‘Hail gladdening light’ – Jesu, a light to see by.

CanaaniteLamp1500-600BC

A sermon for evensong at St Mary Whitkirk on the eve of the Transfiguration.

In a previous life as a science teacher, it was always interesting to find out what children believe about the world around them. When I taught about sight, I always began by asking the children to draw a diagram of how they thought their eyes worked. Young children almost always draw some sort of ‘sight rays’ coming out of our eyes.

They think sight is something coming out from us – rather than light rays bouncing off objects around us into our eyes. They think it’s something we control – rather than something that just happens when we open our eyes. They often don’t realise that dark is just no light entering our eyes.

In our reading tonight, Jesus refers to himself as the light. This is a theme running through John’s gospel, and we often think of Jesus, light of the world, bringing hope into dark places. But in today’s passage, Jesus says “Walk while you have the light…if you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.” Jesus, it seems, is the very light by which we see.

Today – when we can light our surroundings with the flick of a switch; when nightfall doesn’t mean stopping work; when we have so much control, it’s easy to become like those children – and forget it’s light coming in from the outside that lets us see.

In the same way, I think, we try to make sense of the world with reference only to ourselves. We reduce the world to something that provides for our wants. We reduce other people to the part they play in our lives. It’s only when our world is illuminated by something from outside that we can see things as they really are. It’s only when we have a reference point outside ourselves, a light that transcends our selfish selves that we can see properly.

The choir has just sung for us “Hail Gladdening Light” – this is thought to be the oldest Christian hymn in existence. Written in about the 3rd century, it was used in the evening at the lighting of the lamps. In Jerusalem, a lamp was kept burning in the empty tomb of Christ – and as this hymn was sung the lamps were lit from that lamp.

‘Hail gladdening light, of his pure glory poured, who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest.’ Christ is the light who pours from God. Lighting the evening lamps from him was a statement that Christ is the light by which we see.

Just as our eyes can’t see unless there’s light – so our souls can’t see themselves properly without some reference point outside themselves. As Christians we would call this divine light – in effect, without Jesus we are in the dark. Without Jesus we can’t see how unjust our societies are, how wrong we often are in how we see others.

But the great thing about this light is that it’s also a person we can encounter. The divine light doesn’t just show up how lost we are. By becoming human – Jesus showed what being truly human looks like – humanity as God intended it.

Of course Jesus’ life shows up what’s wrong in our lives – where we fail again and again…but it also shows what is possible when a human life is lived as it should be – based on love. In Jesus we also have the light that helps us see others as Jesus saw them. It helps us move the focus from ourselves to those around us. It helps us to begin to ‘love one another as he has loved us’.

‘Walk while you have the light’ might seem a strange way to look at the Christian life – since so often it seems to lead us into the unknown, to ask us to give up the need to be in control. But seeing things in the light of Christ gives an alternative way of ‘knowing where we are going’.

‘Hail gladdening light’ the hymn says. The word ‘gladdening’ is apparently difficult to translate. It comes from the same word as hilarious but didn’t originally mean something to laugh at; it’s sometimes translated as ‘cheerfulness’…but doesn’t mean a surface smile. It really means a deep-seated joy. A joy that comes, as the hymn says from the ’Holiest of holies – Jesus Christ, our Lord’.

‘Walk while you have the light’ says Jesus. In Jesus we have the light that shows us who we are, and more importantly, who we can be. We have a pattern for how to live our lives. But also in the light of Jesus we know that we are children of God, loved by God and forgiven by God.

So whilst life often seems fragile and we find it hard to imagine what will happen next. Whilst we would often like the uncertainties removed – to know just what is the job we will eventually get? – to know what the result of medical tests might be. In a profound way – we do know where we are going.

Although it’s sometimes hard to hold on to – we know that wherever following Christ might lead us in this world – it will eventually take us back to God.

So letting the light of Jesus into our lives gives us a new way of looking at one another; it gives us a pattern for what our lives should look like; and it gives us hope that where we are going is our home with God.

I want to finish with the collect for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany – a season when we celebrate Jesus the light.

God our creator,

who in the beginning

commanded the light to shine out of darkness:

we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ

may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,

shine into the hearts of all your people,

and reveal the knowledge of your glory

in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Amen

 

What is ‘the calling to which we have been called’? (and what is our part in it?)

Who me?

A sermon for St Mary Whitkirk – Trinity 10 – reflecting on Ephesians 4:1-16

I wonder – how many football fans do we have at St Mary’s?

How many of the rest of you got drawn into the world cup?

It was hard not to wasn’t it? Especially the England matches…for a couple of hours it became unbearably important. Football can do that. When I was small we always needed to know how Middlesbrough had done on a Saturday…because it affected the mood my brother was in. He’s lived on the South Coast for 35 years – but he was at Millwall yesterday watching the Boro equalizing at the last minute.

When we step back of course, it’s hard to see the point of football…fun for the players, entertainment; I suppose the world cup brought the country together. But the amount of interest, money and emotional energy given to 22 people chasing a ball around is a little ridiculous.

From the outside – it may be equally difficult to see the point of the Church of England. We gather at a particular time on a particular day, some of us dress up in strange clothes, sometimes we burn incense, we share a meal that doesn’t really look like a meal…

…and yet in our reading this morning we are begged to live lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called…worthy of the calling to which we have been called…clearly the writer saw this church thing as far more than 60 minutes on a Sunday morning.

So what is the ‘calling to which we have been called’?

You’re all assuming that was a rhetorical question – which I’ll now attempt to answer…no, actually that was a genuine question, which you’re going to attempt to answer…

…the letter was written to the newish church in Ephesus – but it could equally be for the more established church here in Whitkirk…

So, what is ‘the calling to which we’ve been called’, what is the point of the church?

From the congregation…

  • spreading the word
  • telling all people here in Leeds the good news of Jesus Christ
  • living as Christ showed us
  • sharing God’s love with those around us

What did the writer of Ephesians think? He’s pretty ambitious…’building up the body of Christ, until all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God.’ In other words our calling is to take part in the reconciliation of all humanity to God and to each other in Christ.

Blimey!

Luckily – as the writer points out – we’re all given gifts by Christ to enable us in this calling. I don’t think the actual list he gives is that important. What matters is that we can all contribute to the reconciliation of people to God and one another – because we are all given gifts. Not all the same gifts…but gifts for all.

So now I’m going to ask you another question – what gift do you have that helps you be part of this calling? Or if that’s too difficult – what gift have you seen in someone else?

  • grace
  • the Holy Spirit
  • patience with each other – when helping people into new roles
  • willingness to give time to church cleaning etc
  • our ability to listen and to speak

Often our willingness to have a go is the best gift we can bring. I’m not sure Hannah, Jacob or Zara thought they had gifts as youth leaders until I asked them to help with FISH. I suspect when Giles agreed to help with school assemblies he imagined staying behind the piano…but has now discovered a gift for engaging with halls full of children…

The final verses of our reading say, in a rather long-winded way, that growth of the body of Christ – the church – depends on each part working properly. If one part fails, growth is stunted.

So…this is not just the plea of a curate trying to fill rotas (although if you wish to volunteer for anything I won’t say no!)…this reading makes a serious demand of each of us if we take our faith seriously.

To think carefully about just what is ‘the calling to which we have been called’; and what is our part in it.

For whether your call lies particularly in your work place, out in the community, or here in St Mary’s…

…whether you’re ready to try something new, or actually it’s time to step back from a role but devote more time to praying for St Mary’s, or increase your financial contribution…you have a role to play.

If we’re not all involved – our growth as a Christian community will be stunted.

So my prayer for this summer is that we all reflect on just what is the calling to which we are called – and what is our particular part in it. Amen