Sunday 24 September - Holy Cross - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN TRINITY 15 EP: Genesis 27.1-23 Genesis 28.10-22.

When someone dies unexpectedly in hospital, or tragically in an accident or a catastrophe, their family will need to be informed. This will usually be done by a doctor or a member of the police, who have been given special training in how to do this sensitively. Such training is important and can be helpful: but doctors often say that no amount of training could ever have entirely prepared them, for actually having to do it for the first time themselves. In this as in many other aspects of life, there is no substitute for experience, for having to put yourself to the test, at the real risk of getting things wrong; and when you get things wrong, being prepared to admit it. Experience is crucial, but so is reflecting, looking back on and questioning our experience. To learn, we need to reflect, to be honest about ourselves, to forgive and be forgiven, and to keep an open mind. A wise old doctor once wrote that the secret of medical practice was to ‘never take anything for granted’.

Experience is crucial, and so is reflecting on experience: ‘never take anything for granted’ and ‘keep an open mind’.  But how does that advice to keep an open mind fit with the apparent certainties of, for example, the Apostles’ Creed we repeated a few moments ago? Many people after all, however strong their Christian faith, find it difficult to say with any conviction that they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus for example, or that ‘he descended into hell’.  What exactly are we doing when we repeat the creed? And how does it relate to our own experience in the twenty-first century?

Well in order to answer those questions, I think, we need to remember that our own experience is never just our own unaided experience, as if each of us experienced the world with a totally open mind and an unerring capacity to make up our mind correctly about what we are experiencing. The doctors or police I mentioned earlier, for example, are right to say that there is no substitute for experience: but they come to that experience with minds trained to viewing that experience in particular ways, to think and act with particular aims in mind, to diagnose and treat, to investigate and communicate, for example; and these ways of viewing experience with particular aims in mind, are ways and aims they have learnt from the particular profession to which they belong, ways and aims that have been developed over many years. through the experience, and reflecting on experience, of countless other members of their professions before them.

Members of the police and doctors, in other words, belong to particular traditions, which develop historically, but at their core have an abiding and essential role in society: to maintain law and order in the case of the police; to ‘cure sometimes, relieve often and comfort always’ in the case of medicine. The ways in which they perform these roles may change, but not at the most fundamental level.  That is why graduating doctors, for example, are often required to promise to observe some modern equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. The original Oath was the product of ancient Greek doctors who wanted to reform their profession in ways that are still relevant to medicine today: by basing the art of medicine on the best current scientific evidence, by treating each patient as an individual, by maintaining confidentiality. Not all that is promised in the original Oath remains relevant, but it remains respected as a key historical symbol of some of medicine’s core values.

Now in many respects something similar is true of the Apostles’ Creed. It is the product of reflection on experience by early Christians, sometime before the 4th century AD. It is not the earliest Christian creed: the oldest ones were much shorter and simpler, such as ‘Jesus is Lord’ or ‘Jesus is the Son of God’; and other longer ones were to follow, as the Church attempted to work out the theological implications of what it said about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And probably it is because these attempts eventually resulted in different and sometimes conflicting versions held by different branches of the Church, that the earlier Apostles’ Creed came to be accepted by most if not all of those different branches. The Apostles’ Creed of course was not composed by the original apostles, the disciples of Jesus, who by that time were long dead: it was probably composed with the specific purpose of instructing Greek converts who lacked the historical understanding of the original Jewish Christians, and who were at risk of importing beliefs the Church considered heretical. In that respect it is more like a catechism, a particular summary of beliefs held by the early Church, reflecting its experience at a particular moment in history, but one which continues to be used in worship because all branches of the Church can in some way subscribe to it.

But if all branches of the Church can in some way subscribe to the Apostles’ Creed, does that mean they and we should go on repeating it in the 21st century? Wouldn’t it be better to devise some more up-to-date version, better expressing our beliefs today, just as Medicine does with its modern equivalents of the Hippocratic Oath? Well, the fact is, of course, that different churches including this one, do from time to time include alternative or updated confessions of faith in worship. But while these may sometimes seem more appropriate for modern minds, it’s doubtful whether such versions are better in the sense of being more perfect or accurate. For the fact is, that no statements about what the Church or we believe, can on their own capture in words the essential substance of what faith experiences and reflects on, the mystery in whom we live and move and have our being, known in the experience of prayer, of being loved and forgiven unconditionally, of loving and of forgiving one another, and of being set free to go on our way rejoicing.

Now that, of course, is just one way of putting it. The substance of what faith experiences and reflects on cannot be captured in any one set of words, not even the Apostles’ Creed. Because the mystery in whom we live and move and have our being is a mystery, the mystery cannot be reduced to a problem that words or even thoughts can solve. The mystery asks not to be explained but to be evoked, as music or the deepest poetry evokes; and while creeds are one way of evoking the mystery there are many others. In this service for example, Psalm 78, sung ‘to show the honour of the Lord, his mighty and wonderful works that he hath done [who] made a covenant with Jacob and gave Israel a law which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children’ – such Psalms are the ancient Hebrews’ evocation of their experience and their reflection on experience, not as in the Greek and Roman worlds by a creed, but by a story, just as generations later, later Christians evoked their experience of faith and their reflection on that experience, in the hymns we still sing. And so too with our Scripture readings, stories the ancient Hebrews told and retold, reflecting their past and present experience of faith and their reflection on faith, shaping and elaborating on it, forever seeking to evoke the mystery, once dreamt of by Jacob in his vision of ‘a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it’.

The experience of faith and reflection on that experience, cannot be explained, but can be evoked in these and many other ways, creeds, psalms, hymns, stories, none capturing, but each at different times and in different ways helping us to glimpse what and who we need to trust, in the experience of prayer, of being loved and forgiven unconditionally, of loving and forgiving one another, and of being set free to go on our way rejoicing. In this respect tonight’s stories about Jacob can and should encourage us. In our first reading, Jacob and his scheming mother Rebekah are about the most morally compromised pair you could think of, deceiving blind old Isaac and doing poor Esau out of his inheritance. Yet it is Jacob, tonight’s Psalm says, with whom the Lord made his covenant. In our second reading, this same morally compromised Jacob has a vision of ‘a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it’. And that, as the poet Yeats wrote, is ‘where all ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. In the rag-and-bone shop of the human heart, yours and mine, each one loved by the unending mystery of the ‘Love that wilt not let us go’.