A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 6 February 2022 by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: Luke 5: 1-11
A few weeks ago I was given a wonderful invitation by a priest who works at the National Gallery to come inside the Gallery early in the morning each week before the doors have opened to meditate and pray in front of one of the pictures. In a conversation I had had I had told her how I had always longed not just to look at the pictures in the Sainsbury Wing but to actually kneel down and pray in in front of these altar pieces and reredoses . “Well come in and we’ll do it together” she said. On the first early morning she asked me which painting I wanted to pray in front of. Without hesitation I said: “The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca.” If you never seen it- the astonishing is only 200 metres away from this church in the National Gallery. If you have seen it- go and see it again and be silenced by it.
It’s as though in this picture Piero has captured a moment of eternity. The whole picture is leading us to the figure of Christ: tall luminous, poised, upright and yet at the same time his body is peaceful, tender, soft, without rigidity. His posture is a lesson in how we too should pray with our whole bodies not simply with words. His eyes slightly downcast, centred, grounded, deep in a meditation into which we too are called. So on my prayer stool I knelt there, the two of us together in front of this picture, hearing the distant clip of footsteps of those who work in the gallery coming and going in other rooms, but slowly being stilled, breathing in the Spirit of the dove of peace hovering over the figure of Christ, our self-consciousness dissolving as we are taken up in the picture. It is a moment in time captured forever by the artist and within I hear the words- “This is my son, my beloved, on whom my favour rests. Listen to him” We are drawn to the face of Christ- everything seems to lead us there- the bending figure behind him stripping away his clothes in preparation for his own baptism- lead us, as do the three angels witnesses. He is framed by the tree on one side and John the Baptist on the other- pouring water onto the crown of his head- the water caught in mid flow. The Baptist’s raised arm is like an arch through which Christ enters and takes centre stage- In the words of the John the Baptist, words I remember my father saying at my own ordination- He must increase. We must decrease. Christ’s own hands, palms and tips of fingers joined, leading us up to his still face. This figure accentuates the vertical relationship from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven- nothing so human, nothing so divine. The Word made flesh. The whole of creation in this painting is part of this revelation- it radiates outwards from Christ and it radiates inwards towards his face. Christ- stripped and transparent before us – centred- he knows who he is. He is accepting his role, the weight, the implication, the sacred heart of all that is to come- total self-knowledge. Here is the man full of grace and truth.
And as I pray I search for the words that this picture is speaking to me and I hear in my heart the words of John the Baptist: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. And I am acutely aware that the turmoil inside my own heart is not dissimilar from the words we heard Peter speak in todays Gospel: “Go away from me for I am a sinful man”. So often as we pray our minds fill with the stuff that turns us away, that makes us feel unworthy, that tempts us to believe that we are not capable or good enough or all of this is just a delusion and the reality of our world is filled up with struggle and deceit and pretence. This Christ is the peace we cannot ourselves enter- the miracle in which we cannot trust. The transparency and purity we cannot share. I wonder how many of us share Peter’s sense of unworthiness. Not good enough, not able, on the edge, outsiders not able to come in, too trapped in self-fear.
This perfect Christ, revealing our own imperfections. His own incorruptible, perfect body in comparison to our mortal imperfect bodies. How could we ever be as perfect and as at peace as this? Yet on this day as I kneel here a simple revelation. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It is not you that must redeem yourself.” Christ speaks. “Courage it is I. It is I who come to you. It is I who am the Saviour- it is the water of my baptism which also flows through your baptism and you. It is I who call you.”
And I become aware of how Jesus hands are shaped. The palms open as though holding space within those palms. And it strikes me that the shape of that space is the shape of a heart. And Christ is offering in his hands his heart to us. His heart to those who behold- And the heart that Christ offers is a heart that seems great enough to contain all . It is all compassion, all forgiveness, all love- his heart has no limit, no cut off point. This heart is a heart ready to risk all on us. It is not: “Do these things and I will love you it.” It is rather saying: “Come into my heart and you too will become the heart of God.” Your fear of all you lack – is the space into which God comes. Your failure is the very place of your healing and his gift of grace. Your emptiness is the offering that he longs to fill. This recognition is the beginning of trust – not trust in self, not self-righteousness but the trusting in the loving sacred heart of God. This offering is the day-by-day fulfilment of our own baptismal promises – I turn not to myself – “I turn to Christ.” I turn to Christ. Christ’s heart is my refuge and my becoming. This is the meaning of prayer. Not words. Not a list of requests. But entering into the heart of God, without fear or reservation – because that is where Christ has called us to be.
In a society which is so judgmental, so circumspect, so conditional in its values – where everyone and everything is replaceable and dispensable and every time we see virtue or goodness we also wait for the fall, the rubbishing the undermining. Where celebrity is so hollow and where the crowd can still be stirred up to crucify. Here we have a God who says you are irreplaceable, indispensable – beloved by God while you are still sinners a God who is ready to pour out his life for you. The measure of Christ’s love is that he loves without measure. This is the God whose heart is broken open for you.
I am so aware of how different this is from the games of intrigue and deception we have been witnessing in our national life, the meaningless apologies, words used to manipulate and justify and escape consequence: apologies with no repentance. In our 21st century armies are still lining up along borders with the weapons of war and destruction that can kill, maim and destroy, with missiles aimed at cities. Children are still going hungry and thirsty, emaciated by malnutrition caused by sanctions, and refugees are still being deported to countries they have risked their lives to escape. Our creation is groaning for salvation. Have we learnt nothing in the last two thousand years? And in our own heart’s inconsistencies too and the fears and failures we hide or run from. The preservation of self rather than the recognition of God. Here we come face the one who stands before us and pours out his heart for our redemption.
In our Gospel the disciples who are fishermen become aware of a miracle taking place in their midst which is beyond their understanding. A call to push out into the unknown. Into deeper water they cannot fathom. A call to leave behind certainty and to trust in the one who has opened his heart to them. A call to let down their nets even after they have fished all night and caught nothing and all their reason must be saying this is shear folly. And then a miracle beyond their understanding breaking open their lives. A miracle of abundance – thousands of flashing fish, enough to break their nets and sink their boat. How can this be – how can the one who holds the power over heaven and earth call them? How can he call us? How can God need us? We too are not worthy. Get away from us. We are the ones who come expecting judgment and our sins to be exposed. How can we follow? How can we be those who bring others to Christ and become his fishermen?
And Christ says “do not be afraid” but we are, our faith seems so unsure. Henri Nouwen, when facing his own experience of abandonment and deep inadequacy, wrote this prayer:
Lord God – It is so hard for me to believe fully in the love that flows from your heart. I am so insecure, so fearful, so doubtful and so distrustful.
But your Father’s love was so unlimited that he wanted us to know that love and to find in it the fulfilment of our deepest desires. So, he sent us you, with a human heart big enough to hold all human loneliness and all human anguish. Your heart is not a heart of stone, but a heart of flesh; your heart of flesh is not narrowed by human sin and unfaithfulness, but is as wide and deep as divine love itself. Your heart does not distinguish between rich and poor, friend and enemy, female and male, slave and free, sinner and saint. Your heart is open to receive anyone with total, unrestricted love. For anyone who wants to come to you, there is room.
O Lord , all you ask of us is a simple “yes,” a simple act of trust, so that your call can be our becoming, the realisation of our own true self – to follow Christ like those first disciples. In the words of Isaiah:
Who shall I send?
Here I am, send me
To leave behind all that keep us from following. To behold the lamb of God who takes away sins of the world, as though they are his own wounds. Lord Jesus Christ you stand so simply and humbly at the very centre of each one of our lives – on the very edge of our fears and say with so much tenderness, “Come and see, come and stay with me. Follow me. Push out into deep waters. And you too will know the abundance of my love. I wonder if like those first disciples we can leave everything behind that keeps us from you and enter into the living heart of God.
To mark the Accession to throne on 6 February 1952 – 70 years ago today the Queen said “My life will always be devoted to your service… And I look forward to continuing to serve with all my heart”. All our hearts. I wonder on this day when we too celebrate with our Mandarin and Chinese congregation – together we too may discover Christ’s heart of service.