Sermon delivered by
Em.Comp.Rev. Frederick A. Shade, B.A., Dip.R.S.
The questions which I wish to put to you today are: What does it mean to be a Christian? And am I a Christian in terms of this description? These are big questions, I know, but today is an opportunity to reflect on what we claim to be. I do not exclude myself from this exercise as today is in fact the very day and date on which I was ordained to the priesthood eleven years ago – on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels!
Well, we usually say that a Christian is one who is baptised in the traditional way, i.e. the use of water being poured upon the head, or by full immersion, together with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. It also signifies being officially received into the fellowship of a particular church or congregation.
This seems to answer the questions, but does it? In fact, there is much more to the questions I have put, for what I have described is but the formal process, the outward signs of something which ought to be occurring within the soul of the individual. Indeed, Baptism is but eh commencement of a great undertaking, a life-long commitment to the Christ, a life of growing into the stature and fullness of Christ, as St. Paul says. (Eph.4:13) It is, therefore, an on-going process of growth to spiritual maturity. So you can see that, to be a Christian, it is more than going through a ceremony it is in fact a pilgrimage of the soul which goes on even beyond the grave.
There are great dangers for the sincere Christian these days for it is an age where society demands the quick fix, the short cut and the instant answer/solution. And if we are not careful, our own personal faith and religion can also become shallow and superficial. We can so easily lose touch with the sacred, with the sense of the presence of the divine in the world around us, in our own lives, even in our worship. Mere “belief” is not enough; membership of a particular church or group is not enough. For these are but the means to one great end – to live “In Christ”, which is what the word ‘Christian’ means.
We are all familiar with the miracles performed by Christ and also his other actions which assisted people and caused them to change. But those things which occurred to Christ himself are not usually considered as ones which we could relate directly to our own lives. But they do. There are five events recorded in our scriptures which unfold, step by step, the divine mission of Jesus of Nazareth himself, and also his true nature as the Son of God.
But they have something to say about our own journey, as, since the days of the early church, these experiences have been considered as essential to the progress of the soul of each person, of its journey back to God. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that we consider them not only in terms of the life of Jesus of Nazareth but also at a very personal level, as ‘rites of passage’ that bring the sincere Christian closer to the reality of things eternal. Such an approach will bring us closer to the Risen Christ who reigns as a mighty spiritual presence throughout the whole world.
Although I can only refer to these events every briefly, I hope I can show how they concern each and every one of us, how they can be as signposts on our journey, and how they challenge us and our faith in God.
These five events I am alluding to in our Lord’s life are his (1) Birth, (2) Baptism, (3) Transfiguration, (4) Crucifixion, and (5) Resurrection.
The first of these is the Nativity of Jesus at Bethlehem, the beginning of the early journey of the Son of God. But His birth can also become for us a symbol of our own birth to a new life in Christ, and recognition of what this great event means to us today. But like the mustard seed, the spirit within us, or the ‘vital and immortal principle’ as Masons call it, needs to be given encouragement to grow. As it is buried deep within the cave of the human heart, it is largely ignored by people these days, but it can be brought to life by careful nurturing a life of dedication to things spiritual. By the grace of God we begin our journey, and we come to recognise that we are indeed made in the likeness of God and that we are his children.
The next stage in the journey is represented by our Lord’s Baptism, which for us signifies our becoming physically and spiritually incorporated into the mystical body of Christ and the fellowship of his Church. You see, an important [part of our Master’s message is that our own physical body is very much part of the whole redemptive process, of our journey back to God. Therefore, we must look after our physical body in the same way as we are to attend to our spiritual well-being! It is not without significance that Paul reminds us that our physical body is indeed the very temple of God and that the spirit of the Most High is present in each one of us. (1Cor.3:16)
And so, our own baptism marks a new chapter in our life, the beginning of our mission in the world, as it did for Jesus of Nazareth.
The occasion of our Master’s Transfiguration is perhaps the most puzzling of all and the one which is so difficult to relate to everyday experiences. What it seems to suggest is that it represents the stage called “spiritual perfection” in Christ. We have already been given the commandment: “be ye therefore perfect (i.e. spiritually perfect) even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. (Matt.5:48) Easier said than done!
At this moment in our Lord’s life he became literally transfigured by the Holy Spirit and enveloped in White light, a Light which comes from the highest realms of pure Spirit. By tradition, this event for Jesus took place on Mr. Tabor. (I wonder how many of our brethren appreciate this fact when they are opening grand Lodge and refer to this mystical mountain!)
Well, can we relate this event in any way to ourselves, or is it something that has happened only to Jesus of Nazareth? No, it is an experience others have had down the ages. I suggest that you think of those people whom you have met, perhaps only a few, and who seem to radiate a special presence, a blessing, if you like. They would be very close to this stage of grace. And what about people like Mother Theresa? You know, when the film crew went to her hospital to make a documentary of her work, they found that, not only did she radiate a special presence, but also the hospital ward itself, where there was no electric light and only one small window high up the wall. The room itself was bathed in a light which came from no known physical source. It was an example of that Light which is the Light of Love.
And we must not forget those saints of the church who are recorded to have been surrounded by this white light and to whom people came from near and far to be in their presence and receive their blessing.
The fourth event is the story of the Crucifixion; it is well known to us all. It is a story of pain, suffering, betrayal and human weakness. But it is also a spiritual event, as well as a physical one, for it involved the whole person of Jesus. The account given in our sacred writings makes this very clear. But although our Lord’s words from the cross show the spiritual darkness he experienced, there were also other words, words of love, blessing and committal.
For us the experience of suffering in His Name can take many forms: it may be an act of personal sacrifice to a high ideal, or putting others and their needs before our own. Fighting for one’s country is such an example: “Greater love hath no man………………”
The test of putting to one side the personal needs and desires of the ego will happen not once buy many times during our life. St. Paul and “I die daily in Christ” (1Cor.15:31), and this points to the fact that he too was tested in his commitment to Christ everyday and to live by his teachings. Invariably, the sacrifices we will make may go unnoticed in the world, but never by God. And so, the crucifixion story is also part of our own story.
The Resurrection is an event which is recorded in scripture in startling simplicity and in a manner which leave us, literally, speechless. Our Lord triumphed over death and by so doing shows us that we too can go beyond the veil which separates the seen from the unseen, the physical from the spiritual, earth from heaven. Here, too, we have recorded how our spiritual transformation continues beyond the grave.
St. Paul says that we are buried in a physical or natural body, and that we are raised in a spiritual body. (Cor.15,44) But do we not also, at the everyday and mundane level, experience from time-to0time what seems to be a rebirth, what seems to us to be a new lease of life, a form of resurrection, as the soul is ‘tried in the fire’ of life’s experiences? Can we not recall those rare and special occasions when we are touched by the hand of God, when we are given grace and strength to meet our challenges at that very point when we have al but given up?
Paul’s own life and example shows us that he was granted such strength and grace, indeed forgiven for his past excesses, for after his conversion and spiritual rebirth he became a great champion of the church. He was also given visions of what was to come for him and, more importantly, was brought into a closer relationship with God, through the Risen Christ, which he never had before. And so he could declare from his own experience and resurrection to anew life and identity: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. (Col.1:27)
I hope that what I have said in regard to these five major events in the life of Jesus will bring them much closer to you and make them more meaningful, more relevant and more personal. Ultimately, everything that our Lord experienced will be reflected in some way in our own lives. But the manner in which it will do so depends upon God’s good grace, the way in which we respond to His call and to life’s opportunities.
Daily we are challenged and tested. We are challenged to learn – not only the things of this world, but also those things relating to the spirit. And we are challenged not to stay where we are, but to grow as children of God and to use our Lord’s life as the supreme example. In this regard our faith is tested daily.
I have outlined a rather large and comprehensive picture in this brief time we have together. I make no apologies in doing so for, as Masons, you are expected to look at things more deeply than other people, to go below the surface of things and to seek out the true meaning of our sacred writings. We are instructed to study, to pray daily and to help our fellow-man. We are also directed to delve within the language of emblem and metaphor and to make our own personal faith a living reality and not merely words.
Living a Godly life, a Christ-centred life, is what we have publicly committed ourselves to do. It is a challenge, especially in a world which has become so materialistic and self-centred, one which demands the quick fix and the easy way out, even in religion. But our faith is also to be seen as a great adventure, full of mystery, wonder and, yes, danger. For our faith, based on the word of the cross, appears as foolishness to others (1Cor.1:18). We will have much to cope with our faith will be tested many times. But, we must ever bear in mind that we will never be alone on our journey.
The five events (initiations) which mark the progress of the soul are represented in the following events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth:
1. Birth – Matt.1
2. Baptism – Matt.3
3. Transfiguration – Matt.17
4. Crucifixion – Matt.27
5. Resurrection – Matt.28
These events are also recorded in the other gospels and a concordance or bible commentary will assist in the location of them.