Holy Ghost, Genoa – Easter 2 (11.4.2021)
Many of the eminent clergy invited to preach before Queen Elizabeth at Sandringham or Balmoral have reported that the trickiest part of their experience was not so much preparing and preaching the sermon itself as the meal afterwards at which they would be closely questioned about what they had said in their sermon by the Duke of Edinburgh, whose death was announced on Friday. Prince Philip, like his wife, was a staunch Anglican who thought deeply about his faith and was not afraid to ask questions, even if, at times, they weren’t entirely comfortable for those who had to provide the answers. So perhaps it’s fitting that we should be giving thanks for his long life on this Sunday when we remember St Thomas, who was also not afraid to ask questions – or to say things that others found uncomfortable.
It’s fitting in another way, too, and one that tends to be forgotten by people who think of the British royal family as a kind of block of like-minded, highly privileged, extremely wealthy people. Prince Philip, like Thomas, was an outsider. Thomas, because he hadn’t been with the other disciples when the risen Jesus first came among them; Prince Philip, because his background was so different from pretty well all of the courtiers who surround the royals and enforce all those little unwritten rules and codes which, we are told, made the Duchess of Sussex’s life so difficult that she and Prince Harry have felt driven to take refuge in the USA.
Prince Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu. His paternal grandfather was Danish. His grandmother was Russian. He belonged to the family of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, whose roots are in North Germany. His father was a younger son of the King of Greece, and the whole family had to leave the country in a hurry for exile in France when Philip was barely a year old, part of the great pool of impoverished aristocratic families which swirled around Europe in the unsettled years after the First World War, living from hand to mouth and often dependent on the kindness and generosity of their more fortunate friends and relations – a bit like the situation of sharing which St Luke described in our first reading.
As his family moved around Western Europe, Prince Philip was educated in France, England, Germany and Scotland, finally ending up at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in Devon, which was where his path first crossed that of the teen-aged Princess Elizabeth. After completing his training at Dartmouth in 1940, he served with distinction in the Royal Navy. Although the Prince became the husband of the Church of England’s Supreme Governor, he had been baptised as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. To complicate things, his Danish and German ancestors belonged to the Lutheran tradition and Philip explored that connection when he was in Germany. From his time at Dartmouth onwards, though, he felt at home as an Anglican, and when he became engaged to Princess Elizabeth in 1947 he was formally received into the Church of England by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. The rest, as they say, is history.
The outsider had become an insider, but he never forgot the difficulties and humiliations of his early years and among the good causes with which he was associated as honorary member or patron, there were a number which, like the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, provide support for people who are excluded by circumstances or disability from sharing fully in the life of the world around them. Above all this, though, was his support for Queen Elizabeth and the sometimes strained and frustrated self-effacement which for the 73 years of their marriage placed her first. One obituary notice described the Prince as a “pioneer of the ‘New Man’” – though he might not have been everyone’s idea of a feminist icon.
Prince Philip’s death leaves a gaping wound in the life of his wife and family, inevitably, but also in the life of the monarchy. For now, though, let us focus on those other wounds, which Thomas was invited to touch, the wounds by which we are healed, and let us remember that as Thomas the outsider draws near to the wounds of the risen Christ he recognises in them the love to which no one is an outsider, the Love who reigns over all humankind as Lord and God, restoring all things to life and wholeness in himself.
Easter Day (4.4.2021)
Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
It is so good to say those words in a church with people in it! Last Easter we were in lockdown without an exception for attending church. Even when we came out of lockdown it was a bit like the raising of Lazarus, coming back to something like normal life, but bound hand and foot. This year, perhaps our Easter celebrations will be a better reflection of the Lord’s break-out from the realm of death into a life that has been transformed by what we have experienced.
We don’t know. The story isn’t finished for us, as it wasn’t for the two Maries and Salome when they came at sunrise to the tomb where Jesus had been laid in a hurry just before the beginning of the Sabbath. They came to do the things which were always done to honour the dead, and which they hadn’t had time to do two days earlier as the sun headed toward the horizon and all work stopped. For them it would have been a kind of way back to normality – even if it was a normality without Jesus. So to find the stone rolled back, and a young man, very much alive, sitting in the place where they had expected to find Jesus lying dead, must have been a shattering experience. No wonder they ran away in terror and amazement.
And that’s where St Mark’s story ends. There are no reports of later resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, or in Galilee, or on the road to Emmaus. “[The women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s it. Some Christians, quite early on, found that ending so disturbing, so distressing, that they added their own endings, to round things off “properly”.
So why does Mark leave us hanging in the air? Partly, I suspect, because he loves to present a challenge, something for his readers to get their teeth into. He gives us the evidence. He asks us to draw our own conclusions. He is also, I think, making the point that the Good News of Jesus cannot have “a proper ending”. It can’t have a proper ending, because it is still going on, in your life and in mine – and in the life of everyone who has been through the experience that St Paul describes in that passage from his letter to the Christians of Rome which we heard earlier.
In a church which routinely baptises babies and young children it can sometimes be hard to grasp the point that St Paul is making. In a church which routinely baptises babies and young children at the beginning of life it is hard for ministers to speak of baptism as a death, but a death is necessary if we are to enter that “newness of life” about which Paul writes to the Romans. The death which is necessary is the death of our ego, the “false self”, as Thomas Merton called it, the “old self” to which Paul referred in our first reading. That is the self which refers everything to “me”, which judges everything on the basis of “my” interest or “my” advantage and which seeks always to be in control.
That self has to die if we are to be reborn. To follow Jesus is to give up control and never to take the road “onward and upward” in the sense that the world understands it. In Holy Week some of us followed the poet Dante Alighieri down into the depths of hell as we explored his great poem “La Commedia”. To follow Jesus is to travel downward to the place of crucifixion, dying with Christ so that we will also live with him. For some that death comes in a single transforming moment, a life-changing event, maybe, an experience of deep love, or great suffering. For others it comes in a series of little deaths, the acceptance of a discipline, the abandonment of cherished status or ambition, whether voluntary or involuntary: the kind of descent that we saw in the life of Dante thrust down from serious political power into life-long homelessness and exile. There’s something of that descent, too, in what many of us have experienced during these past twelve months of restriction and isolation. But it is in these ways that we draw closer to the living Christ, “united with him in a death like his” so that we may be “united with him in a resurrection like his”. Not “getting back to normal” but living here, now, in the light of God, as we walk with the risen Christ in newness of life.
Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Maundy Thursday (1.4.2021)
In many ways, this is the hardest part of the story before the actual crucifixion. Jesus, kneeling at the feet of his disciples, getting on with the job of washing their feet – the job which was usually allotted to the lowliest household slave. No wonder Peter lost it completely. Judging by what’s been appearing on Anglican twitter over the past couple of days, there are a lot of people out there who feel a similar discomfort, although not always for the same reasons. Some worry, as Peter did, about the way in which foot-washing at the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday turns hierarchies upside down. Others worry because it doesn’t. “You still have to be ordained to take the role of Jesus” was one complaint I saw. Others again, because of the modern emphasis on friendship, rather than discipleship, as the core of the relationship between Jesus and the people around him, can’t see why there’s a problem at all.
Perhaps they need to pay more attention to Peter’s opening words when Jesus kneels in front of him with the bowl and the towel: ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ They also need to listen more carefully to what Jesus says when he returns to his place at the table: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.’ There is a relationship here which is not that of friendship – that comes later, in chapter 15. The relationship here is that of master and pupil, and within that relationship Jesus’ behaviour is unthinkable.
It is also an acted parable of what is about to happen. Foot-washing was a slave’s task. Crucifixion was a slave’s death – the slave’s death according to Roman writers. Jesus is not only providing his disciples with an example of service, nor simply setting out teaching on the once-for-all nature of baptism: “One who has bathed does not need to wash,… but is entirely clean.” Jesus is showing the disciples just how low he will stoop in order to complete the task ahead of him. Right at the beginning of this evening’s gospel, John remarks: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And the Greek word τελος which is here translated as “end” is the root of the last word Jesus utters from the cross, τετελεσται: “It is finished”.
For the Son of God to love his own who were in the world “to the end” means his being prepared to take the very worst that the world can throw at him. Love “to the end” means that descent about which St Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi in our first reading on Sunday, reminding them that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Love “to the end” also means that Christ’s descent enables our ascent. As another John, John Donne, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London who died 390 years ago yesterday, said in the sermon which he preached at evensong on Christmas Day 1624: “One of the most convenient hieroglyphics of God is a circle, and a circle is endless; whom God loves, he loves to the end; and not only to their own end, to their death, but to his end, and his end is, that he might love them still.”
So, this evening, we share in the meal which is the sign and symbol of that endless love, the reminder that, however far we fall, Christ is beneath us, his arms outstretched to catch us and bear us up. And, as we receive the bread which is “his body that is for us”, we remember that “as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Not only in symbolic action, but in lives reflecting the love of our Teacher and Lord.
Palm Sunday (28.3.2021)
One of the most powerful images of recent weeks has been the video clip of Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a Catholic nun in Myanmar, kneeling in front of a group of armed police in riot gear and begging them to shoot her, rather than the children who were in the crowd behind her, demonstrating against the military take-over of their country. Sister Ann’s courage was a stark reminder that thousands of people in Myanmar are following Jesus along the way of the cross, not as a devout religious exercise, but in deadly earnest. Yesterday more than ninety people were killed by the “security forces”, among them a number of children.
The powers whose cruelty brought Jesus to the cross have been decisively defeated by his sacrifice, but they have not disappeared. They still try to deceive the world into following their way of brutality and violence. They still mock and jeer at those who resist them. They still seek to make us afraid, to divide and rule, to overturn the will of God and crucify the Son of God afresh. Some of us have seen them in action at close quarters. Some of us still bear the scars, mental and spiritual as well as physical, from that encounter.
But as we ponder the story Mark tells and as we let it enter the depths of our understanding, the depths of our being, we realise that what appears to be the moment of crushing, final defeat is the moment of victory. That victory is marked by the officer in charge of the execution squad. “When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” Something of that is reflected in the photograph of Sr Ann, where two of the armed police facing her also kneel. Like the centurion, they seem to be acknowledging that in her helplessness, which mirrors the helplessness of Jesus, the total aloneness of Jesus, God is made known. In Jesus, God has identified with humankind in life and in death. God invites us to follow Jesus on the way of sacrificial obedience so that we, with him, may find that death is the gateway to eternal life.
The Annunciation (25.3.2021)
Luke’s story on which we focus today has inspired some of the most beautiful art and some of the best-loved words and music in the world. Many of the carols and hymns that we sing at Christmas belong more properly to this day. Painters, sculptors, glaziers and metal-workers, poets, composers and jobbing musicians have given of their best to celebrate the story that we heard in our gospel reading. Powerful men have, like the angel, bowed their knee before the young woman who stands at the centre of those pictures and sculptures. One English statesman of the High Middle Ages was fascinated by this story to the point of obsession. He had it carved above each entrance to the educational establishments which he founded. It features in the richly jewelled “M” which he left to one of them, and tiny golden figures of Mary and the angel were once soldered to the crook of the staff which he carried as a bishop.
This story features so powerfully in Western culture because, despite its strangeness to contemporary ears, it sets out a vision for humankind which is not about wealth and power, not about the great and the good, not about violence, not about suspicion and hatred. It is about a world made whole through the birth of a child, a child in whom heaven and earth touch. It is about the moment when God reveals himself not as cruelty or coercion but as boundless, unconditional love, love which transcends every human category, every human division, every way in which human beings label and marginalise and dismiss other human beings.
In order to understand that we need to set Mary’s fearless response to the divine messenger against the fearful response of King Ahaz to political events eight centuries earlier. We need to set the promise of healing, renewal and hope through a pregnancy and a birth against the ultimate futility of the present multitude of deaths. We need to understand that God is with us, with us beyond the shame and the name-calling which surrounded Jesus and those who follow him, with us in our living and our dying, with us beyond death. We recognise that in him the whole of humanity is accepted by God, that there is no “us” and no “them”.
It’s quite hard to do that in these days of “culture wars” and political polarisation, but that fourteenth-century statesman, and the artists and the sculptors, the poets and musicians who, down the ages, have given today’s commemoration a central place in their art and in their writing are all of them wiser than the bloggers, the influencers, the talk-show hosts who look on events as an opportunity to spread as widely as possible the rage and fear that they feel.
As we mourn the deaths of so many in the pandemic, we pause to look at the life which makes sense of every life, the life which began in the womb of a perplexed young woman in Nazareth and ended on a gibbet outside Jerusalem. In that ending we see a death that gives meaning and value to all those other deaths – to all deaths – and we catch a glimpse of what it means to talk of the child whose birth we shall celebrate in nine months’ time as Emmanuel, God with us.
Each day during Lent we are sharing a poem to guide us through the deepening shadow of these weeks. Today, as we pause for a moment to look to the Light which that shadow can never put out, I’m going to share with you some words from a poem which isn’t part of that series. It’s by Malcolm Guite, who invites us to look beyond the headlines, into the depths of reality where life and love overcome death and hatred, and to share in celebration of what he calls “that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time.”
We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.
Lent 5 (21.3.2021)
On this day four hundred and sixty-five years ago a man in his mid-sixties – quite an age in those days; not such a big deal now, even in these pandemic-ridden times – was dragged out of the pulpit of the University Church in Oxford and hurried 400 metres or so to where a large wooden stake had been fixed in the ground outside the gate of Balliol College. Around the stake bundles of wood were piled up and the leaders of the crowd which had dragged him out of church tied him to the stake and set light to the bundles of wood.
This barbaric execution, one among three hundred or so that took place across England between 1555 and 1558, was supposed to be a triumph for the government of the day, and especially for the queen, Mary Tudor. It was intended to mark the final overthrow of the Reformation in England, the completion of the queen’s vengeance on the men who had destroyed her mother’s marriage and brought her own legitimacy into question, and a final step toward reconciling the English Church with the Pope in Rome. In fact, the only one of those aims that she achieved was vengeance against the man who had been her father’s, and then her brother’s, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. If anything, the queen’s persecution of those who held fast to the Reformation made sure that the Bishop of Rome would, for many generations, be regarded, to quote Cranmer’s last words before they pulled him from the pulpit, “as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.”
So why am I telling you all this, particularly after a week in which ministers from several different traditions, including the Catholic archbishop and the Lutheran, Baptist, Valdese and Anglican clergy, have agreed to take the first steps to set up a body which will go beyond old divisions and be a voice for most, though perhaps not all, of the Christian churches in this city?
Well, partly it’s because of today’s anniversary, but more importantly it’s because what happened to Thomas Cranmer on this day nearly 500 years ago, is an almost perfect example of what Jesus said in this morning’s gospel. Let’s hear the Lord’s words again: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Now, when Thomas Cranmer was arrested in autumn 1553, he was imprisoned, with other senior clergy, first in the Tower of London, and then in Oxford. They were put on trial, found guilty and condemned to death: but because Cranmer was archbishop, he had to wait for a formal sentence to come from Rome. Two bishops tried alongside him, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were dealt with more quickly. They died in the flames in October 1554 – and Cranmer was made to watch, so that he knew what to expect.
Then, two months later, Cranmer was released from prison in Oxford and put under house arrest as the “guest” of the head of one of the university’s colleges. This change for the better was too much for Cranmer and he cracked. He realised that he loved life. He loved books. He loved being able to talk with other scholars. So he rejected, in writing, all that he had said and done as archbishop, hoping that this would win him life and freedom. But the queen was unmoved. She blamed Cranmer for her mother’s divorce. She wanted him dead.
When he knew that, Cranmer wrote one more statement, to be read out in St Mary’s Church before he was executed – but he wrote it with two endings. One version he handed over to the authorities. The other, which reaffirmed his role in the Reformation, he kept – and that was the one that he read out on the day of his execution. What mattered to him, in the end, was not loving this life at the cost of losing his integrity. What mattered to him was keeping the faith that he had taught in his scholarly writings, in his sermons and, above all, in his two Prayer Books, and keeping it for eternal life. So Thomas Cranmer’s death became a seed which for nearly five centuries has borne much fruit, not only in England, but around the world as Christians from England have gone out to share the good news of Jesus Christ, by whose death on the cross all people are reconciled to God.
Lent 4 (14.3.2021)
There is always something slightly strange about Mothering Sunday. On the one hand, today is the day when we give thanks to God not only for our birth mothers but for all who have nurtured us, and cared for us, and reflected for us something of the God who, in the words of the hymn, “from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love.” But, on the other hand, both our readings today are about pain and loss: Hannah giving up her longed-for child to the service of God’s sanctuary in Shiloh; Mary listening to the words of Simeon as he holds her six-week-old son in his arms and tells her, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
In Europe and North America, people are conditioned to believe that “motherhood and apple pie” are part of the natural order of things, simple and uncomplicated. But that is not true and never has been. Parenthood, and motherhood in particular, has always been about loss. I remember my wife telling me on the day our son started school, how difficult she had found it to leave him there and come home. A faint reflection, perhaps, of what Hannah felt when she took Samuel to Shiloh and “left him there for the Lord.” If you have been following our “Poems for Lent” project on Facebook, or on the website, you will have read the tragic story behind yesterday’s poem, how Ellen Robinson lost her husband and two young daughters in the space of three years: her sorrow for them a sword of grief as sharp as the one Simeon prophesied for Mary. And, toward the end of last week, yet another school kidnapping in Northern Nigeria, the third so far this year, has left that sword piercing the families of 39 missing students.
So, on Mothering Sunday, we remember not only those who have mothered us, but those who bear the pain of separation from their children and those who know the piercing agony that is caused by the sharp sword of a child’s death. We remember, too, those mothers who have died before their time, especially those who have died at the hands of someone who shared their life.
In the Italy last year 91 women were killed by violent men, 81 within the family. On the website of the Ministero di Salute there’s a note on the page “violenza sulle donne” (violence against women) that more than 30% of women in this country – that’s nearly one woman in three – have experienced violence of one sort or another, with the worst violence being perpetrated by a partner (or ex-partner), a parent, or a friend. And please don’t think that that is someone else’s problem “out there”! Members of the congregation who have been around for longer than I have will recall that four or five years ago one of our church members suffered such a serious beating at the hands of her partner that she spent several weeks in hospital and nearly lost her sight.
So what are we going to do about it? And by “we” I mean us men. The word that was missing from the heading of that web-page was “maschile”. That “violence against women” doesn’t come from nowhere. 97% of it is carried out by men and it comes out of a culture of what can only be described as toxic masculinity, a masculinity which is about power and control – yes, and “violence against women” of all kinds, verbal, physical, psychological, sexual.
That is not the way of Jesus Christ. On at least one occasion in the Gospels Jesus stands between a woman and a hostile male crowd. He treats women as equal to men in a culture in which they very often weren’t. And at the end, when the sword of sorrow is indeed piercing Mary’s heart as she stands at the foot of her son’s cross, he entrusts her and the disciple whom he loved to each other’s care. He entrusts us, too, to one another’s care as sisters and brothers in Christ. Each of us, whether male or female, is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit. Each of us has a responsibility to teach that truth to any who defile that temple by their actions, their looking or their language.
But today is still a day of thanksgiving in which children and adults, women and men can join together in gratitude to God for those who have mothered us and to ask that by God’s grace women and men together may become more and more part of the same stream of nurturing, life-giving love.
Lent 3 (7.3.2021)
It’s a dramatic scene. Jesus, waving something like the scourge which will so shred the skin on his own back later in the Gospel, bursts into the courtyard of Jerusalem’s holiest building, drives out the animals intended for sacrifice – and those who sold them – turns over the tables of the money-changers and sent their coins flying, and gives those who were selling the small birds offered by poor families their marching orders. What must it have looked like? What would it have felt like?
This morning I’m going to invite us to step into the picture that John paints so vividly. Where are you? What are you doing? What are you feeling? Are you one of the people selling livestock for sacrifice? How does it feel to watch your animals being driven out of the building? Do you go after them? What do you want to say to Jesus? What do you want to do to Jesus? Are you a money-changer, providing the right coinage so that pilgrims can pay their dues to the temple? They couldn’t use Roman money to do that. It had to be Tyrian coins, so you were providing a service – and making a tidy profit on the deal. How do you feel when your table is overturned and you see all of your money rolling across the courtyard, getting mixed up with everyone else’s? All your capital, all your income – gone, just like that!
Are you one of the bystanders? Are you on your way to pray? Are you just looking around? How does this sudden uproar make you feel? Are you frightened? Are you angry at the disturbance of the routine in this holy place? Or are you someone who has queued patiently to buy your ox, or your sheep, or your doves for sacrifice – and suddenly that has gone, driven out by this strange young man from Galilee. How do you feel? And how do you feel if you are one of the people waiting to change a few denarii so that you can pay your dues to the temple authorities? How do you feel if you see the coins you need rolling around your feet, and wonder if there’s anyone to stop you picking them up? What does that feel like? And how do you feel if you have just changed your money – and paid a large commission?
Or are you one of the people who run the temple, a priest or Levite, say, perhaps a singer or one of the temple police? What’s your reaction to this disruption to the orderly life of the house of God – not to mention the loss of income and the effect on pilgrims and other visitors? How do you feel? What are you thinking?
Perhaps you’re one of the disciples. You’ve come with Jesus from Galilee. You’ve seen him in action. You saw what he did at that wedding in Cana. Has that prepared you for this? Did he warn you what he was going to do? So, what does it feel like, finding out that your teacher is capable of quite violent direct action? What does it feel like watching him set himself against some of the most powerful people in Jerusalem? Is it exciting? Or is it frightening? Do you want to go home to Galilee right now, or do you want to stay around and see what happens next?
Think about that for a minute. Picture where you are in this scene and how you are reacting. Picture what you want to say to Jesus and what he is saying to you…
… And come back. Come back from the world of John’s Gospel. Come back to this world in which people are still being exploited, and excluded, in the name of religion. Come back to this world in which people still lose sight of God in their concern to keep the building standing or the system running. Come back to this world in which people who take direct action for the sake of truth and justice are still being pushed to the margins or killed, a world in which people demand, as the temple authorities demanded, a sign that authorises such action.
And listen to what Jesus said to those temple authorities: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Not the building that had been under construction nearly half a century. That would be destroyed by the Romans less than two decades after it was finished. “[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body.” There is no longer the need for a single holy place in which God may be met by human beings. God and humanity meet in Jesus, crucified and risen, present with us today in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Lent 2 (28.2.2021)
Last Sunday we followed Jesus from his baptism in the river Jordan, through the wilderness where he was tested by “the adversary”, to his arrival in Galilee after John was arrested and his first steps in proclaiming the good news of God. This morning, at the halfway point of Mark’s Gospel, we find him in the far north of Palestine, not far from a big city with an important pagan sanctuary. We pick up the story just after Jesus has asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter has replied “You are the Messiah.”
Now, that was a title with a lot of baggage attached to it in terms of what people expected, so Jesus shut down discussion very quickly. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Instead he started to warn the disciples what was going to happen. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Notice that he doesn’t pick up Peter’s word “Messiah”, which had strong political overtones to do with power and kingship and the restoration of Israel’s status in the world. The title “Son of Man” has very different overtones. In the Book of Daniel, the Son of Man is the figure who stands in the court of heaven to vindicate God’s suffering people in their struggle against the wild beasts who, as we saw last week, represent the powers of this world.
But, as Jesus warns the disciples, the struggle will be demanding. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The powers of this world aren’t only political. Religious leaders, too, can be more focused on protecting their own power and position than on righting justice and ending oppression; and they can lash out against anyone who appears to threaten their power or position in any way. Mark tell us that Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter couldn’t bear it. He tries to stop Jesus talking in this way. And Jesus again shuts down discussion. And how! Peter is told he is on a level with Jesus’ adversary in the wilderness.
Then Jesus spells out what it means to follow him, not just for Peter, not just for the disciples, but for anyone who happened to be listening in. This message is not for a “sweet selected few”. This is for everyone, including us. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” That is a message which has been treated as if it is spiritual and private. Have you ever heard people say “It’s a cross I have to bear” about a personal problem? Or talk about “self-denial” in terms of giving up chocolate for Lent? That isn’t how the people listening to Jesus would have understood it. In Wednesday’s talk about St Mark’s account of the suffering and death of Jesus we were reminded that crucifixion was the punishment handed out to runaway slaves, to rebels, to brigands and murderers, to anyone who challenged the power of Rome. These words of Jesus are a challenge to the crowd, and to us, to work out where we stand when we are faced with the choice between suffering alongside him for truth and right or colluding with evil and falsehood, even though they may come dressed up in religious clothing.
There are many thousands, if not millions, of our sisters and brothers in Christ who are faced with this choice every day. In China, in parts of India, in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Africa – including parts of Nigeria – to be known as a Christian is to run a very real risk of suffering physical violence, imprisonment, even death. In this country, too, people have died because they put their loyalty to Jesus our Lord above the demands of totalitarian governments or organised crime. One of them, Rosario Livatino, who was a judge in Sicily, will be recognised officially by the Catholic Church in a couple of months’ time as someone who was faithful to Christ’s call to follow the way of truth and justice, even though it cost him his life. Jesus invites us to stand alongside these our brothers and sisters, in our prayers, in acts of solidarity and practical support where we can. In standing alongside them we are standing alongside him, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Lent 1 (21.2.2021)
Yesterday afternoon, I gave way to temptation. When we were in church, getting ready for this morning, Peter told me that the cleaner we use for the floor was running low and asked me to get a fresh supply from Carrefour. I was very happy to do that. It would allow me to pick up food for today’s lunch, and a couple of other things. But when I went into the supermarket, I saw that they had the year’s first strawberries on sale – and at an absurdly low price. It was very tempting. And I fell. I bought a half-kilo punnet.
Now, I tell that story because it shows how people (me included) usually think about “temptation”. We usually think of it as being about self-indulgence when we know we really shouldn’t. And it usually involves food, money or sex. Nothing could be further from what St Mark tells us about Jesus in today’s gospel. Unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark doesn’t attempt to spell out in detail what went on. He simply tells us that “[Jesus] was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” But what went on was about much more than food, money or sex. What went on was a cosmic struggle between God and evil, the struggle for which Jesus had been prepared by his baptism. Jesus is not being “tempted” – not in the way in which we usually understand the word. He is being “tested”. That’s the fundamental meaning of the Greek word which Mark (along with Luke and Matthew) uses in telling this part of the story.
So, perhaps we need to rethink our approach. This short passage in St Mark’s Gospel divides into three distinct sections: first, the baptism of Jesus; second, the temptation, the testing, in the wilderness; and third, the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of what Mark calls “the good news of God”. As Mark makes clear, the first two are linked very closely together. It’s the Spirit which descends on Jesus like a dove at his baptism who also drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. It’s the Spirit, too, who by descending on Jesus prepares for the voice from heaven, marking him out as the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased.
Somebody once said that reading Mark’s Gospel is a bit like a reading a detective story when someone has already told you how it ends. In the prologue to his Gospel – that’s what the first thirteen verses of this chapter are – in the prologue to his Gospel, Mark gives the game away several times. And he does it deliberately. Mark wants his readers to be sure that Jesus is indeed the Son, the Beloved; with whom God is well pleased. He wants them to realise that when the heavens split open it’s a fulfilment of the prophet’s prayer “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”, to rescue God’s people from the power of their adversaries. He wants them to realise that when the Spirit descends like a dove and hovers over the waters of the river Jordan it marks the beginning of a new creation, as it did when all things began and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos.
And there’s more. Jesus is the one in whom God will rescue his people. Yes. Jesus is the one in whom God’s new creation is beginning. Yes again. But Jesus is also the one who leads God’s people through the wilderness before they reach the land of promise and Jesus is the “one like a human being” in Daniel’s terrifying vision, the one who is presented before God when the wild beasts, who represent the powers of this world, are overcome and their dominion is taken away.
St Mark wants his readers to be sure about Jesus as the one in whom God is fulfilling God’s purposes, not just for Israel but for all humankind. Mark wants his readers to be sure, because he wants them to follow – and he knows that the way ahead will be a hard one. There will be stiffer tests than deciding whether or not to buy early-season Spanish strawberries. Stiffer tests even than living in a time of pandemic. As we follow Jesus through Lent we shall relearn that lesson. We shall also relearn, I hope, that God is faithful to the new covenant with humankind which has been sealed not in the setting of God’s bow in the clouds, but in the death of the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased, the covenant which we renew each time we share in the Eucharist.
Ash Wednesday (17.2.2021)
When news came that Calvin Coolidge, the famously laconic and laid-back 30th President of the USA, was dead, the writer Dorothy Parker is said to have asked “How could they tell?” It’s tempting to make a similar response to the news that today is the first day of Lent.
If Lent is indeed the season of self-examination, fasting and self-denial, then the past twelve months have been a year-long Lent, a grey time of loss, for many, whether of loved ones or health or employment. It has been a time limitation and of enforced solitariness, for all except a fortunate few. So how can we tell the difference? How can we make the difference, between this season and the time that has gone before and the time that will follow? Our being in zona arancione already forces on us a way of life which is marked by that Lenten motif of “giving up” – even such simple pleasures as meeting friends for a coffee in the bar next door.
Well, we could do a lot worse than take the advice of one of my favourite Lenten hymns. Percy Dearmer’s “White Lent” [full text linked below] was written a hundred years ago for “Songs of Praise”. It isn’t in many other hymn-books but it made a huge impression on me when I was a child, because we used “Songs of Praise” at school and we sang this hymn every spring. It helps that it has a brilliant tune, borrowed from the traditional French noël, “Quittez, pasteurs”. But instead of being about the shepherds leaving their sheep as they go to the cradle of the new-born Jesus, it’s about all of God’s people leaving our “care, and anxious fear and worry” and heading off “To where God’s glory flashes, His beauty to come nigh, To fly where truth and light do lie.”
In other words, it’s about not beating ourselves up for our sinfulness, real or imagined; “To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes or rend the soul”. Nor is it about practising our piety before others. Rather it’s about looking out for the signs of God’s presence and heading toward them.
Now, halfway through that hymn something strange and wonderful happens. Dearmer begins with the sounds of Lent: “bells call and clash and hurry”, summoning God’s people to prayer, and inviting them to “come buy with love the love most high”. Dearmer also brings in the sights of an English Lent, “spring… pied with brightness; The sweetest flowers, Keen winds, and sun, and showers, Their health do bring”. But then in the second half of the hymn he moves on to Lent as a focus for righteous action, for generosity of spirit, for healing. In fact, the last three verses turn into an extended riff, almost word for word, on the central section of this morning’s first reading.
“For is not this The fast that I have chosen? – The prophet spoke – To shatter every yoke, Of wickedness The grievous bands to loosen, Oppression put to flight, To fight till every wrong’s set right.”
Now that is something we can do, even in zona arancione. There are still hungry people to be fed, wrongs to be redressed, oppressive situations to be brought out of shadowy corners into the light of day. That can be a struggle, costly work – and work that is not to be done for show. Jesus warns his disciples firmly against making a song and dance about their alms-giving, or their prayer, or their fasting. Those who do have their reward already. But those who don’t make a fuss about their engagement with the world’s need, whether by active well-doing, or by intercession in fasting and prayer, or both, will find the prophet’s promise come true in them.
To quote Percy Dearmer’s verse paraphrase: “Then shall your light Break forth as doth the morning; Your health shall spring, The friends you make shall bring God’s glory bright, Your way through life adorning And love shall be the prize.” There is light, and life, and hope, even in the midst of pandemic. This Lent they invite us to lift our eyes from preoccupation with our own fears and anxieties and turn them to see the people around us, giving thanks for all those whose quiet fulfilment of their everyday responsibilities bears witness to that “love most high” which sustains us and the whole creation and which has been revealed to us as the Father who sees in secret.
Those who would like to read the full text of Percy Dearmer’s “White Lent” can find it here with commentary by Eleanor Parker (otherwise “A Clerk of Oxford”):
Sunday next before Lent (14.2.2021)
Why Moses and Elijah? Why did they appear with Jesus on the mountain? Why not another of the great figures from the story of Israel: Abraham, say, or Jacob, King David, or the prophet Isaiah? Ah, said the old-time preachers, it’s because Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets and Jesus fulfils both. That is why he is “transfigured” in the presence of Peter, James and John.
Well, that’s certainly a believable way to understand this episode, but there’s another reason, too, for Moses and Elijah to be the ones who appeared: one which is at the same time simpler and more profound. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the mountain because both of them had gone up a mountain to find God. There, I told you it was simple!
But they hadn’t just gone up a mountain to find God. They had also, in a sense, gone up a mountain to escape from a situation of deep discouragement, a world which was getting out of control. Moses had had his message rejected by the people of Israel. Elijah was in hiding, in fear for his life because after his triumph over the prophets of Baal Queen Jezebel had threatened to kill him. In each case they had found God, or God had found them: and God had not just patted them on the head and said “There, there”. God had confirmed each of them in the task they were to carry out. The task for Moses was to return to his people and become their lawgiver as well as their leader. The task for Elijah was to go back and prepare for the hand-over of his responsibility as the conscience of his people, to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place and to prepare for that parting whose dramatic story we heard in today’s first reading.
Now, as God had given Moses and Elijah a task to carry out when they came down from the mountain, so he gave Jesus a task: and, from this coming Wednesday and for the next six weeks we shall follow Jesus as he completes that task, which is nothing less than the task of opening, by his death, the door to God’s kingdom for all people, reconciling the whole of poor, sinful, screwed-up humankind to his heavenly Father.
From now the disciples will not be following Jesus around Galilee. From now on the disciples will be following him along the road south, the road which will lead them, in the end, to Jerusalem. As they follow, other clouds are going to cast their deepening shadows around Jesus; and there isn’t going to be a reassuring voice from those clouds. Those clouds will overshadow him with fear, abandonment, betrayal, torture and death.
But now, this morning, we have just for a moment a foretaste of Easter, a foretaste of the glory of God’s Son, the Beloved, a foretaste which the disciples are sure to misunderstand – as Peter had misunderstood what it meant to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. Peter misunderstands again, here, trying to hang on to the moment rather than recognise what it means. ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ That is why the voice comes from the cloud with a particular message: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ And that is why, when Jesus speaks, he is so stern with the disciples:
“As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
“He ordered them to tell no one.” Jesus steers Peter, James and John away from making a big thing of their vision. He steers them back to its meaning: that he has been confirmed in the task laid upon him at his baptism – that other time when a voice was heard from heaven affirming his Sonship. The task that has been laid upon him is the one about which he has already spoken to the disciples, and about which the disciples were most unwilling to hear. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter couldn’t bear it. No more can we, most of the time. Jesus calls us not to worship him but to follow him into the heart of the pain and sorrow of the world. In these coming weeks let us do just that, for there is no other way by which we can come to his resurrection.
2nd Sunday before Lent (7.2.2021)
I read recently that when work was being done, some years ago, to prepare for the new heating system and floor, preliminary tests showed that as many as seven layers of paint had been applied to the walls between 1872 and 2010. Some of it was, in the words of the old song, a case of “Slap-dab! Slap-dab! Up and down the brickwork”. Some of it was really rather beautiful, though very badly faded, like those patterns and floral decorations that you can see on the wall above the porch.
Now, it may sound far-fetched to compare the text of St John’s Gospel with the paintwork on the church walls, but there are different layers that are being uncovered as we read. They aren’t, however, layers of paint: they’re layers of meaning. As they are in today’s Gospel. The language is very simple. The way it is used isn’t. In English-language Bibles we have that wonderful first sentence which we hear at the climax of the Christmas carol service and at the Eucharist on Christmas morning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Only one word there is longer than four letters and all of them are easy to understand.
Except that, when you look at them closely, they aren’t. A great Church leader from Africa sixteen centuries ago said “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” Even leaving aside the impossibility of explaining “God”, we find ourselves struggling to unpack what “the Word” means – or at least, to make sense of the huge range of meanings which St John’s original Greek includes. It can mean “word”, as it is translated here. It can mean “argument”. It can mean “reason”. It can also mean “thought”, “speech”, “story”, “account” – including the financial sense – “proportion”, “principle”. A wise American priest I know has suggested that we might even translate it as “blue-print”, which would make a great deal of sense when we read today’s gospel alongside those words from the letter to the Colossians which formed our first reading.
A blue-print is a drawing of a piece of architecture or engineering which shows anyone who looks at it how the subject of the drawing is put together and how it works. So, if that American priest is right, then it ought to be possible to look at what the New Testament writers say about Jesus and to read off from that how not a machine or a building, but the whole universe, is put together and how it works. That certainly seems to be what St John is suggesting when he writes that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Those words are echoed in today’s first reading. That began with the words, “Christ 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.” This is what scholars mean when they talk about “the cosmic Christ” – not simply the earthly Jesus, who “became flesh and lived among us”, but the eternal Word who “was in the beginning with God.”
What that means is that if we want to read off from the human scale of our Jesus blue-print how the universe works then we can see three things in particular. The first is freedom. God never compels his creatures. Faced with arrest, torture and death, Jesus didn’t prevent Judas from handing him over to the authorities. God gives freedom to every thing and every person that he has made, even to a virus, for good or ill. The second is self-giving. In healing, in teaching, in suffering, in dying, Jesus reveals that God is in it with us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” And the third is love. In the series of visions which she received at the height of a serious illness, Julian of Norwich saw “a little thing the size of a hazelnut”. As she looked at it she wondered what it might be and received the answer, ‘It is all that is made.’ She was amazed that something so small and fragile did not disintegrate, until she realised that it stays in being because God loves it, loves it so much that God chooses to live in it – and to die for its healing. “Through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” God invites us, as Christ’s body here on earth, to continue that work of healing and reconciliation.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple (31.1.2021)
Today we reach the end of our Christmas celebration and our thoughts begin to turn toward Lent, and beyond that, Easter. It’s a bitter-sweet celebration as we hear again the words of the old man Simeon, prophesying that this six-week-old child child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory” to Israel, but also offering that stark warning to his mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
There’s an extra poignancy this year, as we remember all those in whose memory people around the world have been lighting candles in recent days, and as we come to terms with what we have learned in the last forty-eight hours: that members of our congregation may have been in contact with the virus. So we are praying for them and taking what precautions we can, so that this church does not become a “hot-spot” spreading the infection. That means no Communion this morning. It means no gathering here on Wednesday as we wait to hear the results of their tests.
If the tests are positive, it may mean that we have to close the building for a while. If we do have to do that, we shall begin again with online services as we did during the first lock-down last year. We will also try to find ways of keeping the food bank running. And, above all, we will continue with those ways of providing spiritual food that we developed during last year’s lock-down and which have continued ever since: the daily pause for thought on the church’s Facebook page; the regular reflections on the gospel reading for Wednesdays and saints’ days; the occasional links to pictures and musical performances of different kinds. All of this will, I hope, help us to pray together and reflect together even if we cannot meet together.
We hope, of course, that none of this will, in the end, be necessary. We will do our best to keep everyone informed about what is happening, so please make sure that we have your details. I am in the process of updating our contact list from the “Welcome Book”. If your details aren’t there, please make sure that you add them today before you go.
Now, all of what I have just said has been very much on the “a sword will pierce your heart” side of things. I know from last spring how painful it was for many of us not to be able to gather round the Lord’s table to share in the meal which he left for his friends. I know how painful it was not to meet and greet – and still is, in this situation where we cannot share an aperitivo at the end of the Eucharist. But at the heart of everything we do, whether together or on our own, is the one whose presentation in the temple we celebrate today.
Jesus our Lord is still the light who reveals God’s glory, even as the shadows close around him in Holy Week, even in the gloom of continuing pandemic. The Lord whom we seek will still, in the words of the prophet, “suddenly come to his temple” – and never forget that “his temple” is no longer a building but people, “living stones”, as the first letter of Peter calls them. St Paul reminded the first community of Christians in Corinth “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That applies to us, too. Whether we are gathered together or scattered in the places where we live and work the light of Christ still shines within us and, I hope, through us, enabling us to share confidence and hope with those around us.
That does not mean acting as though the virus is no big deal. It does not mean trusting that God will see us through, because we’re Christian, however we behave. The number of deaths that have been caused by that sort of attitude (especially in the USA) is frightening. What it does mean is doing all that we can to keep our neighbour safe, wearing a mask, washing our hands, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves and others. It also means holding those who are ill or at risk in our prayers and praying regularly for those on the front line – which means not only the people working in health care and social care, but all the people who keep the public services operating, in public transport, refuse collection, shop workers, the post office, teachers. Their work enables us to live. Let us hold them with thanksgiving in the light of Jesus the Lord of life.
Epiphany 3 (24.1.2021)
Weddings have been very much in the news recently. Three weeks ago we heard the good news of Kingsley Kalu’s wedding in Nigeria to his MaryCynthia. Less good news was a report from London about the police operation to close down a wedding celebration at which around 150 people were present. The maximum allowed under lockdown rules currently in force in England is six. So, our readings today are very topical – and by a strange coincidence one was about a wedding that is good news, and the other was about a wedding that was a disaster – or very nearly.
Our first reading was about a wedding that is good news. It begins with the announcement that “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” That’s an announcement of cosmic good news. Most, if not all, of John the Seer’s first readers would have recognised what it meant: that God’s kingdom will surely arrive in its fullness. Do you remember how in the Gospels, and particularly in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells stories which compare the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast?
So, when the angel tells John, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”, that’s a message of good news for all those who have clung on through hard and difficult times to their faith in Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lamb who, as we heard last week, makes his first appearance in John’s vision “standing as if it had been slaughtered”. The God whom we worship is not far away “out there”, remote and unfeeling. The God whom we worship is with us in all the mess, all the suffering, all the horror. His kingdom is being revealed among us. The marks of slaughter which John saw are the wounds which human beings inflict on one another – and on God, because every human being is made in God’s image and likeness.
God is with us, too, in the everyday disasters. Think about the situation at that wedding in Cana of Galilee. What should have been a day of real celebration, a day like the one that Kingsley and MaryCynthia shared at the beginning of this new year – what should have been a day of real celebration looks as if it is about to become a total disaster.
Not like that wedding in London to which the police were called because there were too many people, but much, much worse. This wedding, in Cana of Galilee, could have ended in total humiliation for the bride and groom, and for their two families. Total humiliation because, as John the Evangelist tells us, “the wine gave out”. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine the disgrace, the humiliation, of being known ever afterwards as the couple at whose wedding the wine gave out? Nor would it have just been the couple. The disgrace would have stuck to their parents, too. Cana of Galilee isn’t a big place even today. Fewer people live there than live in Pegli. So everyone, absolutely everyone, would have known.
But Jesus is there, with his disciples. At first he doesn’t want to get involved, but his mother, who also was one of the guests, takes charge. “[She] said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” The result was that what could so easily have been a disaster is turned into total triumph. John tells us that “the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”
At that point the Evangelist adds a short note: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee.” John never talks about “miracles”. The word he uses to describe the ways in which Jesus changes things is “sign”. Now a sign is something that points beyond itself. So this changing of water into wine isn’t just about helping a young couple and their families out of a deep hole. It points us to the way in which Jesus transforms our everyday life. The water that is changed is the water the family would have used for washing hands before meals, for ritual baths, for washing cutlery and crockery before they were used for the first time. The wine into which it is changed is the life of God’s kingdom, life lived in ever-deepening union with Jesus. That life is begun at our baptism and renewed every time we share in this Eucharist which is a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Epiphany 2 (17.1.2021)
One of the things that becomes clear from a careful reading of the Gospels is the sheer attractiveness of Jesus. There are many stories about people dropping everything (or nearly everything) in order to follow him. There are just as many stories about how people gathered – and gathered in their thousands – to listen to him talk about the kingdom of God. We can see something of that attractiveness in the story of Philip and Nathanael in today’s Gospel, especially in Philip’s excited description of Jesus as “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”.
What is it that makes Jesus so attractive? I think it’s what the Psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness”: not “religiosity”, not an impressive outward show of godliness, but the sense that here is someone who is authentically and intimately close to God, someone in whom and through whom God’s love and goodness is disclosed as fully as it can be in a human life. In Jesus, obviously, such closeness is unique: we are reminded of that every time we say the words of the Nicene Creed, or read the later chapters of John’s Gospel, with their stress on the unity, the mutual indwelling, of the Father and the Son. But it isn’t only in Jesus that we find this.
When I was a curate, thirty-five years ago, my colleagues and I used to compete to visit one particular house in the parish. It was the home of an elderly woman, Mary, a retired civil servant, so disabled by arthritis that she was housebound. We used to tell ourselves that we were doing her a favour by visiting, bringing her news from the world beyond the four walls within which she lived, offering her a half-hour of live human company. But that wasn’t our real motive. If we were honest with ourselves we knew that the main reason we were visiting Mary was that she would minister to us at least as much as we were ministering to her. She didn’t talk about God all the time. You simply sensed that she was close to God, and that closeness somehow rubbed off onto you.
Going back further, to my student days half a century ago, there’s a rather more spectacular example. Imagine a church building about the same size as this one. Perhaps a few metres longer. Imagine that it is so full of people that you cannot move. Every seat in the place was filled. Extra chairs had been put out: they were filled. People were sitting on the floor in the sanctuary, in the spaces between the seats, on the stairs to the organ gallery – that was full of people, too, by the way – and standing room only at the back, which was where I was. In the pulpit there was a man in a black cassock, with a long black beard, talking about the life of prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, then the most senior representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. There was not a sound. Nobody moved. They sat (or stood) and listened in total, rapt, silence. That was repeated every day for a week – and in between whiles Metropolitan Anthony would be out and about in the city and the university, commending the Christian faith as much by who he was as by what he said, gathering people around him, talking to them, answering their questions – even on a street corner in the pouring rain.
What Mary, in her hidden life, and Metropolitan Anthony, in his public ministry, had in common was that unselfconscious closeness to God which was at the centre of their being. In the attractiveness and the simplicity of their own lives they mirrored the attractiveness of Jesus. They didn’t make a huge song and dance about being Christian: they just were. They lived in God’s love. They radiated God’s peace. They reflected God’s wisdom. Like an earlier Anthony in the Egyptian desert eighteen centuries ago, their lives remind us that what draws people to God is not the outward appearance but the inner reality, the inner reality which John the Seer depicts in the image of the Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered”, but ransoming for God “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” and making them, making us, “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God”.
The Baptism of Christ (10.1.2021)
Why on earth did he do it? Why did Jesus Jesus come from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan? Mark spells out why everyone else did: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why did Jesus join them? He didn’t need to “repent”, to change the way he looked at the world. He looked at the world through the eyes of God, not through the distorted vision of the false self like the rest of us. He had no sins to be forgiven. So why did he do it?
Matthew, Luke and John all recognise that there is a problem here and their account of what happened is subtly – or in Matthew’s case, not so subtly – different. Matthew tackles the problem head-on when he reports John as trying to stop Jesus going down into the water and saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Luke tells the story much as Mark does, but without any mention that it was John who baptised Jesus. And John the Evangelist – well, he tells how John the baptiser bore witness to Jesus, and describes the descent of the Spirit “like a dove”, but makes no mention of Jesus being baptised. Which still leaves us with the question: Why on earth did he do it?
The answer that I grew up with was roughly the same answer that Jesus gives to John in Matthew’s gospel: ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ In other words, “This is what the Father wants, so let’s just go through with it.” Others have said something like, “This shows how committed Jesus is to identifying with ordinary people. He takes his place among the crowds who have come to John confessing their sins and letting the water of the river wash them away.” But there’s another layer to this episode. In each gospel John the baptiser tells the crowds, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And here, in Mark’s Gospel, as in the others, Jesus himself receives the Holy Spirit, and the Father’s voice from heaven declares him to be the beloved Son.
Now, it’s at that point that we leave Mark’s Gospel and head over to the second part of Luke’s, the part that we call “The Acts of the Apostles”, and specifically to the passage which we heard a few minutes ago. Paul meets a group of believers who know something about Jesus and who have been baptised, but only, it appears, with the baptism of John. In other words, they had been baptized… confessing their sins, but they had somehow missed out on the fullness of Christian baptism. They had not been baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. They had not received the gift of God’s Spirit.
What follows is typically Luke – and typically Paul. For St Paul, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the down payment on what the Nicene Creed calls “the life of the world to come”. It’s the Holy Spirit which bears witness with our spirit, our true self, that we are children of God, that we, like Jesus, are beloved sons – and daughters! – with whom God is well pleased. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus at his baptism and equips him for everything that is to follow. The same Spirit descends on us at our baptism and equips us for the challenges that we face. We may not speak in tongues and prophesy, as those disciples in Ephesus did when they were baptised into Christ, but we are made fruitful with the other gifts and fruits of the Spirit, be they personal qualities (love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest) or practical skills (speaking, teaching, running things effectively) all of them given for building up the Church. And even when we feel that we are none of these things, but rather failures, losers, miserable sinners, the Spirit is with us in our groans and lamentations, offering them to God.
And that, perhaps, is why Jesus was baptised by John, in order to transform that symbolic recognition of human failure into a sacramental acknowledgement of human potential, setting human life under a heaven which is not closed to our cries but torn apart so that the Spirit of God can descend on us as on Jesus, blessing us in his name and empowering us to be a blessing to the earth.
The Epiphany (3.1.2021)
Did you see it two weeks ago? The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, I mean? I missed it completely. Every time I looked out of the window during the days when the planets were closest together, there was 100% cloud cover. Which is a shame, because that conjunction is one of the strongest candidates for the star which the wise men “observed at its rising” and which led them in their thousand-mile journey from what is now northwestern Iran to Bethlehem via King Herod’s palace. It must have been a daunting, exhausting journey. I followed the first part of it fifty years ago when I was a student, and even in what passed in pre-Revolutionary Iran for luxury coaches it was tough going. Most of it was mountain and desert, which meant that it was baking hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night – and that was at the height of summer.
Now, some of you may be thinking “Why’s he talking about Iran? Wasn’t one of the kings from Africa?” Well, sadly not: not if you take seriously the story as St Matthew tells it. To start with those weary travellers weren’t kings. Matthew calls them “wise men” – in Greek, μαγοι, which is the word from which we get the English words “magic” and “magician”. They were powerful figures, often seen by outsiders as a bit sinister, who played an important part in the religion – and the politics – of the Persian Empire. In times past they had been known to make and unmake kings, so no wonder king Herod was frightened when they turned up at his court asking about a new king.
So where did the idea that they were kings come from? In large part from today’s Psalm, with its promise that “the kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.” Never mind that Tarshish was far away to the west, across the Mediterranean in southern Spain, or possibly Sardinia, the place to which Jonah tried to escape when God told him to go east and preach to the people of Nineveh. On top of that, we heard in our first reading about “all those from Sheba” who would come to Jerusalem. What is more, “they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
All of that sort of fits, if you have the sort of mind that likes making connections and isn’t too worried about what today we would call “historical accuracy”, but in a funny sort of way the linking of those words and phrases which don’t really belong together does make two important points which underlie Matthew’s account of the journey of the wise men.
The first is this: these men who came to King Herod and who eventually found their way to Bethlehem to worship “the child who has been born king of the Jews” and offer those gifts of gold for power and frankincense for worship – and myrrh, which is used for pain relief and as an antiseptic – these men were not Jewish: not by race, not by culture, not by religion. They were, in all probability, Zoroastrian fire-worshippers. But they had recognised the huge importance of this child’s birth and had travelled those thousand miles just to pay him homage. They represent the world to which we belong, the world beyond the borders of Judaism.
And the second is this: they were, as we have seen, not just “wise men” but powerful men, men with the ability to affect the life of nations, men who were said to have the power to alter reality. Yet when they reached the small town in Palestine and encountered the child whose birth they had seen announced in heavens by the great conjunction, or whatever it was, they “knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” In doing that they were handing over the emblems of power. Gold, incense and myrrh were used in coronation ceremonies. They could also be used in magical rites. Either way, those wise men were acknowledging that the power of this child is greater than any to which they might have access.
And so we come, to lay our gifts before Christ: not the emblems of power, but the recognition of our powerlessness; not the treasures of wealth, but the acceptance of our poverty. We come in the confidence that we, who are also outsiders in this land and this culture, are accepted by Jesus, the son of Mary, God’s Word made flesh in the weakness of a child.
St John the Evangelist (27.12.2020)
One of the challenges with which we have been faced by this pandemic – particularly during the past week – has been the sense of a need to reconnect with what is good and positive and to discard what is harmful and negative. It is not possible to take family routines and rituals for granted in a world where Christmas meals and family gatherings happen on Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face. It’s not possible to take “Church” for granted either. We’ve been lucky in Italy in that the government has allowed places of worship to remain open – but it has still felt strange as we have tried to apply the usual safety regulations about mask-wearing, and social distancing in ways that don’t kill our celebration of the Lord’s birth. In one sense that has been good for us, as we have looked again at how God comes to us in Jesus, and as we have learned that being a faithful Christian in this time and place isn’t just about “me”, but about “us”, looking out for one another, working together, being connected to one another and to God.
To make that connection we need help. And help is at hand. Help is at hand in the writings whose author we celebrate today. Listen again to what John writes at the opening of his first letter. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
“We declare to you what was from the beginning” – and what was from the beginning is what was “in the beginning”; and what was in the beginning, as we heard on Friday, is the eternal Word, the “word of life” that gives life. But “what was from the beginning” is not something remote and timeless and indifferent. “What was from the beginning” is “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” John, writing probably within living memory of the birth which we have been celebrating, certainly within living memory of the death of the Child who was born (and of his resurrection) – John sets out his credentials as a reliable witness, one whose testimony carries weight. “What we have heard…” is the subject of this letter – and of the Gospel which also bears John’s name.
That is why, at the very end of that Gospel there is the strange little note which ended today’s Gospel: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” Most scholars believe that this is a note from whoever edited John’s Gospel and sent it on its way into the world. No, the disciple whom Jesus loved didn’t make it until the Lord’s coming again. Nobody has (yet). But that doesn’t devalue his testimony.
But does our distance in time from the Gospel writers devalue our testimony? We can’t claim what he claimed – or can we? And if we can, how is that true for us? In a world of “fake news” what is truly real? In a world where shameless liars become heads of government and heads of state where can we find reliable authority? Who are the people who “walk the walk”?
They are the people who take seriously Jesus’s repeated word to Peter, “Follow me!”, who don’t keep looking round to see how others are doing, but follow the footsteps of Jesus as faithfully as they can, who “walk in the light as he himself is in the light” – they are the people in whose lives we see true discipleship. They can testify truly to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
And so can we. We can testify truly to “what we have heard” in Scripture, in the deep silence which is the true ground of our praying. We can testify truly to “what we have seen with our eyes”, in the wonder and glory of God’s creation, in the lives of our fellow-Christians, in acts of kindness and self-giving love. We can testify truly to “what we have looked at and touched with our hands” in contemplative prayer, in receiving the sacraments, in the depth of the fellowship we have with one another.
It is as we testify truly to these things – not just in words, but in lives transformed by God’s grace – it is as we testify to these things that we draw others into fellowship with us, and thereby into fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
Christmas Day (25.12.2020)
It has been a tough few days on social media. Leaving aside all the “Will they? Won’t they?” about a deal being made before the UK severs its last official ties with the EU, my home-pages, like those of many people, have been filled with messages from friends lamenting that Christmas plans have been wrecked by governmental responses to Covid-19, parents desolate at the prospect of not spending time with their children and grandchildren, children fearful for their elderly parents. On top of those concerns there are anxieties about the effectiveness of the vaccines against the new variants of the virus that have been identified. The clouds of pandemic cover everything with gloom.
And when we lift our eyes to horizons broader than those of family and friends, it is no better. Apart from the happy outcome of the mass kidnapping in Nigeria, most of the non-Covid news stories seem to be about wars and rumours of wars, ever more destructive assaults on God’s creation, governments ignoring restraints imposed by law or custom, unchecked sleaze and corruption in country after country. The shadows everywhere are becoming deeper and deeper.
So this Christmas morning let us remind ourselves once more of the tremendous affirmation at the heart of today’s Gospel, and at the heart of the faith which we profess: “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.” Forget the Christmas cards. Forget the prettied-up crib scenes – even our own. Remember that the Word became flesh in a small town in a province on the edge of the territory ruled by a military dictatorship. Remember that the one in whom the Word became flesh was executed by that same military dictatorship. The good news of Jesus the Christ, the news we celebrate today, is not simply about the birth of a baby. The good news of Jesus is about the love of God revealed in human existence, facing the worst possible disasters, humanly speaking, and overcoming them. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The passage from the prophecies of Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago is a kind of pre-echo of that message. To a people who had lost their land, their holy city and its holy places, almost their sense of who they were, the prophet offers hope. He sees God returning, not to a rebuilt city, but to the ruins of Jerusalem. Even in the aftermath of destruction, even amid a scattered and despairing people, God is there. God is there to bring healing and hope. Not easy optimism – I don’t think God does optimism – but hope, confidence that the future is God’s, and that the present, too is God’s, however disastrous it may appear. In a #Christmas tweet yesterday evening Pope Francis quoted words written a hundred and sixty years ago by the American poet Emily Dickinson (no relation, so far as I know): “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love.” A contemporary English writer, Adrian Plass, puts it more simply: “He’s in it with us.”
That is the startling truth at the heart of our celebration: that God is in it with us. God is with us in the mess, in the shadow, in the deep gloom and the temptation to despair, not looking on from a safe distance but camping out amid the wreckage. God is with us to show us that life is possible, that hope is possible, that the light still shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It did not, because it cannot. It cannot because, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said long ago in the depths of apartheid South Africa, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”
Even in the deepest shadows of the past nine months we have had ample evidence of that. Locally we have seen it in the courage of hospital staff, faced with unimaginable challenges and initially in the absence of adequate protection, in the discipline of thousands of ordinary people who have got on with their lives while submitting to all the restrictions with which governments have tried to suppress the virus, in the generosity of the yacht crews who have donated their surplus to our food-bank, in the continuing care of Christians and others for rough sleepers and street people. In all these situations we have seen the light shining in the darkness. Even in the deepest shadow we have seen the glory of the Word become flesh in our day also.
Advent 4 (20.12.2020)
It isn’t often I feel sorry for St Paul. Amazed at the boldness of his thinking, regularly. Astounded by the energy and flexibility of his Greek style, definitely. But sorry? Not a word I would ever use – except possibly in relation to the passage we heard a few minutes ago. After the concentrated and very high-powered thinking of the first fifteen chapters of the letter to the Romans, and that long string of greetings in the first part of chapter 16, these three final verses come as a bit of a shock. They are, if we’re honest, a bit flabby, a bit clichéd, and they don’t even make good grammatical sense. They suggest either that Paul was seriously running out of steam or, as a number of scholars have proposed, that they weren’t actually written, or rather dictated, by St Paul. Did Tertius, the scribe who wrote down the rest of this letter at Paul’s dictation, and added his own greeting a couple of lines higher up the page, think that it needed a stronger ending than “Gaius, Erastus and Quartus (three senior members of the congregation in Corinth) say ‘Hi!’” and did he try to make one up? Or did Paul ask somebody else to wind the letter up for him while he moved on to something different? There are many possibilities.
Whatever the reason for this falling-off, it reminds us that there are times when human language simply can’t express the wonder and glory of what God has done, and is doing, and will do through Jesus of Nazareth: that there are times when we have to use stock phrases, or lines borrowed from hymns or poems or prayers to give voice to what we feel. Sometimes the things we are trying to express are so deep and complex and many-layered that we can’t simply describe them. We have to follow the example of Jesus and use similes and parables and stories – and when we do that we cross our fingers in hope that the language we use doesn’t break down under the weight of meaning it has to carry.
In a way that’s what St Luke does in the first two chapters of his Gospel. The story he tells, about two amazing births, is full of echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. He points to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and then Mary’s, as events which have roots deep in the story of Israel.
But Luke also flags up that what is happening is entirely new. In the stories of Israel the arrival of a messenger from God – that’s all an angel is: angel/αγγελος is the normal Greek word for “messenger” – the arrival of a messenger from God means that something new and startling is about to happen. Sometimes, such an arrival is linked to a birth that is out of the ordinary. Think of the messengers who came to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their nineties, or the messenger who dropped in on Samson’s parents-to-be. As he tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, now interwoven with the story of Mary, Luke links us back to those other “children of God’s promise” but at the same time he sets before us the question which the neighbours asked about John, ‘What then will this child become?’
There are, though, no such questions about Jesus. This child’s future is not in doubt: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” The question here is will Mary accept the responsibility, the dangerous responsibility, of becoming pregnant with this child “out of wedlock”, as they used to say in England when I was a boy. No wonder she was “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”. But she didn’t say “no”. She paused. She listened. She probably pondered some more. Then she agreed. ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’
In that, Mary is a model for every Christian. Very often when we are faced with a challenging situation we want to rush into it – or run away from it. Mary reminds us how important it is, in such a situation, to pause and to ponder and to listen for God’s word to us, the word spoken in the silent depths of our being. That word may be hard to hear, and harder to obey. We may want to take refuge in clichéd religious language. We may want to leave the situation for someone else to pick up because we have run out of steam. But the God who sent Gabriel to Mary will not easily allow us to avoid the task which is ours in the grand scheme of things, however humble or however frightening, it may appear. Like Mary we too are the servant of the Lord.
Advent 3 (13.12.2020)
At some point after church on Sunday I usually have a video-call with my family. We start with our latest news. We share things that are going on in our lives. And we always end by doing the Quiz from the previous day’s newspaper. The first half is all general knowledge. The second half needs a bit of lateral thinking, because all the questions begin with the words “What links…?”
I have a question like that for us this morning. What links a folk-song from Naples, a railway station in Venice, a teenager from Syracuse, a poem by an English Cathedral Dean, and Swedish mothers being brought coffee in bed this morning by their eldest daughter? Any offers?
The link is Saint Lucy, Santa Lucia. The teenager in Syracuse, who died more than 17 centuries ago gave her name to the seaside district which inspired the song, and to the end of the line in Venice. And today is Saint Lucy’s day, another of those feast days that are over-ridden by the Sundays of Advent, like St Nicholas last Sunday. It’s the day on which John Donne, the Dean of St Paul’s cathedral in London, wrote one of his bleakest poems. It’s also the day when young girls in Sweden dress up, put something that looks a bit like an Advent wreath on their heads, and bring early morning coffee and cakes to their mothers.
Lucy, whose name means “light”, wasn’t a Christian to begin with. She was born towards the end of the third century into a family which worshipped the old gods. It is said that her parents arranged for her to be married to a young man who also worshipped the old gods. But Lucia had become a Christian and did not want to be married. She wanted to care for poor people and sick people, as Jesus had done, and to give her life to looking after them. The young man her parents had chosen didn’t like that and he denounced her as a Christian. She was arrested, tried, and executed. But she was remembered, not only because of the courage she showed in the face of death, but also because of the kindness she showed in her short life. In Sweden, where Lucy is greatly loved, children remember her on this special day by doing acts of kindness to their parents, baking special cakes and bringing them breakfast in bed.
So why Sweden? Well, St Lucy’s day comes at the darkest time of the year, when the daylight, even in southern Sweden, doesn’t arrive until half-past eight and it fades away around quarter past three. In northern Sweden at this time of year there is no daylight at all. Lucy reminds people in Sweden that the darkness will not last for ever, that the light is coming. Her day is full of light. Candles are lit in people’s homes and they play a huge part at the special services which are held in churches today. We’re streaming one of them on the church Facebook page.
But St Lucy’s day doesn’t just remind us that the light is coming, that the sun will return to bring warmth and light to the earth, even to dark and frozen Sweden beyond the Arctic Circle. St Lucy’s day points us to the coming of Jesus. It is a marker in the count-down to Christmas. In a sense (and there’s another “What links…? question) Lucy is like John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And that’s what Lucy does. In her name, in the stories told about her life, and about her death, Lucy testifies to the light of Christ, the light that had entered her life and transformed it.
The light that shone through Lucy’s life, and at her death, the light that kept her name alive among the people of Syracuse after the details of her earthly existence had been forgotten, that light bears witness to the light whose coming we await in this Advent season, the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. In a darkened world, as we look out to that light, to which John bore witness and in which Lucy lived, we recommit ourselves to the vision of a life lived in the light which St Paul set before the Christians of Thessaloniki:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
And if that all seems too much in this time of pandemic, remember that it isn’t up to you. Paul’s last words remind us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
Advent 2 (6.12.2020)
Football, they say, is a game of two halves. Well, today is a day of two saints. The first is John the baptiser, appearing out of nowhere in the Judaean wilderness and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, grabbing the imagination not only of those who lived in the countryside but of those who lived in the big city. He lived rough. He lived on the edge. And he behaved like one of the old-time prophets of Israel. Mark, in fact, gives him quite a build-up.
First and obviously, there’s that quotation from “the prophet Isaiah”, which is actually a mash-up. It ends with words from our first reading, which was from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”: but they are introduced by the words of another prophet, Malachi, whose writings come at the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” That tells us that John is a significant figure. And then Mark adds that little detail about his fashion choices: “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” To anyone who knew anything about the story of Israel that apparently random detail shouted out one name. There’s another “hairy man with a leather belt around his waist”: the great prophet, Elijah. And that link brings us back to the prophecies of Malachi, because almost the last words of his book tell us that God “will send… the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
John, then, is important. His message is important. No wonder everyone went out to hear him preach! In the way he describes John, Mark is telling us that the whole world is about to be changed. But, unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark doesn’t give any examples of John’s preaching. Instead in Mark’s Gospel John makes it plain that his role is like that of the warm-up man (or woman) at a TV show. He is not the main attraction. In fact, he tells the crowds, “I’m not good enough to bend down and undo his sandals”. John’s task is to make people look at the world, and look at themselves, differently, in readiness for the coming of “the one who is more powerful”, the one who will take the people’s relationship with God – our relationship with God – to a new level.
What that level might be we find out from our second saint, the saint whose day it would be today if it hadn’t been bumped off by this Second Sunday of Advent. In Germany and Austria, in the Low Countries, and in the far north of this country, today is a very important day for children. Today, not Christmas Day, is the day for presents, because today is the Feast of St Nicholas.
All we know about Nicholas is that he was Bishop of Myra, a city on what is now the south coast of Turkey and that he lived about 1700 years ago. He didn’t write great books about God. He wasn’t a bishop whose sermons made emperors tremble. He didn’t found an important religious movement. He wasn’t a great teacher or preacher or writer – yet for over a thousand years he was one of the most popular saints in both the Eastern Church and the Western. Why?
We get a sort of answer in the stories that are told about him, and in the language of the prayers and hymns which the Eastern Church provides for this day. One word turns up again and again: “warm-hearted”. And it’s that quality of warm-heartedness, of love and compassion for people facing disaster – sailors in danger of shipwreck, prisoners on death row, young women faced with the choice between poverty and prostitution, children at risk in a time of famine – that’s what stuck in people’s memories and made him such a popular saint. He was everyone’s ideal of what a bishop ought to be. He was a champion of people on the edge. He stood up for those who were exploited in any way. He was generous in helping people in trouble – which is where his connection with present-giving comes in.
St Nicholas’s generosity provided help for people in his city who were on the edge. He challenges us, however much or however little we have, to be generous in helping people who are on the edge in ours. As John proclaims the possibility of a new beginning for everyone, so Nicholas shows us how to live beyond that new beginning, in a generous concern for others in the name of our generous God, who gave his Son to us and for us two thousand years ago, and who gives him to us today in the bread and wine of our Communion.
Advent 1 (29.11.2020)
“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ In Mark’s gospel those are the last words of Jesus the teacher to his disciples. The very next words at the beginning of chapter 14, “It was two days before the Passover”, point us forward to the suffering and death which will overtake him within a few days. “Keep awake”. That’s something that Peter and James and John totally failed to do while Jesus was praying in the garden. It’s something that we fail to do when we let our own concerns blot out our awareness of what God is doing in these days through which we are living, when we allow what we want, rather than what God wills, to direct our thinking and our actions.
That has always been the human way. Our first reading listed the repeated failures of the people of Israel to be the people that God created them to be. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” That is why this time of preparation for Christmas has something of the feel of Lent about it. How can we approach the birth of the Infant King knowing what we do about ourselves? How can we prepare for his coming in glory as the Lord of history when we are aware of our failure to complete the work that he has left his household, the Church; when church leaders have worried more about preserving its reputation than they have about protecting its victims; when ordinary Christians have bowed down to the people with power instead of serving the people who have none; when they have failed to remember that it was those with power who put their Lord to death on a cross?
“Keep awake.” Be aware of what is happening around you. Be alert to the signs of the times. What has God been saying to us in this year of pandemic? What is God saying to us through our growing awareness of the man-made disaster that is overtaking this planet? Which of the thousands of voices competing for our attention on social media are the voices to which we should be listening? Who has the answers to our increasingly desperate questions, the cure for the sickness that has infected the whole earth? – and I don’t just mean Covid-19!
The truth is that there are no easy answers, not for us, not for the prophet, not for the first disciples. Church leaders, political leaders, celebrities, “influencers”, the many voices on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Instagram and all the other channels through which our opinions are formed – none of them has the answer to the deepest questions about the meaning of human existence. We are sent back to the One “who works for those who wait for him… [who meets those] who gladly do right.” We are sent back to the one whose “words will not pass away” – even when the powers of the heavens are shaken and earth has vanished into smoke.
That’s why Advent isn’t quite like Lent. It isn’t only about engaging with our failure. It’s also about watching, and waiting, and listening. It’s about prayer – and by prayer I don’t mean “heaping up empty phrases”, presenting God with shopping list after shopping list, but listening; listening for God in silence and stillness, like the psalmist, asking God: “show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” So on the next three Fridays the church will be open for private prayer. I shall be around if anyone wants to talk, but it’s OK just to come in and sit or light a candle. In addition, each day in Advent on our church Facebook page, from today, there is a thought, an image, some of them based on ancient hymns of the Church, some of them startlingly contemporary. Each of them, whether old or new, points us towards the Jesus whose coming we await. On the Facebook page there is also a daily “pause for prayer”, focusing on a picture and a list of prayer topics linked with the districts of this city, as we remember them in our parish cycle of prayer, from Nervi to Voltri and from Pontedecimo to Molo. It’s a reminder that God is not concerned only with what we do here on Sundays, but with every aspect of the life of every person. It’s a reminder, too, that the Jesus whose coming we await came first, not to the sentimentalised, fairytale world depicted on so many Christmas cards, but to the hard reality of life as a Palestinian Jewish craftsman in a small town up-country, under foreign military occupation.
Christ the King (22.11.2020)
There are many stories in many different cultures about the ruler who disguises himself as an ordinary citizen in order to find out what is really going on in the land that he rules. Those stories usually end, as the story which Jesus told in our Gospel reading ends, with reward for those who show themselves to be good and compassionate and hospitable – and punishment for those who are selfish and cruel. But there’s a difference. In the story Jesus tells, the ruler doesn’t just observe which is going on. The ruler identifies with the people who are having a hard time, those who are “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison”. And it isn’t the wicked who “go away into eternal punishment”. It’s the people who can’t be bothered to put themselves out for a fellow human being in need. They are people who are guilty of what used to be called “sins of omission” – in other words, not the wicked things that they have done, but the good things they have failed to do when they had the opportunity to do them.
That’s a theme Jesus comes back to time and time again in the Gospels. Think of the rich man in Luke’s Gospel who ignored the poor man, lying desperately ill outside his gate. Or the priest and the Levite, who saw the robbers’ victim at the roadside and walked straight past him. Their modern equivalents are, sadly, alive and well and living – well, just about everywhere. There’s another thing, too. In Jesus’ story it wasn’t only those who had failed the to do the right thing who were shocked and surprised. Those who were invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” were equally thunderstruck. “When did we help you?” The people who are rewarded by the king didn’t do those good things in order to get themselves noticed and gain a reward – Jesus is quite rude about that sort of behaviour in the sermon he preached on the hillside much earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. The people rewarded by the king did those good things because those good things were the right thing to do. They saw someone in need and they acted to help, even if “help” meant nothing more than giving up some time to be alongside someone in distress.
I think that one of the reasons why many people, and especially people of faith, have been finding this pandemic so difficult to cope with is that it isn’t possible to do that. If we know people who are ill with the virus, or isolating, it’s quite hard to accept that the best thing we can do is not to go and visit, but to stay away – because if we go and visit it’s quite possible that we might come away carrying the virus, and even if we don’t become infected ourselves we might easily infect others. But we can still send messages, or make voice or video calls on a smartphone – and we can still pray. We can still hold the people who are in our “thoughts and prayers” in the stream of God’s healing love, people who are vulnerable, or awaiting the results of tests, or who have tested positive. We can also hold before God the people who are in daily contact with infection: health care professionals at every level, in hospitals, in clinics, in care homes, in the emergency services – and the people who work in shops and supermarkets, in pharmacies, in public transport, not to mention the police and the carabinieri.
Now, to some people praying might feel like a bit of a cop-out, a reminder of our powerlessness. Most of us, if we are honest, don’t like the feeling that we are not in control. That’s one of the reasons why some people are reluctant to wear masks. They see it as a limitation on their freedom. Some see it as a failure to trust in God, a desperate attempt to “stay safe” as the world understands safety. They forget that it is also a way of expressing our love for our vulnerable neighbour. They forget, too, that the one whom we acclaim as Lord and King takes his place, as we heard in today’s gospel, with the weak, the powerless, the people on the margins and not with the wealthy and the powerful. While our first reading used the language of glory and exaltation and power to describe the risen Christ, the rest of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the glory is rooted in the agony of crucifixion, that the exaltation is reached through the deepest humiliation, and that the power is revealed in the acceptance of suffering and death. “Christ the King” enthroned on the cross reveals his glory in self-giving love.
2 before Advent (15.11.2020)
A few minutes ago we heard words from the oldest Christian writing that has come down to us. St Paul’s first letter to the Christian community in Thessaloniki was written about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and about fifteen years before the earliest of the gospels – so probably nearer thirty years before St Matthew’s. It was written to encourage a recently-established community whose members were suffering abuse and, quite possibly violence, at the hands of their non-Christian neighbours. Scholars think that most of them were poor, and mostly non-Jews, people who worked in local industry or in the port. Thessaloniki even today is a bit like a Greek-speaking Genova, an important centre of trade and transport, with people from many different countries living and working there.
It was much the same when Paul visited and preached there nearly 2000 years ago. The city was on the main land route between Rome and the East. It was a place where great wealth existed alongside great poverty – and where the Roman slogan “peace and security” probably did not ring true for many of the inhabitants, whose jobs were insecure and whose lives were far from peaceful. For those people Paul’s message about the Son of the one true God, whose love for human beings was so great that he shared their life from the womb to the most painful and humiliating death that the Roman Empire could inflict on its subjects – and that he would return to replace the corruption and cruelty of earthly rulers with God’s kingdom of justice and true peace – that message came as real “good news”.
It also came with a demand: a demand to live already, here and now, by the standards of God’s kingdom and not by the standards of Caesar’s empire. It came too – as it still comes – with the urgent demand to keep alert, and awake to the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in, not least because most of the first generation of Christians, including Paul, believed that this would happen within their lifetime and that Jesus would return very soon.
Paul hammers home that message, piling one picture on top of another. It will come as unexpectedly as a burglary, as suddenly as a woman going into labour. We who are waiting for it must be sober, watchful, like soldiers ready for battle, but carrying no offensive weapon and taking as our armour “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. In other words, what protects us amid the troubles of this world is not wealth or power, but our relationship with one another and with God, and our confidence in God’s goodness, God’s power to bring us safely to our journey’s end, whatever may happen on the way. When once we have grasped that, and by “we” I mean people in 21st-century Genova as much as people in 1st-century Thessaloniki – once we have grasped that, we can find the courage to take risks for God’s sake, to use the gifts that he has given us in his service, as two of the slaves did in the story which Jesus told in today’s gospel reading.
Now, there are a couple of things to bear in mind as we listen to that “parable of the talents”. The first thing is how much a talent was worth. Originally it was a measure of weight and its exact value depended on which metal was being weighed. In ancient Athens a talent of silver was enough to pay one craftsman’s wages for nine years or the crew of a warship (about 200 men) for a month. So this was serious money that the master was handing out. The second thing is this: that in uncertain times the safest thing to do with anything of value is to bury it in the ground, so that the slave with the one talent was being prudent. He was not going to risk his master’s capital by trading with it or investing it with the bank. Banks went bust then as they do now. So, he did the sensible thing and kept it in a safe place. But the others were not afraid to risk their master’s money, and that, it turned out, was exactly the right thing to do. So here’s our take-away from today’s two readings: first, that the Kingdom of God should never be confused with the kingdoms of this world; and second that the Kingdom of God cannot come without God’s people taking risks, protected only by faith and love and hope.
3 before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) (8.11.2020)
If you take the number 34 bus to Staglieno, get off at the cemetery, walk through gate where the florist’s shop and the café are, and keep on going along the Viale dei Protestanti, a couple of hundred metres up on your right you will find a metal sign pointing you to the “British Cemetery”. If you follow the path and climb the steps, you will find yourself in a section of the cemetery where some past members of this church are buried. It’s a bit wild and wooded, just about kept under control by a small group of volunteers who have family members buried there, but if you carry on up, to the third and fourth level of terraces, you come to a completely different scene. It’s immaculately kept, with mown grass and neat rows of headstones, all to the same basic design. This is the Commonwealth War Graves section, where the mortal remains of British and Commonwealth casualties from two World Wars have been laid to rest, most of them young men in their twenties and early thirties.
Many of the gravestones from the Second World War are for the crew members of bombers shot down in the months after the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 or “special duties” aircraft dropping supplies to the anti-Fascist partisans who harried the occupying forces in Liguria. The dead from the First War are mainly soldiers who were sent to hospitals in Liguria after being wounded while serving with the Anglo-French expeditionary force which helped turn the tide on the Italian front after the defeat at Caporetto. Those deaths are dated at regular intervals through 1917 and the early months of 1918, but suddenly, toward the end of September, the rate increases. Instead of two or three deaths a week there are now deaths nearly every day, and as the war draws to its end the daily number of fatalities increases even more rapidly so that from mid-October to the end of November there are often four, five six – or even more – deaths each day. The “Spanish flu” pandemic had arrived in Italy. Of the 230 war dead from 1916-1918 nearly 150 died in the ten weeks between 22nd September and the end of November. It is an important reminder that those who die in war are not always heroes leading the charge.
But we remember them all, and the Italian troops who were their allies in one war and their opponents, and then allies again, in another war. We remember them all because each one of them, like each one of us, was and is infinitely loved by God, and because each one of them is a brother or sister for whom Christ died. We remember them all because some of us, too, have lost people we love in conflict or in pandemic. We remember them with sorrow but, as St Paul reminds us in today’s first reading, we are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.”
In the light of Jesus’ resurrection we look forward in hope to the day when he will return as Lord and King to renew this earth which he loves and for which he died, the day which St Paul describes with such startling vividness in today’s first reading, when he writes of angels with trumpets and the living and the dead together being caught up in the clouds “meet the Lord in the air”. But if we leave them there, we miss the whole point of what Paul is saying. His message is not that the Lord will return to pluck his people out of the world and its woes, whatever the “Left Behind” books may say. His message is that the dead and the living are one in the risen Christ. That is why the dead and the living go out to meet the risen, glorified Christ, as the inhabitants of a town or city in the Roman Empire would have gone out to meet the Emperor, when he or one of his high officials made a formal visit, and escort him with great pomp and ceremony into the city. The risen Christ does not take his people, living as well as departed, up to heaven, they accompany him with great jubilation as he returns to earth to make all things new, to bring about, at last, a world in which peace and justice dwell and the horror of war is no more.
So, on this day when we remember those who have died in war, we set that act of remembrance within another act of remembrance. In this Eucharist, in which we remember those who have died in war, we renew, as we do in every Eucharist, our remembrance of the Lord’s suffering and death, through which we and the whole of humanity, living and departed, friends and bitter foes, are reconciled to one another and to God.
All Souls (2.11.2020)
This evening, as we remember the names of those who have died, we shall light a candle for those who have been special for us, life-partners, parents, grandparents, other family members, friends, to hold their name, and their memory, consciously before our eyes, as it is always, though most of the time unconsciously, held in the depths of our heart. We shall do that on this evening conscious of all those others who share in sorrow for the multitudes whose names we do not know, those who have lost their lives to Covid-19, those who have died, or are dying, as a result of Friday’s earthquake in the Aegean, and those who met martyr’s death in Nice.
Tonight we come together not only grieving for our loss but more aware of the fragility of human existence – and of our own mortality – than we may have been for many years. These words of Thomas Nashe, written in a time of pestilence over four centuries ago, have a grim topicality for this generation as they did for his:
Adieu, farewell earths blisse, This world uncertaine is, Fond are lifes lustfull joyes, Death proves them all but toyes, None from his darts can flye; I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.
But those last five words, which are repeated at the end of each stanza, also resonate for us. The people we name tonight, the people for whom we light a candle, are not named in a void. They are named before God, the God of all mercy. They are named in the confidence that God knows them, knows them eternally and more fully than we ever could, that God loves them, loves them eternally and more deeply than any human heart could. And what is true for those whom we love but see no longer is true also for every name on that unimaginably huge Covid casualty-list.
So we light our candles and name our names in sorrow, certainly. Our life is diminished by their absence as it was enhanced by their presence. But we do not name them in fear and anxiety. We come forward in hope, in the confidence that, in the end, all will be well because the final destination of every human journey, including our own, is the boundless and eternal love of God. And, as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”. Christ’s death and resurrection, the ground of our hope, give meaning to every life, however it may end. I quoted the opening of a poem by Thomas Nashe. In the stanzas that follow Nashe details how wealth, beauty, physical strength, and “wit” fail us in the face of death, but his meditation on the pandemic of 1593 ends with these words:
Haste, therefore, each degree, To welcome destiny; Heaven is our heritage, Earth but a player’s stage; Mount we unto the sky. I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.
“Heaven is our heritage.” Life in the eternal radiance of God’s love is that “destiny” for which humankind has been intended from the beginning. By his death and resurrection Jesus has opened the way to that destiny for us, for those whom we love but see no longer, and for all those million and more dead for whom others in Italy and around the world watch and weep tonight. God’s compassion and mercy enfolds them, as it enfolds us, in infinite, unconditional love. Indeed, as Paul wrote to the Christian communities in Rome, “if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
All Saints (1.11.2020)
This has been a really grim week, whichever way you look at it. The tightening of restrictions locally and nationally was bad enough, but probably unavoidable given the sharp rise in new infections. The troubles in Nigeria continue to simmer. On top of that we had the shocking report from Nice, which brought back for me some less-than-pleasant memories of passing through on the way back to the UK after our first ever visit to Genoa four years ago, days after the slaughter on the Promenade des Anglais. And then, to cap it all, there was Friday’s news of the Aegean earthquake. So it’s understandable if people don’t really feel like celebrating today.
But then we look at Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, the eight blessings which begin the great block of teaching which we call “The Sermon on the Mount”: and as we look at them we realise that most of the people that Jesus calls “blessed” are in the same kind of situation that we are. They aren’t the rich, the successful, the famous. They are poor. They are grieving. They are down-trodden, hard-done-by, suffering. What’s more, some would say, they ask for it. They forgive those who have done them wrong. They always think well of people. They don’t pursue quarrels; they work to end them. They are the sort of people that President Trump would brand as “losers”. They are also the people who are closest to the heart of God.
They are the people we celebrate today, the people for whose lives we give thanks to God on this All Saints’ Day. Ordinary people, like us, often people on the margins of life, but people in whom the light of God’s love has shone. A 19th-century English bishop wrote in praise of “saints made in the old way by suffering and labour and diligence in little things, and the exercise of unselfish, untiring love; quiet lives lived away in holes and corners and not known to the public while alive.” All of us, I suspect, have known saints of that type, people you could go to and talk about anything, people who radiated goodness and generosity and love – and, very often, people who have been through the mill one way or another and come through their experience into a new level of wisdom and serenity.
They are people who are guided not by their own ego but by the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost to whose glory this church was dedicated nearly a century and a half ago. That, I think, is part of what St John means when he writes that “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” When he talks about Christians “purifying themselves”, John doesn’t mean the kind of ritual purity that the Pharisees sought, but that purity of heart which Jesus included among his blessings. It means opening ourselves more and more to the love of God and letting that love, and not wealth or success or celebrity, be the motive and the guide for everything that we do. It means trusting God; placing our lives, and the lives of those we love, in his hands each day. It means accepting whatever comes. The 17th-century pastor and poet Richard Baxter addressed these words to the “saints who toil below”, by which he meant ordinary Christians called to do extraordinary things for God: “take what [God] gives and praise him still, through good and ill, who ever lives.”
That’s important, especially when we can’t see the way ahead clearly. St John again: “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” In the mean time we “take what he gives”, even if it seems, as much of our present experience does, dark and difficult. We “take what he gives” and we claim it for a blessing, we claim it as a sign that we are in the right place, numbered among the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst to see justice done, the pure in heart and all those other “losers” who are near to God’s heart.
Today we give thanks for them all, whoever and wherever they may be, and we give thanks especially for those who have guided us along the path of Christian discipleship, encouraging us when the going has been tough, picking us up when we have taken a tumble, accompanying us along the way to the kingdom of God.
Dedication Festival (25th October, 2020)
A wise American woman, now dead, suggested that if we want to make sense of what is going on in the worldwide Church today, we need to understand that every five hundred years or so God has a grand clear-out of all the human clutter that gets in the way and blocks human beings from discovering God. She said that the process is like a gigantic rummage sale, when the Church, under pressure from the Holy Spirit, goes through the house, decides what to keep, and puts the rest out to make room for the new things that the Spirit is putting in place.
In a sense, that’s what Jesus is doing in this morning’s Gospel. The Temple in Jerusalem has become cluttered, not just with people buying and selling, but with a kind of determination to keep people out if they couldn’t pay their dues. In fact, if you buy into the idea of a grand clear-out every five centuries, then the coming of Jesus marks the biggest clear-out ever. The things that Jesus did, the things that were done to him, and everything that followed in the years immediately afterwards have transformed the way that everyone understands the world for the past 2,000 years, whether they are Christian or not.
So, when we look at the history of the West, including western Asia and Africa north of the Sahara, we find that there are major breaks roughly every five centuries. Five hundred years after Jesus, the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed. Christians found themselves caught up in great movements of peoples, making their way across the Empire’s frontiers. How were they to tell these newcomers the good news about Jesus? How were they to hold on to the things that they valued when cities were being burned ad looted?
Five hundred years after that came the great split between the Church in Western Europe and the Churches of the East. Different languages, different cultures were making it harder and harder for each side to see the God they worshipped in the life and worship of the others. And five centuries after that there came the great explosion of new ideas about God and about how to be Church that we call “The Reformation” – and that is still working itself out today.
Now, as you may remember, it’s three years since Christians around the world (though probably not so much in Italy) remembered that the spark that set off that huge explosion happened five hundred years ago. Which means that we ought to be in the middle of another great clear-out. And it seems increasingly clear that we are. The world has change enormously – the Church has changed enormously – since I was a child in Liverpool seventy years ago. Empires have collapsed and disappeared. Others are crumbling. There have been huge movements of peoples during those seventy years – including the one that has brought so many people from Nigeria to Genova. The Church worldwide, including the Church of England, is having to face some uncomfortable truths about its behaviour during the past century. Jesus is busy overturning our tables and telling us to rediscover the purpose for which we were called into being, to be a space where people can find hope and healing, where the voices of children are heard, as they are in today’s Gospel.
This day when we celebrate the 148th anniversary of this building’s existence is a good time for us to do that, to rediscover what it means not just to worship in a house of prayer, but to worship as a people of prayer, bringing before God all the confusion, the pain, and the joy of being human – and especially today we hold before God the suffering of people in Nigeria, not only those caught up in the events in Lagos, but those who suffer each day the effects of corruption and crime, of the deep social and religious divisions which undermine the unity of the nation.
But today is also the day when we remember that we are part of that gloriously mixed company which the letter to the Hebrews described in our first reading, not limited to one nation or race, or even one order of being. As we gather in this building, with its century and a half of clutter, we recognise that we too have “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant”, sealed in his body and blood and renewed for us this morning in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
St Luke’s Day (18th October, 2020)
Today we give thanks to God for St Luke the Evangelist, the man who wrote the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. He is believed by many to have been one of St Paul’s fellow-workers and a companion on some of his journeys. It is also thought, following a brief mention in one of Paul’s letters, that he was a doctor. None of this is certain. Luke, or Loukas, was not an uncommon name in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, so St Paul’s references many not all have been to the same person – and there is no cast-iron evidence that the Luke who travelled with Paul is the same person as the Luke who wrote the Gospel and Acts.
But what matters to us is not the stories told about Luke but the story, the great story, that is told by Luke: and if you wanted to get to the heart of that story you could hardly do better than turn to the passage from his gospel that we heard just now. Luke’s concern is with sharing the good news about Jesus, about letting the world know what God has done in Jesus. He didn’t write his gospel for the benefit of the Christian community, as Matthew did. He wrote his gospel for people who were in many ways like him: cultured, city-dwelling, Greek-speakers, people with a bit of status, and possibly influence, but also people who were not (yet) part of the growing community of Christians. Luke wants to convince them of the truth of the gospel message and to show that Christianity is not, as many important people of that era believed, a depraved superstition, but the way, marked out by Jesus, that leads to life and wholeness.
So, our gospel this morning tells how Jesus sent out seventy disciples to prepare the way for his coming and gave them their instructions. Their orders are to travel light, not to waste time when they are on the road, and to rely on the hospitality of strangers: and they end with the punch-line ‘Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ That’s a pattern we see repeated in the Gospel and in Acts: shared hospitality, healing and teaching, those are the signs which reveal that “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
Now, for many of us, at the present time, it can be hard to see any signs of the kingdom of God. The number of cases of Covid-19 is going up again across Italy – and sharply, just as it did in the spring. The number of deaths, too, is rising but, so far, nothing like as quickly, thanks be to God. Though that doesn’t make life any easier for those who have been infected with the virus, nor for the families and friends of those who have died.
Life was hard, too, for those who lived at the time of our first reading. The Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, but God had not brought in his kingdom and the neighbours then, as now, were far from friendly. Life was tough and there was no end to their troubles in sight. But the prophet’s message is not one of doom and despondency. Quite the opposite. It is a powerful message of hope and healing. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…. He will come and save you.’ In other words “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
That is the message for us on this St Luke’s day. Life is hard. Death is in the air. But still there is hope because “The kingdom of God has come near.” It has come near not only in those miraculous healings of which the prophet spoke, but in such everyday things as the love between two people, the birth of a child (or even two children!), the courage and resilience of health workers and all who risk infection through their daily work, including supermarket staff and bus drivers. But that message of hope comes with a challenge. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” is a message to us as well. There is work to be done. There is good news to be shared. There is Christ’s work of healing to take forward, through our prayers, through our care for one another, through our willingness to listen to the stories of others, however difficult and distressing they may be. Earlier we prayed that “by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, [God would] give the Church the same love and power to heal.” That means us, dear brothers and sisters. Are we up for it?
Trinity 18 (11th October 2020)
After a week away with the ancient Israelites, we’re back in first-century Philippi this morning. And it rather looks as if the church there had been having problems. What had Euodia said or done that had annoyed Syntyche – or was it the other way round? Anyway, Paul thought that the situation needed sorting out and he entrusted one of his co-workers, possibly Timothy, with the job. Importantly, Paul didn’t take sides. Importantly, he affirmed the good things that both of them had been doing as they “struggled beside [him] in the work of the Gospel.”
It’s a reminder that even in the best-run Christian communities there can be tensions and that sometimes those tensions cause a breakdown in relationships which needs sorting out. I hope that Paul’s “loyal companion”, whoever he (or she) was, managed to sort things out, so that the life and witness of the Christian community wasn’t damaged by rivalries and petty jealousies.
It was in order to avoid such damage that St Paul recalled the Philippians to first principles, which he set out in the central section of today’s first reading.
And those first principles are:
- “Rejoice in the Lord always”. That doesn’t mean going round all the time with what I once heard described as “that ghastly Christian grin”. What it does mean is letting your awareness of God’s love for you – and for the whole of creation – fill you with joy.
- “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Don’t throw your weight about. Be kind to people, even when they are being trying. Be patient. They may be struggling. They may be coming to terms with bad news, or coping with a tough situation in their own life.
- “Do not worry about anything.” That is one of the key messages of Jesus. We heard it loud and clear in last Sunday’s Gospel. It’s taken up here by St Paul. Yes, life can be hard. Yes, we lose control. But God is God and God is to be trusted. “The Lord is near”, much nearer than we imagine, holding us up when we want to collapse in a heap.
- “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We are called to be people of prayer, to make time for God each day, to tell God our needs and the needs of the people around us, to put ourselves at God’s disposal—and to be thankful. Every night, before I go to sleep, I try to make a mental list of all the things that have happened during the day which have taught me something, or brought me joy, or brought someone else joy, even something as simple as a sunny day or a phone call from a friend. And for each item on that list I say “thank you.”
And if you do those things, so Paul tells the Philippians, then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Now, living like that isn’t always easy. Sometimes life is so challenging that it is very hard to be joyful and people are so annoying that it is hard to be gentle. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by worry and the Lord seems far away. Sometimes it is a struggle to make time to pray, and sometimes we feel so dry when we come to God that all we can do is cry out with St Teresa of Avila, “Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”
Those are the situations when we need to take heed of St Paul’s final piece of advice to the Christians of Philippi: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Sometimes if we wake up during the night and find it hard to go back to sleep, all sorts of negative thoughts can come crowding in. That is when we need to focus on what is positive, praiseworthy, and good – not on the many times when we have fouled up, but on the many more times when we have been blessed and when we have experienced the presence of our infinitely patient, infinitely loving God, who is nearer to us than the blood pulsing in our arteries.
Harvest Thanksgiving (4th October, 2020)
It is right and good, on this day when we give thanks for God’s good gifts to us in creation, and especially for the gifts which we receive from the harvest of land and sea, that we should also give thanks for God’s gift of a daughter to Queen and Onyeka. It is good, too, as we become aware that the days are growing shorter and that winter is on its way, that Onyeka and Queen have given their daughter the name of one of the loveliest of winter saints, Lucy, the Sicilian teenager whose crown of light brightens the darkest days of a Swedish December. And it is a particular joy that our Lucy is to be brought out of darkness into God’s marvellous light on this day, the day when Christians of all traditions give thanks for the life of the saint who above all others reveals the glory and wonder and interconnectedness of God’s creation.
It was on this day, nearly 800 years ago, that Pietro Bernardone’s son Giovanni, better known by his nickname, Francesco, “Francis”, “the Frenchman”, was laid, naked, on “our sister Mother Earth” in the same church just outside the walls of Assisi where he had begun his adventure of faith twenty years before. As we remember that death we also remember how death opens the way to life. It is through the death of the seed, buried in the earth, that the plants that provide our food come alive. It is the death of Jesus which opens for us the way to eternal life, and in a few minutes’ time, Lucy will be baptised into the death of Jesus so that she may share his risen life.
Jesus outlines the realities of that life in that passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard just now. He tells the disciples that it’s not just food or clothing. It’s not made safer by worry. He tells the disciples that it is about total trust in God. And, as Lis loves to remind us, God sees and provides. God feeds the ravens. God clothes the lilies. God cares for us. Francis knew that. Francis lived that. So, when they were truest to their calling, did the people of Israel. In our first reading we heard Moses reminding the people of all that they had been through and how God had brought them safely through every danger, every trial. “God freed you,” he reminds them. “God led you. God fed you.” And why? “To humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.”
There are people here in church this morning who have experienced much of what the Israelites went through. Through the desert and across the sea, God has brought you, as he brought the Israelites, “into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity.” For many life, even in this land, is still a struggle, as it often was for the Israelites, but God is faithful. As Jesus reminded the disciples, “if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you!”
Queen and Onyeka, one of your great responsibilities as Lucy’s parents is to help her to understand that: to help her to learn to trust God, whatever happens; and to remember that all that is good comes from God, and to give thanks. We depend on God for life and breath and everything. In this time of pandemic we depend on God all the more, whatever happens. Sadly the world is full of people who don’t believe that – and look what a mess they have made of things! In California an area three times the size of Liguria is on fire. The great cities of the world have been taken over by people who have done the equivalent of pulling down their barns and building larger ones. Blocks of offices and luxury flats have been thrown up to the greater glory of people who believe that ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But now many of those blocks of offices and those luxury flats are empty – and even if a cure for the virus were to be discovered tomorrow many of them will never be occupied. And debt-laden companies and corporations will go broke and people will lose their jobs, because they ‘stored up treasures for themselves but were not rich towards God.’
So let us learn from the Lord and from the little poor man of Assisi. As he lay dying, St Francis said to the friars gathered around him, “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.” That is our prayer for Lucy today, and for each one of us.
Trinity 16 (27th September, 2020)
Philippi was different. St Paul’s travels since his encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus had been in cities and towns like Tarsus, where he grew up. They were (mostly) Greek-speaking. They had an established Jewish community. And they were in Asia. Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus, right up as far as Troas.
But Philippi was different. It was in Europe. It was partly Greek-speaking, but the leading citizens, the people who wielded power, were people whose first language was Latin. They were Roman citizens, the descendants of the soldiers who had been settled there after the great battle fought outside the city about a hundred years before Paul’s arrival. They were people with status. They were, as we might say, an elite, a highly privileged elite, at the top of a pyramid which, as usual in the Ancient World, rested on the backs of the slaves who worked the land or kept house for their owners.
Now, in such a setting what Paul is writing in the passage that we have just heard is nothing short of revolutionary. He is writing to a community in which there are to be no privileged elites, no pyramid of status or ambition. He urges them, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” And don’t forget that in the Ancient World “humility” was regarded as a dirty word. Not for Paul it wasn’t. For Paul it was an essential part of the love that was the distinguishing mark of a Christian community, because it was the distinguishing mark of their Lord.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he writes, and then he launches into that wonderful hymn of praise to the Christ who “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”, identifying with those who were right at the bottom of the social heap. In the Roman Empire such an idea was dynamite, not just politically but theologically. The idea of a god becoming a slave was nonsense to pagans. To Jews the idea of God, the God of all creation, becoming a slave was a massive stumbling-block.
It was unimaginable then. It’s barely imaginable now. And what makes it even more explosive is what follows: in Jesus God not only becomes a slave: God suffers a slave’s death – the slave’s death. Crucifixion was the punishment routinely inflicted on slaves who didn’t know their place, who rebelled against the order of things – even by such a simple act as running away from their master. “[Christ] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” So what happened then?
Last week Lis and I were “virtually” away at Archdeaconry Synod. Our theme this year was “Living the Resurrection”. The former bishop of Oxford John Pritchard, now retired, led two on-line Bible studies on St John’s record of the resurrection of Jesus and St Luke’s account of what happened on the road to Emmaus. Bishop John reminded us that for St John the resurrection includes both the gift of the Spirit and the exaltation of Jesus as he ascends to the Father. St Paul also couples together resurrection and exaltation, and links both to the obedience of Jesus. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Now, if Paul’s earlier words were dynamite, these words are TNT – both then and now. Because if Jesus is Lord then the Emperor wasn’t. Nor are any of the modern pretenders to supreme power, be they in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing: or Kaduna or London for that matter. Jesus’ death and exaltation bring every structure of government under God’s judgement. That applies even to what we shall do when this service is over. At our annual church meeting, as we reflect on what we did in 2019, and as you elect the people who will represent you on the church council and at the Synod during the coming year, it is important that all of us “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit”. Instead let us follow St Paul’s advice to the Christians of Philippi: “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Trinity 15 (20.9.2020)
“Standing idle all day” in the market-place has been the fate of millions of people in recent months – in this country and around the world. It was bad enough when everything was shut down and there was no work anywhere for anyone, unless they could “work from home”. It somehow seems worse now that the restrictions have been lifted and it’s still difficult to find a job that pays enough to cover the rent and the energy bills, not to mention food and drink. Those who are still on the look out for work “Because no one has hired [them]” are probably wondering where’s the fairness, the justice, in it all?
So it might be something of a shock to listen to the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel and to realise that the people who are wondering “where’s the justice?” are not those who have been standing idle all day in the market-place, but the people who have been labouring in the vineyard since early morning. It’s all about expectations.
Our first reading, too, is all about expectations – and about how God meets them. Jonah had been directed by God to go to Nineveh and denounce the city and its people. ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Most people know the story of how Jonah tried to escape that rather risky assignment by taking ship to the other end of the Mediterranean and how he ended up being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish.
Well, in between being coughed up by the fish and the passage from the very end of the book that we have just heard, Jonah did actually make it to Nineveh at the second time of telling and he proclaimed the message which the Lord had sent him to deliver: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people listened. And the government listened. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” And he proclaimed a time of fasting and prayer for all the people – and ordered them to turn away from evil and violence.
That is the point at which we picked up the story this morning: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Now you might think that Jonah would be pleased that his preaching had had such a powerfully transforming effect. Well, as we heard, not a bit of it. He was very cross, very cross indeed. He resented bitterly that God decided not to destroy the city, just as the men in Jesus’ story who had worked all day resented the generosity of the landowner paying men who had worked for an hour in the evening as much as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” – even though they had agreed to work for “the usual daily wage”.
And so the landowner has to point out how distorted their vision has become. Instead of rejoicing in his generosity to others, they have become envious. That grudging attitude is sadly common, even among Christians. You hear people grumbling about the state’s generosity to the most vulnerable, or about what they see as leniency to offenders. The cry goes up; “It’s not fair!”, even when that professed concern for “fairness” is, in reality, a barely hidden longing for an outcome which blocks the possibility of generosity – and of mercy.
Jonah wants to see justice done on the people of Nineveh for their wickedness. The workers in the vineyard who have been there since early morning want a bit extra in comparison with the late-comers. But God is, as Jonah grudgingly recognises, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing”, and the kingdom of God, like the man who owned the vineyard, can offer only one reward to those who labour for its coming. That reward is not a carefully graded wage-scale, or a tariff of pay-backs and punishments. That reward is nothing less than the vision of God and the experience of being caught up eternally in “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.
Trinity 14 (13.9.2020)
Trinity 13 (6.9.2020)
Bishop Desmond Tutu famously asked “How do you eat an elephant?” And he gave the answer “One bite at a time.” He was talking about the struggle to overcome the apartheid system in South Africa thirty years ago but his words apply to any great project.
How do you build the kingdom of heaven? “One bite at a time”, by doing little things lovingly – and by not falling for the idea that there is some fantastic master plan, some programme, some course of study or course of action which will sweep us into God’s kingdom without any great effort on our part. The way to heaven is not easy, but at the same time it isn’t the sort of journey that demands dramatic action by the people who set out on it.
Years ago I learned a German song whose opening words translate roughly into English as: “Lots of little people in lots of little places taking lots of little steps can change the face of the world.” That’s the sort of world-changing activity that Jesus and Paul might have recognised, if we listen carefully to what they are saying in today’s readings. Both of them are about doing little things, sorting out quarrels within a community of Christians, living as believers in an unbelieving world. Both of them are about the need for “taking lots of little steps” in order to build up and maintain the people of God – and to help them overcome the forces ranged against them.
It doesn’t seem much. It’s not like Mother Theresa of Calcutta picking up the poorest outcasts of that great city and caring for them. But another Theresa, Thérèse Martin, the daughter of a lace-maker from Alençon in Normandy, lived a way of holiness which corresponds very closely with what St Paul writes to the Christians in Rome about owing no one anything, except to love one another. Living as a nun in the Carmel of Lisieux, Thérèse wrote “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
“The doing of the least actions for love” was also a theme of one of the great Christians of Britain, a man who lived thirteen centuries before Thérèse. In his last sermon, preached a few days before his death, St David told the congregation, “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” “Do the little things”. Be faithful to Christ in living and dying. Behave lovingly to fellow-believers – which doesn’t mean being soppily sentimental, but putting their needs, their concerns, ahead of your own and not giving your wants priority. As St Paul writes, “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Now, although Paul is inclined, when he writes about “the flesh”, to lay into the first-century equivalent of “sex and drugs and rock’n’roll” – as he does here when he warns the Christians of Rome not to spend their time “in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness” – he also makes it clear that “the flesh” is much more than our physical desires. “The flesh” includes every self-centred attitude, and particularly those attitudes that give rise to the “quarrelling and jealousy” which are also high on Paul’s short-list of behaviours to be avoided.
So, if we are serious about building God’s kingdom, let us shut our ears to those who offer slogans and sound-bites and grand projects and focus instead on how we can play our part among those “many little people in many little places”, doing those “little things”, those little acts of kindness and self-forgetting through which the kingdom of heaven is revealed. For it is in them, as David and Thérèse realised, that we find our true freedom, here and in heaven. What is more, as we make space for one another in those little sacrifices of which St Thérèse wrote, we find that the Lord Jesus himself will enter that space, fulfilling his promise that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
Trinity 12 (30.8.2020)
Now, young Brenda, I hope you were listening carefully to the words that were read just now, because those words spell out much better than I can what your parents are letting you in for this morning. If you were listening carefully, you probably thought that some of it sounded really good. But you may also have thought that some of it sounded a bit “meh”. And some of it – well, you really wouldn’t want to go there.
Jesus’ friend Peter had the same problem, as we heard in our reading from the gospel. Last Sunday, you may remember, we heard how everything suddenly “clicked” for Peter and he realised who Jesus was – not just “that bloke from Nazareth who keeps telling people about God’s kingdom”, but the person in whom God’s kingdom had become flesh and bone. But then Jesus started telling his friends exactly what that meant. It wasn’t about what the world would see as “success” or “victory”. It wasn’t about “prosperity” – despite what you hear many preachers say. It was about rejection and suffering and death. Peter was frightened by this talk and he tried to shut Jesus down. ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ It’s a very normal human reaction when we are faced with an uncomfortable truth.
Jesus, though, wasn’t having any of that and he gave Peter a real telling-off. Calling one of your closest companions “the Adversary” is coming it a bit strong! Then Jesus explained to all those who were with him how God’s kingdom works: how it’s about not looking out for yourself, but about being faithful to God, about following wherever—wherever—we are led, as Jesus did. And that can be really good – when it’s not being frightening.
In our first reading St Paul set out what is really good about following Jesus. Writing to the earliest Christian communities in Rome, he reminds them that their life together is about love, about mutual affection, about honouring one another, about rejoicing, about being hopeful – and patient and prayerful when things go wrong. It’s about getting alongside people, whoever they are, helping those who need help, sharing in their joys and in their sorrows.
Paul also reminds the Christians of Rome what their life is not about. It isn’t about being “top dog”. It isn’t about showing off. And it most especially isn’t about “getting your own back” if someone harms you. If anyone does you wrong, leave the situation to God. Or leave it to that impersonal cosmic force, “the wrath”, which operates in Paul’s thinking much as “karma” does in Hindu and Buddhist thought. Actions have consequences. Your task is to live, so far as possible, in peace with everyone. Get on with your life. Don’t worry about those others. Don’t stir up conflict. No, says Paul, quoting from the ancient wisdom of Israel, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.’ He has already told his readers to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”, but this takes it much further. To feed someone was to accept them into your circle of friends.
Now, that really is following Jesus, who prayed for his executioners as they were nailing him to the cross – and it’s something that people can find very difficult. Many years ago I knew someone who found it extremely hard to pray the Lord’s prayer because of the words “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” There were people who had done her wrong, and she found it difficult to think about them in any sort of positive way. She was deeply troubled by that – and rightly so. As the American writer Anne Lamott says in one of her books, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
So don’t be afraid of the tough bits, Brenda. To quote St Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil”. Enjoy the really good bits, because there are many of them. Enjoy living in love and hope and peace – and, above all, trust that God will see you through the horrors, one way or another. Don’t be like Peter, trying to blot out the possibility of suffering, but follow in the steps of Jesus, who knew what was coming, but went forward on the road to Jerusalem for our sake, for yours and mine and everyone’s, so that each of us may find our true life in him, even though we may think we have lost it.
Trinity 11 (23.8.2020)
Trinity 6 (19.7.2020)
The whole story is that what we are facing, what this planet is facing, is the birth pangs of a new age. Back to St Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” That’s not the same as saying “Things can only get better.” It is saying that the key to the future, which is God’s future – the key to the future is hope, “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Waiting for that freedom isn’t fun, any more than labour pains are fun for a woman giving birth, but our calling, the calling of every Christian who knows that she or he is a child of God, is to hang on in there, to be a sign of hope for all people, to be a reminder that our human destiny is to be “children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Trinity 5 (12.7.2020)
Trinity 4 (5.7.2020)
It’s also good that we have heard those words of Jesus in the middle of today’s Gospel – and, I should point out that they were not chosen with Brenda and her parents in mind. We heard them because this is the point that the Church has reached in our year-long exploration of the good news according to St Matthew. So, Sarah and Jeffery, you have a lot to teach your baby daughter, about living with different cultures and different languages. You will also have a lot to learn from Brenda, because there are things which God has hidden from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed to infants, and they are often things that have to do with wonder and love and joy.
Trinity 3 (28.6.2020)
Trinity 2 (21.6.2020)
Trinity 1 (14.6.2020)
Trinity Sunday (7.6.2020)
Pentecost (31.5.2020)You’ve made it. You’ve finally made it! You’ve been saving for years for this trip to Jerusalem. And at last you’re here. You’re in the city in time for the festival. You’ve prayed in the temple; you’ve made your offering: and now you’re going to do a little sight-seeing. So, it seems are a lot of other pilgrims. Judging by the clothes they’re wearing they’ve come from all over the place, from Rome in the west to Persia in the east, from North Africa, from the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian, from places a thousand, two thousand miles away. They’ve come on foot, by sea, by camel, even on horse-back. Now they’re doing the rounds of the royal tombs and the holy places – early in the morning, before the sun gets up and it’s too hot, even in the shaded, narrow streets of the old city. Then, suddenly, there’s a bit of a disturbance. People are shouting out. It’s a little group – can’t be more than a dozen, mostly peasants from the look of them. They’ve just come out of that building over there. Heaven knows what they’re saying, you don’t speak any Aramaic and your Greek isn’t up to much beyond what you need for buying and selling. But wait a minute. You can understand what they’re saying. They’re talking your language. They’re talking about God, about what God has done, about what God is doing, what God is doing here, now, today in Jerusalem. They’re very, very excited. What is going on? The man standing next to you laughs and says he thinks they’ve had a skinful, but surely it’s much too early in the day for that? Oh, wait a moment: one of them seems to be the leader. He’s hoisted himself onto the counter outside a shop and he’s calling for quiet. He must have heard the man next to you, because the first thing he says is that says they haven’t been drinking. You were right about it being too early. Nine o’clock? The taverns will hardly be open yet. Now what’s he saying?What is he saying? What is he saying to you, to me, to that great crowd of people from all round the Eastern Mediterranean and across the Middle East?He’s quoting one of the prophets. Not one of the big boys. Not Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. He’s quoting Joel. The prophet who got caught up in a plague of locusts. Joel’s one of those prophets who saw natural disaster as God’s judgement on Israel – and he saw the locusts as an invading army carrying out that judgement, in the same way as Isaiah had seen the armies of Assyria and Jeremiah the armies of Babylon. Joel saw something else, too. He saw God’s mercy. Joel saw God’s steadfast love for God’s people, despite their repeated failures. He saw that steadfast love revealed in the restoration and renewal of Israel after disaster. He saw it in the pouring out of the Spirit “on all flesh” – a gift not limited by race or age or gender or status. This is a promise to young as well as old, female as well as male, slaves as well as free citizens. This is a promise that God will renew God’s people, that God is renewing God’s people, by the gift of his Spirit. And the death of Jesus of Nazareth has triggered it.That’s what John means when he describes Jesus standing in the temple precincts and promising the gift of living water, flowing “out of the believer’s heart”, according to our translation; out of the believer’s belly, even the believer’s gut, according to John’s original Greek. Either way, it comes from the core of the believer’s being. It’s the same living water Jesus promised to the woman of Samaria. It’s the same living water that the prophet saw flowing from the temple to make the ruined land fertile and to bring healing. It’s the Spirit of God, sent forth, in the words of this morning’s Psalm, to renew the face of the earth.That promise is for us, here in Genoa. God has not abandoned the people in this pandemic any more than God abandoned Israel in the time when Joel pondered the meaning of that plague of locusts. As we open our hearts, our guts, to the gift of God’s Spirit, our thirst will be satisfied. Out of the blood, and fire, and smoky mist, renewal will come. Beyond the darkness, we shall see the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, when all creation will be restored. “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Tony Dickinson
Easter 7 (24.5.2020) Well, here we are, back in church after nearly three months away. All of us probably have stories about life during those three months that we are longing to share, stories of struggle for many, but also, I hope, stories of unexpected blessing and of a deepening relationship with God, inspiring stories, embarrassing stories, funny stories. We want, even need, to share those stories, but we can’t – not for the moment, anyway. Gathering for worship is allowed. Getting together afterwards over an aperitivo for a good old gossip isn’t, not even if we wear our mascherine. Welcome to life after lock-down. Welcome to the “new normal”.There’s a bit of that about the end of today’s first reading, though for a very different reason. The disciples have spent a significant length of time with the risen Lord, learning about the kingdom of God, getting to grips with the meaning of a crucified Messiah. But finally that time together has come to an end. Luke uses imagery taken from the Hebrew Scriptures to describe how that happened. Jesus is taken up into heaven like Elijah. A cloud comes down to hide him from the disciples’ sight, as God came down in a cloud that hid the tent of meeting while God talked to Moses. Then, somehow, that’s it. As the two men in white robes remind the disciples, life goes on. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”So, it’s back to Jerusalem; back to the room upstairs: back to being the Twelve – or rather “the Eleven”. There’s a name missing from that list in verse 13. Welcome to the “new normal” for Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James – but not for Judas, son of Simon Iscariot who has, in Luke’s chilling phrase, “turned aside to go to his own place.” What then are the Eleven to do? How do they become used to this new state of affairs? For them, as Luke tells the story, the answer is obvious. They and the core group of women who had supported them, and Jesus, during the previous three years, with members of Jesus’ immediate family, including Mary, “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”They committed themselves, in other words, to discerning God’s will for their future, to understanding how to go about rebuilding that first community of believers in the physical absence of Jesus. That prayer to which they were constantly devoting themselves was probably made up more of silence than of words. And the words were probably as short and simple as the prayer of a holy woman in Northern Europe many centuries later, “Lord, show me your way and make me willing to walk it.” Something like that, I think, has to be our prayer in this time of waiting. We don’t know what is going to result from this easing of restrictions. We don’t know how this pandemic is going to develop. Will it peter out in the summer? Will there be (God forbid!) a second wave of infection? It’s unlikely that there will be a quick solution. Vaccines and treatments take time to develop – and to manufacture and distribute. Masks will be worn for the foreseeable future. Social distancing will continue. If not, more people will become ill – and more will die. So we have to get used to said services with no hymns. We have to get used to not moving round the building sharing the peace of Christ with our brothers and sisters. We have to get used to putting our weekly offering in the bag on our way in or on our way out. Those who use the food bank will have to get used to picking up a pre-packed bag rather than making their own choices. And all of us have to get used to keeping this building very clean indeed.But we have to remember that all this, like the situation of the first Christians in Jerusalem, is highly provisional. Situations can change suddenly and unexpectedly. The whole Christian story is about such changes – about God intervening in unexpected ways, at Easter and on the day of Pentecost. In the mean time, let us follow the example of that first community in Jerusalem, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”, and let us pray, simply and directly, as they did, using, if you like, that prayer of Birgitta of Sweden: “Lord, show us your way and make us willing to walk it.”
Easter 6 (17.5.2020)Things can’t go back to what they were: not for the disciples after what happened in the hours following the conversation in today’s Gospel; not for the Athenians who listened to Paul’s critique of their city’s religion twenty years later; not for us as some prepare for a return to work and all of us move on from this fragmented, online worship that has been our substitute for the Sunday Eucharist since early March. Things can’t go back to what they were.For the disciples so many things were turned upside down by the events of that night and the three days that followed. Those who had been sure of themselves found that they were neither as brave, nor as loyal, as they had imagined. Those who had expected God to intervene decisively discovered that God’s intervention was not at all what they had anticipated. Nothing and nobody was where they had left off at the end of the supper. How could it be?For Paul’s Athenian audience his insistence that there was one God “who made the world and everything in it… who is Lord of heaven and earth… [who] does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is… served by human hands” was revolutionary. They were used to a world in which many gods competed for human worship and could become angry and vindictive if they did not receive it – that’s the point of that altar “To an unknown god” which caught Paul’s attention. It was insurance against accidentally missing one. In such a setting Paul’s insistence that there was one God and that God could be known in Jesus, raised from the dead, was so revolutionary that for most of his hearers it was safer to mock him than to engage seriously with what he said, although a few did and became believers.And for us – well, we can’t be sure what will happen in our daily lives but we are back together in this building as from Wednesday, and that will not be the same as it was before lock-down. If you’ve looked on the website or on the church’s Facebook page you will know how different things will have to be. No singing. No peace. No aperitivo after the service. Only the wafer at Communion. Wash hands before you come in. Keep at least a metre apart from everyone else. And wear your mascherine.But beneath all this deeply unsettling change, for us, for the Athenians, for the disciples, there is one constant and that is God’s unchanging faithfulness in love. As Paul told the Athenians “[God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things”. God is the God of every nation, not bound to one people or place, unlike the pagan gods, who could be very territorial. God is indeed “not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” Now beyond that general sense of God’s faithfulness, God’s care for creation and for human beings within the created order – beyond that there is the specific promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Beyond arrest, trial and crucifixion is the resurrection, and beyond resurrection there is the gift of the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” But, Jesus adds, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”Confident in that promise, and in the eternal reality of God’s faithfulness, we can learn to cope with change as we have learned to cope with lock-down, even though at times we may want to echo the accusing words of the Psalmist: “You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water.” But even that accusation is a reason for praising God, because the God who has proved us, who has tried us as silver is tried, is the same God who has “brought us out into a place of liberty”, so that we can join the Psalmist in saying “in truth God has heard me; he has heeded the voice of my prayer.”Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can trust God to bring us out into a place of liberty. Things can’t go back to what they were, but we have Jesus’ promise, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Things can’t go back to what they were, but we can echo with confidence the words that ended our Psalm: “Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his loving mercy from me.”Tony Dickinson
Easter 5 (10.5.2020)On Friday morning half a dozen of the clergy in Italy and Malta held an on-line meeting with Archdeacon David. It’s something we’re now doing each week, sharing our experience of life under lock-down, encouraging one another and thinking about where we go from here. On Friday we had a few items of good news to share. One of them was that Fr Russ Ruffino in Palermo has just become a grandfather for the first time – though he isn’t going to be able to see the baby any time soon, because his daughter and her partner live in Sweden. But probably the biggest news was that on Thursday the government in Rome came to an agreement with the Catholic Church about re-opening church buildings for public worship. This will be possible from Monday, 18th May – and it doesn’t apply only to the Catholic Church, but to all the Churches.Now, some of you may be thinking “Great! Two more Sundays and everything will be just as it was!” Well, no. As with the good news that Fr Russ had to share, there were one or two snags. Vickie Sims, in Milan, had studied the text of the agreement and she spelled out what it means in practical terms. And what it means is that every congregation in Italy is going to have to do a lot – and I do mean a lot – of serious thinking about how it manages the return to Sunday worship. That’s because we are, as they say, not out of the wood yet. Corona-virus, Covid-19, whatever you like to call it, is still very much with us. There were no deaths at San Martino on Thursday for the first time in two months, but that day a dozen people died across the region, and there were 94 new cases. So we’re talking about masks, and social distancing, and sanitising, and no singing – apparently a rousing hymn is as good as a coughing fit for spreading infection – and there will have to be quite a few other changes from the way in which we have been used to doing things in the past. The wardens and I will be meeting on-line next week to do some serious thinking about what we do, and about when and how we do it. And we will do our best to keep everyone up-to-date with what is happening and when.So, in such uncertain times as these, it’s good to be reminded of the opening words of Jesus from today’s gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Things may not be going smoothly. In terms of our life together, and in terms of our lives as individuals they certainly aren’t going smoothly. Living with lock-down has been, and will continue to be, hard for many of us, but in the end – and that end may be a long way off still – in the end everything will be all right. It may not look like it from where you and I are sitting, but God still holds our lives and the lives of those who are dear to us enfolded in the unlimited, unconditional love which created the universe. In that love there is a place prepared for each one of us. So, do not let your hearts be troubled.“Believe in God”. Some people, particularly unbelievers, try to treat believing in God as if it were the same as believing in fairies. It isn’t. To believe in God is not to believe things about God. To believe in God is to put our trust in God – whatever happens: whether things are going well, or badly, or disastrously. Jesus said these words on the night that he was handed over to suffering and death, the night when Judas would betray him, when Peter would deny him, and when all the other disciples would abandon him. Jesus knew all those things would happen and yet he still offered these words of encouragement.“Believe in God, believe also in me.” Believe in Jesus because from Jesus we can read off what God is like. As he says to Philip later on in today’s gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. Believe in Jesus because he has lived the good news which he proclaimed. Believe in Jesus because he bears the scars of suffering, the suffering inflicted on him by human sin, by our self-centred fears and resentments, by our foolishness and pride. Jesus takes all that on himself and he transforms it: and he shows us how we can transform the suffering that we experience. By walking in his way, by living out his truth, we come to inhabit his life, to dwell in him as he dwells in the Father.Tony Dickinson
Easter 4 (3.5.2020)Muslims sometimes talk about “the five pillars of Islam”, the five things that are central to their faith, the confession of faith, the daily prayers, the Ramadan Fast, alms-giving and the pilgrimage to Makkah. Today St Luke has described for us the four pillars of Christian life, they come at the beginning of our first reading this morning, when Luke describes how the earliest Christians lived: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They learned from the people who had been closest to Jesus about his life and death and resurrection, and about what that meant for those who were setting out to follow his way. “They devoted themselves to fellowship.” When they came together they didn’t just sit listening to the apostles and then go away again. They spent time in one another’s company. They shared experience, particularly experience of what God was doing in their lives.“They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.” This could be, and many scholars think it is, a reference to the Eucharist, but when Luke uses this phrase elsewhere in Acts, including later in this reading, he means sharing meals more generally. However, shared meals were the setting in which the earliest Christians remembered the meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night that he was handed over. Shared meals were a reminder of that meal.“They devoted themselves to the prayers.” In the setting of Jerusalem, that probably means the regular daily prayers in the temple. In the next chapter of Acts we read about Peter and John “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Regular prayer, regular time set aside to be consciously with God, was important.Now, for many of us it may feel as if those four “pillars” of Christian life have been knocked over by the restrictions which have limited our lives so severely during the past two months and which will continue to limit them, though not quite so severely, during the coming weeks. We can’t yet gather for worship – and when we do, it will probably feel very different from what we used to do before the virus hit Genova. The wardens and I have received a letter for the Bishops with a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for congregations as they come out of lock-down. We will be sharing them with you when once we have worked out which apply in our case and how best to handle them. In the mean time, here are four things that we can do during lock-down to prop up those “four pillars of Christian life” until we can come together to set them once more on a firm foundation.First, “the apostles’ teaching”. Read your Bible each day, especially the New Testament. If you don’t have a Bible, use your smartphone to download one of the free Bible apps available online. The Bible we use in church is the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV for short.Next comes “fellowship”. That’s probably the most difficult to create under lock-down, but again, if you have a phone, use it to keep in touch with friends, to find out how they are doing. I’ve been touched by the number of people who have phoned or emailed or messaged me during these past weeks to let me know how they are and to ask how I’m managing. What about “the breaking of bread”? Well, at the bishops’ request we no longer suggest sharing bread and wine during our services on Facebook, but there is nothing to stop you from sharing food afterwards as a sign of the unity which is ours in Christ. In the Eastern Churches they do this by giving special blessed bread to everyone at the end of the Liturgy.Finally, “the prayers”, the easiest, and at the same time the hardest thing. Make some space, wherever you can find it. Make some time to sit quietly before God, to bring to God your needs and concerns, people you love, people and situations you worry about. Tell God what is in your heart and on your mind – and leave silence to listen for God speaking to you.And in all that you do, find things for which you can be thankful: the sight of some blue sky, sunlight dancing on the sea, the sound of a bird singing, good news of family or friends, whether here or far away, an enjoyable meal, a goal you’ve achieved – even something as simple as sweeping out a room. All of these things will help you to develop a “glad and generous heart” and will spill over into the praise of God, who brings abundant life in Christ and joyful hope out of lock-down and pandemic. Tony Dickinson
Easter 3 (26.4.2020)When we start reading the New Testament seriously, one of the things we discover is how very differently the first Christians did things. Today, when people ask about baptism, whether for themselves or for their children, most churches offer some sort of detailed, careful preparation. It’s all very different from the baptisms described in our first reading this morning. No careful preparation there. Just one powerful sermon from Peter, words that cut his hearers to the heart, St Luke tells us, and a huge and immediate response which resulted in the mass baptism of about three thousand people.It is very different from what we expect nowadays, but there is one thing that remains the same. Peter tells the crowds in Jerusalem: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” That applies to us, here, now, just as it did to them then. “The promise is for you, for your children.”So what is that promise? It’s the promise of life; life lived in a new dimension. That’s what Peter means when he talks about “the gift of the Holy Spirit”. He isn’t promising the crowds “pie in the sky when you die”. He’s offering them a new start now – a new start, with every past failure washed away in the water of baptism, a new start living in the love and mercy of God, a new start walking in the way of God. “The promise is for you, for your children.”It’s a promise of life and hope in this pandemic-afflicted world. It’s a promise that, however bad things may seem, they are never beyond the power of God to hold and heal and transform. Think of those two disciples in this morning’s gospel, trudging home to Emmaus after a desperate week in the big city. It had all started so well. They had watched Jesus of Nazareth, somebody they recognised as very special – watched him enter the city amid cheering crowds, challenging the foreign army of occupation, challenging the corrupt leaders of his own people. And a few days later they had watched that foreign army, and their own leaders, crush him.They had watched how “how [their] chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” They had watched him stumble through the city, carrying his cross to the place of execution. They had watched him die and seen the soldiers make sure that he was dead. So there’s real despair in their words: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” – hoped that Jesus would bring his people freedom and a future.And the stranger to whom they are telling this story listens and waits until they have finished their tale of disappointment and confusion. Then he shows them how it all fits the way that people have seen God at work down the ages. There’s a pattern of bringing life out of darkness, hope out of death and despair. What happened to Jesus is no different. God is in all the pain of the world as well as in its glory, in the restrictions of lock-down, in the worry of being laid off, in the struggle to save lives in the ITU of San Martino or the Evangelico. God opens up all kinds of possibilities when everything seems closed down, hopeless, dead.Such is the promise which God makes to us this morning, the same promise that was made to the crowd in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago: that however life may turn out, God will never abandon us. The risen Jesus is alongside us as he was alongside Cleopas and his companion, even though we may not recognise him any more than they did. He is with us to bear our burdens of sorrow and suffering, our fears, our sense of failure. He is with us to share our joys and to share with us his life, which is the life of God. The risen Jesus still comes to us unrecognised. He is still alongside us in the desolation and limitation of lock-down, in our anxiety about family and friends, showing us the pattern of how God works in the world.And he makes himself known as our living Lord today. He makes himself known in the words of the Bible and in the breaking of the bread, whether it’s at the home of friends in Emmaus, or on YouTube in Genova. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!Tony Dickinson
Easter 2 (19.4.2020)On the first Easter Day the disciples were, like us, in lock-down. In our case it is fear of spreading corona-virus even further which keeps us behind closed doors. In their case it was fear of being arrested by the Jewish authorities. In either case, the consequences of breaking lock-down could be fatal. But in both cases lock-down has damaging consequences. It can act as an echo-chamber, amplifying fear. It can cut us off from our support networks, from friends and family, from the people with whom we work, from the faith community to which we belong. For some of us it might feel very much as if we, rather than Jesus, are in the tomb, with the stone rolled firmly across the door and no very clear indication of when it might be rolled away.It’s into that situation that the risen Jesus comes. All the resurrection appearances in the three Gospels which record resurrection appearances happen to small groups of people, grieving people, damaged people, some of them horribly aware that in these last days they had come to the time of trial and in one way or another had been found wanting. What will he say to them? Luke and John are unanimous. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” “Peace”, to this group of fearful, anxious, hopeless people. And “peace” in such a setting means rather more than “Stop panicking”. “Peace” in such a setting means “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”And he shows them the reason why everything will be all right. He showed them his hands and his side. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of the crucified Jesus. The resurrection is not a going back to when everything was fine. There is no pretending that the recent past hasn’t happened, no wiping away all the pain and the sense of failure as if they don’t matter – or as if Jesus has now become detached from the rest of humanity. Those wounds are his credentials. They are the permanent, the eternal, reminder that God is in it with us, in all the mess, the darkness, the lock-down, the fear, the hatred, the violence and the sorrow.God is in it with us. However far we fall, however badly we fail, however much we suffer, God is there, holding us with the wounded hands of Christ. Even when we doubt or despair, God does not give up on us – ask Thomas. He demanded what he thought was impossible, and it was given to him. “‘Put your finger here and see my hands,’ said Jesus. ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” “Trust me. Everything will be all right.”“Everything will be all right.” But that doesn’t mean we can bypass all the problems of being human, and particularly not the problems of being human at a time like this, when we, or people we know, are suffering, or sorrowing, when they are going hungry, or worried about how long they can keep a roof over their head. The resurrection didn’t suddenly make everything all right, so that we can all live happily ever after. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to be prepared to accept our cross – and to help others carry theirs.Now, we cannot do that in our own strength. We can do it only if we are held in the peace of the risen Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the present time that means being patient, probably more patient than any of us finds comfortable. It means following the advice of Abba Moses, a reformed African gangster, a violent criminal who became one of the greatest and gentlest of the fourth-century Desert Fathers. A monk came to visit Abba Moses and asked him for “a word” (that is, a saying that would bring him closer to God). Moses said “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” In other words, “Don’t go wandering about in search of advice from another human being. Let God speak to you where you are.” That’s a word for us, if we are able to accept it. Let the restrictions of this present time become an opportunity to draw closer to God. Let God speak to you where you are, in all the frustration and the longing to be up and doing, in all the fear and anxiety which surround corona-virus. Learn to be still, and in that stillness you will hear the risen Christ saying to you, “Peace be with you.” Trust him. Everything will be all right.Tony Dickinson
Easter Day (12.4.2020)One spring day, when I was a student, great offence was caused in the community when one of the more earnest members of what we used to call “the God squad” went up to one of the less earnest members and greeted him with the words “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”, only to be rebuffed with a blank look and the question “What the hell does that mean?” It’s a question some of us may well be asking this morning as we face up to the reality of another three weeks of lock-down – and at this time of year above all others! What does it mean to say “Alleluia!, Christ is risen!” when it feels very much as if we are still in the tomb of lock-down, when people are still dying, and when many of us are sharing the sorrow of Lis and her family as they come to terms with Giancarlo’s sudden death on Friday – and with the implications of the renewed restrictions for the way in which they will be allowed to mark his passing? No bringing his body home. No farewells. No gathering of family, friends and neighbours for a funeral mass at the church in Boccadasse.There are no easy answers. But then, there never were. Even in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, which plays down the shock and horror of the two Maries when they find the tomb empty and which plays up the sense that God is in control – with the angel rolling back the stone and sitting on it in their presence – even in Matthew’s account the angel frightens the guards into a dead faint and has to tell the women not to be afraid. But they are still filled with fear as well as great joy as they run to tell the disciples what they have seen. The resurrection is not a conventional “happy ending”. It is a story of transformation. Those women who hurry off “with fear and great joy” are transformed from the women who had sat in sorrow opposite the tomb two evenings earlier as Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body to rest.There’s transformation, too, in our first reading. St Paul reminds the Christian communities in Rome that the resurrection of Jesus does not only transform him, “raised from the dead by the glory of the Father”; it also transforms those who believe, “so we too might walk in newness of life.” We walk, in other words, out of our own small story, the story of which we are the centre, into God’s big story, the story of a love so amazing that, as Isaac Watts recognised, it demands “my soul, my life, my all”, that total reorientation of our values and out attitudes which comes when we accept the uncomfortable truth that “your life is not about you”.Once we have grasped that, truly grasped it, in our heart and our gut, not only in our head, then a new world becomes possible. Many years ago, Bishop John Taylor described to a gathering of young people in St Albans how he had recently visited Bedford Gaol to confirm a group of prisoners, men under lock-down for the crimes which they had committed. But despite the patrolling prison officers, the barred windows and the security doors, they told Bishop John that they had at last found freedom, a freedom in Christ which had liberated them from the compulsions and addictions which had brought them to that place of imprisonment. Their old self had, indeed, been crucified with Christ so that, even though they were behind bars, they were free.A year or two earlier another Bishop, Desmond Tutu, had written these words at the height of the struggle against the permanent lock-down of black people that was the apartheid system:“Nothing could have been deader than Jesus on the cross on that first Good Friday. And the hopes of his disciples had appeared to die with this crucifixion. Nothing could have been deeper than the despair of his disciples when they saw their Master hanging on the cross like a common criminal. The darkness that covered the earth for three hours during that Friday symbolised the blackness of their despair.“And then Easter happened. Jesus rose from the dead. The incredible, the unexpected happened. Life triumphed over death, light over darkness, love over hatred, good over evil. That is what Easter means – hope prevails over despair. Jesus reigns as Lord of lords and King of kings… Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”Barely ten years after he wrote those words the apartheid system was dead and buried and Nelson Mandela was president of a re-born South Africa, the “rainbow nation” to which Desmond Tutu, by now Archbishop of Cape Town, wrote these words of encouragement:“Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”So for us, in a nation beset by pandemic, a land locked down, a community in mourning, the risen Christ comes bringing freedom and hope and joy. “Victory is ours, through him who loves us.” His word to the women, the angel’s word to the women, is also his word to us. “Do not be afraid.”Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!Tony Dickinson
Palm Sunday (5.4.2020)Despite the bright spring weather, we continue to live in dark and dangerous times. All round the world, people are suffering and dying. All round the world, Christians are not meeting to remember the death and resurrection of their Lord. Here in Italy there are worrying signs that the bonds of solidarity which have sustained us since the beginning of last month are beginning to fray, as work dries up, money runs out, and there’s no food on the table.Just now, as we heard the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we were reminded how quickly the bonds of solidarity frayed, and broke, in the last week of his life. Judas’s betrays him. The disciples desert him. Peter denies him. Add to that the hostility of the crowd and the mockery coming not only from those with power, the soldiers, the religious and civil leaders, but also from those sharing the same sentence of death. Jesus is as isolated in his dying as any patient struggling for breath on a ventilator in San Martino.And we remember that crucifixion works in a very similar way to the corona-virus, depriving its victim of the ability to breathe. Jesus, and the two bandits alongside him, will self-asphyxiate as the weight of their body, sagging from their outstretched arms, prevents them from expanding their lungs in order to inhale. They can try to lever themselves upright, until the pain from ankles shattered by the piercing nails forces them to drop down again. And in the end body-weight will win. That grim parallel is yet one more reminder that in all the darkness, the desolation, the despair, the dying, God is in it with us.God is in it with us. There is no situation so desperate, so unendurable, that God’s gaze of love will turn away from it, no abyss so deep that, however far we fall, those outstretched arms cannot catch us. Not even the devouring depths of hell can be barred against the self-giving, suffering love of the Christ who, for our sake, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”Tony Dickinson
Fifth Sunday in Lent (29.3.2020)“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How many families around the world, I wonder, not just China or Italy, or Britain, or Spain, or the USA – how many families are echoing those words of Martha and Mary? They might not be addressing them to Jesus as the two sisters did. They might be addressing them to a government, or a department of health, or a hospital administration. “If those testing kits had been here…” or “If that protective clothing had been here…” then brothers or sisters, parents, friends, colleagues would not have died. There were more than nine hundred new deaths in this country on Friday; the biggest total for a single day anywhere in the world so far.So many people in mourning. So many people crying from out of the depths, like the Psalmist. “Lord, hear my voice.” So many people echoing Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother (or sister, or mother, or father, or child) would not have died.” And those who mourn today, unlike Martha and Mary, cannot have the comfort of neighbours, friends, kinsfolk coming, whether from down the street or from a distance, to pay their condolences, to offer the support of their presence in a time of loss and sorrow. Nor can they gather together to offer prayer, whether at the bedside of the dying, or in church or at the graveside.But the Lord is here. He is present in the healing activity of the doctors and the care of the nursing staff, in the faithful commitment of paramedics and ancillary workers, all those who knowingly put themselves in the line of danger in order to save, if possible, the lives of others and in order to keep going the vital work of treatment and care. He is here, too, in the loneliness of the ITU and the struggle to breathe, in the tears of family and friends. Jesus weeps now, as he wept then, because he is love. He weeps with the bereaved. He also weeps at the human thoughtlessness, the complacency, the deafness to warnings – all those self-centred, uncaring attitudes that St Paul sums up as “the flesh”, and which have made this crisis so much worse than it need have been. “To set the mind on the flesh” is indeed death.And yet, as the Gospels remind us again and again, death does not have the last word. Suffering and pain do not have the last word. God’s offer is life and peace, a life and peace secured by the one who raised Lazarus from the dead and who was himself raised from death – not, like Lazarus, to complete his earthly course and die again – but to the life of the Godhead. Faith, in other words total trust, in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, opens the way to a life that the death of our physical bodies cannot stop, because it is the life of God.Now, that kind of trust can be seen in two people in today’s Gospel. It can be seen, blazing, in Martha’s declaration “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”. It’s there, too, in what she says after her half-reproach to Jesus for not arriving while Lazarus was still alive, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It can also be seen, earlier in the story, in one of the disciples. While the others are trying desperately to dissuade Jesus from returning across the Jordan into Judaea, Thomas, the Twin, simply says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”There, in a nutshell, is the essence of discipleship. “Follow Jesus and die.” There’s a parish in England which adopted those words as its mission statement. It’s a good motto for us, too, in this time of pandemic – not in the sense of behaving stupidly, putting ourselves and other people in danger, but in the sense of letting God put to death in us “the things of the flesh”, what the old Prayer Book calls “the devices and desires of our own hearts”. They imprison us far more securely than any government restrictions, more securely than Lazarus’s grave-cloths. In his own good time Jesus will call us out of the tomb that has been dug for us by fear and foolishness and pride – our own and other people’s. Until then, with the Psalmist, we wait for the Lord; placing our hope in his word. “For with the Lord there is mercy; with him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” Tony Dickinson
Mothering Sunday (22.3.2020)The whole of Lent so far has been strange as we have wandered through this corona-virus wilderness, but today is probably the strangest day. Mothering Sunday is supposed to be about posies and simnel cake and saying thank you to all the mums in church. But all the mums, like everyone else in Italy – and pretty well every other country in Europe – are self-isolating. The florists’ shops are all closed by government order. Sorry about that.On second thoughts, though, is it that strange? Our readings this morning remind us that being a mother is not all posies and cake. It includes suffering and loss and letting go. We can see that in what happened to the Levite woman in our first reading. The background to that story is grim. It’s about attempted genocide by the Egyptians against the descendants of Israel. The Egyptians were worried. Their king had told them, “The Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we.” So the Egyptians put Israelites to forced labour. But that didn’t kill them off. Then the king tried to bully the Hebrew midwives into killing all the male children born in their communities. But the midwives outsmarted the king. So the king issued an order that baby boys were to be thrown into the river Nile. And that’s where the Levite woman comes into the story.She and her husband had a baby boy. He must have been at least their third child because, as we shall see, he had an older sister and, as becomes clear a lot later in the story, an older brother as well. And he was gorgeous, “a fine baby”. So his mother didn’t throw him in the Nile as the king had commanded. She hid him for three months. But as he grew bigger he couldn’t be hidden any longer and she decided that the baby had to go into the river. But to give this fine baby a chance to live, his mother didn’t just throw him into the water as the king had commanded. She made a reed basket into a little boat and placed it in one of the reed-beds on the edge of the river where someone, a fisherman, perhaps, or one of the river boatmen, might find the child and take pity on him.Well, as we heard in our reading, it wasn’t a fisherman who found him. It was Pharaoh’s daughter. It was the daughter of the king who had given the order for the death of that baby, and many others. She saw the child and sent one of her maids to take him out of the water. And like those midwives earlier in the story, Pharaoh’s daughter outsmarted the king, her own father. She took the child even though she recognised that he was “one of the Hebrews’ children”. And thanks to a brilliant piece of work by the baby’s big sister, he was given back to his mother to be nursed. A happy ending? Well, not exactly. Think about it for a moment.The Levite woman had given up her son. Now to her great joy she had received him back, but she knew she couldn’t keep him. One day she would have to hand him back to the daughter of the great enemy of her people, to be brought up among their oppressors. That really is a loss and a letting go. So too is Mary’s in this morning’s Gospel. She was one of the little group of women standing near the cross of her son, watching and waiting as his battered and bleeding body drew closer to death. Painters and sculptors, poets and musicians have for centuries tried to imagine what it must have been like to be her, of all women, to be there, of all places.In our world today, there are thousands, millions of women, who have experienced something of what the two women in today’s readings experienced: women who live in war zones; women whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster; women who have survived epidemics that their children didn’t. They know what it is to suffer and lose and let go. And it isn’t just mothers who have lived in extreme situations. Every mother, to one degree or another, knows the pain of letting go, when a child starts school, or goes away to work or to study, or finally moves out of the family home. That experience of loss is honoured by God, who also knows the pain of letting go, as the children of God’s love go their own way, turning their backs on brothers and sisters, crucifying the Son of God afresh. But God, like the Levite woman, waits patiently to receive us back, to nurture us to maturity in Christ.Tony Dickinson
Third Sunday in Lent (15.3.2020)Two weeks ago I shared my memories of a group of students fifty years since journeying along the edge of the great Iranian desert, the Dasht-e Kavir. On our way to Iran we spent a couple of nights in the Turkish town of Doğubayazıt. It was, to say the least, an interesting experience. Doğubayazıt stands on a plain, surrounded by some of Turkey’s highest mountains, including Mount Ararat, but despite that, unlike Genoa, it sees very little rain. The hills around are bleak, barren and brown. We were told at the hotel where we stayed that the town had running water for two hours each day. On the basis of our experience, we decided that those two hours must be between two and four in the morning.It was a sharp reminder to people who take water for granted – you turn on the tap in Italy and there it is – a sharp reminder that in some parts of the world water is very scarce and very precious. We were able to survive on bottles of Coca Cola and of a Turkish orange drink called Yedigün. The Israelites in the desert didn’t have that option when, early on in their travels, they pitched camp at Rephidim but found that there was no well, no spring, stream or pool to provide them with a drink and to water their livestock. So, understandably, they had a go at the man who had brought them there. “The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And when he tried to fob them off they became angry, complained that he was trying to kill them, and threatened him with violence, until God intervened at Moses’ prayer and provided them with water from the rock.It’s a slightly different scenario in today’s Gospel. This isn’t set in the desert. This is in town – or at least on the edge of a town; Sychar, “a Samaritan city” according to St John, a town which took pride in its ancient well, linked with the patriarch Jacob. But despite these differences, the story John tells, like the story in our first reading, is still a story about thirst and how it was quenched. Or rather, it’s a story about two thirsts.It starts off as a story about the physical thirst of Jesus and the tiredness which made him sit down by the well while the disciples went off in search of food. Then a woman comes out of the city to draw water. Now, that’s very odd. The time for collecting the day’s supply of water is early in the morning and John pointedly tells us that this was midday. It looks as if this woman who, as we discover, had a rather colourful marital history might have been trying to avoid the other women who would have gathered there early in the morning to draw water and to gossip – quite possibly about her. That’s when we discover that this story is about another thirst, not a physical thirst, but this Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst for some sort of meaning in her life, for a reality and a truth which she has not found in her varied relationships nor in the centuries-old stand-off between Jews and Samaritans. She wants – though at first she doesn’t quite understand what she wants – she wants the water that Jesus will give, the water which will become “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. For us, in this season of Lent which has been so badly disrupted by the corona-virus pandemic, it is easy to complain about the people who have brought us to this point. We may well be feeling tired and defeated, or even panic-stricken and overwrought, as the figures for new cases continue to climb, not only in Italy but across Europe. Those feelings may be made worse by the fact that at present there can be no physical gathering of “church “to encourage and sustain us. But by God’s grace we live in the age of social media, often criticised for their negative aspects but enabling us to live in connection with one another even when we cannot look on one another’s faces. That is what we are doing now through this virtual Eucharist, and through the various means which are appearing each day on our Facebook page, on the church website and through the various WhatsApp groups and networks to which we belong. And as we connect with one another we also connect with Christ who gives us the living water in which our deepest thirst is satisfied.
Second Sunday in Lent (8.3.2020)
First Sunday in Lent (1.3.2020)
Sunday next before Lent (23.2.2020)
Last week I had to go back to the UK for a couple of days. Someone who had been a key figure both in my congregation in High Wycombe and in the wider community had died and I was asked to take her funeral. It was a quick visit, so I was travelling light, taking with me not much more than my robes for the service and a change of clothing.
On Wednesday, Lent begins. Lent is the time of year for all of us to travel light. The fasting, self-examination, and works of mercy which are the hall-mark of the next six weeks are not about showing how holy we are but about helping us to get rid of clutter and draw near to God. Lent is a time for dropping all the excess baggage which weighs us down as we follow Moses and Elijah and Jesus up the mountain. It’s a time – the time – to focus on the essentials of our Christian life and to cut out the background noise which prevents us from hearing those three words spoken by the voice from the cloud in today’s gospel: “Listen to him.”
“Listen to him.” Those words put us, and all who follow Jesus, on the spot. Who do we listen to? What “mood music” do we pick up in these distracted times? There are so many different voices competing for our attention and our allegiance that it can be far from easy to discern the voice of Jesus our Lord. The blare of the news headlines, the blast of the front page, the booming echo-chamber of social media, the chatter of friends, all threaten to drown out the voice of Christ. So let’s stand back for a moment and think what it might mean to use the coming weeks of Lent to listen to God’s Son, “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased”. Let’s think what it means for us, here, now, in Genova in spring 2020, to encounter God, not in the mountains which surround this city, but in the depths of our heart.
I’d suggest that we listen for Jesus in the obvious places: in the words of Scripture and in the silence of our prayer. Follow a daily programme of Bible reading. I know some people do that already. If you’re used to using the internet, you can log on to the Church of England website and share in the daily pattern on offer there. The Jesuits also have a good resource. Serious engagement with the Bible day by day is an important way of listening to God, letting God cut through the “noise” of everyday life, to encourage us, to challenge us, and to transform us.
That is best done within the framework of regular prayer, and when I talk about prayer, I don’t mean simply filling God’s ears with a shopping list of wants and wishes – whether for ourselves or for other people. When I talk about prayer, I mean that encounter in which we are truly open to God’s transforming love, “entering the cloud” where God speaks to us at the deepest level of our being. Like Moses in our first reading, we have to go up into the mountain, and into the cloud; and that journey can take a very long time. There are no quick fixes, no buttons we can press to make God “answer our prayers”.
During the coming weeks there will be events to help us listen to Jesus. At midday on Wednesdays in March we shall look at how each of the Gospels tells the story of his suffering and death. Each Thursday between now and the beginning of Holy Week the church will be open from the beginning of morning prayer at 9.30 a.m. until the end of evening prayer around 6.00 p.m. for people to drop in and spend time consciously in God’s presence. There will be resources to help us to pray. There will be things to do, pictures to ponder, books to browse through, ideas to explore. But the most important thing is simply to be there, like the Peter, James and John in this morning’s Gospel, not trying to tell God what to do, not trying to build things in our own strength, but simply listening to what God says to us through the Beloved.
On Wednesday, as we set out once more into the wilderness of Lent, we may find ourselves in that cloud which an English priest 600 years ago called “the cloud of unknowing”. As we enter into it, as we listen out for the Lord, may we find him saying to us, as he did to Peter, James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And may we know his presence transforming our lives with the bright light of his glory.
The original Italian text of the sermon preached at the United Service on the Second Sunday before Lent (16th February 2020).
La scelta di celebrare congiuntamente questo culto proprio oggi non è stata casuale. Domani è il 17 febbraio e molti tra voi sanno che si ricorda un momento importante della storia e per la storia della chiesa valdese: nel 1848, il 17 febbraio, i valdesi videro riconosciuti anche per loro dei basilari diritti civili fino a quel momento negati. E questa data – questo il senso del culto congiunto in questo giorno – non è importante solo per i valdesi, ma per noi protestanti tutti, in un Paese che spesso ancora oggi ci considera, almeno in parte, corpo estraneo.
3rd Sunday before Lent (9.2.2020)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2.2.2020)
Christmastide ends today. The tree and the greenery were taken down three weeks ago. The crib will be dismantled, perhaps later today, certainly before next Sunday. The colour of the altar-cloth will change tomorrow from the white of Christmastide to the green of what our Catholic neighbours call “ordinary time”. After today Peter will take a break from stoking up the incense until we come to Easter in ten weeks’ time. It’s a time of change. We’re on the threshold of something new – in the church, as in political life across Europe.
It was a time of change for Mary and Joseph in this morning’s Gospel, as well. Six weeks after her child’s birth Mary can resume her place in the wider community outside the family home. At the same time Joseph will make the offering that redeems, that pays for, the life of a first-born male child. Because he is a poor man, Joseph doesn’t take the usual lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. He offers two turtle-doves, or young pigeons, instead. So far, so very normal – as St Luke emphasises by reminding us twice in as many verses that what Mary and Joseph are doing is “as it is written in the law of the Lord.”
Then suddenly it isn’t. Suddenly it’s anything but normal. Two people, a man and a woman, totally unconnected, detach themselves from the crowds of worshippers and sight-seers visiting the temple and head straight for this young couple and their six-week-old child. And, while the man takes hold of the baby and starts saying some quite amazing things about him, the woman starts buttonholing the other people in the temple and telling them how special he is. She, by the way, is ancient in first-century terms. In a world where medical care was very basic it was only, as the Psalmist said, “by reason of strength” that people made it into their eighties. But Anna was not only old; she was also recognisably a devout and holy woman. “She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”
Luke tells us very little about what Anna said to the people she met. He doesn’t need to. Simeon’s words tell us all we need to know about how special this six-week-old baby is. Simeon’s song speaks of his own coming death, of God’s salvation, of light and glory, picking up themes, and echoing words, from the songs sung by Zechariah and Mary in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel. God is present in the midst of his people. God is acting here and now. The promises of old are being fulfilled. All of this is “according to [God’s] word.” Which is why, for Christians, Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple has long been linked with the prophecy of Malachi which we heard a few minutes ago. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
Now, for Malachi, that coming is distinctly double-edged. God’s holiness, God’s justice, will make his coming unendurable for human wrong-doers. People who use hidden power to manipulate others, people who play havoc with human relationships, people who distort or pervert the truth, people who exploit the poor and the powerless, who reject the stranger in their midst; all of them are still around – and sometimes in positions of high authority. Even though they may not fear God, they are all under God’s judgement. So are we, when we misuse our power (and all of us have the ability to help or harm). So are we when we undermine relationships, when we twist words, when we abuse or exploit or harm others. We too will feel the force of that refining fire. We too will go through the wringer of judgement.
But God’s judgement is the judgement of love. The child who gives flesh and bone to God’s salvation does not kill; he gives life. In time he will give his own life, piercing his mother’s heart with the sword of sorrow, so that the light of God’s love may be revealed to all peoples. We will fall before the infinite goodness of God, but by God’s infinite mercy we will rise. For, like Simeon, we have seen God’s salvation in the Christ who changes lives as he comes to his temple, not as a six-week-old baby, but in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Conversion of St Paul (26.1.2020 – transferred)
Who is this Jesus? Last Sunday we heard how Andrew and his fellow-disciple were invited to “Come and see”, to spend time with Jesus and find out where he was staying, or abiding, or remaining. Today we have heard the story of a fiery young rabbi from one of the Greek-speaking communities in what is now southern Turkey whose view of Jesus was very different. He would not “come and see”, thank you very much, because he was convinced that Jesus was a man who had led the Jewish people astray and that he was cursed by God. The Law of Moses, after all, laid down that those who were put to death by “hanging from a tree” (a definition which included crucifixion) were under God’s curse. He was also convinced that the tiny groups of disciples who followed the teaching of Jesus must be hounded to destruction, not just in the Jewish heartlands of Jerusalem and Judea, but wherever they were to be found disturbing the good order of Jewish communities in the Roman province of Syria.
Saul, you see, stood for clear, firm borders around the chosen people of God, defining who was “in” and who was “out”. He stood for lives lived in accordance with the Law of Moses, for purity of conduct in every aspect of life, which meant behaviour that marked Jewish people out from the rest of the ancient world as sharply as did their avoidance of pig-meat, their refusal to work on the seventh day of the week and their practice of mutilating their male children. And in Saul’s eyes, the followers of Jesus were a threat to this purity, because of their openness to individuals, and indeed whole groups of people, whom strict Pharisees like Saul would cross the road to avoid.
So, there was Saul on his way to Damascus with authority to root out these disturbers of the peace in the Jewish community there, to arrest them and take them back to face the religious courts in Jerusalem. That was when he had the experience that was to turn his life upside down. It’s one of those stories in the Acts of the Apostles that St Luke tells three times, because in Luke’s eyes it was of so very important, like the story of Peter’s visit to the Roman officer Cornelius in Acts 10, which gets the same treatment.
Saul has an experience of the risen Jesus, Christ in glory, a vision which so disturbs him that he loses the ability to see. That vision disturbs Saul because it reveals to him that God has vindicated a crucified man. Jesus revealed in the blinding light of God’s glory is very definitely not under God’s curse. That vision turns Saul from being a fierce opponent of those who followed the way of Jesus into being an advocate who argues powerfully for that way. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus is on his way to becoming St Paul the Apostle.
As God reveals to Ananias, Saul is to be “an instrument whom [God has] chosen to bring [God’s] name before Gentiles and kings.” So, in a sense, when we celebrate the “conversion of St Paul” we are celebrating the fact that we are here this morning, that because of Paul, and all those others down the centuries who have “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for [Jesus’] name’s sake” – because of them the good news of Jesus has been preached not just in Israel and Palestine, not just in Roman Syria, but across Europe and Africa and Asia and the Americas, from Japan to Johannesburg – and beyond.
Today, as we thank God for a life turned upside down nearly two thousand years ago, we thank God also for a life that has only recently begun. Fumiko Anna arrived in this world in the small hours of 24th November last year, the Feast of Christ the King. In a few minutes’ we shall ask God’s blessing on her, on Hanako and Claudio her parents, and on Kenjiro, her big brother. And we pray that as she grows she will come to know Christ the King as the guiding presence in her life, perhaps not revealed in the blinding light that overtook St Paul on the road to Damascus, but in the love and mercy that she receives from Christ through the members of her family, the constant renewal in faith and forgiveness which is our shared Christian experience. We pray, too, that when she comes to baptism her eyes may be opened to the wonder and beauty of God’s creation and that she may be filled with the Holy Spirit to carry out whatever task God has appointed for her.
Epiphany 2 (19.1.2020)
When people think of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, they tend to focus on the very beginning. That’s not surprising. The beginning of John’s Gospel is something we hear every year at Christmas, whether as the Gospel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or as the last of the Nine Lessons in the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”.
But if we want to know what St John’s Gospel is actually about, we need to move past the prologue and further into that first chapter, to the passage we heard just now. It begins with a quick recap of “the story so far – or at least the story we heard last Sunday, with John the Baptist telling his disciples that Jesus is the one for whom John’s preaching prepared the way, the one on whom the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who will be sacrificed because of human sin. But John’s testimony to Jesus moves us on quickly to a new situation, because the two disciples who heard what John had to say about Jesus decided to find out about him for themselves. “They heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus”. And the rest of the chapter is about what happened next.
Now, John never tells a story just because it happened. None of the gospel-writers do. They tell stories which tell us something about who Jesus is or about what it means to be a disciple. And the passage we heard just now does both these things, although in one important respect it sets a timer ticking rather than telling us straight out.
The timer starts ticking when John’s disciples ask Jesus “Where are you staying?” Now, on one level, that’s a question we might ask of anyone we meet for the first time. When we are introduced to someone who’s just moved to Genoa, or who is studying here, or on holiday, the natural question to ask is “Where are you staying?” Jesus doesn’t answer, he simply says “Come and see”. So they do. “They came and saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.”
So where is Jesus staying? We don’t find out the whole answer until we get to chapter 15, which describes the talk around the table at the Last Supper. That is when Jesus tells all the disciples – except Judas Iscariot, who has already left – that is when he tells the disciples “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” That is where Jesus is staying – the Greek word St John uses is the same there as in chapter one, where it is translated “stay” and “remain”. “Stay”, “remain” and “abide” are all the same word in Greek, but in English versions of the Bible it is usually translated differently. Jesus is staying, remaining, abiding in the Father’s love – and if we stay with him, like Andrew and the other unnamed disciple, so do we. That’s central to John’s message.
So what does it mean for us to stay with Jesus? First of all it means listening to Jesus, listening to what he says, which may not what always be what the preacher says he says, and not drowning his voice out with our own words. It means reading the Gospels slowly and prayerfully, letting the words sink in, reflecting on which, if any, have a particular impact on us, and why. It means spending time with him in prayer – and again that sometimes means keeping our words to a minimum. A bishop I know is fond of talking about prayer being like basking in God’s presence, like a sunbather basking in the warmth and glow of the sun. Staying with Jesus also means sharing his life, the life he offers us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, “feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”, as the old Prayer Book says.
But it doesn’t stop there. Andrew and the other disciple “remained with [Jesus] that day”, but they didn’t leave it at that – at least, Andrew didn’t. “He first found his brother Simon… [and] brought Simon to Jesus.” Jesus is Good News (capital G, capital N) and good news is something to be shared. That is our calling: by our words and our actions to share the good news of Jesus, not by beating others over the head with it, but by living his commandments, living in love and peace with all, showing in our lives the attractiveness of Jesus so that others may also want to “come and see” and that, in the prophet’s words, “[God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.
Baptism of Christ/Epiphany 1 (12.1.2020)
It is nearly six months since Bishop David’s most recent visit to Genova: which means that it’s nearly six months since five adults and one child were baptised, and all the adults (with two others) confirmed, in this church. So it’s a good time for us to be thinking about today’s two readings, which talk about the baptism of Jesus and how God, as St Luke writes “anointed [him] with the Holy Spirit and with power. It’s a good time to do that because the message for those seven adults, and for young Michelle, on the day of their baptism and confirmation is the same message that was delivered by that voice from heaven at the end of today’s gospel reading: “This is my Son (or my daughter), the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It’s the same message, because by his death and resurrection Jesus has not only won for us forgiveness of sins through his name; he has also made us his brothers and sisters, baptised, as St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome – baptised into his death so that we might be raised to newness of life. That’s newness of life now, not after we’re dead. We are God’s children, his beloved, now: not because of anything we have done; not because we’re special; not because we deserve it: but simply because God loves us, loves us so much that in Jesus God has shared human life from its very beginning to its bitter, painful end, from the womb to the tomb, in order that we may share God’s life eternally.
There are many powerful pictures in the New Testament which try to explain what the community of Christians is: a royal priesthood; a living temple; the flock of Christ – like the sheep in the mosaic above the altar. Or we could see ourselves as branches of the true vine; as God’s field, planted and waiting for harvest; as God’s building. All of those are important and helpful pictures, but one that speaks very powerfully to many Christians is St Paul’s picture of the Church as the body of Christ, working together for the sake of God’s kingdom, collectively “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased,” continuing the work of Jesus here and now.
So what is “the work of Jesus”? How do we, like Jesus and John the Baptist, “fulfil all righteousness?” How do we work out the meaning of our anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power”, that newness of life which is ours through our baptism and confirmation? Well, let’s listen to what St Peter told Cornelius and his household in our first reading.
First: Peter’s words remind us that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable.” So, Christians are to be people who build bridges toward others, not walls and barriers against them.
Second: Peter speaks about Jesus “preaching peace”. That has to mean peace with God and peace with other people, not holding grudges, not stirring up conflict, not putting others down, keeping control of thoughts and words as much as actions. A great Russian saint of the 19th century once said “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.”
Third: Peter describes how Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Again, that’s to do with bringing people together, enabling them to become part of community. Very often the miracles of Jesus are about restoring women and men so that they can share fully in the life of God’s people, whether they are lepers, or seriously disturbed like the man in the cemetery at Gadara, or ritually unclean like the woman with the twelve-year haemorrhage, or physically incapable like the paralysed man. All of them were cut off, one way or another, from normal life and Jesus opened the way back for them. For them it needed a miracle, but very often when we meet people who feel cut off from the world around them it needs less than that, a phone call, maybe, or a kind word, or a friendly gesture.
In these three ways we can know ourselves to be God’s beloved children, but none of them can be achieved in our own strength. As God’s beloved children, we must pray that the Holy Spirit will alight upon us as it did upon Jesus, God’s beloved Son.
Events during the past few days have brought the homeland of the wise men sharply into focus, but not in a good way. The assassination in Baghdad of a senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the orders of Donald Trump is a powerful reminder that Middle Eastern politics is a high-stakes game. As indeed it was in the time of Jesus. So when the wise men arrived at King Herod’s court asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they were treading, as we might say, on very thin ice.
They were treading on thin ice because, in the later years of his reign, Herod took great care to eliminate anyone who might have an eye on the throne. He had his favourite wife killed – and her two sons. Just before he died, he had his eldest son killed, too. So the wise men’s question was not exactly tactful, particularly if they were, as Matthew says, “magi”, members of the priestly clan from Persia. If they were, Herod would have seen them as representatives of a hostile foreign power – Persia was part of the Parthian Empire with which his Roman masters had been at war on and off for more than half a century. No wonder the king was frightened! And if the king was frightened, the people of Jerusalem knew him well enough to be terrified. When Herod felt insecure, he became angry. And when Herod became angry, people died. So the chief priests and the scribes of the people probably answered Herod’s invitation to the palace with deep foreboding rather than enthusiasm. They would have recognised that it was their heads on the block.
So they must have blessed whichever scribe it was who dug up from the depths of memory those words from the prophecies of Micah that diverted the king’s attention away from them and to the little city of Bethlehem, five miles or so to the south. Bethlehem, David’s city, the obvious place for a new king to be born. And an obvious place to play on Herod’s insecurity. Bethlehem is, above all, the birth-place of David, the king of Israel by whom all other kings of Israel were measured.
And according to that measure Herod fell far short. He was painfully aware that most of his subjects refused to regard him as the legitimate king of Israel. He was not Jewish. He was not of royal birth. He was the Romans’ puppet – installed by Mark Antony and confirmed by Augustus after Antony’s defeat at the battle of Actium. He had survived for over thirty years by a mixture of efficient government and extreme ruthlessness. But the people hated him. They hated his reliance on foreigners, on his army, on his fortresses. A claimant to the throne who came from the city of David would be a real threat to his power. That’s why Herod asked the wise men to “search diligently for the child”. He could not trust any of his own people to do that – for fear they would be seduced by dreams of replacing him with a king like David.
This whole episode leaves me pondering three points. First: that God uses the events and the personalities of history to fulfil his purposes. The God whom we worship, the God who has come to us in Jesus, does not operate in a purely private sphere of “personal religion”. God is Lord of the whole of human life – and that includes the realm of politics as well as everything else.
Second: that God’s purposes cannot in the end be thwarted. Even when human fear and wickedness seek to block his way, they end up somehow clearing the path, as Herod’s court did in redirecting the wise men to Bethlehem. A Herod, a Hitler, a Stalin can use cruelty to suppress people’s awareness of God’s presence. Secular western culture can use ridicule to encourage indifference and discourage commitment. In the end, their efforts are useless: because the God who is revealed in Jesus is unconditional love and love is infinitely stronger than fear.
Third: that God is not tied to the structures of authority, though he will use them when they fit his purpose. God is found where Jesus told us to seek God, in what is small, or despised, or neglected. Jesus reveals him, not in the king’s palace, but in an anonymous cottage in a one-horse town trading on faded glory. He accepts the rich gifts offered by the wise men, the gold, incense, and myrrh. But he makes himself known to his friends in the simplicity of a shared meal. As he does today in the bread and wine of our Eucharist.
Sermons from 2019 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/16zW5rCtjqJ16QEATrh7CUdNKfuEpmPw7/view?usp=sharing
Sermons from 2018 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nQZ7Oih7rXtmxUZP1q3topBN24ViuLHI/view?usp=sharing