It was, apparently, Robert Burns the Scots poet of all unlikely people, who once said the most exciting words in the English language are Let us worship God.
I once worked for three months in a ministry programme on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Among the duties was the conducting of open air services on the very rim of one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the world. What more was there to say than Let us worship God? However, being just out of college I always managed to say a lot more, most of which Im sure was superfluous!
Worship is the response to that which evokes awe. It is to encounter the one who is beyond words. It is to be touched by and to approach the holy. By word, silence, symbol and music, worship enables us to be at one with the one who hold all things together.
In the letter to the Colossians, Paul says In Christ all things hold together, and it is about this holding together that I wish to speak; about re-integrating the things that threaten to come apart and fall into chaos; about the importance of Christ at the centre of life.
For Christians, this centrality is fundamental. Whereas in other spheres the academic, the political, the social, the personal the thought that Christ integrates is seen as at best debateable, to many incomprehensible and to the majority irrelevant.
It is against such a background that you and I are seeking to affirm a credible gospel. There are many who will dispute the validity of our claim because some events in life can be so awful, whether it is personal experience or something in the world outside.
Such a view is powerfully expressed in W.B.Yeats poem The Second Coming. You may know the passage:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
Both this poem and the letter to the Colossians are full of dense imagery. I simply note that. Im not going to attempt detailed exegesis of either. However, Yeats words are sometimes horribly apt for the times in which we are living.
Most of the Colossian Christians were Gentiles. Coming from a different cultural background to the church of the Jerusalem area they were, attracted by teachings influenced by astrology. Paul, believing that prevention was better than cure, was trying to nip in the bud a heresy that challenged the uniqueness of Christ.
There are probably no greater claims made for Jesus anywhere in the New Testament than in this letter. In him all the fullness of God dwelt. He is the image of the invisible God. All treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in him. He was instrumental in creation. It is mind-blowing stuff.
Paul is affirming that Christ is the one who holds life together between alpha and omega, origin and end, birth and death. The mystery of the resurrection confirms this.
However, I cant help wondering at what point if at all these mighty claims about Christ actually come alive for us. Do they touch us personally? Not just intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually? Given life-experiences and Yeats assertion that things are falling apart, how do we with credibility affirm the contrary? How do we know faith helps us integrate the difficult experiences of life?
I guess weve all met people who seem to have got it all together. They are balanced, sensible, capable, good-humoured. Their integrity is obvious. Their behaviour expresses their beliefs.
Then, on the contrary, there are those whose actions and attitudes do not match their professed beliefs. Whatever they say, in so far as we dare to judge, Christ does not seem to be at the centre. They know the words, but that seems to be it.
And, then, some of us are acutely conscious of the bits of ourselves that are not integrated.
There are also those who struggle, who would really love to have a sure faith. People with doubts about, eg, the goodness and power of God, or of life after death. People who are asking if love really is stronger than evil; people who, quite honestly, find difficulty in holding together things that scream out their contradictions. Is it not too glib for the preacher to say that in Christ all things hold together?
As I have said repeatedly, I am much troubled that for many traditional Christian symbolism no longer sings. A generation has grown up for whom organised religion is not touching them in any way. Forms of spirituality abound and have many expressions. All kinds of so-called religious rituals have emerged, but it is not Christ who is holding them together. It would seem that Yeats claim that the centre cannot hold often has some force.
There are no slick answers to some of these questions.
There are times when we simply have to live through contradictions;
times when Calvary was one in the face of intolerable evil all we can do is hold on.
I want to illustrate this with a personal story. It by no means fits every situation, but at the time it helped me, and still does.
Nine or ten years ago, Sheila and I had, as on numerous occasions, a holiday on Iona. We experienced all we ever hope for and more rest, refreshment, friends, brilliant food, beauty, joy and on this occasion something we did not look for or want sorrow.
There was another resident in our guest house, an Anglican priest, a monk from the Community of the Resurrection, Father Damien. He struck us at first as ascetic , astringent and not easy to know. Conversation didnt exactly rattle along. None of us wanted to talk church or theology at every meal but we had little else in common. I dont know much about, nor frankly am I attracted by his other passion, fishing!
After ten of our fourteen days it was getting easier. On the Friday evening the three of us joined a boat trip round the island. The light was glorious. As we sailed along the southern end of the island Damien came across to us, eyes dancing. He pointed out rocks from which he said hed frequently fished. To us it looked quite inaccessible and certainly very exposed. Indeed, he admitted that once hed actually slipped into the sea and had to wait for a large wave to wash him back on to the rock.
The next morning he was preparing his tackle. Half-jokingly, but only half, Sheila warned him not to fall in. We never saw him again.
A monks life is very ordered and Damien was almost obsessive about time-keeping. Dinner was at seven. Unusually, he wasnt there. At five past we knew something was wrong. We were the first out looking for him, to be joined by many of the islanders till it was too dark to go on.
The next day, Sunday, we went to communion in the Abbey a service that holds together pain and celebration. It was the right place to be, but we could feel only pain. At the end we quickly left the crowded church and climbed the one little hill on the island on an almost perfect Hebridean day. We watched the rescue helicopter going round and round.
It was there that I began to struggle with integrating what had happened. How to hold together the beauty of the place and the darkness of the loss. How to exclaim at the colour and serenity of the sea and yet be conscious of its implacable power. How to comprehend the fact that on Iona there are rocks 3000 million years old and human life is the merest flicker of an eyelid.
How did we hold together the obsessive time-keeper with the reckless man who had nearly died on Iona on two previous occasions?
How do we explain the risks and trouble that many will take to look for a stranger?
How is it that in a situation like this the daily hostilities and divisions which exist in a small community are set aside for a common cause and afterwards are quickly resumed?
How do we cope with the reality of death on a place vibrant with Gods creative life?
I tell this story only because I learned from it something of how things can be held together in Christ. Though it was sad at the time, I dont pretend it was anything like as tragic or awful as many of the stories we hear every week. It shadowed our holiday, certainly, but it didnt spoil it. Instead, something that was already special took on a deeper significance because we were able to integrate the sadness into our joy.
Some people here today will have had experiences besides which this story will seem rather lightweight. Obviously it would have been different for us had the loss been much closer. Even so, because we were involved to the extent that we were, we learned about the power of the presence of Christ that I trust will help us if and when the sufferings or contradictions of life touch us more deeply.
George Macleod used to call Iona a thin place because the gap between heaven and earth is so little.
This is true, but no death can be minimised as if of no consequence. Every day Damien went to celebrate the resurrection in communion. He belonged to the Community of the Resurrection. He spoke to us of the mystery of the resurrection. We have to believe he has experienced the resurrection.
One other thing happened that gave us peace. It came when we sat down to dinner on the Sunday evening. It was poignant. Wed shared meals for ten days and suddenly he was gone and in disturbing circumstances.
Our hostess could not bring herself to clear his place. Instead, she put three candles there which burned for the last three meals. On that first evening we stood and drank wine.
These symbolic acts brought together our loss and our hope. I was reminded of the words of Julian of Norwich all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
In Christ, all things hold together.