of the rainbow, as when we see a rainbow in the sky; but I am not sure whether, as in the image of the revolving wheel, it works the other way round. Anyway, the idea that something as pure as white breaks up into the colours of the rainbow is immensely simple and attractive.

This thought came to me when reading today's Gospel - set, coincidentally I think, for the beginning of One World Week - because we human beings were created by God to refract his light into earthly colours. We are not the white light nor are we the colours; we simply make it possible for the source of light to take on an earthly form. For people with full diaries and unlimited things to do for our fellow creatures this sounds rather static until we remember that we do no good of ourselves but only as agents of God's Grace. In other words, we can still have full diaries and do a lot of things but we have to remember that the source of good is not us.

Now of course James and John didn't know anything of the developed Christian theology of Grace but that hardly excuses them from the bargain they were trying to strike with Jesus which went something like this: we gave up our nice little fishing business to follow you; and we've been in your inner circle; and that transfiguration experience was so wonderful that we just thought this would be a good time to get things straight before Peter puts his oar in. Somehow the brothers thought they had done enough to get to Heaven, as if we ever can. Jesus responded by saying that they hardly knew what was at stake but, in any case, Heaven wasn't like a major function with a seating plan. Incidentally, as Jesus had had plenty to say about the pitfalls of seating plans, you would have thought that the brothers would have been a bit more careful.

What happened next was inevitable. The other Apostles got wind of the brothers' pre-emptive strike and they all piled in, competing with each other in their claims to flank Jesus at heaven's top table; and he had to remind them that the essence of His ministry and, therefore, of ours, is not competitive piety but service.

It is, as I hinted earlier, something we need to remind ourselves of. We need to remember the image of God's light passing through glass, making earthly colours; so, by extension, god's Grace passes through us so that we live the heavenly life on earth, refracting the pure light into beautiful but fragmented earthly experience, another thing to think about in One World Week.

Of course this refraction does not work if the glass is dirty - a situation we might rather simplistically think of as sin - but the danger for us isn't that kind of sin. The danger for us is trying to refract God's light picking and choosing the colours that get refracted. It's all very well, we say to ourselves, for all the colours of the rainbow to have equal importance but we think the red of enthusiasm or the orange of hard work or the blue of self denial are far more important than the yellow of gaiety or the green of spontaneity. Much worse, we might be thinking about the purple of Christianity and excluding the yellow of Hinduism.

We all have very clear ideas about how the world would run if we had our own way. Fortunately for us all, nobody ever entirely gets their own way; not even rulers on a global scale like Alexander the Great, the Emperor Augustus or the Cabinets of Mr. Gladstone got their own way in everything.

The same should be said about the Church. The greatest virtue of Anglicanism has been its ability, with the Grace of god, to embrace many different approaches to Christian faith. We have managed, for more than 400 years, not to fall out over the nature of the Eucharist, the role of the Episcopacy, the interpretation of Scripture, the significance of philosophy and natural science; and now we are in danger of splitting apart over the twin questions of whether Gay people are God's creatures; and whether, as God's creatures, women are equal to men. Like James and John and the Apostles who piled in after them, we are making the mistake of seeing ourselves as pots full of Grace instead of glass refractors of it.

In order to put this into perspective we need to look again at the ministry of Jesus as a servant. As the embodiment of divine love in human form, Jesus saw that service primarily means making space for people to be as fully as they can the creatures of God. He did not tell individual people or groups what to do; he talked to all the world and left it to his hearers to understand how they might, with God's grace, lead humble and worthy lives.

As a society we are losing this skill. It is a paradox that as we value physical space more and more as it becomes more difficult to find somewhere private, we seem less willing to give other people mental space. The secular idea of liberalism (with a small l) and the Christian idea of service seem to have been replaced by hectoring and bargaining. We want to make deals with people instead of simply loving them.

With God, there isn't a deal to be done. There is no deal we can make to get into heaven and no deal we can make that is in any way worthy of Christian service. What we are asked to give is unconditional love which is what we receive; we, as the clear glass of God's creation, are to let His light pass through us into our world; nothing we can do of ourselves will make it better. And if we cannot of ourselves make things better but simply refract God's grace, how do we suppose that our judgment and advice can make other people better? We are bent on this fruitless struggle to make other people more like us but in truth our mission in life is, through love, to help them to be more like Christ.