Second Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 18 January 2020
1 Corinthians 1.1-19
Seeing through the cracks ©Suzanne Grimmett
Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I wonder sometimes if that is what we think we are doing in church every Sunday morning- keeping our practice up in believing impossible things. If our practice of faith has become to seem like that, then perhaps this idea of Epiphany is just the tonic we need.
The word epiphany can be translated as a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, or an intuitive grasp of reality…it seems we are led to not something that requires a leap of faith in order to believe, but rather a deeper awareness of truth that when we see it, will seem not only possible, but something we have intuitively known all along to be true. But an epiphany has nothing to do with cognitive assent (believing those six impossible things) and everything to do with our eyes being opened.
I think sometimes we in the church have been tempted to water down the truth in the interest of being realistic or because in moments where the light seems to have been drained from the world, we feel we are not doing anyone any favours by telling a story that seems too good to be true. So slowly the mythology is leeched out of the stories that hold us and the good news is reduced to bite sized chunks of bland optimism that we might think are easier to consume. The revelation is replaced with the rational and the relevant.
This is reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. We all know the story of the tinman, the lion, the scarecrow and the child who travel down the yellow brick road to find the great wizard who will grant them the desires of their hearts. After a challenge and many adventures where the four characters discover the very best in themselves, they return to uncover the reality that the wizard is no wizard at all, but just a man adept at illusion. This can seem like it is what it means to be grown up- that there is no magic at all in the tales of our childhood but if we have faith in ourselves and one another we will get on okay after all.
The problem is, that the truth of a deeper reality continues to confront us. While the preachers might temper their words with rationalism, fearful to promise too much in this world of undeniable suffering, the scientists keep lifting our gaze to the heavens, speaking of intelligent life amongst the stars, how at the speed of light there is no time, and of how consciousness is more than just an epiphenomenon of the physical brain.1 We are haunted by glimpses of the transcendent that speak to a reality that is more real even than our best imaginings of ourselves and more powerful than our most determined human endeavour.
Epiphanies are those moments of seeing what is hovering just behind the veil. Mystics are often those we consider to be recipients of such revelation, people Huston Smith describes as those who “have a talent for seeing places where life’s carapace is cracked, and through its chinks catch glimpses of the world beyond.”2 These moments we have encountered in the offerings of our scripture readings in recent weeks; the rejoicing shepherds drawn in from their fields, the wise ones following the star, Jesus seeing the heavens open at his baptism. These encounters point to a gift of seeing the truth of the world as it is, and we need this vision if we are to follow our deepest intuition about what is real and eternal.
I often say that the essence of the good news of Christianity is that God is with us. Emmanuel: this is what we celebrate with such joy at Christmastide. But I think we can miss the point if we think of this only in terms of some kind of comforting presence in the heroic journey of our life. Rather, it is the spark of divinity in us that initiates such a journey in the first place and implants the desires of our hearts- the kind of desires that will never leave us content with a rationalistic or demythologised narration of our lives.
This is where our Gospel reading for today find us. When Andrew and his companion hear Jesus identified by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God,” they follow where Jesus leads. When Jesus acknowledges that they are following him he asks, “What are you looking for?” Anyone who thinks Christianity in some way is hostile to the desires of our hearts needs to hear this open invitation of Jesus.
“What are you looking for?”
The human condition in existential terms is characterised by blindness. This is a metaphor used frequently in scripture to describe the reality that we fail to perceive. The Gospel of John defines our longing with metaphors; the bread that we can eat so we may never be hungry again, the water we can drink so we will never thirst, the words of eternal life so that death will have no power.
If you are not seeking on Sundays for a once a week mental exercise in believing impossible things, what are you looking for? It is a question that Jesus, the holy one of God invites us all to consider. The world’s media and marketing machinery will be quick to tell us what we are looking for, and if we are half awake we might start believing that ‘Coke is it’ or that with Nike’s help we should ‘Just do it!’ We are told that the great Australian dream is to own our own home, as if that will satisfy the longing of our heart. Even though this is unattainable for many today, it remains a dream not large enough to gratify human longing. Friedrich Schleiermacher says we all have “a taste for the infinite”.
The disciples seem to respond rather awkwardly to Jesus. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask, leaving us wondering if they are avoiding the directness of Jesus’ question.
To this Jesus responds, “Come and see.”
Perhaps this interchange might make more sense when we consider some of the Gospel writer’s favourite words. The same Greek word is used earlier in the passage to describe the Spirit descending and remaining, (or staying) on Jesus in the form of a dove. This is not just about physical space but also about a connection to spiritual presence. This is about abiding- the connection of Jesus to the source of all light and life.
“Where are you staying?” in John’s terms could be understood to be a question about the glimpse of the eternal the two disciples sense in Jesus. And Jesus’ response is an invitation to an encounter- to become one who follows Jesus, seeing the world as he sees it and dwelling in it as one intimately connected with its source. This is faith not as cognitive assent to a series of impossible propositions but as a lived and living relationship. To be a Christian is not to be a believer in God as an object so much as it is a direction, a following of a way, a living from a place of abiding in the one is our source of our being and sustainer of our life.
But to commit to following the way is not to expect that all will be well, or that we will not have many days when we wrestle with the apparent absence of God, the silence, and the suffering that marks every human life at some time. We might remember that the cross was first a symbol of defeat before it became a symbol of victory if ever we are tempted to expect a triumphant journey throughout our lives. But this does not mean that we return to trying to be realistic in a grown up and practical way. JRR Tolkien reminds us that the very best stories …do not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; (these stories) deny…universal final defeat…giving a fleeting glimpse of joy beyond the walls of the world, a joy as poignant as grief.3
So may we have the courage to renew our childlike wonder in the world and in the stories that stand in steadfast denial of loneliness, death and despair. And may we trust not in our own ability to have faith and believe, but in the faithfulness of God who is the source and direction of our holy longing and companion on the way. And may we have the eyes to see those cracks in the carapace of life that give a glorious glimpse of the divinity hiding just beyond plain sight.
1 Frederick Beuchner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, (HarperOne, 1977)pp 97,98
2 Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 2001) p 29
3 J.R.R Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, (Ballantine: New York,1966) pp 68,69