Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 May 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Easter 6 E&B
From our second lesson:
I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Rev. 3.15
And, from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons:
‘The Church of England, that finest flower of our Island genius for compromise; that system, peculiar to these shores, which deflects the torrents of religious passion down the canals of moderation.’
Is tonight’s judgement from the scary risen Lord of Revelation directed at us? Are our bishops, as some commentators remark, ‘the bland leading the bland?’ Are we the heirs of the Church of Laodicea?
I hope we aren’t bland here; that is not merely a self-regarding comment about what we do. What Bolt observes about the Church of England has been at once the target of Anglo-Catholic impatience and the trap of Anglo-Catholic complacency throughout the history of our movement. Our desire to rebel against the establishment of the Church is in our DNA from the very first sermon of the Oxford Movement, John Keble’s sermon on National Apostasy on 14 July 1833. But our desire to be the establishment has too often hampered our mission. At our best we have shown a deeper Catholicity, a more authentic tradition and a more respectable inheritance than the politics of Henry VIII’s over-enthusiasm for marriage or the Realpolitik of the Elizabethan settlement. We seek, as we should, to be hot or cold, not tepid. But like everyone else we’ve sometimes been corrupted by the access of power.
It is worth briefly examining how our image from Revelation works. This could sound like hot = good, faithful; cold = bad, unbelieving; tepid = neither one nor the other, worst of all. But that is not quite the picture in the writer’s mind.
The whole passage is a typical piece of ancient rhetoric, in which three concentric rings of thought correspond and balance each other. At the beginning and end of the passage we are told about Christ’s sovereignty:
First, Christ is the origin and ruler of creation and finally Christ’s followers will share his throne (verses 14 and 21).
Then come two images of dining or feasting: the references to hot, cold and tepid are about wine at a dinner party (verses 15 & 16); the image of Christ standing at the door and knocking (verse 20) is about hospitality at a banquet;
At the centre are two images of prosperity: verse 17 – you think you are wealthy but you are poor blind and naked; verse 18 – obtain gold, eye-salve and clothing from Christ to correct these deficiencies.
The reproof to the Laodicean church is set in the context of a typical ancient banquet where the host would expect to offer hot or cold drinks. Water that had been heated or chilled was the minimum expected refreshment (the Greeks and Romans had no infused drinks like tea or coffee) but better still was wine that had been heated or chilled. Chilling was achieved by placing the bottle in a well or straining the wine through snow: there was a well-documented trade in preserving snow for this purpose. Wine was always mixed with water (often sea-water, would you believe) and a good host would have a small water heater at the dining table, to warm water for mixing with the wine, as well as offering chilled water or snow.
The Laodiceans, we heard, are tepid, objectionable, something to be vomited in disgust. While cold and hot beverages were valued as refreshing because their temperature varied from the surrounding air, lukewarm liquid was thought conducive to vomiting. As lukewarm water does not distinguish itself from its surroundings, nothing, it is implied, distinguishes the works of the Laodicean Christians from the common practices of their society. In the letters to the churches preceding this one Christ commends distinctive qualities of perseverance, faith and love. Laodicea is being challenged to turn around from the complacencies of imagined wealth and to welcome Christ to a truly hospitable banquet when he knocks at their door. The dining image is used to show the fruits of repentance, of awaking from complacency: instead of vomiting them from his mouth, Christ now wants to come and dine with them.
Holman Hunt’s famous painting, The Light of the World, an image taken from tonight’s passage, is on your order of service. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.” The door in the painting famously has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing, Hunt said, “the obstinately shut mind”. As you’ll know, the original is now in our sister building, the chapel of Keble College Oxford. Toward the end of his life, encouraged by its popularity, Hunt painted a second life-size version, which was hung in St Paul’s after a world tour where the picture drew large crowds. This painting touched a nerve in Victorian religion and inspired much popular devotion in the late 19th century; it was often reproduced in stained glass windows, and inspired several musical works including Arthur Sullivan’s 1873 oratorio, The Light of the World.
Challenges to shut minds and tepidity are very apt to our time. The so-called new atheism is a crude and marginal threat to faith, but apathy and ignorance, within the Church as well as in the world at large, leave a huge chasm of indifference to be bridged when we seek to share faith and rebuild relationships with a disillusioned and wary society.
It is certainly our historic vocation, as Catholic Anglicans, to be distinctive. If we fear that the Church of England is mostly a tepid emetic we are well-equipped to respond with worship that is attractively different from the norms of popular culture. But the further challenge to us all is to be better known for lives of thought-provoking and attractive non-conformity to the ways of the world.