Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: God’s time is now and evermore

30 July 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Romans 8. 26 – end;  Matthew 13. 31-33 & 44-52

Thy kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.

For eight hundred years this site in Damascus was a temple dedicated to the Aramaean god Hadad, who, it was supposed, could be appeased by human sacrifice; then for nearly five hundred years the site was a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon and therefore a symbol of Rome’s long centuries of dominance; next, for over three hundred and fifty years the site was a Cathedral dedicated to St John the Baptist whose head, according to tradition, was buried there; and in the early eighth century that Cathedral was converted to a mosque  in whose construction twelve thousand people are said to have been involved. I speak of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a building of extraordinary beauty that Anne and I were fortunate enough to visit six and a half years ago, just before the darkness descended on Syria. The stunning Byzantine mosaics, the still existing and lovingly preserved shrine of St John the Baptist, the graceful minarets – all left their impression on us. Yet what I remember most is a now rather obscure inscription in Greek carved on the lintel of the former south door of the Christian basilica, a door blocked up hundreds of years ago but still visible today. The inscription reads:  Thy kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.  This slightly adapted verse from Psalm 145 speaks of God’s rule extending from the remotest past to the unimaginably distant future. The verse was adapted by the fourth century Christian community in Damascus to express their confidence in the everlasting kingship of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God.

I was drawn to this inscription each time we walked past the Great Umayyad Mosque in the Old City. Its continued existence seemed to me, in part, to be a testament to a generous and inclusive strand of Islam about which we hear very little in the west; a strand of Islam that is and always has been willing to recognise and accommodate a Christian past to which it owes so much. A strand of Islam that, tragically, has all but disappeared from the Middle East where it once flourished.

But those words over a long disused door in the wall of a Damascus mosque are a testament to something else. They are a continuing witness, for all who pass by, to the truth, to the mysteriously unnerving truth, of God’s kingdom, enfolding time and eternity together. Alongside that, the words are also a continuing witness to a divine king whose majesty, emptied of all glory and splendour, lay fully embodied and yet hidden in the extraordinary ministry of an itinerant first century Galilean preacher.  This king, Jesus Christ, speaks often of God’s kingdom in the gospels.  So in the parables in today’s Gospel reading Jesus likens the kingdom to a tiny mustard seed, sown deep in the soil, that grows into a great tree; he likens the kingdom to a small quantity of yeast, mixed in a far larger quantity of flour, which leavens bread; he likens the kingdom to treasure, buried in a field, whose discovery occasions great joy. There is something hidden, something secret, something almost unknowable about this kingdom – rather like the majesty and kingship of Jesus, hidden and unknowable to all but a few of his contemporaries.

The authorities of the Roman Empire persecuted Christians for nearly three hundred years before the Emperor Constantine famously converted to the faith. This persecution was related not to what Christians believed but rather to what they did not believe: Christians did not believe that they owed ultimate allegiance to an earthly monarch – the Roman Emperor – who claimed to be divine. They did believe that they owed ultimate allegiance to a heavenly Father who had chosen to reveal himself on earth in Jesus Christ; a heavenly Father whose kingdom transcended the limits of humankind’s time-bound imagination, and whose citizens were stubbornly resistant to the claims of earthly kingdoms on their loyalty. This heavenly kingdom, though hidden like the mustard seed and the yeast, was near at hand; its treasure was readily and permanently available for those who earnestly sought it.

And so it still is. In the west, at least, Christians no longer suffer persecution; and few of our politicians claim divine status. Yet there are other things that we allow to lay hold on our loyalty: uncritically accepted ways of doing things; our unacknowledged assumptions and prejudices; a past in which everything was better than it is now; a future in which things can only get better. All these, and other ingrained habits and patterns of thought, prevent us from earnestly seeking the treasure that lies hidden, the pearl beyond price.

In telling the parables we have heard this morning Jesus is seeking to shift our attention, to alter our perception, to expand our awareness, and to change our behaviour. He is helping us to see that the things of this world find their ultimate meaning in God and that everything is to be understood in the light of God’s eternity.

Thy kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.

Our forebears who had those words inscribed on a doorway of a Damascus church all those centuries ago understood the truth of this confident assertion. So, in his inimitable way, did the poet R S Thomas with whose words I conclude:

The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.