The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
I thought it was one of those Facebook hoax, Christians wanted to change the Welsh flag. Then I found it in the Independent, The Welsh Christian Party is campaigning to remove the ‘demonic’ dragon from the Welsh flag, to replace it with the gold and black flag of St David, to reflect Wales being a Christian country. Their concern isn’t new, they've been campaigning about it for a number of years. They link the red dragon on the flag to the dragon in the book of revelation that represents the devil. On the other hand, the English flag is feared by many as a symbol of nationalism gone too far, this despite being the Christian cross of St George, himself a Palestinian standing up for his right to worship his Christian God freely in a multi-cultural society.
Image is powerful. If you come into the office here at St John’s at certain times you might think we are trying to remind ourselves of the failings of Adam and Eve. Or you might just think we have been taken in by one of the most successful technology brands there is.
In today’s reading from Acts Paul is in Athens. He is preaching to a people with many Gods - and trying to explain that there is one true God. He’s made a great discovery and instead of just giving the athenians a hard time for worshipping idols - man made, lifeless gods. Instead of criticising them for demonic worship, Paul congratulates them for having recognised that there is a God unknown to them, who they have been worshipping at an altar to the ‘unknown God’. Paul points out that this is the creator, the God of Israel, known to us now through Jesus, the son.
There is something here to challenge the notion some Christians have held, that unless art is Christian, inspired by Scripture, it isn’t good for one’s salvation. Some of you may have seen the criticism by some Christians of the recent film Noah and the liberties it has taken with the text. But Paul’s speech in Athens indicates that even outside the fold of Christianity, people can be inspired by the Holy Spirit to worship God through the things they create.
You might come into St John’s on a morning like this and ask: ‘Who is our God?’
Our windows tell the story of Christ calling children to come to him like he calls us, of God putting a rainbow in the sky to promise never to flood the earth again - to forgive us our mistakes, of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary at the annunciation.
Since Easter the choir and clergy have been processing into church led only by a Gospel book and candles. This could be a statement about the season we are in, that we are a people gathered to follow a resurrected Christ, one who we can only learn of from the text of the Gospels themselves. Actually, the cross has gone for repair and the Christ on it is not the dying rag wearing Christ anyways, it’s a triumphant, resurrected, Christus Victor, with crown upon its head and arms held out to embrace the whole world. This is an image of victory in apparent defeat, perhaps it is an image of incredibly adept spin, but it is trying to show how the humility and vulnerability of Christ overcame the fear and scinicism of his execution, through the act of his resurrection and the redemption of the world. Not a million miles away from the image of St George slaying the dragon, representing his winning the moral victory by not succumbing to the Emperors demand that he must worship the Roman Gods. Quite the opposite of the British nationalism his cross represents today!
This past week I did a practice presiding for the first time. Steve patiently watched me read through the Eucharist service, doing the actions, wearing all the robes, so that I’ll be ready when I come to do it for the first time on the 29th of June. Clearly whoever is presiding, sitting in the chair Brutus sits in today, is pretty central to what is going on. In a prime position, able to make eye contact with almost everybody in the congregation, drawing us in, welcoming us, focussing our attention to what is happening in the service. As somebody who hasn’t yet done it, it feels pretty daunting. Most of all, because it’s not about how I look, but about being in the place of Christ, at the head of the table.
The disciples, in today’s Gospel, are being prepared for Jesus death. He is reassuring them, that when he leaves them, returning to God the Father, he will send them another advocate, the one we call the Holy Spirit, to be with them. We read this now, as we prepare for the feast of Christ’s ascension to the Father on Thursday.
Somehow, in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit exudes from God and enters into each of us, making God abide in us in a way Jesus compares to the Father abiding in him. The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Truth, there to help us to keep Jesus’ commands; to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. It can be a bit easy to claim the Holy Spirit for one’s advocate. It is foolish to claim the Holy Spirit was at work when a decision was what we want, but to claim we haven’t been listening to God when we get a decision we weren’t looking for.
In the fixed prayers and liturgies of the Church, the Holy Spirit is brought into the equation in specific instances - most notably when we do the things Jesus commanded us to do: when we baptise and when we celebrate communion. And so I come to what I think is perhaps the central image that we put forward as a church here today, not the priest, not the cross, not the gospel book, not even the bread and the wine, but the act of sharing this eucharist together.
Eating a meal together is a significant act of vulnerability. It’s inherently intimate. As we consume, food moves across a boundary from being external to our bodies, to being part of our bodies. We are sharing with those we do, and don’t know, a very personal event. In so doing it becomes communal. We all share the same thing, we are all equal before God, eating from the same plate and cup, regardless of whether we feel particularly worthy. Though difficult to tell with the simple bread and wine before us today - this is a great feast or banquet. It is an image of what the Kingdom of heaven is, a joyous celebration, with all of creation eating together as equal partakers in God’s Kingdom.
But the imagery goes further still, we ask the bread and wine not simply to represent the bounty of the heavenly feast, but to be, to us, the body and blood of Christ. It is not simply food which we consume, which becomes a part of us, but God’s self which we ask to become a part of us, to transform us more fully into God’s image. And in so doing, as we commune with each other, seeking to love one another as God loves us, sharing peace, forgiving sins, the way God forgives our sins, we ourselves, in this act form ourselves into the image of God; in communion with the three parts of the Trinity and with us.
That image in turn shapes us and our understanding of God and of ourselves, of our potential to be more human. It gives us a model for how we live our lives, loving one another, confessing and forgiving one another, sharing and celebrating with one another.