During our recent circumaviation of Australia, we stopped over in Perth on two Sundays. Some cunning planning had gone into this. Not only would we be able to attend four church services, we could also go to an organ and trumpet concert, all at Saint George’s Anglican Cathedral. How good is that!
As mentioned in a previous blog, we love worshipping in the Anglican cathedrals in the capital cities. We have done so recently in Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Perth. In Sydney we went to Christ Church Saint Laurence, just down the road from the cathedral. The Sydney cathedral has a somewhat different perspective on worship and what it means to be a Christian. In my youth I frequently attended St. Peter’s in Adelaide.
The Anglicans still understand what sacred worship is. The buildings, soaring space, solemn ritual and reverential music all contribute to the experiential realisation that this is not a social get-together. My wife calls it encounter with the Sacred. Meeting God, in other words. Sursum corda! We lift up our hearts (very being) to God.
The insight of the ancient Hebrews is that God is unlike anything else, and cannot (must not?) be compared to any category. Their theology simply said of God: “I am who I am”. No images, whether physical or conceptual. In the bible fear is a common, and appropriate, reaction when humans encounter God. Fear of God, it is said, is the beginning of all human wisdom. Meeting God can be awe-ful, or in modern parlance ‘awesome’. The letter of James states that shudder is a reaction to the knowledge of God. In this context we go to church of a Sunday.
In the Perth cathedral the theme for the third Sunday after Easter was Matthew 28, where the two Marys went to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. Instead they found an angel who said: “Fear not!” Soon after they meet with the risen Jesus. Again the injunction is: “Fear not!”. The Dean of the cathedral used this text to proclaim the good news that Jesus takes away all fear. The congregation no longer need be afraid of anything, and can face any life or social situation fearlessly, because of Jesus. Kind and encouraging words, much appreciated by his listeners.
In the gospel story some extra-ordinary events were taking place – earth quakes, conversation with angels, and an encounter with the beloved Master who had been executed in a horrific way, but was now very much alive and who calmly says: “Shalom”, or in the Aussie vernacular: “G’day”. Fear would have been my reaction, because I am experiencing something beyond any categories I can get my head around – a manifestation of God himself, right in front of my very nose.
The Church sometimes tends to fall foul of the injunction “no images”. By making Jesus the second person of the Trinity, there is a real danger of limiting God to what we see in Jesus, a conceptual image. In this way, Jesus indeed takes away all fear. The epistle for this third Sunday after Easter was from 1 Peter 1, where the writer says: “You shall be holy, for I (God) am holy. If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, then live in fear……” A useful reminder that reverential fear is a key principle of Christian life.