Passion and Stone
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
13 May 2012, 00:00 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)
THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
13 May 2012 ~ Choral Evensong
Passion and Stone
If you come to this cathedral as a visitor you are most likely to be welcomed and given a small and free guide called If the stones could talk.
This guide has a cutaway drawing of the building and some key information bullets to invite you to interpret and understand this 900 year construction in stone with the phrase, Ancient Stones, Untold Stories.
We live in an age when most young people and a significant number of older people know little or nothing about Christianity and as to why anybody would build such a place as this.
And it is even more difficult for folk to understand what is the function and purpose of this great cathedral church.
Yet at amazing cost both financial and human, these stones were quarried, cut and laid as a feat of extraordinary vision and engineering in the 11th century.
And whoever you are, the stones of this cathedral church must have some effect upon you.
Not only is its scale, design and layout so different from the buildings of the secular world that we normally inhabit but it has a space and a light that are unique; they work on us and speak of another world, another truth, another dimension beyond our full human understanding.
Yes, this is a place of mystery – amidst the very real and solid stones, in some extraordinary way, the separation of heaven and earth is very thin and God feels very close.
It is as though the stones themselves carry a story which becomes woven into every life that enters here.
Medieval craftsmen, masons, would have been the master builders of this wonder. And the stones bear their invisible marks and signs, signifying the location and order of the stone in the overall layout of the design plus a signature mark, the mason’s mark, identifying the master mason and his lodge – under whom each stone or ‘freestone’ mason worked.
These signs would never be seen in the completed building but they speak of order, accuracy and the quality of the pieces of dressed stone.
The craft guild or confraternity of workers not only enabled the trade to flourish through orders, tools and quality assurance but also provided the brotherhood and rudimentary welfare of practical love.
In this way – through individuals, their work and their common life there is some kind of link between this holy place, the men who built it and society today.
However, the real bridge that provides meaning comes not from the efforts and mind of humans but from the mind and heart of God.
All these stones and our very lives are but as nothing without God.
We are mortal and all is dust.
Without God and his Spirit that breathes life, imagination and meaning into the material world, we would all be nothing but traces of existence.
But just as the stones of this great cathedral church enclose space and let in light, the ultimate purpose of this edifice is to gather people and enable them to worship, be changed and sent out as God’s holy people into the world.
The very word, church or ecclesia, means ‘a gathered people’. Yes, the church is primarily and principally a people not a structure: we are the living stones of God’s calling, a living temple of praise, sacrifice and self-giving.
And to be that that we need more than a passion for stone or even a guild of common interest and welfare: we need the passion that is the divine love.
Now what does that mean in a world which only really understands and talks flesh and blood, money and matter?
Our two Bible readings help us to understand this.
First of all our passage from the Song of Solomon: the first part speaks very much of love in carnal and sensual terms and is an affirmation of the love we can know in the joys of human love and marriage. And yet this longing for the beloved can become overwhelming and a part of eternity, conquering death and oblivion itself.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Passion and love are words we often use together and most usually in the context of romantic and sexual love.
But the word passion actually means ‘remaining under’ – something that overwhelms us by its force and intensity.
So Christ’s passion is his submission to the suffering and death of the cross inflicted on him by us.
It is this energy and spirit that betokens passion and often it will involve some kind of suffering.
And our second reading calls for this love: the love that does not count the cost and allows people to be filled with spiritual energy and faithful commitment.
In the Revelation of St John the Divine, Christ instructs the writer to compose letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor.
Our passage today is written to the church in Laodicea.
That city was an important commercial, banking and medical centre – and the church here is accused of being apathetic and lacking passion and compassion.
This difficult message is delivered brilliantly and graphically. No one in that city could fail to understand what John the Divine was saying.
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
Here is an imagery based on the trades and wealth of this city (the city was particularly famous for its eye ointment!!) and also as to what th`ey could clearly see around them. Laodicea’s water supply was very distinctive.
Six miles away across a river valley stood Hierapolis, a city famed for its hot mineral springs that cascade over white travertine terraces formed by the calcium deposits.
The water of 95 degrees would have sent billowing clouds of steam up into the sky for the Laodiceans to see ...but the water brought to them by river and aqueduct would have been tepid by the time it arrived. It is this lukewarm quality that made the water barely drinkable and really unpleasant!
You would have to wait for it to become cold and palatable – otherwise you would want to spit it out!!
St John the Divine says just this about the apathy and complacency of the wealthy Laodiceans – for what they need in all their privilege and wealth is love and passion.
This building too needs love and passion for its stones to live and speak.
Indeed all our lives need love and passion to set us in the service of God in Jesus Christ.
We are beginning to reach the end of Eastertide – our annual 50 day celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
And Easter is an experience: a life-changing and life-giving transformation of individual lives and human society.
No family, group, community nor society is exempt.
Our lives must be living stones, marked by God as his handiwork and formed by his Spirit.
Truth is more than human concept and life more than existence.
The material world is a delusion if it blinds us from the celestial light of God and the recognition of the risen and ascended Christ.
This great Church can never be seen as an entity separate from people and human lives, and human lives must never be lived independently of God and his love.
That must be our passion.
And such a passion will make us one people, one human family through time and formed for eternity.
This is the design and purpose of God and his revelation in and through Jesus Christ.
The story is both human and divine, set in time and breaking into eternity.
Whatever we do we must be generous to the point of sacrifice and loving through humility and submission.
It is neither popular nor marketable in the spirit of our age but it is the call to true life and is the Easter proclamation.
Today we build mostly in steel and glass and concrete.
The stone and the mason who cuts it are a receding material and a declining craft.
Indeed, the new and albeit temporary cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand is to be made of cardboard.
But whatever the fashions and technology of the age or the language and culture, God forms us, his living stones, by the passion of love and grace.
May we enjoy this gift and be filled with that passion.
Thomas Campion, (1567-1620).