Colossians 1: 15-20/ John 1:1-14
Rev’d Simon Buckley, St Anne’s Soho
“He is the image of the invisible God”.
Words from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians which we heard a few minutes ago and which I think are perhaps some of the most wonderful, succinct, profound and seemingly audacious words in all scripture.
I know how like my own father I am- people tell me I’m the image of him, even though he was bald by the time he was 25 and I, now more than twice that, am very clearly not. A few days after my dad died some neighbours saw me walking down the path to empty my parents’ bin and came running out in shock: they said seeing me was just like seeing my dad and it had quite startled them.
But our similarity wasn’t really about physical appearance. There was something about the way we would respond to things and certainly our sense of humour and even the way we walked, that was so similar that it wasn’t mimicry but about our shared DNA.
Of course, my parents’ neighbours had actually known and seen my dad. They knew what he was like and what he looked like, no wonder they knew what it was they recognised in me. St Paul could not say the same. For no one had seen God face to face to face and lived. God had appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and as a light by night, as a burning bush to Moses and in whirlwind and earth-shattering silence to Elijah; but since the day of Adam no human has seen God ‘unfiltered’.
That is until Jesus of Nazareth walked on earth. Not that Jesus had seen God but, that rather that, in him God could be seen. St Paul is convinced that the human being Jesus is so unique that, though being made of flesh and bones, his DNA is the exactly the same as God’s, tracing back to the beginning of creation. This is what the gospel writer, John, is trying to explain in the passage we more usually expect to hear at Christmas- “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. God’s very essence took human form in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God dwelt among the people that were not worthy to see him. Some recognised him for who he truly was, and others as we know didn’t; and the same is true today.
So, if you want to know what God is like, if you’ve always wondered what God must really be like, Christians say “look at Jesus” – he is the image of the invisible God. The firstborn of all creation.
And to some degree we each, being also God’s creation, his sons and daughters, bear God’s imprint upon us. In some people we see glimpses of that imprint and image quite easily- think of those people you know or know of, of whom you say “she’s an angel” or “he’s a saint”. Then there are others whose personalities and lives are so disfigured that it’s hard to believe they are really human, let alone bearers of the image of God. It is perhaps a life-times work for us to discover God’s image within ourselves and indeed to recognise it in the lives of others. It requires an attentiveness, freed from ego and vanity to see clearly enough.
On Monday of this week I went to St Cuthbert’s Church in Earl’s Court for the funeral of a ninety year old man who, ten years ago, had a severe mental breakdown made worse by dementia. The final years of his life had been as seemingly sad as the beginning of his life, as within a month of his birth in 1927 he had been placed in an orphanage in his native Canada and I don’t believe he ever knew who his parents were. Later he took, as his surname, the name of the orphanage and children’s home he lived in.
But at 15 he left school and started work in a nursing home – not an obvious choice for a fifteen year old boy- before leaving Canada for London six years later. Here he worked in Foyles for a bit before becoming an air steward and then training to be a psychiatric nurse. He received a medal from the Queen Mother for his exemplary work in psychiatric nursing, something he excelled at because he too suffered several psychotic breakdowns. He had great compassion for, and empathy with, those he was caring for. Bill hadn’t been baptised as a baby, but was baptised and confirmed when he was 37 and in 1970 he arrived at St Anne’s as Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, newly ordained as an Anglican priest. For five years he lived upstairs in a bed-sit in part of what is now the Rectory where I live.
Here Fr Bill worked closely with Centrepoint, the homeless charity which had been newly established here to respond to the large number of teenagers who were gravitating towards London in the hope of a bright future only to find themselves sleeping rough on the streets around Soho. Never paid by the church but supported by some nursing work or the kindness of others, Bill moved from here to Earls Court where, from a small flat paid for by a charity, the Rufford Foundation , he founded ‘Reaching Out’ a counselling and befriending service. But rather than have clients come to him, he went to them: out on the streets, in bars, in dodgy clubs engaging with those most on the margins in what he described as a “small cell of contemplative action… allowing for a ministry of sharing from within the sacredness of each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths where there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’”.
In those days Earls Court was London’s gay village and shocked by the murder of a fifteen year-old rent boy Bill started ‘Streetwise Youth’, looking out for the young lads who worked that area: who youngsters who were ignorant of ,or refused to accept ,their own vulnerability. In the early 80’s this naturally led him into contact with people with HIV and AIDs and he wrote a wonderful and ground-breaking book on pastoral ministry called “AIDS- Sharing the pain” which, a note inside my copy, tells me I bought in Liverpool in 1988.
Through all his work Bill was supported by a deep faith and contemplative spirituality- that God, the eternal mystery was present in the life of the world and its people in ways that words could never fully do justice to. God was present and recognisable in the beauty and fragility of each person, which needed to be encountered rather than described; and which could never be seen or encountered by those who stigmatised others. A stigma, after all, blocks the vision of the person looking. Fr Bill saw clearly enough to recognise the image of God in every person.
Several of us at the funeral on Monday commented that it was rather sad that, apart from a retired Bishop of Kensington- the bishop who in fact ordained me 17 years ago- there was no one from the London church’s hierarchy to pay tribute to such a remarkable though unusual priest.
But ironically that is quite fitting.
Because here had been a man who had an unconventional start in life. Someone who went on to live a life marked by a deep faith in God and boundless, self-giving compassion for those on the margins of society. A man who needed solitude and also the companionship of others, fellow members of the Religious communities who loved him though they never fully understood him. A man who lived dependent on charitable giving and on others just having sufficient understanding of his vision to be willing to enable him to carry it out. A man who the religious authorities recognised but just didn’t quite know what to do with, because he didn’t fit with their normal expectations of what being a holy man should be.
Does some of that sound familiar ?
In such an unusual life and in repeatedly unexpected places the pattern of Christ was lived out in Bill. The image of Christ, the image of God, is- when you know what to look for- unmistakeable in Bill. I am very pleased that Bill’s image- captured in this portrait of him by Natalie d’Arbeloff, has been given to us and will hang on the landing outside the rectory where it will join a couple of other paintings of Soho-clergy-past.
The painting is called ‘The Listener’, the name by which Fr Bill was often referred, reflecting his attentiveness to those he spent time with and whose attentiveness enabled him to recognise the image of God in each of those who, to others, appeared unlikely souls who came his way. It’s painted on a reflective surface and when you look at it you catch little glimpses of yourself as you look at it. You can see your own face in Bill’s, so looking at him you see yourself looking back at you. This painting will certainly challenge me to see how I can see my life and ministry mirrored in Fr Bill’s in some small way and to see if his image can be reflected onto me.
‘He is the image of the invisible God’ wrote Paul about Jesus. As indeed we all are – though to lesser degrees. We are each made to know and to share the love of God, it’s part of what it means to be human- to be made in the image of God. And when we live a fully human (humane?) life we bear something of the life of Fr Bill, of Christ. We too bear God’s image for those who take time to see it.
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
For Fr Bill, for Christ, for one another. Thanks be to God.