Matter and Spirit

August 26, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using John 6.56 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 26th August 2018, Trinity 13.

If you’d been here just three years ago, wandering in the grounds south of the cathedral, you would have come across a sculpture called Construction (Crucifixion) by Barbara Hepworth. It was an unusual piece for her, in that it was constructed rather than carved. And it certainly wasn’t one of Hepworth’s voluptuous female forms, but rather geometric and conceptual. Many hated it, and in fact it was a refugee piece which had previously been expelled from the grounds of both Salisbury and Portsmouth Cathedrals.

But I was one of its fans and had spent some time restoring it in its rather splendid setting under an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, which unfortunately was a haven for birds, who showed little respect for what lay underneath. Or perhaps they didn’t like it much either! So we got it waxed and had its painted panels returned to their original underlying shades.

I liked the sculpture because it seemed to portray abstractly Jesus’ crucifixion between two thieves. One side, where a smaller cross than the central one was discernible, was drawn close, whilst the cross on the other side was pushed away in judgement. It seemed to be the modern equivalent of that wonderful Rembrandt cartoon where the penitent thief is bathed in beaming light while the other is left in the shade.

However, you can’t now see this sculpture in Winchester because Salisbury claimed it back, where it’s set diagonally against a rather complicated background in a corner of their cathedral cloister.

To mark its re-patriation a new interpretation of the sculpture has just been published. The gist is that the sculpture gives a ‘spiritual perspective’ of how to rise above suffering, which owes as much to Hepworth’s interest in Christian Science as it does to her Anglican upbringing. Crucifixion according to this interpretation means a struggle for psychic unity, and the victory of the cross means the power of our collective mental will to overcome destructive forces. Christ, who has no face in this piece but is represented by a halo, symbolises the possibility of reconciling the opposite poles of matter and spirit.

If the researcher who wrote the article is right, then I’m glad that Salisbury has this Hepworth back! It would be saying something hard to reconcile with the Christian gospel. But there’s a good challenge in what she writes, which is about how flesh and spirit relate. This is far from being an academic question: when someone we love dies, this physical event has a huge impact on our spirits. We wrestle to come to terms with the meaning of the loss.

And again, we know that any act of virtue requires us not to think of our own bodily self-preservation first. If we put feeding and pampering our bodies first, our spirits soon suffer – we become bored and bloated; but if we give priority to our spirits, our bodies flourish also. We find a healthy body through a healthy mind.

Jesus gives some very direct teaching on the relationship between flesh and spirit, between bodily and spiritual life. He says, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them’. It’s a good text for a Eucharist.

To understand what Jesus is saying we have to draw back. In John’s Gospel everything we’re promised stems from one great truth, which is that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’: The Word, the eternal expression of God’s own mind, steps into the middle of our world, into our ordinary human situation, to reveal and offer to us a way into very heart of God, his Father. When Jesus offers his flesh and blood to us, then, he is offering to us his whole life and reality. And that’s an amazing truth.

One of the strange things that happens to us nowadays is we often meet people partially. We may be emailing, following or messaging people who we’ll never meet in the flesh, and of course our spirits are adaptable and we find ways of being friendly with each other and of getting certain tasks done together, but even then we know that if we were ever to meet, we would relate at a far deeper level.

Jesus meets us in flesh and blood – he really discloses himself to us. We don’t meet an idea of Jesus or a faint representation of Jesus but the reality of Jesus, and in that reality we meet the whole reality of God. There have been those who in their anxiety to protect us from idolatry have sought to distance the life of Jesus from the bread and the wine, so that they become mere tokens of a historic sacrifice – reminders to us of what Jesus did for us on the cross – but the greater tradition has wanted to firmly hold together the bread and the wine with the life-giving gift of God in Jesus Christ, without necessarily spelling out in detail how this happens.

The result of this meeting with Jesus in the flesh and in the blood, he promises us, is abiding. If this abiding were too spiritual, it wouldn’t do us much good. We are creatures of flesh and blood and we need to be comforted, guided and healed by a living, loving God, rather than engage in ethereal relations with a distant deity. Those who eat Christ’s flesh and drink will abide in him and he in them. In other words, between them a relationship of depth and substance unfolds – they share one life in God together, a tangible, touching life.

The trouble with turning Christ and Christianity into a code for some psychic process, as Hepworth may have done, is that it puts the initiative to find a victory over suffering and death back with us. The challenge is to summon up, direct or align our powers of mind to transcend our circumstances. With Christ among us, though, things are much simpler; there is simply something to accept. First we accept the bread and the wine, which brings to us Christ’s own life. Our struggle is then solely to give Christ more room to abide more fully in our hearts and in our communities.

Not everyone will accept the grace and truth of Jesus. Even in our gospel reading Jesus’ words were rejected by those who sought their life elsewhere; but St John promises that those who do receive him will have the power to become children of God, not born of flesh, but of spirit.

I saw the truth of this yesterday at an event held in the Outer Close, The Celebration of Recovery. People who’d been abused, who were recovering from addiction and adverse circumstances such as homelessness came together with service providers to celebrate the possibility of new life. The sober bikers were there, a delightful group who found joy in riding with one another and feeling the wind in their faces, who had left an old life behind.

It was the ability to open their lives to a new way of being human that was healing and guiding them. And as we take the bread and the wine, Christ’s body and blood, we begin to swallow and digest the truth that our life has its roots elsewhere, beyond our own physical powers and mental strength. Our lives are rooted in the gift of God. By holding out our hands and opening our lips to receive this gift we are asking to be born anew, for God’s Spirit to blow on our faces and be at our backs and for us even to breathe in his clean, fresh air.

That’s what I liked about the lost Hepworth sculpture: it said that even a man condemned, at the edge of despair and death, could find new life in Christ.