Friday, March 12, 2010

Edward King Day 2010 - Bishop Geoffrey Rowell

There are many characteristics of Bishop Edward King, the principle founder of this house, the hundredth anniversary of whose death we commemorate today. He is rightly honoured as a saint of God, one whose life was for many a living diagram of God’s glory. If saints are, as John Keble memorably put it, 'the Saviour in His people crowned' then Edward King was one of whom that is true, one in whom the light and transforming love of Jesus Christ was seen and known. He knew and lived the truth that nothing anonymous will ever convert: it is transformed lives, incarnation, that speaks the language of love, and touches, changes and transforms hearts and lives.

The faith we profess is not a collection of doctrines, or a code of canon law, though such things have their right and proper place. As Newman said in his great sermon on The Development of Doctrine, 'when we pray, we pray, not to an assemblage of notions, or to a creed, but to One Individual Being', the living reality of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The life we share is his life, the grace which saves us and sanctifies us, is his life which came down – and continually comes down – to the lowest part of our need, so that, as the psalmist says, 'if I go down to hell, thou art there also.' In the Incarnation, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says, God comes over to our side, the divine gracious freedom coinciding with human obedient freedom, ‘dying freely and obediently, he turns death, the sign of our guilt into a monument of love.’ In that total self-giving the love of God is stretched between the heights of heaven and the isolated apartness from that same God which is the depths of hell. In that the glory of God, his very being and reality is shown, and seen, and known.

In the hymn to Christ in the second chapter of Philippians, from which I took my text, Paul (or the Christian hymn is quoting) speaks of Christ who was in the form of God, ‘emptying himself’ not snatching at or holding on to status and dignity, even though likeness to God was his true identity. Yet that true identity is shown, because it is the identity of love, in this reaching out, in this making himself nothing, coming down, in that wonderful phrase of the Lady Julian of Norwich, 'to the lowest part of our need,' 'He emptied himself' into our human likeness. As a Christmas hymn puts it: Behold the great Creator makes, Himself a house of clay: A robe of Virgin flesh He takes, which He will wear for aye. So 'The wise Eternal Word, like a weak infant cries'.

So bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient…. How amazing is this grace; how overwhelming this love of the God who is the framer of the vastness of the universe, who is known in his humility. Humility, in the Latin humilitas so closely linked with humus the soil, the ground, means among much else, an acceptance of humiliation, and the turning of that humiliation into transforming love. God’s humble identification with us, being where we are, knowing our frailty, our sinful condition, from the inside, is the living out of the obedience of love. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ, learning obedience by the things that he suffered. As Gerald O’Collins points out in his recent book, Jesus Our Priest, for the writer of Hebrews, ‘extreme vulnerability belongs to the ‘job description’ of the priesthood of Christ. By becoming a human priest, the incarnate Son of God made himself vulnerable to suffering and violent death. Becoming a priest involved becoming a victim.’ Priesthood and sacrifice for Christ, and therefore for Christians, belong inseparably together, and both for Christians are the outworking of the Divine Love, seen in the movement of redemption that enters into our need and into our dying to sweep us into the highest heaven. When in this Eucharist we take bread and break it, and wine and pour it, in obedience to the Lord’s command, we celebrate, plead, and proclaim that sacrifice made once for all on the cross and are drawn into the movement of His self-offering. ‘Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling’. Or, as William Bright, another founder of this house and a friend of Edward King, put it, in this sacrament, ‘what he never can repeat, He shows forth day by day.’ ‘We here present, we here show forth to Thee, That only offering perfect in Thine eyes, the one, true, pure, immortal Sacrifice.’

Edward King lived this mystery, lived out this patterning grace of the love of Christ. From his humility, which was a quality so many noted, came the pastoral care of the priest, who like his Lord, sympathised with human weakness. He knew the cost of human loving; he knew the obedience which sets human love in order as patterned on the imitation of Christ. As St John Chrysostom powerfully puts it: ‘The exceeding greatness of Christ’s love’ is that it is a love that invites imitation.

Let us imitate him, let us look on him so as to love and to be loved. For from Love good works proceed….out of love all good things arise. For nothing is good which is not done through love.‘Our eyes’, we read in Hebrews, ‘are to be fixed on Jesus.’ Or, as Paul puts it, ‘we all see as in a mirror the glory of the Lord’ – the glory of the Lord, not our own glory – and it is only so that ‘we are transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, through the power of the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ Imitatio Christi – the imitation of Christ, the way of humility, is what dashes the accursed looking-glass from our hands. As Teresa of Avila insistently said, ‘humility is endless.’ And another Teresa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, once famously responded to an aggressive and bullying interviewer: ‘Oh, Mr So and So, why are you so angry?, in humility undermining the aggressive assertiveness of our age. ‘Humility is endless.’

‘He humbled himself and became obedient unto death. Even death on a cross’ – a criminal, outcast, tortured death. And our response, our identity as the royal priesthood of Christ which is the calling of every Christians, and in a special and particular way for those called to the ministerial priesthood, perhaps Paul in Colossians sums it up, in words that could be said to characterise Edward King, whose favourite text from the Psalms was ‘Thy gentleness hath made me great.’

Put on, then, garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgiving, if any of you has cause for complain, you must forgive as the Lord forgave you. Finally, to bind everything together and complete the whole, there must be love….. Always be thankful. (Colossians 3.12-15) Always be eucharistic.

And so we ask today for that transforming patience and humility in the words of the collect for Palm Sunday.

Almighty God,
who in your tender love towards mankind sent you Son,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon Him our flesh,
and to suffer death upon the cross,
that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility;
mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection,
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.