Paradox

Bishop Brian FarranThis sermon was preached by Dr Brian Farran, Lord Bishop of Newcastle at the Commissioning of The Reverend Canon David John Battrick BSG as Rector of East Maitland.

The Maitland Gilbert and Sullivan and Musical Society this year played The Mikado.  Being able to attend such a production is a very good reason in live in the City of Maitland!

The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan not only feature tuneful crisp music that you find yourself humming on the oddest of moments but clever lyrics with tongue-twisting lines that tease.

W S Gilbert, the lyricist, was fond of social scrutiny or as we Antipodeans might say, ‘taking the mickey out of people’. Gilbert often resorted to paradox in order to achieve his social dissecting in the themes of the operettas.

In fact, in The Pirates of Penzance there is this ballad that celebrates the conundrum of Frederick the Pirate King being born on February 29th thus making his age (theoretically) much younger than everyone supposed. Frederick muses:

How quaint the ways of paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
Tho’ counting in the usual way,
years twenty one I’ve been alive.
Yet reck’ning by my natal day…
I am a little boy of five!

And the chorus of the pirates join in:

He is a little boy of five!
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha ha!
A paradox! A paradox, a most ingenious paradox!

I have often wished that Gilbert and Sullivan had written an operetta about the Anglican Church. There would have been multiple paradoxes available to them to exploit, especially in the era in which they composed when the Church of England was not at its best.

I have even tried my hand at being a Gilbertian lyricist adapting that recitative from The Mikado, ‘A wandering minstrel I’

A wandering Bishop I,
a thing of robes and laces,
of canticles and praises
and higher forms of prayer.

My theology is strong
Through every parish ranging
And with their mission changing
I chant my visionary song!
I chant my visionary song!

Now, what do Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the Anglican Church of Australia have in common? Well, besides clergy who probably secretly wanted to be actors!

The answer is: paradox.

Gilbert wrote lyrics that costumed paradox in a variety of social settings. Gilbert’s employment of paradox enabled him to make incisive statements about pretension, about inequality, about social customs that needed to be changed.

In Gilbert’s hands paradox became an incision into social categories that were wrong. Gilbert used paradox to illumine the reality of circumstances that polite Edwardian society concealed or ignored. Paradox gave way to the truth.

Christian theology is founded on and grounded in paradox. Indeed, so is Christian discipleship.

And this Feast Day of Christ the King is yet another instance of the multitudinous paradoxes that characterize Christian believing. For here on a festival when the Church celebrates Jesus as King we hear Jesus teaching us:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This is a central foundational paradox that we usually resist – losing our lives that we might eternally keep them. Not for us! We want the Church to be an Insurance Broker that keeps our lives safe as houses in the here and now.

But the truth lies in the paradox and not in common sense. For the reality is that if we want to be with Jesus in his kingdom, we must follow him. The following means imitating him, living by his perspectives, his values, his practices. And Jesus lived paradoxically.

A scribe then approached [Jesus] and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’[1]

Just think of all the paradoxes that illuminate our understanding of what Jesus achieved through his mission. A good place to sense the centrality of these theological paradoxes is in The Thanksgiving Prayer for Holy Week in the Eucharist with the seasonal insertion:

The tree of defeat became the tree of victory;

where life was lost, there life has been restored.[2]

Our response to this Divinely initiated paradox might be akin to Frederick the Pirate King I quoted earlier,

How quaint the ways of paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!

The paradox so central in the Holy Week preface to the Thanksgiving Prayer reinforces that any ascription we pile onto Jesus must be supple and subtle for he was a master at resisting ascriptions that sought to inflate him or flatter him.

Remember Jesus’ sharp retort to the young rich man who hailed him as ‘Good Teacher’. Jesus responded quickly, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’[3] And consider his self-ascription with the vacuous ‘Son of Man’[4] title which can simply mean ‘a man’.

And yet we ignore Jesus’ command and regale him royally.

In one Queensland parish in which I served the East Window in the church depicted the Ascended Christ with the Imperial State Crown of England firmly planted on his head!  And I noticed that in the Warrior Chapel in the Cathedral the Ascended priestly Christ seems to be wearing a tiara!

Why can we not get it?

Our life with God is founded and grounded on paradoxes. God self-expendingly shares God’s life with us (God’s creatures) in ways that we can readily receive and accept. It is God who does this through the serving of the world by Jesus.

One of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century, W. H. Vanstone, has written about this paradoxical way of God being God

The self-emptying of God means that, for the being of the universe, the being of God is totally expended, without residue and without reserve: expended in endless and precarious endeavour of which the issue, as triumph or tragedy, has passed from [God’s] hands to depend upon the response which [God’s] love receives. That response will not destroy or diminish [God’s] love: but it will mark it as triumphant or as tragic love.[5]

If such is God’s love and God’s way of loving, paradoxical as it may seem to us, this is also to be the Church’s love and the Church’s way of loving. And this is to be modelled in the lives of priests if they wish to live a vocation that is representational and public. Self-expending is at the heart of God, as it also is at the heart of being a parish priest.

However, living with these Divine paradoxes is not only for the clergy; it is for all disciples of the Lord Jesus. But we have learned over the past decades to live as disciples with customized religion. People believe because of what they think they can get at the last.

Religion has been reduced to a transaction –I’ll believe if you will insure me for eternity. And the very basic premise of the life of Jesus has become obscured:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?[6]

We live within the life-giving paradox of the self-giving of God. We also live within our own personal paradoxes, some of which are life-denying rather than life-giving. However, we need not be finally stymied by such personal paradoxes if we commit ourselves to the grace-giving paradoxes of God as disclosed in and through Jesus.

A parish priest is both a model of living within the Divine paradoxes and a resource for understanding and appreciating these paradoxes.

This parish is about to receive an extremely gifted priest who will live into the Divine paradoxes and help you to understand them and embrace them more deeply. David Battrick will be a great gift to you as he has been to the entire Diocese in his ministry as the Ministry Development Officer.

But remember Father David will not be customizing religion for your ease; he will be proclaiming the Gospel paradoxes, the most ingenious and most life-giving paradoxes of all.

Jesus said: ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’

A paradox! A paradox, a most ingenious paradox!


[1] See Matthew 8:19 -20 and Luke 9:57-58.
[2] See A Prayer Book for Australia p.152.
[3] See Mark 10:17.
[4] See for instance Matthew 16:27; 24:30; 26:24; Mark 2:28; 14:21; Luke 5:24; 7:34; 22:22 and others.
[5] W. H. Vanstone. 1977. Love’s Endeavour Love’s Expense. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, pp.69-70.
[6] See Matthew 16: 24-26.