The Centre Can Hold

September 15, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using 2 Cor 4.1-6, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15th September 2019, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

… words by WH Auden, written at the start of the Irish War of Independence and in aftermath of the Great War.

And Auden is surely right: passion is far more obvious in the actions of fanatics than in the lives of the good. We hardly know what good passion looks like. It seems to capitulate so quickly to the guile and scheming of others, or shrink into the safe space of private relations with our nearest and dearest.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But good and holy passion shines out from the pages of the Bible: in the lives of the seers, sages and prophets, in Christ supremely, and in his followers. One such follower, Saul of Tarsus, came first to the young church’s awareness as a relentless persecutor, full of zeal, seeking authority to root out from his community the pestilence of the followers of the Way.

But by God’s mercy, blinded by the light of Christ, Saul became Paul, a Christian brother and apostle, whose zeal against the Church was transformed into a holy passion for the good news of Christ, crucified and risen. And the traces of this radical conversion remain in his writings for us to find and follow.

We heard today of Paul in a tight spot, his authority questioned by those wanting to undermine his ministry in the Church. As a founder of this Christian community at Corinth, Paul must have found this deeply wounding. And when people are attacked, when they feel threatened, you soon learn who they are and what kind of zeal drives them.

And this is what Paul says when on the ropes: Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

Hear the passion in those words, ‘We do not lose heart’: a passion to persist, to resist and remain steadfast, a passion borne of from a sense of God’s merciful dealing with him and all his people in Jesus Christ.

But if this is zeal, then we must be sure that it cannot be subverted. Think of those terrorists in the cockpit of the planes crashing into the twin towers, the fire burning in their hearts as they dispatched themselves to paradise and everyone else to hell, as they saw it.

Paul’s zeal is remarkable because it brings no danger or threat to others. As he stands before his accusers, he lays out his case. He will hide nothing; he will not practise cunning; he will not falsify his message to gain approval. Rather, he will state the truth as he sees it openly, and simply commend that message to their conscience, so that if others respond it’ll be only because God has enlightened them.

Good zeal never separates ends from means; it will not fall for the lie, which has dogged every totalitarian regime, that a blessed state can be attained by terror, duplicity or violence.

Good zeal operates with gentleness; it is not a tactic to gain approval, but the future we long for brought near in the humility of the saints.

But the acid test between good and bad zeal is how one treats one’s enemies. As we hear Paul describing his enemies as blinded by Satan, the god of this world, we may wonder whether Paul is still being good, and to answer that concern we need to think for a moment about light.

One of the greatest gifts of creation is light. God said on the very first day, Let there be light. And there was light. And God saw the light and it was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

Light and darkness, light penetrated by darkness, the darkness never overcoming the light – these themes appear repeatedly in scripture to express the truth that in God’s world, and in his ways, overwhelming light is rare.

Our imagination is spoiled in this regard by cities – places of relentless and unnatural light, which blot out the light of the stars and moon and dull the encroaching darkness. Natural light, however, comes as a gift.

And it’s the same with God’s light revealed in Jesus. It’s a merciful light, people are free to come into God’s realm through faith in Jesus – or they can refuse it and remain in the realm of darkness, where a lesser god reigns, the enemy of all good.

Paul was not trying to attack his opponents by calling them blind, only to defend the gospel from the charge of ineffectiveness. His detractors were hiding themselves from glorious light, a light he believed with every fibre of his being was present in Christ. You cannot be zealous without a cause and vision, and Paul’s vision and cause was Christ.

If you’ll forgive me, I want to drive still further into the heart of Paul’s fervour. He quotes the words of God, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, which aren’t exactly from Genesis or any other book of the Bible. They are, rather, a vision statement of what God says and does in creation and in Christ:

The God who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The light Paul preaches has dispelled the darkness from his own heart, has removed the scales from his eyes and caused him to see the truth. How could he possibly lose heart, seeing as, by God’s mercy, he had been called and chosen to spread the good news of this darkness-dispelling God? How could his ambition be anything other than to be totally transparent to the light of Jesus Christ, by putting himself at the disposal of others?

Paul, therefore, is a model of good zeal, but to find this sort of zeal for ourselves we must start from the inside out. Our outward circumstances are different, our challenges and opponents are different, but what remains the same is the saving light that God can bring to the darkness of our hearts.

With this light in our hearts, we become children of light, not perfect, but driven by the right spirit; not all knowing, but trusting that the light lodged in our hearts can illuminate the path ahead, often with a sense of the right thing to do or to say at that moment.

And if we are true to the vision of Christ bringing light out of darkness, we shall remain steadfast when others attack who are blind to the light, with words of cynicism and despair, and strategies which assume that we can only ever expect to deal in degrees of darkness.

Who knows? We might even become sufficiently confident of this inner power that we begin to love our enemies, as the Lord did. He had harsh words to say to those who were blind to the light of the gospel, but in the end he opened his arms wide upon the cross, aware that even the darkest actions of his enemies could be drawn into the will of God.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But my conviction is that the centre can hold, that there needn’t be anarchy, if those whose hearts are ruled by the light of the gospel exercise good zeal.

God in Christ is always bringing glorious light out of darkness, therefore those engaged in His ministry need not ever lose heart.