Sermon preached on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (12 October 2014), by the Reverend Aidan Platten, Vicar, St Mark, Hamilton Terrace

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Sermon preached on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (12 October 2014), by the Reverend Aidan Platten, Vicar, St Mark, Hamilton Terrace

The Reverend Aidan Platten discusses the rise of social media and the friendships formed there, but says 'the most sustaining relationships are those that are incarnational'.

A little over ten years ago, students at Harvard University were introduced to a new way to socialise; a couple of years later, pretty much anybody over the age of thirteen with a valid email address could join in the new social medium that would become the craze of Facebook.

There are many positive spin-offs from Facebook; this Cathedral has its own Facebook group as do countless other institutions; Facebook turned things going viral into something positive.

And it can be quite fun. For those who have avoided this cyber social life thus far, one can send friend requests to people and wait with trepidation until they are accepted - or not. I am friends with my favourite primary school teacher and with people I havent seen for years and years - and possibly never will see again. I know how many children they have, where they live, their favourite music, books, political views (unfortunately in some instances) and sometimes even what theyve had for breakfast. Facebook has shrunk the world. So there really is lots of good about Facebook.

Perhaps theres a catch, though.

Psalm one hundred and thirty nine which we heard earlier hints at it:

O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me

On Facebook it might be a case of thou hast searched me out but not necessarily much more than that. Indeed, on Facebook, people are friended, not befriended. It is about face and name but not really about knowing the person, for on Facebook we only reveal the things we are happy for others to know about us. Worse than that, perhaps, is when friendship numbers seem a bit high, or people seem dull, it is possible to have a cull and unfriend those who dont come up to the mark!

Whilst it might be a social network, it is also just virtual; what seems real is mostly created and maintained by software. It is only two dimensional; what we know about friends in this virtual community is defined by privacy settings and by what we choose to share. Theres no governance over what is true and what is fantasy. It is possible to re-invent ones self via Facebook.

The psalmists suggestion in psalm one hundred and thirty nine of our relationship with the divine is rather different.

"O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me
though knowest my down-sitting and my up-rising,
thou understandest my thoughts long before.

Those words speak to us of loyalty and honour, of a relationship that is real and of mutual love - not merely virtual; and it is a relationship always open to us. God, in whose house we gather now and whose hospitality we enjoy together is real and by our being here in prayer together, we are in relationship with one another and with God.

The searching out and knowing of the Facebook generation is somewhat different from the searching out and knowing that is promised by God. For Gods way is not surreptitious stalking and voyeurism, but rather a promise to accompany each of us right through life. God encourages us to discover him.

One of the promises that God holds for each of us, as we heard in the first lesson tonight, is this promise of the gift of wisdom; that is the promise of knowing God, being in friendship with God and deepening our relationship with him: such wisdom is not necessarily of intellectual finesse or academic prowess; rather, wisdom and understanding. It is an invitation to share in the revelation of God to each one of us in this world. It is a reminder that before our lungs filled with air for the first time, before anyone else knew us, God was offering his friendship and love. That love, whilst not always tangible is no less real. There is nothing virtual about God; indeed no software can generate Gods virtual presence if for no other reason than God is always present, around and within each one of us.

Thevirtual nature of so much of our world lures us into synthetic relationships. The ingredients of relationship are there, communication can happen - we can see recent pictures, but the relationship itself is in danger of being manufactured rather than organic; it is in danger of remaining remote rather than filly lived and experienced.

From a selfish point of view such a synthetic relationship is much easier to control. It is much easier to prevent ourselves being hurt - though ultimately, perhaps, unfulfilling.

The most sustaining relationships are those that are incarnational - those relationships that we live and experience and dont just enjoy from afar. Pictures of God at points in the Old Testament can give the impression of a deity operating the world remotely - sending floods and pestilence when human behaviour is most troublesome. However, we are told that Moses was Gods friend. The joy of Christian living is delighting in Gods living presence in Jesus Christ who is the Word that was in the beginningthe one who became flesh and dwelt among us.

The beginning of wisdom, we are told, is to fear God; to be in awe of God, to be in awe of the one who is Love and to be in relationship with that love. To put it most simply, the beginning of wisdom is to love God and accept Gods love for us. For it is that real, sustaining and self-giving love that leaves no space for self-centred synthetic love. It is that love that opens our minds to understanding as we begin to discover the desire for each of us to live as the perfect creation God has made us to be. God has searched you out and knows you. God has searched me out and knows me too; and Gods knowledge is not remote, but it is alive or incarnate; such knowledge is perfect wisdom and understanding. In the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, that love was perfected and by the gift of the Holy Spirit is continues to reveal itself.

By seeking after wisdom and understanding, and learning to abide in God as God abides in us, we lay aside synthetic and virtual relationships and discover the reality of our friendship with God.

Well before the advent of Facebook, Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in the third century, captured it thus:

This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we servilely fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by some business-like and contractual arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from Gods friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming Gods friend the only thing worthy of honour and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.