Now it’s five Sundays and counting. Five Sundays before members of our congregation face Bishop David and are questioned by him about their Christian faith. That might sound worrying to those who have no qualifications in theology. It needn’t be. The questions are short and simple – and the answers will be printed in the order of service.
Those questions come in three groups of three. The first three are what I sometimes call “ground-clearing” questions. They make the space in which a Christian life can be built by clearing away the pollution of evil and the rubble and clutter of sin; first at the cosmic level; then at the global level: and finally at the personal level. The second group of three takes this ground that has been cleared, fences it off and builds on it. What it builds is a commitment to following Jesus Christ, as Saviour, as Lord, and as Way, Truth and Life.
Those two groups of three come at the point of the service which is called “The Decision”. It’s the point at which the candidates for baptism make public their decision to follow Christ and are prepared for what is to follow. It’s the point at which the candidates for confirmation affirm for themselves the decision that was made on their behalf when they were baptised. It’s the point at which all of them commit themselves to “walk in the light of the Lord”, as we sang last Sunday.
And then we have to wait. The third set of questions doesn’t follow on immediately after the other two. We have to wait while the candidates for baptism are anointed. We have to wait while the bishop prays for their deliverance from every power of darkness and for the restoration in them of the image and likeness of God. Then there’s a hymn and the prayer over the waters and finally – finally! – the bishop asks everybody in church who feels able to join in responding to that third set of questions. And that third set is the one that asks all of us, candidates, friends, and family members, to affirm, very specifically and in very ancient words, our faith in the one God who reveals himself in three ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now it’s that set of questions which sets Christians apart from every other major religious tradition. Most Buddhists have no god. Hindus, like those who follow traditional African religions, have many gods. Jews and Muslims recognise only one God, whom Jews will not name, because God’s name is too holy to be pronounced by human lips, and whom Muslims call by the Arabic name Allah. But Christians – where do they fit in? We claim to be worshippers of one God, like Jews and Muslims. But we pray to what seems like three gods: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And we devote one special day, today, Trinity Sunday, to celebrating that paradox. Our Muslim neighbours simply cannot understand where we are coming from.
But where we are coming from is quite straightforward, really. The Christian definition of God as Trinity, “three persons and one God”, is based on Christian experience. We sometimes forget that the first Christians were all Jews, people who said at morning and night the prayer known as the “Shema” from its first words in Hebrew. “Shema, Yisrael”: hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. It’s a prayer quoted by Jesus in his arguments with the scribes and Pharisees. But those first Christians had also experienced something of the God of Israel in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. They had come to realise that if they wanted to know what God is like they could discover it by looking at Jesus. They recognised that God was somehow in him. And that God was also in their experience of a new dimension to life that they called “Holy Spirit”.
So when we talk about God as Trinity, both three and one at the same time, we aren’t engaging with some kind of wild and wacky mathematical or philosophical puzzle, we are trying to make sense, as today’s readings try to make sense, of the experience of Christians down the centuries, recognising that the God who is the answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, is the God who entered his creation in a particular human life at a particular point in history, is the God whom we experience in prayer and in those sudden “nudges” that we call “inspiration”; and to that one God, who is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, thanksgiving and praise, now and to all eternity.
Six Sundays from now, Bishop David will be with us, to share our worship and to baptise and confirm members of our congregation. Those adults who are being baptised will experience what Christians experienced in the early centuries of our era. Their baptism will be completed all at the same time, sealed when the bishop lays hands on them and they are anointed with the oil of chrism which was brought from Rome in Holy Week. For those adults who were baptised some years ago, as children perhaps, their baptism, too, will be completed as they also are sealed for Christ with the laying on of hands and anointing after they have confirmed with their own lips the promises that were made on their behalf by their parents and godparents.
That is part, and an important part, of what confirmation means. We confirm for ourselves the promises made for us long ago by others. But confirmation has another meaning, brought out in the prayer which the bishop offers for each candidate as he lays his hand on their head. It’s a very simple prayer: “Confirm, O Lord, your servant… with your Holy Spirit.”
It’s a very simple prayer, but a very weighty one. It’s a prayer that God will repeat in the life of each candidate something of the experience which overtook the first disciples in that “one place” where they were gathered, fifty days after Jesus was raised from the dead and a week or so after his bodily presence was removed from them. We can’t promise “the rush of a violent wind” or “divided tongues, as of fire” settling on each of the candidates as Bishop David lays his hands on them. What we can promise is that Jesus will keep his promise and ask the Father to enable them, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to do those “greater works” about which Jesus spoke with his friends on the night that he was handed over to suffering and death, and particularly to enable them to be the channels through which God’s love can flow out into God’s world.
Now that won’t just happen. When God pours the Holy Spirit out for individuals it doesn’t come, as people say “out of the blue”. God pours out the Spirit on those who are prepared (in every sense) to receive the Spirit.
Think of the disciples when those “tongues as of fire” settled on them. They had spent three years of their life with Jesus. Since his death and resurrection they had met regularly for prayer – and they had shared in the regular round of worship in the temple. They had listened to the words of Jesus. They may not have understood them immediately, but they listened. They let the words of Jesus sink into their minds and their hearts. They let Jesus continue to shape their lives, as individuals and as a community, even after he was no longer with them bodily. So they were ready to receive. They gathered to do more or less what we are doing this morning – and to do it for the same reason; “in memory of him”.
But to say that we are doing it in memory of him does not mean that we are just looking back passively to the past and meditating on what happened then. Remembering, in Hebrew thought, is a powerful activity, not simply casting our minds back to the past, but rather bringing that past, alive, into our present. And it is the Holy Spirit who does that. The Holy Spirit is the “Remembrancer Divine”, to use Charles Wesley’s phrase, who makes Christ present, who “applies Christ” to our lives, who enables us to prophesy, to see visions, to dream dreams.
Now, when we talk about prophecy, vision and dreams we aren’t talking about something cut off from everyday life, and kept in a kind of religious “bubble”. The Spirit drives us out into the world with instructions to make those prophecies, those visions, those dreams a reality, as the disciples were driven out into the streets of Jerusalem to share the message about God’s deeds of power with their neighbours of every nation and language. That sharing is central to our Christian life and witness, and it has been a huge privilege for Moses and me during the past few weeks to hear what some of the candidates for baptism and confirmation have had to say about their awareness of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power, applying Christ to their lives, driving out fear, and turning hope into reality. We pray that that awareness may become more and more deeply embedded in them, and in each one of us.
One of the things that I find disturbing about the current political turbulence here and, more especially, in the UK is the way in which government ministers appear to have resigned all their authority and their power to influence events to “the will of the people”. It is “the will of the people” which dictates the crawl to a cliff-edge Brexit in the United Kingdom. It’s “the will of the people” which fuels the progress of far-right populist parties. It’s “the will of the people” which will determine whether the EU survives. “The will of the people” clearly reigns.
That is not the message of our readings today. Both of them assert the reign of God, not of any human institution – and certainly not of populism. However difficult we may find the mechanics of the ascension of Jesus, the symbolism is spot on. When St Luke writes (both at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of Acts) of Jesus being “carried up into heaven” he is affirming that God has raised Jesus far above “the will of the people” or “the Party” or “the Markets” or “making America (or Italy) great again”. In other words, God has not placed supreme, universal authority in an abstract idea or an organisation or impersonal forces, but in human hands. What is more, he has placed that authority neither in the hands of the wealthy and the powerful nor in the hands of the mob, but in hands which still bear the marks of crucifixion. The kingdom of God, about which Jesus spoke to his disciples in that interval between his resurrection and his return to the Father – the kingdom of God is very different from the kingdoms of this world.
Now, it’s clear from what St Luke writes in the opening verses of the Acts of the Apostles, that even those who were closest to Jesus weren’t entirely convinced of this. That question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” reveals that they are still looking towards an earthly, political, resolution of their situation. And they aren’t the only ones. Think of Christian Zionists, and of those Republican Party activists in the USA bending their religious convictions to accommodate a president who has shown little sign over the years that he shares their faith. They, and others who think like them, are asking the same question.
Despite Jesus’s insistence before Pilate that “[his] kingdom is not from this world”, they all want their side to win, their nation to be “top dog”, they want the kingdom to be restored to Israel, whether in a literal or a figurative sense. But this Feast of the Ascension reminds us that God’s kingdom is not brought about by the rule of the “godly”, whether they are Trump supporters or Taliban – or even the daughter of a Church of England vicar. Jesus’s rebuke still stands: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority”.
That does not, however, mean that the Church has nothing to say to the world of politics and finance. It was, you may remember, the Nazis who insisted that Christians should not move outside the sanctuary and the sacristy. It was Soviet Russia which used mass murder to try to keep them there. The Church, when it is true to God’s self-revelation in Jesus, has an important message; one summed up in a few words from our gospel. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah]’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.
Repentance: a vitally important word in the Christian vocabulary, almost irretrievably damaged by its association with a past age’s hell-fire preaching. The word the New Testament uses, the word we translate as “repentance”, has two roots. The first of them has to do with “change” the second has to do with “mind”, in the sense of what we might call “mind-set”: so that repentance is not so much about recognising that we have done wrong, as changing the whole way in which we look at the world and our place in it, seeing it in the light of Jesus the Christ.
“Forgiveness of sins” takes that insight a stage further. Again the Greek gives us a clue. The word that we translate as “forgiveness” means “release”, “letting go”. It means waking up to a world in which love reigns – not vengeance or violence – and where what matters is not wealth, status or power, but wisdom, hope and faith. In that world “the will of the people” is seen for what it is – not an impersonal force which must be obeyed, but a slogan, brought into current use as a cover for racism, resentment and greed. In that world the immeasurable greatness of the power of God is revealed in the scarred hands and feet and pierced side of Jesus.
Our task is to bear witness to that world, in the face of all the powers of this world. By the way we live, by the choices we make, by the priorities we set – in our own lives and in our church life – we bear witness to the transforming power of God’s love, not just within these walls, but to the ends of the earth. As we celebrate today, the risen, ascended Christ, we do so with one ear alert to the question of the men in white robes: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Here on earth we are called to proclaim not “the will of the people” but the hope of all people. It is the wounded, broken humanity of the Christ who shares “the people’s” brokenness that reigns over all things.
Here’s a little warming-up exercise for you.
Put your hand up anyone who was born in Italy. Thank you, please put it down.
Put your hand up anyone who was born in Europe but outside Italy (including Brits!).
Put your hand up anyone who was born on another continent. Wave if you were born in Africa… in Asia… in Oceania (Australia and the Pacific, in other words)… in the Americas …
Is there anyone I’ve missed out? Nobody from Antarctica here this morning?
Thank you all very much indeed!
Now, if you are wondering why we just did that, the answer is in today’s first reading. Because that reading tells us about the first time that the followers of Jesus as a group realised that the message of Jesus wasn’t just for one particular nation or race. If Simon Peter hadn’t had that dream, if he hadn’t gone to visit that non-Jewish household in Caesarea – well, it’s quite possible (even likely) that none of us would be here today. Peter’s visit to the Roman soldier Cornelius is one of the most important moments in the story of what happened after the Resurrection.
We know it’s important because St Luke tells us about it three times. First of all in Acts chapter 10 he tells it, so to speak, as it happened. Then he tells how Peter reported back to the other Church leaders in Jerusalem. That’s what we’ve just heard. Finally in chapter 15 he tells how Peter summed up what had happened to him when the Church leaders in Jerusalem gathered to hear what Paul and Barnabas had been doing on their travels. And that, by the way, is Peter’s final appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.
But it isn’t the end of the story by a long way. There are many parts of the New Testament, especially St Pauls’ letters, where we find people working out what it all means in practice. And we’re still working it out today. But the central truth is summed up in what we’ve heard this morning: that the good news about Jesus is a message for everybody, for every race and nation.
That came as a bit of a shock to them then. As we’ve just heard, “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him.” They gave him a hard time. “‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” That was totally against the Jewish Law. Jews didn’t eat with non-Jews. They didn’t go inside their houses. And here was Peter – Peter! – doing both!
It can come as a bit of a shock to us now. All over the world Christians are still arguing about who’s allowed in and who isn’t. Politicians are busy trying to win votes by setting up people for other people to hate. But the message of our first reading this morning is absolutely clear: God makes no distinctions. We are all his beloved children. Wherever we come from, whatever our age, our social background, our skin colour, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation – whatever barriers we put up to separate ourselves from other people, God’s love knocks them all down.
Sometimes we get angry about that. We want God to like the people we like, and we want God to dislike the people we don’t like. But he won’t. We are all his beloved children, the brothers and sisters for whom his Son died. Nigerian, British, Italian, Asian and all the rest – it makes no difference. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
What’s more, today’s Gospel reminds us that God expects it to make no difference to us. The words which end that reading really should make us stop and think. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
“Just as I have loved you.” Think for a moment what that means. Jesus showed how deep his love is when he opened wide his arms for us on the cross. Christianity isn’t just about being nice to people we like. It’s a lot tougher and more demanding than that. “‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’”. Without exception we have to desire the good of the whole community. That’s what love is. That’s the test of how genuine we are in following Jesus. As he said on the night that he was arrested: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another”. Not just for the people like us, the nice people, but for the difficult people, the different people, the strange people – even the bigoted people. Jesus opened wide his arms on the cross for them, too.
Thirty years ago I was one of a team of clergy who ministered across three churches in the parish of Upton-cum-Chalvey, which sounds very countrified, but was in fact the southern half of Slough, one of southern England’s most important industrial towns. The church where I was based was very like this church in many ways. The congregation included people from all over the world who had come to Slough looking for work. The worship was very like ours, in the “high church” tradition. And the church building had even been designed by the same architect as ours, George Edmund Street – but about a dozen years earlier.
Now, at the other end of that parish was the mediaeval parish church, nearly a thousand years old, where our team leader was based. That church was more Evangelical in style, and it ran various groups and organisations for members of the congregation. One of them was for ladies of a certain age, who met on a weekday afternoon for tea and a chat. It was called “Tabitha Teas”, after the woman whose story we heard in our first reading. I don’t recall them making “tunics and other clothing”, but from time to time they produced high quality needlework and other handicrafts to be sold at church fairs. But certainly all of the ladies who took part in “Tabby Teas” (as we used to call it) were “devoted to good works and acts of charity”.
Several of them were women who quietly got on with things, and got things done – and if they couldn’t for some reason do anything about a particular situation, they would pray about it. They were, in their quiet way, an important part of the praying heart of that congregation. Perhaps Tabitha was, in the same way, part of the praying heart of the first Christian community in Joppa. The widows who told Peter about her certainly would have been. Other early Christian writings tell us that the role of widows, the women supported by the community because they had no family to care for them and no chance of remarrying – their role within the community was to pray. If Tabitha was one of them – and it seems likely that she was, because Peter is sent for by the disciples in Joppa, not by family members – then that would have been her role, too.
But Tabitha didn’t only pray. She was “devoted to good works and acts of charity”. Clearly she was someone who played a very active part in the wider life of the church. That, I suspect, was the reason that her death felt like such a dreadful loss to the Christians in Joppa. Tabitha was someone who used her gifts, and used them for the good of the whole community. Those “tunics and other clothing” suggest that one of her roles was to be a sort of one-woman clothing bank, saving the poorest members of the community from the shame of nakedness.
Now, I’m focusing on Tabitha’s role in the church community in Joppa, rather than on her miraculous return from death, for a reason. The new Church Council will meet for the first time after the Eucharist Next Sunday. The members of the Council will be looking at one another, and at the congregation more broadly, and trying to work out whose gifts can best be used in particular roles. There’s an official list we have to go through, the Vice-chair, the Secretary, the Treasurer, and so on – and it’s very important that we choose the right people for those roles in particular, so please pray for us as we choose – but we will also be looking at other roles and responsibilities around the church which need to be filled. Now that Lis has been elected Churchwarden, for example, she needs to step back from some of her other tasks. It would be good to train one or two other people who can take over from her and work with Peter to prepare the Sunday Eucharist and to assist Moses and me in ensuring that it runs smoothly.
Then, beyond that immediate practical concern, there’s a concern that we are all of us using our God-given gifts, that we recognise that we have gifts and that our friends in the congregation have gifts, and that those gifts are to be used to God’s glory and for the good of his Church. So far as we do that we can continue to be, as I believe we are, a blessing to this great city, showing by our life together and not least by our “good works and acts of charity”, the joy and hope that we have in Jesus the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and who keeps those who follow him in eternal life.
Events last Sunday in Sri Lanka have reminded us very sharply that following Jesus of Nazareth can still be as risky as it was twenty centuries ago when Peter and the other apostles found themselves up before the Jerusalem authorities again for preaching the resurrection and teaching the people in the name of Jesus. My heart goes out to my fellow-ministers in that country who have had to answer some very difficult questions this week-end. Should they, for fear of death, cancel their continuing celebration of the Lord’s victory over death? Or should they go ahead at the risk of laying their people open to a visit from a fanatic with a death-wish and a back-pack stuffed with high explosive?
With such thoughts running through my mind it was almost a relief to turn to today’s gospel and the story of “doubting Thomas”. People who doubt don’t often go committing mass murder. They are too busy seeing the other side of the question – or wondering what is actually true in this or that situation. Thomas very definitely belongs to the second type.
Actually, I’ve always thought that it is very unfair to call him “doubting Thomas”. “Faithful Thomas” might be a better nickname. He pops up twice in John’s Gospel before the story we’ve just heard, and each time what he says shows that he is devoted to Jesus and trusts him absolutely. I often think of him as a big Labrador dog, padding along at Jesus’ heels with a slightly puzzled expression on his face. When the other disciples are warning Jesus not to go back to Judaea, Thomas says ‘Let us go with him so that we may die with him.’ When Jesus tells his disciples at their last supper together, ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’. Thomas says what the rest were probably thinking; ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ And each time, in response to what Thomas says, Jesus shows the disciples something more about himself. He raises Lazarus from death to show that he is Lord of life. And at that last supper, he tells the disciples ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’, the last of the great “I am” sayings which punctuate John’s Gospel.
And here… well, here we get the fullest revelation of who Jesus is – not in Jesus’ words or actions, but in Thomas’s response. It’s a huge step from ‘I will not believe’, which is a double negative in John’s Greek, so “No way” at the very least – a huge step from that disbelief to ‘My Lord and my God!’ In a way it balances Nathanael’s exclamation in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel; ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ But Thomas has much better evidence now than Nathanael had then. He can see the ‘greater things’ which Jesus promised Nathanael. He can see the wounds in Jesus’ body. He can touch them. He can begin to understand how great and how real is God’s love for us human beings, a love which knows that those who follow Jesus will doubt, and deny, and betray him, but which will never give up on them – nor on us, as we follow in their footsteps and their missteps, two thousand years later.
It isn’t only Thomas’s faith that falters. At the beginning of today’s gospel reading we heard how the disciples were meeting behind locked doors, for fear of the Jewish authorities – the same Jewish authorities that they were quite happy to challenge a couple of months later. The other Gospel accounts of the resurrection also talk of doubt and disbelief which is not just limited to Thomas. Last week we heard how St Luke described the apostles’ reaction to the women’s news of the resurrection. ‘These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’
Now there’s an interesting little variant at one point in the oldest texts of John’s Gospel. Most have the words we heard; ‘The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”’ But a few miss out the word “other”, as if they stop seeing Thomas as a real disciple, a full member of the community, because he doubts. But the main stream of the manuscript tradition is right. Thomas doesn’t stop being a disciple just because he doesn’t take on trust what the others are telling him. Doubt, uncertainty, shouldn’t exclude people from the community. As long as they are prepared to “hang on in there”, they belong. Like Thomas, they may be the source of a deeper understanding and a greater blessing for all God’s people, as in his good time the risen Christ shows them his wounds.
Explanatory note: Each time the chaplain proclaimed “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” at the beginning of the sermon, he threw a handful of mini-eggs to the congregation:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
That isn’t in the script! Nowhere in today’s order of service does it say “The chaplain lobs Easter eggs into the congregation with these words”. It isn’t in the script! But then, the whole of Easter isn’t in the script. At least, it isn’t in the script which the Jerusalem authorities thought they had written when they persuaded the Romans to nail Jesus to a cross, safely out of the way and unable to cause them any further trouble. By the Passover Sabbath he was dead and buried. “Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,” to quote a favourite Christmas carol.
“Resurrection” was not a word in their script. But it was in God’s. “Life” wasn’t a word in their script. But that, too, was in God’s. They wrote “control” and “power.” God crossed those words out and wrote “hope” and “joy” in their place. “Sealed in a stone-cold tomb” somehow segues into “Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia!” – words that we shall be singing in a very few minutes’ time. And as for “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them”, bringing spices to complete the burial rites for someone they loved, confronted with an empty tomb where they had expected to find his bruised and battered body – and then being told “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” That certainly wasn’t in their script that first Easter morning.
So what’s in your script this Easter morning? What is it brings you to church to hear the story of an empty tomb and mysterious strangers in dazzling clothes? Who said “a slice of colomba”? For some of us, I suspect, the words of St Paul in our first reading will have hit home. There was a message there for those who are preparing for baptism when Bishop David visits us in July, and for those who will be confirmed, making for themselves the promises that were made on their behalf when they were young children.
Baptism and confirmation, whether they happen at the same time or whether they are separated by several years, are about tearing up the script that we have written for our life and letting God write a new script. In baptism Jesus invites us to share the joy of his resurrection and to join the company of those whose life witnesses to his risen life. He invites us to join the company of those who tear up the script which the world writes, the script which is all about power and control and possession – and which leads to death; because if we try to hang on to what we imagine we own (whether it’s wealth, or talents, or even those we love) then possession may very easily become poisonous. We have to die to that attitude to life. That is what St Paul means when he writes to the Christians of Rome, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Do not try to possess what is God’s gift. Do not cling to what must be let go and shared. “He is not here, but has risen.”
On this Easter morning we celebrate the triumph of love. We celebrate God’s gift of life in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. In a world full of gloom, doom and misery (even the horrors perpetrated in Sri Lanka earlier today) hope is possible; joy is possible – even though neither hope nor joy is in the world’s script.
Hope and joy are possible because the Lord has broken out of his tomb. Death itself cannot hold him. “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” The powers that sought to control him, to subdue him, to destroy him – they are defeated. That isn’t in the script which the headline-writers and the spin-doctors have been working on down the centuries, but that doesn’t stop it being gloriously true – for those who are preparing for their baptism, for those who will renew their promises at confirmation, and for every one reaffirming their Christian faith here this Easter morning.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
When even the officer in charge of the execution says “Certainly this man was innocent”, you know that something has gone badly wrong. But everyone else seems happy. The Jewish authorities are delighted. The Roman governor is relieved. The Jerusalem mob has got what it wanted. The powerful people, the religious and political leaders, everyone for whom Jesus’ life and teaching were a threat have got rid of a dangerous critic and driven his followers into hiding.
They have really fallen apart. It began with a quarrel at the meal-table. Then they were all pumped up for a show-down. Then it all went to pieces. They fell asleep when they should have been praying. They lashed out at the officers who came to arrest Jesus – and found that one of their own number was leading them. Then there’s the tragic farce of Peter’s three-fold denial, a kangaroo religious court, and a rigged hearing before the Governor. Jesus is on his own.
It is awful. And it is ordinary. This is what the powerful do when they feel threatened. This is how friends fade away when someone is in serious trouble with the authorities. Humiliation, torture and death are the tools of repressive governments everywhere. Mockery and abuse are regularly heaped on the helpless. Jesus soaks it all up – the pain, the shame, the hatred, the insults, not only what’s being piled on him, but all the misery of the world. And he prays. He prays not for rescue but for forgiveness for those who nailed him to the cross. To one of those crucified with him he offers hope beyond their present agony. Then he dies.
And the mood changes. The crowds who had “gathered there for the spectacle” go home as mourners. The women, and a few others, watch and wait. Joseph plucks up the courage to ask for Jesus’s body, and lays it in a tomb newly cut out of rock. And then everything stops, because it’s sunset, and it’s Shabbat. The awful ordinariness of crucifixion gives way to the homely ordinariness of the weekly ritual. But in the silence and the stillness, the world, and our relationship with God, is being changed forever.
Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
with your ointment so rich and rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of my Lord,
and I’ll wipe it away with my hair,”
“I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”
There aren’t many stories that make it into all four of the Gospels. One of the few is the story of a woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment that we heard just now. It varies slightly from Gospel to Gospel. Luke sets it early on, before the stilling of the storm and the healing of the man called “Legion”, before the healing of Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the twelve-year haemorrhage, and he places it in Galilee. Matthew and Mark, as well as John, set it during the last few days, of Jesus’ life – which is why we read this story at the beginning of Passiontide – and they place it in Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem.
So, Bethany is where we are today with John’s account. And, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John actually names the woman. He tells us that it was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” Now that extravagant outpouring really got to some of the disciples. Especially, so John tells us, to Judas Iscariot, who thought it was a shocking waste.
“Oh Mary, O Mary, O think of the poor.
This ointment, it could have been sold;
and think of the blankets and think of the bread
you could buy with the silver and gold,”
“You could buy with the silver and gold.”
And he’s right. It could have been sold. Judas mentions the sum of 300 denarii, which may not sound much, but it was almost a year’s wages for a farm labourer in first-century Palestine. So, we’re talking in terms of €12,000, maybe. Possibly more? The sort of money that would have kept Emergenza Freddo going for quite a few weeks, I would guess. But Mary isn’t impressed by Judas’s argument – not in Sydney Carter’s song at any rate.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor;
tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
for dearer than all of the poor in the world
is my love who is going away,”
“My love who is going away.”
Let’s pause there for a moment and think about what John says in today’s gospel, and what Sydney Carter says in his song, because for both of them this story asks some very serious questions. So stop for a minute. Place yourself in that scene. Where are you?… What are you doing?… What are you thinking?… Are you Mary, so full of joy and thankfulness to Jesus for bringing your brother back from death, that you want to show it in the most extravagant, the most outrageous way possible?… Or are you Judas? – No, that’s a silly question: no one wants to be Judas! Are you, perhaps, one of the other disciples, who has a sneaking sympathy with what Judas is saying?… Could that ointment have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor?… Or what about those two on the fringes?… Are you Martha, in and out of the kitchen, busy making sure that all the guests are fed and comfortable, and wondering what it’s all about – this rather tense scene at the table?… Or are you Lazarus, glad to be alive again and letting it all wash over you, just rejoicing in the company of Jesus?… Let’s think where we stand… What does that say about us?… What does it say about how we value things… or people…?… Does nothing matter unless we can measure it in money?… And what does he have to say about it all?
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep,
today you may do as you will.
Tomorrow, you say, I am going away,
but my body I leave with you still.”
“My body I leave with you still.”
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blankets you give to the poor
you’ll know you have given to me.
“You’ll know you have given to me.”
“My body will hang from the cross of the world
“Tomorrow,” he said, “and today.
And Martha and Mary will find me again
and wash all my sorrow away,”
“And wash all my sorrow away.”
The song “Judas and Mary” was written and composed by the late Sydney Carter.
Today we give thanks with Rachel and Junior for the birth of Amira at Christmas. And today we dedicate Amira to God’s service. That is why we all have the extra service-sheet this morning. It’s also why we relax a little the normal seriousness of this season of fasting.
But first we need to be clear what this service is and is not. It isn’t the same as baptism, even though it is a commitment for Amira’s future. The difference between thanksgiving, or dedication, and baptism is a bit like the difference between permesso di soggiorno and cittadinanza. Thanksgiving for the birth of a child says to that child, as we say to Amira this morning, “We are glad you’re here. We welcome your presence among us.” Baptism says rather more than that – and it can say it to adults as well as to children. Baptism can happen at any point in a human life. Whenever it happens, it marks the beginning of a new stage, a new way of life, as a citizen, not of Italy, but of God’s kingdom. So, this morning’s thanksgiving includes a reminder that this is only the first stage of a much longer journey, a journey whose destination is the kingdom of heaven.
Now, that journey is not always straightforward. As St Paul warned his congregation in Philippi, there are all sorts of things to distract us on the way, those “earthly things” about which he was so rude in our first reading. Some of those “earthly things” are bodily appetites. He mentions greed and hints, perhaps, at sex. But some of those “earthly things” are more subtle and more dangerous. At the time when St Paul knew it, Philippi was a Roman colony. It was originally founded as a city to guard the gold-mines of northern Greece from which the kings of Macedonia drew their wealth. About a hundred years before St Paul first visited it had become a place where ex-soldiers were settled at the end of Rome’s civil wars, and now it was inhabited by their children and grandchildren. They were Roman citizens, as Paul was. So one of the “earthly things” that distracted the Christians of Philippi may well have been their pride in being Roman citizens – with all of the privileges that their citizenship gave them.
That may be one of the reasons why Paul encouraged the Philippians to imitate him, because he sat very lightly to being a Roman citizen. It is almost certainly why he reminded the Philippians that their true citizenship was in heaven and that their hope was not in the various legal and financial perks that came with being a Roman citizen, but rather their total transformation into the likeness of the glorified Christ.
Now, if we leave matters at that point, there is a danger: the danger that we become so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use. That is not the life that St Paul is recommending. And it is a long way from the words in which Jesus replies to the warning from the Pharisees. They advised Jesus to take refuge from the hostility of the local ruler, the son of the king who had tried to have him killed as a child, thirty years previously. Jesus wants none of that. He tells them that his work doesn’t depend on Herod’s approval, and that it will continue. He also tells them that he knows what this will cost him, that death lies in waits for him in Jerusalem, as it had lain in wait for so many of the prophets of Israel.
Jesus, like Paul, offers a sharp reminder that – whether we are citizens of Rome, as the Philippians were, or citizens of Italy, Nigeria, the UK, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Japan and Switzerland, as we are – our first loyalty and our final loyalty has to be to God. That doesn’t mean that Christians should stay out of politics. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu is said to have remarked, “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.” The Old Testament includes some very political books – and all the Gospels recognise that Jesus was executed for political reasons. Following him along the way of justice and non-violence, many Christians, from the earliest time to our own day, have suffered and died at the hands of their earthly rulers, laying down their lives because, while they respected those rulers, they placed a higher value on faithfulness to the God of whose kingdom they had become citizens through their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Some of you may be wondering what on earth today’s first reading has to do with Lent. Surely it belongs now, as it did 3000 years ago, to the harvest celebrations of the people of God, as it will with us later this year?
Perhaps. But there is another thread to the passage from Deuteronomy that Giovanni just read. It isn’t just about celebrating “all the bounty that the Lord [our] God has given to [us]”. It’s also about remembering the time before “all the bounty”, before the Lord brought his people into that “land flowing with milk and honey.” It’s about remembering the time when “the Egyptians treated [God’s people] harshly and afflicted [them] by imposing hard labour on [them].” The response that the farmer makes when the priest sets down the basket of his first-fruit before the altar is about remembering that life hasn’t always been like this – and that sometimes life has been much, much worse, not just for him as an individual, but for all the people.
It reminds us that it isn’t only individuals who undergo testing, or “temptation”, as we sometimes call it. Sometimes it is whole nations. Many nations around the world are being subjected to testing at the moment – and sometimes what the testing reveals is not good. Sometimes it reveals that a nation’s heart has become rotten with racism or rigid with intolerance, as it shuts the door on anyone who is “different”. Sometimes it shows up the greed that lurks beneath the surface, greed for power, or riches, or sex, greed that exploits people who are powerless, greed that pollutes and destroys in its eagerness to get more, greed that uses violence to get its own way, greed that fills the whole of a nation with the stench of corruption.
Now when such things appear in the life of a nation, it is because they have appeared in the life of the citizens of that nation, because they have appeared in the people among whom we live – or appeared in us. It isn’t only Jesus who is tested by the powers which offer to satisfy our desires, to give us power, or to make us famous. And sometimes it isn’t an obvious devil who makes such offers. I recently heard someone who claimed to be a Christian minister doing pretty much that – and doing it in a way that suggested he didn’t have much grasp of the Gospel. He had the words, maybe, but certainly not the spirit.
Now, sometimes the testing comes from outside, especially when we find ourselves on the receiving end of a raw deal or when life is hard. Sometimes, though, it comes from within us. Sometimes it is our own thoughts and feelings, maybe even our own addictions, which push us toward actions that we know are wrong. So what do we do when we find ourselves being tested? What do we do when life is really difficult? Or when our own desires and attitudes are pushing us towards wrong actions or wrong relationships? Or when someone offers us a deal which seems too good to be true?
Sometimes we can just walk away. When we can’t… well, as Jesus shows us in today’s gospel, it helps if you know your Bible. It helps if you have a selection of verses, or short passages, that you can turn to if you are under pressure. In my previous church, I worked with someone whose life had been really tough. Some very horrid and unpleasant things had happened to them, and they had been left to cope with them all pretty well on their own. In that situation the Psalms were a great source of strength and comfort – as they have been for me on occasion. There have been times in my life when things have not gone well and reading Psalm 40 has given me strength. Others find hope in the promises of Psalm 91, which we heard just now. All human life is in those songs, both the peaks of joy and the depths of sorrow.
Another resource in times of testing is a wise and perceptive friend, someone you can trust with your darkest secrets, someone you know will cope however awful your thoughts or your actions may be, someone who will be honest with you and help you to understand what is happening in your life and maybe to find a way out of whatever difficulty you are in.
And finally, and most importantly, do what the Israelites did when they were treated harshly and afflicted in Egypt: cry to the Lord. Pray about whatever is going wrong, about the problems you are facing, whether they are events in the world outside you or your own thoughts and feelings. As we shall sing in our final hymn, “take it to the Lord in prayer”. Trust that God hears your voice and will bring you, somehow, out of whatever your affliction, toil and oppression may be.
Sunday next before Lent
The closing words of last week’s Gospel asked the question: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” The closing words from today’s gospel provide the answer, when the divine voice from the cloud speaks out: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That is what we shall be doing in the coming weeks of Lent as we follow Jesus from today’s foretaste of Easter glory into the deepening shadow cast by the cross. It is central to what our candidates for baptism and confirmation will be doing as they prepare for Bishop David’s visit in July. Listening is at the heart of being a disciple.
Listening to Jesus, God’s living word spoken into human life, is a vitally important part of our life as Christians. And I do mean listening. Most of us, most of the time, tend to be a bit like Peter in today’s gospel, desperate to fill an unexpected silence – any silence – whether it’s with words, or music, or background noise of one kind or another. Even when we are praying we often pile up words, not only asking God for things, but praising God, thanking God, thinking about God, anything but actually listening to God. We need – and I’m talking to myself here as much as to anyone else – we need to slow down, to shut up, to be still and know that God is God.
That isn’t always easy. If we share the place where we live with other people, even another person, it can be difficult to find space and time when we can shut off the background noise. Somebody singing in the bathroom, or people talking outside in the street, can be a distraction. So can a radio, or TV, or someone with a smartphone, even one with a set of earphones if they aren’t inserted properly or the volume is turned up too high. Sometimes we have the space and the stillness, but we don’t have the time. We rush through our Bible reading, rush through our prayers. We don’t stop to let the words sink in. We don’t pause, whether to ponder what we have just read, or simply to open ourselves to God. We worry away at the passage like a terrier with a rat. And, again, we aren’t listening.
So much for the negatives. Now let’s think about the positives. Not “What stops me listening to God, listening to Jesus?” but rather “What helps me to listen?” Here are a few suggestions, which I encourage you to try out during these six weeks of Lent.
First, make time each day to read a passage from the Bible, God’s written word to human beings, the record of a conversation which seems as if it has been going for ever – and it probably has. And when you sit down with your Bible, or even the service-sheet from the previous Sunday, don’t simply plough through it to get it over with, and don’t spend all your time worrying about what this word, or that word, means. Read the passage slowly. Read it again. And again, if you want to. Take your time. Read it in the confidence that God is speaking to you, and listen for his word. Don’t ask “What does this mean?” Ask “What is God saying?”
Second: try and include some silence, maybe even a lot of silence, in your praying. If there’s a lot of background noise try using one word or a short phrase repeated over and over again until you do it without thinking about it. One writer on prayer centuries ago suggested a simple word like “sin” or “love”. A more modern teacher used the word “Maranatha”, which means “Our Lord, come.” There’s also the short prayer known as “the Jesus prayer”: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. All of these are helpful in quietening the things that are going on at the front of your mind and allowing God space to speak in the depths behind.
Third and finally: find something on which to focus your gaze. Some people find a lighted candle helpful. Some people like to look at a holy picture: the Eastern Church is very good at praying with icons, looking through the picture to find God beyond it. Other people like to hold, or to look at, a crucifix, a reminder of the depth and the costliness of God’s love for us. There’s a story about a peasant farmer in France 150 years ago, who used to go into church every day on his way back from the fields and sit there quietly before going home. The parish priest noticed this and one day asked him what he was doing. “Oh,” said the farmer, pointing to the crucifix above the altar, “nothing special. I look at him, and he looks at me, and we’re happy.”
2 before Lent
“Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Those closing words from today’s gospel are the key question. They were key to the terrified disciples two thousand years ago. They are key for us today.
“Who is this?” Who is this person who commands the forces of nature, who heals the sick, and drives out demons (as he does in the passage which follows on immediately from the reading we have heard this morning)? Who is this who overcomes the primeval forces of chaos? Those forces know who Jesus is. St Luke makes that very clear in the passage that follows today’s gospel. “What have you to do with me?” asks the man who had the legion of demons. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?”
We live in a world in which the forces of chaos seem to have slipped their restraining leash again – and they have done so often with human help. Report after report warns us of the chaotic results of our actions: polluted oceans, melting ice-caps, exhausted farmland, barely breathable air, non-human creatures wiped out such at an alarming rate that biologists are now talking about a “great extinction event”, like the one which ended the era of the dinosaurs. But very few people, it seems, have been crying out “Master, Master, we are perishing!” They remain in denial – and will not change their behaviour – even though the seas are becoming measurably higher, the earth and the air more polluted, and the weather systems more violently destructive. Along this coast from Boccadasse to Portofino we know what that means only too well.
So, is Jesus once again asleep in the boat? I don’t think so. An increasing number of Christians now “get” climate change, though sadly by no means all. The Diocese in Europe is on its way to becoming an “Eco-diocese”, committed to reducing the demands it makes on the resources of this planet. An increasing number of young people “get” climate change, too, as the international school strike movement proved ten days ago. The Spirit of Jesus can be seen at work in such groups and campaigns.
But wasn’t it sad to see and to hear how many adults were more concerned to mock the young people rather than listen to them? “Just an excuse to take a day off school” said some. “Why couldn’t they do it at the week-end?” Others said “I bet their parents picked them up at the end of the demo in expensive, gas-guzzling cars”. As if any of those things meant that we don’t have to respond to what the young people are saying. And what they are saying is that life on this planet is fragile and precious and we must take much greater care of it than we have been doing for the past hundred and fifty years. If we don’t, then the storms will become even higher and no one will hear us when we cry out “Master, Master, we are perishing!”
It’s at this point that we find a deeper meaning in the words of Jesus to the disciples. “Where is your faith?” Where is the confident trust in God’s love, in God’s power to heal and make whole, that enables us to act in God’s name? Where is the openness to God’s mercy that can say “Yes. We got it wrong. We have made a mess of our lives, a mess of God’s world.” The storms that threaten to destroy this fragile earth are not only outside us, they are within us. Human beings are perishing because of greed, because of selfishness, because of fear and pride and indifference. Human beings are perishing because they have forgotten that in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the Most High God, we see God’s blueprint both for what it means to be human and for the whole of creation: a creation that is given life, meaning and direction by suffering, self-giving love. They have forgotten, we have forgotten, that this planet, this galaxy, this universe did not come into being by accident. As the song of the four living creatures and the song of elders in today’s first reading reminded us, “the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come,” is eternally present to and through all creation and is worthy “to receive glory and honour and power, for [God] created all things, and by [God’s] will they existed and were created.” And human beings will one day give an account for their care of God’s creation.
4 before Lent (10.2.2019)
According to a survey carried out several years ago, more people than you might think have visions, or at least, powerful experiences of the presence of God. And, as our two readings this morning have reminded us, they can happen anywhere. Isaiah has the more conventional one, in the temple in Jerusalem, the holy place in the holy city – and it’s a full-on vision of God, with seraphs in attendance, and the Almighty “sitting on a throne, high and lofty”. Simon Peter’s experience is totally different. He is working as usual, alongside his business partners, when he overwhelmed by the sense of something strange and wonderful going on when he responds to a simple request from someone he knows.
That range is reflected in my experience as a parish priest and a spiritual director over many years. I have known people who have reported an experience of God on top of a mountain; yes you’d expect that: in a holy place; yes, you’d expect that too. But also at home in bed, or doing the washing up for a neighbour, or driving a car along a main road. That one was scary, but fortunately the person to whom it happened realised what was coming and just had time to pull over and stop the car before being totally enfolded in an intense light which transfigured the world around them.
And that reflects something else about experiences of God. They happen. Unexpectedly. We can’t make them happen. There’s no technique, no special way of praying or fasting or being holy that guarantees that we will see God, though people sometimes seem to think there is. Like everything that comes from God, the experience of God’s presence is a free gift, not a reward for being a good boy or girl. And it can happen to anyone. My list includes a teenager, a rape victim, a group of students, a working-class mum. God’s light can enfold even unbelievers – and God doesn’t apparently worry that they remain unbelievers, despite what they have experienced. Two famously unbelieving philosophers of the last century reported an experience very like those experiences which I’ve had described to me – but it didn’t shake them out of their unbelief, any more than it bumped the story-teller and film-maker Oliver Postgate out of his.
Their response seems to have been “Well, that was all very interesting. I wonder what it was about.” That isn’t a question that believers need to ask. The examples in both our readings make it clear what their experience is about. Simon Peter and the prophet are both filled with an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” says the prophet. “Go away from me, Lord”, says Simon Peter, “for I am a sinful man!” Being faced with absolute truth, goodness, beauty – all those qualities which have the seraphs calling, as we shall later in this Eucharist, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” – being faced with God who is pure being, utterly, utterly different (that’s what “holy” means) – being faced with God brings us to our knees in fear and awe and amazement.
But God does not let us rest there. God raises us up from our knees, as Jesus raised Peter, God blots out our sin, as the seraph blotted out Isaiah’s. We hear those words which echo through the Bible, from the very first book to the very last: “Do not be afraid.” “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” the seraph tells Isaiah. “Do not be afraid” Jesus tells Peter; “from now on you will be catching people.” The encounter with God is also a call to bear witness to God’s love, to catch others, as we have been caught, into the unbreakable net of God’s love.
So, that “you” doesn’t only apply to Simon Peter. That “you” is addressed to all the people who have followed in Simon’s footsteps, all who have found themselves confronted by the Jesus who is not just someone in an ancient story but the living Word of God here and now. That “you” is addressed to all who identify with Simon’s plea “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” It is addressed to us as we encounter God in this holy place today, not “sitting on a throne, high and lofty”, but as the living Word who comes to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, strengthening us for the tasks to which God calls us, as Simon Peter was called, and as the prophet was called, and sharing with us a foretaste of the banquet of heaven.
Presentation of Christ (3.2.2019)
This is one of those mornings when we find time telescoping, with past, present and future folding into each other here and now. In particular the things that we have heard about in our two readings from the Bible are finding all sorts of echoes in what we are doing today.
For example, just over two thousand years ago a young couple brought their six-week-old child to the place where their people worshipped God. They brought him, according to the custom of their people, to present him before God and to make the offering for his life which the rules of their religion required.
Today Kemi and Peter have brought Nelson to this place of worship, to present him before God. There are, it must be admitted, some significant differences. Not least that Peter and Kemi are also presenting themselves! More importantly, the offering of life which we will make in the waters of baptism is not an offering for Nelson’s life. That offering has been made already by the child of Joseph and Mary, who gave his life so that we might live for ever in God’s love. Today we are joining Nelson’s life, and his parents’ life, to the life of that child as they become, with us, a part of the body of Christ, the sum total of all Christian believers.
What is not different is that each one of them has a special destiny within the purposes of God. Nelson, like his parents, and like each one of us, is God’s unique experiment in being human. He is loved. All three of them are loved, not just in the way that parents and children naturally love each other, but loved by the God whose love surrounds us like the air we breathe. They are loved with a love from which nothing can separate them. However Nelson’s life may develop, however his parents’ life may continue, whatever their family circumstances may be, God’s love always enfolds them and dwells in them – and happy are they if they realise that and live it!
Snow, sometimes living it will be painful – painful for them, perhaps, or painful for those who love them. Every mother knows something of that heart-piercing sword which the old man Simeon prophesied for Mary. Sometimes it will be filled with joy, as they discover more fully that God’s love for them is real and as they reflect the light of God’s love to those around them. That light shines in the darkness as the light of another Nelson, Nelson Mandela, lit up the transition of his country from the darkness of the apartheid state into a functioning democracy in which all citizens were equal.
At the end of this service each of us will carry our light to the place of baptism, as a reminder that we who have been baptised into the body of Christ are called to bear the light of Christ out into the world. We are called to bear that light into a world very like the world the prophet knew, where people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, where they manipulate others for the sake of wealth and power, where the successful and the powerful, including governments, feel no responsibility for those less fortunate; where those who are old, those who are less able, those who are migrants are despised and abused. It’s a world full of noise and slogans and frenzied activity – but at its heart there is a dark, icy, silent emptiness.
Against the values of that world, we are called to bear witness to another set of values, the values of self-giving love, the love which shows itself in a concern for justice, for peace, for the integrity of God’s creation. Seventy-five years ago at another baptism, in Germany, there was no sermon because the preacher was in prison. The uncle of the baby’s mother, who was to have preached, was in gaol because of his involvement in resistance against the Nazis. Unable to be present, he wrote words for others to read. This is part of what he wrote: “Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things; prayer and righteous action among people.”
On this day of your baptism, Nelson, Kemi and Peter, we pray that your life may be marked by both these things, so that each of you may truly reflect the light of Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of [God’s] people Israel.”
Epiphany 4 (27.1.2019)
A French philosopher called Jean Jacques Rousseau said ”Man is born free and every where in chain, one man thinks himself master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” One of my terrible experiences with the immigration when returning to Italy from Kenya was at the point of entry, when one of the immigration officers said he won’t travel me because I need to return to Nigeria and not Italy. I asked him why and he said because the visa in my passport means I should return to Nigeria. Quickly I showed him my permit from Italy which he refused, and he said I AM IN CHARGE. Quickly I reminded him that GOD IS IN CHARGE not him. After a lot of argument and talk, I heard a voice from behind and the person demanded to know why the long conversation, and from there I got to know that the man is the boss of the one who told me he is in charge. I explained to his boss what happened, he apologised to me and he immediately granted my permit to travel and also ordered him to permit me to travel. On my way to check in I quickly reminded the officer who said he is in charge again that GOD IS IN CHARGE. It is so surprising most of the time how man wants to put himself in place of GOD. Man who is a mortal, man who can fail at any point in time.
Brethren in Christ, In the gospel reading of today (Luke 4 vs 14−21), Christ is reminding us that He alone can be in-charge of our life and make our crooked path straight.and also, He has given us the assurance that He is filled with the Spirit of God, and that God has anointed Him to proclaim the good news to the poor, He has sent Him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4 vs 18). This to us is good news as Christians because Jesus has given us a sure hope and is letting us know that we need to hope in Him who is the only way, And to allow Him to be in charge of our life. No matter the situation we are passing through be it bareness, emotional trauma, sickness, joblessness,
Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, while we hope and put our trust in the Lord we need to be faithful to worship like our master Jesus who is always going to the synagogue to worship and that has been His custom. We also need to emulate Him by being in the place of worship at all times not forsaking the gathering of the brethren (Heb 10 vs 25 ) also not only when we are in trouble or difficulties we remember to go and worship him, we need to worship Him in and out of season.
The first letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians urge us today that as we have many parts in the body and each of these part function differently and one cannot do without the other so are we in the body of Christ. that while we hope and put our trust in God and allow him to shepherd our life we should use our God given talent to work in the house of the Lord,and use it to proclaim the gospel, not to be a bench warmer in the house of the Lord or a raw material to heaven because heaven does not want us as a raw material but to use our talent and gift to build the people of God, whether we are a preacher, a coordinator, a chorister, or a teacher. All these are but the same gift that works together for one goal which is for the kingdom of God.
My prayer today is that as we wait, hope and trust in the lord, the good lord will grant all our good heart desire and make us a better Christian ( Amen).
Epiphany 3 (20.1.2019)
When I was in Sweden ten days ago, I was struck, as I often am when I visit Sweden, by the rich resources which the Church of Sweden has at its disposal. Well-kept church buildings, often decorated with beautiful works of art, surrounded by immaculate graveyards, usually with a multi-purpose parish hall nearby, and people, lots of people: every church has at least one priest and, in larger parishes, probably a deacon or two, with a full-time children’s worker and youth worker, paid musicians, organists and choir directors, usually a full-time care-taker who sorts out any maintenance problems, and maybe a parish house-keeper to look after the social side… It is, I must admit, rather different from our life here.
BUT (and it is a very big “but”) my colleagues in Sweden are worried. On one level all that professional help is great. When you have a particular job to be done, you know immediately who is going to do it. You don’t have to ask around. You don’t have to worry how you are going to pay for it. But on another level it asks some very challenging questions. In such a highly professionalised set-up what is the role of the rest of the people of God? Is it just to be what in England used to call “pew-fodder”? In other words, pay your church membership fee: turn up Sunday by Sunday: listen to the sermon: join in singing the hymns: make your communion: have a cup of coffee: go home: repeat as required. Where are the openings through which life and growth can be revealed? Where is the scope for using the gifts of the people who don’t have a role for which they are paid? Thoughtful Swedish Christians have been pondering those questions for a long time – and in some places they have come up with some rather interesting answers.
Now, in today’s two readings we are faced with questions about community; about what it means to be the people of God in a particular place and a particular culture. St Paul is quite clear when he writes to the church in Corinth. The church is the church when all its members’ gifts are being used and valued, and recognised as God’s gifts to the congregation.
“There are,” St Paul writes, “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord…” And he goes on to remind the Corinthians that this isn’t some sort of religious beauty competition. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Not in order to demonstrate that Miss X is holier than Mr Y or that Mrs A is more spiritual than Mrs B. Whatever gifts we have are given for the common good, for building up God’s Church, for creating community out of a richly varied gathering of people.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” It’s when Christians forget that that the Church finds itself in trouble. It’s when one of gift is valued highly and the people who possess that gift are set on a pedestal, while another gift is despised and the people who possess that gift are frozen out – or worse – it’s then that congregations start breaking apart and losing their way in struggles for power, just as they were in Corinth, as they have been down the centuries since. That’s why we need each year a week of prayer for Christian Unity. But all those gifts are needed, both the inward-looking and the outward-facing. Some people might come to a particular church because the minister preaches well, or leads “a lovely service”. But others come because a member of the congregation shared with time them when they were lonely, or was a shoulder to cry on when they were desperate, or said a word that transformed their life.
That’s the other thing about this morning’s readings: they are about transformation. That “first of his signs” at the wedding in Cana of Galilee is not about Jesus doing his mum a favour. It is about the difference that the presence of Jesus makes, in a community, in an individual human life, transforming the water of routine into the wine of new life. It’s about his capacity to turn disaster into triumph, as he did on the domestic level at the beginning of John’s Gospel in Cana of Galilee – and as he does on the cosmic level at the end of that Gospel on the hill outside Jerusalem. And it’s about responding in total trust, as the mother of Jesus did when she was faced with catastrophe at a family wedding. It’s about recognising God’s glory, wherever it is revealed, and rejoicing.
Baptism of Christ (13.1.2019)
One of the complaints of parents is always that children grow up far too quickly. Well, it’s certainly fast-forward time for Jesus this morning. Not quite three weeks ago we celebrated his birth. A fortnight ago we heard what he got up to as a twelve-year-old. Today we find him aged around thirty, and about to begin the work that God sent him to do.
Now, there are two things that have to be done before he begins his work. The first is that he needs to be powered up for that work. The second is that he needs to be authorised, cleared to carry out that work. And the story that St Luke tells about the baptism of Jesus, the story we heard in our Gospel reading just now, brings out all three parts of what is about to happen.
John the Baptist tells people what Jesus is going to do. He’s going to bring all the people into a new, direct relationship with God – that’s what John means when he talks about “baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. Not only that: he’s also going to sort out the good bits of each human life from the rubbish, as a farmer sorts out the grain, which is good for food, from the chaff, which is good for? Well, nothing, really – except, perhaps, to make a nice warm fire.
John tells the people what Jesus is going to do and then Jesus arrives on the scene – not with a great fanfare of trumpets and a roll on the drums. He quietly joins the crowds who have come to hear John preach and to wash away in the river the mess that they have made of their past life, so that they can make a new start with God. Nobody knows who Jesus is. He’s just a face in the crowd. And then comes the moment that marks him out. God’s Spirit descends upon him, to empower him for the work that he has been sent to do. And a voice from heaven says those awesome words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This, in other words, is the person John has been talking about. This is the one who will change for ever the way we relate to God.
Something like that happened to each of us at our baptism. We may not have heard the voice from heaven, or seen the Holy Spirit, descending “in bodily form like a dove”, because no one else has a relationship to God as close or as deep as Jesus: but there are two things that certainly did happen. First: we were empowered and authorised by the Holy Spirit to live for God, to do the work that God created us to do. Second: each of us was marked out by God as God’s beloved child, someone special, somebody God loves with the same boundless love with which Jesus loves, the love that flows out into the lives of all God’s children.
Each one of us is God’s beloved child, created by love, for love. Each one of us is uniquely special to God. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how clever we are, how popular we are, how “successful” we are. It doesn’t matter how old we are or how young we are. It doesn’t matter what colour our skin is. It doesn’t matter whether we’re male or female. God loves us. God loves us so much that in Jesus God shared our life (and our death), so that all human beings might become truly alive and live without fear. That is the promise which God renews at every baptism, when the Holy Spirit marks the person who has been baptised as God’s beloved child. That is the promise that we claim for ourselves when we are confirmed – and every time that we renew the promises that were made at our baptism, as we shall a little later this morning.
At our baptism we heard God calling our name and affirming our status as God’s beloved children. By our baptism we entered that new, direct relationship with God which Jesus has made possible for the whole of humanity, even outsiders like the people of Samaria. They, too, received the gift of the Spirit to show that they had been gathered into God’s people, that they were enfolded in God’s love. May each one of us live in that love all the days that God sends until all of us are gathered into God’s kingdom.
The wise men in the chaplaincy crib set have survived their long journey from the study desk. It was a dangerous journey. They ran the risk of crossing the flat’s front door. They nearly lost their way in the forest of Christmas cards on the shelves of the book-case, but the two of them finally made it to worship the newborn king and to offer him their gifts.
“Now, wait a moment,” I suspect someone is thinking. “Did he just say ‘the two of them’? I thought there were supposed to be three wise men?” There are two answers to that. The first is that the chaplaincy crib set does look as though it is missing one wise man. The second is that, to tell the truth, we don’t know. St Matthew, when he tells the story of the coming of the wise men, doesn’t tell actually us how many there were. He simply says that when they found the child they offered their gifts –gold, incense and myrrh. So, it’s a reasonable guess that if there were three gifts, there were three givers. But it doesn’t have to be so. The three gifts could have been divided up between two wise men: one with the gold, because that is heavy, the other with the frankincense and myrrh. Or there could have been any number of wise men, each of them bringing a small cache of each of the gifts. We don’t know.
What we do know is that for Matthew these wise men from the East have a part to play in the story of Jesus’s birth that is like the part played by the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. They were outsiders and they were witnesses. The shepherds were outsiders because of the nature of their work and the way “respectable people”, and especially professionally religious people, saw them. The wise men were outsiders because they were foreigners: Non-Jews, fire-worshippers, probably, from the hill country that divides present-day Iran and Iraq – and for Christians down the centuries they have been seen as the first sign that God’s coming to live among us is a blessing not only for the Jewish people but for every nation, a fulfilment of the prophet’s words that we heard in our first reading. That is why the wise men are often portrayed as kings, because the prophet says “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The wise men were outsiders, and they were witnesses. They bore witness to what they had seen, as the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child”. The wise men announced to King Herod and his court in Jerusalem “We observed his star at its rising.” That act of witness had a tragic result, as we were reminded ten days ago when we remembered the Holy Innocents. People who cling desperately to political power, as Herod did, do not like to hear news of a possible threat to that power and they are likely to be brutal in crushing it. We have seen that repeatedly in the Middle East in our own day. President Assad of Syria and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel have more in common with one another, and with King Herod, than they would like to admit. And that kind of behaviour is common in other parts of the world, too – the new president of Brazil looks like the latest to join the club.
But Matthew’s account of the journey of the wise men isn’t, in the end, about power politics even though power politics may play a significant part in the story. St Matthew’s account of the journey of the wise men is about recognising that the birth of Jesus is good news for all nations, for Italians, for Nigerians, for South Africans, for Germans and Canadians, for Swiss people, for Japanese and Kenyans and Indians – even for Brits – and for everyone who observes the new king’s star at its rising and is prepared to leave behind the world they know in order to find him and offer their gifts, whatever they may be. For most of us that won’t mean the sort of top-of-the-range, high-value gifts which the wise men laid before the child and Mary his mother. All of us, though, can make an offering that is infinitely more precious in God’s sight. One of the best-loved Christmas poems challenges us to do just that when it asks: “What can I give Him, poor as I am?” and answers its own question with these words: “If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.” To him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit let us offer our hearts, filled with love and praise and thanksgiving, not only on this feast of the Epiphany but every day of our lives.
Christmas 1 (30.12.2018)
This morning’s Gospel has two messages: one for the youngest members of the congregation, the other for the grown-ups.
The message for the youngest is, very firmly: “Don’t try this at home, children!” Even more firmly: “Don’t try this when you are away from home”.
The message for grown-ups (and especially parents) is: “Never take anything for granted!” – especially when children are away from home and in a strange place. I still get the horrors when I remember how a four-year-old Hugh suddenly decided to run away from his parents in one of the main railway stations in Paris twenty years ago.
However, it is very unlikely that either of those messages was remotely in St Luke’s mind when he set down on paper the story of Jesus “bunking off” at the end of his first Passover pilgrimage. When St Luke recorded the story we’ve just heard what he had in mind was this: that Jesus knew from the very beginning of his adult life that he had a special relationship with God and that he simply had to explore this relationship and enable it to grow. He had to be “in his Father’s house” or – as older translations put it – “about his Father’s business” (the Greek phrase Luke uses could mean either). He had to enlarge his understanding of God.
That’s why he sat among the teachers in the temple. But he didn’t just sit there listening, like an obedient young lad. He also took part in the discussion, much to the teachers’ astonishment. “They were amazed at his understanding and his answers”. It was already clear, St Luke is telling us, that here we have somebody special, so special that even his parents don’t get it – and we definitely have a touch of the modern teenager in his reply to his mother’s reproaches. “Why were you searching for me?” Isn’t it obvious where I was going to be? “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Come on, Mum!
So what has this story got to do with us? Jesus is special. OK, we know that. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think that. What about us ordinary Joes and Josephines?
Yes, Jesus is special. But Christmas isn’t just about Jesus. It is also about our response to Jesus. It’s about what we do with the news that, in the words of an old Christmas carol, “The great God of heaven is come down to earth.” A wise man who lived in Germany 700 years ago had this to say about the meaning of the birth of Jesus: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”
In these days that is a really important insight. In a world full of division and distrust, the love of Jesus, the love which embraces every human being, is desperately needed. Christmas is not a beautiful fairy-tale. Christmas is about how God in Jesus gets down and dirty in the world he has made. If we take that thought seriously, then we have to work on developing the same attitudes and practices that we see in Jesus; to work on them until they fit us as snugly as the clothes we wear – or as that little robe his mother made fitted young Samuel.
If we are to give birth to God’s Son, what matters is that we practise those attitudes which reveal the presence of Jesus, compassion, vulnerability, joy, peace of heart, practise them until they are part of us. Practise them, not out of duty, but for love’s sake. A great spiritual writer of the late 19th century wrote: “I kiss my daughter not only because I love her, but so that I may love her.” In the same way, we practise those attitudes not only because we love God and our neighbour, but so that we may learn how to love God and our neighbour more and more deeply with the love and compassion of Christ.
Christmas Day (25.12)
Advent 4 (23.12.2018)
In the great city of Istanbul, in the church of the Holy Wisdom, there is a beautiful mosaic. Like our “Good Shepherd” mosaic, it has suffered serious damage, but the heart of the picture has miraculously survived eight centuries of war and natural disaster, including a massive earthquake, not to mention five centuries when the building was a mosque. The mosaic shows the glorified Christ, flanked by the John the Baptist (on Jesus’s left) and the Virgin Mary (on his right). It is, quite simply, beautiful – even though so much is missing. It is beautiful as a work of art, and it is beautiful in what it says about God, through the way it portrays Jesus.
You will often find that grouping of Jesus, with his mother and John, at the centre of Eastern Orthodox pictures of the last judgement. John is there because, as we heard last week, his role is to set forth the demands of God’s justice. Mary is there because she represents the breadth and depth of God’s mercy. The glorified Christ, standing between them, draws together both judgement and mercy, because he is God’s Love (capital “l”) made human flesh and bone.
In our readings this morning, we are faced with the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy. The prophecies of Micah are full of the demands of God’s justice. Micah lived toward the end of the eighth century before Christ. He came from Moresheth, a little village south-west of Jerusalem. He was a countryman, possibly a free peasant. Unlike Isaiah of Jerusalem (his contemporary) or Jeremiah, Micah was not part of the elite, the establishment. Micah could see very clearly the faults and failings of the toffs in Jerusalem, and he looked for hope, not to them, but to someone who came from the same background as he did, a small town in Judah, “one of the little clans” at a distance from the holy city. That someone would be God’s agent to restore the people after they had been given up for punishment.
Which brings us to the opening of this morning’s Gospel. “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judaean town in the hill country.” That was her response to the angel’s message, asking her to work with God for the salvation of the world, and offering Elizabeth’s astounding pregnancy as evidence that “nothing will be impossible with God.” The contrast with Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, could hardly be greater. Mary believed and acted. Zechariah, as some of us heard on Wednesday, hesitated and was struck dumb.
“Mary set out and went in haste to the hill country” – possibly as a reality check, but also to share with Elizabeth the wonder of God’s mercy revealed in their lives through these two extraordinary pregnancies. St Luke here is using ideas and expressions from the Hebrew Scriptures to carry his story along and to establish the relationship between Mary’s unborn child and Elizabeth’s. What matters for Luke is Elizabeth’s prophetic recognition, and the unborn John’s, that Mary is carrying within her womb the one who is Lord, the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel – the hopes of all the world. Christians have found in Mary’s son the fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy of “one who is to rule in Israel”, the one in whom the breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy are made known.
Now, all of this is God’s doing. From first to last the initiative is God’s: the pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth, the fulfilment of the prophet’s vision. God comes to meet us in the child who will be born. God seeks our co-operation in his purposes. And God has done all the hard work already. In that mosaic in the Church of the Holy Wisdom Mary and the son of Elizabeth stand alongside Mary’s son, interceding for the world. In a sense, they don’t really need to. We are already loved and accepted and brought into God’s life. We are reminded of that every time we share the bread through which Christ incorporates us into his body. We have not been “given up” for ever. We are restored, healed, renewed, made whole, so that we can lay hold of that blessing which Elizabeth pronounced over Mary, as we bear for God the fruit of justice and mercy, through our acting in faith, through our self-giving, through our total trust in the God who makes us fruitful in Jesus and who fills us with his Spirit.
Advent 3 (16.12.2018)
After the build-up in last Sunday’s gospel, which was almost like the trailer for a film, we have heard this morning from John the son of Zechariah, preaching to the crowds on the banks of the River Jordan. We have also shared more of those words of encouragement which St Paul wrote from his prison cell to the Christian community in Philippi in northern Greece. At first sight there doesn’t seem to be much that links them together. What has the Palestinian countryside in common with what was then one of the richest cities in Greece – it was, quite literally, sitting on a gold-mine? What have John the Baptist’s stern words to the Jewish crowds, and the various groups within them, got to do with Paul’s obvious delight in the Christians of Philippi?
Well, we might argue that there’s a link between John’s audience and Paul’s first readers. Soldiers, or ex-soldiers, would have been prominent in both groups. Luke tells us that soldiers came to John. The Greek city of Philippi had been re-founded by the Emperor Augustus as a Roman settlement for ex-soldiers, most of them men who had fought on his side in the final round of Rome’s civil wars. But it’s a bit slender, especially since the soldiers in our Gospel reading most probably weren’t Roman legionaries, but part of the army of the puppet king of Galilee, Herod Antipas. Like the tax-collectors who also came to John, these were men who were not well paid and were accustomed to making money in whatever way they could, be it threats, blackmail, or extortion. I would guess that a few of the Nigerian members of our congregation have had encounters with government servants, or men with guns, who used their position for their own advantage, and weren’t too fussy about what the law said.
The importance of turning away from such self-seeking behaviour is a key part of what John says to the crowds. He tackles the biggest crooks, the soldiers and the tax-collectors, head-on. He’s pretty blunt with all the others, too, calling them a “brood of vipers” fleeing from “the wrath to come”. He tells them not to try to claim a privileged position on the basis of their ancestry and not to hang on to the “extra” they have when they meet someone in need.
So perhaps the link is encouragement? John’s preaching encourages those who came out to be baptised by him to “produce fruits worthy of repentance”. Paul’s letter encourages the Christian community in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord always” and not to worry about anything. But the mood is very different. The idea that overshadows everything John says is the idea of God’s judgement. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.” Paul’s last words in today’s extract are words of peace. He tells his readers “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And there, after all, is our link between John and Paul. Not the audience. Not encouragement. What links our Gospel and our first reading is the sense that, as St Paul wrote, “The Lord is near.” For John, looking ahead to the first coming of Jesus, what matters is the warning that he is coming with judgement. “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” For Paul, writing after that first coming has ended with the death and resurrection of Jesus, what matters is that the judgement of which John warns has been shown by Jesus’ death to be the judgement of Love, Love which has no limits, no boundaries. That is why Paul can tell the community in Philippi to rejoice always. That is why he can tell them “Do not worry about anything.” That is why he encourages them to “let your requests be made known to God”.
So what unites our two readings is the thought that “The Lord is near”, that “one who is more powerful than [John] is coming.” As we make ready to celebrate his first coming nine days from now, let us also look forward to his second coming in gentleness and joyful hope, joyful in the knowledge that the unquenchable fire of which John spoke is the fire of love, burning away any impurities and dross in our lives, kindling in us an answering fire of love, so that we respond to the world’s needs, not with fear and a sense of being overwhelmed, but with prayer and thanksgiving that God has called us to serve him in this hour.
Advent 2 (9.12.2018)
In a few moments we shall be giving thanks to God for the birth of Gift, a third daughter for Blessing and Israel, a little sister for Joy and Precious: and the words that we have heard this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Philippi could hardly be more fitting. Let’s listen again to the beginning of what he wrote: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Why are those words fitting? Well, in the first place, Gift has been in the prayers of many of us since before she was born, from the time that Blessing had to go into hospital in the closing stages of her dolce attesa. Then, in the second place, she was born into a family which knows what it means to “share in the Gospel”, a family of faithful Christians who have shared a great deal in the time that they have been part of the larger church family here at the church of the Holy Ghost. And finally, in the third place, all of us are aware that this is, for her only the beginning of her journey towards that “day of Jesus Christ”, which is the focus of our prayer and reflection during this season of Advent.
Today she will be presented to God for a blessing as the first stage on her journey with his Son. That is indeed the beginning of a “good work” a work in which, we trust, her parents and her big sisters will encourage her to overflow with love, and knowledge, and insight, so that she produces that “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” But being born into a caring Christian family, being brought up in a home where Jesus Christ is known and loved, is not necessarily a guarantee that this good work will be brought to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. All of us are “work in progress”. All of us have rough edges to be smoothed down, weak points that need stiffening and strengthening by God’s grace.
That is why we need to hear the voice of John the Baptist, John the son of Zechariah, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. Now, it’s important to remember that when anyone in the Bible talks about “repentance”, they don’t just mean being sorry and ashamed. They mean changing the whole way we look at the world, our life, ourselves, God. They mean letting the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost to whom this church building is dedicated – letting the Spirit of God enter our lives to “prepare the way of the Lord”, by straightening out the bits that have become crooked, by bringing us down to earth if we have too high an opinion of our importance in the great scheme of things.
It can happen quite unexpectedly. I suspect that it did to John son of Zechariah in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius when the word of God came to him in the wilderness. It certainly did to an American monk who died fifty years ago tomorrow. He was known to his community as Fr Louis. He is better known as the writer Thomas Merton. He had led a fairly chaotic life but found that it didn’t satisfy him. He became a Catholic. Then he became a monk in one of the toughest religious communities, living most of the day in total silence, devoting his life to prayer. One day he had to go to the nearby town on an errand for his community. This is how he described what happened next: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs… It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation… was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate… And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
In that moment, Thomas Merton saw the “little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty” which is the glory of God in us, the glory which is revealed in a child’s birth in a stable and in his shameful, agonising death on a cross thirty years later. As we dedicate her life to God’s service, let us pray that Gift may recognise that glory in herself and in all those whom she meets, and that, overflowing with love and knowledge and insight, she may “produce the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Advent 1 (2.12.2018) – Lectionary Year C begins
It may sound like an odd thing to say, but the most important thing that all of us need to remember during these four weeks before Christmas is this: Advent isn’t Christmas and it isn’t Lent. Now in some ways it looks, and sounds, a lot like Lent. The church wears purple. As does the chaplain. We don’t sing the “Gloria” and the acclamation that we sing before the Gospel reading isn’t an “alleluia”. Advent is a sober, rather solemn, season, but it doesn’t have the same “feel” as Lent. It isn’t sorrowful; it isn’t about beating ourselves up for our share in the sin that brought Jesus to the cross. It isn’t about denying ourselves and taking up our cross in the way that Lent is. Fasting in Advent is an old tradition, but that’s partly a hang-over from previous generations, when people wanted to make sure that there was enough food left from the autumn harvest for them to have a huge birthday party at Christmas.
So if Advent isn’t about the same things as Lent, what is it about? Well, we get a pretty good idea from our two readings this morning. What was St Paul’s mood when he wrote the words that Moses read a few minutes ago to the church in Thessalonika? I’d say he was happy and hopeful. He was happy because he had been reassured that the Thessalonians were standing firm in the Lord, that their Christian faith had not been shaken by the troubles that they had been experiencing. And he was hopeful that because of their experience they would grow in faith, and holiness, and – above all – in love. We heard his prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”
When we turn to our Gospel reading things aren’t quite the same, although there’s a lot of overlap. Jesus isn’t rejoicing. He is warning his disciples what to expect. The passage we’ve just heard comes at the end of St Luke’s version of what scholars sometimes call “the Synoptic Apocalypse”, that part of the first three Gospels where Jesus brings to light (that’s what “apocalypse” means) – he brings to light what is going to happen in the time to come.
Now it has to be admitted that what is going to happen doesn’t sound like fun. We heard a couple of weeks ago Jesus talking about wars and natural disasters, about personal betrayal, about trials and persecutions, about the destruction of Jerusalem. Now he pulls back the curtain to show us an even bigger picture. Jesus isn’t talking about individual lives now, nor about nations. He’s talking about things that will happen all over this planet and beyond, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” as well as the distress that will be experienced on earth. And some of us, looking at the world as it is now, could be wondering whether we aren’t already there. We look at the political crises between Russia and Ukraine, in many countries of the EU, including this country; the horrors of war and famine in Yemen; the economic crisis that started ten years ago and is still rumbling away in the background; and, bigger than all of that, the environmental crisis which is threatening the future of life on earth.
But even in such turbulent times there is still hope. Jesus tells his disciples “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads.” Don’t huddle down and hope it will all go away. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And in case they didn’t get it the first time, Jesus gives the disciples the same message twice more. At the end of the parable of the fig-tree he says: “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And at the very end of his teaching he sums it all up: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
So there are four key words that define the mood for Advent. Two are from Jesus: “be alert” and “pray”. Two are from St Paul: “be thankful” and “hope”. Don’t turn your back on this turbulent, troubled world. Don’t give into despair, either. Look out for the signs of God’s presence in the turbulence and give thanks for them. Hold one another, and the world, before God in prayer. And build one another up in joy and hope, and above all, in love, which is the basis of all true holiness.
Christ the King (25.11.2018)
What picture comes into your mind when you hear the word “king”? Elvis Presley? A character in a fairytale or nursery rhyme? Vittorio Emmanuele on his horse in the middle of Piazza Corvetto, raising his hat to the cheering crowds? If I were a gambling man, I’d give you pretty heavy odds that your picture of a king isn’t a picture of a Galilean peasant on trial for his life.
That wasn’t the picture that came into the Roman governor’s mind, either, when the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem brought Jesus of Nazareth before him and demanded the death penalty. All the way through his conversation with Jesus, and in his various interactions with the Jerusalem authorities and the crowd they have brought along with them, the governor is quite clearly out of his depth. Kings, in his book, are like Vittorio Emmanuele. They are about armies and power and territory. Jesus very obviously isn’t any of those things. That’s why Pilate asks him “What have you done?”
And Jesus, as he very often does, answers the question in a way that leaves the person asking it in greater uncertainty than before. He tells Pilate “My kingdom is not from this world.” It isn’t about power and armies. “If my kingdom were from this world”, he tells the governor, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…” Pilate latches onto that repeated “kingdom” and thinks he might be getting to solid ground. He asks Jesus “So you are a king?” Again Jesus answers in a way that cuts that solid ground from under the governor’s feet. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
No armies, then. And no power struggle. Just this man, answering questions in a way that makes you wonder who is actually in charge of this situation. Just this man whose followers are very much not fighting to keep him from being handed over. One of them, indeed, a short while ago declared three times that he did not know him.
So what do we mean when we talk about Jesus as “Christ the King”, when we set aside this Sunday at the very end of the Church year to think about the kingship of Christ? What is this kingdom? In the Gospels Jesus talks about the kingdom a lot. There are thirty-seven stories which begin with the words “The Kingdom of God is like…” (or something very similar). As we read all those stories in which Jesus describes the reign of God, we discover that in none of them is the kingdom of God anything like an earthly kingdom. Thirty-seven times Jesus tells his followers a story to reshape their imagination and help them reshape the world they know.
Now, the world the disciples knew is very much like our world. It’s a world of domination and violence. Their world, like ours, is one in which the wealthy and powerful rule over the weak, take advantage of their weakness, seek to crush them and break them. It is a world in which Pilate’s boss, the emperor in Rome, is both king and, to many of his subjects, a living god, an autocrat who takes vengeance on his enemies. Kingship, even today, is a word that signifies inherited wealth and power, hierarchy, and the destruction of enemies. Think about what happened last month to the journalist who wrote critically about the Saudi royal family.
The feast of Christ the King was started by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in a time that was in some ways very like the present. Nations were recovering from war. Governments were unstable, often taken over by “strong men”, like Benito Mussolini in this country. Pope Pius wanted to remind the Church that God reigns over human history. He wanted it to understand that Christ’s kingdom is revealed where people hunger and thirst after justice – and where they deny themselves and carry Christ’s cross. The kingdom of Christ is not about wealth and power. The kingdom of Christ is about justice, and truth, and costly love. The kingdom of Christ is about humanity taking on power with the weapons of humility and courage and challenging the kingdoms of this world, as Jesus challenged the Roman governor, by refusing to play the game according to their rules, but instead asking questions in the name of Jesus and testifying, with him, to the truth of God.
2 before Advent (18.11.2018)
Last week, as part of my preparation for the Remembrance services here and in Bordighera, I was looking at some newsreel footage of Genoa during the Second World War. It wasn’t easy viewing. Allied bombing had left schools, hospitals and churches in ruins – among them, though the film didn’t show it, this building. But the destruction caused here by that bombing was as nothing compared with the destruction that overtook Jerusalem forty years after the conversation Mark records in this morning’s Gospel. The Royal Air Force and The US Army Air Force between them took out something over a third of the buildings in this city. When the Romans captured Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish Revolt, they flattened everything, including King Herod’s temple which that disciple had so admired. The Roman general Titus ordered the whole city, including the Temple, to be razed to the ground, leaving only the tallest towers and a small portion of the wall on the west, the section which today we call the “Wailing Wall”.
King Herod’s temple, which had been so long building, stood for only a few years after the work was complete. Its fate is a stark reminder that human power has its limits and that, as Jesus warned the inner circle of disciples, the forces of history are not easy to interpret. As we know only too well at the present time, there are political leaders who claim, or who have others claim for them, some kind of Messianic role and who are indeed leading many astray. President Trump, we are told, has been “raised up by God”. And there are certainly plenty of “wars and rumours of wars”. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is going up in flames. Then there are events like the storms here at the end of last month and the wildfire in California (in which more than 70 people have lost their lives and over 1000 are missing) which remind us that climate change has not stopped nor even, apparently, slowed down. We are living through difficult and dangerous times – and political leaders, busy clinging on to power, seem incapable of rising to meet the challenges they face.
So what are we to do?
Well, Jesus is quite clear about that. “Do not be alarmed.” Do not be alarmed because despite all appearances God is in control. God holds his people, all people, within his compassion and mercy. We must hold on to that. We must hold on and not be led astray by charismatic figures, whether they are politicians or religious leaders. They are not in control: God is in control, and God’s will is to deliver humankind from every power that enslaves them, every leader who leads them astray. We heard that message in our first reading, too. The Book of Daniel was written at a time of great crisis for the Jewish people, one that could truthfully be described as “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence”. They were living under foreign rule, and the king who ruled over them wanted all his subjects to live in the same way, to share the same hopes and values, and to worship the same gods. And, if they wouldn’t obey him and do these things because he told them to, then he would send out his armies and make them obey him. The Book of Daniel was written to encourage the Jewish people to resist him, to hold on.
We must hold on, we can hold on, because our readings this morning don’t only present us with a warning, they also offer us hope. Yes, the world can be a difficult and dangerous place. Yes, there will be “times of anguish”. There will be “wars and rumours of wars”. But that isn’t the whole message of the Book of Daniel. It isn’t all that Jesus has to say about the times of testing facing his disciples. Alongside the warning there is also reassurance. “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus tells Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee. Don’t be alarmed because this is only the beginning of the birth-pangs of a new creation. “Your people shall be delivered” is God’s word to Daniel. In both our readings the underlying message is “God is in control.” The whole world may seem to be going downhill fast, but don’t be afraid. Beyond the anguish, beyond the destruction, there is life and peace and joy beyond our ability to imagine in the kingdom where God’s love is the only power that matters.
3 before Advent (Remembrance Sunday – 11.11.2018)
Twenty years ago as we were clearing my mother’s house after she died, we came across the family photographs. Me as a toddler. My sister at primary school. Our parents on their wedding day. And moving on, we watched them (and ourselves) change. My sister at secondary school. Me at university. And our parents, growing greyer, more lined of face, as the forty-somethings of our early memories passed into their fifties and sixties, and with them our aunts and uncles and their aunts and uncles, always a decade or two ahead of them.
But there was one face in that gallery that never aged. The photographs that we found of my mother’s father were always of a man in his late twenties or early thirties. There’s nothing to show how for him “life began at forty”, no pictures of a proud grandfather in his fifties and sixties holding our cousins, or us, on his lap. There’s nothing because, like so many men of his generation, he did not live to hear the guns fall silent a hundred years ago today. My grandfather was one of those whom we shall remember in the silence later this morning.
Now it is curious that in Britain the symbol of that remembering is a poppy. In herbal lore poppies are a symbol of sleep, peace, death, dreams and forgetfulness. But since the end of the First World War, poppies have been a symbol for British people not of forgetting but of remembering. That had its beginnings in the popularity of a poem written on the battlefield. It is through the poppies that grow “in Flanders fields… between the crosses, row on row,” that the dead speak to the living and urge them not to break faith. In a post-war world, sick of conflict, that was taken, by some at least, to mean keeping faith with the widows and orphans of those who had died, and caring for those whose lives had been blasted, physically or mentally, by their experiences – building, as politicians promised in 1918, “a land fit for heroes”. And with that commitment came the unspoken message “never again” and the repeated efforts during the next two decades to bring about universal disarmament. So, in the 1920s in Britain the wearing of a poppy became a sign of national repentance, of a new and different vision.
But that vision turned out to be a dream. Barely into the hundred years that have passed since the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 civil war broke out in Russia, and later in Spain. They were followed by a second global conflict which gave the world not only Blitzkrieg on Rotterdam, Warsaw, and London, but also the infernos of Hamburg, Dresden and Hiroshima and the torrent of bombs that rained on this city. Once again a whole generation (civilians, this time, as well as soldiers) suffered and died. Once again, the hope of an end to war died almost as soon as it was born. It was colonial wars, this time, in Africa and Asia – intensified by the Cold War between the communist East and the capitalist West. More civil wars, in Africa, Latin America and Europe, and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East, have left more families with pictures of those who “grow not old as we that are left grow old”.
Today, we remember those who have died in two World Wars, and in so many conflicts since. Our remembering takes place in the setting of today’s readings: Jonah’s proclamation of God’s judgement on Nineveh, the centre of the most ruthlessly warlike society in the ancient Near East; Jesus’s proclamation of God’s coming kingdom to the oppressed and marginalised people of Galilee. In both proclamations the key word is “repentance”.
As we remember those to whom we are bound by a shared story of suffering and struggle, we remember, too, those who have no such claim on us, but who are dying daily in Cameroun and Congo, in Ukraine and Syria, in the Gaza strip, in Yemen. We remember Sunni and Shi’a, Christian, Jew; Arab, Kurd, Israeli, Afghan. And as we remember, we pray. We pray that governments, as well as individuals, may hear God’s call to repentance and turn from warlike ways. We pray that God may spare the nations the calamity which their own folly threatens to bring upon the world. We pray that through God’s compassion the kingdoms of this world may be transformed into God’s kingdom of peace, and we commit ourselves, like Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, to following the way of the Prince of Peace.
All Saints’ Sunday (4.11.2018)
There are thirty-nine lights on the altar rail. Each one of those lights was first lit at the Eucharist on Friday evening. Each one of them represents a life, a life that has been taken away by death but that was – that still is – important to at least one of the people at that Eucharist. Some of them are shining for parents, others for sisters, brothers, other family members, friends. Whoever they are, they are known and loved by God, as Jesus knew and loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus. It is because we know the reality of that love that we too can approach Jesus, as Mary did, and pour out our sorrow to him, as she did, confident that he shares that sorrow, and confident that if we trust him we too will see the glory of God.
Now that doesn’t mean that the people we love will be raised miraculously from death as Lazarus was. What it does mean, as I said on Friday evening, is that we can have hope. We can be confident that death is not the end. We can be confident that God’s love is stronger than death, stronger than the human greed and hatred and violence which cause so much death and devastation in God’s world. Two and a half thousand years ago the prophet whose words we heard in our first reading recognised that. The wonderful vision of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear”, a feast for all peoples – not just Israel – that vision comes immediately after God has pronounced judgement on the nations responsible for the greed and hatred and violence of the prophet’s own day. It reminds us that God makes all things new. The prophet promises, “[God] will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.” Life and love must have the last word.
That is what this long week-end of celebration is about. On Thursday we gave thanks to God for all those who have shown his love in the way that they have lived and died, in the way that they related to others, people who reflected God’s light to the world in their generation, even if their names remain largely unknown outside a circle of friends and family.
On Friday, we remembered the people whose lights are shining up there on the rail. They may not have shone with the “pure, clear light” that shines through the life of a saint, but they shone for us, and their memory still shines and we love them and we miss them.
Today we look forward in hope to the day when we share with all of those for whom we have given thanks, the day when God invites us to share in that feast which inspired the prophet’s vision, the feast of which our Eucharist this morning is a foretaste. We look forward to sharing that banquet with those whose lives were transformed by God’s love. And we look forward to our own transformation. We can’t achieve that by our own efforts, but it will be achieved in us as we respond to the voice of Jesus calling us, as it called Lazarus, out of the tombs in which our lives have become trapped, those habits of thinking and doing which prevent us from becoming fully alive in God’s service. Those habits can bind us just as tightly as the grave-cloths bound Lazarus. They can blind us just as effectively as the cloth wrapped round his head. Sometimes it can take us years to realise that we are bound, that we are blinded, that what we thought was a tolerable existence was actually a prison – or a tomb.
It is then that we need to listen to the voice of Jesus calling us out of whatever imprisons us, calling us to become fully alive. It is then, too, that the people around us need to be alert to those other words of Jesus with which this morning’s gospel ended. “Unbind him, and let him go”. Jesus calls us to walk, not stagger blindly, into life and we cannot do that without help from one another, sharing burdens, talking through problems, acknowledging our faults and failings and leaving them behind us as we walk unhindered, with all God’s holy ones, into Christ’s new day.
Commemoration of All Souls (2.11.2018)
As we gather this evening to remember those whom we love and who have died, it might come as a shock to some that the church is wearing white. White is the colour of weddings: it’s black for funerals. And black grief or dark depression may well be the mood in which we have come to church tonight, especially those of us for whom the pain of bereavement may still be fresh and raw. Certainly, in past ages, black or dark purple would have been quite usual on this day, sombre colours to match a sombre mood, making it plain that this Commemoration of the Departed on All Souls’ Day is, in a sense, the shadow side of yesterday’s celebration of All Saints, those faithful Christians, well-known and unknown, who lived in the light of God’s presence on earth and now rejoice in that light eternally.
But in truth there is no shadow side, except the dark shadow of our own sense of loss. When Christians come to church to remember those whom they love but see no longer, they do not come, I hope, in fear for those who have died. They do not come to pacify, to “beg off” an angry, vengeful God. They come because they know that here, where Christ is present in the bread and wine of our Eucharist, the worlds of the dead and the living touch.
They touch because God is God both of the dead and of the living and in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God brings together both the living and the dead. That, after all, is why the church is dressed in white this evening – not for a wedding, but as a kind of echo of Eastertide, a reminder that beyond the darkness of death and bereavement there is the unutterable glory of heaven. That is why the Easter candle stands before the altar to affirm that “The Father raises the dead and gives them life.” That is the hope that “does not disappoint us”.
Now, that hope is not the kind of hope we express when we say “I hope it will be a fine day tomorrow”. The hope that does not disappoint us is not a vague longing but a confidence about the future, because it is God’s future, a confidence in the power of his love to break down division, even the sharp division which death makes between us and those we love.
“God” 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.” Not “because we’re worth it”, but in the full knowledge that we aren’t, that we are, as we often say to excuse our latest failure, “only human”. Despite our failures, despite our foolishness, our self-centredness, our hardness of heart, God loves us. God loves us absolutely and unconditionally – loves us enough to die for us. And God loves those whom we love with the same absolute and unconditional love with which we are loved. Any experience we may have of God as “enemy”, to use St Paul’s word, is not a reflection of God’s attitude to us. It is a reflection of our attitude to God, our inability to believe how much God loves us. We show that in our insistence that the impersonal force linking actions to consequences, the force that Hindus and Buddhists call “karma” and that St Paul calls “the wrath” is “the wrath of God”. Even the translation of the Bible that we use in Church gets that wrong. There is no wrath in God. As an American priest I know is fond of saying, “Jesus didn’t die to change God’s mind about us. He died to change our mind about God.” In saying that, he echoes those words of St Paul which we heard a few minutes ago: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
So, tonight, we come, trusting in that love, the love that we never dared hope for, the love that holds us, as it holds those whom we love but see no longer, in the embrace of endless, limitless, mercy. The God before whom we remember our loved ones tonight is the God who, in Jesus of Nazareth, has shared our life and our death so that we may share God’s life eternally, the God who “proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” and who gives life beyond death to those we remember tonight.
(Note: You can find a brief reflection for All Saints’ Day on the Chaplain’s Page)
SS Simon and Jude (28.10.2018)
One of the reasons why people in this country and many others have been turning to political leaders who appear to offer simple solutions to complex and difficult problems is that they want to feel safe. They want to feel that their families are safe, that their jobs are safe. They want to feel that their leaders will protect them, that God will protect them. Unfortunately, on any reading of what Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s gospel, God is about as protective as an old-fashioned tin-opener. It’s a tough old world out there, Jesus tells his friends; be prepared to get hurt. As a colleague in England is fond of saying, the invitation to discipleship can be summed up in four words: “Follow Jesus and die.”
Now it’s important to be clear that we are not talking about “persecution”, as some do (including people who ought to know better). Persecution is not about being told you can’t come into work wearing a cross. That isn’t persecution. That’s management stupidity. Persecution is having your church building bombed or your home torched because you are a Christian. Persecution is what has been happening in recent years to Christian sisters and brothers in, for example, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and in parts of Nigeria and the Indian sub-continent.
We are not in that situation, thank God, although there are members of this congregation who know what it is to live with the threat, and the reality, of violence and death. But in Italy, church buildings are seen as “safe space”, they are not the target of attacks by violent extremists. The damage that our church building suffered was done seven decades ago in a world war. We are not in a situation of suffering active persecution, but we are in a situation where Christians are often misunderstood or misinterpreted.
We are in a situation where to be a Christian is to swim against the stream. In a “post-truth” world of “fake news”, Christians affirm that truth is real and that it matters. In a world where many people seem to think that, in the words of an ancient poet, “there’s nothing else that matters, only money”, Christians affirm that there are values which cannot be expressed in cash terms. In a world in which both individuals and governments believe in what has been called “the myth of redemptive violence” (in other words that violence against enemies will make our lives safer and better) – in such a world, Christians affirm that violence is always destructive, both to those who suffer it and to those who inflict it and that it was this destructive power, this hatred, that Jesus neutralised once for all in his suffering on the cross.
In affirming that, both in what we say and in the way we live, Christians are going counter to the direction of our culture. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about “the world” hating those who follow him. We’re not going with the flow. Instead we’re heading upstream through dangerous rapids and eddies and sometimes, it seems, trying to leap waterfalls, like a salmon on its way to the spawning grounds. And we do it because we know, like the salmon, that upstream we will find the place where real life begins, the quality of life that the Gospels call “eternal life” – the life that we live in God’s love and that the death of our physical bodies can’t stop.
And as we make that journey against the flow we discover that we aren’t alone. We are surrounded and supported by those who are travelling alongside us, and by those who have gone before us, people like Simon and Jude, the friends of Jesus whom we remember today, and the people we will be remembering on Thursday and Friday of this week. We’re held in their love, we’re held in God’s love, as bricks are held by mortar in a wall. We are part of something which is vulnerable, yes, and precarious, yes again, but it’s also something that is indestructible because it is, as our first reading reminded us, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” In our vulnerability, in our fragility, we are being built into a dwelling place for God. That, in the end, is all the protection we need.
Trinity 21 (21.10.2018)
They really do not get it, do they? The disciples, I mean. They have been with Jesus how long? A year? Two years? Three years? They have shared meals with him. They have listened as he taught the crowds. They have watched him perform miracles. They have walked with him along the way and talked with him as they tramped round Galilee and beyond. Now they are on their way to Jerusalem for the decisive confrontation with the powers of this world. And they still do not get it. Even James and John, part of the inner circle of disciples – even they do not get it.
Now, Jesus has just been explaining, for the third time, that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” Plain enough, you would have thought. But no. Here come James and John with their special request. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In modern terms, they want senior positions in the government. They haven’t grasped what Jesus has been saying. They still see him as though he were a conventional political leader, handing out rewards to supporters, a ministry here, a money-spinning state contract there. And they want the grandest jobs going.
“Wait a minute” says Jesus. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” Or, in Mark’s words, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He is pointing them back to the beginning of his ministry and at the same time looking ahead to the horror that is coming. “The cup” is the cup of the last supper (the cup of the new covenant sealed in his blood), and the cup which, a few hours later, he prays will be taken away from him, the cup of suffering. James and John don’t bat an eyelid. “They replied, ‘We are able.’” “OK,” says Jesus, “if that’s what you want, you shall have it. But you have got this kingdom thing all wrong.” “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when we come to the climax of Mark’s Gospel, we realise with a jolt that “those for whom it has been prepared” are the two bandits crucified with Jesus, “one on his right, and one on his left”.
But that is to get ahead of ourselves. To return where we were: “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” Not, you understand, because they realise that James and John had got it wrong. No. They were angry because they thought James and John were, as we say, “trying to pull a fast one”, trying to gain an unfair advantage. The other ten wanted seats at the top table, too. So Jesus calls them all together and spells out the reality of how the kingdom of God works. He starts with an easily recognisable example. ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.’ Of course they do. They live in an occupied country. They’ve seen how those in authority treat their subjects. They’ve almost certainly been on the receiving end themselves. Then Jesus adds a little stinger: “But it is not so among you.” Drily sarcastic, says one commentary. “You don’t do that sort of thing, do you?” Well, yes, they do. So Jesus explains why they shouldn’t.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is what leadership in God’s kingdom looks like. It isn’t about power and status. It isn’t “politics as usual”. There is no place for “throwing your weight about” like the “great ones” among the Gentiles. It is about walking closely in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who, as our first reading reminded us, “learned obedience through what he suffered”. It’s about listening, supporting, self-giving, going through the pain of being human.
And that is where we are brought up short. Because the Church very often loses sight of the fact that it is the living body of Christ and becomes just another organisation, with hierarchies, power struggles, and all the rest. It becomes very much “politics as usual” not just at the top, but even in local congregations. We, too, are James and John to the extent that we do not keep our focus on Jesus and remember that he is not the earthly Messiah that the sons of Zebedee imagined but the suffering Son of Man, the truly Human One, who comes “not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many”.
Trinity 20 (14.10.2018)
When I was young and the most of the Church of England still used the Book of Common Prayer and only the Book of Common Prayer, the Communion Service included what were known as “the comfortable words”, a couple of Jesus’ sayings from the Gospels, and a line or two from letters which bear the signatures of Paul and John. I sometimes use them to lead into the confession. Well, this morning, we have the uncomfortable words. Both the letter to the Hebrews and the encounter between Jesus and the rich man show us something of the sharp edge of the gospel, “sharper”, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”
The challenge that Jesus sets the man who asks him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is equally sharp. Despite the man’s attempt to butter Jesus up by calling him “Good Teacher”, Jesus doesn’t return the compliment. Quite the opposite, as Jesus asks him why he should say such a thing and tells him “No one is good but God alone.” Then Jesus sets before him the requirements of the Law of Moses – and adds two of his own. The first often gets missed because it is slipped in among the “You shall not”s. That is “You shall not defraud.” That isn’t Moses. That’s Jesus – and only in Mark. Matthew and Luke, as they tell this story, stick more closely to the Hebrew Scriptures. That’s our first clue that this encounter isn’t just about one man.
The second clue comes a bit later. But first let’s give the man his moment of glory. “I have kept all these since my youth,” he claims. So, given what Jesus has said, he ought to be a shoo-in for eternal life. Now, when he said that Jesus looked at him and, Mark tells us, he loved him. And because Jesus loves this man, who has come out of nowhere with his question, Jesus tells him the truth. “‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” And, as my sister is fond of saying (usually after she has been rude to me), “the truth always hurts”. So it does in this case. “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
So that is why Mark thinks telling the story of this encounter is important. It isn’t just about this man. It’s about being rich. It’s about another of the things that keep us from God, another of the things that keep us from one another. Mark has already shown us Jesus taking apart “the family” and putting it back together in a totally different shape. Now he does the same to wealth. In first-century Palestine wealth was usually seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Very probably the man who approached Jesus thought that his “many possessions” were the reward for having kept all the commandments since his youth. Mark, though, hints that those with “many possessions” usually gained them by exploiting the people who worked for them. Remember “You shall not defraud”? One of the commonest ways to make money was for employers to hold back their workers’ wages. That still happens today. Some big companies in the UK have become notorious over the years for delaying payment to their suppliers for months, or for paying their staff less than the legal minimum wage, not because they have cash-flow problems, but because it enables them to gain extra income by collecting interest on the money that rightfully belongs to others.
Wealth keeps people apart – quite literally. In many cities the well-to-do live in one district, often behind high fences and automated gates, while poorer people live on the edge, or even out of town. Being poor makes a person invisible, or a nuisance. When Princess Eugenie got married in Windsor Castle on Friday, the local council prepared the way by moving out the town’s homeless people. Not by providing housing for them, you understand, just keeping them (I nearly said “sweeping them”) off the streets. That is not the way to behave in the kingdom of God, where all are equal – which is why it’s so hard for rich people to enter it. Wealth is about rich people being in control, of their own lives and other people’s. It’s about putting up barriers, keeping those “other people” at a distance. Being a disciple of Jesus, on the other hand, is about breaking down barriers, as Jesus did, accepting everybody as a brother or sister, as Jesus did, and accepting that not everybody will like you doing that. But God will – and that, in the end, is what matters.
Harvest Thanksgiving (7.10.2018)
I wonder how many of you know the story about the Elephant and the Bad Baby? It was a favourite story of our children when they were young. It tells how the Elephant took the Bad Baby for a ride, “rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road”. During that ride, the Elephant took all sorts of nice food from the shops they passed and he and the Bad Baby were chased by all the shop-keepers – until the Elephant suddenly stopped, because he realised that the Bad Baby had never once said “Please” when the Elephant asked him if he would like an ice-cream, or a bun, or a pie, or chips, or sweets, or biscuits or an apple. The Bad Baby never once said “Thank you” either. He took all the good things he was given by the Elephant for granted.
In recent years human beings in the rich world have been behaving rather like that Bad Baby. They have been enjoying all the good things that this earth provides without taking any thought for how those good things arrive on their tables or at whose expense they enjoy them. “But, wait a minute” somebody is probably thinking. “Didn’t Jesus just say in our Gospel reading, ‘do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear’?” Well, yes, he did. But Jesus was talking about living in trustful dependence on God, not about a first-century version of “menefreghismo”. That is more than a bit different.
The setting of what Jesus said is more than a bit different, too. Just before telling his disciples “do not worry” Jesus has been warning them that they cannot serve God and wealth, “Mammon” is the word Matthew uses. They cannot serve God and Mammon, because Mammon is “the system”, “Mammon” is “wealth” as the be-all and end-all of life. Serving “Mammon”, serving wealth, is looking at the world in such a way that we can see the price of everything and the value of nothing. That is why Jesus tells his disciples to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Get your relationships right – especially your relationship with God. Get your relationships right, get your values right, and everything else will fall into place. Don’t worry about getting everything else sorted out and only then thinking about values.
Doing things that way round doesn’t work – as wiser people are beginning to realise. It doesn’t work and it does serious harm. It makes us like the Bad Baby. We forget to say “please” and “thank you”. We take everything for granted. We push on regardless to obtain what we want. That way of living ends up in the kind of crash that happened when the Elephant suddenly stopped going “rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road”: the kind of crash which happened to the world financial system ten years ago, and which some are predicting will happen again soon if people don’t stop focusing on the price of everything and ignoring what is to be valued.
That is why keeping Harvest Thanksgiving is so important. It pulls us back from the mad chase down the road grabbing more and more as we pass. It makes us pause for a moment and think, “Where did all this come from?” It makes us look, not at the price of food, but at how we value the work of those who provide food, the people who work on the land, or in the fishing grounds, the people who transport the food from the farms or the fishing-ports to the shops. It makes us think about God, who gives seed-time and harvest and whose creative love makes things grow. It reminds us, as it reminded the prophet Joel two and a half, maybe three, millennia ago, that the soil rejoices, the animals are fed, human beings have food and drink, because “the Lord has done great things”. God has set up the world in such a way that it feeds the people who live in it. God has set up the world in such a way that it can be renewed after disaster. That is indeed a “great thing” and “God… has dealt wondrously with [us].”
So today, as we “eat in plenty and [are] satisfied and praise the name of the Lord [our] God”, we give thanks for the world that God has made, and for the people whose labour enables us to “eat in plenty and be satisfied”. We pray, too, for a generosity of spirit which recognises and responds to the needs of those who do not have the good things that we enjoy – especially those for whom harvest has been reduced or ruined by the global menefreghismo that has led to climate change. And so to God the Father, who clothes the lilies of the field …
Trinity 18 (30.9.2018)
For the last twenty years that I worked in the UK I had two jobs. One was as a parish priest in the Diocese of Oxford. The other was as the European Officer for the Diocese. Oxford has a partnership with a diocese in the Church of Sweden, and part of my job was to keep the partnership on the road, encourage more parishes to sign up, keep people informed about what was going on – and organise visits both ways. Some years ago a new bishop was elected in Sweden. As usual we arranged a “get-to-know-you” visit. Not that he really needed one. He had been involved in the link from the beginning. But it was good to introduce him in his new role.
I asked the new bishop what he wanted to do during his visit and he said, “I want to visit churches which are warm at their heart but fuzzy at the edges.” He went on to explain that he had grown up in a Free Church in Sweden where there was great warmth at the heart, everyone looked out for everyone else and there was a tremendous sense of fellowship. But at the same time, the church was very hard-edged, very clear about who was “in” and who was “out” – a bit like John in today’s Gospel reading. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Jesus, as we heard, did not like that. He was also pretty stern about anyone who put obstacles in the way of those who were beginners in discipleship. “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” The Gospel, clearly, has fuzzy edges – and Bishop Jan-Olof knew that.
But the Gospel also has great warmth at its heart. We’ve been following edited highlights from the Letter of James during September, and today we’ve reached both the end of the month and the end of the letter. There, in a few words, James sketches a picture of what he looks for in a community of Christians. That picture shows a community which is warm at the heart, with everyone looking out for everyone else, sharing one another’s joys and sorrows, accompanying one another along the way of Christian discipleship, picking one another up if they stumble.
How does a community do that? How does it succeed in being a community that is warm at the heart? Well, first of all James draws a picture of a community whose members have a focus on healing, healing of sickness, healing of relationships – including their relationship with God – a community whose members don’t forget to offer thanks and praise to God when things are going well and to ask for God’s help when things are going not so well. He also pictures a community whose members are straight with one another, admitting their own failings honestly and openly, and at the same time not afraid to get stuck into helping others when they have taken a wrong turning, guiding them back into Jesus’s way, the way which leads to truth and life.
But above all – and here I want to pick up some things I said last week – it’s a community that is powered by prayer. If things go wrong, for individuals, for the whole community, what do you do? Pray. If things are going well, what do you do? Pray – or sing songs of praise, which comes to much the same thing. An African Christian who lived many centuries ago said “the one who sings prays twice.” If a member of the community is ill, what should they do? Ask the church leadership to join them in prayer. If a member of the community fouls up, what should they do? Admit it – and pray for forgiveness. And pray for one another. This isn’t just “saying our prayers” as many of us were taught to do when we were children. It’s praying with one another and for one another. Repeatedly James reminds his readers of the power of prayer. Remember Elijah! One person’s prayer may not seem like much but, as we heard last week, it can have an effect in difficult situations. One of the great English Church leaders of the last century said “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.”
That is one reason why each week-day morning at around 9.30 I am in church, praying for our life in this chaplaincy and for this city in which God has set us, for people I know who are having a bad time, here in Genoa or back in the UK, for the wider Church and the world. If anyone wishes to join me they’re very welcome. We might even fit in the occasional song of praise to God.
Trinity 17 (23.9.2018)
Trinity 15 (9.9.2018)
All along Jesus has been quite clear about what he is doing. The good news of the Kingdom, the good news which God has sent him to proclaim, is for the people whose whole history had prepared them to receive it, the Jewish people. It’s tiring work. If you read Mark’s Gospel at one sitting, you begin realise how very busy, how crammed with incident, the life of Jesus and his disciples was. Preaching to the crowds, healing those who were sick in body or mind, dealing with all the questions that kept coming up – questions from the Jewish authorities, questions from the acknowledged experts on religious matters, questions from people who wanted to trip Jesus up or trap him, and (let us not forget) questions from the disciples, who could be, to put it kindly, a bit dim sometimes.
No wonder Jesus needed a break. No wonder he decided to go right away, beyond the borders of the Jewish world of first century Palestine. He goes to “the region of Tyre” – in the south of modern-day Lebanon. That’s gentile territory, pagan territory, where they wouldn’t know anything about wonder-working Jewish rabbis. He tries hard to escape notice. “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” No such luck! Even in pagan Tyre word gets around. And the outcome is really quite shocking.
A local woman, a non-Jewish woman, with a desperately sick daughter comes barging into Jesus’s lodging and begs him to heal the child. It’s the last thing Jesus needs, and his response shows it. What the woman does is shocking. This is not how to behave. More to the point, this isn’t what Jesus came north for. It isn’t even in his job description. When Matthew tells this story in his gospel he makes that crystal clear. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ is how Matthew’s Jesus replies. And in both Matthew’s Gospel and here in Mark’s Jesus uses language which would have been commonplace in first-century Palestine, but which most of us would find quite offensive. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s harsh – even if Mark’s Greek word for “dogs” does suggest puppies or lap-dogs, household pets.
But the woman isn’t fazed by his response. Even the puppies get the left-over scraps from the family meal, she argues. And Jesus is won over. He tells the woman that her daughter has been healed – and she goes home to find her “lying on the bed, and the demon gone”.
So why does Mark, why does Matthew, tell this story? There are echoes of Jairus and his dying child – and of the woman with haemorrhages who also did a shocking thing in her search for healing. The key point, though, is that this healing, like the healing that follows it, the healing of the deaf-mute in Decapolis – this healing took place beyond the borders of Palestine and it was the healing of a non-Jew. This is what we would call a step-change. In healing the child, and the deaf-mute, Jesus acknowledges that the message about the Kingdom, the good news, is not just for Jews. It is for the whole world. That Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman is the person who makes it possible for us to be here this morning. The healing of her daughter is a break-through moment. The good news of Jesus is for everybody – irrespective of race, culture, language…
And, as our first reading this morning reminds us, irrespective of social status. In church it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do for a living, how much you earn, how you live, where you live. What matters is that you are God’s beloved child. The letter of James spells that out very clearly – although, sadly, there are many churches which ignore James’s words. I know a village church in the south of England where the seating shows very clearly how the village was once divided according to wealth and status, from plain wooden benches for the poorest farm workers, to a screened-off area with carpets, armchairs and a coal fire for the family who lived in the big house. That isn’t what the gospel is about. James lays it on the line: “You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
Church is the place where we learn how to love our neighbour, even the neighbour who is totally different from us. Church is the place where we learn how to serve one another – and the place from which we go out to serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
We hope to be able to post Fr Ed Hanson’s sermons from 19th and 26th August shortly.
Trinity 11 (12.8.2018)
There’s quite a gap between the massive picnic on which we have been focusing for the past couple of Sundays and the solitary breakfast which Elijah ate in the wilderness and which was the focus of our first reading today. Elijah was on the run. He had triumphed over the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal, and four hundred of them had been killed. Queen Jezebel, who was a worshipper of Baal, was determined to have Elijah’s life in return for their life. Like Moses, centuries earlier, Elijah had taken refuge in the wilderness, as far as possible from the queen’s anger; and like Moses (and the people Moses led), he had been fed thanks to a miracle of God.
In each of those situations there had been a choice between life and death. An exhausted Elijah in our first reading prayed that he might die. The Israelites were always complaining to Moses and Aaron that they had been brought out into the wilderness in order to die. “Why couldn’t you have left us in Egypt?” is their regular complaint. “Why couldn’t you leave us where we were, slaves, oppressed, exploited, miserable? We may not have been happy, but we were safe.”
It’s the same attitude that lies behind many of the problems the world is experiencing today. It lies behind the narrow vote for Britain to leave the EU. It lies behind the election of President Trump in the USA. It lies behind the way people voted six months ago in this country. There are an awful lot of people who want to live in the past, as they imagine it. They want things to be as they were when they were children, when the world seemed a much safer place. Elijah, I think, recognises that in himself. “Take away my life,” he prays; “for I am no better than my ancestors.” I am trapped by my past, in other words, just as they were by theirs. There is nothing to look forward to. There’s a faint echo of that attitude in the mutterings of some people in the crowd about what Jesus said. “We know this man. We know his parents. Why can’t he leave us where we are? Why is he talking in this strange, new way?”
The response that Jesus gives those who are muttering about his teaching is the same response that God’s messenger gave to Elijah. “Don’t life in the past: live for the future – God’s future!”
Many years ago a friend of mine who lives near Rouen in France was asked to be godmother to one of her young nieces. It was around the time when the Church was moving on from “turn up next Sunday afternoon and we’ll do it” to taking seriously the need for parents and godparents to have some idea what they are letting themselves in for. The priest who prepared my friend started talking about baptism as the beginning of our eternal life in Jesus Christ. That came as a bit of a shock to my friend. She had always been taught that “eternal life” as something that happened when you died. She wrote to me from France, asking what I thought.
All I could do was point her to this morning’s gospel and similar passages in the writings of St John and St Paul. In this morning’s gospel Jesus is very clear in what he says: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not “will have”, but “has”. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes this same point again and again. Christians aren’t supposed to be looking forward to “pie in the sky when we die”. We are invited to share in the life of Jesus now. We are invited to live lives that are open to God’s future now. We are invited to follow Elijah to a life-transforming experience of God on Horeb, the mountain of God. We are invited to share a life-transforming experience of the Christ who gives himself to us as the bread of God… “which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” That means recognising Jesus as really present with us now. It also means being really present to him. As an American Christian wrote recently, “We made the Eucharist into a magic act to be believed instead of a personal transformation to be experienced. We changed bread more than people…. We emphasized the priest as the ‘transformer’ instead of the people as the transformed.”
So this morning, as you come forward, don’t rush through receiving the bread and wine. Be aware of the presence of Jesus, in the people standing in front of you, alongside you and behind you, in the bread and the wine – and in you. And rejoice in the reality of the life in which we share, a life that is directed toward God’s future, because it is lived here and now in the love of Jesus.
Trinity 10 (5.8.2018)
Trinity 9 (29.7.2018)
Have you ever wondered why the gospels make such a big thing about Jesus feeding people? We just heard the story (which appears in all the Gospels) of how he fed 5,000 people. In the other gospels it’s 5,000 men and the women and children who tagged along with them. Matthew and Mark also tell a tale which involves 4,000 men and their uncounted families. What’s that about?
Well, for a start, it’s about Jesus meeting people at their point of need. It isn’t about him showing off, or proving that he is the son of God, though people, as we heard in the Gospel, certainly drew their own conclusions from what he did. It’s not about that. It’s about responding to need – as Elisha did in our first reading, which also, interestingly, involved barley loaves, the food of the poor. Posh people in the ancient world ate bread that was made from wheat flour, more expensive than barley. Both our readings this morning, then, are about God responding to the needs of people – and especially the people at the bottom of the heap. That is one important theme in this story.
There’s another theme that is interwoven with that one, and it’s a theme which is very relevant to people today. It’s very relevant because people today, and especially, rich, powerful people, tell a story about how the world is. And the story they tell is one of scarcity, of there not being enough to go round. In the UK, people have been listening to this story for the past eight years. It’s sometimes called “austerity”. But it isn’t just in the UK that this story, or one very like it, is being told. It’s a story that is being told here in Italy, particularly by the new government. They say that there isn’t enough to go round, so let’s send the people who have least back to where they came from – ignoring the fact that where they came from there is often much less to go round!
That isn’t the story that Jesus tells. It isn’t a story that any part of the Bible tells. Even when times are difficult, even when food is short and there is famine in the land – that’s no excuse for locking the doors and turning people away. Remember the story of Joseph and his brothers. Remember the story of Ruth. Joseph’s brothers, like Ruth, are people who go to a foreign country because they are starving, and they’ve heard that in the foreign country there is food.
They aren’t turned away. They are made welcome. They are fed. They are encouraged to settle in the land where there is plenty. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes the rich and the powerful, even in Israel, carry on telling their story that there isn’t enough to go round (while making sure that there is more than enough for them). That’s when prophets become angry and start speaking out in the name of the Lord. The first part of the prophecies of Isaiah, and the prophecies of Amos are both very critical of that sort of wrong-doing, as is Jesus, both in the stories he tells and in the things he does – like feeding five thousand men and their families.
Jesus doesn’t worry when Philip tells him they would need six months’ wages to feed a crowd that size. He doesn’t bat an eyelid when Andrew tells him that all they have got to hand out is a boy’s packed lunch. What indeed are they among so many people? A lot less than the twenty loaves that the man with his harvest offering brought to Elisha! But in both cases God blesses the offering and makes it sufficient for the needs of hungry people. God does not work with a story about scarcity, but a story about love, which is revealed in generosity and sharing – however much, or however little, we may have.
That story reaches its climax in the story of Jesus and his self-offering which we remember every time we gather round a table in his name and share a meal – not of bread and fish, but of bread and wine – the same meal that we share today. As we gather round his table, and as we share the meal which Jesus left to his closest friends, we renew our commitment to walking in his way and sharing his story, remembering that we come here, not because we’re good, but because we know we aren’t, and we long to be better. We offer ourselves, body and soul together, so that his love can transform this community into a signpost pointing clearly to God’s kingdom of love and justice, as Jesus transformed the five barley loaves and two small fish into a meal for something like twice five thousand people.
Mary Magdalene (22.7.2018)
One of the things I like about the Italian language is that the word storia means both story and history. Somehow that makes history sound exciting. When I was at school History was boring. Stories were what you read in English Literature and that was much more fun.
Of course, that’s a matter of taste. Some people like fact and others like fantasy. But serious historians and serious students of literature agree on two things. That ‘history’ varies according to who is telling the story. So it’s never 100% reliable. And literature – stories, novels, plays, poetry – which deal in fiction, can often be extremely accurate in its observation of human nature.
You probably all know that the Bible is not just ‘a’ book. It contains many books, many stories. Stories both in the Italian sense – the history of a people and their struggle to establish themselves – and in the sense of imaginative fiction: stories like that of Jonah who was swallowed by a great fish, and such like.
Overall, although it contains many stories of both kinds, the Bible tells one story in particular. It’s the story of the human race; how God loves us; how God continues to love us even when we ignore God or run away from God (that’s Jonah again); how God through Jesus Christ finally restores us to the fullness of life for which we were always intended.
And like all good stories there are certain themes which keep cropping up, or run through the whole narrative.
The Bible begins in a garden. Or at least the story of human life begins there… there is of course the prologue in chapter one of Genesis which tells how God created the heavens and the earth. But as soon as we get to the first humans, Adam and Eve (another story with a real truth behind it) we find them in a garden. And a garden that is perfect, idyllic.
Pretty soon of course it all goes wrong and they are evicted from the garden. But throughout the bible there is that memory of the perfect place, the garden of Eden, and human beings are always striving after it.
The children of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt and they believe God is leading them to the Promised Land; a land of milk and honey, a garden in a fertile country. They have to travel through the desert, and this desert is not just a physical reality but it’s a spiritual one too. Pilgrims – and that means all of us, because we are all seeking the promised land – are forced to go through the desert and face hardship and temptation. And yet God doesn’t let us give up: he gives us springs of water and a glimpse of what might be in store for us.
That wonderful passage we have just heard from the Song of Solomon is set in a garden. That’s another one of those stories which helps to tell the story of our salvation. Because it’s put in the mouth of a woman whose whole body and soul aches to be with her lover. Of course it’s about human, physical love but it’s about much more than that. It’s about how the only way we humans can find fulfilment, can be the people God intends us to be, is by abandoning our whole selves to love, the love of God. And it’s in the garden of love that we are called to live.
That book was written many years before the time of Jesus, of course. But that passage was chosen by the Church to be read today because today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene. Not Mary the mother of Jesus, or any of the other Marys we find in the bible, but Mary from the town of Magdala who was one of Jesus’s chief followers. We sometimes get the impression that all the disciples of Jesus were men, but there were many women too who followed him. And Mary Magdalene must have been prominent among them because she is mentioned in the gospels many times. There’s no evidence that she had any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with Jesus, but it is clear that she had a deep love for God and for God whom she saw in Jesus.
And she followed him, through thick and thin. The bible doesn’t say she was at the Last Supper, but if it had been a passover meal she probably was, because there was no way such a celebration would exclude women and children. After that meal Jesus and his disciples made their way to another garden, the garden of Gethsemane. I like to think that Mary was there along with the eleven men (don’t forget Judas had already slunk off to betray Jesus).
Be that as it may, it’s in that garden that we see the extremes. It doesn’t appear to be a beautiful, lush garden so much as a hard desert place. It’s often depicted with rocks and thorny bushes. It’s a place of sweat and tears (the blood will come later); it’s a place of agony. So much so that the male disciples can’t bear it and fall asleep. But I like to think that Mary Magdalene, and maybe other women, are there in the shadows silently supporting Jesus by their presence and love.
And the crunch soon comes. We all know what happens, and the horror of that first Good Friday. According to St John, the two Marys – our Lord’s mother, and Mary Magdalene – stood by him as he hung dying on the cross.
But that’s not the end. There isn’t an end to the story really. Or rather, the end is the beginning (as T S Eliot said). Two days later, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus was buried. It was a garden, though I don’t suppose she noticed that at first. What she did see – and she was the first person to see it – was the stone rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. And no sign of the body of Jesus. She called Peter and John and they came to look, but couldn’t understand what had happened. In panic, they ran away again.
But Mary stayed, weeping outside the tomb. Then she saw a man whom she didn’t recognise. She thought he was the gardener.
And of course he was. God planted the garden, the ideal garden, the perfect garden, in Eden. And gave it to humankind to care for it and tend it. It’s only with the coming of the perfect Man, Jesus God’s Son, that the true gardener comes back to restore the garden to its true glory.
Mary Magdalene recognises Jesus, risen in glory, and is the first to announce this good news to the apostles and the rest of the world. That is why she is known as the Apostle to the Apostles. And it’s why the story of the garden is not just a nice fable but is really true as the description of our true destiny. Mary’s story is our story and our history. Alleluia!
Trinity 7 (15.7.2018)
Last week’s gospel was about prophets not being welcome in their own country and by their own people. The people who Jesus had grown up with turned their back on him because they didn’t think that a local lad could have anything to say to them.
This week we hear about John the Baptist, the prophet who confronts the establishment in the court of King Herod. This isn’t the same Herod who was king when Jesus was born; after he died the kingdom was divided among his sons, and this Herod wasn’t really a king but a puppet-ruler, on behalf of the Romans, of just the region of Galilee and a bit more. But of course it wouldn’t be surprising if he gave himself the airs and graces of someone more important.
His wife is clearly the brains behind the throne. And she manipulates him. She knows that John the Baptist is a threat to her husband’s authority because he is challenging the corruption that spreads from the court right across society.
And as in so many cases (we don’t have to look far these days) part of that corruption is the exploitation of women. Herod is persuaded to lay on a great party to celebrate his wife’s daughter’s birthday. But you can imagine the scene. Alcohol flowing freely; lots of bloated over-privileged men lounging around and salivating at the scantily dressed young women. And the star of the show, the young girl who performs a sexy dance to titillate all those men present.
So at his weakest, Herod is persuaded to grant the girl her gruesome birthday present. The head of John the Baptist on a platter, like the boar’s head at a mediaeval banquet. Herod was reluctant to kill John because he had something of a conscience; John reminded him of that despite his cruel ways. But probably because he didn’t want to appear weak in front of his fashionable guests he gave in to the women’s pleading. And so proving his weakness!
That’s why when Herod hears about Jesus, that he is going around the country preaching the same message as John, he is terrified! John has come back to haunt him!
Well it wouldn’t be surprising if he did. That twinge of conscience that had Herod unwilling to have John murdered, has obviously been set off again by the news of Jesus. I suppose like the first time, Herod just shelved his conscience and got on with the rest of his life. But what a life!
It’s all summed up in that banquet. A great feast, a meal to share: but a feast just for him and his favoured few. The obsequious followers hoping to share some of the reflected glory of the king’s court. But just as Herod wasn’t a real king, his glory was false as well. Like all tyrants, his power was built on weakness; his policies were built on lies; and his generosity was a false show which didn’t extend to the people in need but just to those he was keen to impress.
Contrast that with the great banquet which Jesus offers to us all. His table is open; the food is spread and it’s his flesh for the life of all. He calls all of us, rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, Christian, Muslim and atheist, black, white and brown, men and women, boys and girls, whatever our sexual orientation or whatever our political views: the banquet is offered to all. Jesus expects no payment, no declaration of false loyalty, no toadying words. He gives us his life in this banquet and expects nothing in return. Except that he knows it will transform us, and when we are transformed by his love we will work with him to build a new world.
There is another image too. Herod’s court (and the courts of many similar tyrants before and since, right down to our own day) perverts the meaning of a shared meal. In the same way, the dance performed by the young girl perverts the meaning of a dance. A dance should be about joy; it should be the expression of love and freedom. Instead the girl was exploited and used to put on a salacious display simply to tempt the sexual lust of the men present.
Most of us know the song, or hymn, by Sydney Carter called The Lord of the Dance. It’s based on a mediaeval carol… indeed, carols are really dance tunes. Jesus is like the Pied Piper, rising from the dead and leading us in a wonderful dance of life. Those of us from northern Europe aren’t very good at this. We are shy and inhibited and some of us use the excuse of having two left feet. In fact some of you know that the last time I was here I had one and a bit left feet – I had to spend a whole day in Pronto Soccorso to get my right foot moving again. It’s ok now but I’m afraid it’s been big excuse for not getting involved in dancing any more.
So physician heal thyself, and preacher take note. We are all called to give up our inhibitions and shake our stiff legs and take part in the Dance of Life. I’m sure that some of you here are from other cultures where that comes more easily, and perhaps you will show us the way. God’s life, God’s rhythm, God’s love takes hold of our stiff and selfish world and shakes it all about. Jesus is the Lord of the Dance and the Lord of all life. Setting us free from selfishness and fear and giving us hope.
Trinity 6 (8.7.2018)
Mark’s Gospel is always on the move – and usually very quickly. Today he certainly moves us on from last Sunday’s Gospel – in just about every way. Last week, at the end of Mark’s fifth chapter, we heard how Jesus healed a woman who had a serious long-term illness and brought back a young girl from death, to the amazement of his disciples and her parents. Today, at the beginning of chapter 6, the mood is very different.
Jesus has moved away from the lakeside. He is back in Nazareth, his home town. It’s the Sabbath, so he does what he normally does. He goes to the synagogue and starts to teach. But there’s something different about the atmosphere. The people aren’t listening as they do in other places. They’re comparing notes – almost grumbling. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” They are not impressed. Mark says “They took offence at him.” They call it “tall poppy syndrome” in Australia. In Britain it’s “cutting people down to size”.
So Jesus shrugs his shoulders and moves on. He has a job to do and he isn’t going to let the friends and relations get in the way. He moves on deeper into the countryside. He sends out the twelve to do in other places the things that he has been doing, preaching, healing, urging people to reframe the way in which they look at the world – and themselves. And Jesus tells them to travel light. All they need are the clothes they stand up in (don’t even take a spare shirt) – but do take a staff and sandals for the journey. Accept hospitality when you are offered it, but don’t be discouraged if you aren’t. Just move on. And if people won’t listen to your message – well, that’s their problem. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
There’s a message there for us, too, I think. It is very easy to be discouraged when life doesn’t go our way. Many of us face the daily struggle of finding our way through the system, or coping with life in the camp. Others have to deal with bad luck, illness, the frustrations of caring for an ageing relative, or being messed around by Italian bureaucracy and its demands for the right paperwork. But the message of both our readings is “Don’t be discouraged”. Sometimes, like Jesus and the disciples, we can move on, to new situations, new challenges. Sometimes we can’t. We’re stuck where we are and we can’t change things.
That’s when we need to hear the wisdom of St Paul. Like Jesus in Nazareth, Paul is being given a hard time by people who know him well. He had set up the Christian community in the busy port city of Corinth. Then, as he always did, Paul moved on. That’s when others moved in, impressive speakers (unlike Paul), with the right paperwork (letters of commendation from the church in Jerusalem) and they began to take apart everything that Paul had built up and trash his reputation in the church. But although he was deeply saddened, Paul wasn’t discouraged. He knew that his ministry did not depend on having the right paperwork. He knew that he had been granted an overwhelming experience of God, affirming his ministry – and, at the same time, he had received what he called “a thorn in the flesh” to keep him from being carried away by that experience.
Paul prayed that this “thorn”, whatever it was, might be removed and his prayer was answered with a firm “no”. But with that “no” he received another message: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Think about that for a moment: “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness”, the weakness of Jesus hanging on the cross. What matters is not success, but openness to God, even when things are not going our way. We cannot expect God to sort out all our problems and frustrations, but we can trust God to be with us and to reveal his power in what seems to us like weakness, frustration and failure. So don’t be discouraged. Travel light through disappointment, trusting in the power that is made perfect in weakness. To God…
Trinity 5 (1.7.2018)
A city destroyed; a father distraught; a woman made desperate. Those are the three strands in our readings today. The lament over the city from which our first reading was taken paints a picture which we know only too well. Jerusalem 587 years before Christ could equally be Aleppo, or Hodeidah, or towns and villages in Borno state or Ambazonia today. And images of the distraught parents of a dying child speak to us as powerfully now as they did to the crowd by the lakeside, watching in amazement as one of the leading men of the town falls down at Jesus’ feet to ask for his help. This is the world turned upside down. Jairus, the head of the synagogue, goes down on his knees to beg Jesus, the wandering preacher, to heal his dying daughter!
But that isn’t the end of it. Jesus sets out with Jairus, and the disciples, and a large crowd in tow. And then he stops. He stops because someone has touched him, someone in need. “Power had gone forth from him.” Who had touched him? Why? He stops and he waits. The disciples think he’s crazy. ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ But Jesus wants to know. And the person who touched Jesus finally comes forward: a woman, a sick woman, a poor woman (Mark tells us she had spent all her money on failed attempts at a cure), a woman who was ritually unclean and had been for twelve years. Her condition meant she could have no part in the life of the community – and it explains why she crept up behind Jesus secretly in the crowd. Now that she had been found out (and healed) she told him the whole truth.
What Jairus must have been going through while this scene unfolded I don’t like to think. Agonies of fear, I am sure – and maybe anger? Why was Jesus spending time on this wretched woman? Jairus was the one whose family needed help. Jairus was the high-status person in this situation, head of a household, head of the local synagogue. Surely he should have priority? That’s when the messengers arrive with the news that his daughter has died. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus is having none of that. He ignores their message.
Instead, Jesus continues on to Jairus’s house, turfs out the mourners when they laugh at his confidence that all will be well, and goes, with the child’s parents, and Peter, James, and John, into the room where her body has been laid out. He takes her hand and speaks to her. She gets up and Jesus hands her back to her parents, telling them to give her something to eat.
Now, that simple gesture of taking the girl’s hand also turns the world upside down. To touch a corpse was to become polluted, unclean, but for a second time the power of life in Jesus reverses the flow of defilement, as it had with the woman earlier. Jesus is not polluted. Those who had been unclean are cleansed and made whole. Jesus gives them back to their family, to the wider community, to life itself. And their status, their standing in the world, simply doesn’t matter. God’s mercies never come to an end. God’s compassion enfolds us whoever we are.
There’s a challenge there for us. Is our life together fully open to the healing, cleansing, life-giving love of Jesus? Or do we worry about questions of status and purity? Many years ago a Native American Christian put the same challenge very directly to a group of religious professionals. “How come you know Jesus Christ” he asked them “and you no heal nobody?” That work of healing, restoring, creating community didn’t stop when the earthly ministry of Jesus ended. It continues in us as it did in Peter, James and John. It continues in our regular prayer for the people we know who are ill, and for others who are, for whatever reason, cut off from sharing fully in the life around them. In some churches it continues in regular sacramental actions, in the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Those actions are not some kind of magic. They are ways of opening hearts and lives and memories to the healing love of God, of letting Christ take our suffering up into his suffering and transform it in his love. Is this a way of serving God through the renewal of community to which God might be calling us? Over the summer, please ponder that possibility, and let me know what you think.
Birth of St John the Baptist (24.6.2018)
One Christmas in the 1980s, as a fairly new curate, I was entrusted with the task of sorting out the readers and the readings for the “Nine Lessons and Carols”. One of the readings was the passage from Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago. It was given to a member of our youth drama group. She was, as I had expected, fine at the rehearsal. The reading was beautifully paced and read with real feeling. So, on the night I sat back and relaxed as Abigail came up to read. The first few verses were fine. And then something happened which I hadn’t expected: the reading became more and more excited, and faster and faster. I thought at first it was nerves. Then I realised the truth: it wasn’t stage fright; it was sheer excitement. The prophet’s message had grabbed Abigail heart and soul. The good news, the promise and “the glory of the Lord” had taken her over.
There’s the same sort of excitement in today’s gospel. Elizabeth, ageing and childless, was about to give birth. “Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” This was something new and wonderful – and something equally strange had happened to her husband, Zechariah. He had been unable to speak throughout the nine months of his wife’s pregnancy, silenced, it was said, by a messenger from God.
So, eight days after her son’s birth, Elizabeth found herself surrounded by all the friends and relations – both hers and her husband’s. They came to celebrate this very special child. But they also came to see that things were done “properly”. So he would, of course, be named after his father. They were, all unknowing, in danger of sabotaging what God had set up, taming this new beginning, this action of God. This little boy was not to be part of family tradition. He was marked out to become part of something completely new. That is why he was to be given a new name, a name that meant something. In the face of all the family pressure, Elizabeth insisted “He is to be called John”. In Hebrew that’s “Johanan” which means “Graced by the Lord” or “The Lord is gracious”.
Now, how Elizabeth knew this, Luke doesn’t tell us, because the child’s name had been given by the angel to Zechariah before he lost the power of speech. Presumably the two of them had found some way of communicating over those nine months… Well, the friends and relations didn’t buy it. John wasn’t a family name – and what would she know anyway. She was only a woman! What did the boy’s father want him called? So they asked him. And Zechariah grabbed a writing tablet and wrote “His name is John” – and the way Luke’s original Greek phrases that simple statement could not be stronger. Not so much “His name is John” as “His name is John”.
And that is the release. Zechariah’s nine-month silence ends at last. It ends in a huge outpouring of joy and thanksgiving which has become one of the classic Christian hymns of praise, usually known by its Latin name, “The Benedictus”. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free!” That hymn of praise was sung at Morning Prayer pretty well every Sunday in the church of my childhood – and I have to say they managed to make it sound rather dull. So often people who really ought to know better try to tame and imprison God in what is familiar, instead of rejoicing in the way in which God bursts through the imprisoning power-structures of this world to bring about something new.
God bursts through in the prophetic message we heard in our first reading. God bursts through in the preaching of the adult John. And in all four Gospels the link is made between John’s preaching and those words of the prophet, “prepare the way of the Lord”. So let us also make that link. Let us connect John, and Jesus the Lord for whom he prepared the way, with the passionate love of the God who cares about justice, who cares about people, especially the people who are discarded by the powerful, the people who are pushed to the edges. God gathers them to him and holds them close to his heart. He holds us close to his heart. As we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, let us allow that message to grip us and fire us and excite us in the way that it did young Abigail all those years ago.
Trinity 3 (17.6.2018)
Did anyone watch the Super Eagles’ game last night? That’s the Nigerian national football team, for those of you who aren’t (yet) infected with World Cup fever. Pity about the result.
One of the things about sport that I notice more and more as I get older (especially now I have a son who is a qualified football referee) is how much more technical it has become: how much more focused on “stats”. Not just obvious things like “number of goals” or “number of fouls” or “number of red/yellow cards”, but things like “shots on target” and “passes completed” – even “metres run” by each player on the pitch. And it isn’t just sport. We seem to have arrived at a way of looking at the world which says “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.” Schools and colleges – even universities – find themselves in “league tables” shaped by the exam results of their pupils. Hospitals – certainly in the UK, I don’t know whether this is also true of Italy – hospitals are ranked according patient through-put and clinical “success rates”. Farmers measure their land by how much fertilizer and weed-killer they put on it in relation to the size of the crop they harvest.
It was, as today’s Gospel reminds us, all very different in the world which Jesus knew. Farmers in first-century Palestine didn’t do the kind of maths that farmers in Europe do today. They didn’t work how much fertiliser to spread, or how much pesticide and herbicide to spray on their fields. They scattered the seed. They ploughed it in. After that it was up to God. Like the one in the story Jesus told, every peasant farmer in Palestine would scatter his seed and then “sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” All he could do was pray that God would bless him with a crop large enough to feed his family, to pay his taxes, and to leave him with seed for sowing the next year. Then it was simply a matter of waiting until the crop was ready for harvest “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” – and when it’s ripe send in the reapers to cut it.
Now that, said Jesus, is how the kingdom of God works. Be patient. Trust. Don’t push things. Do what is yours to do. Don’t give way to resignation at “the way things are”. And don’t be fooled by slick slogans promising a short-cut to the kingdom.
There’s a message there for us. Our task is to sow the seed. Life and growth come from God. Don’t try to force things. Don’t try to measure things. Even if the Church of England insists on asking for the “Statistics for Mission” each year, don’t take it too heavy. Don’t worry about being “successful”. Ezekiel has something to say about that in our first reading. It is God, acting in the lives of faithful human beings, who “brings low the high tree,… makes high the low tree;… dries up the green tree and makes the dry tree flourish.” It is God who gives growth – and God will, despite all our fears and anxieties. So don’t give up!
God is at work in us, waking or sleeping. God is at work in us, bringing forth an abundant harvest for his kingdom. God is at work in us as a community, however small and fragile we may think we are, however far from God some of us may think we are. God is at work in us, growing us like that mustard-seed, so that we can provide shelter and protection for those who need it, so that we can be a sign of hope and encouragement for those who need it. All God asks is that we remain faithful; that we put our trust in God as the one who brings life and growth, who “makes high the low tree” and “makes the dry tree flourish”. So, when things don’t go to plan, don’t be discouraged. When you feel weak and inadequate, don’t give up hope. We aren’t called to be heroes. We aren’t called to be successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful in our following of Jesus our Lord. So, remember the seed growing secretly in the story Jesus told. And hold fast to God’s promise to Israel through the prophet: “I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
Trinity 2 (10.6.2018)
This morning’s Gospel all gets a bit extreme. On one side there’s the family of Jesus, coming out in order to take him home because they have heard he has gone out of his mind. On the other side there are members of the religious establishment, who have come to the conclusion that in sitting light to the Law of Moses, in gathering up crowds of ordinary people and those on the edge and telling them “you matter to God”, Jesus has crossed to “the dark side”. That probably won’t need explaining to any “Star Wars” fans, but basically it means that the scribes from Jerusalem are saying Jesus isn’t just deluded, as his family imagine. They are saying that he is in fact demonic: that he is under the control of Beelzebul and he uses the powers of darkness to cast out evil spirits.
Now, in first-century Palestine that must have been quite a hit to take. Family networks in the Middle East, and on other parts of the world, wider clan and tribal networks, were and still are very important. If the family think you have gone too far – as Jesus’ family clearly did – then you have to sit up and take notice. The same is true of the religious “establishment”, represented here by the scribes from Jerusalem. These are the people who interpret God’s rules for living set out in the books of the Torah and apply them to daily life. Their opinion also matters. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, they have been murmuring about Jesus for a while – and even beginning to contemplate doing away with him. That seems like not a good place for Jesus to be.
So what will he do? Will he back off? Will he go home with the family to Nazareth and pick up his carpenter’s tool-box again? In a word: “No.” First of all he has a go at the religious authorities, the big men from the city. He points out that the argument they are using against him doesn’t actually work – even on the political level. A country that is split down the middle is in a very bad way, however you look at it – as people engaged in the continuing debates about how the United Kingdom stands in relation to the European Union after next spring are at last beginning to realise.
And then there comes that dramatic condemnation, which has puzzled scholars and worried scrupulous Christians for twenty centuries. What did Jesus mean when he warned against the “eternal sin” of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Quite simply this: that in their eagerness to take Jesus down, and to scare off his followers, the scribes from Jerusalem had shown a fatal blindness and hardness of heart. There’s a gap of a few verses between last Sunday’s Gospel and the beginning of this Sunday’s. Part of that gap Mark fills with a very brief account of how people came to Jesus from all over – and he healed them. He cured the sick. He drove out evil spirits. This is what the scribes say is the work of demons? This healing of body and mind? They have allowed their ideology to pervert their vision, so that they call what Jesus is doing “demonic”, instead of naming it for what it is: God breaking into human lives with blessing, and wholeness, and hope. Their vision has become so distorted that there’s no way back. To see a blessing and call it evil – that is their sin.
Jesus names it for what it is, and turns away from them. That’s when the family posse arrives to take him home. Jesus does not condemn them. But he does, in a sense, dismiss them. He looks at the crowd, the ordinary people, those outside the system and outside the networks of protection, hanging on his every word, some of them, perhaps, longing for his touch to heal and make whole, and he tells them “You, if you do God’s will – you are my brother and sister and brother”. Jesus reweaves the whole pattern of human relationships. Family, clan, tribe, nation – in the end all of these are provisional. They fall into the class of things that St Paul in our first reading described as “temporary”. What matters is who we are in Jesus. What matters is who we are as we share his peace with one another, who we are as we gather round his table. What matters is how we live with one another and care for one another in the world beyond these walls.
Trinity 1 (3.6.2018)
Someone once made the mistake of asking a colleague for a text for his next Sunday’s sermon. The reply was instant: “How about ‘We are all cast from the same mould, but some of us are mouldier than others?’”
That isn’t quite what St Paul is saying in our first reading this morning, when he writes about “having this treasure” (that’s “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”) – “having this treasure in clay jars.” All of us are flawed human beings, “all cast from the same mould”, but God doesn’t seem to be too bothered about how mouldy we are. If we are willing to let God shine in our hearts, God can use us. If the circumstances of our life are less than encouraging, God can still use us. Whoever we may be, whatever we may have done, whatever may have been done to us, God can still transform our lives by the power of his life at work in us.
Now that life doesn’t always work in predictable ways. It doesn’t always work in what respectable people might see as “proper” ways, as we were reminded in this morning’s Gospel. But God’s unpredictability is what saves us. In his Son who heals on the Sabbath and offers us life through his death; in his Spirit poured out on the most unlikely people, in a creation which, as an eminent scientist of the last century remarked, is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine God is at work in us, breaking the mould, transforming lives, making us whole.
Trinity Sunday (27.5.2018)
Long ago, it is said, there was a Pope who wanted to drive the Jewish community out of Rome. The Jews protested and, after much discussion, it was agreed that the Pope would hold a debate with the most learned of their rabbis. If the Pope won the argument, the Jews would leave. If the rabbi won, they would stay. There was only one problem. The Pope knew no Hebrew and the rabbi spoke neither Italian nor Latin. So it was agreed that the debate would be conducted in mime. The day was fixed. The Pope and the rabbi met in St Peter’s. The discussion was lively but soon over – and it ended with the Pope admitting defeat and allowing the Jews to stay.
Back in the Vatican the Pope’s advisers held an inquest to find out why the Pope had conceded. “He was just too good for me”, said the Pope. “To every argument which I raised, he had an overwhelming counter-argument. I pointed to the heavens, to emphasise the transcendent majesty of God. He pointed to the earth, to remind me that God is in our midst. I raised three fingers, to signify the persons of the Trinity. He raised one finger, to stress the unity of the Godhead. I put on the altar the bread and wine through which our Saviour shares with us his body and his blood. He put on the altar an apple, to remind me that it was the sin of Adam and Eve which made the shedding of Christ’s blood necessary. I could not answer his arguments. He defeated me.”
On their way back to the Synagogue, the leaders of the Jewish community were congratulating their champion. “But how did you do it?” they asked. “Blessed if I know”, said the rabbi. “He pointed up in the air to show how high he was planning to hang us if we didn’t go. I pointed to the ground, to say that we were staying put here in Rome. He raised three fingers, to warn us to be gone in three days. I raised one, to tell him that not one Jew was leaving. Then he brought out his lunch and put it on the table, and I brought out mine.”
Which just goes to show how difficult it can be to talk about God in a way that other people can understand – as Nicodemus found in this morning’s gospel.
But this Sunday is not about the bafflement of Nicodemus. This Sunday is about the Christian experience of God. It is about relationship. It is about unity in diversity. It is about fellowship, partnership, sharing. When we talk about the Trinity, we are trying to express the profound truth that God is eternally in relationship – because God is love, love without beginning, without end, without condition, without limit. We are also reflecting our threefold experience of that love: first, loved revealed in creation, in the wonderful variety and intricacy of this fragile world; second, love revealed in a particular human life, because God’s love for his creation is so great that he has willed to enter it fully, no matter what that cost in terms of pain and dying; third, love revealed in the life of God’s people, a love that makes cowards brave, that gives speech to stammerers, that remakes us in the image of our divine Lover as we are “born from above”.
Talking about God as Trinity reflects our Christian experience. And it is part of our experience that this threefold experience of God as life-giver, pain-bearer and love-maker is not the experience of three different beings but of one and the same God. Like a Jew, praying the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, like a Muslim, reciting the shahada, “There is no God but God”, we can truthfully claim, with the wise and holy men who hammered out the first formal statements of Christian faith “We believe in one God.” We can truthfully do that because Father, Son and Spirit are three realities experienced as part of the single ultimate reality, from whom everything that is draws its existence.
We experience that threefold reality not only in theological reflection, but above all in our prayer and in our worship. The Trinity is not so much to be understood intellectually as it is to be lived and prayed. Christian prayer is classically understood as being offered to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we make Eucharist, we take bread and wine, gifts of the Father’s creation, so that he may transform them by his Spirit into the body and blood of his Son. At the same time, the heart of the great prayer of thanksgiving, the prayer in which we give thanks for all that God has done, in the creation of all things, in the saving activity, the life-giving death of Jesus Christ, and in which we pray that God’s Spirit may act both on the bread and the wine and on us who receive them – at the heart of that prayer is the song of the angels which echoes through the prophet’s vision and which points us at the same time heavenward with the Pope and earthward with the rabbi: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory”.
In that glory God invites us to share.
Pentecost – Patronal Festival (20.5.2018)
I’m going to begin with the closing words of St Paul’s second letter to Corinth in the traditional version: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you all.”
A church’s Patronal Festival is a celebration – but also a chance to take stock. It’s a reminder of who we are – and who we wish to heaven we were. And when the “patron” of the Church is the third Person of the Holy Trinity whose “day” is one of the major feasts of the Church’s year – well, that just makes it all the more interesting.
So, who are we in the “Fellowship of the Holy Ghost”? We might think back to some words in our first reading: “devout people from every nation under heaven.” Well, maybe not every nation, but a fair few. Italy, Great Britain, Switzerland, Japan, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria – and that’s a little universe in itself. I read the other day that there are five hundred and twenty languages spoken in Nigeria. Five hundred and twenty! The whole of the EU gets by with twenty-four official languages and five, including Basque, Catalan and Welsh, that are “semi-official”. And even if we were to count up all the minority languages and the main “immigrant languages” (Russian, Turkish, and the like), we’d still be some way short of even one hundred.
Now, language matters. We need it to communicate with one another. We use it to express our inmost thoughts and longings and our deepest feelings. On the day after the royal wedding I probably don’t need to remind you that we use it to say “I love you”! But language can also be used to divide, to set up barriers, to keep out, or drive away those who whose language is “different”. So, when the Holy Spirit opens the mouths of the disciples to speak about “God’s deed of power” to pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, in words that those pilgrims could understand, then we can see the healing, reconciling work of Jesus continuing, even after he has been, as we heard last Sunday, “taken up from us”.
St Luke’s account of what happened on the Day of Pentecost isn’t just about “speaking in tongues”, as we understand that phrase today, a badge of a particular Christian identity. It isn’t just about a dramatic event in the life of the first Christians. It is about how God continues to break down barriers and to use the most unlikely people in ways they could not have imagined.
The crowd’s reaction was “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” – in other words, people from the back of beyond who can only just get their tongues around Hebrew and Aramaic, and whose knowledge of the wider world is, to put it kindly, a bit limited. But these are the people God chooses to communicate the news about Jesus. As God has chosen us. There may not have been “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” or “divided tongues, as of fire… that rested on each one” of us, but through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at our baptism we have been called and commissioned to testify to the reality of God’s love revealed in Jesus the Christ.
In his sermon at the royal wedding in Windsor yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry spoke about the power of fire to transform and enrich human life, and he reminded the congregation – and all those who were watching on the giant screens outside Windsor Castle or on television, or listening on the radio, or live-streaming it on their computer or their smart-phone – he reminded us all that fire, in the Bible, is often a symbol of the transforming power of love. And the Holy Spirit is pure, undiluted Love, the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
It was the fire of that Love which transformed the lives of those who had been closest to Jesus and sent them out unafraid into the streets of the city whose people had colluded in his execution. It was the fire of that Love which enabled them to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It was the fire of that Love which the prophet Joel foretold, when he spoke of God pouring out the Spirit on young and old, men and women, even those with no status in the society in which they lived. And, as Bishop Curry reminded his hearers, “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. ‘Cos when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.” That applies whether our mother-tongue is English, or Italian, or Edo, or Ijaw, or Ibibio, or Tiv – or Japanese, Akan, Afrikaans or Schwyzerdütsch. Each of us can hear God speaking in the language of our heart. In the “fellowship of the Holy Ghost” all of us are “actually family”.
Easter 7 (13.5.2018)
If, like me, you explore what they call “social media” from time to time, you may have met the bafflement out there about the way in which President Trump is being given a free pass by white evangelical Christians in the USA, people who have, in the past, been very critical of politicians who have behaved as he has behaved. What makes the difference, it seems, is that he is “their” president. In other words, a surface coating of “Christianity” is covering a political loyalty.
Now Christian faith, as this morning’s readings make clear, is not about what happens on the surface. It’s about what goes on in the depths. In our first reading we heard how the eleven apostles wanted to become twelve again by replacing Judas Iscariot. Now that Jesus is no longer physically among them, they recognise that, they are unable to plumb those depths, and so they leave the choice of replacement to God. Both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias appear, on the surface, to have what it takes to fill the vacancy left by Judas. Deciding between them is impossible on the purely human level, so by praying and casting lots the disciples hand the decision over to God. It’s a way of appointing leaders that some Churches still use today.
But if you really want to explore the depths of Christian experience take time to read today’s Gospel. That is about what it means to share in the life of Christ and to abide in him so that his joy may be made complete in us. Ultimately, it is about union with God in and through his Son. To us who belong to the Western Church that sort of talk can come across as strange. We tend to think in terms of a legal process, whether we see ourselves as “Catholic” or “Reformed” or, like most Anglicans, as a bit of both. Jesus has paid what we owed, so we are let off with a caution instead of having to pay the full penalty ourselves.
The Eastern Churches don’t see it like that at all. In their eyes what matters is that by his dying Jesus has liberated us from slavery to death and set us free to live in and for God. If you visit an Orthodox Church at this time of year you will see the icon of the resurrection. It shows Jesus hauling Adam and Eve, and the patriarchs, and the prophets, and kings and seers and sages, out of the realms of death into God’s marvellous light.
Christian life is about sharing in that light, shining with that light, participating in the life of the Godhead. This is the eternal life of which St John writes – and it isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. Jesus does not ask the Father to take his disciples out of the world. No, eternal life starts in us, here, now – if we have the courage to accept it; if we have the courage to open our hearts, our minds, our lives to the fullness of God; to be, as Jesus says in this morning’s gospel, “sanctified in truth”.
How do we do that? How do we allow God to “sanctify us in truth”, to complete Christ’s joy in us as he longs to do? There is no easy way. It isn’t a matter of learning a few slick sound-bites. It’s about serious waiting on God in prayer – and when I say “waiting”, I mean “waiting”. Prayer isn’t about coming to God with a long list of our needs and wants – or other people’s needs and wants, for that matter; though concern for others and for the world, is part of praying. Prayer is about listening for God, sitting in silence, not worrying about what the time is or what you’ve got to do next, but being present to God in the present moment, allowing God to enter your heart and mind. It’s also about reading the Bible regularly, seriously; maybe with the help of study notes or a commentary; maybe just sitting down with a short passage and reading and re-reading it, not trying to puzzle out what it means, but letting words and phrases shine out at you from the page. Letting them sink deep into your mind and your heart. It’s about letting Jesus feed you in Holy Communion, about receiving all that he offers you, allowing him to reveal to you and in you who you are in God, the true self which God loves and in which Jesus is glorified, despite our faults and failures, despite our woundedness and need for wholeness. And it’s about those acts which reflect and reveal God’s love in our dealings with the people alongside whom we live and work and worship, the people we encounter in the street, or the shops, whoever they may be: not having “all the answers”, but just being there for them.
That is what it is to “be sanctified in truth”. That is what it is to have eternal life.
Easter 6 (6.5.2018)
Last Sunday we heard Jesus telling his disciples about the importance of their relationship with him, of the need for them to share in his life as grape-bearing branches share the life of the vine of which they are a part. If you were here last Sunday you may remember that I said a little about that image of the vine and the branches during the service and a little more at the Annual Church Meeting that followed. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus develops that idea in terms of his relationship with the Father and in terms of our relationship with the Father through him. It’s a relationship which is expressed in one word, a word which we heard more than once in last week’s Gospel and which was repeated in the passage we have just heard.
That word is “abide”. Jesus abides in the Father’s love. We abide in the love of Jesus. To abide in his love means to rest in that love – not in the sense that we don’t do anything apart from wafting around telling the world that (in the words of one of my least favourite hymns) “My God loves me”, but in the sense that knowing that we are loved by God empowers us, enables us, to love others, to be open to others, to respond to their needs and concerns and not just our own.
When I first arrived in Genoa, a couple of months ago, I thought that I really ought to find out a bit about the history of this city, and particularly about its spiritual life. Who were the people whose lives and whose prayers made this city rather more than a “merchant pirate superpower”, as it has been described in a recent book? And I discovered St Catherine.
Caterina Fieschi was the youngest daughter of Jacopo Fieschi, a leading citizen of fifteenth-century Genoa. He died when she was a teenager and she was married off, at the age of sixteen, to the son of another prominent family, Giuliano Adorno. It was not, to put it mildly, a happy union. Giuliano was a classic abusive husband, violent, spendthrift, and unfaithful. For ten years he made Catherine’s life utterly wretched – so wretched that she prayed to become seriously ill, because serious illness would be better than what she had to put up with in her marriage. Then, one day in March 1473, she had an experience which turned her life upside down.
Catherine was suddenly filled with the overwhelming realisation that, even if her husband did not love her, God did: that she was, to borrow words from this morning’s gospel, “no longer a servant but a friend”. That realisation stopped her, almost literally, in her tracks and turned her life around. She found a joy that she had never known and a deepening relationship with God which transformed not only her life but also had a powerful impact on Giuliano, who stopped his womanising, began treating Catherine with respect, and started taking his own faith seriously. Together they became involved in the life of the Pammatone Hospital, then Genoa’s main hospital, which used to stand where the Palazzo di Giustizia now stands in Piazza Portoria. After Giuliano died Catherine became the director of the hospital until her own death in 1510.
All through this time of active service to the people of Genoa, Catherine continued to be a woman of deep prayer and profound insight, abiding in God’s love and sharing that love with the people around her, her husband, the daughter he had had by another woman, their co-workers at the hospital and, above all, the patients there. Catherine’s was a life that was powered by prayer and by experiences of God that were, at times, quite as mind-blowing as what happened to Cornelius and his household in today’s first reading as they listened to the preaching of St Peter.
Now, “powered by prayer” is, I gather, the main theme for this year’s Archdeaconry Synod in the autumn and it’s a theme to which I would like to devote time and energy while I am with you in Genoa. I said something about that at the Annual Meeting last Sunday, drawing attention to various possibilities, including a group that meets for intercessory prayer, a group that explores the way of meditation and contemplative prayer, a group that meets to study the Bible prayerfully together, and a group that prays for people who need healing. There are sheets of paper at the back of the church, listing these opportunities. If you are interested in any of them, please sign up. As Catherine found, it is as we share in the Eucharist, as we engage with others, and as we pray that the risen Christ encounters us as friends and energises us both to love and to bear fruit in his service.
Easter 5 (29.4.2018)
We have just heard two terrific readings to prepare us for our annual meeting today: one passage from the Acts of the Apostles and one from St John’s Gospel, which together spell out the twofold task facing any Christian community.
In the reading from Acts Philip is prompted by God’s messenger to go down to the main road south-west out of Jerusalem. Then there is another prompt: to get alongside the vehicle of a visitor, heading home after worshipping in Jerusalem. No big deal, you might think, but for two factors. One: the visitor was black African, not Jewish. And two: he was a eunuch, barred by the Law of Moses from being part of God’s people. Maybe that’s why he was reading Isaiah’s poem about the suffering servant of the Lord – another outcast like himself. Philip gets alongside him, listens to him, answers his questions and then shares with him the good news about Jesus, good news that includes someone so different in race and culture. Then Philip seals that inclusion with a roadside baptism. The Ethiopian is no longer an outcast. He is loved and accepted by God.
From that joy, we turn to this morning’s Gospel with its rather different focus. The story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian turned our attention outward. The words of Jesus at the Last Supper direct our attention inward. He talks to his friends about the need to root their lives in his life, as the fruit-bearing branches of a grape-vine share the life of the vine. If they don’t, they wither and die and bear no fruit. This isn’t just about belonging to a circle of friends, being part of Jesus’s “gang”. This is about listening to his words, opening ourselves to his Spirit, letting him feed us in the Eucharist, living close to him, letting his love transform our lives.
So, there is our twofold task. The Spirit moves us to be alert to those who have stories and questions, whoever they are and whatever their background may be; to accompany them on the way to faith and inclusion. Jesus invites us to share in his life in its fullness – and in its hurt, because the process of pruning is never pain-free. But what matters is the love which bears the pain, which transforms lives and which bears fruit to the Father’s glory. Let us keep silence.
Easter 4 (22.4.2018)
It’s nearly thirty-five years since I was ordained priest in St Alban’s Abbey, a few miles outside London. Before he ordained us, the bishop read out words which set out our responsibilities. “A priest,” he said, “is called by God to work with the bishop and with his fellow-priests, as servant and shepherd among the people to whom he is sent… He must set the Good Shepherd always before him as the pattern of his calling, caring for the people committed to his charge, and joining with them in a common witness to the world.” Those words point us directly to this morning’s Gospel. And they are rooted deep in the Christian tradition. When my Protestant colleagues are introducing me to people from their churches whom I haven’t met yet – and there are an awful lot of them! – when they introduce me, they always describe me as “il pastore anglicano”. We are all the pastors, the shepherds, of our various flocks.
So why is it that when the task of shepherding God’s flock is located so firmly in the ordained ministry, and specifically the priestly ministry, I feel a little twinge of unease? I’ll explain why. First of all, limiting the task to a specific group of people, set apart for a particular role in the Church doesn’t seem to fit with what Jesus says at the beginning of this morning’s gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Shepherding the flock, in other words, is what Christ does. The mosaic above the altar is a permanent reminder of that. And if we ponder that, we begin to realise that shepherding is something that the Church as a whole does, and not just the clergy, because it’s the Church – not the priest – it’s the Church that is the body of Christ. It’s the Church as a whole which cares both for its own members and for the people around them, the people who, for whatever reason, “do not belong to this fold”, but who are equally loved by God.
Now, if there is one thing about this congregation that has impressed me tremendously in the short time I have been in Genoa, it is the way in which its members care for one another, the way in which, to use an American expression, they have one another’s back. Your life together reflects the image in that mosaic. It cuts across boundaries of race and culture and age. It’s brilliant. So please don’t stop doing it just because you have an ordained “pastore”.
And that brings me the second reason why I worry when ordained ministers are seen as the only “real” pastors, the only shepherds. It devalues and deskills those who aren’t ordained. And it can corrupt the clergy. In recent weeks I have been following the horrid tale of abuse in the Church of England. Those who committed the abuse, and those who went along with them, seem to have felt that they belonged to an elite, so that abusers imagined that they could do what they liked, that they could get away with anything. They had lost any sense that they and those they abused belonged to the same flock, Christ’s flock. They behaved like those hired hands about whom Jesus was so scathing. And they have shamed the Church.
They have been bad shepherds. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. That’s an expression which calls to mind a beautiful picture – like the one above the altar. However, it has been pointed out that, while Jesus the good shepherd is often portrayed in a rather cuddly, misty-eyed, romantic way with the safety of the sheep centre stage, actually being a shepherd in first-century Palestine was a pretty dangerous occupation, so that being quietly with the flock, like Jesus in our mosaic, was not always possible. That is why Jesus’s words, which began with a focus on the safety and protection of the sheep, suddenly shift their focus to danger to the shepherd.
You probably saw the news reports last month about the Gendarme officer who offered himself in exchange for one of the hostages being held by a terrorist gunman in a supermarket in a quiet country town in South-West France and who was fatally wounded by the gunman as the siege ended. You may not have realised that he was a committed Christian. Colonel Arnaud Beltrame laid his life on the line for the safety of others. He did it knowingly and willingly, though he had, as people say, everything to live for. He “set the Good Shepherd before him” in a way that enables us to hear this passage from John’s Gospel afresh and that makes real, in our own day, the love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep. Like Jesus his Lord he laid down his life for others, so that, in Christ, he might take it up again. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 3 (15.4.2018)
“Have you anything to eat here?” Has it ever struck you what an odd question that is for the risen Christ to ask his disciples? It makes him sound more like someone who has missed lunch than someone who has been raised by God from the dead. Mind you, his first words after greeting the disciples are equally matter-of-fact. “Why are you frightened?” Why? We know why. Luke tells us: they thought they were looking at a ghost. That is why Jesus is so keen to reassure them that it really is him; that what they are gazing at is the person they had known, the person who had suffered a cruel death at the hands of the authorities two days before. Not his spirit. Not a ghost. “It is I myself.” The body of the risen Jesus may be different from our body in some respects – not least in its ability to pass through walls and locked doors – but it is definitely not “ghostly”. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones. Ghosts can’t be handled and held.
I spent a couple of days in Rome last week at a meeting and reading today’s gospel on the train coming back reminded me of one of the most touching scenes in the great poem about Rome’s beginnings. That poem tells how the Trojan hero Aeneas goes down to the underworld, the realm of death. There he meets his recently dead father and tries to embrace him. Three times his arms close around the old man’s form and each time they close on nothing. Aeneas’ father has become a shadow with no substance. That is not the case with Jesus. He is alive, fully alive. Luke insists on that. The Jesus who appears to his disciples is not a ghost, not a spirit, not an insubstantial shade. He has also been on a journey to the realm of death, though not as a visitor like Aeneas. Jesus goes down to the dead because he has died. But now he is alive and the life in him is life that death can never snuff out, because it is the life of God, the life to which the sacred writings of Israel, the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms, all bear witness.
It’s by unfolding how the Hebrew Scriptures bear witness to this that the risen Christ shows those who follow him how to understand their relationship with God – and not just their relationship. The death and resurrection of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, have meaning for all the nations, a message for non-Jews as well as Jews. And all need to hear it.
That message is good news – capital G, capital N. As the risen Christ tells the disciples, it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins. Now, we need to be clear what that means. The English word “repentance” translates a Greek word, “metanoia”, which is made up of two parts: “meta”, which has to do with change, and “noia”, which has to do with understanding. So repentance means “changing how we understand the world”, and in particular changing how we understand God. It has been wisely said that Jesus did not die to change God’s mind about us but rather to change our mind about God, to help us to understand that God’s love for us is so great that, despite all, we are already forgiven and accepted. That is the thread that runs through the whole of Scripture. That has got to be good news, hasn’t it?
And it’s there at the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading. Jesus would have had every reason to be angry with the disciples. They had all abandoned him. Peter had sworn blind that he didn’t know him. Judas had handed him over to those who sought his life. But the very first words Jesus utters when he appears to the disciples are not words of rebuke or reproach. Instead they offer peace and reassurance. And the next thing he does is to eat some food in front of them. That seems like such a trivial detail. “They gave him a piece of cooked fish; and he took it and ate it in their presence.” But in first-century Palestine, whose food you shared mattered, as it still does in many parts of the world. It mattered because it showed who your friends were and said a lot about who you were. Jesus was regularly criticised by pious and respectable people for the company he kept. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not fit company for a religious leader. And Jesus knew that and he didn’t care. He still doesn’t. Jesus puts up no barriers to relationship with God. He shared the food which his shamed disciples gave him. He shares this meal to which he invites us this morning. He invites us to change the way we look at the world, the way in which we understand God, to realise that our follies and failures have already been wiped out by the immensity of God’s love. Then, like the forgiven Peter in our first reading, we can share with others our witness to the joyful news. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 2 (8.4.2018)
I think Thomas gets a very raw deal. “Doubting Thomas”, that’s what people call him. As if the only thing he had ever done was pour cold water on the enthusiasm of the other disciples when they kept telling him “We have seen the Lord!” But although Thomas doesn’t get more than a name-check from Matthew, Mark and Luke, in John’s Gospel he comes across as a real person, and one of the most faithful of the disciples. He would, I think, have followed Jesus anywhere. In fact, the first time we meet him is in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples that their friend Lazarus has died and announces that he is going to Bethany, even though he knows that in Judaea there have been death threats against him. The other disciples, as you might expect, react rather nervously to this plan – except for Thomas, dear, brave, faithful Thomas, who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But, instead of them all dying with Jesus, they look on in astonishment as Lazarus, four days dead, is recalled to life.
It’s pretty much the same at the Last Supper. After they’ve eaten, Jesus warns the disciples that the next few days will be (to put it mildly) a bit difficult, but he promises that everything will be all right in the end. “I will come,” he says, “… and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And, once again it’s Thomas who replies, very bluntly – and bravely – putting his finger on what the others are scared to say: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And again, in reply to what Thomas says, Jesus opens up a whole new world of possibility when he answers, very simply, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
So, those first days after Jesus was raised from the dead, the other disciples were fizzing with excitement – they had seen the Lord! But Thomas hadn’t been there; and being the down-to-earth, level-headed person he was, he wasn’t going to take what they said on trust, however often they repeated it. He wanted to see what they had seen. He wanted to experience what they had experienced – and to be sure that it was true.
Now we mustn’t forget that all of them lived in a world in which ghosts and other supernatural beings were part of everyone’s mental furniture. How was Thomas to know if what the others had seen was really Jesus, or whether it was his ghost, or some malignant spirit trying to trick them for whatever reason into believing that Jesus was alive? So he lays down some pretty firm conditions. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That “not”, by the way, is very emphatic. John uses a Greek phrase which in another context we might translate as “No way, José!”
And then it happens. The following week, all of them were together, including Thomas this time, and Jesus is with them again. He invites Thomas to do what he had said he wanted to do. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” And this time it is Thomas whose words mark the giant step forward. It’s what Thomas says that opens up immense new horizons. John doesn’t tell us if Thomas did as he had intended. What John does tell us is that Thomas’s next words were “My Lord and my God!” That is a life-transforming, world-transforming statement. God is revealed in the body of a crucified man – the risen Jesus still bears the wounds the soldiers had inflicted. God, in Jesus, identifies completely with the suffering human beings inflict on one another in this cruel, wounded, broken world – and overcomes it.
So what does that mean for us? Well, yesterday afternoon I was reading the records of annual meetings for most of the past twenty years, and I’ve been amazed at the Thomases and Thomasinas who have been part of this church down the decades, people who have looked at possible futures for this church, some of them quite dark and hopeless, but have set themselves, like Thomas, to follow Jesus faithfully along the way, trusting that our Lord and our God is with us in the darkness, and that by his wounds he will transform it into his own marvellous light and a blessing for those who have not seen and yet have believed.
Easter Day (1.4.2018)
Do we have any “pesci d’aprile” here this morning? Anyone been caught out by an “April Fool” trick? If so, you might be in good company, because what happened to the women in today’s gospel can look like a particularly nasty “April Fool”. Finishing the job that the men hadn’t had time to complete on Friday afternoon was probably one of those projects that “seemed like a good idea at the time”. But it was more than that. It was a last labour of love for the friend who had meant so much to them, the friend who had shared so much with them – and whom they had lost so cruelly and violently on Friday. So, they had done the late-night shopping on Saturday and got themselves out of bed in the dark of a spring Sunday morning. They had crossed a city in darkness, a city that wouldn’t be wide awake for a while yet. And here they were, at their destination. It sounds, from the way Mark tells the story, as if this was the point at which the adrenaline rush wore off. The two Maries and Salome began to realise the difficulty of the job they had taken on. They faced for the first time the glaringly obvious question: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
Now, that’s the point at which the whole story moves into another dimension. It stops being a sad story and becomes that nasty “April Fool”. Because the stone – “a very big stone”, Mark tells us – the stone has been moved, and the body that two nights ago had been hurriedly laid in the tomb behind it has gone. But instead of someone shouting “April fool!” the women find a stranger, a “young man dressed in a white robe”, who gives them some startling news and some disturbing instructions.
The startling news is that Jesus – the Jesus they had seen publicly executed the day before yesterday – Jesus is no longer dead. “He has been raised; he is not here.” The disturbing instructions follow on from that: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Well, the women take the first part of the message on board. They go. “They went out and fled from the tomb.” But they don’t carry out the second part of the young man’s instruction. That was altogether too disturbing: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that’s where Mark leaves it; with probably the strangest ending of any book that has survived from the Ancient Mediterranean world, creating a problem for later generations of Christians, and a minefield for New Testament scholars. Why are there no accounts of the risen Jesus appearing to his friends, as there are in the other Gospels? How could Mark end his book so abruptly? That last sentence, in Mark’s original Greek, is barely proper grammar.
That’s a problem to which people have been trying to find a solution for nearly two thousand years. Some early Christians found the ending so “unhelpful” that they wrote a number of new ones: maybe a few sentences, rounding the story off in a more upbeat way or, in one case, a whole new paragraph which cobbled together edited highlights from Matthew and Luke and John. Some later scholars wondered if the last leaf of the original manuscript went missing early on. Others suggested that Mark was overtaken by illness and never finished writing – or that the Roman authorities caught up with him while he was still writing and carted him off to gaol, leaving an unfinished gospel on his desk, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer seventy-odd years ago, who was arrested by the Nazis while he was working on a book which was published, unfinished, by his friends after his death.
But to see the ending of Mark’s Gospel in those terms is to miss the point. The ending of Mark’s Gospel isn’t a problem; it’s a challenge – the same challenge with which he faces his readers all the way through. The resurrection isn’t knock-down proof that Jesus is God. The resurrection is an invitation to follow. That’s why the women are told to tell the disciples: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” The risen Jesus is returning to the place where it started, the place where his disciples learned their trade, earned their living, raised their families. They are to follow and find him there. Galilee is, if you like, the world of “everyday life”.
That is where we are summoned to follow Jesus, at work, at school, in the networks of neighbourhood, family and friendships. That is where we will find him, where we will experience the reality of resurrection. Mark doesn’t need to finish his gospel. In a sense, he can’t. “The good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” doesn’t come to an end on the first Easter morning, it continues in the lives of those who have followed Jesus down the centuries. It continues in our lives today. That is why this Easter morning we will renew our baptismal promises. In our baptism we (or our parents) have staked everything on Jesus’s promise that if we follow where he leads, we will see him. The young man at the tomb repeats that promise. Do we flee from it in fear, as the women did? Or do we respond to it with a new commitment to follow the Lord? If we make that choice we will discover once again the living reality of the Easter proclamation:
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Palm Sunday (25.3.2018)
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” We hear those words. We think about them. We put them in context. How often, I wonder, do we apply them? Paul’s letter from which those words come were written to a city which was the home of many Roman citizens, a lot of them solders or ex-soldiers, including the privileged children and grandchildren of men who had fought in the civil wars of the previous century, people whose lives had been spent serving the state which tried and executed Jesus of Nazareth.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The same mind that was silent before his accusers and before his judge. The same mind that endured torture, insults and mockery. The same mind that turned down the offer of easy oblivion in a cup of drugged wine. The same mind that walked the path to certain death, stripped of clothing and all human dignity. For some in church this morning that journey into darkness may not be far different from real-life experience. For others it may sound like an unimaginable nightmare. For all of us, it’s a reminder that the events which we recall, which we relive, this week are anchored in the reality of human suffering, suffering made worse by the mocking taunts of others, suffering made worst of all by the sense that God has abandoned us.
But the one who is silent, the one who is tortured and mocked, the one who suffers and dies – dies the slaves’ death – he is the Lord, God almighty, God with us. God with us. God with those who are trafficked, those who are tortured, those who are exploited or abused, physically or mentally, whoever and wherever they may be. “Come down from the cross, and we will believe” say his enemies. But he won’t. Not until after he has breathed his last. Not until he is taken down by his sorrowing friends. Not until he has shown a broken and distracted world the infinite depths of God’s healing love. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Lent 5 (18.3.2018)
From time to time the Church finds itself following a fad. One fad that has been very popular in parts of the Church of England is the fashion for every congregation to have a “mission statement”, a short, snappy sound-bite which tells the world what it is about – or, at least, what it thinks it is about. Usually mission statements are warm, fuzzy phrases like ‘Know, Grow and Go’, ‘Love, Learn and Live’ or ‘Loving people to life’, but a few years ago I came across one with a real “edge” to it. It’s the mission statement of a congregation in the Diocese of Coventry, in the heart of the English Midlands, and like the statements I quoted just now it’s just four words long: “Follow Jesus and die.”
Nothing warm or fuzzy in that mission statement, is there? It’s a challenge – and a very sharp one. I was reminded of it when I read those words of Jesus that we’ve just heard in the gospel. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains 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.” That is tough. But, as Archdeacon Vickie reminded us at my licensing yesterday, nobody said that the Christian life is supposed to be easy. And at this time of year there are plenty of reminders of that as we enter the way of the cross.
Yesterday was Saint Patrick’s Day, the day on which we remember a man who was kidnapped by pagan pirates somewhere in western Britain and trafficked into slavery in Ireland. He escaped from that slavery, returned to his homeland and was ordained as a Christian priest. He then went back freely to the land where he had been a slave and spent the rest of his life in the struggle to share the good news of Jesus with the people who had enslaved him. At the Communion on Wednesday we shall remember an English archbishop, put on trial for his life and burned at the stake to satisfy a queen who wanted revenge for the part he had played in her parents’ divorce. This coming Saturday it will be thirty-eight years since a hitman killed another archbishop, Oscar Romero of San Salvador, shot as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel.
Each of those men followed Jesus and two of them died. But because, in the end, each of them was prepared to give up his life for the sake of the Gospel, each of them “bore much fruit” like the grain that falls into the earth. They followed Jesus and died, but his life in them lives on. Originally it lived on in those who heard their teaching, or responded to their preaching, or were touched by their example of Christian faith. And each of those people in turn touched other lives, which touched other lives – down the years, even down the centuries, and across the world, until we arrive at us, here, now, in Genoa.
So now it’s our turn to “follow Jesus and die”, not, I hope, in the sense of being burned at the stake, or shot by an assassin, but in the sense of being prepared to lay our lives on the line for the sake of what we have found in Jesus, to take risks for the truth, the love, the joy, the peace, the hope, the reconciliation that we have found in him. It’s our turn to be ready to respond to anyone who says to us today, as those Greek-speaking pilgrims in Jerusalem said to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus”.
How would we – how do we – respond to that request? That’s something to talk about after this service, perhaps. Where would you take them to show them the Son of Man being glorified? In lives transformed, I hope; in loving service; in openness to people who are, in whatever way, different. And in people who know who they are in God’s love, rather than who they are in the “self” they project to the world. In some ways that is the hardest death: to die to the idea we have about ourselves and the idea we would like others to have about us, the idea that we fight hard to project and protect. It’s sometimes called the “false ego” or the “false self”. St Paul called it “the flesh”. Whatever name we give to it, that is what has to “fall into the earth and die”, so that we can be made alive, fully alive, as we are drawn closer to Jesus, “lifted up from the earth” on the cross.
Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday – 11.3.2018)
There’s an old Egyptian proverb which says “in the eyes of its mother every dung-beetle is a gazelle”. What that proverb is telling us is that the love of a mother sees only the beauty and the goodness of her offspring. That isn’t always true. There are mothers who have difficult relationships with their children. But it is true much more often than not. Mothers love their children because once those children were part of them, carried for nine months in their womb; and even after the great separation which is childbirth, that closeness remains. Mothers love their children without strings, without conditions. They love them simply because they have given them life.
That’s why mothers are often fierce in protecting their children. Many years ago, when I was a student, I spent part of the summer helping to build a playground in a poor part of Birmingham. Some of the local children came and “helped” us – but their “help” wasn’t always very helpful, if you see what I mean. Sometimes the children were just up to mischief – and one little boy was so fond of doing things that were dangerous, to himself and to other people, that in the end a friend of mine had to speak to him quite sternly. The boy ran off, and we thought we had seen the last of him. We hadn’t. Ten minutes later he came back with his mother. She was about five feet tall, and very Irish, and absolutely furious that one of us had dared to speak sternly to her little boy. It all got quite heated, but eventually she understood why her son had been told off – and I don’t think she was very pleased with him after that. But he was still her son, and it was up to her to chastise him, not some posh student. “In the eyes of its mother every dung-beetle is a gazelle”.
Now, our readings this morning show us a love like that, a love without strings, without conditions. That love is ours simply because it is the love that has given us life. It’s the love which loves human beings even when we are, as our first reading says, “dead through our sins”. It’s the love with which, as today’s gospel says, “God loved the world so much”.
Let’s finish that quotation from John’s Gospel: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” Then let’s hear the first part again: “God loved the world so much”. God, the creator of everything that there is, billions of galaxies spread across millions of