A sermon preached in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at St Francis Theological College, Brisbane on Friday, 4 September 2015.
I especially appreciate the opportunity to preside and preach at this service today. My last regular service was Thursday, 6 August, when we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration—and reflected on the anniversary of the first nuclear bomb. Thankfully there have only been two such nuclear attacks, and we pray that number will never grow.
It was a poignant day for me to preside, but most of the people present were not aware of its significance as my final rostered liturgy in this chapel.
My first service in this chapel was 40 years ago. During the commencement service for the 1975 academic year, I was received into Anglican Church and confirmed by Archbishop Felix Arnott. It happened right here on the same step where I now stand to preach.
Things were a tad more hierarchical then. Despite my lack of familiarity with Anglican liturgies, as a first year student I was assigned to the front row. Behind us first year students sat the second year students, and behind them the (very few) third year students. The Principal had assured me that I would be placed further back in the chapel, but the Sacristan (who ruled the chapel) had other ideas. So there I was in the front row, just here, but with no idea when to kneel, sit or cross myself.
We said Compline every week night at around 9.30pm, even on Fridays. Indeed we had guest preachers at Friday Compline. On special days we sang the service. We used some very old service cards. Some months passed before I found they were folded, and that there were actually two inner pages which I had been missing. No wonder there seemed to be a gap in the service!
I survived, even thrived. In fact, most of my adult life has been connected to this College and to this chapel. SFC has been for me a lifelong community of formation. A community of formation. Shaping holy lives.
A community of formation
A ‘community of formation’ is one way to think about the OT covenant community. Ancient Israel is often imagined as a tribal/national society commissioned by God to conquer and control, to expel the natives of the land, and to claim other people’s land as God’s gift to Israel. But I wonder whether it was perhaps intended as a community of formation? An experiment in holy living?
That seems to have been what Micah had in mind with his classic prophetic speech:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but
to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8 NRSV)
A community of formation also seems a good way to imagine the disciples gathered around Jesus, just as we see in today’s Gospel reading. They were not attending a church growth seminar. They were being drawn into a new way of seeing God, and themselves, and others. It even seems that they sensed a different formation agenda when gathered around Jesus than the formation program followed in the Baptist’s circle.
Being a community of formation is certainly one of the hallmarks of SFC. Yes, we are an academic community. We strive for good scholarship and pursue research relevant to the needs of the church and the wider community. But first of all we are a community of formation.
This is not limited to those who are candidates for Holy Orders. We are also a community of formation for disciples and ministers, for learners and teachers. All of us are people in formation.
In its better moments—and sometimes in its worst moments—this place can be (and often is) a community of formation.
The quest for holy wisdom
The quest for holy wisdom lies at the heart of this community of formation. Wisdom is so far more important than information, and much more necessary than methodology. It is better even than correct citations!
Holy Wisdom, Sacred Sophia, is both the destination and the journey. Wisdom is not a formula to be mastered and learned by rote. Wisdom is not something to be practised repeatedly until we acquire the skills. Wisdom is evasive and subtle and unpredictable. Whereas we are often all too predictable.
Today’s Gospel makes that delightfully clear.
Metaphor is piled upon metaphor:
- the friends of the groom are in party mode (but it will not last)
- new patches on old cloths do not last
- new wine in old wineskins explode the containers
- old wine is always better than new wine
- and the old is always better than the new (really?)
No neat package of answers is offered by Jesus. Rather, the disciples are given a set of puzzles. These seem designed to tease us into the quest, rather than fast-tracking us to the destination.
To be a community of formation is:
- to embrace the questions
- to live faithfully with uncertainty, even with doubt
- to care for one another
- to be drawn into God’s mission in the world, and often outside the church
Yes, the followers of John may have had a great program, but wisdom’s children will focus on Jesus, Sophia’s child. As followers of Jesus we can get by without the answers to life’s questions, and flourish in a world—and a church—where answers seem rare, and certainty even more so. But we cannot get far without holy Wisdom.
Wisdom has set a table, and she calls us to the feast.
Here is one ancient description of that sacred wisdom to be found at heart of our tradition:
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1 NRSV)
That may all sound a bit like the first reading? I certainly hope it does!
For us, Jesus is the child of Sophia, the Wisdom of God in human form.
For us, the task of formation is to become more like Jesus, more like God in human form, so that others may recognise us as children of wisdom herself.
For us, this college is a place where the quest for holy Wisdom is the main agenda, indeed the only assignment that matters in the End.
Yes, Mr Dean, few knew. I am so glad to have had an association with you, all so briefly at Bethsaida and around the area of Jesus’ ministry. Your incites have been invaluable in confirming/affirming my faith!
And the quest for holy Wisdom continues. Thank you Greg for these eloquent and prophetic words, and for the many written and spoken by you over so many years that have helped form us as ministers who find Life to share with others through the Scriptures. And so seek to tip the scales in favour of justice and mercy in our world – God’s world.