Readings: Genesis 2, Revelation 4, Luke 8:22-25
Like thousands of people across the nation, I have been fascinated and moved by the story of the 82 Sheffield pensioner Tony Foulds, honoured this last week. Tony was an 8-year-old boy playing in a Sheffield park in 1944, when an American bomber narrowly missed him and crashed into the park, killing all 10 American airmen in the plane. Every day since then, he has honoured their memory for 75 years. When an interviewer asked him, “Tony, why did you do this?”, he replied “Because I kept faith with these my friends who died.” Tony kept the faith. Which brings us straight to the Gospel set for today where Jesus asks, “Where is your faith?” That’s a question not only for every individual at all times, but also for every society at all times – “Where is your faith?” Because without it, the only reason to get up in the morning is your bladder. Let’s look first at what this means for society, and in particular our own right now.
It is only to state the obvious that we are right now a confused, divided and directionless society – there are of course many and multiple reasons for this in addition to the obvious one of Brexit, whatever your position on that. For me, two reasons stand out, both related. The first is lack of vision – “Without vision the people perish” and second is the militantly secular context in which we find ourselves. Secularism maintains that the highest good is the individual and his or her place in the state. There is nothing higher. In the twentieth century, the two catastrophic examples were fascism and communism, both of which systems placed the state at the pinnacle of human achievement. It was a guiding principle of Nazism that the highest good to which an individual could aspire was the State. The principle philosopher, on whom Nazism relied, of course, was Friedrich Nietzsche of Mensch and Ubermensch fame. Nietzsche shared much with contemporary political correctness or European secular fundamentalism in his belief, that, given the right conditions, religious belief would simply fade away. Nietzsche famously described religion as the “idiosyncrasy of the decadent revenging themselves upon life.”
But now, nineteen years into the third Christian millennium, and having left behind a century of militant and murderous atheism, we see religious belief not only stubbornly refusing to go away, but growing, it seems, ever stronger. This is true globally, where faith is on the rise, and we should not imagine that our own faithless society is a model across the world. There are many acute observers, not least in the Vatican, who predict that the largest number of Christians in 2050 will be in China – one of the reasons, as an aside, why I am learning Mandarin as I want to connect to this bigger picture. Policy makers, it seems, will have to take this phenomenon seriously. To give one example -in the debate on Brexit, on both sides of the divide-there has been an almost total absence of the question “Where is the soul of Europe and its citizens?” This is even more important than the trade rules and all the other stuff currently under negotiation. The Bishop of London said in St Paul’s last week, as she called for “a broad public discourse based on a different language, and a transcendent conversation – one that can address deeper questions of meaning and belonging.” Here we come back to the question, “Where is your faith?”
Why speak about this today? For two treasons- firstly, and principally, because the readings for today remind us of this phenomenon, and secondly, as we approach Lent, we are reminded as believers that we each have our own work to do. Firstly, then, the readings set for today. They are unashamedly theological and are powerful reminders of the fundamental grounds why anyone should go to any Christian Church anywhere. The Old Testament reading from the Genesis reminds humanity of its stewardship of creation and our role as co-creators with God. The Eden narrative from Genesis reminds me of the rabbinic joke now, which asks, “Why did God make man before woman?” and its response “Because he needed a rough draft first.” Humanity is male and female together is an image of partnership. The animals and the rest of creation are a reminder that, as human beings work together, so they are called at the same time to work with creation as part of it. More partnership. The New Testament reading from the Revelation to John continues this theme as Christ the second Adam is surrounded by the four living creatures. This is pictorial language of course for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and their symbols – the winged human, the lion, the ox and the eagle. In iconography this is called the zoomorph, and you no doubt know where all the zoomorphs are in this church. One is behind the head of the preacher. Christ is at the centre of creation as the new Adam, which brings us to the Gospel and story of the storm on the lake. In Genesis, water is the symbol of chaos and confusion- we are told in the first story of creation that the earth was a shapeless watery chaos, and the Spirit hovered over the waters. So here, in an echo of Genesis called typology, Christ orders the potential chaos in the waters. This too, is a symbol of the human heart and the human condition. One of the great early African theologians, Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that this chaos in the storm on the lake is also a metaphor for the chaos within every person. Theologically, this means that we are not able to simply point to others as a reason for the chaos in society – politicians and the like – but we have created it as part of our human condition- each and every one of us. So back to the question “ Where is your faith?”
For Christians, our faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday today and forever, and this gives a strong and stable base to move outwards and forwards as I hope we are always doing. And there is sound sense why the compilers of the lectionary put these readings for today as we approach Lent. These readings bring us back to the core on which we rely. Without this theological underpinning, the Christian Church and the Christian message is nothing. A strong and secure theological base will endure, and people will be attracted to it, especially if it is open and not a club. Why else do new people come to the Church all the time? Why are we baptising 10 adults at Easter in this church? This strong and stable theological base of belief in Jesus Christ gives real power to those who enter this Covenant. To become sons and daughters of God.. In other words, to be born again. This is radical stuff, and at this time of year we are reminded of the opportunities which Lent offers for personal re-birth as we examine our lives as sons and daughters of God. “Where is your faith?” Faith in Jesus Christ gives everything perspective, even if we are reduced to a troglodyte existence in the hermit Kingdom. The eight century Chinese monk Xuanzhang ended his epic narrative Journey to the West, with these words, “Never give up. Keep the faith.”