//The Oaks of Mamre and the ‘Pursuit of Substance’: Thoughts on Breaking the Word

The Oaks of Mamre and the ‘Pursuit of Substance’: Thoughts on Breaking the Word

Stephen Wilson delivers a ‘meta-sermon’

 

‘If I had one sermon to preach’… what would it be? The theme chosen for this term’s sermons at Evensong prompted a memory of a meeting with that most charismatic of Christian leaders, Archbishop Anthony Bloom. I think it was at a meeting of a local council of churches in London some forty-odd years ago, and that time Metropolitan Anthony (as he was known) was Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox community in Britain and Ireland. 

Fr Anthony’s parents were exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution, and he grew up first in Iran and then Paris. There he qualified as a doctor, and in 1939 joined the French Army as a surgeon, but not before he secretly professed monastic vows in the Orthodox Church. 

His baptismal name was Andrei. Anthony was the name given to him when in 1943 he was received as a monk. During the German occupation he worked in Paris as a doctor, and took part in the French Resistance. 

At that meeting all those years ago, someone asked him if it was true that he always preached without notes. His sonorously Slavonic reply was: ‘I like to come empty.’ Over the years that remark has stayed with me, and tonight I would like to explain why.

If you were to be invited to be the castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs how difficult would you find it choosing those eight records? It’s a tough call (and I keep revising my chosen eight) but that task pales in comparison with choosing one sermon that, if pressed, I would wish to preach. What would a ‘best’ or ‘favourite’ sermon look like? Could there be such a thing?

For preaching is always shaped by the imperatives of the occasion—a Sunday Evensong such as this, or a wedding or a funeral. Or a homily at the Eucharist—‘breaking the Word’ as we say.

That simply states the obvious. But, beyond those demands of the moment, there is a deeper, ‘kenotic’ imperative; like Metropolitan Anthony, we need to come empty.

And this radical self-emptying—or kenosis—is linked to nothing less than the pattern of Christ himself: St Paul reminds the Phillipians (2:7) that Christ ‘emptied himself [ekenôsen], taking the form of a servant…’

That’s to say, Jesus was giving himself over totally to his Father’s will, living out in historical time what is eternally true within the Godhead.

This imperative to ‘come empty’ essentially means that the one who preaches will seek to go to the heart of what is asking to be heard, of what presents itself as demanding of our whole attention. 

Now perhaps you may be thinking that I’m simply skirting around our theme of ‘the one sermon I’d preach’—in other words that you’re hearing something more like a ‘meta-sermon’ than a sermon proper.

But perhaps, just sometimes, skirting around is just what is called for, if only to convey the sense of preaching’s inherent difficulty, the unavoidably apophatic element in all speech about divine things. Who said that speaking of God could ever be easy? 

Metropolitan Anthony, who died in 2003, often spoke movingly of the Christian path of prayer as essentially one of encounter with the living Christ, in and through the Spirit. 

This is at the heart of Orthodox spirituality—an immersion in communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit, and so also with the Father; Christocentric—Christ-centred—but also profoundly Trinitarian.

This evening we heard from St Paul, who decided to know nothing among the Christians at Corinth ‘except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ [1 Cor. 2.2]. And that is a riff on what he writes a few verses earlier about preaching the crucified Christ as the skandalon, the scandal, the stumbling block [1 Cor. 1:23–24].

All of this sounds uncompromisingly ‘Christocentric,’ but then we heard a passage partly paraphrasing a verse from Isaiah 64:

‘[A]s it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.’ [1 Cor. 2:9–10].

So although there’s no systematic doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament, its elements are there—as if waiting in the wings to receive fuller expression later on. And Matthew’s Gospel does famously conclude with the echo of an early baptismal formula, in the risen Lord’s command to his disciple to baptize ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ [Matt. 28:19].

So it seems that, even as Matthew’s Gospel was reaching its final written shape, belief in the Trinity was already receiving expression in the baptismal liturgy. 

One thing is clear to me: doctrines are first of all expressed not as dogma but as doxology, praise. And doctrine must proceed first of all from what is imagined as worthy of worship.

One of the 4th century Desert Fathers puts it like this (Evagrius of Pontus, Treatise on Prayer 61): ‘A theologian is one whose prayer is true.’

In the western Church the common tag has long been lex orandi, lex credendi—roughly, ‘the norm of worship is the norm of belief.’ Doxology is not only chronologically but conceptually prior to dogma. Prayer and worship shape belief by expressing it. 

Perhaps the paradigm case is in John 21:28; in the upper room, where ‘doubting’ Thomas falls before the risen Christ saying: ‘My Lord and my God.’ This is famously dubbed the first Christian creed; that’s true, but it is a confession which is also a doxology.

During the early Christian centuries there were a series of meetings, known as the ecumenical councils because they involved representatives from all of Christendom. These got to work on setting out a ‘rule of faith’—in particular concerning Christ and the Trinity. 

These ‘Council Fathers’ (as they are known) drew on their knowledge of Greek philosophy (and most especially ontology—Aristotle’s ‘pursuit of substance’) in their efforts to express Christian doctrine in language adequate to pastoral needs and extraordinary pressures. (Philosophers amongst others here will know that Aristotle was the first to develop ontology as a systematic analysis of the modalities of being and existence.)

The ‘Council Fathers’ saw a need to work out an essential summary of the faith, and this is most especially true of their council at Nicaea in the year 325, which was convened partly in response to the teachings of the Alexandrian priest Arius (d. 336). And this summary eventually became what we now refer to as the Nicene Creed.

The Fathers knew very well that heresy is never mere falsehood; but that it occurs most particularly when one strand of the tradition becomes a controlling narrative at the expense of all others. 

Arius seems to have thought that the Christ that St Paul was writing about in Colossians 1:15—who is ‘the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation’—is just that: a creature, and not ‘begotten of the Father before all ages.’

And if a creature, then not coequal with the Father; nor coeternal either—indeed, the Arians had a slogan about Christ: ‘There was [a time] when He was not,’ and it became their battle-cry. (Now you turn to Colossians 1 and see for yourself how selective is Arius’s reading of that first chapter.)

The problem with the history of heresy is that it has been written up for us by the winners. And recent commentators have shown how much more complex is Arius’s position than I may have made it seem. Rowan Williams’s Arius: Heresy and Tradition (revd. ed. 2001) is a case in point.

The language of the Councils and the Creeds do seem in sharp contrast to the language of the Gospels; so much so that some 19th-century liberal Protestant theologians sought to re-define ‘classical,’ ancient doctrine from the vantage point of a modern post-enlightenment narrative. 

This protest of theirs is not now simply a museum curiosity. Reaction against the project at Nicaea still lingers, sometimes almost unconsciously, in the thought that we must somehow be entirely children of our time, and the Council Fathers of theirs—and that they were in thrall to an opaque ontology that makes no sense to us now. 

One late 20th-century New Testament scholar famously opined that ‘we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it.’ This failure of nerve seems to me to arise from a complete misreading of the different linguistic registers within Holy Scripture and their contrast with later, formalized doctrine. 

So if I were finally compelled to offer a theological template for preaching in general: yes, it would be Trinitarian. 

The haunting story in our first reading, of the three visitors to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, was decisively ‘canonized’ as prefiguring the Holy Trinity in the famous ikon by the great 14th-century Russian monastic artist Andrei Rublev. That ikon’s image has since then stamped itself upon Christian consciousness east and west.

For me, the central fulcrum of preaching is the conviction that God is from all eternity a Trinitarian communion of love. This means that we are not created out of necessity, as if God ‘needs somebody to love’ (in the words of the song). Nor are we created by the arbitrary fiat of an otherwise indifferent Deity.

Our Christian forebears—St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas among them—have reminded us that we and the whole creation are a fruit of the free and joyous overflowing of the divine goodness, flowering into creation.

So what I do mean to say to you now is that preaching, like prayer is—and must be—an endeavour to draw near to God, and to ‘come empty’: so as to be enfolded ever more deeply in the life of the Trinity. 

Everything—in preaching, in prayer, in Christian life—must flow out of and back to, that ineffable mystery.

Amen.

 

Fr Stephen Wilson is an assistant priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham. This sermon was given at Emmanuel College, Cambridge in Michaelmas Term 2019.

2020-02-10T13:47:01+00:00 December 2019 Articles|