“To be, or not to be?” A sermon on John 14:23-29

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?.. (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1)

P1220906wIn the week in which the nation has marked not only the 90th birthday of a monarch with a very visible Christian faith, but 4 centuries since the death of it’s greatest bard, it seems not too inappropriate to reflect on the idea of words in our Gospel this morning; words, and the Word.

To be, or not to be…?
A follower of Christ… That is our question.

There was a wonderful sketch within last week’s RSC Shakespeare Live presentation, involving some of the most recognisable surviving faces of British film and theatre, and a certain Prince. It was about finding the correct emphasis for the delivery of the opening lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy. There are so many ways of saying the same thing, but where they are set and how they are said changes their meaning, their impact, their connection with the audience, and indeed with the rest of the play, which is the world those words inhabit.

Words. Jesus said a lot of them too. He played with them and on them, drew pictures and told stories with them. He questioned people’s integrity and prodded their consciences with some, healed lives and bodies with others. Jesus words came with power.

Jesus, the living Word; the living God, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), was not using idle words to create a theatrical presence and develop a story line, but rather, was using them to make a home in people’s hearts and lives, for God to dwell in. That is God the Father, God the Son and God “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.” (John 14:26)

An Advocate is someone who speaks or writes words in support of a person or a cause. The Advocate who Jesus called the Holy Spirit, was to be poured out into the lives of those who recognised Jesus as the Son of God, and his resurrection as the beginning of a new way of relating to God. The Advocate is the one who daily teaches and reminds us of the words and actions of Jesus, and encourages us to live them out.

Jesus emphasised words that were to be key to living a life that reflected his teaching, his example, the very essence of who he was. “Those who love me will keep my word… Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Jesus words, at his command, were to be kept safe, but the only way to keep them safe, he says, is to use them. Use them, or loose them. Because to use his words, to bring them alive by living them out in our lives, is to love.

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is full of anxious torment, an outpouring of confusion as to the most appropriate response to the circumstances in which he found himself; his father dead, his royal crown and his father’s marital bed usurped by his uncle. It is in effect a search for peace, peace with his situation and peace with the turmoil and madness that has become a place of seclusion and safety from which it seems almost impossible to step out. Peace, just a word, but something so much more powerful than a word, especially when it’s missing.

The peace that Hamlet was searching for was not I suggest, the peace that the world gives. The world is a funny place – funny peculiar, not funny ‘ha ha’. It tries to hold us all in the swirling waters which throw the perceived importance of the individual and their desires against the need to conform to one of a variety of colour washed viewpoints, made bland by a lack of nuance hidden in words of political rhetoric and vitriolic posturing.

To find the peace for which perhaps Hamlet searched, and of which Jesus certainly speaks, is to have our minds renewed by a constant awareness of the words God’s Advocate the Holy Spirit is whispering into our lives, so that we have the strength to step out of the spin-cycle in which the world works (Romans 12:2). We are to be conformed instead to the image of God’s Son Jesus (Romans 2:29), in whom we [have just/will shortly] profess our faith. Peace comes through hearing God’s living Word in Jesus, and responding in love to others, not through a constant striving to fit imposed models of behaviour or tradition.

Where are our spaces? Where can we meet with God? Some folk find a church a useful place and during our 24 hours of prayer there should be plenty of peace and gentle stimulus to hear the “still small voice” of the Advocate, but we can’t be here all the time. Some will speak with God whilst they do the washing up, or the ironing, or first thing in the morning with a cuppa. Some might do it in the car on the way to work: it’s perfectly possible to pray with our eyes open!

We have to find for ourselves the correct emphasis for delivering the lines of our faith, the living words of love to which Jesus called his disciples before his death. He did so in the context of a meal, in a house he didn’t own, and after a trusted friend had left to betray him. It was no safe place, nor safe space, much less the ancient Temple built by his forbears for the safe remembrance of his Father.

Likewise, we will find the constant fulfilment of knowing the peace of Christ not in the transient stillness or grandeur of a specific place but in the in-dwelling of the Father and the Son, welcomed to make their home with us and in us (John 14:23). As the Book of Revelation reminds us today, when the new heaven and the new earth come into being at the completion of God’s Kingdom, there will be “no temple in the city, for the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). Until the day comes that we see that for ourselves, we are God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16), his dwelling place on earth, the lives through which his living Word must be recognised.

It is no co-incidence therefore that as St. Paul responds to the vision God gave him for the people of Macedonia, he takes Luke outside the gate of Philippi to the river, where they find a place of prayer in which to speak to those with hearts open to the Lord (Acts 16:13). If we truly have a home for God in our hearts, we must remember that we have to leave the safe spaces of our lives and seek other places where people are open to what God wants to say to them through us. Just as prayer is about both speaking and listening, unless words are carefully chosen and emphasized in an open non-judgemental atmosphere, they will not or cannot be heard.

Family heirloom, dated 1867

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Words of soliloquy, spoken in a character’s mind, declaimed down four centuries for the world to hear. Words that need the right setting in which to be heard, and the correct emphasis for their delivery.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ, the living Word, we need to be able to multi-task: to have our minds constantly renewed by listening to his Advocate the Holy Spirit speaking words of encouragement and challenge into our hearts and minds; and we need to put ourselves into the place where the words the Holy Spirit speaks through us will be best heard, however unusual that stage might be.


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