De-throning the ego: address to the Diocese of Leicester Catholic Societies, Michaelmas 2017

Leicester Catholic Societies
Gaudete in Domino – Liturgy of Healing and Adoration

Friday 29th September 2017

St Andrew’s Church, Jarrom Street, Leicester
Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael

Gospel – John 1:47-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he said of him, ‘There is an Israelite who deserves the name, incapable of deceit.’ ‘How do you know me?’ said Nathanael. ‘Before Philip came to call you,’ said Jesus ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ Nathanael answered, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’ Jesus replied, ‘You believe that just because I said: I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.’ And then he added ‘I tell you most solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’

I bought a box of chocolates on the way down to Leicester this afternoon. And here they are.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy chocolates. Are you the sort of person who reads the little card? I am not. I would dive in and see what happens.

There aren’t any chocolates yet that I haven’t liked.
Imagine though if you were only able to have one chocolate. Or even worse, part of a chocolate, or, total disaster, only allowed to have the filling scraped out.
Well, that’s a bit like the Gospel we have just heard. Only five verses plucked from the end of Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel.

Imagine St John as a master chocolatier. He has carefully crafted his gospel, preparing the flavours, encasing the fillings, getting us ready for the surprise burst of liqueur … and we have peeled off the coating and taken a tiny taste of the inside.

That’s what we have done by having this short Gospel reading tonight.
John’s is probably the mostly carefully crafted of the Gospels and the opening chapters following the prologue are carefully structured. When Jesus meets Nathaniel it is the fourth on a series of four days. On the first John the Baptist points way from himself, on the second John witnesses to Jesus as the Lamb and Son of God, on the third some of John’s disciples follow Jesus and Simon is given a new name, and then Jesus meets Nathaniel.

The Gospel writer is building up to revealing who Jesus is and on this fourth day we have this significant revelation of that information: we have heard that Jesus is Son of God and Lamb of God already. Now Nathaniel repeats the claim that he is Son of God but adds to it, King of Israel. At a stroke Jesus is revealed to be the Messiah.
But, of course, we are only one chapter into the gospel. This isn’t the end of the story. Straight after the meeting with Nathaniel we get the phrase in chapter 2 verse 1 “on the third day”. Well, I hardly need to tell you that the third day is always significant; for us and for John and his readers the third day reminds us that Jesus is risen; for Jewish readers it is also a reminder of Exodus where the third day (Ex 19:16) is the day of revelation on Mount Sinai:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
On the third day in John 2:1 is the beginning of the account of the wedding at Cana where – almost against his will – Jesus manifests his glory.
Can you see what John is doing? It is like a magician with a cloth over something; pulling it back a bit at a time, revealing a little more and saying to his audience: what is it? And then each time they guess something they are slightly wrong. 

Nathaniel can see a bit of Jesus, he is the Son of God, but the irony is that Jesus is not going to be the King of Israel in any way that Nathaniel or any other of Jesus disciples would have expected. 18 chapters later in 19 verse 19, what does Pilate have written on the notice at the top of the cross Jesus dies on? … Jesus, the Nazarene King of the Jews. 

Oh yes, Nathaniel is right, but how wrong his idea of kingship is.
Now you may be wondering what all this has got to do with healing, which we are thinking about tonight. Well, actually quite a lot.
When I eat chocolates, like the ones I bought on the way here. I do it just for myself. I like them, I enjoy them, I eat more of them – as you can see – than I should.
Now there is a real danger that we treat the Christian life like that.

I come to church, I say my prayers, I even am anointed for healing; all to make myself feel better.

Our Christian lives can be comfort eating.

Now, that’s not wrong in itself, God does want us to feel better; he does want us to be comforted, consoled even. He would much rather that we were consoled by prayer than by. .. chocolates, red wine, drugs, sex, whatever it is that we seek refuge in.
But it is not the end of the road.
I am often struck by how popular healing is but how unpopular repentance is.

I have literally seen people queuing up at Walsingham to be anointed; but the queues for the confessional are never anywhere near as long.
Don’t get me wrong; healing is good thing; God wants to heal us. Quite often in the confessional people confess things which are not sins but are wounds that need healing.
However, we have to be careful. The post-Freudian world of person-centred counselling in which we live can hide from us the fact that the Christian gospel, the good news of Jesus, is a God-centred world. 
As a headteacher and educationalist I am constantly telling people to stop using that phrase ‘child-centred’ education: when you put children at the centre of the universe they become little monsters. You only have to stand at the till in Tesco to see that.
When we put ourselves at the centre of the universe it can feel satisfying for a while; it might make us feel less bad for a period of time; but in the end it is exhausting. We will find that our need for comfort is a bottomless pit. We will go on wanting the chocolates, or the red wine or the drugs.
I’m going to read you a paragraph from the book The Gift of Self by Heather Ward. It is quite a long paragraph but she puts it so much better than I can:
Prayer is primarily something God does in me, it is allowing God to flow through me. My part is to make myself available for this, to become consciously with, and in, the God who is always with, and in, me. Consequently, however much I may feel myself to be the initiator I am, in fact, always responding to a pressure, a hint, an invitation from him. 
Our ego may desire us to be on equal terms with the Lord, determining the time and place for the meeting, but it is not so. The dethronement of ego begins with this recognition, and continues when we grasp its corollary, that prayer is to make us available to God and not the other way round. Prayer easily becomes need-centred, consolation-centred, experience-centred: we pray for what God does for us, for the strength he gives us, for the satisfaction of feeling with him. All too often we feel that our prayer is totally for God because we have brought all our troubles to him, acknowledging our need, but then praying from within our distress becomes immersion in it. We do not leave our problems with him but continue to chase them round in his presence. Gradually attention has been diverted from God in himself towards our ego, with God as its helper.”
The dethronement of ego.

Jesus, on the cross is the King of the Jews: de-throned.

Jesus, on the cross, is his ego finally dying and revealing only God.
Working with children and being aware of the journey from birth to adulthood, to maturity I believe that life is a journey from complete ego-centric its, to complete egolessness. Self-lessness. The only problem is that most of us don’t get anywhere near the end of that journey.
Jesus is not just healed after the crucifixion, he is risen. But, as we all know, he still bears the wounds. The risen Christ bears the scars of the crucifixion.
But he doesn’t sit and pick at the scabs. He has a gospel to proclaim: the good news that death is not the end. That God has conquered death.
We all need healing. But we will never lose the wounds.
We all need healing but we also all need to repent.
I love the line in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus teaches us to pray:

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive others”: I often think of Jesus saying that with a wry smile on his face.

You lot, he might well say, aren’t very good at forgiving so that’s going to be easy for God.
We are fabulous at forgiving ourselves, making excuses. Recognising the complexity of our actions and motivations but hopeless at allowing other people so much leeway.

Can we really let go of the wounds that other people inflict on us?

Can we recognise that although we may be the centre of our own universe we are not the centre of theirs? 
I hope that each of us will experience great healing tonight; but I also hope that we will feel great repentance. That we can go to the Lord, in confession or in our prayer and say:  I did this, it was wrong.

To let go of that and stop thinking of ourselves and let God be God.

Now; I just want to go back to the first verse of the Gospel reading tonight because there is something quite interesting about it.
Jesus meets Nathaniel, having seen him under a tree.

Jesus could have gone up to him and told him something about himself, about Jesus: Hey, I’m from Nazareth; or something. But he doesn’t. Jesus tells Nathaniel something about Nathaniel.

He shows Nathaniel that he has noticed him, paid attention to him; can see him for who he is. Jesus is so ego-less that he can really pay attention to others. And we all know how compelling it is to be paid attention to. It is Jesus recognising him that enables Nathaniel to see who Jesus is.
When we eat a box of chocolates it is for ourselves; for us, for me. When we are healed, when we are forgiven  it is so that through us others can know God. It is not so that people will say, what a wonderful mature, rounded, healed human being you are, but so that we can be so free of ego that we don’t stand in the way of them seeing God.

That first part of tonight’s Gospel is a great model for evangelism. 

Our natural instinct is to go out there and tell people about Jesus, or about ourselves and how wonderful we are; or our church is. But perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example? Become people who know how to notice and pay attention to others? Perhaps evangelism begins not with us but with those we evangelise?
Dethroning the ego is difficult. I am the most ego centric person I know.

At the end of this sermon, at the end of this service how will I be feeling? What will I be thinking?

I will be wanting to ask if you thought I was any good. Did I preach all right? Will they ask me again? I will be more interested in myself than in you.  I am sorry.

But Heather Ward in her book on prayer gives us the way out of this. And it is the final element in our service tonight: Adoration.

Not praise, not thanking God for some favour, but sheer delight in his presence. She puts it like this:
My understanding of praise is that it tends towards God for what he is, and generally, what he is to, and for, us. Adoration is sheer wonder that God is, and desires simply to let him be. It is an attitude of awe, mixed with longing and with love, in the apprehension of God as loving holiness. It is not the dreadful awe of the idol worshipper before the fretful and naked power of his deity, but the knowledge of the presence of a Goodness which draws us to itself. The response to this is self-forgetfulness, reduction to insignificance, accompanied by the total inadequacy of our powers of expression, which leads us to silence and prostration, in spirit if not in body. This prostration in spirit is no grovelling but a joyful revelling in the Allness of God. He is; nothing else matters because all that is of worth is in him. 

Adoration, therefore, confirms us in the truth of humility and poverty, opening us to participation in the God who is all, freeing us to delight wholly in him.”

Jesus saw Nathaniel, not just in externals, but for who he was, as we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament may we be still in the truth of Our humility and poverty, open to participating in God, allowing God to see us as we are, to delight in us, that we may delight in him

Dear friends: rejoice. Gaudete in Domino semper – rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.

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