NUTS AND BOLTS, PROPHECY, AND GOD’S CROWNING GLORY OF LOVE

Sermon delivered on the Sunday caled Sexagesima, the 31st January 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Ezekiel 43:27 - 44:4     1 Corinthians 13:1-13     S. Luke 2: 22-40

1 Corinthians 13: 2 “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, popularly known as Candlemas, and in the Prayer Book said to be commonly called the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, is observed this week on Tuesday. It marks the end of the 40 days after the Birth of Christ, and is a time of changeover in the Church’s Year to a series of observations leading up to the great Paschal Feast of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Today is the Sunday called Sexagesima, the 2nd Sunday before Lent, and so from a forward-looking point of view, we began the Easter-dependent part of the Church Year on Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Lent, last week. Yet for now, our thoughts are still linked to the Birth of Christ, because we are within that forty day period, at the end of which the parents come to the temple with their special Child, in obedience to Jewish law requiring a purification sacrifice for the mother after forty days and a payment of money to redeem the firstborn when he was one month old. Scholars tell us that they did not have to bring the Child Himself in order to fulfil these demands, but it appears that consistent with their knowledge of the special calling of this Child they did bring Him to dedicate Him specially to God in addition to fulfilling the demands of the law.

The Old Testament Lesson today, part of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the re-consecration of the purified temple, is chosen I suppose because it shows a certain prophetic fit to the event of the Presentation of Christ by Mary and Joseph. It speaks of a special place reserved only for someone described as “the prince”. Only the prince may sit within this particular gate, the outer gate of the sanctuary that faces east, to eat bread before the Lord, and that particular gate must always remain shut, because it is the gate by which the glory of the Lord Himself has entered and filled the temple, as can be read in the earlier part of chapter 43. This “prince” then, is seen as the only human person worthy to occupy the particular place through which the glory of the Lord has passed to fill the temple, and even he must enter that place from another direction and not from outside through that gate.

It seems that Simeon saw by the Holy Spirit who inspired him to come into the temple when they were presenting the baby Jesus, that here at last was the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision: here truly was the prince in the temple, the only prince that was worthy of the glory of God in a purified temple. “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” This was the song by which he blessed God in an outpouring of love. “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” were the words that a bond-servant used when he was released from servitude by his master. Although conscious probably of the words being applicable to his own dying, Simeon knew that from now on he would be a free man: the disciplines with which he had structured his search for the consolation of Israel were no longer necessary, and he had fulfilled the purpose of his days. Then the old prophetess Anna “coming up at that very hour ... gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”

What Simeon and Anna said by the exercise of their prophetic gifts, was part of what Mary kept in her heart ever after, yet still the account goes on to say that Mary, Joseph and the Child returned to Galilee only when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord. The brilliance of the prophetic insight did not obscure the need for Mary and Joseph faithfully to tend their own religious universe. In a somewhat similar way the twelve year old Jesus seen later in this chapter dazzling the teachers in the Temple with the intelligence of His discourse with them, goes back afterwards to the humble carpenter’s shop in Nazareth and for many years takes the role of the dutiful firstborn son in His family. Prophetic insight yearns for fulfilment, even tending to skip over the years in its heady certainty, but the years must still be served and the rules binding them must be honoured, because after all, prophecy is not the only spiritual grace. There are also the gifts of patience to the point of hurt, endurance to the point of brokenness, and as we have heard in our second lesson, the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

The sacrificial provisions of the Law were the nuts and bolts of the religious universe of Mary and Joseph, in which the prophetic insights of Simeon and Anna were so full of meaning, and the thoughts which Mary kept in her own heart, were made possible. St. Paul it seems to me in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 thinks of the church, the body of which we are members in Christ, in a rather similar manner. The various gifts of the Spirit which he outlines in chapter 12 are the spiritual nuts and bolts of the church. He emphasises that while they are different and sometimes one might be in a more honourable place than another, they must all work together for the purpose of the one who inspires them all. The author of the whole structure knows what he intends by putting each nut and bolt in the place he did put it. And yet, as St Paul goes on to emphasise in chapter 13, the sum total of a properly functioning church is greater even than the prophetic gifts alone put together, because a properly functioning church is able to exercise love within herself. This is the caring love of agape, the very love that God pours down upon us in Christ, the love, as St Paul says, that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, the love that does not insist on its own way and so on. What is more, it is this that never ends, even when the nuts and bolts of prophecy and the other gifts are fulfilled or cease. The gifts that the members of a church might contribute will vary over time and need and change of membership, but the enduring testimony of the church in the community will be in the character of its love, both its caring for its own membership and its caring for its neighbours. For as St. Paul said, who admonishes us elsewhere to speak the truth in love, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

Christ could not have died on the cross for us had not the Father so loved us that He gave His Son, and so our primary vocation as the church is to love. The gifts we have all been given by God can be thought of as the important nuts and bolts of our life together, but the intention of these powers and gifts is only fulfilled when they are in service to St. Paul's “more excellent way" that is our primary vocation. It is all too easy for the gifts of individuals to be used against the whole body rather than in aid of it. It is part of the love with which we are empowered and to which we are called, to appreciate the circumstances of one another, and to be acting to complement those circumstances rather than allowing them to become an irritant. And that must spill over to our neighbours beyond the church also. This is how the Gospel, the Good News of God in Christ, can be proclaimed: not by power nor by might, so much as by the love that is able to take into itself all the gifts (or spiritual nuts and bolts) of prophecy and wisdom and the rest with which God endows the church: the love that reaches out by bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things and enduring all things.



BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS

1. Identify some gifts that you see being contributed to the common life of your congregation.

2. In what way does the Church School programme help us - helping our spiritual gifts to grow, or by increasing caritas within the Body?

3. How might the church practically begin to exercise care towards our neighbours?