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Essential Existence

The Rev Dr Sam Wells leads a meditation on the nature of what is. Live from St Martin-in-the-Fields, with St Martin’s Voices directed by Andrew Earis. Organist Ben Giddens.

The Revd Dr Sam Wells leads a meditation on the nature of what is. "There are two kinds of things: those that abide forever; and those that don’t. The things that abide forever we call essence; the things that last for a shorter period we call existence. We human beings are in the second category. We exist: we think that because we exist we’re the heart of all things. But we forget that existence isn’t all there is." Live from St Martin-in-the-Fields, with St Martin’s Voices directed by Andrew Earis. Organist Ben Giddens. Readings: Colossians 1: 15-20 and John 1: 1-4 and 10-14. Producer: Philip Billson

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38 minutes

Last on

Sun 6 Oct 2019 08:10


Please Note:

This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.


It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.



MUSIC: I arise today – Shaun Davey (Hilary solo)

Good morning. Today we’re going to explore together the deepest truths at the heart of all things.In a series of meditations we’ll see the difference between essence and existence, and the real reason we were created. We’ll look at one of the most important questions of Christianity and the significance of the answer. And through the prayers of St Augustine, we’ll turn our reflections into worship.

MUSIC: I arise today (continues) – Shaun Davey (Hilary solo)

[SAM] If there had been no fall, if humanity hadn’t broken away from perfect harmony with God, would Jesus still have come? Most theologians in the history of the church have said no – Jesus came because God promised Noah never again to destroy the creation, so God had to find another way to heal and redeem the world. God chose a people, Israel, brought them to freedom under Moses, and spoke to them in prophets, that they might be a blessing to the nations. But Israel lost its freedom and eventually God sent a saviour not just to redeem Israel but to open out a path to forgive the sin of the whole world and to offer the gift of eternal life. That’s the way the story is usually told.

But what if the answer to the question is yes? What if God always intended for Jesus to come among us? That’s a far-reaching proposition. It means Jesus didn’t come to solve a problem, out of the deficit of the world, but instead came from the abundance of God’s love – God’s longing to make relationship. It means the whole purpose behind the creation of the universe was so that God could come among us in the form of Jesus. In other words Jesus is the reason for creation. And God isn’t a faraway bearded figure in the sky – God is the very essence of relationship. God created the world for us and Jesus to meet – because God is fundamentally about forming and restoring relationship. And so every time we form and restore tender, humble relationship with one another, we imitate and anticipate the way God seeks to be with us, and glimpse the glory of eternity.

MUSIC: O God you search me (verse 1)

ROSEANNE: Let us pray. O Thou, who art the light of the minds that know Thee, the life of the souls that love Thee and the strength of the wills that serve Thee; help us so to know Thee that we may truly love Thee; so to love Thee that we may truly serve Thee, whom to serve is perfect freedom. Amen

[SAM] The first meditation. There are things that abide forever; and there are things that last for a limited period. The things that abide forever can be termed essence; the things that last for a limited period we’ll call existence.

We human beings are in the second category. We exist: we think that because we exist we are the centre and purpose of all things. But existence isn’t all there is. Existence is subject to change, decay, and death. Essence isn’t. Yes, we do indeed exist; and that is precious, and the basis of all the joys of life. But we are not essential. Our being depends on the existence of others. We crave independence, but independence is a fantasy: we never could be independent; and there would be no joy in being so. The longing for independence is the aspiration to be an essence. The secret of happiness is to learn instead to exist.

Why are we here? Not because we chose to be. We exist because the essence of all things, in the depths of its mysteries, brought into being something that was not essential, something that was not like itself, but something … else. We are part of that ‘else.’ We are not the original ‘something.’ We don’t know if we’re the centre of that ‘else,’ or the purpose of that ‘else’. We don’t know whether that ‘else’ might be better off without us. Existing is not about conforming to what must be so—it’s about enjoying the precarious discovery that nothing must be so.

MUSIC: O God, you search me (verse 4)

[SAM] There could have been no existence. There could have been nothing. We assume there must be an essence because something must have brought about and will surely abide beyond existence. But there could have been nothing beyond essence. It would have been simpler, more plausible, less troublesome, for there to have been no existence; in practice, nothing. Yet here we are. It is only some balance between chance and love that has brought about our existence. Establishing the degree of that balance between chance and love is the process of discovering truth.

For essence (or God, as we usually say) to issue in existence requires a foundational yet reckless risk, without which there would have been nothing. The name we give to that risk is love. Love isn’t an afterthought – a sentimental alternative to the harshness of time and chance, conflict and death; love is the beginning, the cause, the formula for what makes essence issue in existence. Love isn’t simply a gallant protest against the ravages of loss, violence, isolation; it’s the assertion and primal surfacing of the original cause and ultimate purpose of existence.

MUSIC: Ubi caritas – Taize (x2) (Portuguese)
Ubi caritas et amor; ubi caritas Deus ibi est.

ROSEANNE: My God, let me know and love you, so that I may find my happiness in you. Grant me the happiness of heaven so that my joy may be full in accord with your promise. In the meantime let my mind dwell on that happiness, my tongue speak of it, my heart pine for it, my mouth pronounce it, my soul hunger for it, my flesh thirst for it, and my entire being desire it until I enter through death in the joy of my Lord forever. Amen.

MUSIC: Ubi caritas – Taize (continues) (x2) – first verse with sung descant
Ubi caritas et amor; ubi caritas Deus ibi est. Verse: Your love O Jesus Christ, has gathered us together.

[SAM] John’s gospel begins with an exploration of the realms of essence and existence.

JESS: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

MUSIC: O Radiant Dawn – James MacMillan

[SAM] The second meditation. We human beings are the form essence chose to take when it entered existence. This is the astonishing claim of Christianity. On one starry night, displaced by migration, in a hostile political climate, surrounded by animals, from an unwed mother living homeless in a strange town, essence entered existence. Essence, which we could call by a hundred names but we most often call God; essence, which could have remained alone without ever conceiving of existence; essence, which would most straightforwardly have left things as nothing but out of utmost grace initiated existence—that essence made itself part of existence. The Word became flesh.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Could it be because God always intended to be our companion, to be with us? That’s what the word ‘Jesus’ represents: God’s eternal purpose to be with us, which triggered the whole mystery of existence from beginning to end. Jesus isn’t an afterthought that came into existence when essence realised existence was going wrong: Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.

But existence isn’t primary. That’s what essence is. Trying to reach God from existence is as absurd as throwing a stone and trying to hit a cloud. However noble our endeavours, they’re simply locked within existence. However sublime is our glimpse of beauty, it’s no more than a passing shadow. However bold our grasp of truth, it’s a bridge attached on the side of existence that yet lacks any mooring on the side of essence. We discover God for one reason alone: because God reaches us. Essence becomes existence. Jesus becomes human. The Word becomes flesh.

MUSIC: O Radiant Dawn – James MacMillan

ROSEANNE: For your mercies’ sake, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul: ‘I am your salvation.’ So speak that I may hear, O Lord; my heart is listening; open it that it may hear you, and say to my soul: ‘I am your salvation.’ After hearing this word, may I come in haste to take hold of you. Hide not your face from me. Let me see your face even if I die, lest I die with longing to see it. The house of my soul is too small to receive you; let it be enlarged by you. It is all in ruins; do you repair it. There are things in it - I confess and I know - that must offend your sight. But who shall cleanse it? Or to what others besides you shall I cry out? From my secret sins cleanse me, O Lord, and from those of others spare your servant. Amen.

[SAM] In his letter to the Colossians St Paul meditates on the way Christ is essence entering existence.

JESS: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

MUSIC: Holy, Holy, Holy (3 verses)
1 Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
 early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
 holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty!
 God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

2 Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore thee,
 casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
 cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
 which wert and art and evermore shalt be.

3 Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,
 though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
 only thou art holy, there is none beside thee
 perfect in power, in love, and purity.

[SAM] The third meditation. Essence, or God, imbues existence with elements of wonder through which existence may find traction on the path of grace, like a car whose wheels are fitted with chains to help it drive through snow. Just as creation endows creatures with the means of their own survival and the capacity to learn to thrive, so the Holy Spirit clothes the church with the garments of salvation. This is how essence draws existence to itself, as a magnet draws iron. Among these means is scripture. In reading, performing, and returning to scripture, the church becomes inscribed in the story, discovers the author’s house style, and learns to recognise the ways of God beyond the shadow of its own influence. Then there are the sacraments. In baptism the church is conformed to the body of Christ, and disciples share the experience of dying to self and living to God. In Holy Communion the church enacts God’s new society of forgiven disciples, and all receive food for eternal life. And there are the works of mercy. In being with the hungry and thirsty, the destitute and the foreigner, the sick and the prisoner, the church meets Christ face to face. Thus at Pentecost the Holy Spirit clothes the church with power. To be a Christian is to don this mantle, exercise this power, enjoy this blessing, confident that God has given the church everything it needs to discover, understand and put to work the gifts it needs to fill the time between Christ’s first coming and his second.

MUSIC: Lord of the church, we pray for our renewing (Londonderry Air)

ROSEANNE: Breathe in me O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.

[SAM] The final meditation. We come to the most astonishing wonder of all. Essence becoming existence in Jesus isn’t the whole of the story. God wants to share our limited, fragile earthly life. But God doesn’t simply want that, marvellous as it is. Essence empowering existence isn’t the end of the story either, breathtaking as that may be. There’s more to it even than that. Through Christ and the Spirit we realise what the Father’s final purpose always was: to bring us into essence—into eternal truth. Jesus is God stretching out a hand and saying come into the essence of all things to be with me. In the painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome, God’s hand is stretched out in creation, almost touching Adam’s hand. But the final purpose of creation is that God’s hand stretches out a second time, in Jesus, and invites us to become part of the very essence of all things. That is the ultimate invitation. That is the indescribable offer. That is the unimaginable present. That is the inexpressible gift.

MUSIC: The Lord’s Prayer (John Bell)

[SAM] Here is the blessing of gratitude. Gratitude recognises that things might not have been so.
ROSEANNE: Had God not called Abraham, there would be no covenant.
ALL: Had God not met Moses, there would have been only slavery.
JESS: Had God not brought the Hebrews through the Red Sea, freedom would have died as soon as it had been born.
ALL: Had God not spoken through Isaiah and Jeremiah, there would have been no vision in exile.
ROSANNE: Had God not spoken to Mary and dwelt with us in Christ, we would not know we were children of a heavenly Father, made to be God’s companions, empowered with the Holy Spirit.
ALL: Had Joseph not escaped from Herod, there would have been no Jesus to call disciples, proclaim the kingdom, and open to us the heart of God.
JESS: Had Christ not died in agony, we would not have discovered we mean everything to God.
ALL: If Christ were not risen, we would not know that all of God’s promises will come true and that our future is in God forever.
ROSANNE: If the Spirit had not come, we would not know the joy of this good news today.
JESS: To be part of such a story is to discover what it means for your identity to be a gift, for your destiny to be beyond existence, for your past no longer to be a prison and for the future to be your friend. All of this might not have been so.
ALL: That all of this is so is not by chance or accident. It is blessing.

MUSIC: O worship the king (sung by all)

[SAM] The blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you all, now and forever. ALL: Amen.



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