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.”
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.
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