Across much of the norther hemisphere, this weekend marks the gradual start of a new academic year. Over the coming weeks, schools, colleges, and universities will once more open their doors, in the hope that society can find a way of balancing wider concerns for communal health, while recognising the fundamental importance not only of learning, but also the lessons learned from being in a place of learning. Whether in the classroom, on the sports field, or even in the college bar, the learning process never really stops, and to be honest life itself is one continual lesson from birth to death. A few weeks ago my partner, his housemate, and I were all comparing our own student experiences while we contemplated the effect the current pandemic will have on the looming academic year. Although there is only around 10 years age difference between us all, we had radically different experiences, not really because of where we studied, but because of the dramatic and rapid shift in social tendencies in that short space of time. I am, of course, referring to the internet and the advent of social media that came with it. When I first went up to Oxford as a fresh-faced undergraduate, the internet was still something shrouded in mystery. It was only then that I first started to use email, web resources and the like with any degree of regularity, and this was still all with computers physically plugged into the network as wifi was still a thing of the future, there were no smart phones, and the only real means we had of finding a distraction when we didn’t want to write that essay due in the following morning was to gather in the college corridor and lament our collective fate, or take a trip to the local ice cream parlour that was open until midnight. Fast-forward to the student days of my two conversation partners, and they had Facebook, YouTube and a seemingly unending treasure trove of online rubbish to while away those hours.
We all probably have a difficult relationship with social media, at least at times, and for some it becomes an increasingly unhealthy one. Loneliness and mental health problems are pandemics that have gripped society for much longer than the coronavirus, and so these networking tools have enabled people to build social lives and stay in touch with people with whom they hitherto could never have dreamed. However, with so much focussed on image and presenting to the world an idealised concept of living that, for so many, is simply unrealistic, it is no wonder that these same tools that hold people together have come to be the source of so much unhappiness. Apps like Instagram and Snapchat have been found to be among the worst for children and young people in the way that they instantaneously promote an unattainable lifestyle in a singular visual snippet. Furthermore, many of us naturally have considerable unease in using websites and applications that are run by multi-billion-dollar companies, with user numbers greater than even the world’s largest countries, but without the accountability and infrastructure that a country would have. There is a certain irony that the church has, perhaps rightly, at least preached caution with such tools, and yet it is because of these very same technologies that we have been able to continue meeting in a way that is spiritually enriching throughout this pandemic.
Like many people of my age, social media is just a part of my day-to-day existence. We all cry into the vast echo chamber of the internet in the hope of a response with many of our postings, but for me perhaps the most important aspect of social media for me is its ability to act as a visual diary. On days when I am feeling low, perhaps questioning my life, its direction, and what I have achieved, a quick flick through my own Instagram postings reminds me just how lucky I am and just how wonderful my life is and has been, even if, of course, it has tended to chronicle only the good bits. I am often surprised, albeit pleasantly, at just how much I have forgotten, and it makes me wonder how much of my pre-social-media life I will never be able to recall without these visual reminders. All, however, is not lost, as I do recall much of my early life. For example, one thing I remembered when beginning to think about this sermon was a song we used to sing in assembly at my prep school, a term I use in the British understanding thereof. I am probably the last generation who grew up singing religious songs and hymns in schools unquestioned, and one such masterpiece I recall was about the parable of the wise and foolish men building their houses. I believe the song did make it across the pond, and so perhaps the chorus may be familiar to some of you:
Oh, the rain came down
And the floods came up
The rain came down
And the floods came up
The rain came down
And the floods came up
And the foolish man’s house went “splat!”
My musical career has obviously developed somewhat from these formative moments, and while one cannot deny the efficacy of this song’s ability to convey the same straightforward message as its gospel equivalent, or indeed the fact that I still remember singing it some thirty years later, I can assure you that it is unlikely to feature in the music programme at any point in the near future. Sorry if you’d been holding out for this!
Most of you might now be wondering if you misheard this morning’s gospel, or if indeed you’ve already forgotten it, but you are indeed right, the parable of the wise and the foolish man building their houses was not in our service today. Instead, it is the very touching moment at which Jesus gives to his closest disciple, Simon Peter, the gift of the metaphorical church temporal and the symbolic keys of heaven. The biblical narratives leave little doubt that Peter was among Jesus’ closest followers, and yet the sequence of events in the various gospel stories might not necessarily have singled him out as a likely leader. Only a few weeks ago we heard the narrative of Jesus walking on the waves, where Peter’s cries of ‘Save me Lord’ echoing across the stormy waters were met with initial consternation from Jesus – O ye of little faith. He was also the disciple who publicly denounced Jesus at the site of the crucifixion, a weakness of character, perhaps, that might not be an ideal quality in someone charged with leading the church in what were extraordinarily turbulent times for many faiths.
There has been copious discussion over the years about the precise meaning of the Aramaic Kepha, translated as Petrus in Latin, and whether this refers to a rock, a crag or outcrop, or even a precious jewel, or whether this is a colossal boulder or a small pebble you might try to skip on the surface of the water. I don’t want to get bogged down in the semantics of this terminology, partly as in so doing I think we miss the overall point of this pivotal story. However we interpret the term, both the sense of stability and foundation, along with a sense of value and preciousness are contained therein, qualities that are fundamental to the church physical and the church spiritual as it journeys through time and we alongside.
Of course, this interconnection between the church not only as a physical entity, but also as a corporeal and even spiritual one, has been central to our understanding of what we mean by the term ‘church’ itself over time. This has become all the more apparent to us all in these COVID-19 times when the two have become seemingly disconnected, now at the point where the prospect of being able to marry the two once more raises questions not only as to what foundations our church is currently built on, but also what foundations we think we should ourselves be laying down.
The last time I spoke to you, I recalled my love of church buildings, the mystery of their construction, and how their apparent timelessness captures the essence of Christianity in physical form in a myriad of ways. While these buildings have often stood the test of time where the church spiritual has not, we also know that many have had a difficult history. Salisbury Cathedral, for example, is one of the finest examples of a single architectural style thanks to the fact that the majority of the building that survives to this day was built in under forty years, a staggering achievement for a medieval cathedral that would often literally take centuries. However, so keen were the builders to complete this edifice, the foundations for this colossal building are only four feet deep. Consequently, the later tower and spire, now the tallest in the country, with its 6,500 tonnes of weight, has caused the internal structure to bow inwards, something that was only halted in the seventeenth century when Christopher Wren intervened. A similar tale occurred at Wells Cathedral, where the now iconic scissor arches that brace the transept crossing were a vital part in, yes you guessed it, preventing damage to the structure from a tower that was added later. It would seem that towers and spires have been something of a headache for church communities for centuries. Plus ça change!
Although these great buildings, of which there are more than I could ever hope to mention in a whole series of sermons, have ultimately stood the test of time, and more recent church structures are, mostly anyway, more secure, it is clear that laying down proper foundations is vital to any church. Far too many church architects and those who worked alongside them were more concerned with the here and now than the longer-term future. To an extent, who can blame them. No amount of reassurance that our rewards will be in heaven, we hope at least, can take away the fact that we, as human beings, still experience the world as a lived reality in the moment, even though we continually aspire towards a greater existence.
No matter how firm the proverbial rock upon which our church is built is, foundations can, and sometimes must, be changed. The unforgettable image of our own cathedral seemingly floating on a cloud of concrete in the 1980s is testament to the ingenuity of humankind to effect whatever change is needed, even though the construction of a shopping mall might not universally come under the heading of ‘the pursuit of the greater good’. As we begin to consider the reopening of our church buildings, we also need to consider the foundations upon which we begin to build our values as we edge slowly closer to a new normal. In our epistle this morning, St Paul reminds us ‘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.’ Now several months into this pandemic, and with no genuine prospect of meaningful change for much time to come, many of us are probably sick and tired of having to reinvent the wheel every day when we discover something new about this virus and how it is going to change our lives forever. But thinking about our foundations doesn’t always have to involve change, and instead can invite us to consider what has always been unchanged. What are the values that have woven the tapestry of Christianity together over the centuries and united congregations and religious communities of diverse natures as one? Whether an ancient monastery in a remote mountainous area, a missionary in some far-flung tropical corner of the globe, or a downtown city-centre parish, I would probably have included things like love, charity, hospitality, care for the needy, the homeless, the sick, and the hungry, and a desire to live out the essence of Christ’s example as best we can on a daily basis. The church has always provided a safe space and a haven for these people, and it has always opened its door to those who need it most. Right now, however, we find ourselves faced with a reality that, in order to open our building, we have to turn those very people away. I don’t want to suggest that we do this as a deliberate act of exclusion and an abandonment of the central principles of Christianity, neither am I making specific reference to our community, but rather as the church as a global concept, for we all find ourselves in a similar predicament. However, I do think we should ask what foundations we are laying down not only in the here and now but also for future generations if we cannot find a way to provide for the needs of those much worse off than ourselves while also prizing our own spiritual attachment to things physical.
One of my all-time favourite anthems is Greater Love by twentieth-century composer John Ireland. It’s not a work I have yet been able to do at Christ Church, though I hope to at some stage, although I have known and loved it ever since I first had to play it some twenty years ago in my first Director of Music position. The composer uses the very passage that I referenced a moment ago from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and fuses it with a number of other scriptural references including the infamous ‘greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.’
While Jesus chose Peter as the metaphorical rock upon which he would build his church, Jesus himself laid down his own life to be its one foundation. This was not an in the moment, here and now act of love and kindness, but one which extended throughout eternity, giving us the ability to be here today to make these difficult decisions. We are called to be kind, to be generous, and to be hospitable. We are called to be creative and ingenious, each of us with our own function, with our own talents and abilities, and each of us called to offer those up, and not simply always to rely on someone else to support that wider mission. ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ The emphasis here is on living. We are not called literally to lay down our lives for those most in need, but instead to dedicate our lives, our resources, and even our precious church buildings, to the service of those who need us. Jesus’ love was not contained within four walls, but instead he opened his arms so wide upon the cross that even death alone could not stop his continuous outpouring of love and charity, love and charity upon which we ourselves rely for salvation. When we look back on 2020 through the rose-tinted lenses of our social media feeds in years to come, while we may remark upon all the things that we were unable to do and the things that were missing, let us make sure that the eternal embrace of love that Jesus offered in spreading his arms on the cross that exists in us as a living sacrifice is not one of those things.