Candlemas: "No Pain, No Gain"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

Before I begin I want to read from a great British Theologian of the 20th Century:

'Ooh!' said Susan, 'I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.'
'That you will, dearie, and no mistake,' said Mrs Beaver; 'if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly.'
'Then he isn't safe?' said Lucy.
'Safe?' said Mr Beaver; 'don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.' [from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis]

And so the Pevensie children go on to meet Aslan and to defeat the White Witch, but not before admitting their brother, Edward’s, betrayal to the lion king, Aslan.

Yesterday my daughter got a splinter. As we tried to take a look at it and remove it I was reminded how unlikely it seems that the additional pain involved in removing the splinter might make it better. The idea that pain gets worse before it gets better is a hard one to sell to children, it’s not that easy an idea to sell to grown ups either. Facing up to the reality of a situation is often painful, but without doing it, you never truly get to the other side. Peace with an unarticulated injustice, is not really peace, it's a kind of artificial peace which mocks those who aren't benefitting from it, oppressing them.

The church was in the press a fair bit this week, even the Independent had the first ordination of a woman as Bishop in England on the front page. Making this possible has been a long process and one which was at times an embarrassment to the church as secular society watched on in horror. And yet, in the same week, what of the debates of the way the Sun newspaper ensures gender equality and even on the day of her consecration Bishop Libby was referred to on radio 4’s today program as ‘Mrs Lane, mother of 2’ as if that rather than twenty years in ministry was what was relevant to the day’s events. Facing up to ongoing inequality isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order to move forward.

Archbishop Justin made it into the press telling Christians not to have disagreements on Twitter - it almost sounds like moral clap trap - but surely not. His point was actually more about the need to engage with the disagreements, and do so in person,

rather than simply being nice to each other. After all, how easy is it to simply ignore the issues that are bugging us. To build up resentment for a friend or family member, because they don’t understand how much they’ve annoyed us, even though we’ve never said we are annoyed. Eventually the conversation comes, more painful than it would have been days or even years earlier. It has a cost - but that cost is made worth it.

The same is true with those who we don’t already have a relationship. I can remember when Helen was pregnant with Iris, we did one of those things most expectant parents do, we went along to the ante-natal course, to find out what to expect but also, as we were told by the instructor, to build up a peer group who were going through the same thing as us. On one level we had things in common, we lived somewhere in Cambridge and we were all expecting babies, but beyond that, there was nothing obvious to bring us together, no common interests or beliefs. And then you start talking about how you want to give birth: at home, in hospital, in a pool with soothing music, or in a sparkling bright labour ward with beeps and flashing lights. and how we intend to feed our children, or get them to sleep. These are personal and emotive choices - it’s like talking about Politics or religion on a first date - you don’t do it. Actually, talking about birth plans and child rearing on a first date would probably be worse than politics or religion. The friendships developed over those difficult conversations with unknown others have continued to be really important to us as a family and each of us as individuals.

Justin was also in the Telegraph with a sermon claiming Christianity has at it’s heart a radical call, one which he says could be considered a call to violent revolution if it weren’t for all of Christ’s calls to peace, reconciliation and servant-hood.

In today’s gospel, Simeon knew the radical nature of Jesus when he saw him as a baby in the temple. ‘destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel’ Christ isn’t a tame lion who is just going to white wash over everything. But he is good. Simeon also tells of Christ bringing salvation ‘in the presence of all peoples’. It’s not good news for a few, for one nation, for the men, for families, it is good news for all. In a time when nations would consider their leader as a God, there to destroy their enemies and give them greater wealth. A God for all, not for one faith, was a radical one, and would be costly, it would cause division within families, challenges to the existing power structures and the tearing apart of the young Church from the Jewish community.

But while Simeon's words are radical, the story is firmly rooted in tradition: the Temple, the Law, the Presentation to the Lord, the offering of a sacrifice for purification. It is pointing to a radical tradition within Judaism, not unlike the Magna Carta is a radical tradition in the West. One which again and again has called us to widen our understanding of rights and calls us each to take responsibility for one another.

For Archbishop Justin, this radical faith is one not simply of nice words and being kind, it is a call to arms, an appeal for us to participate, to deal with the real problems in society, not at arms length, but personally, to come face to face with the lion, because in the end we know that the White Witch dies and the four children who nearly lost the war before it started are crowned.