SERMON BY THE VICAR: LENT 5
“One of Us” This is a phrase which has been used many times, to good effect and to ill. The Mitfords used it to signify social tribalism, the Bishop of London used it to refer to the mortal remains of Margaret Thatcher in her coffin in St Paul’s Cathedral, and this year, it was the title of a book by Asne Seierstad on the murder of 77 people by Anders Breijvik in 2011 on the island of Utoya in Norway. This book was part of my Lent reading this year, especially as I have attempted to come to understand more the situation of our fellow Christians in the Middle East, and the phenomenon of the so called Islamic state. For me, there has been an urgency about this. We learn that Jihadi John, is, in fact, one of us. We learn more recently that the UK Borough from which the largest number of jihadists have gone to fight for IS is this one, RBKC, and that this road, Ladbroke Grove has produced 15 of them. IS it seems, is one of us, as disturbing a revelation as that for the people of Norway in realising that Anders Breijvik was one of us. More importantly, “one of us” is page, 1, chapter 1 in what is called Christian anthropology, which does not allow us the luxury of looking at anyone as “them.”
So this Lent, together with the mainstream churches throughout Britain and Ireland, we have been following the Lent Course, walking and praying with Christians of the Middle East. We have reminded ourselves in respect of the churches of the Middle East, they are one of us. We are one of them. This Lent, week by week, we have met ecumenically in each other’s churches. This has obviously touched a chord or a raw nerve in people. It’s many years since I have been part of a Lent Course attended by 60 people, which was the number who gathered in the Coptic Church in Kensington on Wednesday as they movingly commemorated the 21 Copts who had been brutally murdered in Libya. Libya gives me what I want to say today. In Libya, if you go a little bit East of Benghazi, in what the BBC refers to as rebel held territory, you come to a fertile green upland area, with low stone walls and lots of trees. It reminds me of bits of the Yorkshire Dales. Every time I have been there it has been raining heavily. The Greeks who colonised this place said there was a hole in the sky. In this green upland area, you will find an important sixth century Byzantine Church with a stunning mosaic floor. In the centre of the mosaic are three veiled Byzantine court ladies – by the way Christianity had veiled women long before Islam, and still has in lots of places. These elegant women represent the three cardinal qualities for Byzantine Christians in how they understood churches to live and grow. These three cardinal qualities are described in Greek as K’tsis, Kosmesis, and Ananeosis. I use these snappy little titles today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, also called Passion Sunday, to reflect on Christians in the Middle East as we walk and pray with them as one of us.
So first of all K’tsis. This means Foundation, and it speaks of the early stages of energy and growth, which represent the founding of any church. Libya, like much of North Africa is very proud of its apostolic traditions of Christianity, with the belief that St Mark was there before he ended his days in Alexandria, as well as the important figure that we think of at this Passion tide – Simon of Cyrene, which is of course in Libya. All churches need their foundation narratives. What makes this church, or any other church, an authentic expression of Christianity? For the majority of Christians in the world, namely Roman Catholic and Orthodox, it would be the fact that they are apostolic- that’s to say, the belief that the life of this Church can be traced right back to the Apostles themselves. This is particularly true of all the churches of the Middle East. This is Ktisis. If you want a visual representation in this church, look at the youthful figure of St John in his boat on the left of the reredos behind the altar. This sense of being connected to the foundation, in our case, to Jesus is probably the single most distinctive characteristic of Middle Eastern Christians, - in geography and in their apostolic nature, they take us very close to our origins. They take us close to Jesus. In terms of western ignorance of these churches and their narratives, I have become bored with the phrase, which I hear so often, “I didn’t know there were Christians there” or “I don’t know what these churches are.” Whose fault is that? When I lived in the Middle East, I remember witnessing a conversation between a Protestant Christian from Canada, and an Orthodox Christian from Syria, when the Canadian said to the Syrian “ Oh, you’re a Christian- that’s amazing, when did your family become Christian?” To which the Syrian replied, “On the day of Pentecost. When did yours?”
Ktsis Foundation leads to Kosmesis – beautification or adornment. Kosmesis is my favourite of the women, as she is so heavily done up and adorned. This is the next stage in Church life and follows on from the youthful energy of ktsis. This is the natural human instinct for beauty, especially in places associated with the sacred. I know of no religious tradition anywhere which would not instinctively always want the best of human endeavour – art, architecture, and music, for their places of worship. Even traditions that say they are anti-beauty and anti-adornment seek their own aesthetic, which they would call Godly – Shakers, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, and Amish come to mind. In the life of this church of St John, it would be very easy to see that from the 1870’s and 80’s onwards as this church became Tractarian or Anglo Catholic, it was all underpinned by a theology of Kosmesis, beautification. The whole re-arrangement of the interior, the change in the liturgy, all of this was designed through beautification to create a sense of the numinous, the Godly. In the twenty-first century, the traditional churches of the Middle East also offer this through their beautiful and resonant liturgies and the value they place on the building of the church as a place of witness. Kosmesis, beautification, through worship also characterises the churches of the Middle East. Moving on in the circle, all churches need the third phase ananeosis.
Ananeosis – Renewal. If you drew these three aspects – Foundation, Beautification, Renewal, diagrammatically – you would find in all healthy churches that they form a constant circle. Foundation leads to beautification, leads to renewal which leads to return to foundation and on and on. I believe we have certainly seen this form of ananeosis or renewal in the past year, particularly this Lent. Lent, as you know, simply means spring, and we have seen all sorts of new growth this spring. If you want to see the buds flower, come to the Easter Vigil As we see foundation, beautification, and renewal in church buildings, so too we see it in how we care for each other. Pastoral Care leads us to the relation that we are in this boat together. They are one of us. We are one of them. A Korean Buddhist monk friend of mine told me recently that classical Korean spirituality expects the tsunami of life to occur at any time, and so there is a consequent need to cling together. It is not for them to rage and blame because the wrong type of snow has made the trains late. So too we belong together and look after each other, as we do not know when the wave of the tsunami will strike us individually or collectively. This too leads to a renewal, so it’s right today to remember this as we prepare ourselves for the Tsunami of Holy Week and Easter as we enter Passion Tide.
I hope these three images from Libya will help us as we enter the Passion of our Lord. Today we see an open Calvary in the Middle East, as Christians are violently persecuted in Iraq, Syria, and other places. If our public and governmental policy had the equivalent of 1 O level in history, we would remember that 2015 is in many ways a rerun of 1915, with the genocide of Christians, mainly Assyrian and Armenian in the Ottoman Empire. We still wait for the government of the UK to follow the lead of the Welsh government in recognising that genocide. This is Passio – suffering, which renews the household of faith. The three Byzantine movements of ktsis kosmesis and ananeosis will also remind us that this too will pass, especially when IS is only a footnote in history, which it will be. On Passion Sunday, we turn to the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in the sure and certain knowledge that all growth in the church, all renewal, comes through suffering. The Gospel for today puts it like this, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”