Edited version of the sermon preached at the 10:00 Solemn Eucharist by Fr Ian Michael on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 10 March 2013.
Suppose that you have a friend who knows nothing about Christian faith and asks you to explain it. Where would you begin?
A good starting point would be the story which we have just heard (Luke 15; 1 to the end) the story about a man with two sons, one usually called prodigal, the other reliable and hard working.
We’ll come back to that story but first there is an anniversary which deserves to be marked, the anniversary of an event which some will remember clearly, some will be dimly aware of and others will never have heard of. For Tuesday 19 March sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book which rapidly became a best seller on a scale unprecedented for its subject matter. The book shocked some readers but thrilled others.
Two days before publication the author summarised its contents in an article in the Sunday newspaper, The Observer under the bold Headline, Our Image of God Must Go. That lit a blue touchpaper. The title of the book was Honest to God, the author, John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich in the Church of England.
In the book Robinson tried to set down the essentials of Christian teaching in a language which would make sense in the circumstances of his times and he challenged many traditional ways of expressing that teaching. It was the book which introduced me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose question from his wartime prison cell, “What is the place of worship and prayer in an entire absence of religion?” was one of those which Robinson tackled. The book also shows a far more positive attitude to the world, the secular, than is current in many church circles today. For example Robinson quotes with approval his colleague and later biographer, Eric James and his insistence that our worship should always lead to “a vision of the sacredness of the secular”.
When I spoke about Honest to God to Janet Reid of this congregation – in 1963 Janet was active in church life in the Woolwich area – her immediate reaction was “exciting times”. Indeed they were. I was 22 years old, a graduate student in Mathematics and was among those who found the book liberating, being not only allowed but encouraged to ask questions about Christian faith and living.
Of course, Honest to God did not stand alone. Its spirit is very much that of the early 1960s; a time of hope, renewal and disturbance in society as a whole as well as in the church. In Rome the Second Vatican Council was meeting, convened by Pope John XXIII with his wish to throw open the windows of the Church to the world, windows which had been shut for far too long.
Nor was there anything new in asking questions and challenging traditional expressions. Only last week we sang the 18th Century hymn entitled Oh for a closer walk with God with its verse:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
There are obvious idols like wealth and power but the most insidious ones come clothed in religious language.
But there is another word. In the Letter to the Colossians Christ is described as “the image of the invisible God”. The Greek word translated as “image” is “ikon” but IKON which gives us our word icon. Today the word icon is usually used to describe something appearing on a computer screen or in phrases like “a fashion icon” but until fairly recently it meant primarily a “holy painting” in the Orthodox tradition. Stand and pray before an icon in that sense and we find ourselves not so much looking as being looked at.
And here I am grateful, not for the first time, for a recent conversation with the lay theologian Dr Jake Andrews, formerly of this congregation. Jake pointed out to me how important it is in handling images of God to distinguish between idols and icons, pointing out in particular how, when we try to justify the ways of God we end up with an idol. An idol which attracts the worship due to God alone is essentially of human making. With an icon on the other hand there is always a being drawn on to what lies beyond. Icons are not only “holy paintings” but can be literary, artistic or musical.
And so the icon I would leave before us this morning is that presented in the gospel story of the man with two sons. Ponder that story, using as many aids to our imaginations as possible and we will find ourselves drawn into a deeper awareness of the unconditional love of God for all people revealed in Christ, drawn more deeply into the spirit of that post-communion prayer which has become one of the best loved of prayers composed in recent times.
Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living, he declared your love,
gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.
May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;
we who drink his cup bring life to others;
we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.
Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,
so we and all your children shall be free,
and the whole earth live to praise your name;
through Christ our Lord.