Eleventh Sunday of Trinity
Readings: Proverbs 9, 1-6; Psalm 34, 9-16; Eph. 6, 16-20; John 6, 51-58
Hymns; Awake awake; Where love and loving kindness is; For the healing of the nations; Forth in thy name
Wisdom, what it is and how to grow in it is the theme dictated by our readings today. Let me start by what I see as a lack of wisdom in a line of the hymn ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ written by the 19th century Anglo-Catholic John Newman, successively Romans Catholic priest, Cardinal and unwillingly canonised saint – I say ‘unwilling’ because the process meant his disinterment from the grave he intentionally shared with his friend Edward.
‘and I hold in veneration, for the love of him alone, holy Church as his creation, and her teachings as his own.’
I reject his insistence that the teachings of ‘holy Church’ are totally and only God’s’ views because therein lies danger. What we know of God appears in scripture, especially through Jesus, and in experience. The basis of Christian life is acceptance of and faith in God, Creator of all, presented for us in the life and death of Jesus our Saviour and illumined by the light of the Spirit. However, the people of God who are the church, whether bright or slow, lay or ordained, have the imperfections and limitations as set out, for example, in the fifty chapters of Genesis. People (and the Church is people) have long bargained with God, as Moliere neatly puts it: ‘God, it is true, does some delights condemn, But ’tis not hard to come to terms with him!’ Inevitably, he Church as a cluster of organisations has evolved in the last two millennia through the works and words of such ordinary people: humble, kind, greedy, cruel and occasionally wise. Those specially ordained to lead, to represent, to teach, were and are also humble and greedy, kind, cruel and occasionally wise. This does not mean the church is wrong, merely as wise and unwise as the people in it: but the church is not God. Jesus had rejected mindless following of political authorities, yet the 4th century Church Father Eusebius extolled the first Christian Emperor Constantine as ‘a sovereign dear to God, in imitation of the Higher Power, who sets straight all things on earth.’ From that extraordinary applause of an ordinary and over-powerful human being onwards, there has been too often been an often self-seeking collusion between State and Church, in which wisdom had but a minor part.
The insistence of the various churches- Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, whatever- that it, and commonly only it, ‘mirrors God’s will,’ is commonly backed up with what passes for evidence: exquisite and excluding erudition, dramatic miracles which might have some truth, or grotesque wealth given by often poor followers. The outcome is that ‘the institutional church’ may be neither humble nor wise, but arrogantly risks abusing the trust and faith of followers.
Wisdom is not learnt at school, or certified by doctorates: it has nothing to do with book-learning, but may be discerned through life, and often through dark clouds and struggle. Growing in wisdom demands willingness to admit and learn from failure, reflection, risk-taking, and for Christians a readiness to admit that faith in God, the foundation of the Church, rests not only on knowledge, but also on the bright cloud of unknowing. We read in Luke of the young Jesus ‘growing in wisdom’ as if that was an automatic process of maturing: but the word used for ‘growing’ actually refers to an army hacking its way through obstacles as if clearing a path: wisdom is not bought nor is it necessarily an easy path.
In our first reading, wisdom stands not only for the chatelaine of the large seven pillared house but also for a temple and even for the world. Wisdom prepared a banquet of meat from her herd and spiced wine from her cellar, and then sent out her maids to invite those on the street who might not have realised their hunger to ‘walk in the way of insight,’ which is knowledge of God. Folly, in a vignette a few lines on from our reading, also invites people to her house with the same words as Wisdom: ‘whoever is simple, come in’. But she has prepared nothing herself, has nothing to give and nothing to share: lacking integrity, she offers only death.
The Gospel reading doesn’t talk of wisdom but, continuing Chapter 6 of John’s gospel, of Jesus’ offer of food for the journey of life. Just as Wisdom, but not Folly, reached out to any and all people, asking them to share and to take part in what had been painstakingly prepared so that ‘they would grow in understanding,’ so too Jesus explains, so that those who accepted the invitation ‘would live forever,’ an argument completed in next week’s reading.
But how do those accepting that invitation live, given that ‘the church,’ source of teaching along with scriptures, is made up of people as vulnerable to greed and stupidity as they are made strong through loving kindness, fairness and humility? Paul gives practical advice in Ephesians, building on the wonderful Psalm: ‘Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’ Ephesians 5 starts and finishes with the admonition to walk, or conduct ourselves, in love, ‘as Christ loved us and gave himself for us,’ and to walk as children of light, mindfully in relationship with God. Paul emphasises collective action with individual responsibility, and demands that each try to understand what the will of God is, rather than depend on teaching alone.
Which brings us back to Newman! Church teaching about what we understand of God is important. Although people get things wrong in theory, called heresy, and in practice, which becomes hypocrisy, people and churches also get things right. The frankly self-aggrandising slogan of non-believers ‘religion causes war’ seems to be trotted out to validate the purity of their position – or so it seems after chatting to fellow passengers on UK trains recently! Sometimes I point out that neither Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Hitler, nor Pol Pot were men of faith yet managed to eliminate whole categories of people. True, it is the case that superficially the Serbian –Croatian killings of the Second and the Balkans wars, the current Sunni –Shia killing in the Middle East or Hindu-Muslim in India, Buddhist-Muslim in Burma, include faith elements. But what the two groups of killers have in common is that the delineation of difference precedes the killing. Moreover, every person, believer or not, is liable to employ such dismissive setting aside of categories of people in their everyday views and actions. As Christians, however, living in Christ means treating all, irrespective of rank, ethnicity or gender, as equal before God.
Churches, just like people, need to grow in wisdom, which means through humility, recognition of sin, of failure, and of the unknowable, a process hampered if they regard their teaching or individuals their behaviour as perfect. Were Newman to have included the caveat ‘as far as we know God,’ I’d have less of a problem- but that doesn’t scan, and for an ‘all-knowing’ church seems unconvincing! Yet I wonder if one reason non-believers, part from intellectual and personal idleness, are ready to blame faith for all ills is irritation with what they rightly or wrongly see as such ecclesial insistence of perfect knowledge of God along with what can seem the consequent failure to grow in wisdom. Let us start by recognising, confidently and without shame, that growing in faith starts with you and me seeking, discerning, refining, revising and just being, quietening our own voice and listening to the invitation of God.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, August 2015
Eleventh Sunday of Trinity