Eucharist on Sunday
St Margaret’s Church, Binsey
August 27th 2017 [Trinity 11]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew16:13-20.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. [Isaiah 5:1],
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture reminds us that we, in company with all living creatures, are composed of dust. This is a sobering metaphor, even though dust, if compacted in the right geological conditions, becomes rock, and other Biblical metaphors tell us that rock is solid, permanent and reliable. In our gospel, Peter the man of dust is saluted as the very bedrock of the church.
My career as an archaeologist has been founded on stone. My first love was in minerals, semi-precious stones, such as sapphires, emeralds, garnets, amethysts, cornelians and jaspers which in antiquity were valued and set in jewellery serving as expressions of permanence. Some of them were even carved with devices in intaglio or cameo to express the personality or interest of the owner. Still today betrothal and wedding rings are often set with hard stones, especially diamonds, for the same reason. Increasingly, I have become fascinated by larger scale sculpture, particularly Roman sculpture, much of it in limestone.
Limestone and marble are sedimentary rocks, the latter merely a metamorphized form of the former, impacted by gigantic pressure beneath the earth crust. These rocks are composed of the dust, the remains of countless millions of creatures which once inhabited tropical seas. Many buildings were and still are constructed of limestone; indeed, the great Temple in Jerusalem was one such as are most of our churches and cathedrals.
Our passage from Isaiah mentions the quarries where humans have extracted these remnants of ancient marine sea beds. They should make us think. How do we fit into these ages of ages, as humans, as Christians? St Peter lived two millennia ago but in this light, he is our contemporary, on this earth a mere nanosecond before us. What does this tell us of salvation history, and of our relationship with our Divine Creator?
Before doing so, let us recall one familiar artefact type, which is present in all our churches. I was baptised in the rather curious 13th-century font in St Giles church which like most other fonts from our region was carved from a block of Cotswold stone, and I referenced it in an Evensong sermon in that church, remarking that this container of the living water of life was made from the shells of molluscs from ancient tropical seas. One might say the same of the attractive 14th-century font in St Lawrence Church, North Hinxey in our benefice or the 15th-century font in St Mary Magdalen where I often preside in low masses on weekdays. Here it St Margaret’s our very plain tub font may be older than all of these, possibly Norman like the south doorway (and, like the rest of the church, carved in limestone).
Water and rock… The rock, impacted by pressure in one place, the water flowing, evaporating, falling as rain, passing deep into the earth through permeable strata, but equally venerable. If the rock seems dead… there it lies until hewn from the mountainside; there we too will lie, our bones or our ashes, until excavated by archaeologists and in his Urn Burial, Sir Thomas Browne speculated on bones and ashes and the facts of mortality. But water is the water of life, when it emerges from the earth in springs or falls from the sky in rain. Here at St Margaret’s our Holy Well, albeit, its rather brackish water, is a healing well, its contents forever renewed.
Priests are frequently asked about what happens to us after death. Most often it concerns the questioner or the questioner’s near relations, wider family and friends, and sometimes his or her companion animals. Sometimes the geological nature of the earth, the fossils of extinct creatures intrude into the questioners‘ minds as they worried Tennyson in his great poem In Memoriam in the 19th century. Is the whole history of life on earth, and perhaps on other planets too, utterly meaningless? Is the idea that there is a loving God impossible in such a vast, apparently frighteningly random universe, utterly unlikely, even impossible? What did Jesus mean when he called Peter’ his rock’?
First, we need to come to terms with the sheer magnitude of creation from the beginning as we are coming to terms with the infinity of space. Salvation can hardly depend of being a baptised Christian, who in that case would have to have been born in an infinitesimally tiny moment in what we call time; it cannot depend simply on a Church constructed on a rock which is ultimately simply compacted dust and will ultimately wear away. The Jesus who so empowered Peter, was, insofar as he was man part of that same finite dust, part of the creation.
Secondly, let us remember the living water seeping through the rock, bearing with it the means of life which is constantly renewed. That renewal, is symbolised in baptism, and we are reminded of it whenever we are asperged with water at Eastertide; It is, indeed, at the heart of the meaning of Easter. Jesus, true man and true God, was resurrected from the dead demonstrating that dust and even rock can be transmuted, as Christ was transmuted from a body in a rock-cut sepulchre into the Creator- Lord of all.
Thirdly and finally, remember that he warned Pilate, representing secular power, that his true kingdom was not of this world. He was not only true man, but was and is true God, the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; he is the one who is simply( and the point cannot be sufficiently emphasised), not of this world. He is the one who in the words of one hymn, ‘flung the stars into space’. Our puny thoughts of that kingdom inevitably envisage it as far too small; we simply reduce it to being part of creation, and not part of the divine order, outside time, space; it is simply beyond the comprehension of humans and other mortal creatures.
St Paul in our Epistle had an inkling of this otherness when he told his Roman audience:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2]
When I examine the ancient, mainly Roman sculptures, I publish, I am fascinated by the reports of one of my friends, a geologist, who thin sections samples and can describe the fossils and sometimes locate the quarries from which they were mined. In thought, his reports take me back to impossibly remote times and distant seas, when the land on which we stand was in the tropics. But I believe that this was even then God’s world and that remote creation was in his hands as much as is the present world.
I recall F.W. Faber’s famous hymn, ‘There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy one of whose verses reminds us:
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.
Let us be content that we with all that has been and will be is on a journey, a pilgrimage. The beginning and end, the Alpha and the Omega, are known only to God but the road we tread leads to salvation when all will be revealed. Do not fear.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.