St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Human beings are symbolic creatures. We live by symbols and we think in
If you doubt it remember that for the last month, or more, we have lived surrounded by some of the most powerful and valued symbols in British culture.
We have been surrounded by visual symbols; Christmas trees, Santas, Snowmen, Reindeer, Snow scenes, Yule logs, robins; lights, baubles and tinsel; doves, cribs, and shepherds.
We have been surrounded by aural symbols; ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, ‘The Fairy Tale of New York’, ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’, ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.
We have been surrounded by symbolic ideas; Peace, Joy and Love.
In the pages of the Bible we find many symbols as the choirs of angels sing and peace, joy and love are proclaimed. Here in this mornings Gospel story we find rich symbolism. The Magi may stand as symbols of people from outside the nation being drawn to the Christ-child; these Gentiles these foreigners become welcomed. More than this they are people of a different belief system who are welcomed. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are symbolic of Christ's life and death, and yet as many symbols do, stand in strange juxtaposition to the life of a man marked out by his willing entry into a life of poverty.
With all of these symbols it is not strange that hardly a person remains unaffected by it all. People may recall something from their childhood experience. They may feel something of the peace and love that elude them in the rest of the year, giving to the Salvation Army when the rest of the year they are just more ‘God botherers’, or congratulating themselves for buying at least the Christmas edition of the Big Issue. People who would never darken the doorstep of a church make it all the way across the road from the pub to midnight mass. A tear comes to the eye as the choirs sing. At the door they mutter to the minister that they will go to church in the next year.
And I do not want to do any of these feelings down. They are genuine emotions that are stirred in the hearts of people who are surrounded by the symbols that remind them of times of generosity, of giving, of love. But however genuine these emotions and desires are as the New Year begins and the daily grind starts anew these things are shelved, put away for another year.
Also as the New Year begins the churches scratch their heads and wonder where every one has gone, we wonder why people cannot find God in the church. The churches pass new resolutions and promise that this year they will do great things for the Kingdom.
But people's experience of faith is not usually via the church. This may come as a shock to us, but in truth it is just as much a reality for those of us for whom church is an important part of our life, this is not the place where we have our religious experience. The conditions in which people have their religious and faith experiences are most likely to be:
This should not surprise us:
Jesus tells people that when they wish to meet with God they should ‘Go into your private room, shut the door and pray’.
Throughout scripture, particularly in the Psalms we find people who in times of distress meet the realities of God ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me’ is screamed before the realisation of God comes.
In the pages of the Bible we find the references to Seas and lakes, rivers and streams, mountains and hills, we find Jesus stories of connection with the natural world, and those moments when Jesus seeks his solitude in nature to commune with God.
But if the church is not where people have their religious experiences then
what are we about? Church is the place where we bring our experiences together. It
is the place where different experiences of faith and life are brought together
in the solidarity of community, of loving support, of connection. It is
the place where together we share, find and make the rich variety of symbols
that express and nourish faith. Here in this place the variety of symbols
is vast; the symbols of every continent, of many cultures, of different church
traditions. We bring:
The visual symbols: bread, wine, crosses, hangings, candles, and stained glass.
The aural symbols: music, songs, hymns, anthems and chants.
The symbolic ideas: peace, love joy, solidarity, salvation, liberation, and grace.
These symbols are often difficult to explain, often because they mean so much, or because what they stir within us is feeling, feelings, ideas and ideals which are so difficult to classify or quantify.
But in times of worry for the churches, in times when change is called for from the reformation to the present day, the tendency of the church has been to de-symbolise. If something cannot be explained in a sentence to the satisfaction of the secular world it is done away with. Too often we end up in the words of David Hay with ‘modern church services’ that ‘have about as much feeling for the numinous as the average bus station’.
Human beings are symbolic beings. The church must recognise this, and from disparate people we can gather our experiences and the symbols of those experiences from many places, cultures and times. We can revel in that variety share it, celebrate it and do so in an affirming and loving solidarity.
However our reading from the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that there is a duty on the church not to just share among themselves but a duty to share and interpret our faith experiences. There is a reminder that the church is ultimately a collection of the poor and those who have chosen to be poor witnessing to those in positions of power and authority. The church is to live the life of faith to embody the symbolic ideals of peace, joy, love, solidarity and liberation.
We are to become a symbolic people for our community, a symbol to the world
that the life of faith is viable and real. We can make these symbols live.
The visual symbols: of bread and wine, of light, of the cross.
The aural symbols: in the words we say and the words we sing.
The symbolic ideas that we must embody: of peace, joy, love, equity, solidarity and liberation.
We are a people of symbols, a symbolic people to a symbolic humanity.