Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Condorcet’s Omlette – Sermon 1st March 2009

Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-10      1 Peter 3:18-22      Mark 1:9-15

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was one of the most attractive and admirable figures of the French Revolutionary period. A mathematical prodigy, a major literary figure in his own right, biographer of Voltaire, despite the fact that he was scion of an ancient aristocratic family he embraced practical politics as the Revolution began to unfold, representing Paris in the National Assembly.  He argued for the sparing of the King’s life because he abhorred the idea of the death penalty, though he believed that any penalty almost as severe was probably justified; yet he was committed to the Republic, serving it by laying the foundations for a national system of education which are still largely in place.

Condorcet, however, met his end as a victim of the Revolution he hailed so enthusiastically, and served so constructively. He didn’t face the guillotine, but only because the rough circumstances of his arrest, together with his own frail health, caused his death, probably from a stroke, the day after he was captured.

As the Revolution slipped its own restraints, Condorcet’s Girondiste faction was ousted before the more radical Jacobins, and Condorcet’s own, unabated, criticism of the growing extremism, and especially the rushed job which was the new constitution, put his life in danger. Condemned, and placed outside the law, he found sanctuary with another heroic figure of this darkening epoch, a Madame Vernay, who, without knowing who he was, took him in on the assurance that he was an honest man. “The Convention, sir, can place a man outside the law,” she said, “but it can’t put him outside humanity.”  Condorcet quickly realized that his presence in her house was placing her in danger, and she just as quickly realized what was in his mind and had him watched.  Tragically, he managed to slip his watch, and escaped in the guise of a travelling carpenter.

It was his inability to sustain the disguise that gave this aristocratic lover of the people away, and in the most laughable, yet tragic way. Staying at an inn, he was asked what he wanted for his meal . He replied “An omelette.”

“How many eggs?” asked his host.


As someone once summed it up, Condorcet loved the poor, but had no idea how they lived.

Once again, and very quickly after the beginning of the year, when it’s one of the seasonal readings for the Epiphany, we are looking at the Baptism of Jesus.  Just after Christmas, we look at it as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the “history” if you like, of Jesus’ teaching, healing, confronting and challenging, of all the things that Jesus does that fill the first parts of the Gospels.  It’s as though we have Christmas, then, leaping over the whole of the three decades of silence in which we have no traditions about Jesus (well, apart from Luke’s story of the child Jesus in the Temple aged twelve, that is) we come to the “real beginning” of the story, as Jesus’ ministry is launched on the world.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and we look at the story of Jesus’ baptism in a rather different way. A less “naturalistic” way. Here, the baptism story leads us, not away from the Christmas story into Jesus’ life and ministry as he wandered over Galilee and then set off for Jerusalem. Instead, it leads us into forty days of hard thinking – like the forty days Jesus himself spent in the wilderness, fasting. This, of course, is Lent, and so the story of Jesus’ baptism here is not a preparation for the story of his ministry, but for the events of Holy Week. It’s as though the baptism understood in this way is like a springboard, which takes us right over the whole of the public ministry, and lands us at the beginning of the Easter story.

Which, when you think of it, is exactly what the creeds do. We’ll be saying the Nicene Creed, the great statement of the common belief of the Christian faith, East and West,  in a few minutes, before we come to Communion. At every baptism, we repeat the Apostles’ Creed, which is the ancient baptismal creed of the Roman Church – and by that, I mean the Church of the City of Rome long before there was anything you could call Roman Catholic, or Greek Orthodox, or Protestant, long even before St. Barchan was shuttling to and from between here and Ireland in the seventh century.  Have you ever noticed that, when we say the creed together? There’s no mention of anything at all that Jesus did in his ministry, not healing, not teaching, nothing.

Born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate…

If we follow the lectionary, as we do in this congregation, the first time the baptism of Jesus is mentioned, it speaks of his coming among us, of his entering into our human experience so fully that he permits nothing to stand between us and him. We said it (again!) a few weeks ago: Jesus comes to be baptized by John, as the one, the only one, who doesn’t need it. He is the one, the only one, who is not separated from God. Yet he goes down into the water because he will not let that separate him from us.

But the emphasis as Lent begins is quite the opposite. The emphasis now is on us trying to walk Christ’s road with him. And in him – because we couldn’t do it alone. We enter into what he, uniquely has done. As he, in forty days, prepared himself for all that lay ahead, so we prepare ourselves for Easter, by walking his way after him.

And in doing that, we discover the logic of all this. That the whole of Jesus’ ministry leads up to Good Friday, and the Cross. That everything he was – and so everything he did – points the same way. That there is this inevitability that goes with the coming of God’s love, open and vulnerable, into a world as wounding and hurtful as this, the coming of God’s truth, calling for God’s justice, into a world as twisted and unjust as this. Jesus’ way has to be the way of the Cross.

“Poor old Condorcet!” we say, reading his story.  “If he’d only been a bit less naively principled, a little bit less outspoken, a little bit more politically minded, he might have escaped his fate.” But then, he wouldn’t have been Condorcet. Not in any respect. Even at this very human level we can grasp something important about Jesus the man. Just in human terms, Jesus was killed for being what he was. People do get killed for being what they are, when what they are is a challenge to an established political order, or a challenge to a religious status quo, or a challenge to the way people in a particular society live their lives. Think of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, yes, by a lone gunman, but also by the dark forces of fear and hatred, circulating in Israeli society,  that that young man had allowed so fully into his life. Those same forces, it seems to me, that flattened much of Gaza in the last few months… Or think of the plotters against Hitler, who were caught between their own desire to represent all that was good and decent in German society and culture – and for many of them that meant Christian culture – and the monstrous evil that that same society and culture had spawned.

In simply human terms, then, we can understand what happens when someone simply insists on being what they are, when that in itself is an insufferable challenge to the society around them.

We walk the way of Jesus Christ through Lent, and we can feel these tensions in the story growing ever stronger, ever more powerful. But we can also, if we do this properly, feel something else, something terribly uncomfortable happening to us.  As we become companions to the Christ, he becomes a challenge to us. As he confronts, as he challenges, as he speaks out, so we find ourselves being interrogated. Would we – could we – do this? Can we? Will we?

Peter’s Confession, the Cleansing of the Temple, Christ’s light as the judging of the darkness,  the dangers of loving the world too much – these are the themes of the Lent Gospel readings this year, and they all take up this theme, that to follow Christ means to take a dangerous stand in the real world of day-to-day life. And this maybe sheds a light on the lives we have already mentioned – and we could easily add to their number; lives lived dangerously, against the way the world is. From the perspective of Christian faith, without trying to recruit distinguished representatives of other traditions, like Yitzhak Rabin, or Gandhi, as Christians, we can see lives like these as pointing away from the corruptions of the world as it is towards something that is more true, more just. We can perhaps see a pattern which, for us, becomes utterly decisive when we see it in Jesus Christ.

But there is more to be said than that. Because to walk the way of Christ through Lent is to discover how well we are understood. It is to see ourselves reflected in one particular group – the disciples. And it is to explain how it is that we can even claim in any sense to walk the way of the Son of God. Because for us to walk Jesus’ way is not for us to claim to be like Jesus. Instead, it is for us to become disciples.  It is for us to see our lack of understanding, our weakness of faith, our readiness simply to run when things get hard, mirrored in those people who walk Christ’s way with him into the Easter story.

To do this is – and this is crucial – to come to that point beyond which we can’t go. And that’s the hardest thing of all. Because to walk the way of Lent with Jesus Christ is to discover that there is a point when we simply do fall away, beyond which he has to do this for us, and alone. And then, we can only watch.

Here in Kilbarchan East, I think we reach that point with the Maundy Thursday Communion. We have that huge, joyous celebration – because that’s what it is – of the end of Lent, and the establishing of Jesus’ own worship, Holy Communion, the very thing we’re about to celebrate this morning, now. And we do celebrate it. And then, on that shadowed Thursday night, we come to the end of the Communion, and, in the last reading, with Jesus and the disciples, we go out to Gethsemane, and we watch as, surrounded by exhausted, sleeping human beings at the end of their strength, he prays alone.  And then he says:

Arise, for my betrayer is at hand…

And beyond that point, like the first disciples, we can’t go. We are powerless. This, he must do alone, and for us.

And suddenly we understand that we are understood. That what Jesus Christ does, he does for people he understands, thoroughly, through and through. Because he has walked this way with us, just as we have walked with him. Because he has entered into our living, because he has shared what we go through, even when we can’t share properly with him.

And this is how God loves us. This is the difference.

Our love, our compassion, our ability to sympathize, to enter into the lives of others, has its limits, because we are limited beings and our love, too, is limited.

Think of poor Condorcet, with his twelve-egg omelette. Poor Condorcet, who loved the poor, but had no idea how they lived.

And still we admire him. As Christians we admire him, because he is a fragmentary reflection of something we know from elsewhere.

But in Christ we glimpse the wholeness of it.  And even that we don’t fully understand, though one day we will. A love so complete that it identifies completely with what it loves, enters fully into the life, the experience of the beloved, understands completely.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

How can we grasp such love? Well, we begin by grasping what is offered, concretely, here. Bread, wine, and all that they convey – as Calvin says, the virtues of the body broken for us, the blood shed for us.

Take, eat…

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